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Poem of the Month: Amy Levy’s “Ballade of an Omnibus”
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London Road Car Company omnibus, 1901 (Wikimedia Commons)

Amy Levy is experiencing a revival. And it’s about time. An important late-century Anglo-Jewish poet, Levy wrote technically accomplished, radical poetry, as well as several novels and periodical essays, and was a member of important politically active literary circles in London (including Karl Pearson’s “A Men and Women’s Club”). She was the first Jewish woman to enter Newnham College, Cambridge. Her work demonstrates a vibrant, original, urban and cosmopolitan voice. But for a long while her literary reputation has been overshadowed by her tragic death, self-inflicted at the age of 27 by inhaling charcoal gas fumes. Her suicide, together with her depression, deafness, apparent lesbianism and discomfort with the Jewish community, have positioned her as a classic outsider — a status she claimed for herself, in her poetry collection A Minor Poet and her identification with James Thomson in her essay “James Thomson: A Minor Poet” (The Cambridge Review, February 1883).

The introduction to a recent collection of essays devoted to Levy, edited by Naomi Hetherington and Nadia Valman, echoes Holly Laird in its warning that Levy’s identity conflict, and her early death, must not overshadow her work. Otherwise, Amy Levy appears to us in a “monochromatic reading”, with a consistent if not overdetermined account of her life and death contingent on marginalisation (p. 3). Certainly, their collection of essays presents a refreshing diversity to Levy’s intellectual heritage and literary career. I’m reviewing the collection for my Year’s Work review essay in Victorian Poetry, on criticism about women poets published in 2010. In my reading for that review, I’ve been struck by the prominence of attention given to Levy very recently that presents a picture of her as a complex, fascinating poet, with a rich set of literary, philosophical, and political influences. In Christine Pullen’s The Woman Who Dared: A Biography of Amy Levy, a notable contribution to the study of late-century poets, Levy comes across as part of a fascinating network of writers and thinkers. Surely, now, it’s not enough to see her as merely a “minor poet”. Indeed, some of the most fruitful readings of Levy’s poetry come out of an awareness of her self-representation, her deployment of a poetics of impersonality, rather than the utterance of a tragic, unhappy, autobiographical lyric voice.

London Omnibus, 1901 (Wikimedia Commons)

And now to one of my favourite poems by Levy, “Ballade of an Omnibus”, our poem of the month. I’ve taught this poem several times in a second year introductory course to the Victorian period here at UVic, and my students invariably respond with great interest and enthusiasm to its clever play with genre (that tricksy ballade form) and its bold statement about women’s new urban mobility (Anna Vadillo is fascinating on this subject). Levy was known to her circle as one of the first women to ride on the top of an omnibus. Her friend Katie Solomon, in her letter about Levy published in The Observer in 1925, claims that Levy “excused herself to her shocked family circle by saying that she had committed the outrage in company with the daughter of a dean who was the granddaughter of an Archbishop of Canterbury” (cited Pullen, p. 137). As for its form, Virginia Blain’s edition of Victorian Women Poets notes the poem’s alteration of the most common ballade genre (8-line stanzas rhyming ababbcbc and a 4-line envoi rhyming bcbc), with the envoi rhyming acac. Why does this matter? My students often commented that the revision of the typical envoi rhyming pattern demonstrates her mastery of an Old French form that was popular among late-century poets (for example, Andrew Lang’s Ballades in Blue China [1880, 1881], which the poem’s epigraph quotes), and the irony of deploying this historical genre to address urban modernity. But is there any other significance?

