*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–
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.
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.