Levertov’s Ironic God of Hospitality
Critics have long noticed the pivotal place “The Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus” has in Levertov’s poetry. As Dana Greene notes, it serves as “a marker for understanding the last two decades of Levertov’s life.” Specifically, the “Mass” begins Levertov’s increasingly frequent use of Christian symbols and stories as fuel for her poetic imagination. Composed over several months in 1979 and 1980, and inspired by a musically diverse concert of the ordinary of the mass, Levertov originally conceived of her project as “an agnostic Mass.” “But,” she writes, “a few months later, when I had arrived at the Agnus Dei, I discovered myself to be in a different relationship to the material and to the liturgical form from that in which I had begun. The experience of writing the poem—that long swim through waters of unknown depth—had been also a conversion process, if you will.” Likewise, the reader accompanies the poetic speaker along her path of reflection by which she arrives at a moment when she must decide whether or not to make a wager for belief. Martha Nussbaum sometimes refers to stories as a kind of “narrative play” which can provide a “‘potential space’ in which to explore life’s possibilities.” Similarly, Levertov’s “Mass” opens up a space for any reader—believer or not—to share imaginatively in Levertov’s journey and struggle between doubt and faith, a theme foreshadowed by the title’s reference to Jesus’s famous doubting apostle.
Little, B. (2019). Levertov’s Ironic God of hospitality. In M. P. Murphy, & M. Bradshaw (Eds.), "This need to dance / this need to kneel": Denise Levertov and the poetics of faith (pp. 83-95). Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.