This is another time where I present a piece by a lesser-known writer, though one who seemed to be on her way to overcoming artistic and social obstacles in the 1880s. Amy Levy was something of a prodigy, publishing work in her teenage years, achieving admission to Cambridge (only the second person of Jewish heritage to do so), and then while in her 20s carving out a career in journalism, fiction, and poetry. A feminist*, she had made connections with the cadre of those that would soon be called “New Women,” and Oscar Wilde was impressed by her keen powers of social observation and sharp concise prose.** In quick succession she wrote and published two novels and two books of poetry that seemed well enough received.
Of course, she had obstacles, not just the universal ones of art, but the additional burdens of anti-Semitism, misogyny, and what appears to be a lesbian orientation, which only makes her achievement as she reached the age of 27 seem just that much more impressive.
Amy Levy “Talkative, good-looking in a way, and full of the restlessness of the unhappy.”
At that point she had completed another novel, and in the summer of 1889 she was working on reviewing the proofs of her third book of poetry “A London Plane Tree.” The poems, if not exactly avant-garde, were spare and modern enough that they wouldn’t sound outdated in the coming century.
The front piece of the original 1889 edition of this book of Levy’s poems. Does anyone know what structure is pictured?
Today’s piece, “London In July,” is from that collection. It’s a love poem, a common enough subject, and its language is plain and unshowy, but consider what is being described. It starts by saying that the poet thinks her senses are “cheating,” that they cannot be relied on to represent reality. “All the people” she sees in London (presumably men and women) appear to her as having one person’s face.
The second stanza/verse hints at what face she’s seeing on everyone. It’s just a dirty-patina urban London summer day, but against this background, among the millions in the metropolis, she sees only what she must see: her beloved. She reminds us, her beloved is a London resident, she doesn’t leave for a country stay even in the heat of July.
In the third stanza, this situation has become a puzzle, a maze, and the size of the city a “waste,” as she only wishes to be were her beloved is.
And the city’s crowds, wearing the beloved’s face, are mocking the poet. Crying out to others in the crowd and market, yakking on about perhaps where they’d like to be rather than in the hot city this July: beside some rural stream, or at the seaside. The poet concludes: I’m not leaving, this city contains her. Hidden somewhere in its essence and hot summer, there is my beloved.
Perhaps the most striking thing, beyond the hallucinatory picture that is being painted here***, particularly to audiences in 1889, would be the same-sex desire that seems plainly part of this poem.**** That’s masked by having me perform it.
So how did audiences respond to that? How did Amy Levy deal with that response? Alas, that’s masked too. After completing her review of the proofs, but before the book was printed, she died by intentionally inhaling coal-gas in her room as the coroner judged it: “Under the influence of a disordered mind.”
I once again remind you that the first duty of an artist is to survive.
For a fairly simple musical concept I had trouble realizing the performance of this one. A pair of violas and three violins establish the cadence of the piece, playing unison lines in various registers, but then the electric bass plays a line that doesn’t consistently relate to the bowed strings key-center or root notes. I was trying for an unsettled rub between the bass and the strings. At one point I had an acoustic guitar part that tried to tie those two parts together, but I couldn’t execute it well enough, and conceptually I think it may work better to leave the contrast between the bass and strings unresolved. I’m past the point of deciding now, you decide. To hear it, click the player below. The text of the poem, is here.
*Her first major work was a poem presented in the voice of Xantippe, the wife of Socrates who appears there to have founded mansplaining alongside philosophy.
**Among her crew: Eleanor Marx (daughter of Karl) and Beatrice Webb, a founder of the Fabian society and the London School of Economics. She met Thomas Hardy and during the summer of 1889 she met Yeats who wrote later that Amy Levy was “Talkative, good-looking in a way, and full of the restlessness of the unhappy.”
***Part of what drew me to “A London Plane Tree” was a description of the poetry within as being an early example of Symbolist poetry in English. In terms of poetic language, I can’t quite see that yet, but some of the mood and sensibility in the pieces connects.
****Other than a frankly lesbian reading (which seems supported by biographical info) the only other reading I can see would be an esoteric one, similar to those that see a level in “The Song of Solomon” where the beloved is an incarnation of Israel or a state of union with the divine.