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Variation on a Theme by Rilke
(The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem 4)
Denise Levertov
All these images (said the old monk,
closing the book) these inspired depictions,
are true. Yes—not one—Giotto’s,
Van Eyck’s, Rembrandt’s, Rouault’s,
how many others’—
not one is a fancy, a willed fiction,
each of them shows us exactly
the manifold countenance
of the Holy One, Blessed be He.
The seraph buttress flying
to support a cathedral’s external walls,
the shadowy ribs of the vaulted sanctuary:
aren’t both—and equally—
the form of a holy place?—whose windows’ ruby
and celestial sapphire can be seen
only from inside, but then
only when light enters from without?
From the divine twilight, neither dark nor day,
blossoms the morning. Each, at work in his art,
perceived his neighbor. Thus the Infinite
plays, and in grace
gives us clues to His mystery.
Corinna Laughlin's commentary
We met Denise Levertov earlier in this series, when we read her wonderful poem “Annunciation.” Levertov was a 20th-century master, born in England in 1923, who died in Seattle in 1997. Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to read three poems by Levertov for this series. These are all poems in which she responds to other works of art—both poems and the visual arts—in interesting ways.
In this poem, Levertov reacts to a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke—in fact, she is responding to Rilke’s poem “You, Neighbor God” we read last week.  As you’ll recall, Rilke’s poem, spoken in the voice of an old monk, questioned the images we make of the divine, which can stand like a wall between us and God—getting in our way when we try to connect with God. In this poem, Levertov responds to that concept.
As Levertov’s poem begins, the “old monk” closes a book, perhaps a book of images of Christ, and roundly declares—contradicting Rilke’s old monk!—that “all these images… these inspired depictions, are true.” Even more, “each of them shows us exactly / the manifold countenance / of the Holy One.” Far from distracting us or deflecting our attention from God, Levertov’s speaker says, these “true” images reveal to us “the manifold countenance” of God. God has one face, but it is “manifold”—so these contrasting images can all be said to be true. Giotto – Van Eyck – Rembrandt – Rouault – artists with such different visions, such different ways of seeing the world – all had something in common: they all depicted the true, though “manifold” image of God.
In the second part of the poem, Levertov distances herself still further from Rilke. She uses an extended metaphor here—the image of a cathedral. She speaks of the flying buttresses, the exterior supports which are such a prominent feature in some of the great Gothic cathedrals, and the ribs of the sanctuary—in other words, the exterior and the interior of the building—and she asks, aren’t both of these, equally, intrinsic to “the form of a holy place”? Without one or the other, the building cannot stand.
Where Rilke described a wall of framed images, Levertov describes stained glass windows. The flying buttresses of a Gothic cathedral developed to allow for ever-larger stained glass windows. You could even say they are at the service of the windows! Stained glass doesn’t look like much from the outside—it has to be viewed from within. And yet, the windows require light from the outside, in order to be seen. The light does not “glance off the frames like glare,” as Rilke described. Instead, it shines through, and brings the windows to life.
The stained glass windows of a great cathedral demand an interchange between outside and inside which, for Levertov, suggests the interchange between earth and heaven, human and God. Art is a way to glimpse God, and in fact a way to play a holy game with God: “Thus the Infinite plays, and in grace gives us clues to his Mystery.”
In 1999, Pope St. John Paul II wrote a letter to artists which resonates with Levertov’s response to Rilke and her faith in the power of art.
“Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of humanity and of the world. It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning…. In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God…. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colours, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.”





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