The Stream and the Sapphire

by Denise Levertov
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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1406

First published: New York: New Directions, 1997

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Genre(s): Poetry

Subgenre(s): Lyric poetry

Core issue(s): Catholics and Catholicism; daily living; doubt; faith; sainthood; trust in God

Overview

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.

Christian Themes

According to Levertov, writing poetry provided her an opportunity to discover and develop theological insights. The poems in The Stream and the Sapphire are signposts on her way to faith. The central theme in all these poems is the nature of faith, but Levertov combines this theme with discussions about doubt, aesthetics, imagination, and sainthood.

The most prominent theme in this collection is doubt and faith. Levertov usually depicts faith as a paradox, one dependent on intangibles for people living in a physical world. Some of her most stunning treatments of this theme can be found in “Human Being,” “Avowal,” “Variation on a Theme by Rilke,” and “Suspended.” In these poems she affirms her sense of being upheld by an intangible grace.

Another prominent theme in Levertov’s poems is her treatment of aesthetics and faith. Many of these poems began with aesthetic experiences, such as listening to a concert, viewing a painting, or attending a Mass. Some of her most prominent displays of this theme are “Candlemas,” “Agnus Dei” (taken from “Mass for the Day of Saint Thomas Didymus”), “Psalm Fragments (Schnittke String Trio),” and “The Servant-Girl at Emmaus” (based on a painting by Diego Velázquez). Such poems underscore Levertov’s realization that beauty—which is one of the three transcendentals in theology along with goodness and truth—can lead people to God. Levertov uses the Affirmative Way or Positive Way in approaching creation, seeing the love of people and creation as the beginning point for understanding God.

For Levertov, imagination is also a vital ingredient in faith. “On the Parables of the Mustard Seed” and “What the Figtree Said” are both fine examples of how imagination can function both as a tool for creating the poem and as a key to the Kingdom of God. Without imagination, the gifts from God are easily lost.

The theme of sainthood also plays a prominent role in Levertov’s poetry. Saints such as Mary, Simeon, Peter, Thomas Didymus, Brother Lawrence, Dame Julian of Norwich, and more contemporary spiritual leaders such as Thomas Merton and Dom Helder Camara, populate her poems. However, Levertov’s saints are paradoxically very human, having great doubts and fears while determining to be valiant for God.

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.

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