A POET'S LIFE
By Dana Greene
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2012 Dana Greene
All right reserved.
"A Definite and Peculiar Destiny" 1923-1946
In the work of a living poet the dominant personal myth may, in early or even in mature work, be only half formed; the poet himself does not yet know the whole story — if he did, he would stop writing.... Yet from the first his bent, his cast of imagination, has declared itself. "THE SENSE OF PILGRIMAGE"
From a very young age Denise Levertov had a definite sense of her "peculiar destiny," a personal myth that derived from her ancestors, Schneour (Schneur) Zalman, the Rav of Northern White Russia, who was reputed to understand the language of birds, and Angell Jones of Mold, a Welsh tailor, who stitched meditations into coats and britches. She believed that these ancient ones were joined to her by a "taut" line across almost three centuries. They inspired her to make, as these ancestors did
poems direct as what the birds said,
hard as a floor, sound as a bench,
mysterious as the silence when the tailor
would pause with his needle in the air.
The legacy of these two visionaries4 was transmitted to her by her parents, the Welsh-born Beatrice Spooner-Jones, descendant of Angell Jones, and the Russian, Feivel Levertoff, whose ancestor was Schneour Zalman.
Angell Jones lived in northeast Wales on the River Alyn. His shop on High Street in Mold was not only his work site but the place where this Methodist preacher taught his apprentices scripture as well as the skills of the tailor. For a time David Owen, later acclaimed as one of Wales's greatest novelists, worked with Jones as an impoverished apprentice. The tailor's craft was handed down by Jones to his sons, and one grandson, Walter Spooner-Jones of Caernarvon, turned his manual dexterity to surgery, working as a junior doctor for a mining company in Abercanaid. Spooner-Jones married Margaret Griffiths, and soon after in 1885, Beatrice was born. When Beatrice was two and a half, her mother died in childbirth and her father remarried. It was not a fortuitous match in that the new wife became addicted to drugs and young Beatrice was neglected for several years. When she was ten, her stepmother died, and two years later her father did as well, leaving her an orphan at age twelve. At that point she was taken in by relatives, the Reverend David Oliver, Congregational minister of Holywell, and his wife, Bess, who cared for her and provided a good education. She had lessons in painting and voice, attended secondary and teacher training school, and absorbed the tenor of the Oliver household, which was strict, orderly, and deeply religious. But as an orphan Beatrice felt set apart from the other Oliver children. Although she loved the natural beauty of Wales, she longed for a more adventurous life. Her dream was to teach in Paris, but that was considered unacceptable work for a young woman. In the end she secured a position at a Scottish Mission school for girls in Constantinople, arriving there on the Orient Express. In that distant, exotic city Beatrice Spooner-Jones would meet Feivel Levertoff, her future husband.
If Beatrice Spooner-Jones's early life was tragic, it was matched by that of Feivel Levertoff, who traced his heritage back to a rabbi of Lyady, Schneour Zalman, born in 1745 and later founder of Habad, an offshoot of Hasidism. By 1800, Zalman had been arrested several times, imprisoned in St. Petersburg by civil authorities, and denounced as a heretic by religious ones. He taught a consciousness of God's presence in all things and affirmed that even the most humble Jew had intellectual access to the divine. He believed life was worship and service and that all beings contained sparks of God. He embraced the material world in order to restore it to his creator. The exaltation and joyfulness of Habad were expressed in story, dance, and song. Three generations hence, Feivel Levertoff would transmit to his children the stories of this ancestor, Schneour Zalman.
Feivel Levertoff was born in either 1875 or 1878 in Orsha, what is now Belarus, to Shaul (Saul) and Batya Levertoff. According to one rendering, Feivel was related to Schneour Zalman through the paternal line as his great-grandson. Another story is that Zalman was Feivel's mother's uncle. Stories of his early life focused on his religious identity and the conflict it caused within his family. One day the young Feivel found a scrap of paper written in Hebrew that told the story of a young man, much like himself, who proclaimed scripture in the temple. When Feivel's father discovered the paper, he incinerated it and admonished his bewildered son never to read such a thing again. Another story relates to Feivel's purchase of a copy of the Christian testament for which he also incurred his father's wrath. An ardent and deeply devout student, Feivel's early rabbinic education was in a local seminary, but because Jews were prohibited from studying in the university, he had to leave Russia. He traveled to Konigsberg, Prussia, where the freer university environment was much to his liking. It was there he became convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was the long-sought messiah. His family was appalled, declared him mad, and disowned him. Nonetheless Feivel became a Christian, believing that by doing so he would be more fully Jewish. He took a new name, Paul, after the most ardent follower of the messiah.
