My historical work on lesbian-feminism tends to cover work that happened in my lifetime, but with this selection of five poems to celebrate National Poetry Month, I am reaching farther back into history. The contemporary scene of feminist poetry is vibrant and engaging—and so is the history of feminist poetry. This series offers five poems by women poets born between 1861 and 1922. A longer history of poetry demonstrates how feminists send messages across the ages.
Amy Levy was born in London in 1861. She lived a short life, sadly committing suicide at the age of 27, but her poetry remains. Levy’s short poem, “At a Dinner Party,” demonstrates the excitement of erotic connection through a simple glance. Her portrayal of desire in that poem feels as contemporary as any poet writing today.
In “To Sylvia,” Levy celebrates the importance and timeliness of love. Today, we might find the language of Levy unfamiliar even affected. We do not speak or read “thou” and “thy” regularly; words like “wroth” and “mixt” might give us brief pause, possibly upsetting the flow of meaning. Yet, reaching across the centuries to read Levy’s poem is an encounter with passion and desire. Levy want her love to lean the cheek to hers so that they may cry together. She knows that the beloved is special, with golden hair and blue eyes, and that the love the two share will remain.
“To Sylvia” rewards readers with common human emotions and sentiments, even if the expressions are slightly different.
“O love, lean thou thy cheek to mine,
And let the tears together flow”—
Such was the song you sang to me
Once, long ago.
Such was the song you sang; and yet
(O be not wroth!) I scarcely knew
What sounds flow’d forth; I only felt
That you were you.
I scarcely knew your hair was gold,
Nor of the heavens’ own blue your eyes.
Sylvia and song, divinely mixt,
These things I scarcely knew; to-day,
When love is lost and hope is fled,
The song you sang so long ago
Rings in my head.
Clear comes each note and true; to-day,
As in a picture I behold
Your tur’d-up chin, and small, sweet head
Misty with gold.
I see how your dear eyes grew deep,
How your lithe body thrilled and swayed,
And how were whiter than the keys
Your hands that played. . .
Ah, sweetest! cruel have you been,
And robbed my life of many things.
I will not chide; ere this I knew
That Love had wings.
You’ve robbed my life of many things—
Of love and hope, of fame and pow’r.
So be it, sweet. You cannot steal
One golden hour.
“To Sylvia” is from Amy Levy’s 1884 collection A Minor Poet and Other Verse.