Peter Levi: the Priest Turned Poet

Peter Chad Tigar Levi was born in Ruslip, Middlesex, England, on May 16, 1931. He was the second son of Herbert and Mollie Levi.  Peter’s father came from Istanbul and descended from a family of Sephardic carpet merchants, and his mother Mollie was an Englishborn Catholic and intensely devout. Mollie converted her husband and raised all three of their children in the Catholic Church. Her strong beliefs eventually led all her children to take vows.  Peter and his older brother Anthony became Jesuits and their sister Gillian became a Bernardine nun.

Peter Levi began his education in the classics at a young age; at age six he and his older brother were enrolled as students at Prior Park in Bath. Though he appreciated his education under the   Christian Brothers there, in his adolescence he began to idolize Oscar Wilde. Because of Wilde’s praise of the New Testament in Greek, Levi insisted at age fifteen he move to Beaumont College to improve his Greek under the Jesuits. At seventeen, after leaving Beaumont, he entered the Jesuit novitiate. However, at sixteen he had contracted polio which left him bedridden and with much leisure time. He often attributed his love of reading and writing to the free time he had during his battle with the illness.

After recovering from polio and entering the novitiate, he began the elaborate fifteen-year process of training for ordination. In his memoir, The Flutes of Autumn (1983), Levi            describes the stages of training and education necessary for his ordination. First there were studies in medieval philosophy (1950–52) at Heythrop College, then teaching in south-east London and at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. This was followed by four years of studies at the Jesuit institution of Campion Hall in Oxford, and ended with a return to Heythrop College to study theology from 1960-1964. This long classical education informed his versatile career as a poet, classical scholar, archaeologist, and Jesuit priest. It was also during this time that he made his first forays into the literary world, publishing some of his best-known works of poetry such as The Gravel Ponds (1960) and Water, Rock and Sand (1962).

MS1986-98 43, Pancakes for the Queen of Babylon, Collage

The original notebook containing the drafts and edits of Pancakes for the Queen of Babylon is just one of the many notebooks containing original manuscripts in the Peter Levi Collection. Peter Levi Papers, MS1986-98, Box 43, Folder 3, John J. Burns, Boston College.

After a delay in ordination and vacation to Greece in 1963, Levi served as a priest for thirteen years. During his time in the novitiate and as an ordained priest Levi wrote broadly. He published works of poetry, literary reviews, and translations of classics. His interests in Greece   and Greek, coupled with illness and migraines related to a car accident during his studies, lead him to Greece on numerous occasions. He felt relief from his ailments in the Aegean climate, and the trips afforded him time to research Greek history and build friendships with giants of Greek literature such as George Seferis and George Pavlopoulos. As a result of these travels and friendships he published Pancakes for the Queen of Babylon: Ten Poems for Nikos Gatos (1968), a collection of eclectic and vivid poems which mark a divergence from his earlier more subdued works. It was also due to his interest in the classical history of Greece that he joined Bruce Chatwin’s archaeological team searching for traces of Greek culture in Afghanistan. He eventually recorded the accounts of these trips in his travelogue The Light Garden of the Angel   King (1972).

MS1985-98 30, The Light Garden of the Angel King, p. 1

The first page of the original manuscript of The Light Garden of the Angel King. It was written on oversized paper and apparently on a slant. Peter Levi Papers, MS1985-98, Box 30, Folder 4, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In 1977, after years of struggling with the decision, Levi left the Jesuits to marry Deirdre Connolly (née Craig), a close friend and the widow of well-known editor and writer Cyril Connolly. As a married couple they were happy but often broke, and as a lay person Levi’s writing exploded. He rarely passed up contracts, and his writing grew in variety. He began to pen translations from Modern Greek, Biblical Greek, and Serbo-Croat; literary editions;  thrillers; and more. In these married years he published an Atlas of the Greek World (1980), History of Greek Literature (1985), and The Frontiers of Paradise: a Study of Monks and Monasteries (1987). Levi also wrote books on various classical and classic poets. By his death he had published stories about Virgil, Horace, Milton, Tennyson, Edward Lear, and Pasternak.

Cover of Atlas of the Greek World

An original run of Levi’s Atlas of the Greek World is also a part of our Levi collection along with the many correspondences and edited manuscripts and typescripts that were part of its production. G2000 .L48 1980 OVERSIZE, John J. Burns Library, Boston College

Levi lived at Austin Farms in North Oxfordshire with his wife Deirdre until his death on             February 1, 2000.  Levi’s works include twenty-two volumes of poetry, and many books of   scholarship, biography, and fiction.  He is also the author of hundreds of articles and reviews.

The Peter Levi Papers consist of two accessions . The first accession (MS1986.098) ranges from 1929 to 1989, with the bulk of materials from 1949 to 1984. It represents Levi’s work as a college student, Jesuit seminarian and priest, Oxford professor, poet, author, critic, translator, and public intellectual. It mainly consists of correspondence and  manuscript materials, including college notebooks and coursework, sermons, lectures, and  BBC media presentations, as well as published and unpublished poetry, articles, essays, and reviews. The collection also contains printed materials and publications, including proofs of texts edited and/or translated by Levi, clippings, and a series of Amnesty International reports about the dictatorship in Greece.

The second accession (MS1990.015) consists primarily of manuscripts and research materials for Levi’s fiction and non- fiction writing (including biography and history, articles, and book reviews), proof copies of several of Levi’s published works, and incoming correspondence from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. Of note are materials on Levi’s work on Shakespeare and his biography of Russian  author Boris Pasternak. Proof copies include Levi’s Life and Times of William Shakespeare, A Private Commission (the work in which Levi claimed to have discovered a previously unknown poem by Shakespeare), The Penguin Book of Christian Verse (which Levi edited and introduced) and A History of Greek Literature. The rest of the collection includes material related to Levi’s work in television, in particular the BBC, his work as a professor of poetry, printed materials composed or collected by Levi, translations by Levi (including his translation of the Gospel according to John), materials related to his archaeological work, and various lectures and addresses given by Levi (including his valedictory address).

The findings aids for both accessions are not available online, but they are available in print in the John J. Burns Library reading room.

  • David E. Horn, Special Projects Librarian for Jesuit and Catholic Collections, Burns Library, Boston College
  • Edited and revised by Chad M. Landrum, M.A. student in the History Department & former Burns Library Reading Room Assistant

Sources:

Allen, Brigid. “Levi, Peter Chad Tigar (1931–2000).” Brigid Allen In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman. Oxford: OUP, October 2007. Online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman, January 2011. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/73779 (accessed July 23, 2015).

“British Poet Peter Levi Dies.” Deathwatch Central. Feb. 13, 2000. <http://slick.org>.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 40: Poets of Great Britain and Ireland Since 1960. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by Vincent B. Sherry Jr., Villanova University. The Gale Group, 1985. pp. 299-306.

Forbes, Peter. “Peter Levi.” The Guardian, February 2, 2000, accessed July 24, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/feb/03/news.obituaries

Hurwitt, Janikka. “Peter Levi, the Art of Poetry No. 24.” The Paris Review no. 76 (Fall 1979): accessed July 24, 2015. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3379/ the-art-of-poetry-no-24-peterlevi

“Peter (Chad Tigar) Levi.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2001. Biography in Context. Web. 23 July 2015.

Peter (Chad Tigar) Levi.” Contemporary Poets. Gale, 2001. Biography in Context. Web. 23 July 2015.

Peter Levi Collection: Biographical Data, Burns Library, Boston College, 1991.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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