A Student Response to Amy Levy

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.

Works Cited

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

5 thoughts on “A Student Response to Amy Levy

  1. The analysis here is fascinating — how women writing romantically about women compares to men writing romantically about women, especially. Would you chalk this up to patriarchy? Perhaps the differences lies, in part, to issues of entitlement?

    Society, both then and now, sexually privileges men — it is socially acceptable for men to be overtly sexual and virile (it is part of performative masculinity), and also to gaze at women as objects (a.k.a. the male gaze). Women, on the other hand, society expects to be demure. I am speaking as a cisgender, heterosexual woman — but perhaps queer women writers treat female subjects differently because they are socially expected to a) perform their feminine gender, and eschew sexuality, and b) are on the receiving end of the male gaze, and have an awareness of its harm and the discomfort it causes in a way that men aren’t really privy to.

    This blog posts has my gears turning. Amy Levy’s poetry is truly heartfelt and heartbreaking all at once, isn’t it?

    Thank you, peer, for your astute insights.

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  2. I really enjoyed reading this. Levy’s work stood out to be because of how simple the love, and world within, is portrayed. I don’t think her writing is childish, but elegant, as you said. She somehow portrays the magnificence of her love and the depth of her emotion with simple words, ensuring that her emotions are not only reserved for those willing to slog through line after line of polysyllabic metaphor. It is also special in that it doesn’t objectify the object of desire, as you also noted. So many works concern themselves with a woman’s hair, the curve of her neck, the white of her ankle etc etc, but poetry like this almost objectifies the relationship/love itself. “At a Dinner Party” has absolutely zero description of the subject, yet Levy’s affection is laid bare. I honestly think the conciseness of her writing style makes her one of my favorite poets.

    I also liked your note about bisexuality. Lots of readers assume that whatever gender a character first shows an affection for fixes their sexuality into homo-or-heterosexuality, with no space for consideration of both. Characters like Dorian Gray are typically considered gay because of his relationship with men, yet he is explicitly shown in relationships with women. Vernon Lee or Amy Levy could have been bisexual, but identified more with their attraction to women or felt that they had to choose. I know queer people who admit that they are not attracted to people who have slept with the opposite gender, just as some heterosexual folk don’t want to be with people who have had same-sex relations. It really seems that bisexual people tend to be forgotten in the grand scheme of things, even if bisexuality seems to be a better explanation than a character’s sexuality just switching.

    Thank you! That was a fascinating read.

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    • Sexuality is a weird thing. As humans so much of our sexuality is the product of thought. We formulate and cultivate sexual tastes. We use our minds to fixate on things like leather, latex, muscles. Likewise we elevate races and haircolours and sexes, say that we like this and we don’t like that, when really we are only talking hypothetically. I think sexuality is too far removed from the simple fact of ‘being-turned-on’–like you said, just because a person has one turn-on does not mean that it is their only turn-on, or their defining turn-on. Turn-ons themselves are more mobile than sexuality, they arent so prescriptive, and they are much more immediate. Turn-ons are highly relative and dependent on every factor, forever EMERGENT. Sexuality is a porny list of fake turn-ons, prefabricated and prescriptive, which locks its listed turn-ons in, and locks every other turn-on out.

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  3. The analysis you’ve presented is incredibly intriguing! I agree that Levy’s poetry is emotional, and at the same time simple. Your comments on the objectification of women by male poets was a great comparison to the lack of such objectification in Levy’s poetry. The lack of sexualization in her writing is what makes her writing even more heart-warming and touching.
    Thank you for this wonderful post!

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  4. I wholly agree that Levy devotes her love poems to the women she’s writing about without objectifying or her defining her through a sexual gaze. What really stands out to me in Levy’s poetry is how she manages to speak about the other woman without wholly focusing on her body. “At a Dinner Party,” has no physical description at all, and yet the poem implies this is a woman in a similar social standing to Levy, and someone she deeply trusts. From those two points alone I feel like I know a lot more about Levy’s lover than a lot of other love poems tell me about the person they’re dedicated to. And when we do get physical descriptions like in “To Sylvia,” the description is paired with actions or insight that expands upon her lover as a whole person instead of an object. With lines like “And how were whiter than the keys / Your hands that played” we learn about the lover’s fair complexation, but more importantly, we learn about her skills as a pianist. I think lines like these help to further define that point that you’ve already made that Levy’s poetry has a purely feminine influence over it.

    I love the analysis you did on the gaze in “At a Dinner Party,” and the point you mentioned on bisexuality. Thank you for sharing!

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