"The walls of the garden, the first light"
Ilford, Essex, with its two large parks, east and west of the River Roding, is notable for its semirural setting, yet it is only fourteen kilometers northeast of central London. A spirited six-year-old, Denise Levertov could easily walk the three blocks from her home at 5 Mansfield Road to the gates of Valentines Park, with its cultivated lawns and ample pleasure grounds. There, along the Long Water canal, she could wander alone among the stately London plane trees she grew to love and, seated in a leafy alcove, admire their reflection in the green water. Or she could pause in the romantic rose garden and imagine a scarlet bouquet gleaned from its pickings. Best of all, she could sit in a brick alcove at Jacob's Well and make a wish, poised in reverie before the clear water. (This wishing well would inspire future poems.) If she wanted to play in a more ancient, wilder landscape as she grew older, she could ride on her scooter farther, to Wanstead Park, with its dense forest of firs and pines, its mysterious grotto, and its larger ornamental waters. She could pretend to sail "grassy seas in the three-masted barque Emanuela" and undertake daring adventures with a friend. In both parks there were hidden paths amid the hedges to stimulate her imagination and old mansions to awaken a historical awareness. Accompanied by her older sister, Olga, she could walk in the lush fields and farms beyond the town's borders, which were then easily accessible by foot, or travel deeper into the countryside on the red double-decker, open-topped buses. Unencumbered by a regular school day-she was homeschooled by her mother-Denise roamed this landscape until age twelve and returned to it frequently thereafter in her work.
In "A Map of the Western Part of Essex in England," a poem she wrote after emigrating to the United States in 1947, Levertov adds depth and nuance to the emotional importance of this region:
the little streams of Valentines heard my resolves,
Roding held my head above water when I thought it was
drowning me... .
Wanstead drew me over and over into its basic poetry.
Levertov's birthplace provided a fundamental refuge from danger, an interest in the past, and a lasting penchant for imaginative transformation. As a child, Denise could not articulate the source of that danger, but she certainly intuited it, for, in the poem above, she links herself with her parents, who were themselves outsiders and immigrants in England. Estranged in a new environment, she now understands their predicament in her childhood. A sense of hazardous alienation lingers here, but Levertov does not dwell upon it. Rather, she reinforces a primary kinship with the places and people she loves, and she invests her childhood home with the remembered sweetness of a golden age: "the walls of the garden, the first light."
Priscilla Denise Levertoff was born at 9:15 A.M. on October 24, 1923, at 24 Lenox Gardens, in the town of Ilford, Essex. She was the youngest of three daughters born to Beatrice Adelaide Levertoff, née Spooner-Jones, an artistic Welsh school teacher, and the Reverend Paul Philip Levertoff, a scholarly Russian Jew who had converted to Christianity and been ordained as a priest of the Church of England. Her parents had met in 1910 in Constantinople, where her mother was teaching in a secondary school run by the Scottish Church and her father was lecturing as a visiting scholar. They were married in England, lived in Warsaw and Leipzig before and during World War I, and settled in England soon after the war ended. Their first child, Philippa, born in 1912, lived only six months before dying of a respiratory ailment. She was buried in Leipzig, where in 1914 their second child, Olga Tatjana, was born. Nine years later, Denise arrived, the only one in her family born in England.
Cultural heterogeneity and personal loss marked the lives of Levertov's nuclear family. Her parents (especially her father) were "exotic birds" in this ordinary English thicket. They had endured religious persecution, expatriation, family tragedy, and war, which could have crippled people with fewer intellectual and spiritual resources. Downplaying their privation, Levertov lauded these resources: not only were they all writers, her mother sang lieder and her sister was a fine pianist, and Denise emphasized the impact of the household's foreign atmosphere upon her evolving identity. Even though she grew up with a passion for the trees, churches, and wildflowers of rural England, she viewed herself as an outsider: "Among Jews a Goy, among Gentiles ... a Jew or at least a half-Jew ... among Anglo-Saxons a Celt; in Wales a Londoner ... among school children a strange exception." This sense of anomaly continued into adulthood-Levertov often felt English, or at least European, in the United States, where she was usually considered American, and American in England-but it did not inhibit her artistic development. Her family had given her such confidence that, though "often shy," she "experienced the sense of difference as an honor, as a part of knowing (secretly) from an early age-perhaps by seven"-that she was "an artist-person and had a destiny."
What were the attributes of the members of this family who invested the child Denise with such inner strength, despite their own earlier suffering? What clues to her future do we find in their backgrounds? A richly textured robe of family legend envelops each of them.
Paul Philip Levertoff was a traditional patriarch. Both his perceptions of the world and his emotional attitudes derived from the Russian Jewish shtetl in which he was born and raised. In that world, as a boy of exceptional intellectual ability and linguistic talent, he was devoted to the divinely decreed obligation to study Scripture, a duty and a joy that offered "a means of escape from dark reality," whether it be domestic troubles or religious persecution. He also had a "bold heart" and a rebellious personality. As he grew into manhood, his theological studies carried him beyond the Pale of Settlement, areas in Eastern Europe in which Jews were allowed to live, and away from the mainstream of his people. After he read the New Testament, he became convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and embarked upon the project of reconciling the two faiths. For the rest of his life, he considered himself a Jewish-Christian.
In adulthood, Levertov saw this "bold heart," the "certainty of wings" for the soul, as the essence of her father's personality. In her poem "Wings in the Pedlar's Pack," and in her essay "The Sack Full of Wings," she compares her father with Marc Chagall, his contemporary. Both men saw, as children, "an old pedlar ... carrying a big sack over his shoulder," trudging along the streets of Orsha, her father's hometown, or through the city of Vitebsk, Chagall's birthplace, which he made famous in his painting "Over Vitebsk." This figure may allude to the Christian, anti-Semitic image of the Wandering Jew, who, in medieval legend, taunted Jesus en route to the Crucifixion and was then cursed to walk the earth as a beggar until the Second Coming. Paul Levertoff's Hasidic beliefs, imbued with the ardor of ecstasy inherited from his rabbinic ancestor, "the Rav of Northern White Russia," contravened this noxious stereotype. He knew that the pedlar's sack contained "wings which would enable people to fly like birds," and he later interpreted that knowledge to incorporate the Gospel of Jesus as the Messiah.
Paul Philip Levertoff was born in Orsha, Belarus, a town south of Vitebsk on the Dnieper River, to Saul and Judith Levertoff. His birth date is unclear: one source states October 12, 1875; another states October 14, 1878. He preferred the latter. His birth name was not "Paul Philip," a Christian name. In a letter in Hebrew, his father, Saul Levertoff, employs the Hebrew-Yiddish name "Feivel," which was probably Paul's given name. His family were originally Sephardic Jews who emigrated from Spain to Russia after the Spanish Inquisition and there intermarried with other Jewish families noted for their piety and learning. According to family legend, he was a descendant of the founder of Chabad Hasidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, who was his mother's uncle. The family thus had strong Hasidic roots, part of Paul's heritage that he never rejected. He cherished an inherited copy of his great-uncle's central treatise, The Tanya.
