(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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...

(The entire section is 813 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Bodo, Murray. Poetry as Prayer: Denise Levertov. Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2001. A devotional treatment of poetry by Levertov. Discusses seven poems from The Stream and the Sapphire, various essays, and Bodo’s talks with Levertov.

Gallant, James. “Entering No-Man’s Land: The Recent Religious Poetry of Denise Levertov.” Renascence 50, nos. 1-2 (Fall, 1997/Winter, 1998): 122-134. One of eleven articles in this issue by various authors on Levertov’s religious poetry. This issue has one of the best collections of essays on this topic.

Levertov, Denise. Conversations with Denise Levertov. Edited by Jewel Spears Brooker. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1998. A fine collection of previously published interviews with Levertov given between 1963 and 1995. These interviews treat Levertov’s craft, social concerns, and faith.

Levertov, Denise. New and Selected Essays. New York: New Directions Books, 1992. A strong collection of essays and talks produced by Levertov between 1965 and 1991. Note especially “A Poet’s View” and “Work That Enfaiths.”

Levertov, Denise. Tesserae: Memories and Suppositions. New York: New Directions Books, 1995. A selection of twenty-seven memoirs about memorable events and places in Levertov’s experience. These works give glimpses into the author’s imaginative process.