We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Amy Levy, Late Victorian Poet · 29 September 05


I’m going to a Victorian conference tomorrow so thought I’d put as a temporary "adieu," poem, the following posting I put onto Trollope-l for our poetry day there (Sunday). Someone had brought up the name, Clementina Black.

Looking at the back part of my anthology of Victorian Women Poets, I came across the name of Clementina Black in the index. This took me to Amy Levy, Black’s friend and a good (witty, very like Browning in technique most commonly) poet in the latter part of the century.

Here are two poems typical of her shorter ones:

"Ballade of an Omnibus"

Some men to carriages aspire;
On some the costly hansoms wait;
Some seek a fly, on job or hire;
Some mount the trotting steed, elate.
I envy not the rich and great,
A wandering minstrel, poor and free,
I am contented with my fate—-
An omnibus suffices me.

In winter days of rain and mire
I find within a corner strait;
The ‘busmen know me and my lyre
From Brompton to the Bull-and-Gate.
When summer comes, I mount in state
The topmost summit, whence I see
Croesus look up, compassionate—-
An omnibus suffices me.

I mark, untroubled by desire,
Lucullus’ phaeton and its freight.
The scene whereof I cannot tire,
The human tale of love and hate,
The city pageant, early and late
Unfolds itself, rolls by, to be
A pleasure deep and delicate.
An omnibus suffices me.

Princess, your splendour you require,
I, my simplicity; agree
Neither to rate lower nor higher.
An omnibus suffices me.



"To Vernon Lee"

On Bellosguardo, when the year was young,
We wandered, seeking for the daffodil
And dark anemone, whose purples fill
The peasant’s plot, between the corn-shoots sprung.

Over the grey, low wall the olive flung
Her deeper greyness; far off, hill on hill
Sloped to the sky, which, pearly-pale and still,
Above the large and luminous landscape hung.

A snowy blackthorn flowered beyond my reach;
You broke a branch and gave it to me there;
I found for you a scarlet blossom rare.

Thereby ran on of Art and Life our speech;
And of the gifts the gods had given to each—-
Hope unto you, and unto me Despair.



I love riding on the top of a bus. Some of Izzy and my happiest moments travelling have been atop a bus. We did Portsmouth this way one summer three years ago. The only thing better is sitting in a train as it winds among mountains in Switzerland.

And what better can we do but walk in a rich landscape with a beloved friend.

Amy Levy never married; instead there is a record of a large number of close friendships with women writers, artists, intellectuals. She moved in radical circles in London in the 1880s and 1890s and her friends included Clementina Black, Beatrice Webb, Olive Schreiner, Vernon Lee—and Robert Browning and Algernon Swinburne (she wrote a loving parody of his poetry, "Felo de Se" With apologies to Mr. Swinburne).

That she was Jewish is a significant element in her character, destiny, culture. She was the first Jewish student at Newnham
College, Cambridge, where she studied philosophy, read Greek
and Latin, and translated German poetry. She was the daughter
of a stockbroker and managed by the age of 14 to publish a poem.

She was a journalist too, and her work includes an ironic essay on club women which demonstrates how women need to be part of professional environments too to become active and useful when meeting together. She published (and scandalized some) by her essays on child-rearing (don’t over discipline and at the same time don’t make children the goals of your existence). Her most famous ironic poem (in Browning’s manner) is "Xantippe." In legends Socrates’ wife is (natch) a nag; she gives us Xantippe’s case from her own humiliated, ignored, and irritated sarcastic perspective.

Clementina Black turns up in the index to Levy’s poetry since Levy and Black went to Italy together in the winter of 1885. Soon after (when she returned) Black went on to becoming a (published) socialist, suffragette, prominent in the campaign for equal pay for women, founder of the Women’s Trade Union Association. Levy moved onto to Florence where she knew Vernon Lee (musiciologist, historian, poet, storyteller, probably best known today to popular audiences for her love affair with Virginia Woolf).

Back in London Levy published a poem in an early anthology of very modern womens’ verse (not sentimental Victorian in feel), Women’s Voices (1887). Levy began also to write humorous stories of Jewish life, and met Eleanor Marx. She published a novel, Reuben Sachs (1888). Eleanor Marx translated Reuben Sachs into German. Other friends: Oscar Wilde, William Rossetti, Michael Field (two women who had a lesbian relationship and published poetry under this name).

