Discuss the criteria established for good poetry by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote Aurora Leigh early in her poetic endeavors.  The poem became a “novel in verse.” Aurora describes her childhood through about the age of 27 in Books 1-5.  In Books 6-9, Aurora [Browning] writes in a diary form about current events. In addition, this is one of the longest poems in literature.

Written in blank verse, the point of view of the poem is a first person narration. In addition to Aurora, there is a second narrator: Marian, who has been abused as a child.

One aspect of the poem establishes criteria for Browning’s view of poetry and, in particular, epic poetry. Her purpose was to create a foundation to judge a poem by the verse and not the poet.

What is the poet’s objective and how should it be accomplished?

Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne's,-this live, throbbing age

Trust the spirit,
As sovran nature does, to make the form

  • Her first principle is to write about the time in which the poet lives.  Do not write about Charlemagne if she lives in the nineteenth century; rather, write about the Victorian age if that is when  the poet writes.
  • Do not be tied to a specific form of poetry. Follow one’s own intuition.

What the poet writes,
He writes: mankind accepts it, if it suits,
And that's success: if not, the poem's passed

  • The poet should be free to write about what he wants.  If the reader accepts it, that is good.  On the other hand, if the reader does not accept or like the poem, then it will be passed over.
  • Like the leaves on a tree branch, there is no certain length to a poem.  It is what it is.
  • The poet should write for himself and no other.  He should please himself and no other with his work.
  • Most importantly, the poem should be read by an audience.  Hopefully, the audience will interact with the other readers and a discussion will ensue.  
  • Poetry must change with the times in both content and form.

As her poem progresses, the speaker becomes more and more desperate about the lack of opportunities to write epic poetry.

"The remarkable thing in [Aurora Leigh] is its energy and strong poetical vitality, the rush and spring of life" of its narrative, which, however, was "not sufficient for the fervour and power of utterance." (eNotes)

Aurora Leigh had supporters who felt that this was Browning’s best work and determined her place in nineteenth century poetry.

megan1992 | Student

well the introduction to elizabeth barrett browning said that she did not like that most epics were based in the past. so there's one point you can use.

she liked epics to be set in the present. (most ppl thought the past was magical and stuff like the greeks and their crazy made up stories) (like herucles btw)

anyways also in the first part of aurora she mentions that homer's heros were 12 feet tall, unhuman, amazing. she says that every age (victorian, greek, etc) there are heros that are just ordinary people. but most people are unheroic.

 so i guess she takes pride in knowing that an ordinary person can be a hero instead of some beefy dude like beowulf.