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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Levertov begins her poetry collection Oblique Prayers with a note explaining that the book and the sections within it represent a thematic rather than a chronological order. The order of the fourth and final section, “Of God and Of the Gods,” seems to represent the Judeo-Christian Creation story: not just the initial Creation of the biblical account but also an active and continuous creation that finds completion in the individual believer’s life. “The Task” stands exactly at the center of the fifteen poems that comprise this final section and can be fully understood only in its relationship to the others. The first seven poems account for the creation of the natural world: of rivers, of “earth-gods,” of trees and flowers. In most of these poems, God is designated as unknowable, at least to “the gods.” In “The Avowal,” God is named “Creator Spirit” and man is placed in the natural context. In the next poem, “The God of Flowers” (which precedes “The Task”), though the god of flowers cannot know God, her work pleases him and he “watches and smiles.”

Levertov has referred to God and the gods in poems written before this collection, notably in Candles in Babylon (1982), and has written much overtly Christian poetry since; however, “The Task” was her most explicit and most nearly orthodox poem about God at the time of its publication. The poem implies much about the character and work of God. That God is “in the wilderness next door/ —that huge tundra room, no walls and a sky roof—” implies that while God may be unbounded, neither he nor his whereabouts are unknowable. He seems near and exists not apart from but within the created world.

Since the poem follows a catalog of Creation in the first seven poems, the task of the title seems to be the work of Creation itself. Elsewhere in Oblique Prayers, Levertov uses images of knitting to represent re-creative acts, as when she describes an old gray sweater being conjured into a poem: “it and your need for it,” she writes, “are/ the knit and purl of the poem’s rows/ re-raveled” (“Grey Sweaters”). The reader is prepared then to regard the task in which God, without raw materials, “hurries on with the weaving:/ till it’s done, the great garment woven” as Creation. However, God is involved in this poem with more than the creation of the natural world. The poem affirms that while God is “absorbed in his work,” he “hears far-off” human screams and “listens for prayers.” Though he “hurries on with the weaving,” the human voices are “clear under the familiar/ blocked-out clamor of the task.” The human cries are not annoying or irrelevant. Though they leave the lips or hearts as “terrible beseeching,” they become, like the spacious hum of bees, the music that accompanies God’s work.

At the end of “The Task,” the loom is idle, suggesting the completion of God’s task, but the implication of the last seven poems is that God’s creative work is not finished. These final poems outline a kind of apostolic succession from Saint Peter to the poet and a sequence of belief from spiritual dryness to transcendent joy. In the final poem, “Passage,” God’s spirit, walking “upon the face of the water” and moving the meadow grass, provides new life not only to believers but also to their world.