A Queer Understanding of Lesbian Poetry in the Modern Age
Without much inspection, it is clear to any reader that Amy Levy’s “To Sylvia” is a queer poem written by a woman to another woman. Of course, it is not a platonic friendship poem or anything like that, but a through and through love poem. The simple lines “The song you sang so long ago Rings in my head” already paints an image of a love that has existed for quite some time (15-16). The innocent, simple feeling of love rings true in this poem. Particularly the simplicity and the lack of sheer sexualization surprised me, for more than a few reasons.
Throughout history (including today’s world), women loving women in anything other than a platonic or an overtly sexual sense has been dismissed. As lesbian pornography becomes an increasingly consumed media, so does the over sexualization of women on women love. This over sexualization has allowed women to be more freely accepted as being gay, unlike their male counterparts, but also means they are more easily dismissed for being queer in hopes of “gaining male attention.” This unfortunate stereotype puts women who are bisexual in an awkward position, as they are often viewed as sex objects to men and traitors to lesbians, as they don’t fall into either category fully. The poem “To Sylvia” has no references to sexual acts or discourse in any way, making it purely rooted in Levy’s emotions rather than her libido. And though she describes her lover, she never uses terms that sexualize or objectify her. Levy uses her words to paint the reader a picture of her love, rather than objectify and ground her in that sexualization.
Another thing that particularly struck me was in “To Sylvia” the love has no male influence, as it stands alone, with Levy being the sheer owner of her feelings. This is something unfortunately not common, as so many things to do with love are tied to heterosexual desire. But from the start of this poem, it is fearlessly not masculine. Levy writes, “O LOVE, lean thou thy cheek to mine, And let the tears together flow” which is a rather emotional line, very opposite from a masculine approach (1-2). Though poetry is generally viewed as feminine, most poets we know off hand tend to be men. A lot of poetry is rather sexualized and objectifying (like we see in Swinburne’s poetry as well as many others). Objectifying in this context specifically means viewing women as objects, and women being treated as such in the medium they are in (and sometimes just in real life). Specifically objectification can be problematic because of men’s tendency to ignore women’s feelings in various situations and exchanges. In Levy’s poetry, it is clear that this is not the case, as she is thinking of her lover’s feelings and wishing to be near them, but not in a way that sounds remotely needy or obsessive like many poets. In her writings she comes across as poised and love struck, but never as demanding or objectifying.
In Levy’s other poem, “At a Dinner Party,” she write about the exchange of a glance between her and another woman. It’s a love at first sight type of poem, and a beautiful one at that. What I found particularly striking about this poem was the ending, where she says, “It is our secret, only ours, Since all the world is blind” particularly because at this time it would be particularly taboo still to be a lesbian or queer (7-8). That all knowing glance shared by two gay women of this time would be quite profound, much like in many places of the world where people hide their queerness but are still living their life as either a “practicing” homosexual or a knowing one.
Once again the language in “At a Dinner Party” is strikingly simple and elegant, without a tone of overt objectification. The poem is slightly sexual, but not in a way that demeans any of the existing parties. Both women know something, probably of a past encounter, but speak not of it. This simple exchange is meaningful and very quiet – as if not to arouse suspicion.
In the time period Levy was writing there were some accounts of gay women existing, though mostly upper middle class since they were permitted to live among other women. However, without a doubt these circumstances would be secrets that people whispered about idly, as it was still clearly not accepted at this time to be a lesbian or queer of any kind.
Exploring the relationships and writings of particularly queer women is important, as they have generally been ignored by society for many reasons. Levy’s writing is simple and pleasing to the eye, but carries a point across the page. Unlike the many poets of her time, Levy writes non-obsessively, and many of today’s poets could take notes on the subtle balance and elegance of her writing.
Levy, Amy. “At a Dinner Party.” 1884, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/dinner-party.
Levy, Amy. “To Sylvia.” date, http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/vwwp/view?docId=VAB7106&chunk.id=d1e4269&brand=vwwp&doc.view=0&anchor.id=#VAB7106-051