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Monday, April 8, 2013

Poem: Denise Levertov's "Annunciation" (Full Version)

Fr. Kevin Burke, S.J. currently serves as Executive Dean of the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in California. A Levertov fan, Kevin noticed that when the editors at New Directions put together the book "The Stream and the Sapphire," they mistakenly omitted the last 18 lines. The poem first appeared in her book "A Door in the Hive." Levertov endorsed and first published her poem in "A Door in the Hive" with those 18 lines as part of intended text. On this feast of Annunciation, please enjoy the full text of her work.


‘Hail, space for the uncontained God’
From the Agathistos Hymn,
Greece, VIc

We know the scene: the room, variously furnished,
almost always a lectern, a book; always
the tall lily.
       Arrived on solemn grandeur of great wings,
the angelic ambassador, standing or hovering,
whom she acknowledges, a guest.

But we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
       The engendering Spirit
did not enter her without consent.
         God waited.

She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.


Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
         Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
More often
those moments
      when roads of light and storm
      open from darkness in a man or woman,
are turned away from

in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
                                 God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.


She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child–but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.

Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
  only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite weight and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power–
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
                     Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love–

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,


She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy,’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
                                                       raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
                                  consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
                               and the iridescent wings.
              courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.


  1. Replies
    1. You are welcome. I'm grateful to Kevin Burke, S.J. for his detailed study of Levertov's poems.

    2. I am also a Gloucester graduate, living in Japan and have a course with adults reading Denise Levertov's in "The Stream and the Sapphire. Can you give me a link to Fr. Burke's study of her poems. I would be most grateful. Sr. Maureen

    3. A small world indeed. Why don't you write to Fr. Kevin Burke directly? He is at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara, California. His email is on the school's website.

  2. Posting this full version today. Thanks John ..

  3. Thanks, John. You were my retreat director some years ago in Gloucester, and a grace for me at the time. Woke up this morning in Hayward CA to do some presentations in one of our schools, and slowly read "The Annunciation" posted here. Grateful for your reach out, and wishing you well in you ministry far across the world.

    1. Mark, I remember you well. Thanks for writing and for your good words. Thanks also for the evangelizing work you are doing in our schools. I loved being in Gloucester, but God is at double-time work here in the Holy Land.

  4. Thank you Mark, this so vividly captures the moments of the annunciation....Mary's pure love of God and joy. Beautifully written. "compassion and intelligence fused in her, indivisible".....wonderful. <3

  5. Dear John, this is Anne Deneen writing--I don't know what your email address is, but if you are still in Jerusalem, I will be visiting this summer, in late July, and staying with the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, in Jerusalem. Oh, I hope you are still there. How wonderful to meet across time and poetry! peace, and a blessed Lent, Anne

    1. Anne, good to hear from you again. My email is on this page: predmoresj@yahoo.com or jpredmore@jesuit.org. I am in Amman, Jordan, but it is fairly easy for me to cross the border. In fact, I'm due for a few visits there. I'll be around. Let me show you my part of the world.

  6. I stumbled upon your blog in a roundabout way -- I am reading Anne Lamott's book "Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith" and she quotes this poem. When I googled it and found your page -- thank you for reproducing the poem in its entirety. I am now a follower!
    I am a Catholic living on the North Shore (in MA), and wish you all the best during your sabbatical. May you enjoy a wonderfully creative six months at the Mass College of Art!

    1. Anne Lamott writes very well. I'm glad to welcome you to the community. Thanks for the good wishes. I was in Gloucester for a couple of years and I have many good friends there. Very small world, huh?

  7. This is incredibly beautiful and speaks to me. Thank you

  8. Thank you for posting the poem in its fullness, with the attention it gives to deep consent, an opportunity offered perhaps just a few times in one’s life. The poem illuminates the importance of such consent, and the importance of attending to the invitation. Thanks again.

    1. It is important to include its fullness, as that is how it was written. I always preach about the importance of accepting invitations that seem to be leading us to God, just as Mary did.

  9. Just saw your post. Thank you so much for posting the complete poem from A Door In The Hive. I had the pleasure of meeting Levertov at a poetry conference back in the 1980's and what I remember most were her kind eyes and soft hands .Great poet! "Content determines form".

    1. You are blessed to have met her and to find her to be such a special person.

  10. Beautiful. I need to see this after seeing that disgusting article about Jesus being a “r*pe” baby.

    1. Actually that disgusting article led me here. Some of the comments were just unbelievable. May they knew the true Heavenly Father.