Henry Fothergill Chorley (review date 1856)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Review of Aurora Leigh, in The Athenaeum, No. 1517, November 22, 1856, pp. 1425-7.

[In this review, Chorley praises Browning's style and intent but claims that the plot of Aurora Leigh is "in its argument unnatural, and in its form infelicitous."]

Our best living English poetess—our greatest English poetess of any time—has essayed in Aurora Leigh to blend the epic with the didactic novel. The medium in which the story floats is that impassioned language—spotted and flowered with the imagery suggested by fancy or stored up by learning,—which has given the verse of Mrs. Browning a more fiery acceptance from the young and spiritual, and her name a higher renown than any woman has heretofore gained.

We dwell on the sex of the author of Aurora Leigh in no disrespectful spirit of comparison, but simply because to overlook it is rendered impossible by the poetess herself. Aurora Leigh, into which she says "have entered her highest convictions upon Life and Art," is her contribution to the chorus of protest and mutual exhortation, which Woman is now raising, in hope of gaining the due place and sympathy which, it is held, have been denied to her since the days when Man was created, the first of the pair in Eden. Who can quarrel with the intent? Who would silence any struggle made by those who fancy themselves desolate, oppressed, undervalued,—to unlock the prison-doors,—to melt the heart of injustice? Mrs. Browning is never unwomanly in her passionate pleadings for women: unwomanly she could not be, after having wrought out that beautiful and tender conception of Eve, which gives such peculiar grace to her 'Drama of Exile.' Her Confession (for like all works of its class, Aurora Leigh has in it a tone of confession,) amounts to an admission of failure: its conclusion is that indicated from another point of view by Mrs. Hemans, in her 'Properzia Rossi.' The moral is the insufficiency of Fame and Ambition, be either ever so generous, to make up for the absence of Love:—a class-vindication wound up by an appeal against class-separation. Thus, as in all the works of its kind, which women have so freely poured out from their full hearts during late years, we see the agony more clearly than the remedy. We are shown, at first, restlessness disdaining quiet; till, fevered and forlorn, as time and grief do their work, the restless heart ends in courting the very repose it so scorned when first tendered. But while Truth closes the tale, in its progress Imagination has been strained beyond permissible freedom. In brief, we regret to declare that Mrs. Browning's longest and most matured effort, jewelled though it be with rich thought and rare fancies, is in its argument unnatural, and in its form infelicitous.

Aurora Leigh is a born poetess, the child of an English father and an Italian mother,—on the father's side connected with wealth and old name. She is sent over to England, when an orphan, to be cared for and educated by a maiden aunt,—that well-worn spectral apparition of convention in buckram, without which no tale of woman's aspirings, it seems, can be told. Such persons, whose narrow capacities bring on limited views of duty, have been long abused; but their time, it appears, has not yet come. Meanwhile, they serve their turn with those who make fantastic panoramas of life. Without such aunts (grim substitute for the stepmother of ancient romance!) no woman of genius could be cradled into poetry through wrong; and Mrs. Browning only adopts a convention in denouncing convention. Aurora is wooed by...

(This entire section contains 4847 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

her cousin, Romney Leigh, a rich, high-hearted philanthropist, to whom her heart is not disinclined. But he is too big in the consciousness of his own philanthropy; and waywardly she conceives the idea that she is asked to become his wife in a strain of persuasion unworthy the ear of a great and gifted woman,—that she is sought from low motives, (as, indeed, are most wives,) and that her career, as an unassisted and independent woman of genius, will be brighter if she retains her heart in her own keeping. Accordingly Aurora rejects Romney as a husband,—spurns his generous attempts to smooth the path of life for her by tendering a share of the family fortune. Putting on poverty as a singing robe, she adopts authorship in London, becomes famous and admired, and dwells like a star apart. Foiled of his object, Romney Leigh embraces his plans of social reforms with an earnestness, in which there is the intoxication of a wounded spirit as much as the conviction of one called to the priest's office. He opens a phalanstery, affects only the society of the sick, sorrowful, or guilty, and, willing to attest his superiority to class prejudice by the most solemn act a man can do, prepares to marry one Marian Erle, a milliner's apprentice,—who is humble, ignorant, but as devoted and as noble in her way as either Romney or Aurora. The latter (in spite of her having begun to discover that she had made a mistake in rejecting her cousin, and in fancying that fame could supply the place of love) seeks out Marian. The girl's story is powerfully told, but is unreal in the poetry and holiness of nature it reveals in one nurtured, tortured, and beset as she has been. Such resistance as hers must have hardened the victim in the struggle,—whereas Marian is soft as a briar-rose, besides being pure as the dew-bead on it. Aurora welcomes and embraces her with enthusiastic devotion. Not so other of Romney's female friends. A wicked influence is at work against the poor sempstress:—a woman of fashion, one Lady Waldemar, who has fallen in love with Romney Leigh, (and for his sake, with Christian socialism) so practises upon Marian, that on the appointed wedding-day, when St. Giles and St. James are bidden to church to see the Socialist gentleman married (a parade somewhat insolent in its condescension), the bride is not forthcoming, but in her place a mysterious letter. Instead of the bridal revel, where Rank and Rags were to sit at the same board, there is a brawl in the church:—Marian is gone—no one knows whither.

As years roll on, Aurora's authorship prospers. She is praised in the reviews—she is a lion in London soirées; and from not any of the most common-place and frivolous of these transactions, with all their train of prosaic and poverty-stricken adjuncts, does our artist shrink as a subject for art. Nevertheless, Aurora finds out that she is alone in spirit after all; and more stung than she cares to own, by a rumour in the coteries that Cousin Romney is about to marry this evil Lady Waldemar, she resolves to give up England for a time, and go home to Italy. On her way—in Paris—she lights on Marian, now the unwedded mother of a beautiful boy, and learns from her the sequel to her story: how Lady Waldemar had not only detached her from the noble gentleman who would have married her; had not only, as we have seen, prevailed on her to give up Cousin Romney; but, under pretext of sending her out to the Colonies, had allowed her to fall into the hands of an infamous woman, by whom Marian—herself innocent—was forced into ruin. In this hideous page of the romance Mrs. Browning puts forth all her power. Aurora at once takes the outraged Marian to her heart, carries her off with her child to Italy, and writes home her disclosure of Lady Waldemar's machinations—in order that it may reach Romney. After them, in due course of time, he arrives. By the old trick, well worn in novels and plays, Aurora receives him, under the misapprehension that he is Lady Waldemar's husband; but he presently assures her that, so far from being so, he has come to Italy still to marry Marian, and to adopt the child of violence and misery as his own. Once more, however, and this time unprompted by all except her own nature, Marian refuses to marry Romney;—assuring him that she does not love him now; that indeed she never did love him as he deserved to be loved; that she will live for her child, and no creature else: and it is in this crisis that Aurora and Romney at last come to an understanding. The artist has found the hollowness of Art to fill and to satisfy; and the philanthropist's experiences are drearier still. He has been rewarded for his care for the vile and the humble by having his father's house burnt over his head—in the catastrophe having lost his sight, it is hinted, owing to the vengeance of Marian's reprobate father.

