Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Discoursing of Xantippe: Amy Levy, Classical Scholarship, and Print Culture

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Discoursing of Xantippe: Amy Levy, Classical Scholarship, and Print Culture

Article excerpt

Amy Levy's "Xantippe," frequently mentioned in New Woman and fin de siecle scholarship as well as recent studies of women writers' engagement with classicism, represents the wife of Socrates on her deathbed as she looks back on her girlhood quest for knowledge, denial of access to learned discourse with Socrates or his intellectual circle, and gradual subsidence into the embittered role of subordinate wife. (1) In contrast to the feminist message of this, Levy's best-known poem, her choice of subject has occasioned surprisingly little comment, as if an eighteen-year-old poet's decision to write an extended dramatic monologue uttered by the wife of Socrates--so famous for ill temper that the OED lists her name as a synonym for "shrew"--were a matter of course. Levy turned to classical subject matter, in fact, only in three poems: "Xantippe," "Medea," and "A Greek Girl," all published in her 1884 collection, A Minor Poet and Other Verse. (2) Why did she turn to classicism at all when it was not to be an abiding focus in her work?

Asking why Levy might have assumed the poetic persona of Xantippe opens new perspectives on her self-positioning and her poems significance. Rather than pursuing an influence study, a general semiotics of intertextuality, or Levy's critique of classical tradition through a feminist parody of one of its famous narratives, I suggest that Levy deliberately inserted her poem into a complex discursive network of British and German classical scholarship, higher criticism, and popular print culture. Examining the poem from within this nexus of discourses indicates that, rather than a transparent feminist polemic, "Xantippe" is a multilayered and highly inflected poetic text. Levy's adoption of classical subject matter and Xantippe's persona in fact allowed her to write simultaneously as an authorized participant in classical studies, a Jew, and a woman writer. I begin with the poems relation to classical scholarship and its significance as a performative enactment of educated discourse.


The date of Levy's composition of "Xantippe" is telling. Her biographer Linda Hunt Beckman places it around or just after the publication in July 1879 of "Run to Death," the narrative poem in which nobility in pre-revolutionary France hunt a gypsy woman and her child for sport. Levy composed "Xantippe" between her conclusion of studies at Brighton High School for Girls and her matriculation to Newnham College, Cambridge, in October 1879. As Levy wrote to her sister from Brighton once she had determined to follow in the footsteps of her beloved headmistress Miss Creak, an alumna of Newnham, "I make such different pictures to what I used to--you married maternal, prudent ... with a tendency to laugh at the plain High School Mistress sister who grinds, and lodges with chums and adores 'without return." (3) "Xantippe" is thus the work not only of a poet invested in social injustice, as in "Run to Death," and author of a letter to the editor in the 17 February 1879 Jewish Chronicle entitled "Jewish Women and 'Women's Rights,'" (4) but also a prospective female member of an elite university who sought to find her place among the learned. In this context the selection of Xantippe as subject is not only a brilliant poetic choice of a mouthpiece perfectly suited to distill issues of social justice and feminism but also a performative act in the sense of a self-conscious rehearsal of and claim to the role of learned woman.

Since to represent Xantippe Levy must also characterize Socrates and members of his circle, "Xantippe" takes up a figure of unusual importance to Victorian scholars. As Frank Turner comments:

For the Victorian age the most famous citizen of Athens was Socrates, the philosopher-teacher who had urged his contemporaries to reexamine the quality and presuppositions of their lives and whose career as the self-proclaimed gadfly of the city ended with judicial condemnation and execution. …

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