Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

Levertov’s poetry is grounded in experience but is not a direct description of experiences. “O Taste and See” grew from an experience on a New York subway train, but it is not about the subway or its passengers or the city. Yet the theme of the poem is not an abstraction, nor is it spiritualized—though it was suggested by a biblical text. It is expressed concretely. Here Levertov is true to the creed of William Carlos Williams: no ideas but in things. Those things are fleshly and frankly Epicurean. She invites readers to savor, chew, and swallow tangerines, plums, and quinces. Fruits are staples of her poems, beautiful for their color, shape, texture, scent, and taste. Fruits are also nourishing: They feed one literally as well as aesthetically.

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The poem does not suggest that the life experienced fully is an escape from reality. It includes, among its pleasures, transforming the fruits of life “into our flesh our/ deaths.” The truth that death not only is a reality but also enriches life is clarified in another poem in the collection, “Another Spring,” in which Levertov writes, “Death in us goes on/ testing the wild/ chance of living/ as Adam chanced it.” Then, so that her meaning will not be mistaken, she adds, “I am speaking of living,/ of moving from one moment into/ the next.”

Full engagement with life led Levertov into social protest. O Taste and See was published before her anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, but her involvement in these causes—chronicled in To Stay Alive (1971)—is consistent with, and an application of, the theme of full engagement.

“O Taste and See” is not only about experiencing life fully but also about living life sacramentally. These pleasures that live “to the imagination’s tongue” are gifts from God—grace. “O taste and see,” she writes, “meaning The Lord,” implying that acceptance of this grace is at least part of experiencing life fully. That the fruits of the earth are divine graces is implied in other biblical passages with which Levertov, the daughter of an Anglican priest, would have been acquainted: “Godgiveth us richly all things to enjoy” (I Timothy 6:17), and, most certainly, the words of Jesus to his disciples at the Lord’s Supper: “Take and eat” (Matthew 26:26).

Readers who appreciate “O Taste and See” will enjoy other poems from the collection that reinforce its theme. Her poem “To the Muse” echoes the possibilities of abundant pleasure for those who welcome the muse. “Who shares/ even water and dry bread with you [the muse]/ will not eat without joy,” Levertov writes, echoing Matthew 10:42.

Other poems in the collection provide negative examples or foils to the theme. “The Old Adam”—a common euphemism for the sinful or carnal nature of fallen humanity—describes a lost old man who has lived a “life/ unlived” and asks in the last line of the poem, “What have I done with my life?” His life was empty, and, as implied by the title, his refusal to live life fully was sinful.

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