Paul Philip Levertoff, who always conceived of himself as a Jewish-Christian, joined the staff of the Hebrew Christian Testimony to Israel in 1901 and traveled throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, all the while engaging in scholarly writing. In 1910, he went to Constantinople to give a series of lectures and there met Beatrice Spooner-Jones. He was thirty-two years old, and she seven years his junior. For Denise Levertov this encounter was freighted with meaning. It was not merely the meeting of her parents but the joining of the distant ancestral heritage of Angell Jones and Schneour Zalman. As she put it: "Thus Celt and Jew met in Byzantium." Through this fortuitous meeting Angell Jones and Schneour Zalman would enter the twentieth century. The "taut" line between these "illustrious ancestors" and Denise Levertov was established.
Although Beatrice's adopted family was not enthusiastic about her prospective husband — he was a foreigner and had no secure income — she and Paul, accompanied by a chaperone, returned to London and married in 1911. It was the union of two deeply religious orphans and their Celtic, Russian, Jewish, and Christian lineages.
The early years of their marriage were neither settled nor easy. First they moved to Warsaw and then to Leipzig where Paul Levertoff taught Hebrew and rabinnics at a postgraduate institute for Jewish missions. He remained there during the Great War, carving out a successful career as a teacher and prolific scholar, even though for a time he was under house arrest as a foreigner. A daughter, Phillipa, was born in 1911 but died within less than a year. The loss of this first child was crushing, particularly to Paul Levertoff. Living in a strange country with no close friends, he became depressed and ill. The grieving Beatrice Levertoff was given some consolation by a trip to visit relatives in Wales. A token from that trip was a leather strap provided by sympathetic seamen to hold together her damaged luggage. This strap would travel with Beatrice throughout the rest of her life, and would be passed down to Denise as she traversed the world.
While in Leipzig, a few months prior to the outbreak of war in 1914, Beatrice gave birth to a second daughter, Olga. This baby became a healing presence for Paul Levertoff. He doted on her while Beatrice turned increasingly to the preoccupations of domestic life.
When the war was over, the Levertoffs, who were the equivalent of displaced persons, traveled from Germany to Denmark, finally settling in Wales where Paul worked for three years as subwarden at St. Deiniol's, a theological library in Hawarden. During this time he was ordained a priest in the Church of England by the Rev. John Dubuisson, later Dean of St. Asaph's Cathedral.
Paul Levertoff 's next move would be permanent. In his midforties he was appointed Director of the East London Fund for Jews and pastor of Holy Trinity on Old Nichol Street in Shoreditch, a Hebrew-Christian church where Jews believing in Jesus could worship. Holy Trinity was unlike other Anglican churches. It had no fixed congregation and no endowment, so Reverend Levertoff 's salary was paid by a church organization dedicated to fostering Jewish-Christian relationships. Since the church did not have a vicarage, the family moved initially to Lenox Gardens in Ilford where their third daughter was born on October 24th, 1923. With the assistance of a midwife, Priscilla Denise was delivered just as the school bell rang at 9:15 A.M. at the nearby Highland Elementary School. Paul Levertoff was forty-five years old at the time and Beatrice thirty-eight. Olga was nine.
Eight months after Denise's birth the Levertoffs bought an 1890s, five-bedroom, brick, semidetached house at 5 Mansfield Road in Ilford not far from Lenox Gardens and nearby Cranbrook Road, the main street, and close to the large Valentine and Wanstead parks. Ilford, in the far northeast section of what is now the borough of Redbridge, a suburb of London, was experiencing substantial growth, and by 1931 it had a population of some 131,000. The Levertoff home was like those nearby, but had a few distinctive features. There were no blinds on the bay windows in the front or the French windows in the back, so passersby could see into the house, and the two gardens, a small one in the front and a larger one in the back, were both wild and unkempt although opulent and brilliant with color. The Levertoffs lived in this house until Paul Levertoff 's death in 1954.
In this quotidian world the Levertoffs were, as Denise wrote, "exotic birds in the plain English coppice of Ilford, Essex." Paul Levertoff was small in stature, lean, with bushy hair, brows, and beard, and piercing eyes; he was above all a scholar, deeply committed, complex, mystical, emotionally distant, and otherworldly. It was he who dominated the Levertoff household. Although a member of the Anglican clergy, he was a man set apart. His first language was not English, and he did not have an English education. The Church of England did not quite know what to do with him. His vocation was both to Jews (to show that Christianity was not alien to them ) and to Gentiles (to point out the Jewish origins of Christianity and thereby suggest that anti-Semitism was incompatible with Christian life). Each Saturday morning at 11 A.M. he led a liturgy of psalms and songs and offered a service of Holy Communion in Hebrew. He later published this original Hebrew-Christian liturgy as The Order of Service of the Meal of the Holy King. He had few congregants, but he persevered for years in his mission. On Sundays he would preach at Christian churches in greater London. But he considered himself first a scholar and translator. He worked at home in an unkempt upstairs study, watched over by an almost lifesize stone statue of the preaching Jesus. Initially Beatrice served as his secretary, but as Olga matured she internalized his religious vision and became his amanuensis. As an ecumenist, Levertoff was a member of several organizations — the Society for the Study of Religions, the Aristotelian Society, and the League of St. Alban and St. Sergius. But his energy was principally dedicated to scholarship. He was author of The Son of Man, The Life of St. Paul, Israel's Religion and Destiny, The Religious Ideas of Hasidism, Old Testament Prophecy and the Religions of the East, Love and the Messianic Age, and Messianic Hope, among others. He translated The Confessions of Augustine and The Gospel of Matthew into Hebrew, and The Zohar, the medieval Spanish guide to mystical Jewish thought, into English. At the center of his belief was the notion that the love of God and of one's fellows was the essence of the Messianic tradition. The Law was given in order to bring forth the union of God and Israel; the Messianic age would perfect that union. Joy was the revelation of God within; compassion was the response to others and always led to service on their behalf.
