Peter Levi: Poet of Winter

By Gardner, Kevin J. | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Peter Levi: Poet of Winter


Gardner, Kevin J., Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


   Now I fear the artillery of spring.
   A sunlit page protected by snowfalls,
   the undiggable earth the monotonous colours,
   is kingdom of midwinter and love.

from "Village Snow" (Private Ground 19) (1)

OVER the course of nearly fifty years, Peter Levi (1931-2000) produced a remarkable corpus of poetry. Blending playful modernistic techniques with an impulse for the structure and order of traditional poetic forms, Levi faced a world of barrenness and angst with a believer's devotion to religious faith. The grandson of Sephardic Jews who had emigrated from Constantinople to London, Levi was reared according to his mother's devout Roman Catholicism, a faith that he himself would embrace and follow all his life. Educated at Christian Brothers and Jesuit schools and at Campion Hall, Oxford, Levi spent more than twenty years in the Jesuit priesthood before renouncing his orders in 1974 to marry Deirdre Connolly, widow of critic Cyril Connolly. Throughout both the ecclesial and lay phases of his life, he wrote steadily and copiously, producing ten individual volumes of lyric poetry as well as a significant number of long moral poems. (2) In addition to his poetic output, Levi was a prolific literary scholar and translator, an Oxford don, and a classical antiquarian and amateur archaeologist. (3) He achieved a measure of celebrity in the 1960s and 70s, using both radio and film to revive the Augustan didactic poem and speak to the nation on moral themes. (4) In 1984 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a five-year chair in which he was succeeded by Seamus Heaney. (5) In his final years, blindness brought on by diabetes did not diminish his enthusiasm for his work or alter his poetic vision. Despite his tremendous and varied output, however, Levi has not yet received any significant attention from literary scholars. It is therefore fitting that he once claimed, "I have little respect for most of what is normally called literary criticism, much more for history and the knowledge of languages and peoples" ("Introduction," The Art of Poetry 4). Reviewers and fellow poets, however, have justly recognized his regard for human beings and their languages and have hailed his poetry for its intellectual maturity, expressionistic beauty, and profound optimism. (6)

Even more than his humanism, what created and sustained the recondite and transcendent beauty in his poetry was a systematic and intellectual Christian faith, which he maintained formally and consistently throughout his life and which he expressed with profound and dispassionate sobriety. He once stated, "I've thought that my poetry should handle religious themes very indirectly if at all" (Haffenden 11). Indeed, because of its deeply personal nature, faith often appears in his poetry with delicate nuance. Nevertheless, he does touch regularly if subtly on matters of belief, and even overt and direct statements of his faith can occasionally be found in his poems. The following extract from his elegy, "For Anne Pennington" (1983), effectively illustrates how he positions Christianity in his poetry:

   Death gave gravity to Jesus Christ,
   and all our souls drown in his death and blood,
   because he drooped his holy head to sleep
   and suffered and in shadows was refreshed,
   as the ascending lark from his rough bed
   climbs in the sight of heaven's sparkling sun. (Rags of Time 25)

With its dynamic alliterations (d, dr, l, s, sh) and its visionary reiteration of Christian orthodoxy, this passage typifies the "Gregorian quality" John Bayley finds in Levi's poetry, wherein "the imagination of God continues to live in sound" (54). There is a tremendous conviction here in which religious belief (Christ's resurrection) is echoed and sustained by poetic tradition (the lark ascending). Indeed it seems that poetic language can summon the reader into the presence of God and that poetry, like Christianity, has redemptive graces. …

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