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A Critical Analysis of the Poem "On the Threshold" by Amy Levy

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Amy Levy, a British poetess of Victorian era is best remembered for her feminist positions and her homosexual romances. She wrote the poem “On the Threshold” highlighting the aspects of homosexuality. “Homosexuality is a sexual desire or behavior directed toward a person of one’s own sex” (Dictionary.com). Ledger (n.d) regarded Amy Levy as a “New Woman poet with Sapphic interests”. “Levy’s poetry is distinguished by a variety of forms and themes, including dramatic monologue and intense confessional lyrics, which depict a female persona overcome with a brooding pessimism about the nature of human existence and human relations” (Ledger, n.d). This essay attempts to analyze the poem “On the Threshold” to reflect the unfulfilled desire and the societal injustice in the speaker’s life in connection to the homosexuality in the society and feminine character in association with the poetic devices used in the poem.

The speaker in the poem cries out in agony having recollected a dreadful dream with great feeling of loss of someone dear to her which would also signify the ultimate death of the poet in the line, “O God, my dream! I dreamed that you were dead” (Levy, 2012). The speaker seems to be awaken by a horrible dream. The poet doesn’t mention exactly who that “you” is being referred to. It may be her lover, closest friend or there is a possibility of the poet portraying “you” to the listeners in the poem but when the poet introduces mother of the “you” to the readers it is a hint that “you” is referred to another woman whom she loved. According to Levy’s personal life and legacy, in 1886, she met Violet Piaget, an author better known by the pseudonym of Vernon Lee, and fell in love with her. Although Vernon was a lesbian, the feelings were not mutual and she considered Levy only a good friend.

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The poem depicts the emotional feelings of loss and separation that the mother of the deceased is undergoing in the line, “Your mother hung above the couch and wept” (Levy, 2012). The mother of the deceased seemed to be lying near the corpse crying with immense feeling of loss and separation. There is no way for a person to come to life again once he/she is gone, and this separation brought a massive destruction in the life of the mother. The speaker in the poem watches the scene helplessly as it also reflects her own self going into depression because of the strong feelings she had to Vernon. Mayo (2017) states “Sexual minority women are at higher risk of depression and anxiety. Contributing factors include social alienation, discrimination, and rejection by loved ones, abuse and violence”. The speaker’s mental depression is highlighted in the lines, “garlanded with blooms of waxen whiteness” (Levy, 2012). It means that everything is drained of color or has become colorless and has been immersed in death. The body as well as the flowers are white which symbolizes lifeless.

In addition, the poet portrays female character to illustrate famine behavior and weakness in her poem to show that she is more toward homosexuality. The poet interprets mother of the deceased as soft hearted and weak, therefore she is upset of what is happening and weeping over the death of the departed soul as in the line, “Your mother hung above the couch and wept” (Levy, 2012). Moreover, the poet relates the flowers to its frailty as woman’s body subject to weakness and susceptible to external force in bringing their own self destruction compared to wax which consumes itself to live from the line, “With blooms of waxen whiteness” (Levy, 2012).

This essay also evaluates the use of metaphor in strengthening the ideas as to equip the readers with better understanding of the subject matter of the poem. “In a metaphor, a word or expression that in literal usage denotes one kind of thing is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing, without asserting a comparison” (Abrams & Harpham, 2016). In the poem, “Whereon you lay all white, and garlanded” (Levy, 2012), the colour white is referred to a woman who is virgin and pure. The poet compares the virgin woman to a white colour. Moreover, the white flower is also compared to that of white wax which shares the similar attributes as “With blooms of waxen whiteness” (Levy, 2012). This comparison may mean the pure relationship maintained between the speaker and the subject of the poem to whom the speaker attest.

The poet also presents the idea of the speakers’ relationship with the unnamed listener in the poem. Their relationship was not intimate though in the beginning the speaker cries out in agony upon awakening from her dream. This is evident from the lines “I had crept…Nor dared to advance to kiss your lips and brow” (Levy, 2012). The speaker in the poem is physically in the room and had crept into the scene. The door to the bed chamber is half open and she looks inside from far, this may symbolize the restriction in their homosexual relation. The speaker does not want to move any closer to the dead body. She is determined and firm to watch from far and wide. The relation once they shared had just passed along with the departed soul.

This essay hopes to contribute to our understanding of social restriction and societal injustice on homosexuality. “The 19th century crucially witnessed the genesis of homosexual identities, subcultures, and politics in forms that have endured to the present day. The word homosexual, with its attendant notion of sexual identity, was coined and disseminated in the last quarter of the 19th century. It was a period of enormous opportunities, challenges, and risks for homosexual women and men. The latter were subject to a barrage of infamously hostile legislation that threatened them with prosecution, imprisonment, and, until 1861, death” (Winyard, 2016). In lieu to this statement, it is evident that those who were homosexual were threatened and therefore the poet mentions the line “Death had not broken between us the old bar” (Levy, 2012). This bar may be referred to social convention, or as the speaker states, her own impotence. In either ways, the chance of being together has passed. Therefore, the speaker mourns over the unreality of her dream as she wakes up.

The poem also tries to share the significance of the dream that the speaker had in the beginning. In line with this, Freud (n.d), one of the dream theorists points out that “Dreams are based on the idea of repressed longing -the desires that we aren’t able to express in a social setting. Dreams allow the unconscious mind to act out those unacceptable thoughts and desires”. In the similar feelings of Freud, the speaker in the poem longs for her unfulfilled desire which comes in the form of a dream. The dream that the speaker had would also signify the speaker of the poem to pass the “threshold”. “Threshold is a point where one mentally or physically is vulnerable in response to provocation or to particular things in general” (Oxford Learner’s Dictionary).

The most prominent themes in Levy’s poems are searching and longing for love, sadness, death, and suicide which are much more related to her own life story. “In fact, editors describe much Levy’s poetry, specifically which featured in her collection A Minor Poet and Other Verse as “sad, mainly about death and suicide,” as well as “conventional melancholy of the female tradition in nineteenth-century poetry” (Whittington-Egan 42). In connection to this, the poem “On the Threshold” also depicts the theme of death and craving for love. To quote another poem by the same author, “At a Dinner Party”, the poet characterizes herself as lesbian in her life and she narrates the story of a person who perceives a lover across the room but cannot communicate with because their love had to be furtive as the poet considers the world to be blind as in the line;

“The look across the fruit and flowers,/My glance your glances find /it is our secret, only ours,

Since all the world is blind” (Levy, 2012).

This essay presented “On the Threshold” by Amy Levy as a striking poem which portrays social restriction of homosexuality during Victorian era and the poets’ feeling of disillusionment about her relationship. In addition, her poetry conveys the discontentment and lack of love she felt in life. Her poem also revealed her feminism and lesbianism, which were detested and unaccepted at her time.

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