Filled with Some Other Power

Jacob van Oost II,” Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well” (1688)

Spiritual Sunday

Denise Levertov’s poem “The Well,” while not specifically about today’s liturgy account of the Samaritan woman at the well, nevertheless works as commentary. I don’t know whether Levertov had converted to Christianity when she wrote this poem, but one sees within it her spiritual longing.

In the story, the Samaritan woman may think she wants the things of this world. Jesus, however, knows that she thirsts for something more:

But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

The speaker in the poem, when young, calls upon the moon to give her what he thinks she wants: beauty, a thin body, a pale complexion. To attain these things, “I moonbathed/diligently, as others sunbathe.”

However, she achieves only dissatisfaction:

But the moon’s unsmiling stare
kept me awake. Mornings,
I was flushed and cross.

Only when she opens herself to her deeper longings does she discover true power. Rather than orienting herself by a material light source, she sinks into “dark nights of deep sleep.” What she finds is something more powerful than physical beauty.

Or as Jesus puts it,

God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

The Well

By Denise Levertov

At sixteen I believed the moonlight 
could change me if it would.
          I moved my head
on the pillow, even moved my bed
as the moon slowly
crossed the open lattice.

I wanted beauty, a dangerous
gleam of steel, my body thinner,
my pale face paler.
          I moonbathed
diligently, as others sunbathe.
But the moon’s unsmiling stare
kept me awake. Mornings,
I was flushed and cross.

It was on dark nights of deep sleep
that I dreamed the most, sunk in the well,
and woke rested, and if not beautiful,
filled with some other power.

Further thought: Levertov’s poem has me thinking about the spiritual and psychological symbolism of wells. In Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I’m currently teaching, Toru Okada descends into a dry well to examine why his marriage is disintegrating. Essentially, he does a deep dive within himself as he relives critical moments in the relationship.

At one point, someone pulls up the robe ladder and closes the well lid so that he can no longer see the moon. As in the poem, this is when he must truly go deep, and he enters a dream world in which he grapples with his shadow side. Once he comes to terms with it, the well begins to fill with water, a sign that he may be able to save his marriage.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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