Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813
Denise Levertov developed her theology as she wrote her poems. She sought to capture the truth of experience in poetry and gradually moved from skepticism to faith as she discovered truth in Christianity. Her father, Paul Levertoff, was an Anglican priest of Russian Jewish descent, and her mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones Levertoff, was a devout Welsh Christian. Both parents descended from highly religious families that embraced a variety of Judeo-Christian mysticism that informs much of Levertov’s poetry, especially in her sensitive treatment of nature.
While many of Levertov’s poems treat religious or spiritual themes, some of her most overly religious ones are captured in The Stream and the Sapphire. The title of the collection is taken from her poem “Flickering Mind.” The persona in this poem presents herself as a minnow whose flittering in the stream of time makes her comprehension of God—the unchanging mover of history, the gleaming sapphire in the stream—difficult. This title piece emphasizes the theme of faith seeking to reach beyond the paradoxes of experience, a theme most of the poems echo.
Levertov placed the poems in this collection in roughly chronological order and divided them into four main sections: “The Tide,” “Believers,” “Conjectures,” and “Fish and a Honeycomb.” The poems in “The Tide,” named after one of the poems in this section, deal with the ebb and flow of faith. The opening poem, “Human Being,” articulates Levertov’s skeptical questions about why innocent children and animals suffer, but concludes with a word of thanks for the gift of life. The philosophical problem of pain was the first hurdle Levertov had to overcome before accepting belief in God.
In this first section, “Psalm Fragments (Schnittke String Trio)” and “Suspended” examine the paradox of faith in a God who is difficult to discover in a fallen and sinful world, but who nonetheless does not allow believers in God to fail or fall. God’s presence is silent, intangible, and undeniable. The remaining poems in this section also explore the mystery of God’s person and work in the world.
“Believers,” the second section of the collection, is the most thematically unified. Both “Poetics of Faith” and “St. Peter and the Angel” deal with events in the life of Peter. The first event is Peter’s failed attempt to walk to Jesus on the water, recorded in Matthew 14:28-32, and the second event is Peter’s release from prison, as described in Acts 12:1-19. Both of these poems depict Peter’s perplexity in experiencing the miraculous and not being able to comprehend it; conversely, Levertov notes that individual action helped make these events possible. Miracles are, after all, rooted in daily life as well as in God’s eternal provision. The next three poems—“Caedmon,” “The Servant-Girl at Emmaus,” and “Conversion of Brother Lawrence”—treat moments when people have encountered the miraculous in ordinary circumstances. The emphasis here falls on the dignity of labor and how God can be honored through it. The next poem, “Dom Helder Camara at the Nuclear Test Site,” connects Levertov’s call for peace through political action with her affirmation of life in the Church. The two are inseparable in her mind. One of the most intriguing poems in this section is “Annunciation,” which treats the nature of the decision Mary made to become the mother of Jesus. This poem then explores the nature of annunciations in daily life when people choose whether to give birth to God’s gifts offered to them.
“Conjectures,” the third section, includes three meditations, two on the teachings of Jesus and one on the nature of purgatory in daily life. The first two poems, “On the Parables of the Mustard Seed” and “What the Figtree Said,” both discuss the vital role of imagination in faith. The third poem, “Heresy,” weaves a discussion of purgatory into a fanciful consideration of reincarnation, chiefly as a metaphor for the translation of the dusty nature of humans into the celestial qualities of God’s heaven.
“Fish and a Honeycomb,” the last section, presents six poems on various aspects of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The second poem in this section, “On a Theme from Julian’s Chapter XX,” builds on “The Showings: Lady Julian of Norwich,” a poem in the second section. This second poem examines Dame Julian of Norwich’s desire to identify with the wounds of Christ, even as Christ identified with the suffering of the world. Again, the role of imagination is prominent in the exercise of faith. This section also contains a fine poem on Saint Thomas Didymus (treated earlier in “Agnus Dei”). In Levertov’s poem, Thomas’s demand for proof leads to illumination, not condemnation. The final poem, “Ascension,” concludes the book with an imaginative meditation on how Jesus Christ felt when leaving behind the world of flesh on his return to heaven.
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