Variation on a Theme by Rilke
by Denise Levertov
A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me–a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day’s blow
rang out, metallic–or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.
Did anyone else finish “Variation on a Theme” with an urge to sing Ding dong ding dong ding? In my head the lovely Jean Simmons, her short locks loosened on her forehead and her Salvation Army uniform dangerously unbuttoned, has flung her arms around this poem, as unlikely an attachment as hers to Marlon Brando.
But wait, another artist has boarded this train of associations–illustrator N.C. Wyeth. The particular Wyeth painting the poem reminds me of is The Giant. Wyeth’s towering figure, seemingly grown out of the clouds, could be a visual version of the shape-shifting in Levertov’s poem.
Along with an atmospheric freshness of sky, air light, the poem and the painting share a Romantic delight in dramatic events, the sublime and mythology.
“Variation,” like ancient mythologies, hinges on personification. But Levertov brings to life a certain day, rather than a bigger and more general Day deity, and she allows her reader to witness the creation of this being as it grows into form. Later she disassembles her creation when she wonders if the awakening blow came not from a certain day, but from herself:
or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
The personified day that Levertov creates is clearly a superior being, one that resides in the sky and knights her with a sword,
honor and a task.
This ordaining gives her power. The poem ends with her unshakeable confidence that the task that has been set before her can be accomplished. Compare her mantra of I can with that of The Little Engine That Could. He barely gets himself up the hill with I think I can. Her bold and strong I can countenances no doubt. Does her assuredness come from beyond herself, or has it been there all along, needing only to be awakened?
Regardless, there’s a clear sense that the task for which she is commissioned is something difficult, something she previously didn’t think she could do. What separates this speaker from an athlete in a Nike commercial or anyone visualizing success in order to increase sales, run faster, plank longer, lose weight, parkour, stop smoking or swallow slugs is that the speakers’ unnamed task carries moral weight. She’s granted more than fearlessness and strength. She’s been given or has found courage.
This train of thought left me counting the number of times I’ve been called on to show courage. And whether I’ve responded I can or I can’t or Not now or Please don’t make me do that.
Which is a lot of boxcars to get me to the junction of this poem and the Underground Railroad.
Recently I took a walking tour of Detroit. Our group stopped at Hart Plaza on the Detroit River to look at “Gateway to Freedom,” a statue commemorating Detroit’s role in the Underground Railroad. The figures in the sculpture look across the river to Canada, where a sister statue, “Tower of Freedom,” has been erected.
Before the Civil War, six or seven different routes of the railroad funneled through Detroit, transporting somewhere between 40,000 to 100,000 slaves to Canada. Arriving in Detroit, fugitives (refugees might be a better word) hid in church cellars and barns. At night they took canoes to cross the river to Windsor.
Looking up at the statue, I thought about the moment a man or woman who had known only a life of slavery decided to walk thousands of miles on foot, traveling in the dark, knocking at strangers’ doors, crossing rivers, hiding from slave catchers, and risking hunger, drowning, capture and death. I’m in awe of the courage such a journey demanded of the travelers and those who assisted. Of all the poems in my backpack, “Variation on a Theme” called out the loudest for a place in the city that was the last stop to freedom.
Denise Levertov was born in a suburb of London in 1923 to politically active parents. Her mother was Welsh and her father was from a Russian Hassidic Jewish family. Levertov was homeschooled and she began writing early. From age five she had a strong sense of her destiny to be an artist, and when she was 12 she sent T.S. Eliot some of her poems. He responded with two pages of encouragement and advice.
During the London Blitz, she served as a civilian nurse. She married an American writer and eventually became an American citizen. She was poetry editor of The Nation and Mother Jones and taught at Stanford, among other universities.
Later in life she converted to Catholicism and became a political poet, speaking out against Vietnam War, nuclear arms, the U.S. involvement in El Salvador, and the Gulf War.
Levertov died in 1997 at age 75.
One last thing: can anyone help me with the title of this poem? What theme of Rilke’s is this a variation of?
As far as the title goes–and I’m not sure if I’m on the right track here–I was instantly reminded of Rilke’s poem stemming from his confrontation with a piece of sculpture damaged over time yet potent and powerful. Levertov is being challenged by the “day,” by something. I’m reminded of the challenge the sculptor Robin issued to Rilke, who felt his works were too light, too soft, to deepen and make them more muscular by going to the zoo and observing the real living beings and then writing about them. Levertov is challenged and then seems to grasp that it’s all along been within her to follow through and take it on. The torso that studies Rilke as Rilke studies it ignites something in him, issues an admonition that seems to come from the statue but one senses is at the same time springing from within him. Levertov says “can,” Rilke “must”, but to me they seem to achieve the same thing.
“Archaic Torso of Apollo”
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Stephen Mitchell
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Thank you for connecting these two poems, so interesting, and such a piece of luck that you have Rilke’s poem on hand (or in memory) to make the connection. I can see how both speakers create/re-create imposing figures who issue directives. Part of Levertov’s variation is that the challenge is given to her and she owns it (“I can”), while Rilke passes off the challenge to you (“You must change your life”). He’s speaking to himself, of course, but it’s an interesting switch of pronouns.
Indeed it is. Two very intriguing poems. I don’t know why the Rilke has stayed with me all these years. That final line is to me the zinger. Wow. I’m never not startled by it!
Ooops…I just re-read my comment about Levertov’s poem and see that I misspelled Rodin as Robin. Hmmm. Maybe a robin did play a part, after all. Who can say it didn’t?
I liked the poem Grass by Carl Sandburg. The poem discusses how grass works to cover up the caganre left by war. While it doesn’t seem like much, I don’t think I have ever stopped to realize this tiny detail. Even after gruesome battles such as Gettysburg and Verdun with thousands of men dying, the earth will just eventually cover it up by grass and will go back to as it once was before. It is because that it seems like the earth is back to normal that we do not forget fallen soldiers, if we don’t remember them who will?
Is this poem being said with 2 speakers I am so confused?
One speaker. Two presences: one is herself, the other is “a certain day” that she personifies as a presence, calling her to do something challenging. Are you writing a paper?
It’s the first poem in Rilke’s Book of Hours.
The hour is striking
Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Johanna Macy & Anita Barrows
The hour is striking so close above me,
so clear and sharp,
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there’s a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.
I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All my becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.
I think you are telling me that this poem, the first one in Book of Hours, is the “theme” to which the poem I posted is a variation on?
If so, thank you, how beautifully they work together.
I believe so, yes. And yes, they really do. This is not a very literal translation; this one is more literal:
Now the hour bows down, it touches me, throbs
metallic, lucid and bold:
my senses are trembling. I feel my own power —
on the plastic day I lay hold.
Until I perceived it, no thing was complete,
but waited, hushed, unfulfilled.
My vision is ripe, to each glance like a bride
comes softly the thing that was willed.
There is nothing too small, but my tenderness paints
it large on a background of gold,
and I prize it, not knowing whose soul at the sight,
released, may unfold . . .