Saturday’s poem 4/11/09

*Because I did not have access to a computer Saturday, as I went to my parents’ for Easter, I am posting the commentary for Saturday’s poem today (4/12/09).

Denise Levertov – “St. Peter and the Angel”

Delivered out of raw continual pain,
smell of darkness, groans of those others
to whom he was chained–

unchained, and led
past the sleepers,
door after door silently opening–
out!
And along a long street’s
majestic emptiness under the moon:

one hand on the angel’s shoulder, one
feeling the air before him,
eyes open but fixed . . .

And not till he saw the angel had left him,
alone and free to resume
the ecstatic, dangerous, wearisome roads of
what he had still to do,
not till then did he recognize
this was no dream. More frightening
than arrest, than being chained to his warders:
he could hear his own footsteps suddenly.
Had the angel’s feet
made any sound? He could not recall.
No one had missed him, no one was in pursuit.
He himself must be
the key, now, to the next door,
the next terrors of freedom and joy.

From Oblique Prayers. Copyright © 1984 by Denise Levertov.

Commentary
This is an enigmatic poem. It’s pretty abstract. Even the things that could be concrete, like a smell, aren’t. What is the “smell of darkness”? Yet, if it was described as the smell of a prison or dungeon, of damp stone and mud, would it have the same meaning behind it? It would sound too mundane.

I’m not even sure if this poem is supposed to be an allusion to some other story. I know of no interactions between St. Peter and an angel in any text, biblical or extra-biblical. This sounds more like the story of Paul – being released from prison by a supernatural force.

She gives just enough detail to intrigue: doors silently opening, a moon shining down on a street, St. Peter following the angel as if blind. And Peter’s most terrible moment is when the angel is gone, when he’s totally freed from his captors: when he realizes he is alone and totally responsible for himself. The most powerful moment in the poem, for me, is when St. Peter “could hear his own footsteps suddenly.” He’s unnerved by realizing he’s in control.

The end suggests St. Peter is going on to greatness, and yet he cannot remember whether an angel escorting him made sounds when it walked. You would think this would be something to remember. Perhaps Levertov is trying to emphasize the importance of St. Peter’s earthly mission rather than supernatural activities or knowledge. He is the “key,” “the next door” – yet his activities will not be soothing, as they will also be “the next terrors of freedom and joy.”

My easiest reading of this poem is that she’s stripped down the profundity of an important apostle to make his life sound humble, mundane, and yet frightening in some way, perhaps in the accountability that St. Peter must take on. The language is simple and vague, and recalls a biblical sort of narrative, something we might read in the Book of Acts. Perhaps it is the story of St. Peter during the night of Jesus’ arrest; perhaps the Romans didn’t believe him when he denied Jesus, and imprisoned him temporarily. Or, perhaps it is the story of his death and awakening in Heaven, being led to his role as gatekeeper (as the “key” and “new door”).

This poem was written in 1984, the same year as Levertov’s official conversion to Roman Catholicism. Her poetry became much more involved with religion from that point on. But it can be read without religious alliance, seeing its images as reflections of a symbolic psychic world. In this setting, I would interpret the symbols as humanity blindly being led by the miraculous, then coming into a more mature, more free self-reliance. Perhaps independence is the truest sort of miracle.

Advertisements

One Response to Saturday’s poem 4/11/09

  1. Angele Ellis says:

    I found a number of references to and artistic representations of St. Peter’s escape from prison, aided by an angel, first described–as you intuited–in Acts 12:

    Acts 12 (New International Version)

    Peter’s Miraculous Escape From Prison
    1It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. 4After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.

    5So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.

    6The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.

    8Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.

    To me, Levertov’s dramatic yet terse reimagining of this story is an allegory of her conversion to Catholicism: “Delivered out of raw continual pain…unchained, and led/past the sleepers,/door after door silently opening–/out!”

    Yet the dreamlike, visionary conversion experience, attended by angels, is only the beginning of the work of a serious religious life:

    “And not till he saw the angel had left him,
    alone and free to resume
    the ecstatic, dangerous, wearisome roads of
    what he had still to do,
    not till then did he recognize
    this was no dream. More frightening
    than arrest, than being chained to his warders:
    he could hear his own footsteps suddenly.”

    I like the combination of “ecstatic, dangerous, wearisome,” as well as the speaker’s realization that the freedom to act–“he could hear his own footsteps suddenly”–can be more frightening than imprisonment. (I think that Levertov is referencing psychological/spiritual imprisonment, as the pungent “smell of darkness” can apply to many dark nights of the soul.)

    “No one had missed him, no one was in pursuit.
    He himself must be
    the key, now, to the next door,
    the next terrors of freedom and joy.”

    I like the mixture of surprise, relief, and loneliness once the speaker is entirely on his own, after he is free and the angel has disappeared. “No one had missed him, no one was in pursuit.”

    I also appreciate the speaker’s not entirely happy transformation from ordinary being to “key”–not merely in the traditional sense of St. Peter representing the key to the kingdom of God, but in the sense that every human is the “key” to the way in which he or she proceeds through “the next door” of life, while continuing to grapple–despite faith or reason–with an awesome paradox: “the next terrors of freedom and joy.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: