Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"Help Thou Mine Unbelief": Perception in Denise Levertov's Religious Poetry

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"Help Thou Mine Unbelief": Perception in Denise Levertov's Religious Poetry

Article excerpt

PAUL Lacey in '"To Meditate a Saving Strategy': Denise Levertov's Religious Poetry" (1997-1998) acknowledges that Levertov has "always been a religious poet who "borrowed from spiritual or religious discourse" (Renascence 17). Lacey emphasizes her determination to "explore such borderlands revealed ... by the artist and the saint ... between form and content, between doubt and belief, the inner and the outer life" (19). The aim of this paper is to highlight the value of perception and bodily processes, understood by Denise Levertov as the manner to confront life in her poems. Her constant "spiritual quest" (19) crystallizes in lines closely linked to the present, into which the poet delves with an almost mystical attitude. Levertov's conversion to Catholicism brought an increase of Biblical material used as part of her religious, humanistic and poetical reflection. In addition, her attention to sensory perception also helps her Christian faith to find in poetry a way to strengthen her belief and deal with her doubts.

Some characters associated with religious belief recur throughout Levertov's work as metaphors of poetic creation. The Muse, for example, intervenes in inspiration and poetic processes. Apart from these figures that the poet uses to reflect upon the most mysterious and less objective phases of poetic creation, Levertov resorts to divine entities, either taken from mythology or from her Christian beliefs. Levertov also reflects in her poetry upon the influence that divine entities have on the lives of human beings. Rudolph L. Nelson places Levertov's poetry in the frame of the quotidian realm: "Levertov's calculated avoidance in her poetry of the language of traditional transcendence is evidence that she, much more than [Robert] Duncan, is a product not only of the real world of immediate sights and sounds but of the equally real world of twentieth-century science, philosophy, and theology" (200). Thus, as Nelson asserts, the poetry of Levertov strongly depends on her intense attention to perception, but avoiding the reductionism and localism, characteristic sometimes of a poetry based exclusively on the immediate realm, in order to rise to a superior reality posited by the disciplines already mentioned. In other words, the immediacy of sensitive experience for Levertov quite often leads to the perception of a divine entity or incident. Our intention is to examine the important role of perceptual processes in Levertov's poetical approaches to the existence of such beings.

Feminist criticism usually understands that Levertov uses the mirror as an object that reflects the woman's body showing a more personal and intimate aspect of the subject, more open and candid on some occasions and more undecipherable, mythic and feared on others. However, the poet uses the mirror as a window through which it is possible to find other levels of existence, other worlds not usually revealed to human beings. Acquiring the poetic value of a threshold metaphor in Levertov's lines, the mirror displays a great variety of literary meanings and belongs to a vast literary tradition. The poem entitled "Looking-glass," from O Taste and See (Poems 1960-1967 139), includes the following lines:

   I slide my face along the mirror
   sideways, to see
   that side-smile,
   a pale look, tired
   and sly. Hey,

   who is dancing there?
   Shadow-me, not with
   malice but mercurially
   shot with foreknowledge of
   dread and sweat.

In these lines, the lyrical subject tries to describe her relation with the mirror. The poem is divided into two stanzas of equal numbers of roughly symmetrical lines, imitating the visual effect of the mirror. In the first stanza the speaker says that she offers the profile of her face to the mirror with the aim of seeing only one side of her smile, and to observe her pale, tired and curious look each time. The second stanza introduces the figure of a perhaps supernatural being, both known and an outsider to her. …

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