Amy Levi

On me the cloud descends: Amy Levy 1861-1889 - Issue 7 . Winter 1999

Amy Levy, novelist, poet and connoisseur of pain, was born in 1861, seemingly with one skin too few and prone to deprseeion for the whole of her short life.

She was schooled in Brighton, possibly at the young ladies seminary run by the Misses Hall in Sussex Square, and then became the first Jewish student at Newnham College, Cambridge, where her maiden volume of verse appeared. Xantippe was followed in 1884 by A Minor Poet and other verse, the title poem of which describes the premature suicide of a male poet:

From this bleak world,
into the night,
The dim, deep bosom
of the universe,
I cast myself. I only
crave for rest;
Too heavy is the load.
I fling it down.

'A small, dark girl, of unmistakably Jewish type, with eyes that seemed too large for the delicate features, and far too sad for their youthfulness of line and contour,' Levy's contemporaries felt wearied by the 'monotony of sadness' in her poems. Today she seems a more modern figure than many of her peers and her work a precursory mapping of ground explored in this century by Charlotte Mew and Sylvia Plath.

A pioneer, too, of lesbian flanerie, she enjoyed London's streets and squares and found the unfolding of 'the city pageant' relieved 'the burden of individual life that weighs me down'. A section of her third collection, A London Plane-Tree is devoted to the 'deep and delicate' pleasure of watching the urban scene.

It's too late now

A week after correcting the proofs of this last volume of her poems (dedicated to her close Brighton friend, the social activist and spinster, Clementina Black) she took her own life by inhaling charcoal fumes.

Levy's friend Olive Schreiner had done her best in the weeks before her death to raise her spirits, taking her for a short holiday and sending her a copy of Edward Carpenter's 'Have Faith' (a piece of chirpy mysticism not best calculated to cheer a depressive). Levy sent the poem back on the eve of her suicide saying, 'It might have helped me once; it's too late now; philosophy cannot help me'.

Papers destroyed

Although Levy bequeathed her literary estate to Clementina Black, many papers were destroyed by her family. Black salvaged two pieces for posthumous publication: a play for children called The Unhappy Princess and 'A Ballad of Religion and Marriage', a radical poem printed in an edition of twelve copies which anticipates the day when God and the institution of marriage are dead.

Desolate lyricism

All of Levy's fiction and much of her verse is reprinted in Complete Novels and Selected Writings of Amy Levy, edited by Melvyn New, University Press of Florida, 1993. Her work - desolate, lyrical and touched, thought Oscar Wilde, by genius - cries out for renewed lesbian reading.


Am I waking, am I sleeping?
As the first dawn comes creeping
Thro' the pane, I am aware
Of an unseen presence hovering,
Round, above, in the dusky air:
A downy bird, with an odorous wing,
That fans my forehead, and sheds perfume,
As sweet as love, as soft as death,
Drowsy-slow through the summer gloom.
My heart in some dream-rapture saith,
It is she. Half in a swoon,
I spread my arms in long delight.
O prolong, prolong the night,
For the nights are short in June!

Amy Levy, writer, 1861-1889.


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