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Michael Hughes – 27/02/2008

“Caedmon” (Denise Levertov, 1987)

All others talked as if


talk were a dance.
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet
would break the gliding ring.
5 Early I learned to
hunch myself
close by the door:
then when talk began
I’d wipe my
10 mouth and wend
unnoticed back to the barn
to be with the warm beasts,
dumb among body sounds
of the simple ones.
15 I’d see by a twist
of lit rush the motes
of gold moving
from shadow to shadow
slow in the wake
20 of deep untroubled sighs.
The cows
munched or stirred or were still. I
was at home and lonely,
both in good measure. Until
25 the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing
my feeble beam,
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:
but the cows as before
were calm, and nothing was burning,
30 nothing but I, as that hand of fire
touched my lips and scorched my tongue
and pulled my voice
into the ring of the dance.

1
In his seminal work The Well Wrought Urn, Cleanth Brooks warns other critics of poetry
that
By taking the paraphrase as our point of stance, we misconceive the function of
metaphor and meter. We demand logical coherences where they are sometimes
irrelevant, and we fail frequently to see imaginative coherences on levels where
they are highly relevant.

[…]

The characteristic unity of a poem (even of those poems which may accidentally
possess a logical unity as well as this poetic unity) lies in the unification of
attitudes into a hierarchy subordinated to a total and governing attitude. In the
unified poem, the poet has “come to terms” with his experience.1

The following reading of Denise Levertov’s “Caedmon” will elucidate such “imaginative
coherences” in her metaphor and metre, and will demonstrate how, for the majority of the
poem, she unites conflicting attitudes in a far more liberal agreement than the “hierarchy”
suggested by Brooks. It will be suggested that Levertov’s “imaginative coherences” might
sometimes be better described as ‘logical incoherences’: To the extent that “Caedmon” can
be seen as a treatment of tensions between different poetic conventions (from the original,
medieval herdsman Caedmon’s “Hymn” to modernism),2 for a long time Levertov seems to
propose a tolerant alternative to modernism’s indifferent rejection of rigid metre. In ll.1-4,
for example, her use of different metres is largely equivocal (logically promoting an
indifferent attitude towards these conventions, like modernism, but not rejecting them
either), and is followed by an increasingly open (and equally logically incoherent) form:

/ u u | / u u
All others talked as if

/ u u | / ||
talk were a dance.

/ u u | / || u / | u /
Clodhopper I, with clumsy feet

1
Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (1947), The Norton Anthology of Theory and
Criticism (hereafter referred to as ‘NATC’) p.1359-61.
2
“Caedmon’s Hymn” and a comprehensive outline of his story (first told by the seventh-
century scholar Bede) can be found in The Norton Anthology of Poetry (hereafter referred
to as ‘NAP’), p.1.

2
u / | u / | u / ||
would break the gliding ring. (ll.1-4)3
The dactyls in ll.1-2 seem to imitate the dance-like rhythm of others’ talk. Continuing this
metaphor, the unambiguous pun on Caedmon’s clumsy “feet” is represented by the
awkward switch to iambs halfway through l.34 – an echoism compounded by the sentence’s
unwieldy syntactic inversion. By jarringly grafting two (independently regular) metres
together in this way, Levertov acknowledges simultaneously both conventional accentual-
syllabic traditions and modernist discordance. And there is a third side to this metrical
tension: the alliteration of “clodhopper” and “clumsy”, besides adding further
onomatopoeic clout, reminds us of Caedmon’s (medieval) accentual roots. Isolated, l.3 is a
near perfect model of medieval accentual metre, pairs of stressed syllables falling either
side of a pivotal caesura.5
Insofar that this metrical tension corresponds to the clumsiness Caedmon describes,
ll.1-4 could be described as an example of “imaginative coherence”.6 By the same token, as
it is a state of discord being treated – no single metre taking precedence – it is logical that
they should be incoherent. Levertov further augments this incoherence with irony: while
her Caedmon is made clumsy because he does use accentual metre, the ‘original’ Caedmon
only mastered this metre when he found his poetic tongue7 – the “dance” which alienates
Levertov’s Caedmon is distinctly dactylic (ll.1-2). Levertov’s indiscriminate eclecticism
implies that no one poetic metre is more important than the next: while Caedmon fails here
to reproduce the dactyls of the first two lines, we can only admire the rich artifice and
allusion that Levertov achieves in l.3.
This ambivalence, is complemented by the open form in which Levertov continues.
Indeed, the only generalisation I will venture to make of the poem’s main body – that is, of

3
These lines refer to the part of Caedmon’s story telling how “at feasts where farmhands
took turns singing and playing the harp, Caedmon would withdraw to his bed in the stable
whenever the harp was passed his way” (NAP, p.1).
4
The pun implies clumsiness both in his movement and in his speech. We might also notice
that the “gliding” ring is literally broken between iambs in l.4.
5
Compare, for instance, l.2 of “Caedmon’s Hymn”: “Meotodes meahte || and his
modgeþanc” (NAP, p.1).
6
Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (1947), NATC p.1359.
7
That is, when it was divinely gifted to him, as we shall see later in ll.25-33 (see also NAP,
p.1).