Hasidism was one of two major social currents within Eastern European Jewry. Founded by Rabbi Israel Ba'al Shem Tov (known as the Besht), Hasidism was a popular communal mysticism that arose in Poland in the eighteenth century, and despite bitter opposition by the traditional rabbinate, spread rapidly. The Besht "emphasized the importance of prayer and obedience to the Law above the study of the Law," where such study degenerated into mere intellectual exercise. Contrary to classical Jewish philosophers, the Besht also taught that divine providence extends not only to every individual but to every particular in the inanimate world as well, a view not unlike that of the pantheism of the Romantic poets whom Denise Levertov came to love. Further, "in the tradition of the Kabbala, the Besht taught that the end of Divine worship is attachment to G-d (devekuth), which is essentially a service of the heart rather than the mind." Since God cannot be understood rationally, it is by means of emotional commitment and obedience to the divine will that the human being can come closest to his Creator. Hence the Besht emphasized the "intention of the heart (kavannah) in the performance of the Divine precepts... . Above all, the Besht endeavored to instill the quality of joy into Divine service."
Dancing and singing are intrinsic to Hasidic religious worship, with special tunes for various occasions, such as the religious festival of Simhat Torah, which celebrates the completion of reading the Pentateuch. Hasidim may also dance after seeing their beloved rebbe face to face, honoring his leadership. Olga Levertoff fondly remembered that, in her childhood, her father often rejoiced upon reuniting after a separation from his family by dancing with her. In tune with his childhood, he sang a Yiddish-inflected nonsense song-"Yáchiderálum, pûzele, mûzele"-in accompaniment. The Hasidim even dance in mourning, in loving memory of the deceased. In this context, as in Levertov's poem "In Obedience," written after she learned that her father "rose from his bed shortly before his death to dance the Hasidic dance of praise," dancing allows a free expression of grief, which often includes guilt, and takes one beyond these feelings. As Levertov wrote, "Let my dance / be mourning then, / now that I love you too late."
Hasidism spread across political borders. By the nineteenth century, half of all Eastern European Jews had joined its ranks, although different Hasidic groups interpreted the principles of the Besht idiosyncratically. Schneur Zalman was known for his intellectual enthusiasm. He insisted on the three pillars of "wisdom, understanding, knowledge" (which in Hebrew form an anagram for Chabad), and eventually became the leader of the Hasidim of Belarus. By the late nineteenth century, when Paul Levertoff was born, the breach between the Hasidim and their rabbinic opponents had been healed, and the Chabad branch had come to represent the ultra-Orthodox position in Jewry.
The Levertoff family was prosperous. Despite pervasive anti-Semitism, the czar had awarded Paul's father, Saul, the status of "Hereditary Honorable Citizen," a classification that customarily applied to influential or very wealthy townspeople. He is listed in one source as a "sometime Principle of Theological College, Poltava." The Levertoff family claimed relationships by marriage to several wealthy Jewish business families in Saint Petersburg, including the Poliakoffs (bankers) and the Günsbergs, who acquired titles. Saul Levertoff read and spoke Russian as well as Yiddish and Hebrew, and he was a good mathematician. He was acquainted with the local Christian intelligentsia, with whom he conversed, and as Levertov wrote in her unpublished "Notes on Family," "Most unusual for a pious Jew, he seems to have read some Russian literature-Tolstoy for one." Thus, he probably was receptive to the ideas of the Haskalah, a second important Jewish movement in Eastern Europe.
About the same time as Hasidism was born in Poland, the Haskalah originated in Germany. The followers of this movement, the Maskilim, encouraged Jews "to abandon their exclusiveness and acquire the knowledge, manners, and aspirations" of their national homelands. They emphasized the study of biblical Hebrew and of the poetical, scientific, and critical parts of Hebrew literature, rather than the Talmud, and they opposed the superstition they associated with Hasidism. In turn, they were denounced as destructive heretics in Russian Jewish communities, where they were accused of hastening assimilation. By the mid-nineteenth century, when the Russian government began to introduce secular education among the Jews, the tide turned toward the Maskilim, and at the end of the century, all the new movements in the modern era grew out of the Haskalah. Jewish nationalism, and even Orthodoxy, adopted elements of its legacy.
Both Hasidism and Haskalah existed in the context of the greatest threat to the Jewish world, a particularly virulent wave of anti-Semitism that pervaded Russia's political factions after Jews began to live outside the Pale of Settlement. Among the radical Left, Jews were portrayed as "Western urban foreigners who live at the expense of the Russian people." Among conservatives, Jews represented "the West, introducing modernism into Russia ... and undermining the old order." Ironically, the reforms of Czar Alexander II exacerbated this situation, as Jews were granted new economic powers. According to the anti-Semitic press, which the government encouraged, the "Jewish exploiting leaseholder of the old type, who served the Polish aristocracy," was now the "new Jewish capitalist," who inflicted damage in his modern metamorphosis. The Jews of Russia were deeply disillusioned by these sentiments, but they could not stop their escalation. The pogroms that broke out in 1881, after Czar Alexander was killed, were a virulent culmination. Further, under the rule of the next two czars, Russian nationalism identified itself with the Russian Church, and religious persecution continued to assume brutal and anti-Semitic forms.
This was the turbulent, dangerous world into which Paul Levertoff was born and from which he extricated himself. Not surprisingly, he seemed to have few childhood memories. Typical of Orthodox Jews, he was one of many children. He spoke with emotion of one "little sister ... who died at an early age," Levertov recalled in "Notes for Nikolai." Later, after Paul's own first child died in infancy, his wife, Beatrice, thought his deep depression revived this earlier loss. Paul also remembered that one "much older sister ... had gone to study medicine in Zurich," which Denise interpreted as meaning that she must have been among the "enterprising young proto-revolutionary women [Peter] Kropotkin writes about so movingly in his wonderful Memoirs." Every year, when Denise was a child, a "certain delicious apple called Cox's Orange Pippin" would remind her father of the shtetl garden, where similar apples grew. He also recalled that when "the ice was breaking up in the spring he and other boys used to jump from ice floe to ice floe for a ride down-river-very dangerous and of course strictly forbidden." Denise treasured this memory, in particular, because she loved to think of her "studious" father, who "seemed so sedentary," being so audacious.
Like other boys of his time and place, Paul Levertoff began to study the Torah and Talmud at a very early age. He was taught by his father and in a traditional Hebrew primary school (cheder). He first encountered the New Testament and Jesus when he was eight or nine, on the way home from playing with friends. Levertov later recalled this family legend as follows:
As he trudged homeward my father's eye was caught by a scrap of printed paper lying in the gray, trampled snow. Though he was a playful, disobedient boy ... he was also ... a little Talmud scholar, respectful of words; and he saw at a glance ... that this paper was not printed in Russian but in Hebrew. So he picked it up and began to read. Could it be a fragment of Torah? Never before had he read such a story about a boy like himself who-it is said-was found in the Temple expounding the scriptures to the old, reverent, important rabbis!
He took the rescued page home to show his family, but instead of praising Paul, his father became very angry. He tore the page into pieces, thrust the pieces into the stove, and told his little son "to avoid such writings," but did not explain why. The child was, of course, "awed to see written words destroyed-Hebrew words," and his curiosity was awakened about the boy in the story.
After his bar mitzvah, Paul was sent to the Volozhin Yeshiva, in nearby Vilna, to continue his studies. He acquired an exemplary rabbinic education there, receiving his diploma early, in his midteens. Unsure about a rabbinical calling, he then considered becoming a doctor, but when he returned home and found the family mourning the passing of his little sister, he felt a "great horror of death" and rejected medicine as a career. Paul was sent instead to the University of Königsberg, in Prussia, to obtain a broader university education. A center of the Haskalah, Königsberg was a "world of cafes and open lectures and libraries and concerts, a world where Jews and Gentiles mingled in bewildering freedom." There, two sons of a Lutheran pastor befriended him, taking him to meet their family, who made him feel welcome. On one occasion, when he went with them to church, Paul found in a pew a copy of the New Testament in Hebrew, and he was enraptured by the Gospel of Saint John, which he felt to be Hasidic. He was reminded of his childhood curiosity, and always a devout person, he felt that God had guided him to this new knowledge of Jesus as the Messiah.