Such is a brief sketch of the argument of Aurora Leigh; and not a few who read it will be tempted to say, This looks not like a poem, but a novel, belonging to the period which has produced 'Ruth,' and 'Villette,' and 'The Blithedale Romance.' We will not stop to ask how far the invention be true to life and to art; since the form of its presentment may be pleaded in excuse for anything unreal in character, false in sentiment, or exaggerated in incident, which exists in the plot and the persons working it out. But what are we to say if we waive purpose—if we do not discuss the wisdom of the form selected (large concessions these, yet due to one so gifted and so passionately in earnest as Mrs. Browning)—if we treat Aurora Leigh as a poetical romance? Simply, that we have no experience of such a mingling of what is precious with what is mean—of the voice of clarion and the lyric cadence of harp with the cracked school-room spinet—of tears and small-talk—of eloquent apostrophe and adust speculation—of the grandeur of passion and the pettiness of modes and manners—as we find in these nine books of blank verse. Milton's organ is put by Mrs. Browning to play polkas in May-Fair drawing-rooms, and fitted out by her with its Æsthetic Review stop, which drones out lengths and strains of a strange quality. But it yields, too, beneath her fingers those glorious chords and melodies, which (musicians have fancied) are the real occupation and utterance of that instrument. Is this severe? Let any one that thinks so take the following commencement of the scene in the church at Romney's interrupted wedding as a passage from a poem:

We waited. It was early: there was time
For greeting, and the morning's compliment;
And gradually a ripple of women's talk
Arose and fell, and tossed about a spray
Of English ss, soft as a silent hush,
And, notwithstanding, quite as audible
As louder phrases thrown out by the men.
—"Yes, really, if we've need to wait in church,
We've need to talk there."—"She? 'Tis Lady Ayr,
In blue—not purple! that's the dowager."
—"She looks as young."—"She flirts as young, you mean!
Why if you had seen her upon Thursday night,
You'd call Miss Norris modest."—"You again!
I waltzed with you three hours back.
Up at six, Up still at ten: scarce time to change one's shoes.
I feel as white and sulky as a ghost,
So pray don't speak to me, Lord Belcher."—"No,
I'll look at you instead, and it's enough
While you have that face."—"In church, my lord! fle, fle!"
—"Adair, you stayed for the Division?"—"Lost
By one."—"The devil it is! I'm sorry for't.
And if I had not promised Mistress Grove". .
—"You might have kept your word to Liverpool."

"Constituents must remember, after all,
We're mortal."—"We remind them of it.""Hark,
The bride comes! Here she comes, in a stream of milk!"
—"There? Dear, you are asleep still; don't you know
The five Miss Granvilles? always dressed in white
To show they're ready to be married."—"Lower!
The aunt is at your elbow."—"Lady Maud,
Did Lady Waldemar tell you she had seen
This girl of Leigh's?"—"No—wait! 'twas Mrs. Brookes,
Who told me Lady Waldemar told her—
No, 'twasn't Mrs. Brookes."—"She's pretty?"—"Who?
Mrs. Brookes? Lady Waldemar?"—"How hot!
Pray is't the law to-day we're not to breathe?
You're treading on my shawl—I thank you, sir,"
—"They say the bride's a mere child, who can't read,
But knows the things she shouldn't, with wide-awake
Great eyes. I'd go through fire to look at her."
—"You do, I think."—"And Lady Waldemar
(You see her, sitting close to Romney Leigh;
How beautiful she looks, a little flushed!)
Has taken up the girl, and organized
Leigh's folly. Should I have come here, you suppose,
Except she'd asked me?"—"She'd have served him more
By marrying him herself."—
"Ah—there she comes,
The bride, at last!"
"Indeed, no. Past eleven.
She puts off her patched petticoat to-day
And puts on May-fair manners, so begins
By setting us to wait."

Surely the above is in the step of Mrs. Gore's prose, without its pungency. Or is the following more poetical?

Five acts to make a play.
And why not fifteen? why not ten? or seven?
What matter for the number of the leaves,
Supposing the tree lives and grows? exact
The literal unities of time and place,
When 'tis the essence of passion to ignore
Both time and place? Absurd. Keep up the fire,
And leave the generous flames to shape themselves.

Aurora Leigh contains too many pages as perversely trivial, too many passages as carelessly dry, as the above. We cannot forgive either the flippancy or the dreary disquisition from one like Mrs. Browning, when her theme, too, is of art and artists. Such are affectations, not discoveries. There is humanity even in May-Fair babble; there may be thought in criticism, be it ever so clear; but to bring Mr. Yellowplush, with his powder and calves, into a serious poem of grief and aspiration;—and when we would see Corinna to come upon a Gifford or Conder nibbing his pen for a succinct paragraph,—these things, we repeat, are novelties to which no diffusion of the new light will reconcile serious readers.

Why these fopperies and mistakes grieve us in Mrs. Browning we will show forthwith; for not one of her former works is richer in passages of power and beauty, in noble lines and lofty thoughts than Aurora Leigh. The following is full of a half-severe, half-humorous observation, not exceeded by Cowper's most terse and true character in verse. Here is the being to whom the Italy-born Poetess was confided when arriving as a child in England.—

I think I see my father's sister stand
Upon the hall-step of her country-house
To give me welcome. She stood straight and calm,
Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight
As if for taming accidental thoughts
From possible pulses; brown hair pricked with grey
By frigid use of life (she was not old,
Although my father's elder by a year),
A nose drawn sharply, yet in delicate lines;
A close mild mouth, a little soured about
The ends, through speaking unrequited loves,
Or peradventure niggardly half-truths;
Eyes of no colour,—once they might have smiled,
But never, never have forgot themselves
In smiling; cheeks, in which was yet a rose
Of perished summers, like a rose in a book,
Kept more for ruth than pleasure,—if past bloom,
Past fading also.

Next comes an apology, too (to use the word in its secondary sense), made by the artist for the direction of her studies, which is very graceful and tender.—

I read much. What my father taught before
From many a volume, Love re-emphasised
Upon the self-same pages: Theophrast
Grew tender with the memory of his eyes,
And Ælian made mine wet. The trick of Greek
And Latin, he had taught me, as he would
Have taught me wrestling or the game of fives
If such he had known,—most like a shipwrecked man
Who heaps his single platter with goats' cheese
And scarlet berries; or like any man
Who loves but one, and so gives all at once,
Because he has it, rather than because
He counts it worthy. Thus, my father gave;
And thus, as did the women formerly
By young Achilles, when they pinned the veil
Across the boy's audacious front, and swept
With tuneful laughs the silver-fretted rocks,
He wrapt his little daughter in his large
Man's doublet, careless did it fit or no.

But, after I had read for memory,
I read for hope. The path my father's foot
Had trod me out, which suddenly broke off,
(What time he dropped the wallet of the flesh
And passed) alone I carried on, and set
My child-heart 'gainst the thorny underwood,
To reach the grassy shelter of the trees.
Ah, babe i' the wood, without a brother-babe!
My own self-pity, like the red-breast bird,
Flies back to cover all that past with leaves.

This, again, is charming.—

Many fervent souls
Strike rhyme on rhyme, who would strike steel on steel
If steel had offered, in a restless heat
Of doing something. Many tender souls
Have strung their losses on a rhyming thread,
As children, cowslips:—the more pains they take,
The work more withers. Young men, ay, and maids,
Too often sow their wild oats in tame verse,
Before they sit down under their own vine
And live for use. Alas, near all the birds
Will sing at dawn,—and yet we do not take
The chaffering swallow for the holy lark.

Here is a true strain of the poetry of London, taken from a later book of the poet's confessions.

