See studies by L. Wagner (1967) and H. Marten (1989).
Denise Levertov was born in Ilford, Essex, England. Her mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones Levertoff, was Welsh. Her father, Paul Levertoff, immigrated to England from Germany, was a Russian Hassidic Jew who, after converting to Christianity, became an Anglican parson. While being educated at home, Levertov showed an enthusiasm for writing from an early age, even claiming later in life that, when she was five years old, she had declared she would be a writer. At the age of 12, she sent some of her poems to T. S. Eliot, who replied with a two-page letter of encouragement. In 1940, when she was 17, Levertov published her first poem.
During the Blitz, Levertov served in London as a civilian nurse. Her first book, The Double Image, was published six years later. In 1947 she married American writer Mitchell Goodman and moved with him to the United States in the following year. Although Levertov and Goodman would eventually divorce, they had a son, Nickolai, and lived mainly in New York City, summering in Maine. In 1955, she became a naturalized American citizen.
Levertov's first two books had concentrated on traditional forms and language. But as she accepted the U.S. as her new home, she became more and more fascinated with the American idiom. She began to come under the influence of the Black Mountain poets and most importantly William Carlos Williams. Her first American book of poetry, Here and Now, shows the beginnings of this transition and transformation. Her poem “With Eyes at the Back of Our Heads” established her reputation.
During the 1960s and 70s, Levertov became much more politically active in her life and work. As poetry editor for The Nation, she was able to support and publish the work of feminist and other leftist activist poets. The Vietnam War was an especially important focus of her poetry, which often tried to weave together the personal and political, as in her poem "The Sorrow Dance," which speaks of her sister's death. Also in response to the Vietnam War, Levertov joined the War Resister’s League.
Much of the latter part of Levertov’s life was spent in education. After moving to Massachusetts, Levertov taught at Brandeis University, MIT and Tufts University. On the West Coast, she had a part-time teaching stint at the University of Washington and for 11 years (1982-1993) held a full professorship at Stanford University. In 1984 she received a Litt. D. from Bates College. After retiring from teaching, she traveled for a year doing poetry readings in the U.S. and England.
Both politics and war are major themes in Levertov's poetry. Levertov was published in the Black Mountain Review during the 1950s, but denied any formal relations with the group. She began to develop her own lyrical style of poetry through those influences. She felt it was part of a poet's calling to point out the injustice of the Vietnam War, and she also actively participated in rallies, reading poetry at some. Some of her war poetry was published in her 1971 book To Stay Alive, a collection of anti-Vietnam War letters, newscasts, diary entries, and conversations. Complementary themes in the book involve the tension of the individual vs. the group (or government) and the development of personal voice in mass culture. In her poetry she promotes community and group change through the imagination of the individual and emphasizes the power of individuals as advocates of change. She also links personal experience to justice and social reform.
Suffering is another major theme in Levertov’s war poetry. The poems “Poetry, Prophecy, Survival”, “Paradox and Equilibrium”, and “Poetry and Peace: Some Broader Dimensions” revolve around war, injustice, and prejudice. In her “Life at War” Denise Levertov attempts to use imagery in her poetry to show the disturbing violence of the Vietnam War. Throughout these poems, she addresses violence and savagery, yet tries to bring grace into the equation. She attempts to mix the beauty of language and the ugliness of human horror. The themes of her poems, especially “Staying Alive” focus on both the cost of war and the pain the Vietnamese were suffering because of it. In her prose work, The Poet in the World, she writes that violence is an outlet. Levertov’s first successful Vietnam poetry was her book Freeing of the Dust. Some of the themes of this book of poems are the experience of the North Vietnamese, and distrust of people. She attacks the United States pilots in her poems for dropping bombs. Overall, her war poems incorporate suffering to show that violence has become an everyday occurrence. After years, of writing such poetry, Levertov eventually comes the conclusion that beauty and poetry and politics can’t go together (Dewey). This opened the door wide for her religious themed poetry in the later part of her life.
From a very young age Levertov was influenced by her religion and when she began writing, it was a major theme in her poetry. From her father she was exposed to both Judaism and Christianity. Levertov always believed her culture and her family roots had inherent value to herself and her writing. She also believed that she and her sister had always had a destiny pertaining to this. When Levertov moved to the United States, she became influenced by the Black Mountain Poets, especially William Carlos Williams, the experimentation of Ezra Pound, and the mysticism of Charles Olson. She was also exposed to the Transcendentalism of Thoreau and Emerson. Although all of these things shaped her poetry, her conversion to Christianity in 1984 was the main influence in her religious writing. She became a Roman Catholic in the last decade of her life.
Denise Levertov wrote many poems with religious themes throughout her career. These poems range from religious imagery to implied metaphors of religion. One particular theme had been developed progressively throughout her poetry. This was the pilgrimage/spiritual journey of Levertov. Her earlier poems progress into deep spiritual understanding and truth in her recent poems.
One of her earlier poems is “A Tree Telling of Orpheus”, from her book Relearning the Alphabet. This poem uses the metaphor of a tree. The tree changes and grows when it hears the music of Orpheus. This is a metaphor to spirituality. Levertov was incorporating the growing to show how the tree is like faith, and as the tree goes through life we also go through life on a spiritual journey. Much of Levertov’s religious poetry was concerned with respect for nature and life. A lot of her themes were also about nothingness and absence.
In her earlier poems something is always lacking, searching, and empty. In “Work that Enfaiths” Levertov begins to confront this “ample doubt” and her lack of “burning surety” in her faith. The religious aspect of this is the doubt vs. light debate. Levertov cannot find a balance between faith and darkness. She goes back and forth between the glory of God and nature, and has that doubt that constantly plagues her.
Her earlier religious poems are searching for meaning in life. She explores God as he relates to nothing, yet everything. As her poetry becomes more recent, a shift can be seen.
Some of her more recent books, A Door in the Hive, and Evening Train are full of poems that start to show a change. In these works cliffs, edges, and borders are all used to push for change in life. Once again, Levertov packs her poetry with metaphors. She explores the idea that there can be peace in death. She also begins to tie together that nothing is a part of God. "Nothingness" and darkness are no longer just reasons to doubt and agonize over. “St. Thomas Didymus” and “Mass” show this growth, as they are poems that lack her former nagging wonder and worry.
In Evening Train, Levertov’s poetry is highly religious. She writes about experiencing God. These poems are breakthrough poems for her . She writes about a mountain. This mountain becomes a metaphor for life and God. When clouds cover a mountain, it’s still huge and massive and in existence. God is the same way, even when He is clouded, she says we know this. Her poems tend to shift away from constantly questioning religion and simply accepting it. In her most recent work, in “The Tide” Levertov writes about accepting faith and that not knowing answers is okay. She uses many paradoxes about faith in her poetry here. It marks the end of her "spiritual journey".
Another way to look at Denise Levertov’s religious poetry is to reflect on her views on life and religion. Levertov’s heavy religious writing began at her conversion to Christianity in 1984. She writes a lot of metaphysical poetry to show her religious views. Denise begins to use Christianity to link culture and community together. In her poem “Mass” she writes about how the Creator is defined by His creation. She talks a lot about nature and individuals. In her most recent works, Levertov uses Christianity as a bridge in society. She sees that individuals and the public are related. She explores these relations in her poetry as they relate to Christians. She believes that the hostile environment of community can be changed by Christian values. Levertov works this into her poems.
Levertov wrote and published 20 books of poetry, criticism, translations. She also edited several anthologies. Among her many awards and honors, she received the Shelley Memorial Award, the Robert Frost Medal, the Lenore Marshall Prize, the Lannan Award, a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.