Reviewed by Henry Mead
This book captures a distinctive and much-loved member of Oxford society with great vividness and sensitivity. Peter Levi (1931-2000) was one of the great characters of modern literary Oxford, writing more than 60 books including fiction as well as biography, poems and travel writing.
The formal bit of his career culminated in his being elected to the Oxford Professorship of Poetry, but it was everything else that counted the most. He travelled with Bruce Chatwin and Patrick Leigh Fermor, and fell in love particularly with Greece, immersing himself in its literature, both ancient and modern, and its history, particularly its archaeological riches.
As a widely respected poet, Levi represented an alternative current to the dominant tendency in Oxford circles, and indeed in the post-war canon, towards an anti-romantic, anti-modernist diction of the everyday, exemplified by Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, and John Wain. In contrast, Peter Levi was, as Allen puts it, ‘an Oxford Romantic’, unabashedly standing up for the poetry of flair and emotion. His greatest literary influences were George Seferis, Paul Valéry and Wallace Stevens.
This poetic impulse was typical of a man who stood out as an oddity among his colleagues in the Order of Jesus at Campion Hall, the institution which housed and supported him for much of his career. The Jesuit community seems to have been remarkably accommodating of Levi’s intellectual and social needs, sparing him teaching duties, permitting regular foreign trips, and allowing him to keep his literary earnings, which permitted regular meals in Oxford restaurants and a steady supply of Berry Brothers claret.
That said, his ordination was delayed owing to colleagues’ doubts about his calling — doubts that seemed to be vindicated much later when he left the order to marry the widow of his friend Cyril Connolly. Asked by a television interviewer in later life what had led him to abandon his vocation, he answered ‘It was love’ — a statement of typical, almost childlike simplicity.
Despite this turn of events, Levi’s earlier commitment is not presented as an error of judgement, and the religious dimensions of his life are seen here as key to his peculiar intelligence. Allen traces the impact of his mother’s profound Catholic faith on her husband Bert, who had Sephardic roots traceable back to carpet-selling forebears in Istanbul.
The ripples of Bert’s conversion strongly marked the next generation, their daughter becoming a nun, their two sons, Anthony and Peter, Jesuits. Beyond this, Levi’s attraction to the Jesuits was prompted by an enthusiasm for stories of the Elizabethan martyrs and further stoked by certain teachers at Beaumont.
Levi’s influence in poetic circles would peak with his tenure as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, from 1984 to 1989. His elevation to the chair belies what was sometimes a marginalised position in Oxford circles, although no doubt many have felt similarly sidelined over the years while leaving a long trail of admirers and emulators in their wake. Some thought he would follow John Betjeman as Poet Laureate, and it is a shame he did not have that opportunity to enrich our cultural life further.
As it is, his legacy, of a lower profile than Betjeman’s but no less remarkable, is well memorialised here. Allen, pictured left, paints a vivid portrait of a likeable and intriguing character over the course of an eventful life, apparently first committed to a religious calling, then to a poetic one. At Somerville (1963) she read History, and she returned to live in Oxford in the 1980s, working as an archivist at Jesus for six years and also at the Oxford English Dictionary as a lexicographical researcher. Allen brings to light new details with great skill; indeed, Levi has had good luck in being chosen as her one and apparently only subject for biographical study.
♦ Voter registration for the next Oxford Professor of Poetry begins today, Monday 13 April 2015. All members of Convocation who wish to vote must register. Convocation includes all the former student members of the University who have been admitted to a degree (other than an honorary degree).
Cover image © Signal Books. Photograph of Brigid Allen by Jennifer Hurstfield.