So, happy and unafraid of solitude,
I worked the short days out,—and watched the sun
On lurid morns or monstrous afternoons,
Like some Druidic idol's fiery brass,
With fixed unflickering outline of dead heat,
In which the blood of wretches pent inside
Seemed oozing forth to incarnadine the air,—
Push out through fog with his dilated disk,
And startle the slant roofs and chimney-pots
With splashes of fierce colour. Or I saw
Fog only, the great tawny weltering fog,
Involve the passive city, strangle it
Alive, and draw it off into the void,
Spires, bridges, streets, and squares, as if a spunge
Had wiped out London,—or as noon and night
Had clapped together and utterly struck out
The intermediate time, undoing themselves
In the act. Your city poets see such things,
Not despicable. Mountains of the south,
When, drunk and mad with elemental wines,
They rend the seamless mist and stand up bare,
Make fewer singers, haply. No one sings,
Descending Sinai: on Parnassus mount,
You take a mule to climb, and not a muse,
Except in fable and figure: forests chant
Their anthems to themselves, and leave you dumb.
But sit in London, at the day's decline,
And view the city perish in the mist
Like Pharaoh's armaments in the deep Red Sea,—
The chariots, horsemen, footmen, all the host,
Sucked down and choked to silence—then, surprised
By a sudden sense of vision and of tune,
You feel as conquerors though you did not fight,
And you and Israel's other singing girls,
Ay, Miriam with them, sing the song you choose.

The following, too, is eloquent in its sarcasm.

Distrust that word.
"There is none good save God," said Jesus Christ.
If He once, in the first creation-week,
Called creatures good,—for ever, afterward,
The Devil only has done it, and his heirs,
The knaves who win so, and the fools who lose;
The word's grown dangerous. In the middle age,
I think they called malignant fays and imps
Good people. A good neighbour, even in this,
Is fatal sometimes,—cuts your morning up
To mince-meat of the very smallest talk,
Then helps to sugar her bohea at night
With your reputation. I have known good wives,
As chaste, or nearly so, as Potiphar's;
And good, good mothers, who would use a child
To better an intrigue; good friends, beside,
(Very good) who hung succinctly round your neck
And sucked your breath, as cats are fabled to do
By sleeping infants. And we all have known
Good critics, who have stamped out poet's hopes;
Good statesmen, who pulled ruin on the state;
Good patriots, who, for a theory, risked a cause;
Good kings, who disembowelled for a tax;
Good popes, who brought all good to jeopardy;
Good Christians, who sate still in easy chairs,
And damned the general world for standing up.—
Now, may the good God pardon all good men!
How bitterly I speak,—how certainly
The innocent white milk in us is turned,
By much persistent shining of the sun!—
Shake up the sweetest in us long enough
With men, it drops to foolish curd, too sour
To feed the most untender of Christ's lambs.

We have spoken of the passion thrown into the frightful story of Marian Erle. What we now cite will explain itself.—

"And you call it being lost,
That down came next day's noon and caught me there
Half gibbering and half raving on the floor,
And wondering what had happened up in heaven,
That suns should dare to shine when God himself
Was certainly abolished.
"I was mad,—

How many weeks, I know not,—many weeks.
I think they let me go, when I was mad,
They feared my eyes and loosed me, as boys might
A mad dog which they had tortured. Up and down
I went by road and village, over tracts
Of open foreign country, large and strange,
Crossed everywhere by long thin poplar-lines
Like fingers of some ghastly skeleton Hand
Through sunlight and through moonlight evermore
Pushed out from hell itself to pluck me back,
And resolute to get me, slow and sure;

While every roadside Christ upon his cross
Hung reddening through his gory wounds at me,
And shook his nails in anger, and came down
To follow a mile after, wading up
The low vines and green wheat, crying, Take the girl!
She's none of mine from henceforth.' Then, I knew,
(But this is somewhat dimmer than the rest)
The charitable peasants gave me bread
And leave to sleep in straw: and twice they tied,
At parting, Mary's image round my neck—
How heavy it seemed! as heavy as a stone;
A woman has been strangled with less weight:
I threw it in a ditch to keep it clean
And ease my breath a little, when none looked;
I did not need such safeguards:—brutal men
Stopped short, Miss Leigh, in insult, when they had seen
My face,—I must have had an awful look."

Two Florentine pictures; the first in the open air.—

I rode once to the little mountain-house
As fast as if to find my father there,
But, when in sight of't, within fifty yards,
I dropped my horse's bridle on his neck
And paused upon his flank. The house's front
Was cased with lingots of ripe Indian corn
In tesselated order, and device
Of golden patterns: not a stone of wall
Uncovered,—not an inch of room to grow
A vine-leaf. The old porch had disappeared;
And, in the open doorway, sate a girl
At plaiting straws,—her black hair strained away
To a scarlet kerchief caught beneath her chin
In Tuscan fashion,—her full ebon eyes,
Which looked too heavy to be lifted so,
Still dropt and lifted toward the mulberry-tree
On which the lads were busy with their staves
In shout and laughter, stripping all the boughs
As bare as winter, of those summer leaves
My father had not changed for all the silk
In which the ugly silkworms hide themselves.
Enough. My horse recoiled before my heart—
I turned the rein abruptly. Back we went
As fast, to Florence.

The second an interior.—

Musing so,
I walked the narrow unrecognizing streets,
Where many a palace-front peers gloomily
Through stony vizors iron-barred, (prepared
Alike, should foe or lover pass that way,
For guest or victim,) and came wandering out
Upon the churches with mild open doors
And plaintive wail of vespers, where a few,
Those chiefly women, sprinkled round in blots
Upon the dusky pavement, knelt and prayed
Toward the altar's silver glory. Oft a ray
(I liked to sit and watch) would tremble out,
Just touch some face more lifted, more in need,
Of course a woman's—while I dreamed a tale
To fit its fortunes. There was one who looked
As if the earth had suddenly grown too large
For such a little humpbacked thing as she;
The pitiful black kerchief round her neck
Sole proof she had a mother. One, again,
Looked sick for love,—seemed praying some soft saint
To put more virtue in the new fine scarf
She spent a fortnight's meals on, yesterday,
That cruel Gigi might return his eyes
From Giuliana. There was one, so old,
So old, to kneel grew easier than to stand,—
So solitary, she accepts at last
Our Lady for her gossip, and frets on
Against the sinful world which goes its rounds
In marrying and being married, just the same
As when 'twas almost good and had the right,
(Her Gian alive, and she herself eighteen).
And yet, now even, if Madonna willed,
She'd win a tern in Thursday's lottery,
And better all things.

Ere we close it we will show a few of the happy touches with which this book is full.—

For even prosaic men, who wear grief long,
Will get to wear it as a hat aside
With a flower stuck in't.

I used him for a friend
Before I ever knew him for a friend.
'Twas better, 'twas worse also, afterward:
We came so close, we saw our differences
Too intimately.

But I could not hide
My quickening inner life from those at watch.
They saw a light at a window now and then
They had not set there. Who had set it there?

We talked on fast, while every common word
Seemed tangled with the thunder at one end,
And ready to pull down upon our heads
A terror out of sight. And yet to pause

Were surelier mortal: we tore greedily up
All silence, all the innocent breathing-points,
As if, like pale conspirators in haste,
We tore up papers where our signatures
Imperilled us to an ugly shame or death.

The last of all our quotations are taken almost from the last pages—from the last explosion of long-pent passion, when the Poetess confesses that her life has been a failure, and lays her love in the arms of him who has been hungering and thirsting for it so many a weary day.—

Could I see his face,
I wept so? Did I drop against his breast,
Or did his arms constrain me? Were my cheeks
Hot, overflooded, with my tears, or his?
And which of our two large explosive hearts
So shook me? That, I know not.

What he said,
I fain would write. But if an angel spoke
In thunder, should we, haply, know much more
Than that it thundered? If a cloud came down
And wrapt us wholly, could we draw its shape,
As if on the outside, and not overcome?

But oh, the night! oh, bitter-sweet! oh, sweet!
O dark, O moon and stars, O ecstasy
Of darkness! O great mystery of love,—
In which absorbed, loss, anguish, treason's self
Enlarges rapture,—as a pebble dropt
In some full wine-cup, over-brims the wine!
While we two sate together, leaned that night
So close, my very garments crept and thrilled
With strange electric life; and both my cheeks
Grew red, then pale, with touches from my hair
In which his breath was; while the golden moon
Was hung before our faces as the badge
Of some sublime inherited despair,
Since ever to be seen by only one.

