‘On the Threshold‘ by Amy Levy is an eleven line poem that conforms to the rhyming pattern, ABABCCDDCEE. This regulated scheme helps to carry the reader through the poem from beginning to end but is not so overpowering as to distract from the subject matter and the purpose for which it was written. “One the Threshold” also follows a metered pattern of ten syllables per verse, except for the ninth line, which contains eleven syllables.
Summary of On the Threshold
The poem begins with the introduction of the dream and nightmarish scenario in which the unnamed listener and subject of the poem have passed on. The speaker is viewing the white and cold body from the doorway of the room, as the dead person’s mother hovers over the corpse weeping.
The speaker does not dare enter the room and “kiss” the body, she does not believe that their relationship justified that intimacy. They never took the final steps they needed in order to show one another how they truly felt and now that opportunity is gone forever. This listener’s death has solidified the “old bar” that always kept them apart.
Analysis of On the Threshold
O God, my dream! I dreamed that you were dead;
Your mother hung above the couch and wept
Whereon you lay all white, and garlanded
With blooms of waxen whiteness. I had crept
Up to your chamber-door, which stood ajar,
This emotional, and tumultuous poem begins with an exclamation. The writer shocks the reader into the poem by having her speaker cry out in desperation. The narrator of this piece is introducing the reader to a dream that she was subject to. It was clearly a horrible one, to which the first sentence can attest.
“Oh God,” she exclaims in horror. She has just awoken, or just recalled a dream that she had regarding someone near to her. This “someone” goes unnamed and is the listener to whom the speaker is directing her verses.
In this terrible dream that the speaker is going to be describing for the reader, she saw this unnamed listener “dead.” The body was laid out on a couch, presumably indoors, within a home, and watched over by his/her mother. The mother of the listener was there, hanging “above the couch.” The mother is clearly upset by what is happening and is weeping as she seems to float over the body.
On the couch, the body of the speaker’s listener is “garlanded / With blooms of waxen whiteness.” This is not the only time that the word “white” is going to be used to describe the scene. Everything is drained of color and has been immersed in death. The body is white, as are the flowers that surround it.
The speaker is physically in the room and has crept into the scene. The door to the bed chamber is open or, “ajar,” and she stares inside
Lines 6- 11
And in the doorway watched you from afar,
Nor dared advance to kiss your lips and brow.
I had no part nor lot in you, as now;
Death had not broken between us the old bar;
Nor torn from out my heart the old, cold sense
Of your misprision and my impotence.
The speaker does not approach any closer than where she is. She is determined to watch from afar, not because she does not want to face the body but because now that this unknown person has passed away, she no longer has any claim over the life.
She will not “dare” to “advance to kiss your lips and brow.” This closeness that they might have once shared if they had been willing to take that step, has passed along with the listener’s life. (The state of their relationship will be more clearly defined in the last three lines). She puts this new separation into words when she says that she “has no part nor lot in you.” All ties have been broken and she has no rights to the body.
In the final lines of the poem, it becomes clear that the relationship between these two people was not what the speaker would have liked it to be. If one is to consider the speaker’s affections as being intimate in nature, then there was no real consumption of their feelings for one another. There was a “bar” that was put up between then that kept them apart. This bar could have been born from social convention, or as the speaker states, her own “impotence.” Either way, their chance to be together has passed and the speaker is mourning that unreality when she awake.
Perhaps this dream will serve as a signal for the speaker to pass the “threshold” that is keep them apart so that the end does not occur as it did in her nightmare.
About Amy Levy
Amy Levy was born in London, England in November of 1861. She was one of seven children born into an Anglo-Jewish family. The Levy family was fairly wealthy and allowed Amy her own literary and scholarly pursuits. The children of the family, all interested in some form of literature, worked together to create home “literary magazines” to which Levy contributed poems and plays.
At the age of fifteen Levy went to live in Brighton to study at Brighton High School. She was somewhat independent at this time and was allowed to live on her own. She was later to attend Cambridge University where she studied classical and modern languages, as well as literature. She left university before completing her degree in an effort to free herself from the restraints her parents had placed on her. She was determined to travel around Europe and did so. Her first book of poetry, Xantrippe and other verses, was published in 1880.
While little is known about Levy’s personal life scholars have come to the conclusion that she was attracted to women, but never held any serious relationships. One of her best-known sonnets, “To Vernon Lee,” was dedicated to a novelist, Violet Piaget, she met while living in Florence.
Throughout her life, Levy had dealt with bouts of depression and illness. She was slowly becoming deaf and committed suicide two months before her 28th birthday. She was at the height of her literary career. Her ashes were interred at Balls Pond Cemetery.