3
ll.5-24 – is that line length tends to fall between 4 and 6 syllables. Other features seem only
to tease us in our search for the coherence of a dominant form; for instance, occasional
alliteration reminds us of its original use as an accentual device in l.3, but we don’t see
fully formed accentual metre again until l.25.8
At this point we reach the climax of Caedmon’s story, in what is also – in my
opinion for slightly different reasons – the climax Levertov’s poem. Ll.25-33 describe
Caedmon’s reception of the ‘gift from God’ of poetic speech, which he could then use to
praise the lord:9

u / u | / u u | / u u || / u | / u
25 the sudden angel affrighted me––light effacing

u /|u / ||
my feeble beam,

u / u | u / u || / u | u / || / u | / u ||
a forest of torches, feathers of flame, sparks upflying:

u u / |u u /
but the cows as before

u / || u | / u u | / u ||
were calm, and nothing was burning,

/ u u | / || u / | / u | / u
30 nothing but I, as that hand of fire

/ |u / | u / |u /
touched my lips and scorched my tongue

u / |u /
and pulled my voice

/ u u | / u u | / ||
into the ring of the dance.

The assumption that these lines constitute the poem’s climax leads me to place great
importance in the meaning I derive from them, which, it will be seen, finally – ironically –
compromises Levertov’s tolerant compromise between conflicting poetic metres. But first

8
Alliteration between l.5 and l.24 occurs in ll.11-12 (“back to the barn / to be with the
warm beasts”), and l.22 (“munched or stirred or were still”).
9
NAP, p.1.

4
we see the final throes of her more liberal aspirations, in a return to the ambivalence of ll.1-
4: it has already been mentioned that l.25 finds Levertov again using the accentual line;
alliterative, in “angel”, “affrighted” and “effacing”, and turning on the caesura produced by
the dash. And like l.3, this instance of medieval form can be seen as one aspect of a rich
web of poetical allusions. The theme of divine poetic inspiration, for instance, was
originally a classical topos (in the form of the Olympian muses), which was most popularly
imitated in English poetry in the Renaissance period. Meanwhile, “effacing” (l. 25) forms
the first half of a pararhyme with “upflying” (l. 27). This technique, first used consistently
by modernist poet Wilfred Owen,10 serves well to remind us of the dissonance created by
such multifarious and equivocal allusion, and at this point it seems that Levertov is
intending to sustain the logical incoherence of her positive modernist ambivalence right to
the end of her poem.
However, while ll.1-4 scan at a relatively moderate pace; a comparatively calm
clumsiness, if you will, ll.25-27, in the drama of the “sudden” angel’s manifestation (which
resembles an assault), are frantic and “affrighted”. This effect is enhanced by the extension
of the alliteration in l.25, into a more offensive sounding ‘f’: “affrighted”, “effacing”,
“feeble”, “forest”, “feathers”, “flame” and “upflying”, combined with the asyndeton of the
relentless conjunctional commas, seem to me to instil a sense of panic which reflects the
idea that this assault is to overturn the indiscriminate variety of metres condoned by
Levertov up to this point.
How so? This claim may well seem improbable: ostensibly, no single poetic foot
dominates the final lines, and Caedmon’s divine encounter is traditionally viewed in a
positive light; an epiphany rather than an assault or forced compromise.11 But crucially this
part of the story concerns a resolution, forced or not; the unambiguous adoption of an
accepted poetic form. Ultimately, Levertov’s Caedmon is turned away from the metrical
liberty she/he has promoted over the course of the poem through logical incoherence,
“pulled” into and bound by the dactylic “ring[s] of the dance” (ll.32-33).12 Seemingly

10
(And therefore associated with that period), NAP, p.2038.
11
NAP, p.1.
12
The iambs of ll.30-32 recall Caedmon’s “clumsy feet” in l.3: here (ll.30-33) we see an
inversion of the dactylic-iambic transition at the start of the poem, this time notably more
resolute and final.

5
against her will, Levertov acknowledges ironically the difficulty of sustaining liberal
indifference when faced by popular conformity, finally submitting to a “unification of
attitudes into a hierarchy subordinated to a total and governing attitude”: “In th[is] unified
poem, the poet has [bitterly] “come to terms” with h[er] experience.”13

13
Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn (1947), NATC, p.1361.

6
Bibliography

Levertov, Denise, “Caedmon” (1987), in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. By Ferguson,
Salter and Stallworthy (New York: Norton, 2005), pp.1680-81.

Brooks, Cleanth, “The Heresy of Paraphrase” from The Well Wrought Urn (1947), in The
Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. by Leitch, Vincent (New York: Norton,
2001), pp.1353-65.

Brooks, Cleanth, “Formalist Critics” (1951), in The Norton Anthology of Theory and
Criticism, ed. by Leitch, Vincent (New York: Norton, 2001), pp.1366-71.

Ferguson, Margaret, “Poetic Syntax”, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. By Ferguson,
Salter and Stallworthy (New York: Norton, 2005), pp.2053-74.

Kinnahan, Linda, “Denise Levertov: The Daughter’s Voice”, in Poetics of the Feminine
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp.125-182.

Lennard, John, “Metre”, in The Poetry Handbook (2005), pp.1-32.

OED, Oxford English Dictionary, ed. by Judy Pearsall, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

Stallworthy, Jon, “Versification”, in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. By Ferguson,


Salter and Stallworthy (New York: Norton, 2005), pp.2027-52.