Thus Paul Levertoff redefined his Jewish identity at a time when the traditional frameworks of social life had been undermined, but he felt this change as a deep religious experience, a spiritual revolution. As Levertov would explain, her father thought that those Jews who did not recognize Jesus were mistaken because "at the time of Jesus they had come to imagine the Messiah as a political leader who would free them from Roman rule, rather than as the spiritual reformer prophesied by Isaiah." Paul's Jewish scholarship strengthened his conviction, and "he didn't-then or later-feel that he was turning his back on his own Jewish people, but on the contrary, that belief in Jesus Christ, a Jew, ... was the fulfillment of Jewish hope." When he went home to share his discovery with his family, however, they were dismayed. At first they thought he had gone mad; then they were terribly angry. Paul broke off relations with them, returned to Königsberg, and was baptized on August 11, 1895. He chose the name "Paul" to express his "affinity with the most passionately Jewish of Apostles."
Since he was now without financial aid from his parents, Paul supported himself by tutoring and undertaking translations to and from the various languages he knew, which included Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew, German, and Greek. Also, because of his new religious status, he was now a full Russian citizen, and since he was of military age, he returned to Russia to do military service. Beatrice remembered Paul telling her that, while back in Russia, he stayed for a few days in Vilna with relatives who secretly telegraphed his presence to his father. When the two were reunited, his father persuaded Paul to return home and was almost reconciled to his son's baptism. But when they went to the synagogue, which Paul did willingly, his father tried to prevent him from disclosing to the congregation that he was now a Christian. Paul could not accept this denial, and he left home abruptly a second time. Early one morning, he packed his belongings, climbed out of the window, and fled to Saint Petersburg. There he became acquainted with the librarian of the Royal Library, himself a Jewish scholar, who advised and helped him. First Paul did military service at Tzarskoe Selo, site of one of the czar's palaces near Saint Petersburg; as a university student, Paul was automatically a noncommissioned officer. He served there for ten months in the cavalry and taught the peasant recruits to read and learn their drill. This duty over, Paul assisted the librarian until he had saved enough money to travel to Palestine, where he went to study Aramaic in the place where it was spoken at the time of Christ.
Levertov gives us an alternative version of the motive for her father's excursion to Palestine, a version that conveys his youthful charisma as well as his independence. According to her, during Paul's stay in Königsberg, it was arranged for him to lodge with an Evangelical pastor who had assisted in his baptism. Such was Paul's piety and reputed academic success that, despite his Jewish birth, this pastor began to think of him as a highly eligible son-in-law. His elder daughter welcomed this prospect heartily, for although he was not tall, Paul "was handsome, with curly dark hair, deep-set dark eyes, and rosy cheeks." The pastor encouraged Paul to approach his daughter by commending "the security and comfort of a German academic career" and suggesting that "he may be blessed to take holy orders." Eventually matters became critical. When Paul realized that a marriage proposal was expected, he "rushed upstairs to his bedroom and began stuffing books and clothing haphazard into his trunk." He fled from this "essentially hypocritical society. His religious faith was intense and unwavering-but it was not in order to be absorbed into a Gentile world that he had broken, in sorrow, with his father and mother, but to be, as he believed, the more fully a Jew." After this experience, according to Levertov's story, Paul left for Jerusalem.
In a scholarly account of Paul's early career, Jorge Quiñónez wrote that, soon after his baptism, in 1896, Paul found employment as a missionary with the London Jews Society, a Protestant organization. He worked full time in this new vocation until 1901, when he changed mission organizations and joined the staff of the Hebrew Christian Testimony to Israel (HCTI). It is not clear why he made this change, but Levertov speculates that her father found the first group "culturally ignorant" and felt he had been "manipulated into working for them as a speaker at meetings." The HCTI had been founded in 1893 by David Baron and Charles Andrew Schönberger, themselves Jewish believers in Jesus, and Paul was more comfortable there. Its headquarters were in London, which suited Paul, Beatrice Levertoff later remembered, because he could use the British Museum's library to work on his doctoral thesis. He traveled throughout Europe and the Mediterranean with David Baron, and he contributed essays to their periodical, The Scattered Nation, beginning in 1901.
For nearly a decade, Levertoff served as the HCTI's principal Hebrew translator and writer. He was prolific, publishing seven original works and translations in Hebrew between 1902 and 1909 with several London publishers, including HCTI. In 1910, Baron announced in The Scattered Nation that Paul had accepted "an invitation from the United Free Church of Scotland Jewish Committee to take the position of Evangelist in Constantinople" and thus had resigned from their missionary board. Perhaps it was before assuming this position that Paul journeyed to Palestine, continuing on to Constantinople from there. In any case, in Constantinople in 1910, he met Beatrice Spooner-Jones, whose dark hair, intelligent brown eyes, and fervent soul complemented his own.
Denise's mother, Beatrice Spooner-Jones, was born on June 29, 1885, in Abercanaid, Glamorganshire, South Wales. Her father was Walter Spooner-Jones, MD, and her mother was Margaret Griffiths. Just as Paul Levertoff was of distinguished Hasidic descent, Beatrice claimed the mystic Angell Jones of Mold as an ancestor. (Walter Spooner-Jones was his grandson.) A master tailor by trade, Angell Jones was also a famed expounder of Scripture, and young men came from throughout Wales to work with him and to discuss the Bible in an exegetical style similar to that of the Eastern European Jews. Beatrice's ancestry shared other similarities with Paul's. Like the Jews, the Welsh were a conquered people, and for several centuries they remained quite untouched by English language and laws except along the border. They did not share the same class hierarchy that existed in England, and also like the Jews, they had the "typically Celtic reverence ... for learning and for poetry and music." People who excelled in these pursuits were considered Welsh aristocracy, even though they might be poor shepherds or shoemakers. In an early poem, Levertov proudly claimed the values of the "Illustrious Ancestors" on both sides of her family tree.
Beatrice's father, Walter, studied medicine and surgery in Scotland, and after graduating, he married and brought his bride to the coal-mining village of Abercanaid, where he was the junior member of a medical team employed by the mining company. The safety conditions at the mine were poor and the incidence of tuberculosis and early death among the miners and their families high. Walter often had to go "down the pit to operate at the site of an accident," despite the danger to his own health. When Beatrice was two and a half, her mother died in childbirth. Dr. Spooner-Jones, a young widower with a young child, soon remarried, but his second marriage was unhappy. Beatrice was increasingly neglected by her stepmother, who became a drug addict and lay in bed most of the day. When Beatrice started school, she would arrive unkempt and usually late.
Despite these circumstances, Beatrice didn't have an unhappy childhood in other respects: she enjoyed her freedom even though it stemmed from neglect, and she had happy times with her father. She sometimes accompanied him on house calls in the evenings, passing groups of miners singing on the streets. He also took her along when he socialized with friends, where she was frequently the only child, silent in the midst of adult conversation. Thus Beatrice developed habits of observation and reflection that made her an excellent storyteller. As Levertov wrote, "The music and the stars must have been mysteriously connected for the little girl, out and about when the other children of the village had been put to bed." They later became connected for Denise, too, as she listened to her mother reminisce.