Here we must hand over Aurora Leigh to those who will wonder at, or decry, or enthusiastically commend, or pass over the differences and discords of the tale; for it will have readers of all the four classes. To some it will be so much rank foolishness,—to others almost a scriptural revelation. The huge mistake of its plan, the disdain of selectness in its details, could not be exhausted were we to write for column and column,—nor would page on page suffice to contain the high thoughts, the deep feelings, the fantastic images showered over the tale with the authority of a prophetess, the grace of a muse, the prodigality of a queen. Such a poem, we dare aver, has never before been written by woman; and if our apprehension of its discords and discrepancies has been keen and expressed without measure, it is because our admiration of its writer's genius, and our sympathy with the nobility of her purpose, are also keen and without measure.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Aurora Leigh Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The following entry presents criticism of Browning's poem Aurora Leigh (1857). See also, Elizabeth Barrett Browning Criticism.

Regarded by contemporary and recent critics as one of the most notable female poets in Western literature, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote Aurora Leigh at the height of her literary career, and the poem is deemed her masterwork in terms of poetics and narrative. Part autobiography and part social criticism, the poem traces the life of an Englishwoman and poet, Aurora Leigh, and is frequently cited as a proto-feminist treatise for its portrayal of difficulties arising for female characters from traditional values and practices of English society. Browning's innovative use of genre, self-reference, and feminine perspective make Aurora Leigh a landmark of nineteenth-century literature.

Biographical Information

Browning had planned to write a novel in blank verse as early as 1845, and had proposed that the subject would be a critical narrative of ordinary English life. At the time of Aurora Leigh's publication in 1857, Browning, supported by her friendship and eventual marriage to Robert Browning in September of 1846, had recovered from a long period of poor health, family catastrophes, and isolation. In 1850, Sonnets from the Portuguese, written during her courtship with Browning, had been published to popular acclaim, and her reputation as a poet, especially of sentimental works, had grown. A son, Robert Wiedemann Barrett Browning, had been born to the couple in 1849, and this seems to have rejuvenated Browning's artistic endeavors. The Brownings began to travel extensively and became involved in politics on the Continent; Barrett Browning subsequently expressed in Aurora Leigh a concern with social issues, particularly the rights of women and the poor, and revealed her familiarity with European and classical literature as well. Aurora Leigh, published in 1857, was the most successful of Browning's works from a commercial standpoint: the book had gone through nineteen editions by 1885.

Plot and Major Characters

A "novel in verse," as Coventry Patmore called it, Aurora Leigh follows the life of its heroine through her birth and childhood in Italy, intellectual development, literary career, and personal relationships. At a young age, Aurora Leigh resists the conventional and complacent English values imposed on her by a maiden aunt who cares for her after the death of her parents, and she discovers the pleasures of literature. Her early creative compositions stir her ambitions to support herself through a poetic career, and in time she becomes moderately successful in London literary circles. In the process of accomplishing this, Aurora rejects a marriage proposal from her cousin Romney Leigh, a wealthy philanthropist and owner of the family estate, who soon rescues a young woman named Marian Erle from poverty. The growing attachment between Romney and Marian is severed, however, by the unscrupulous Lady Waldemar, who is herself in love with Romney. Lady Waldemar contributes to Marian's disappearance from London and her reappearance in a Paris brothel, where Marian is sexually assaulted and bears a child. Aurora, on her way to Italy, recognizes Marian in Paris and takes her and her child to Florence. When Romney's socialist Utopian community disastrously fails, he acknowledges the emptiness and hypocrisy of conventional methods of philanthropy, and travels to Florence. After a series of misunderstandings in which Aurora believes Romney has already wed Lady Waldemar, Romney once again asks Aurora to marry him. This she does, recognizing that art needs to be aided by love and partnership in the process of self-realization.

Major Themes

Browning addressed several major social issues in the narrative of Aurora Leigh—the relationship between art and individual self-fulfillment, the issue of class politics, and the issue of gender roles. The work suggests that individual freedom, regardless of class or gender, allows for inner development and the cultivation of creativity and inspiration. However, the novel-poem shows sensitivity to other aspects of the creative process, such as the background to the production of any artistic work and the source of creativity in turmoil and conflict. Furthermore, Aurora Leigh intricately weaves the political implications of Browning's own strong individualism and her emphasis on the actualization of one's life's work into Aurora Leigh's struggle to find her place, as a woman poet, in the traditional social order found in the poem. In addition, the work focuses on the institutionalized sexism and classicism of the Victorian age, and directs its severest criticism at conventional philanthropy as hypocritical and paternalistic. Also, Aurora Leigh depicts, through the character of Marian Erle, the horrific consequences of the abuse and neglect suffered by the poor—particularly poor women. The subplot of Marian and her child also censures the Victorian tendency to reject those who have been sexually attacked, and argues for greater concern for and treatment of the innocent victims.

Critical Reception

Despite its tremendous popular success, Aurora Leigh received mixed reactions from contemporary critics. Many, in addition to calling it immoral, found fault with its characterization, plot, and language; others, however, found the work proof of Browning's "poetic genius." The poem was largely neglected by subsequent critics until the early 1930s, when Virginia Woolf s enthusiastic article on the poem was published. The emergence of feminist criticism helped spark renewed interest in the work, although Aurora Leigh is not unanimously accepted as a precursor to modern feminism. Commenting on the poem's conclusion in particular, many feminist critics have regarded Aurora's acceptance of marriage as the beginning of her loss of independence. Others have found in the ending a radical deviation from traditional nineteenth-century thought—instead of losing her independence through marriage, Aurora gains a rewarding and satisfying life through the blending of her artistic achievement with the love and partnership of another. According to several twentieth-century critics, this innovation is echoed in Browning's style: although contemporary reviewers criticized her unconventional poetic tendencies, more recent scholars consider her style to be innovative. Altogether, Aurora Leigh illuminates both Browning's artistic strengths and her weaknesses: she is praised for her ability to express passionate emotion, yet she is criticized for choosing such an abstract topic for Aurora Leigh as her "highest convictions upon Life and Art." She is commended for her lyrical tone and innovative use of imagery, yet she is criticized for her verbose style, improbable plot, and unrealistic characters. In light of fervent endorsements of the poem by such literary figures as Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf, Aurora Leigh is generally judged to be a masterwork with noticeable flaws and remains highly significant to contemporary literary historians and critics.

Coventry Patmore (review date 1856/57)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Mrs. Browning's Poems" in North British Review, Vol. XXVI, No. LII, November 1856—February 1857, pp. 443-62.

[In the following excerpt, Patmore gives a mixed review of Aurora Leigh, summarizing the "novel in verse" and assessing the poetic imagery as it advances Browning's opinions on life and art.]

Aurora Leigh is the latest, and Mrs. Browning tells us, in the dedication, "the most mature" of her works; the one into which her "highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered." It was not well judged to prejudice the reader, at the very outset, with the inevitable doubt, "Is a poem the right place for 'highest convictions upon Life and Art?'" This poem is two thousand lines longer than "Paradise Lost." We do not know how to describe it better than by saying that it is a novel in verse,—a novel of the modern didactic species, written chiefly for the advocacy of distinct "convictions upon Life and Art." If poetry ought to consist only of "thoughts that voluntary move harmonious numbers," a very large portion of this work ought unquestionably to have been in prose. But the question seems open to discussion, and we give Mrs. Browning the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps the chief misfortune for the poem is, that there may always be two opinions on all "convictions upon Life and Art." For example, we ourselves dissent altogether from certain of the views advocated. We think that "conventions," which are society's unwritten laws, are condemned in too sweeping and unexamining a style; that the importance of an ordinary education in the formation of character is too emphatically denied by the example of Marian Erle, whom we regard as an impossible person, under her circumstances; that Art is not the highest power in the world; and so forth. Aurora Leigh would assuredly have been a more poetical work if it had made the question, "Do you agree with it?" an absurd one, and had only allowed of the question, "Do you or do you not understand it?" The safest way of speaking of this poem, which, expressly or by implication, has so considerable a polemic element in it, is to place a simple analysis of it before our readers. Concerning the great beauty and subtlety of some of the extracts we shall give, there fortunately cannot be two opinions.