Beatrice Levertoff was a small, portly woman with wavy hair who was well-dressed and wore dashing hats. It was said she had a "Jewish soul," meaning she was welcoming and generous. As a painter and a naturalist, she was a "a pointer-outer," one attentive to wildflowers, birds, and clouds, exclaiming upon their beauty and teaching her daughters their names. As a vocalist whose special talent was singing Lieder, she encouraged her daughters' artistic life. But there was an air of otherworldliness and naivety about her; Denise later claimed her mother was "a virtual innocent."
Olga was an accomplished pianist, who especially loved Liszt, Chopin, and Bach. Denise, who took lessons in both painting and ballet, acknowledged her mother's influence in inculcating her love of nature: she "taught me to look; / to name the flowers when I was still close to the ground, / my face level with theirs." Later in life, Denise speculated that if her mother had grown up in a large happy family, her habit of observation might not have developed and hence not been passed down to her. Denise attested: "I could not ever have been a poet without that vision she imparted."
Enamored of Sir Walter Scott, Beatrice also had a deep appreciation of history, of archeological ruins, of churches, roads, and burial grounds. She unlocked the natural and created beauty of the English countryside for Olga and Denise. If Paul Levertoff gave his daughters gifts of "eloquence" and "fervor," Beatrice gave them "Welsh intensity and a lyric feeling for nature."
The Levertoff household was a hive of activity. Since neither daughter attended school, everyone was generally at home. They had few connections to the surrounding community and no extended family with whom they regularly interacted. Their Welsh, Russian, and Jewish cultural origins set them apart. Nonetheless, wayfarers of every sort — Jewish booksellers, Russian and German scholars, musicians, and Jewish refugees all passed through their home. Denise remembers the visits of the Russian theologians, G. P. Fedotov and Sergei Bulgakov. Both parents were interested in the important issues of the interwar period. Paul Levertoff protested Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia, and both he and Olga condemned Britain's lack of support for Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. Beatrice canvassed for establishment of the League of Nations and worked to find housing and employment for refugees.
Everyone in the family read, to themselves and to others. Every room of the house was filled with books, some of which were bought by Paul Levertoff as a secondhand "lot" from Sotheby's. Others came from the local public library where Miss Farmery, the librarian, sequestered new book arrivals until the Levertoffs could claim them. In this way Olga and Denise absorbed great literature by osmosis. Hearing books read aloud night after night, they developed an ear for language, and Denise later attested that this practice was the origin of her ability to read well in public. They read most of the nineteenth-century English novelists, especially enjoying Jane Austen and George Eliot, and many Russian ones as well; Beatrice read the whole of War and Peace to her daughters. As a young child Denise's imagination was spurred by Bunyan, Beatrix Potter, and Hans Andersen. Later she read Carlyle and Chekhov, Ibsen, and Turgenev, but she especially loved the English poets — Henry Vaughan, George Herbert, Thomas Traherne, Wordsworth, and Keats. She said she carried Tennyson everywhere, stuck under an armpit for months on end. In her late teens she read the letters of both Keats and Rilke. From the time she was young, she claimed to share an affinity with Keats; like him she too wanted to be a great English poet. Rilke's poetry and letters also would prove to be instrumental in developing her poetic vocation. Later she wrote: "Though my favorite poets were all men, I had enough faith in myself, or more precisely enough awe at the magic I knew sometimes worked through me, not to worry about that.... I didn't suppose my gender to be an obstacle to anything I really wanted to do."
The Levertoffs were writers. Reverend Levertoff was a prolific author, and Mrs. Levertoff wrote a novella and a children's book. Olga began writing her own books when she was twenty-three. Denise claimed that when she was five she conceived of her first poem and dictated it to Olga. By age eight she knew she was an artist. She insisted her life would not be dull, that it would be a story, an adventure. Writing proved to be the way to realize that aspiration.
Excerpted from DENISE LEVERTOV by Dana Greene Copyright © 2012 by Dana Greene. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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