Levertov’s “The Prayer”

Paul Lacey, editor of Denise Levertov Selected Poems suggests that Levertov's poetry can be divided into three phases, the first phase being "the period when she was praised by the greatest number of critics for her 'sacramental' and celebratory vision, and when she is most obviously influenced by Williams and learning American speech."

Most of Levertov's early poems I like focus on the nature of poetry or the appeals of the human body. Though few of her poems would probably be described as erotic by most readers, I found a number of them strangely so. Though this poem is certainly not erotic, it describes the human body and its feeling in an immediate, concrete style.

"The Prayer" suggests an ambiguity that most artists must have felt at one time or another for their "calling:"

The Prayer

At Delphi I prayed
to Apollo
that he maintain in me
the flame of the poem

and I drank of the brackish
spring there, dazed by the
gong beat of the sun,
mistaking it,

as I shrank from the eagle's
black shadow crossing
that sky of cruel blue,
for the Pierian Spring–

and soon after
vomited my moussaka
and then my guts writhed
for some hours with diarrhea

until at dusk
among the stones of the goatpaths
breathing dust
I questioned my faith, or

within it wondered
if the god mocked me.
But since then, though it flickers or
shrinks to a

blue bead on the wick,
there's that in me that
burns and chills, blackening
my heart with its soot,

flaring in laughter, stinging
my feet into a dance, so that
I think sometimes not Apollo heard me
but a different god.

Apollo, of course, is the god of poetry and music, and prophesy, and had much appeal to the Romantic poets, so it's not surprising that Levertov was drawn to his shrine.

The appeal of the poem, though, is the unexpected reaction to drinking from the holy spring. Instead of the expected "enlightenment," the narrator gets violently ill, so physically ill that she questions her faith, though whether it's her faith in magical springs or in her poetic talent is never quite clear.

This event transitions nicely into the larger question of whether the narrator's poetic talent is a gift of the Gods or the gift of the Devil. Though I've never had talent enough to feel driven by it, much less tortured by it, I know a desire to say something can haunt you, driving you to ignore things you shouldn't and pursue things best left alone, as I'm sure Leslie will testify to.

5 thoughts on “Levertov’s “The Prayer”

  1. If I had to guess, I’d say it was Dionysus that was the alternate god to which Levertov referred. It’s a standard opposition… and the reference to dance reinforces it.

    Just a thought.

  2. I’m not sure, Pascale.

    Would Dionysus fit the lines “blackening my heart with its soot” and the image of “flickering on the wick” or “blue bead on the wick,” all of which seem to suggest flame to me?

    I’ll try to do some additional research.

  3. My heart tells me that the different god she refers to is the god of “the fire next time,” the god of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the god that burns with passion, paradox, arbitrariness, contradiction and mystery.

  4. I tend to agree with Pascale, Dionysus being the diametrical opposite of Apollo. The laughter and the dancing would suggest that anyway. Nietszche wrote at some length on this subject I seem to remember. It’s an interesting poem.

What do you think?