The father of Aurora Leigh "was an austere Englishman, who, after a dry lifetime, spent at home in college-learning, law, and parish talk," went to Italy, and fell suddenly in love with an Italian girl who passed him in a procession.

Her face flashed like a cymbal on his face,
And shook with silent clangours brain and heart,
Transfiguring him to music.

Mr. Leigh gained the hand of the fair Florentine, and Aurora was born; but before the child was four years old, her mother died, having changed the nature of her husband, and made the "austere Englishman" into a man of sentiment.

There's a verse he set
In Santa Croce to her memory:
'Weep for an infant, too young to weep much
When death removed this mother'
—stops the mirth
To-day on women's faces, when they walk
With rosy children hanging on their gowns.

Mr. Leigh left Florence, and lived in almost entire solitude, with his child and one servant, "among the mountains above Pelago," and there he

Who through love had suddenly
Thrown off the old conventions, broken loose
From chinbands of the soul, like Lazarus,

taught his child "what he had learned best," grief and love, and, as it afterwards appears, Latin and Greek; also, "the ignorance of men," how

A Fool will pass for such through one mistake,
While a Philosopher will pass for such
Through said mistakes being ventured in the gross,
And heaped up to a system.

So nine years passed, and Aurora Leigh thus describes herself at thirteen:—

'I am like,
They tell me, my dear father; broader brows,
Howbeit, upon a slenderer undergrowth
Of delicate features; paler, near as grave—
But then my mother's smile breaks up the whole,
And makes it sometimes better than itself.'

At this time Mr. Leigh suddenly died. The child was soon torn from her nurse, now her only companion, by "a stranger with authority," from England, who conducted her to the house of her father's sister. This lady is thus described:—

She stood straight and calm,
Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight,
As if for taming accidental thoughts
From possible pulses; brown hair, pricked with grey,
By frigid use of life (she was not old,
Although my father's elder by a year);
A nose drawn sharply, yet in delicate lines;
A close, mild mouth, a little soured about
The ends, through speaking unrequited loves,
Or, peradventure, niggardly half-truths;
Eyes of no colour, once they might have smiled,
But never, never have forgot themselves
In smiling; cheeks in which was yet a rose
Of perished summers, like a rose in a book,
Kept more for ruth than pleasure, if past bloom.
Past fading also.

She, my aunt,
Had loved my father truly, as she could,
And hated, with the gall of gentle souls,
My Tuscan mother, who had fooled away
A wise man from wise courses, a good man
From obvious duties, and, depriving her,
His sister, of the household precedence,
Had wronged his tenants, robbed his native land,
And made him mad, alike by life and death,
In love and sorrow. She had pored for years
What sort of woman could be suitable
To her sort of hate, to entertain it with;
And so, her very curiosity
Became hate too, and all the idealism
She ever used in life was used for hate,
Till hate, so nourished, did exceed at last
The love from which it grew, in strength and heat,
And wrinkled her smooth conscience with a sense
Of disputable virtue (say not sin)
When Christian doctrine was enforced at church.

Miss Leigh's notions of female education differed widely from her brother's. She seems to have thought both love and grief were weeds of flowers that need no cultivating, but spring up readily enough in every woman's heart. Here is Aurora's English school programme, which, with many hundreds of lines like them, have certainly no right to be called verse:—

I learnt the collects and the catechism,

And various popular synopses of
Inhuman doctrines never taught by John,

Because she liked instructed piety.
I learnt my complement of classic French
(Kept pure of Balzac and neologism),
And German also, since she liked a range
Of liberal education,—tongues, not books.
I learnt a little algebra, a little
Of the mathematics; brushed with extreme flounce
The circle of the sciences, because
She misliked women who were frivolous.
I learnt the royal genealogies
Of Oviedo, the internal laws
Of the Burmese empire, by how many feet
Mount Chimborazo outsoars Himmeleh,
What navigable river joins itself
To Lara, and what census of the year five
Was taken at Klagenfurt.

Aurora had a cousin, Romney Leigh, the owner of the family estate, Leigh Hall. The two children saw much of each other, but were of dispositions and tastes so opposite, that their intercourse consisted chiefly of disputes. As they grew up they diverged further from one another. Romney became a philanthropic socialist, bent on utilitarian plans of action, and pondering on the dregs of humanity; while Aurora grew into a poetess, for ever musing on the ideal and beautiful. She discovered, in an attic, piles of books marked with her father's name, and from this sanctuary would steal spiritual food, unknown to her aunt. She read "books good and bad;" and makes the following admirable remarks upon the perils of such a course of study:—

You cheer him on
As if the worst could happen were to rest
Too long beside a fountain. Yet behold,
Behold!—the world of books is still the world;
And worldlings in it are less merciful
And more puissant. For the wicked there
Are winged like angels. Every knife that strikes
Is edged from elemental fire to assail
A spiritual life. The beautiful seems right
By force of beauty, and the feeble wrong
Because of weakness. Power is justified
Though armed against St. Michael.

True, many a prophet teaches in the roads;
True, many a seer pulls down the flaming heavens
Upon his own head in strong martyrdom,
In order to light men a moment's space.
But stay!—who judges?—who distinguishes?
'Twixt Saul and Nahash justly, at first sight,
And leaves King Saul precisely at the sin,
To serve King David? Who discerns at once
The sound of the trumpets, when the trumpets blow
For Alaric as well as Charlemagne?
Who judges prophets, and can tell true seers
From conjurors?

The delineation of her mind at this period gives occasion to the following remarkable passage:—

The cygnet finds the water, but the man
Is born in ignorance of his element,
And feels out blind at first, disorganized
By sin i' the blood,—his spirit-insight dull'd
And crossed by his sensations. Presently
We feel it quicken in the dark sometimes;
Then mark, be reverent, be obedient—
For those dumb motions of imperfect life
Are oracles of vital Deity
Attesting the Hereafter. Let who says
'The soul's a clean white paper,' rather say,
A palimpsest, a prophet's holograph
Defiled, erased and covered by a monk's,—
The Apocalypse, by a Longus! poring on
Which obscene text, we may discern perhaps
Some fair, fine trace of what was written once,
Some upstroke of an alpha and omega
Expressing the old scripture.

From reading poetry, she became a writer of it, and gives us scores of pages of "her highest convictions upon art," all more or less acute, and worth considering, but which would be more in place in a review than an epic. The development of her powers as a poetess is elaborately depicted; but as Mrs. Browning is herself almost the only modern example of such development, the story is uninteresting from its very singularity.

Aurora wrote and read on in secret, her aunt only half suspecting this development, of which she would have disapproved with all her might.

She said, sometimes, 'Aurora, have you done
Your task this morning—have you read that book,
And are you ready for the crochet here?'
As if she said, I know there's something wrong;
I know I have not ground you down enough
To flatten and bake you to a wholesome crust
For household uses and proprieties.

