Peter Levi

"You could not overpraise this book. It is so punctiliously researched, and so well written. It describes a loveable, fascinating character whose life was consecrated to art; and the consecration took fascinating twists and turns. Brigid Allen has unearthed the details with prodigious skill."—Spectator

Peter Levi

Oxford Romantic

Brigid Allen

“In recreating in vivid and intimate detail the many facets of the life and times of this eccentric twentieth-century Jesuit, Allen uncovers such lost or hidden
worlds as English Catholic public schools and Jesuit training prior to Vatican II; a belletristic Oxford still bewitched by Maurice Bowra’s spell; a convivial and
pastoral Greece ruptured by a military junta; and a tranquil Afghanistan of “deep, melon-scented calm.” . . .Brigid Allen’s biography will make the task of future scholars and critics much brighter, but it is highly enjoyable on its own terms as a scintillating and elegant account of a fascinating life.”—Religion and the Arts

“In my opinion Peter Levi represents one of the significant reactions to the often commonsensical or socially orientated poetry of the 1950s … In this respect his largely visionary work can now be associated with that of contemporaries like Peter Redgrove or Ted Hughes. This is, I think, how history will see him, and Brigid Allen’s biography will put him more firmly on the map.”—John Fuller

Peter Levi (1931-2000) was one of the most romantic and complicated of twentieth-century Oxford characters. Although descended on his father’s side from Jewish carpet-merchants in Constantinople, he was brought up a Catholic and was a Jesuit from late adolescence until he left to marry at the age of 45. Part-way through his training for the priesthood, Levi joined the small Jesuit intellectual elite as an undergraduate at Campion Hall, Oxford. Already a compulsive poet, he made literary friends and experimented with hard, bright lyrics on a variety of themes. His first collection, From the Gravel Ponds, was Poetry Book Society choice for spring 1960. From then onwards he maintained an uneasy balance as a Jesuit, tolerated for his literary activities but always subject to disciplinary correction. When, in 1963, his seniors declared that he had broken so many rules that he could not be ordained that year, he persuaded them to let him visit Greece. That summer he fell in love with the country and formed lasting friendships with several Greek poets.

As classics tutor at Campion Hall from 1965 to 1977, he was an intriguing figure to many undergraduates. Intolerant of Oxford damp, he was allowed to spend winters in Greece. From 1967 onwards he passionately supported the resistance to the junta; twice banned from Greece, he later made a television documentary about the evils of the regime.

After leaving the Jesuits he wrote autobiographical works, translations, thrillers and elegiac verse, supplementing his literary earnings with casual tuition. Elected Oxford Professor of Poetry in 1984, he used his lectures to convey his enthusiasm for the work of other poets, from Shakespeare to Pasternak, Larkin, Lowell and his defeated electoral rival and former pupil James Fenton.

This deeply researched, sensitively written biography explores Levi’s many friendships, with figures such as Cyril Connolly, George Seferis, David Jones, Iris Murdoch, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Bruce Chatwin. It relates his poetic development to an intense emotional life, in which love, often concealed in landscape imagery, eventually won out against religious inhibition.

BRIGID ALLEN read History at Oxford in the 1960s and returned to live there in the 1980s, working with archives and manuscripts and as a lexicographical researcher and writer.

£19.99 hardback

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452 pages
July 2014