Living – Denise Levertov

[POEM RESPONSE]

The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer.

The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.

A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute. 

-Denise Levertov

The poet is talking about a feeling that we all experience and can relate to. It is the feeling of being so enraptured in the magnificence of nature and along with it, the constant fear of it being temporary and terminating soon. The writer gets this impression because he is overwhelmed by the beauty of his surroundings which produce and deep, sweet sadness inside him. All beautiful things are made to finish. As the Robert Frost said, “Nothing gold can stay.” Indeed the transience of this world does make us fearful, but it also makes the experience even more striking than before.

I’ll individually quote the lines of the poem and then pen down my response to them.

The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer.

‘The Fire’. Fire may be used to symbolize the temporary-ness of nature. Just as anything that has caught fire will die soon, similarly since the grass and leaves are on fire, they will soon perish. It can also be symbolizing the fiery youth or in other words the freshness of the foliage- that has the vitality of fire.

‘So green it seems: each summer the last summer.’ In this line, the topic is similar. The freshness and color of the greenery make the poet fearful of their endurance. It seems like the calm while the storm is brewing. . . Much like a civilization that has reached its peak and prospered. Then comes its downfall. Invaders come and set the place on fire. Similarly the uncertainty of this world has the poet on an edge. Any moment now the universe could end. All this beauty would disappear.

The line could also be symbolizing just the last summer and not the last day. Since after this, the plants trees and all of nature will shed their leaves and become bare for the winter, thus they are giving their all to blossom and bloom to their fullest before dying away.

The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.

The poet started off with a warm and sunny scene, but now he has taken a step in a slightly different direction. He starts off with the ‘wind blowing,’ which can be foreboding of something not quite pleasant that has yet to come. This starts the ‘leaves shivering’. The word shivering has a negative connotation. The poet could have said shaking, fluttering or anything else. But he has used the term ‘shivering’ which is a human characteristic. Since it is only human that are able to feel cold. He has used the poetic device of ‘personification’ for the leaves. They are given human characteristics and are made to feel the cold. The cold can also symbolize the impending doom that the poet feels in this environment. He can have two main reasons for saying this.

1. He is symbolizing that nature itself feels its own transience and is afraid of it.

2. The leaves and foliage, just like humans are mortal and can die.

The application of human characteristics to a plant is a symbolism of their mortal-ness. 

Before when the poet talked about the seasons, the season of summer, he talked of it being the last season. Now as he has shifted to a chiller part, he has stepped up the impending doom by bringing it closer and clearer than ever before. ‘Each day the last day.’ The shivering of the leaves can also show their fear on finishing by the time the day is over. Or it can also be the reflection of the poets own uneasiness in all he sees around him. Just as his own thought are making him shiver, similarly he thinks he sees the leaves shivering.

A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily

Now the poet has shifted completely. Initially the poem started off talking about warmth- the season of summer. He talked of the color green which is unanimously symbolic of freshness, purity and security. Here the poet has mentioned the color red which symbolizes urgency, risk and danger among other things. Denise has subtly transformed the mood of the poem by doing this.

Another interesting thing is the mentioning of the creature, the salamander. Why a salamander and not any other creature? Let us see what the poet plans to do with this creature.

He says that it is ‘frail and easy to catch.’ This shows how easy it is for humans to capture and destroy such a delicate creature. It could be symbolic of nature in general. How humans have exploited it for their own benefit, only because it was in their command to do so.

The other thing that the poet has done is call the salamander ‘cold’.  This is a complete reversal from the beginning theme. The poet has gone from warm to cold and from fiery to weak. The strength of the leaves and trees was commendable but the weakness of this slimy creature is pitiable.

Why has the poet mentioned salamander? In my belief this has brought about a complete revolution in the feel of the poem. A salamander brings to mind images of sliminess. It has a slightly distasteful connotation, which is where the poet intends to lead the poem.

‘Dreamily,’ could show the detachment of the poet with his surroundings, or the detachment of nature with its fate. The earth does not care or is unbothered of its fatality.

moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute. 

The salamander ‘moves its delicate feet and long tail’ unbothered and in no particular hurry. It is doing what it has always done. Again the poet is referring to the delicate balance of nature. . ‘I hold my hand open for him to go.’ The poet’s release of the salamander shows that he too is unbothered by the future. Unwilling to think of making any plans for the future, he is in acquiescence.

‘Each minute the last minute.’ The poet has brought his poem full circle by using this line. Just like the passing of time, with every verse he brought the reader nearer to the end of the poem.

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