That reiteration of the last line of each stanza, “An omnibus suffices me” — with the “c” rhyme “me” — seems crucial. All the readings I have encountered of this poem treat it as a celebration of the new urban freedom accorded to, or assumed by, women at the end of the century. But I pause over that word “suffices” — that “c” rhyme carried over into the envoi — which is taken from Lang’s “Ballade Amoureuse”. My students start off seeing the poem as celebratory, which I suppose I lead them to when I show them the wonderful contemporary images of women riding omnibuses (see, in addition to the images in this post, William Maw Egley’s Omnibus Life in London [1859] and George William Joy’s The Bayswater Omnibus [1895], as well as other fabulous images in the London Transport Museum website; Vadillo has an interesting discussion of omnibus pictures in her book). But I always ask them to pause at the word “suffice”, because it always trips me up when I read the poem. It seems so muted. Of course, Levy does use muted self-deprecation — think “minor poet” — but is “suffices” really enough? Is it ironic? Why is it picked up from Lang? And how to read this poem as melancholy in light of the resurgence of interest in Levy as a radical, politicised, complex, cosmopolitan poet? Is the shadow of her unhappy biography still falling on her poetry (after all, this is a stylised ballade, not a personal lyric). As you can see, I’m not at all sure my own usual reading of the poem stands up to the new Amy Levy that is emerging from Hetherington and Valman’s essay collection.

Lang’s poem follows Levy’s below. I think the two make an interesting comparison. Does Lang’s use of that refrain “An omnibus suffices me” seem less melancholy and muted than in Levy’s ballade? Lang’s exclamation marks read to me as exuberant and celebratory. In contrast, does Levy’s use of the verb question the extent of the speaker’s contentment?

Amy Levy, “Ballade of an Omnibus”

“To see my love suffices me.”

Ballades in Blue China.

SOME men to carriages aspire;
On some the costly hansoms wait;
Some seek a fly, on job or hire;
Some mount the trotting steed, elate.
I envy not the rich and great,
A wandering minstrel, poor and free,
I am contented with my fate —
An omnibus suffices me.

In winter days of rain and mire
I find within a corner strait;
The ‘busmen know me and my lyre
From Brompton to the Bull-and-Gate.
When summer comes, I mount in state
The topmost summit, whence I see
Crœsus look up, compassionate —
An omnibus suffices me.

I mark, untroubled by desire,
Lucullus’ phaeton and its freight.
The scene whereof I cannot tire,
The human tale of love and hate,
The city pageant, early and late
Unfolds itself, rolls by, to be
A pleasure deep and delicate.
An omnibus suffices me.

Princess, your splendour you require,
I, my simplicity; agree
Neither to rate lower nor higher.
An omnibus suffices me.

[Text from RPO]

Andrew Lang, “BALLADE AMOUREUSE. AFTER FROISSART.”

Not Jason nor Medea wise,
I crave to see, nor win much lore,
Nor list to Orpheus’ minstrelsies;
Nor Her’cles would I see, that o’er
The wide world roamed from shore to shore;
Nor, by St. James, Penelope, –
Nor pure Lucrece, such wrong that bore:
To see my Love suffices me!

Virgil and Cato, no man vies
With them in wealth of clerkly store;
I would not see them with mine eyes;
Nor him that sailed, sans sail nor oar,
Across the barren sea and hoar,
And all for love of his ladye;
Nor pearl nor sapphire takes me more:
To see my Love suffices me!

I heed not Pegasus, that flies
As swift as shafts the bowmen pour;
Nor famed Pygmalion’s artifice,
Whereof the like was ne’er before;
Nor Oleus, that drank of yore
The salt wave of the whole great sea:
Why? dost thou ask? ‘Tis as I swore –
To see my Love suffices me!
[text from www.fullbooks.com]

Further Reading

Linda Hunt Beckman, “Amy Levy”, Jewish Women’s Archive

Virginia Blain (ed.), Victorian Women Poets: A New Annotated Anthology (Longman, 2001)

W. J. Gordon, The Horse World of London (1893) — chapter 12, “The Omnibus Horse”

Naomi Hetherington and Nadia Valman (eds.), Amy Levy: Critical Essays (Ohio University Press, 2010)

Christine Pullen, The Woman Who Did: A Biography of Amy Levy (Kingston University Press, 2010)

Ana Parejo Vadillo, Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism: Passengers of Modernity (Palgrave, 2005)

 

 

 

 

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Poem of the Month: Amy Levy’s “Ballade of an Omnibus” by Alison Chapman, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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