When Beatrice was ten, her stepmother died and she and her father went to live in an apartment above his office in nearby Methyr, where his coachman's wife cooked for them and looked after Beatrice. When Beatrice was twelve, her father-still in his early thirties-passed away, another stunning blow. Now an orphan, Beatrice was taken to live in Holywell, Flintshire, where her maternal aunt Elisabeth (Bess) was the wife of a Congregational minister, the Reverend David Oliver. They were older and poorer than some of the other relatives, but they were more willing to take in a girl reputed to have "7 devils," meaning that she "had opinions and a certain adventurousness." Holywell was a big change for Beatrice: "Neglect and freedom were replaced by strict care and many duties, in a household from which most of the older children had gone ... but in which her two youngest cousins were close to her own age." Eventually the cousins went to a special boarding school for clergy daughters, while Beatrice had to settle for the local high school. Now the only child at home, she had to do domestic tasks alone. She "felt like a 'poor relation'" and resented it.
Beatrice was fortunate to have teachers in high school who recognized her ability and encouraged her love of history and English literature. She wanted to go to university, but lacked money, so she became a "pupil teacher" and earned a teaching certificate. In these years in high school and teacher training, Beatrice "developed her beautiful singing voice," read widely, and drew and painted. She loved Mount Snow don, "with its sheep-cropped grass and tiny flowers" and "the sound of the distant sea you could hear in a clump of pines if you closed your eyes." She also enjoyed the people of Holywell, whose eccentric behavior she described later in tales that she would perform, imitating their speech and manners in a comical way. Levertov persuaded her to record these tales and tried unsuccessfully to interest a publisher.
In 1904 and 1905, when she was around twenty, Beatrice was influenced by the religious revival. "People began to cry that something had to be done about the lost" who attended services but then left "without hearing an invitation ... to repent and believe." All over Wales there arose congregations longing for revival, led by charismatic preachers who imparted new energy and vision. Young people were very much part of the excitement, which now included women as well as men. Before long, the "twin principles of worshipping and obeying the Spirit gave dynamic force to meetings held in every village chapel and town hall." Seized by this fervor, Beatrice, like her husband, experienced a spiritual revolution early in life. Although its form of expression changed, it was an authentically deep experience and provided the foundation of an enduring faith she and Paul would later share.
When she finished teacher training, Beatrice wanted to go to Paris as a governess, but Reverend Oliver, her guardian, thought it a "sinful and dangerous place" for a respectable young woman. He consented when she applied for a teaching post at the Scottish Church School for Girls in Constantinople, however, because of its church auspices. Just before Beatrice left on this adventure, an old washerwoman expressed the sentiments of others in her small community when she cried, "Oh Miss Jones, I do admire your bravety!" The sights and experiences of that journey through the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1909 remained with Beatrice for life, Levertov remembered, and when her mother described "the handsome, Serbian or Albanian, mustachioed young men in full ethnic regalia she had glimpsed," her father got "quite jealous," decades later.
Beatrice interrupted the long train journey in Budapest, where she was met by representatives of the Scottish Church who escorted her to their home-in-exile to spend the night in a flat on an upper story of a local building. In her vignette about that stay, called "A Dumbshow," Levertov conveys her mother's characteristic curiosity and imagination, which were, in addition to courage and pragmatism, key elements of her personality. When Beatrice awoke in Budapest early in the morning, "she raised the unfamiliar Venetian blinds ... and looked forth into the summer morning from her lofty window." She was amused to see a maid on one of the balconies below, hanging out feather beds and a pillow on the balustrade, something simply not done in the British Isles, lest the neighbors suspect fleas. Beatrice enjoyed the exoticness of this custom and the feeling of being far from home.
When she arrived in Constantinople in 1910, Beatrice had to acclimate herself to the awkward situation of being an unveiled woman there. The western European teachers could not walk alone in the streets but walked in twos, and even then they were exposed to rude remarks and pinches on their upper arms, so that they would sometimes return black-and-blue from a shopping or sightseeing trip. Beatrice had signed a five-year contract with the school, but after just a few days there, she met Paul, who had arrived in Constantinople for a lecture series. All the church-related groups were eager to hear this young converted Jew from Russia who was reputed to be an excellent speaker, and he was entertained by the head of Beatrice's school. Thus Paul and Beatrice met and fell in love, and he remained in Constantinople and courted her over the next few months. He proposed, and she accepted, but there was consternation at the school both on the part of the administration, who were understandably angry, and the students, some of whom "wept at her departure."
Beatrice and Paul wanted to marry in Britain amid a gathering of her relatives, but to travel alone together would have been scandalous, so a teacher returning home to Germany agreed to chaperone them. Their route differed from the one Beatrice had taken on the way to Constantinople. They traveled by boat to Piraeus, then along the coast of what is now Croatia, and then to Venice. On the boat was a large party of wealthy Roma, who, in their "gorgeous embroidered clothing" and gold jewelry, "flashed about the deck like birds of paradise." One of them, the elderly "Gypsy King," was very sick, but he could not make his needs known to the captain because of a language barrier. Fortunately, Paul, who spoke both languages, intervened on his behalf. The invalid received what he required, and when the ship docked, the leader of the whole group-"tall, moustachioed, jacket aglitter with silver braid"-made Paul and Beatrice a promise that became family legend. He said that "because of their help on this voyage, gypsies anywhere ... would be grateful ... : it would be necessary only to describe the event, and any Romany would be at their service." Beatrice took this promise seriously.
After traveling through Germany, Paul and Beatrice arrived in Wales. Paul was duly introduced to Aunt Bess and Uncle David Oliver, but Beatrice thought Paul was not adequately appreciated because he was a foreigner, without family or secure income. So Beatrice went to Liverpool to stay with her cousins, the Barkers, during the customary time between engagement and wedding, while Paul went to London to undertake some paid scholarly work. According to a family story, the wedding did not take place on the original date, because Paul lost some of the money with which they were to embark on married life. How this occurred was vague, but the version Denise loved, probably apocryphal, is that "Daddy was gleefully counting his well-earned payment while crossing London Bridge, and the wind blew it up and tore it away!" Another version, which she felt was more likely-because he was "a lifelong magnet to schnorrers (freeloaders)"-was that he gave the money away. While he was in London, Paul sent Beatrice a love letter in Welsh, which greatly impressed her relatives. "He had found the words by correlating passages in the Welsh Bible and patching them into sentences."
Paul and Beatrice were finally married in England, on March 1, 1911, by another of Beatrice's cousins, a nonconformist minister, who performed the ceremony at his church. The reception was held at his home. The next morning they left for Warsaw, where Paul had a job lined up with a missionary society. The start of their honeymoon engendered another family legend. In the hotel, hours after the wedding, Beatrice wondered if she had married a madman, as Paul "started to rush frantically around the room exclaiming, 'Where's the, where's the, where's the ... ' He had mislaid the key to his briefcase with the money, tickets, passports and everything in it." That phrase-"Where's the, where's the"-passed into family idiom, and Denise and Olga would exclaim it to express utter exasperation.
Warsaw in 1911 was very sophisticated, and though under Russian rule, resembled Paris. Beatrice was impressed by the stylish Lajenki Allée-equivalent to the Champs Élysées-with its glittering shops, smart carriages, beautifully dressed people, and elegant cafés. Amused by the Polish language because it seemed all consonants, she asked Paul to teach her Russian. He told her to repeat after him, Llubyu, lyublyu, dorogoi moi, which she did enthusiastically, and when a passerby beamed broadly, Paul confessed that the words meant, "I love you, I love you, my darling." That she returned the embrace of this new world is evident in the signature in her 1911 diary, "Beatrissa Pavlovna Levertoff." (She also called her husband "Pavel," his Russian name.) One vivid memory was of a Sunday walk in the outskirts of the city, where Beatrice and Paul saw "a long line of Russian conscript soldiers-peasants-being marched back to barracks from the Russian Orthodox Church," who sang "marvelously" as they walked. In the late poem "Representations," Levertov fondly recalls this story of her mother's. She pictures "the bride from a distant country" watching these singing Russian soldiers and feeling nostalgia for Wales, where one would hear "the dance of voices" of "the colliers practicing for an Eisteddfod, twilights of summer."