Alas, Levy began to go deaf; the deafness reinforced periods of depression. She went to the seaside with Olive Schreiner, and perhaps something bad happened between them. My guess is they had a lesbian love affair and something soured. My further guess is Levy was herself a lesbian and found herself excluded for this from general society because perhaps she was open about it—and because she was Jewish. (Do remember Woolf’s snobbery; she could call Leonard "a Jew" and some of what she writes about him early on makes very painful reading. Consider Forster’s depiction of a Jew in his Howard’s End. And so on and so forth.)

At any rate some time after this trip when home again Amy Levy
committed suicide. She was 27. She gassed herself to death using a stove. There were tasteless jokes about the connection between the suicide the Levy and Schreiner’s trip away together not long before (not as hard to find as you might think, that is, they are reprinted in stories about Schreiner which put her in an unpleasant light).

Levy’s stories, poems and essays show a gifted ironic and feminist writer. For example, in The Romance of a Shop four orphaned sisters "set up in business as professional photographers, but the business fails" and they end up marrying. One description of this story’s inner quality and themes suggests it’s a good text to compare with Odd Women as genuinely feminist. Reuben Sachs is a story set in "the Jewish community of London, where different snobberies of ethnic group, culture, wealth, class are sharply evoked and mocked." The center of the story is the heroine, Judith, who "in spite of her intelligence and capabilties" is fated to remain (because gven no other option from her Jewish community) one of the "vast crowd of girls awaiting promotion by marriage." Levy was much criticized and also ostracized by Jewish people she had grown up around after the publication of this one.

Her poetry is known for its irony, but there is much plain statement, lyricism, and melancholy too (as we can see in the two poems I chose). Some may be said to anticipate the themes of one of the subplots of Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton. This novel is about a girl, Carrie, who becomes unchaste and is ostracized and could end up in the streets permanently (well until she dies of disease or poverty, beatings and the rest).

In her "Magdalen" Levy writes: "And good is evil, evil good: Nothing is known or understood//Save only pain." Yes. The world’s morality is often a justification of cruelty/exclusion. In "Xantippe," "Medea," and others Levy explores "the destructiveness" and injustice of "social paradigms for women," especially those about their sexuality. She wrote an essay on the poetry of Christina Rossetti which went into its delicate but intense sexuality.

Later poems revolve around the theme of suicide—I’d say Levy’s suicide came from the whole experience of life she had had. In her last months she was projecting a volume of Sapphic verse to be called The New Phaon. She doesn’t really write poetry of social protest; as she wrote herself, "philosophy" [social work, doing public good] can’t help me; I am too much shut in by the personal."

Oscar Wilde after her death published Levy’s work which had appeared in Woman’s World and praised Levy for "sincerity, directness, and melancholy." In Victorian Women Poets the editors (Margaret Reynolds and Angela Leighton) include a long section of Levy’s most autobiographical poem, "A Minor Poet" (it’s very Browningesque in feel and tone):" this evokes Levy’s garret above the roofs of London, and suggests another cause of her suicide was her dissatisfaction with her own art.

To me she seems intensely frustrated by the people all around her; she cries out for light, for some other kind of experience. She’s bitter against "the world’s wit" and "wisdom," and resignation too. I like the excerpt offered but even it’s too long to put on a blog.

Here is the phial; here I turn the key
Sharp in the lock. Click!—there’s no doubt it turned.
This is the third time …

Locks don’t alway work :). The editors say that Levy’s life and
work are " sad reminder that the odds against which women were struggling at the time, in spite of so many opportunities gained, could still be too great for them." I’ll add these odds are with us still and take much the same forms.

I used British Women Poets of the 19th Century, ed. Margaret Randolph Higonnet for some of what I wrote above; also Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds’s Victorian Women Poets and sites on the Net.


PS. On December 15, 2006, I had an email from the author of the recent book on Levy, Amy Levy, Her Life & Letters: Linda Hunt Beckman who objected to some of the assertions I put in the above email, among them that Levy had an affair with Schreiner. She said the story about Schreiner was "old gossip from the Pall Mall Gazette, and there is no basis for it. " I changed what seemed to me errors of fact but left this statement as since as far as I can recall now it seemed to me from what I had read probable and was asserted as truth by the editors of the anthologies I had read. I can’t put her remarks in a comment as the comment section is closed. I did not do any original research for this letter and took all that is in it from anthologies and what I read on the Net. I liked Levy’s poetry and wanted to commemorate her life. My aim was to create interest in Levy’s work and sympathy for her as an individual.

I’d also like to say that if anyone is doing any scholarly work of any kind or wants to know what the latest research findings on Levy’s life are, he or she should read Professor Beckman’s book. Please do not take any of the details or comments in this blog as at all definitive. It’s all based on secondary material found in anthologies and writings about Levy on the Net.

Posted by: Ellen

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