The poetess did her work meekly, her "soul singing at a work apart," and all went on without let or hindrance, till one June morning, when Aurora arose upon her twentieth birthday. She got up early, and left the house, "brushing a green track along the grass," and finding that the world would not, or rather could not, crown her, seeing that she was a poetess only in secret, she took a sudden fancy to crown herself; and after hesitating between bay, myrtle, verbena, and guelder roses, she turned to a wreath of ivy, and twisted it round her head. At this moment she beheld her cousin beside her,

With a mouth
Twice graver than his eyes.

Romney had found her manuscript poems, with "Greek upon the margin." A conversation ensued on the subjects of art and philanthropy, the cousins espousing different sides. The burden of Aurora's argument was this:—

You will not compass your poor ends
Of barley feeding and material ease
Without the Poet's individualism
To work your universal. It takes a soul
To move a body,—it takes a high-souled man
To move the masses—even to a cleaner stye:
It takes the ideal, to blow an inch inside
The dust of the actual: and your Fouriers failed,
Because not poets enough to understand
That life develops from within.

And, as she eloquently says, in another place:—

the thrushes sang
And shook my pulses and the elm's new leaves,—
And then I turned, and held my finger up,
And bade him mark, that howsoe'er the world
Went ill, as he related, certainly
The thrushes still sang in it.—At which word
His brow would soften,—and he bore with me
In melancholy patience, not unkind,
While breaking into voluble ecstacy,
I flattered all the beauteous country round,
As poet's use .. . the skies, the clouds, the fields,
The happy violets, hiding from the roads
The primroses run down to, carrying gold,—
The tangled hedgerows, where the cows push out
Their tolerant horns and patient churning mouths
'Twixt dripping ash boughs,—hedgerows all alive,
With birds, and gnats, and large white butterflies,
Which look as if the May-flower had caught life
And palpitated forth upon the wind,—
Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist;
Farms, granges, doubled up among the hills,
And cattle grazing in the watered vales,
And cottage chimneys smoking from the woods,
And cottage gardens smelling everywhere,
Confused with smell of orchards. 'See,' I said,
'And see, is God not with us on the earth?
And shall we put Him down by aught we do?
Who says there's nothing for the poor and vile,
Save poverty and wickedness? behold!'
And ankle-deep in English grass I leaped,
And clapped my hands, and called all very fair.

The burden of Romney's argument was, that women write at best but such poetry as gains for highest eulogy, comparison to a man's; that poetry, unless of the very best, is frivolous work; that there is earnest work to do, for him to do, and for her to do, if she will become his helper and his wife.

The young poetess, indignant at being sought as a mere helpmate, refuses the offer. Her aunt, on hearing of Romney's offer and rejection, expresses great grief, and tells Aurora that she will inherit no money, all her father's and all her aunt's being settled on Romney, by a clause in a former deed, excluding offspring by a foreign wife. She told her further, that Romney's father had wished that the cousins should marry, in order to repair this injustice, and that her own father had known and approved the wish, all of which strengthened Aurora in her determination to adhere to her refusal.

Soon after this, the aunt was found dead by her bed side, with an unopened letter in her hand. On the reading of the will, it was found that she had left Aurora three hundred pounds, "and all other monies of which she died possessed." Romney, who, as heir, attended the funeral, told Aurora that the old lady died possessed of £30,000, of which no mention was made in the will; but Aurora, suspecting that her cousin was by some means bestowing upon her this money, insisted on seeing deeds to prove her aunt's possession of it. A little inquiry showed that Romney had presented this sum to his aunt, and that the unopened letter found in her hand, contained the deed of gift, which, though made, had never been accepted. Aurora tore the deed in shreds and went to lodgings in London.

Seven years later, we find her an established authoress, with piles of literary letters; solitary and poor, hard-worked, but uncomplaining. One day a stranger enters, and announces herself as Lady Waldemar. With little prelude, she declared herself to be a widow, and in love with Romney Leigh. She told Aurora that her cousin was on the point of espousing a beggar's daughter from St. Giles's, and asked her help in breaking off, or at any rate, postponing the marriage. Aurora ascertained that Lady Waldemar was commissioned by Romney to tell her the news, and introduce her to his bride-elect, and to get her countenance to the marriage, which marriage Lady Waldemar to him appeared to approve and promote. She would have nothing to say to this double dealing on the part of Lady Waldemar, to whom she plainly says as much, in not very courteous terms. Aurora then hastened to St. Margaret's Court to see the woman whom her cousin was to marry. "An ineffable face" met her on the threshold of a wretched room, and being soon assured by Aurora's friendly manner, its owner, Marian Erle, told her story.

She was the daughter of a drunken poaching tramper, who beat her mother, her mother turning in anger to beat her:—

Her first cry in our strange and strangling air,
When cast in spasms out from the shuddering womb,
Was wrong against the social code, forced wrong.
What business had the baby to cry there?

She grew up neglected and ill-used, till some ladies got her to a Sunday-school. There she learned to read and write, also to understand the wickedness of her parents, but little else. She found, however, a more profitable school in "Heaven's high blue," which she would steal away to gaze at; and in sundry fragments of the English poets which chanced to come into her hands: thus, we are to suppose, she learned the high code of morality and virtue which she afterwards adhered to, for no one taught or spoke to her but her brutish parents, and the unprofitable Sunday teacher. When she reached early womanhood, her mother attempted to betray her to a drunken squire, from whom she fled in terror. Swooning, she was picked up and taken to an hospital. She had a long illness, and it was on her recovery that she first saw Romney Leigh, who was visiting the sick people, and on hearing that she was about to leave, inquired what her future plans were, and by degrees learned her history. "He sent her to a famous sempstress house far off in London," and there she worked well till one of her companions fell sick. Marian then left the house to nurse her, and after the death of the girl, stayed to watch and nurse the crazy mother who was now alone. Romney found her at this work. "He was not angry that she had left the house wherein he placed her." "He did not say 'twas well, yet Marian thought he did not take it ill,"—and on the day her last patient died, Romney asked her to be his helpmate and wife.

Aurora was charmed by the girl's manner, and embraced her as her future cousin. Romney came in while they were still talking, and Aurora expressed a wish that the wedding should be from her home, but her cousin refused:—

I take my wife
Directly from the people, and she comes,
As Austria's daughter, to imperial France,
Betwixt her eagles, blinking not her race,
From Margaret's Court, at garret height, to meet
And wed me at St. James's, nor put off
Her gown of serge for that. The things we do,
We do: we'll wear no mask, as if we blushed.

The marriage-day arrived, and

Half St. Giles in frieze
Was bidden to meet St. James in cloth of gold;
And, after contract at the altar, pass
To eat a marriage-feast on Hampstead Heath.

The congregation assembled early, and chatted long, expecting the bride, but she came not; and at the last moment, a letter is delivered to Romney in Marian's hand. In this letter, Marian states her conviction that she best shows her love to Romney by saving him the unhappiness that must follow a union with her:

It would be dreadful for a friend of yours
To see all England thrust you out of doors,
And mock you from the windows.

She hints at there being some one else whom Romney loves:

You might say,
Or think, (that worse,) There's some one in the house,
I miss and love still!' Dreadful!

She then goes on to say she shall go where no one can find her:—

I never could be happy as your wife,—
I never could be harmless as your friend:
I never will look more into your face
Till God says 'Look.'—I charge you seek me not,
Nor vex yourself with lamentable thoughts,
That, peradventure, I am come to grief:
Be sure I'm well, I'm merry, I'm at ease!
But such a long way, long way, long way off,
I think you'll find me sooner in my grave.

Inexplicable as the mystery was to Romney, it was still more so to the congregated hundreds of St. Giles's who did not read the letter, and were too much exasperated at their missed triumph to listen to Romney, who wished to address them. "Pull him down, strike him, kill him!" was called out from the crowd, some of whom suggested foul play on the part of the bridegroom; and it was not till the police were called in, that the church could be cleared, and order restored.