Warsaw was also an important book publishing center, and it is probably in that connection that Beatrice accompanied Paul on a visit to the home of "Zeitlin," whom she describes as a "great man." This was probably William Zeitlin, the Russian scholar and bibliographer, author of Bibliotheca Hebraica Post-Mendelsshnonia. Beatrice was dismayed by the disarray of Zeitlin's home and by his unkempt appearance, but she enjoyed following the subtleties of his conversation with Paul about Hasidic and Kabbalistic literature. She was especially pleased that Zeitlin had "not only read Pavel's books" but alluded to them in his work. In a later newspaper article, Paul mentioned having also been welcomed into the home of "the late Shalom Aleikem, the Jewish Dickens," and that "[Joseph] Brenner, the famous Hebrew novelist," had favorably reviewed his life of Christ.
There were also other trips to spread the word in the surrounding area and abroad. On one memorable occasion in 1911, Beatrice accompanied Paul on a monthlong journey to Scandinavia and Germany. The trip's purpose was the International Jewish Missionary Conference held in Stockholm from June 9 through 11, but they stayed on to sightsee in other parts of Sweden and then traveled to Copenhagen and Berlin before returning home to Warsaw.
When Beatrice and Paul arrived in Stockholm, they went immediately to the conference location to socialize with other delegates. Beatrice attended several of the learned sessions at the conference, sketching some of the participants in her diary and commenting on their papers. (She was a talented amateur artist who later researched, wrote, painted, and published a foldout panorama of first-century Jerusalem.) She was delighted with the men's choir, with the many languages spoken, and with the warm reception given to her husband's work. Indeed, Professor Hermann L. Strack, one of the most distinguished attendees, confirmed her sense of Paul's success among his colleagues. In the conference proceedings, Strack praised the work done recently "in the presentation of the life of our Lord to the Jews by Loewen, Levertoff, and Landsman," mentioning also "Levertoff's St. Paul: His Life, Works and Travels, 1907 (in modern Hebrew)."
Considering his strong reputation, it is not surprising that Paul soon obtained a post more suited to his scholarly abilities. As Quiñónez writes,"He was appointed to the position of teacher of Hebrew and Rabbinics with the Institutum Judaicum Delitzschianum, a postgraduate institute for Jewish missions founded by Franz Delitzsh in Leipzig, Germany." The institute's director publicized that Levertoff was relocating from Warsaw to Leipzig on April 1, 1912, to replace another distinguished Maskil, of Romanian Hasidic descent. Between 1912 and 1917, Paul taught a variety of courses, including ones on the Yiddish language, on the New Testament in Hebrew, and on various books of the Tanach based on traditional rabbinical commentaries.
Paul Levertoff flourished in his new job and the couple were very happy together. Their lives were soon filled with additional joy when Beatrice gave birth to their first child-a daughter, Philippa-on October 4, 1912. Denise remembered being told that Philippa was "a beautiful brown skinned baby," and she added perceptively, "Two orphans had now founded a new family." Then, when only six months old, Philippa became ill. She died within days, on April 9, 1913. Beatrice recorded her burial in her diary as follows: "Little body laid in the 'Kindergarten' April 12. We went up there to see it 13th ... the record of a short, but Oh! so lovely little life. The victim of ignorance, for which God has forgiven but for which we can[not] forget or forgive ourselves till we see her again. Our darling!"
This death would have distressed anyone, but because Beatrice and Paul had no close family, it was especially grievous. Levertov felt that her father was particularly depressed because he did not have the experience with death that her mother had acquired early, first in the mining village and then in Holywell, with its high incidence of infant mortality. "Paul became so run down in his depression that he lost all his teeth," she wrote. However, it was not only her early experience with death that made Beatrice the stronger of the two in some respects. Hers was also the more grounded personality. Now, as in the future, she was the one in the family who reassembled the pieces of their temporarily shattered lives.
Beatrice went to Wales to visit her relatives in October 1913 while Paul traveled in Russia and lectured on Hasidism, but by January 1914, she was back in Leipzig looking for a larger apartment because they were expecting another child. On May 22, 1914, when Olga Tatjana was born, their lives brightened. As Paul put it, writing in Beatrice's diary shortly after she gave birth: "Bubele Olga has come! Baby is a little darling and mother is a big one. Both are well." Her labor had been easy, Beatrice added, describing the baby as a "dear little funny mite." As was customary for people in their social position, the Levertoffs had domestic help-in this case, two maids, country girls called Big Martha and Little Martha. Both were caring, but Big Martha was especially so, and she became Beatrice's best friend in these years.
Although a general declaration of war did not occur until August, after the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand, on June 28, 1914, the political situation in central Europe was becoming very unstable. Writing from Austria, where he was lecturing at a World Student Christian Federation meeting, Paul misses his family and expresses trepidation. He's afraid that if war breaks out, international students at the meeting won't get out, and he assures Beatrice that he'll be home soon. When World War I did begin, Paul and Beatrice, as Russian and British citizens respectively, could have been interned in a civilian prisoner-of-war camp, as were many other foreign nationals, but the University of Leipzig arranged for Paul to continue teaching. Thus they were permitted to remain in their apartment. They could not leave Leipzig, however, and had to report to the police weekly. Once, Paul "threw a German sergeant down the stairs because he had come to the door with insults and threats." During the war, it became increasingly difficult to buy food, especially for "enemy aliens," who were resented by many people. "Paul used to take Olga on long walks into the countryside to see if they could scrounge up a bit of milk or some eggs for her." Little Martha returned home, but Big Martha refused to leave them, and she and Beatrice made meals with whatever was available, but by the time of the armistice they were almost starving. To make matters worse, people shunned them or said nasty things, so little Olga had few playmates.
Despite these hardships, Paul managed to continue to write and publish, in German now as well as in Hebrew. According to a later essay by Olga, the University of Leipzig commissioned him to write three books. While the first of these texts is extant only in manuscript form, and the second was not undertaken, the last was published, and in 1923 Paul made a shorter, English adaptation of it, Love and the Messianic Age. An attempt to explore the similarities between Hasidic and New Testament theology, this book was pioneering from a comparative religion perspective. According to family legend, the great Jewish theologian Martin Buber was influenced by Paul's original German edition.
When the war ended, the "emaciated and impoverished trio" found a way to return to Wales via Denmark. But they were not so badly off as many others. On their way, in Berlin, they were shocked to see crowds of starving people pressed outside a restaurant window where they ate. To prepare for the ferry boat to Denmark, where everyone was searched, Beatrice sewed their valuables into Olga's undervest. She was terrified that Olga would reveal this hiding place to the guard, but the woman empathized with "the child's serious, innocent look and ... motioned them on." When they arrived in Denmark their distress abated. They were fed, housed, and clothed by a philanthropist, Mr. Plöm, and also by the Bernadotte family. Princess Bernadotte was charmed with little Olga and gave her a colorful embroidered vest, which Denise later wore, too.
