A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Monday, 31 January 2011


The final poem of Levertov's I'll cite is, once again, evocative of Rilke. 

Variation on a Theme by Rilke

(The Book of Hours, Book I, #15)

With chips and shards, rubble of being,
we construct
                    not You but our hope of You.
We say - we dustmotes in the cosmos -
'You dome, arching above us!':
as if You were the sanctuary
by which we seek to define You.

Our cities pulverize, proud technologies
spawn catastrophe. The jaws of our inventions
snap down and lock.
                                Their purpose will be forgotten;
Time is aeons
and we live in minutes,
flies on a windowpane.

Who can conceive the span of You,
great vault, ribbed cauldron slung beneath the abyss,
cage of eternity?

Metaphors shatter, mirrors of poverty.

But something in us, while the millenia
monotonously pass
                              and pass,
hungers to offer up
our specks of life as fragile tesserae
towards the vast mosaic - temple, eidolon;

to be, ourselves, imbedded in its fabric,
as if, once, it was from that we were broken off.

Levertov tries to use language to capture some small inkling of the Divine (not You but our hope of You - even the hope of the Divine is almost impossible to construct with our inadequate language and imagination, let alone the Divine itself). This process is difficult, but Levertov carries on nevertheless. She admits metaphors shatter when faced with the span of You, yet she continues with her poem, with her metaphors, as these are all she has: great vault, ribbed cauldron slung beneath the abyss, / cage of eternity?

She notes in apocalyptic fashion the insubstantiality of human empires and the destructive power of some modern technologies (Levertov was a passionate anti-war and anti-nuclear campaigner), and is acutely aware of how small and feeble we are in the context of Time and the Universe.

Yet those wonderful last two stanzas reinforce the human hunger and hope we all have, the leitmotif which runs through all of Levertov and Rilke: even if our specks of life are mere fragile tesserae, we long for wholeness and to be a part (again?) of the vast mosaic.

Through a transforming imagination we can find a path (unclear as it may be) to spirit; poetry (and prayer) can provide a link - weak as it may be - to the inexpressible mystery.   


Friko said...

Levertov is much underrated in the UK
I have only a handful of her poems in anthologies.

After your wonderful analysis I feel that I must explore her and hope to delve as deeply as you have done.

If what you say is true and much of her work is reminiscent of Rilke, I surely must.
Rilke is my bible.

George said...

I love this poem, Robert, and enjoyed your analysis. So many of Levertov's lines are especially relevant today, when so many are wrapped like mummies in modern technology and live in minutes like "flies on the windowpane."

Anonymous said...

I love Levertov -- my favorite is "Writer and Reader" - and Rilke is, well, Rilke. The distance to God through poetry is far, but still capable of a sighting. Emerson thought all language was fossil poetry, Stevens said poetry was speech made dirtier -- always such a tenuous ladder to mystery -- I also like what Julian Jaynes says about poetry arising from the place where the gods went silent in our former bicameral brains. it sounds like godspeech, even though the other side of the brain is convinced no such thing exists. Levertov and Rilke - a delightful rhubarb jam.

-- Brendan (another solitary walker)

ksam said...

Wow! I'd never heard/read any of her poems. And I realize why I enjoy your blog...I learn something all the time! Gracias

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Friko, for your comment. I think Levertov is absolutely wonderful, and I return to her poems and essays time and again for solace, spiritual sustenance, inspiration, and to touch the mystery.

Yes, George - even though some of her poems are quite specifically about historical events (such as the Vietnam War), most of her poems deal with timeless concerns.

brendanblue - thanks for your visit and your most interesting comment, and welcome to my blog! I too really like 'Writer and Reader' and, indeed, many of the poems in 'Sands of the Well'.

Karin - gracias tambien por su visita!

Ruth said...

It's the joy of life, to do that, what you wrote in your last sentence.

This is another beautiful poem-reflection and post.

Robert, Lorenzo and I are wondering (I would email you if I knew your email address, and you can not post this comment if you wish) if you would allow us to link your Levertov-Rilke series at our links & references page at the Rilke blog? She, and you, are adding other rich layers to our understanding of the man's sight, and these posts would offer other readers further exploration if they wish.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks Ruth & Lorenzo. You may link to my posts about the influence of Rilke on Levertov if you wish - of course! It would be an honour to be linked to your wonderful daily Rilke blog in this way.

However, as I indicated at the start of yesterday's post, that post was the last one in my little series as I really don't feel I've that much more to say about the subject!

Thanks again. I really am enjoying your 'A Year with Rilke' blog a lot. I don't have the book, so each day is a surprise.

Ruth said...

Thanks a bunch, Robert. I'm thinking to link you using the "Rilke" tag, which includes posts back to 2007. OK?

The Solitary Walker said...

Yep, good idea, Ruth!

Amanda said...

the 'fragile tesserae' and 'vast mosaic' images are brilliant.

thanks to levertov (and by way of you) i'm now introduced to eidolon, a haunting new word in my vocabulary.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, Amanda - that word is spookily perfect.