Romney made long search for Marian, but could find no trace of her. He then left London, and Aurora again lost sight of him. On his return to the country, Romney became more than ever engrossed in his schemes of philanthropy. He turned his family seat into a Phalanstery, and devoted himself to the reformation of the thieves and poachers, who took up their abode there.

Aurora now wrote a great poem, in which, after long feeling dissatisfied with her productions, she at last had a consciousness of having in some degree conveyed in words, the things she had thought and felt. She went soon after to a party, and refused an offer from a man of birth and fortune, and heard that Romney was engaged to Lady Waldemar. Almost immediately after this, she left her new poem with a publisher, and set out for Florence.

On her way, Aurora was detained a few days in Paris; and walking one day in the flower market, she met Marian Erle. Marian has a child, and would gladly avoid Aurora, but Aurora persists in going to her home, and succeeds at last in learning the mystery of Marian's flight, and present condition.

Lady Waldemar had been often to her, and had contrived to make her believe that misery would follow her marriage with Romney; that Romney had loved her, Lady Waldemar, and she him; that his offer to Marian was prompted by principle only, and would be followed up in a spirit of martyrdom. Lady Waldemar then offered to send her in the charge of a respectable person, who had formerly been her maid, to Australia. Marian gladly accepted the offer, and went with the woman, who, instead of taking her to Australia, had brought her to an infamous house in Paris, where drugs and force were used to accomplish her ruin. She had fled from this place in delirium, was taken in by a farmer's wife; obtained employment, but lost it on its appearing that she was about to become a mother; and had, since then, supported herself and her child, now a year old, by needlework.

Aurora took both mother and child to her own home; and, after long debate, wrote two letters, one to a mutual friend of her's and Romney's, telling him all, and asking him only to communicate this story to her cousin should he not be married to Lady Waldemar; and the other to that lady, reproaching her for having

Tricked poor Marian Erle,
And set her own love digging her own grave,
Within her green hope's pretty garden ground:
Ay, sent her forth with some one of your sort,
To a wicked house in France.

She adds that, if Lady Waldemar is Romney's wife, and will

Keep warm his heart, and clean his board, and when
He speaks, be ready with obedience . . .

If she will attend to all this, she is "safe from Marian and Aurora;" but if she "fail a point," they will

Open mouth,
And such a noise will follow, the last trump's
Will scarcely seem more dreadful, even to her.

These letters sent, Aurora proceeded with Marian and her child to Florence. A letter from a friend tells her that her poem has won all suffrages, and is doing the work of an evangelist; and then speaks of Romney in words which Aurora misunderstands into conveying news of his marriage with Lady Waldemar. The natural effect of the first news is counterbalanced by the second, and Aurora sinks into a state of melancholy, which lasts till the concluding scene.

On looking up one evening, as she is sitting alone in the garden, she sees Romney standing before her. By this time, it is clear to every one but Aurora herself, and perhaps to her, that she loves him deeply. She is too much agitated to notice, either from his manner of greeting her or sitting down, that he is blind. Romney believes that she has heard of his misfortune, for it was indeed an allusion to it that she had misunderstood for a notice of his marriage; they, therefore, talk for some time at cross purposes. Romney, however, says one thing in a straightforward way:—

I have read your book,

The book is in my heart;
Lives in me, wakes in me, and dreams with me:
My daily bread tastes of it, and my wine
Which has no smack of it, I pour it out;
It seems unnatural drinking,—

and refers to their old argument on Aurora's birthday, confessing himself a convert to all she then urged. He also tells her of the failure of his labours at Leigh Hall, where the people had risen up and burnt the old house to the ground; of an illness which had attacked him afterwards; and speaks so plainly, in the course of his narrative, of his unchanged love to Aurora, that she, believing him to be the husband of another woman, rebukes him. All this misunderstanding and beating about the bush, is tedious, though it gives occasion to a magnificent simile—Aurora, bidding her cousin look at the stars,—

I signed above, where all the stars were out,
As if an urgent heat had started there
A secret writing from a sombre page,
A blank last moment, crowded suddenly
With hurrying splendours.

The éclaircissement comes at last. Aurora, mentioning Lady Waldemar as her cousin's wife,—

Are ye mad?
He echoed—'Wife! mine! Lady Waldemar!'

and this half of the mistake is rectified; and Romney gives a letter from Lady Waldemar to Aurora, in which that lady repudiates the charge of having sent Marian "to a wicked house in France." She explains that Marian's conductor was an old servant who had lived "five months" in her house, and had money for the voyage to Australia, the embezzlement of which had probably tempted her to stop short on the way. Having finished the letter, which related also how all was broken off between Romney and its writer, Aurora exclaims,—

Ah, not married!
'You mistake,' he said,
'I'm married,—Is not Marian Erle my wife?
As God sees things, I have a wife and child;
And I, as I'm a man who honours God,
Am here to claim them as my wife and child.'

I felt it hard to breathe, much less to speak.
Nor word of mine was needed. Some one else
Was there for answering. 'Romney,' she began,
'My great good angel, Romney.'
Then at first
I knew that Marian Erle was beautiful.
She stood there still and pallid as a saint,
Dilated, like a saint in ecstacy,
As if the floating moonshine interposed
Betwixt her foot and the earth, and raised her up,
To float upon it. 'I had left my child,
Who sleeps,' she said, 'and having drawn this way
I heard you speaking . . . friend, confirm me now.
You take this Marian, such as wicked men
Have made her, for your honourable wife?'
The thrilling, solemn, proud, pathetic voice!
He stretched his arms out toward the thrilling voice,
As if to draw it on to his embrace.
'I take her as God made her, and as men
Must fail to unmake her, for my honoured wife.'

She never raised her eyes nor took a step,
But stood there in her place and spoke again—
'You take this Marian's child which is her shame,
In sight of men and women, for your child,
Of whom you will not ever feel ashamed?'
The thrilling, tender, proud, pathetic voice!
He stepped on toward it, still with outstretched arms,
As if to quench upon his breast that voice.
'May God so father me, as I do him,
And so forsake me, as I let him feel
He's orphaned haply. Here I take the child
To share my cup, to slumber on my knee,
To play his loudest gambol at my foot,
To hold my finger in the public ways,
Till none shall need inquire, 'Whose child is this?'
The gesture saying so tenderly, 'My own.'

This is all Marian required. She would fain have her own consciousness of innocence ratified by such proof from the man she most revered; but sorrow has driven love from her heart; she cannot re-awaken in herself an interest for any but her child; she gratefully but firmly refuses to marry Romney, who believing his love to Aurora unreturned, is taking his leave, when on her alluding again to the stars, he tells her of his blindness, and relates how the illness which produced it, was caused by an assault from Marian Erle's father, whom Romney had endeavoured to save from justice, at the time of the riots at Leigh Hall: he then again says, farewell, but is stopped by Aurora, who confesses her love to him; and so the story ends—considerably to the vexation, we should think, of those readers, who may be such thorough-going haters of "conventions" as to wish to have had Romney actually married to Marian Erle.

The command of imagery shown by Mrs. Browning, in this poem, is really surprising, even in this day when every poetaster seems to be endowed with a more or less startling amount of that power; but Mrs. Browning seldom goes out of her way for an image, as nearly all our other versifiers are in the habit of doing continually. There is a vital continuity, through the whole of this immensely long work, which is thus remarkably, and most favourably distinguished from the sand-weaving of so many of her contemporaries. The earnestness of the authoress is, also, plainly without affectation, and her enthusiasm for truth and beauty, as she apprehends them, unbounded. A work upon such a scale, and with such a scope, had it been faultless, would have been the greatest work of the age; but unhappily there are faults, and very serious ones, over and above those which we have already hinted. The poem has evidently been written in a very small proportion of the time which a work so very ambitiously conceived ought to have taken. The language which in passionate scenes is simple and real, in other parts becomes very turgid and unpoetical; for example:—

What if even God
Were chiefly God by working out himself
To an individualism of the Infinite,

Eterne, intense, profuse,—still throwing up
The golden spray of multitudinous worlds
In measure to the proclive weight and rush
Of his inner nature,—the spontaneous love
Still proof and outflow of spontaneous life?