The fact that they had spent the war years in Germany, not in an internment camp, and that Paul was a Russian citizen-Russia was in the midst of a revolution-made the British authorities cautious about readmitting them into England. When they did return, they stayed with Beatrice's cousins until, in 1919, Paul was appointed subwarden of Saint Deniol's Library, where he served until 1922. The library, where he also resided, was in a mansion in Hawarden Park. It held a distinguished theological collection, which attracted researchers from all over the empire with whom Paul interacted. Unfortunately there was no accommodation there for Beatrice and Olga, so they lived in lodgings nearby. Beatrice disliked this separation, but she and Olga loved Hawarden Park, where they frequently spent their days.
In 1922, while at Saint Deniol's Library, Paul was ordained by the archbishop of Wales to the ministry of the Church of England. Paul missed family life and was unsatisfied with a purely academic post so, in 1923, he accepted the positions of director of the East London Fund for the Jews and vicar of Holy Trinity Church, in Shoreditch. The church lacked a vicarage, so the family rented a house in Ilford, a twenty-five-minute train ride away. While in this position, Paul edited Holy Trinity's quarterly journal, The Church and the Jews, which featured essays by him and other scholars and often included pieces by Beatrice and Olga. As spiritual leader of Holy Trinity, he tried to realize his goal of having a Hebrew Christian church where Jewish believers in Jesus could worship comfortably. Expediently, he wrote his own Hebrew liturgy, Meal of the Holy King, which included music based on old synagogue chants, and he customarily dressed as a Jew and read from a Torah scroll. Later Levertoff also conducted his Hebrew liturgy on Saturday mornings at Saint George's Church in Bloomsbury. This persona, "Rabbi and Priest in one," attracted the attention even of those "used to surprises."
The Church of England hierarchy, although not crude proselytizers, assumed that as a converted Jew, Paul would want to work in a Jewish neighborhood. Shoreditch was solidly Jewish working class. It had been a Dickensian slum until the 1880s, when the philanthropist Baroness Burdett-Coutts, an early slum-clearance activist, began building large blocks of flats that had plumbing and windows. These buildings in London became occupied, not by the original slum dwellers, but by a wave of respectable Jewish workers who had fled from pogroms in Eastern Europe. Holy Trinity, the church in their midst, had been built as a settlement house and homeless shelter during the district's slum days. In addition to the chapel, it had large meeting rooms, but, its original purpose lost, it lacked parishioners. People did start to attend Paul's Saturday morning services, but they were English and European intellectuals from around the city, not people from Shoreditch. Hans Herzl, a Christian convert and the troubled son of Zionist leader Theodor Herzl, was an occasional congregant; he was also a family friend who especially loved Denise, then a small child.
Paul's salary was paid by a church organization, but unlike other churches in England, Holy Trinity had no endowment. To supplement his income, on Sundays Paul was often a guest preacher at other churches in the area. He frequented the Jewish bookstores, where he participated in religious and philosophical discussions, and he was a member of various scholarly groups, like the Society for the Study of Religions, the Aristotelian Society, and the League of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius, becoming well known as a preacher and scholar. By 1933, with Harry Sperling and Maurice Simon, he had helped to translate the Zohar into English for the first time for Soncino Press. He was also known as an excellent debater. A debate with Mr. Meyers of The Jewish Times, on "Christianity vs. Judaism,"drew a crowd of four thousand people to the Jewish theater in Whitechapel, he reported in 1925. Yet Levertov felt that the Church of England never appreciated her father. "The majority of clergy had standard upper class backgrounds, with Public School, then Oxford or Cambridge, educations-and were really quite insular." Paul would have been more suited to a German academic setting. Of course, had they stayed in Germany, he would have perished in a concentration camp.
Denise's sense that the Anglican clergy were bemused by Paul Levertoff is correct, as we find in the correspondence around the decision to award him an honorary Lambeth Doctorate of Theology, a process initiated by Beatrice, his loyal, enterprising wife. In 1929, she wrote a confidential letter to the archbishop of Canterbury, reviewing her husband's education, distinguished publications, and thirty years of service, which had had an international impact. Finally, with typical humor and self-deprecation, she engaged in some special pleading: "To come to the yolk of the egg, may I, as this man's wife, beg your Grace to show him a sign of your approval of his activities now, and in the past, and confer on him the degree of Doctor of Divinity? ... It would mean an enormous lot to him that the Jews should realize that the Church recognizes his work."
Paul could not have had a more charming advocate, albeit an unusual one. This was noted in the exchange of letters that followed. All agree that Paul Levertoff's distinguished career merits this honor. Despite their respect, however, some of these colleagues don't understand him fully, including the bishop of Truro, a personal friend. As he writes in a letter to the archbishop of Canterbury, in which he also jokes about Beatrice's unusual petition, which had caused some consternation:
I know Mr. Levertoff very well and I have a great opinion of him as a scholar and as a person. He lived with us ... sometime at Mirfield and it was from there that we recommended him for Ordination in the rather exceptional circumstances arising out of his life and previous history. As to his learning there is no question about that... . [His is] not perhaps a very balanced mind but an extraordinarily receptive one; his capacity for putting forth his learning is shown by the fact that he has written leading books in Hebrew, Russian, German, and English. Besides that he is a modest, humble, and very zealous Christian Priest. I know Mrs. Levertoff too and perhaps the explanation is that she is Welsh! And we all know the capacity for flowery testimonials.
This bemusement did not prevent Paul from being awarded the honorary degree on January 10, 1930, in Lambeth Palace Library.
Soon after the family moved to Ilford, Denise was born. In Beatrice's diary of this period, "The Boffin Book," big sister Olga, already given to dramatizing her feelings, has the first words. She bemoans the terribly long time she has had to go without a little sibling; so long, she had "quite given up hope ... when Mother nearly made [her] faint, by telling [her] that in the Autumn she would have a little brother or sister." Together they talked about and planned for the coming baby. Then "you came! The dearest, puzliest [sic] ... treasure of a darling girl-babe, that ever came to dwell on this earth!" Olga continues, ecstatically, "Sometimes, at first, I would wake in the morning and think I had dreamed about having a little Boffin with deep, brown eyes, but soon I would be reassured, and I'm sure no other big sister could be half so proud as I was, when I was allowed to hug you, or, (rare delight!) to hold you, my own, darling little Boffintoff!"
Olga's effusions were followed by Beatrice's. She reports that "Buble Boffin" arrived "quite suddenly" on the morning of October 24 at home, assisted by both a doctor and a nurse. As soon as they heard Boffin cry, "Father Toff" and a visiting neighbor "gripped each other and danced on the landing." The birth's timing was perfect, because Father had to lecture in London that day and was grateful that she arrived safely before he went. Beatrice continues in this excited manner, detailing the baby's growth during the first months of breastfeeding until, when a year had passed, she had listed each new event of Denise's infancy. Among the high points were "her first words, at six months," which were "Gogga," meaning Olga, and "Dadda." Also, besides noting the baby's "health, beauty, and intelligence," Beatrice comments that the baby especially loves her two dolls, whom she "hugs, kisses, feeds ... and chatters [with]." By year's end, she has "a vocabulary of about thirty words" and understands many more.
The family moved from Lenox Gardens to 5 Mansfield Road in July, when Denise was almost nine months old. In a later essay, she remembers how proud her parents were to own this "substantial five-bedroom double-fronted brick 'semi-detached' house" where she grew up and where her parents lived until her father's death in 1954. Their house was like the others architecturally, but it was furnished differently: its large front windows had no curtains, so passersby could look in. They could see "bookshelves in every room, while in the bay window of her father's upstairs study was an almost life-size stone statue representing Jesus preaching," which gave them pause. Downstairs, in the large drawing room, with bay windows looking onto the front garden, someone was always "reading or writing, practicing the piano, drawing, listening to the radio." Her mother's front garden was never "prim," like some others on the street, but suggested "a foreign opulence," especially when the California poppies were in bloom.
