22 September 2015

Peter Levi - Jewish son, Jesuit priest or married Oxford scholar?

The students were analysing Gustav Mahler's (1860–1911) and Arnold Schoenberg’s (1874–1951) decisions to convert from Judaism to Christianity (Catholicism and Lutheranism respectively). I set them the task of finding a famous person who converted from religious conviction, rather than from a pragmatic desire to advance his career or to avoid anti-Semitic violence.

The best response was the poet and Oxford scholar Peter Levi (1931-2000). Levi was born in Middlesex. The Jewish family of his father (Herbert Simon Levi) were carpet traders from Istanbul and while his mother (Edith Mary Tigar) was English. His mother was a devout Roman Cathol­ic and his Jewish father converted to that religion; their three children all joined religious Catholic orders.

Clearly there was differences. Firstly Mahler and Schoenberg were adults, and made adult decisions for themselves. In the Levi case, the decision was made by Peter’s father. Secondly whereas it is easy to find the con­se­quences of the two musicians’ decisions, on themselves and their families, I can find no discussion about Herbert Levi’s family and friends. However I do note that Peter never changed his surname to a more suitable Catholic name – presumably he knew that the tribe of Levi historically held the second most important rank within Jewish tradition, after the Cohens.

Peter was educated in private Catholic schools run by the Christian Brothers at Prior Park near Bath. At 14 Levi discovered Oscar Wilde and soon required a school with more Greek; he changed schools to Beaumont College, a Jesuit school in Windsor Berkshire. While at Beaumont, he joined the Society of Jesus as a novice.

Peter Levi: Oxford Romantic 
written by Brigid Allen and published in 2014.

Levi trained for the priesthood at Heythrop College and read Clas­s­ics at Campion Hall, joining a small Jesuit intellectual elite. During his late teenage years he suffered from two near catastrophes - polio and a car accident. 

His first collection, From the Gravel Ponds, was the Poetry Book Society's choice for spring 1960. But there was a cost to pay. When his Jesuit superiors declared that he had broken so many rules that he could not be ordained as expected in 1963, he visited his beloved Greece instead. It did not matter; he was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1964. And then Levi became a classics tutor at Campion Hall Oxford from 1965-77, where the undergrad students thought he was cool.

Like other English upper class eccentrics, Peter had made his mark as a character at Oxford and was a good friend of other scholars like Iris Murdoch. But he could not have it both ways. A literary and passionate personality with dilettante interests might endear him to the students and colleagues, but it was not going to endear him to the Jesuits with whom he lived. I think they would have preferred him to be a more theologically focused scholar.

In his career Levi wrote 60+ books, fic­t­ion as well as biography, poems and travel writing. He travelled with one of my favourite novelists, Bruce Chat­win, always retaining his love for Greek literature and archaeology. But trouble followed here too. Twice he was banned from Greece because he publicly criticised the junta.

Because  maintaining an adequate income stream was problematic, Levi rarely turned a literary commission down; he even seemed happy to be involved in popular works and coffee table books eg Atlas of the Greek World. His books like The Noise Made By Poems ranged over European poetry beautifully, but possibly did not pay him very much. His mode of reviewing was unique, as readers understood from Poetry Review, and he continued to write by hand throughout this career. Could he not afford access to a type writer?

Atlas of the Greek World 
by Peter Levi
and published in 1981 

Appropriately Levi was made Oxford professor of poetry from 1984-89. And some of his more famous works from this era included: Boswell, James and Johnson, Samuel (1984); Boris Pasternak (1985); A History of Greek Literature (1985) and A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and the Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1990).

When he was seriously middle aged, Peter Levi married Deirdre Con­nol­ly in 1977, 3 years after her first husband Cyril Con­nol­ly had died. Levi had been in love with Deirdre for many years; nonetheless he had struggled long and hard with his decision to leave the Jesuits. But it was a great decision; married life turned out to be a delightful revelation to the previously celibate man.

In later life Levi suffered from diabetes and lost his sight. He died aged 68. I liked the Guardian’s obituary:  Levi’s reviews were always passionate and blended life and art in an often intoxicating cocktail. Levi gave the impression that he really was star-struck about literature and at his best he conveyed this to his readers. His own assessment of "the most useful and pleasurable work I've done" was Marco the Prince: Serbian Heroic Poems that he co-translated. He was a romantic, eccentric and complicated Man about Oxford.

Bloggers might like to read a valuable book called Peter Levi: Oxford Romantic, written by Brigid Allen and published by Signal Books in 2014.


I had thought these changing religious roles might have been problematic to Levi. But in an interview in 1977, just after he had left the Jesuits and married, he said: "I am half-Jewish and also I am a Roman Catholic. Therefore I am very much on the edge of ordinary English society, of any kind and of any level of that society. But clergymen can move between classes and be accepted, always with a difference, by whatever class they are talking to. So I’ve had access to more parts of English society than most people do."


Pommy said...

British upper class eccentrics were a weird lot. They showed odd behaviours, deviating from normal, but they could still function properly in society. Eccentrics were generally highly intelligent and creative, and their thinking outside the box was what set them apart. They were happy and did not suffer from mental illness.

Since the acceptance of eccentrics derived from the fact that the eccentrics were upper class, Peter Levi could feel right at home. Particularly at Oxford.

Hels said...


Yes indeed! Levi wrote "Therefore I am very much on the edge of ordinary English society, of any kind and of any level of that society. But clergymen can move between classes and be accepted..." So although he would have thoroughly agreed with you about the importance of class and Oxford education, he added another element: being a cleric gave him flexibility and acceptability.