It was soon clear that, like Olga, Denise was a child prodigy. She wrote, danced, and drew well and took these gifts seriously. At age twelve, without telling anyone, Denise sent T.S. Eliot some poems and received an encouraging letter of advice in response. (Eliot was acquainted with Denise's father, with whom he had served on a committee.) In "The Boffin Book," Beatrice records several important features of Denise's childhood personality that prepare us for her future development. From the beginning, there is a playful duality regarding her name. At eighteen months, when asked, "Where is Priscilla?" she answers "here," and pats her face, but on being asked, "Where is Denise?" she says "here," and pats her knees, on which she likes to perch while riding in her pram. Already at that early age, she is extraordinarily imaginative. Her proud mother muses that she never knew "so young a child make-believe so." Denise's attachment to Olga is also evident from the beginning. When Denise is barely two, Beatrice finds the two of them playing duets on the piano. When Olga plays hymns, Baby brings her chair and plays on the treble. She sits beside Olga, "counting as they play, 1,2,3,4, come on!"
Denise is also expressive in her own right. Beatrice notes that "she makes such dear little faces as she explains things, her head on one side and a little blink of the pretty dark eyes." In an early photo, we see a plump, round-faced tot in a shoulder-cape coat and large hair bow. Her gaze is determined and she clutches a sheet of paper in one hand, ready to perform. At the age of two, she can recite whole nursery rhymes from memory and loves to play school and other games with Olga, who has decided not to return to boarding school. In fact, it is Olga who records, before Denise's third birthday, that Denise likes to make rhymes of her own. Upon seeing Denise toddle over to their maid, Amy, and say, "Pamie / I camie," Olga comments proudly, "Sprouting poets round Ilford way!" Before long, Denise is scribbling all over everything, Beatrice notes, and though only two, she likes to joke.
The phrase "the terrible twos" is inadequate to describe the first expressions of Denise's strong will; both Beatrice and Olga note instances of it. On the day after Denise's second birthday, Beatrice writes that she is "obstinate and ... disobedient now." She orders her Mama and Daddy away in high dudgeon and refuses to stop. The more she is told not to say something, the more she does; "even if smacked she will go on saying it through her sobs!!" At the same time, her forgiving mother insists, "she is the sweetest ... most loveable of Babies that anyone can imagine, and ever so cuddly." She hugs and kisses one with "such zest." These qualities of willful determination, passion, and warmth are personality traits that endure and develop. In fact, "fierce" is the adjective her friends most frequently used when I asked them in interviews to describe the mature Denise. They usually meant that she was an energetic fighter for people, causes, and beliefs. Frequently, even in childhood, this intensity caused problems, like the prepubescent quarrel with her dear friend Jean Rankin, discussed in chapter 14. In adulthood, there were often bitter arguments and hurt feelings even with people she loved, usually followed by loving rapprochement.
Denise's love of books, animals, clothes, the park, and the Holy Family is also evident very early. As a child, Denise slept in her mother's bedroom. When Beatrice read aloud to her before bedtime, Denise would squeal appreciatively at a particularly well-turned phrase. She loved both the family kitten, whom she sang to, and her little dog, Gamzu, a Mischling (mixed-blood) terrier pup acquired when Denise was four. In fact, Denise identified with her puppy and encouraged him to be mischievous. She began growling at family members with whom she was angry. (Levertov would write many amusing animal poems.) An attractive woman herself, Beatrice made beautiful clothes for her little daughter-pinafores in summer and an amethyst, velvet party outfit trimmed in fur for winter-and Denise liked to dress up in Olga's hat, climbing on her tiptoes to admire herself in the mirror. Her mother took her on frequent walks in Valentines Park, and all the park habitués knew her. She came to love the park keeper, whom she called "Peekiepark," and would run to him and clasp his legs.
Denise was also entranced with imagery associated with the Holy Family. Christmas was and would remain Denise's favorite holiday, and Beatrice recorded a conversation in which, at age three, Denise shows how personal the holiday was for her. "Will I ever see Jesus?" she wonders. After Beatrice assures her that she will, Denise asks eagerly, "Would Jesus take me to see Mary?" and Beatrice reassures her once more. Then, after a pause, Denise asks again, with characteristic aplomb, "Do you think I'd like her?"
There is no question that Denise was tenderly nurtured, both by her mother and by Olga; she had, in many ways, the ideal education for a poet, with a strong emphasis on all of the arts and on performance. Denise began dancing classes at age three, and at age four she shone in a dance recital at the Ilford town hall. Also at age four, she started French lessons and "operatics," a form of ballet practice then fashionable. Private piano lessons were added at age six. So much were music and dance beloved by seven-year-old Denise that, on many afternoons, she and her next-door neighbor, Margaret Courtwell, would hold private dance recitals in the Courtwells' drawing room. One would take a turn on the player piano, while the other improvised a story in dance, leaping and whirling. As Levertov would write later, there was "no definite story" in these dances, but for her there was "a drama of unspecified Loss, Discovery, Flight, Sehnsucht, ecstatic Joy, Danger." There was "the sweeping passage of grand emotion" that she would recognize a few years later when, at ten, she first saw "Salvator Rosa's dark landscapes." This penchant for emotional transformation and for synesthesia, the perception of one sense modality in terms of another, became important features of Levertov's later poetics.
By age seven, Denise had mastered reading, and she astonished her father when she was able to read, alone, Swartzwald Nina, a book he brought for her from Stuttgart. That year she began elocution lessons and started to participate in plays and dialogues. At home with her mother every morning, at a drawing room table, she also undertook lessons that emphasized history, literature, and studio art. Beatrice was very proud to report that, at age nine, Denise won the essay competition for nine- to eleven-year-olds at Ilford Library. That year she began to study drawing with Edith Taylor, a professional artist.
The whole family were avid readers and had a large home library. Thus, Denise could quickly move beyond children's books to "grown-ups' fare from Dickens to Tolstoy." When she outgrew the family library, she turned to the public one, sometimes purloining adult tickets to take out extra books. Denise befriended Miss Farmery, the children's librarian, who saved the "nicest new acquisitions" for her next visit. She fondly remembers her mother reading aloud in the evenings to the family, mostly nineteenth-century fiction and a few favorite poems. With dramatic flair and Welsh fervor, Beatrice would also occasionally declaim Thomas Gray's "Ruin seize thee, ruthless King! / Confusion on thy banners wait," while energetically dusting. Paul Levertoff was the only family member who didn't use the public library, for though he loved to hear his wife read aloud, his own research interests required more specialized resources.
Sometimes Olga would read aloud a poem of her own to Denise, but poetry was something Denise mostly discovered for herself. She started by reading R.L. Stevenson's classic A Child's Garden of Verses and the fairy poems of Rose Fyleman. Then came Palgrave's "Golden Treasury," Tennyson, Walter de la Mare, and soon Keats, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, followed by the "Georgian" poets, Norman Ault's anthology of Elizabethan lyrics, some of George Herbert, and "anthologies by Walter de la Mare and Mark Van Doren." As a child, Denise attended church every Sunday with her family, as well as catechism classes. Thus, she absorbed the rhythms and language of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. By age twelve, thanks to Olga, she was also reading contemporary British poetry-Auden, MacNeice, Day Lewis, and Eliot-then innovative poets. She did not give up one poet or period for another, but "went on enjoying the mannered eighteenth century in Thompson or Cowper, or the lush romance of the pre-Raphaelites, or poets of the recent past like Robert Bridges or Edward Thomas, concurrently with what was avant-garde." With rare exception, this catholicity of taste would continue into Denise's adulthood. She read, taught, and championed various kinds of contemporary poetry.
Denise began to speak poems as a toddler; she would dictate them to Olga, who would write them down. For a long time, Denise kept in her possession one such effort, a "rambling account of a visit to fairyland, with detailed description of the fairies' wings and clothes. Fairyland was entered by way of a hollow tree." Among her personal papers are two undated stories, "The Fairy in the Moonlight" and "The Treasure Cave," by "Denny Levertoff." They look like the work of a child who has just learned to write cursively. Probably a little later, around 1933, Denise-under the nom de plume "Tittles"-drew a comic strip, complete with text and illustrations, titled "The Tale of Titicaca and Blenkins of Gnufe: Their Habits and Adventures." In a notebook dated 1935, there are three chapters of a novel about an eleven-year-old girl, Christina, and her friend, Russell, who is twelve. (Levertov's poem "A Tree Telling of Orpheus" would later be accompanied by drawings.) This notebook of juvenilia also contains notes on "The Language of Flowers" and a sonnet.
In addition to encouraging Denise's creative writing, Beatrice taught her to enjoy historical research and to think critically from a writer's perspective. A typical "exercise" was to note the way a writer solved the problems his or her book presented, and Denise was also asked what she learned from reading any given book. Accordingly, one of Levertov's exercise books from 1936 contains a history of Wanstead Park and Wanstead Manor, as well as Denise's comments on how Chaucer's Canterbury Tales differs from the work of his predecessors. In addition to containing her own fledgling stories and drawings, Levertov's 1938 "Journal of Reading" is very discriminating about the books she has read, whether they are by contemporary authors or "classics." She judges Kate O'Brien's Mary Lavelle "enjoyable" but not "first rate"; Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall better than expected. The latter's main fault, she thinks, is a lack of humor, and she finds this also true of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda.
The books Denise wanted to read or own also reflected Olga's influence: Denise would like to have Cyril Baumont's Complete Book of Ballets and Design for the Ballet, the score of Clementi's Sonatinas, the Collected Poems of Robert Bridges, Gerstle Mack's biography of Cezanne, and Tolstoy's War and Peace. In fact, Olga could be a demanding taskmaster. She was convinced her little sister had the talent to be a ballerina and would drill her extensively, preparing her to take ballet examinations. Denise remembered one summer vacation, on the beach at Clacton, when Olga's obsession with ballet practice became excessive. While Beatrice sat on the sand, reading and gazing out to sea, Olga "made up enchainments and urged [Denise] beyond [her] natural capacities and inclinations," to the point where strangers watching became concerned for her welfare. But although she became tearful at times when Olga scolded, Denise actually enjoyed this "release of animal spirits." One evening at sunset, alone on the beach, she "glided ... twirled ... invented steps and used [her] whole seven-year-old body to be at one with the luminous and now fading sky, the soft air, the farewelling of the waves." These private dancing lessons enabled Denise "to express the ecstasy she felt," and she was grateful to her older sister for the discipline they provided.
Although she was gifted in several of the arts and attentive to her younger sister, Olga did not always have a positive influence upon Denise. Olga was her father's favorite, and her emotional tie with him had negative as well as positive repercussions. Perhaps because her birth followed the death of little Philippa, Olga spent an unusual amount of time with Paul, whose health had suffered from the bereavement. Beatrice felt that, as soon as she could talk, Olga was a "healing companion" for him; thus Paul often took Olga, a plump, pretty toddler "with dark curls and golden brown eyes" outside to play while Beatrice did domestic chores inside. Having spent most of her time in her parents' company while they lived in Germany, Olga was very shy and timid with strangers, but she blossomed in England and became extroverted and charismatic. Intellectually precocious, she learned to read at age four, and at age eight she had a poem, sent by her father, published in The Quest, an English magazine. When the family settled in Ilford, she started music lessons and was found to be gifted. At about this time, Olga wrote a poem to the Russian ballerina Pavlova, which she sent to her. This gesture "so enchanted Pavlova that she sent ... an invitation to come and see her in her dressing room." When Paul took Olga backstage, he conversed with the ballerina in Russian, and Pavlova expressed the wish that someday Olga would join her ballet company. This experience ignited Olga's imagination, Denise remembered, and Olga always wished she could have been a dancer, but she started too late and did not have "the right build." Paul was interested in ecumenical action, and admiring the work of the nuns of the order of Our Lady of Zion, he and Beatrice sent Olga, at age ten, to their convent school. After less than a year, Olga came home with a bad case of tonsillitis and never returned to the convent. Her parents felt that the school wasn't academically strong enough and had a "rather overwrought religious atmosphere."
After she came home, her parents discovered that Olga was secretly going down to the Catholic church to talk to the old priest. They were upset, not because the church was Catholic, but because "she lied about it and even more because they felt ... that the old priest was dishonorable in conniving with a child ... and not talking to her parents." Olga's secrecy and lying continued. At age sixteen, with parental permission, she joined a touring theatrical company and got a small role in Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan, but at the same time she joined a sleazy company as a chorus girl, concealing this from her parents. She also started violin lessons with a famous teacher and won a scholarship for voice study, but she lied about her lessons, pretending she attended while she was elsewhere. The cause of this duplicitous behavior was unclear. It could have reflected the growing pains of an experimenting young woman who felt constrained by her old-fashioned parents, or it could have signaled a serious emotional problem that today would merit professional attention. Much later, after reading about the symptoms of schizophrenia, Denise postulated that Olga may have suffered from this disease, but no one at the time suggested treatment.
In any case, Beatrice and Paul concealed from Denise their worry about Olga, and for a long time, they denied their fear for her even to themselves. Much later, after Olga's death, Beatrice, then old and living in Mexico, told Denise of an encounter with a "gypsy" woman who foretold a future of suffering for Olga when she was only fifteen. The family was on holiday in Wales when this occurred, and Beatrice, always attentive to the Roma after the earlier experience with the "Gypsy King," responded to this woman's offer to tell her fortune. She proceeded in a predictable way at first, but when she saw Olga, her tone and manner changed.
After a "startled pause," she drew a deep breath and began to prophesy in a low, hoarse voice, speaking penetratingly and "turbulently fast." Her "hold on [Beatrices's] hand tightened, she looked through her, not at her, as she told of many troubles that were coming," both to Olga and, through her, to her parents. When the flow of speech ended, the gypsy dropped Beatrice's hand and looked at her pityingly. Beatrice had believed in second sight since her childhood and she was terrified by this prediction, but she did not share her fear with her husband or with Olga. She tried to convince herself that the gypsy's warning was "nonsense and superstition" even when Olga's life grew more turbulent.
This did not happen for several years, and in the meantime, Olga remained her father's favorite. Perhaps her greatest youthful accomplishment in the arts was the organization, at age seventeen, of an amateur dramatic company that mounted in Ilford a successful production of Franz Werfel's play Paul Among the Jews, translated by Paul Levertoff. (The play had previously been performed in London with a cast that included Laurence Olivier.) Two years later she gathered the same local actors and staged Turgenev's A Month in the Country, playing a major role herself. Again, her father translated the play because he did not think the existing version was accurate. Olga also worked as her father's amanuensis, and for a period, got very involved in his ideas, studying Greek and theology in order to better understand them. She even "gave a sermon, wearing borrowed cap and gown, at a church whose vicar had been dazzled by 'Dr. Levertoff's brilliant daughter.'" Denise could not help but be impressed by-and, at times, understandably envious of-all this attention given her older sister.