Or, in a different style, the style, unfortunately, of hundreds of lines:—

In those days, though, I never analyzed
Myself even: all analysis comes late.

Or again:—

Those faces! 'twas as if you had stirred up hell
To heave its lowest dreg-fiends uppermost
In fiery swirls of slime,—such strangled fronts,
Such obdurate jaws were thrown up constantly.

These, and other artistic defects, detract somewhat from the general effect of the poem; but no one who reads it, with true poetic sympathy, can withhold his tribute of admiration from a work possessing so many of the highest excellencies.

Secondary Sources:

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share


Armstrong, Isobel. Language as Living Form in Nineteenth-Century Poetry. Brighton, 1982. . . .

[Auerbach, Nina]. "Robert Browning's Last Word." Victorian Poetry 22 (Summer 1984): 161-73. . . .

[Blake, Kathleen]. "Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wordsworth: The Romantic Poet as Woman." Victorian Poetry 24 (Winter 1986): 387-98. . . .

Browning, Robert. Introductory essay to Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. 1852. . . .

——. The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, edited by Ian Jack and Margaret Smith. Vols. 1 and 2. Oxford, 1983-1984.

Buckley, Jerome H. The Victorian Temper. 1952. . . .

Case, Alison. "Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh." Victorian Poetry (Spring 1991): 17-32.

Castan, C. "Structural Problems in the Poetry of Aurora Leigh." Browning Society Notes 7 (December 1977): 73-81. . . .

[Christ, Carol T]. Victorian and Modern Poetics. Chicago and London, 1984.

Cixous, Hélène. "The Laugh of the Medusa." In New French Feminisms, edited by Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, 245-64. Brighton, 1980. . . .

[Cooper, Helen]. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist. Chapel Hill and London, 1988. . . .

David, Deirdre. "'Art's a Service.': Social Wound, Sexual Politics and Aurora Leigh." Browning Institute Studies 13 (1985): 113-36.

——. Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot. 1987. . . .

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth Century Women Writers. Bloomington, Indiana, 1985.

——. "For the Etruscans." In The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory, edited by Elaine Showalter, 271-91. 1986. . . .

Flint, Kate. "Reading the New Woman." Browning Society Notes, Vol. 17, nos. 1-3 (1987-88): 55-63

Gelpi, Barbara Charlesworth. "Aurora Leigh: The Vocation of the Woman Poet." Victorian Poetry 19 (Spring 1981): 35-48.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Gubar, Susan. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. New Haven and London, 1979. . . .

Gilbert, Sandra M. "From Patria to Matria: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Risorgimento." PMLA 99 (March 1984): 194-211. . . .

Hayter, Alethea. Mrs. Browning: A Poet's Work and Its Setting. 1962. .. .

Hickok, Kathleen. "'New Yet Orthodox': The Female Characters in Aurora Leigh." International Journal of Women's Studies. 3 (September/October 1980): 479-89. . . .

Holloway, Julia Bolton. "Aurora Leigh and Jane Eyre." Bronte Society Transactions 17, (1977): 126-32. . . .

Homans, Margaret. Women Writers and Poetic Identity: Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson. Princeton, New Jersey, 1980.

Horne, R. H. A New Spirit of the Age. 2 vols. 1844

Irigaray, Luce. "Ce sexe qui n'en pas un." In New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, 99-106. Brighton, 1980.

Irvine, William, and Honan, Park. The Book, the Ring, and the Poet: A Biography of Robert Browning. 1974. . . .

Jameson, Anna Brownell. Anna Jameson: Letters and Friendships: 1812-1860, edited by Mrs. Stuart Erskine. 1915. . . .

Kaplan, Cora. "Pandora's Box: Subjectivity, Class, and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism." In Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Gayle Greene and Coppélla Kahn, 149-51. 1985.

——. Sea Changes: Culture and Feminism. 1986.

Karlin, Daniel. The Courtship of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. Oxford, 1985.

Kelley, Philip, and Hudson, Ronald. The Brownings' Correspondence: A Checklist. New York: The Browning Institute, 1978.

Kelley, Philip, and Coley, Betty A. The Browning Collections: A Reconstruction with Other Memorabilia. Winfield, Kansas, and London, 1984. . . .

Leighton, Angela. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Brighton, 1986....

Lovell, Terry. Consuming Fiction. 1987. . . .

McNally, James. "Touches of Aurora Leigh in The Ring and the Book." Studies in Browning and His Circle 14 (1986): 85-90. . . .

Magie, Michael L. "The Verse-Novel: Bastard Child of the Nineteenth Century" (Ph.D. diss., University of California, 1971). .. .

[Mermin, Dorothy]. "Barrett Browning's Stories." Browning Institute Studies 13 (1985): 99-112. . . .

——. "The Damsel, the Knight and the Victorian Woman Poet." Critical Inquiry 13 (Autumn 1986): 64-80. . . .

——. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry. Chicago, 1989. . . .

Mill, John Stuart. "What is Poetry?" and "The Truth of Poetry." The Monthly Repository (1833), revised and amalgamated in "Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties" in Dissertations and Discussions: Political, Philosophical and Historical (London, 1867). . . .

Moers, Ellen. Literary Women: The Great Writers. New York, 1977.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. 1985.

Montefiore, Jan. Feminism and Poetry: Language, Experience and Identity in Women's Writing. 1987. . . .

Munich, Adrienne Auslander. "Robert Browning's Poetics of Appropriation." Browning Institute Studies 15 (1985): 69-78.

Nicoli, W. Robertson, and Wise, Thomas J., eds. Literary Anecdotes of the Nineteenth Century. 1895-96. . . .

Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America. 1987. . . .

Raymond, Meredith B. "Elizabeth Barrett's Early Poetics: The 1820's; 'The Bird Pecks Through the Shell.'" Browning Society Notes 8 (1978): 3-7.

——. "Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Poetics 1830-1844: 'The Seraph and the Early Piper.'" Browning Society Notes 9 (1979): 5-9.

——. "Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Poetics 1845-1846: 'The Ascending Gyre.'" Browning Society Notes 11 (1981): 1-11. . . .

Ridenour, George M. "Robert Browning and Aurora Leigh." Victorian Newsletter, no. 67 (Spring 1987): 26-32. . . .

Riviere, Joan. "Womanliness as Masquerade." 1929. Reprint in Formations of Fantasy, edited by Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan, 35-44, 1986....

Rose, Jacqueline. In Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne, edited by Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, 1982. . . .

Rosenblum, Dolores. "Face to Face: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Nineteenth Century Poetry." Victorian Studies 26 (Spring 1983): 321-38

Rossetti, William Michael, ed. Ruskin: Rossetti: Pre-Raphaelitism, Papers 1854-1862. 1899. . . .

Ruskin, John. The Works of John Ruskin, edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 36 vols. 1903-12. . . .

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. "A Defence of Poetry." In Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments, edited by Mrs. Shelley. 2 vols. 1840. . . .

[Showalter, Elaine], ed. The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. 1986. . . .

[Stone, Marjorie]. "Genre Subversion and Gender Inversion: The Princess and Aurora Leigh." Victorian Poetry 25 (Summer 1987): 101-27.

Sutphin, Christine. "Revising Old Scripts: The Fusion of Independence and Intimacy in Aurora Leigh." Browning Institute Studies 15 (1987): 43-54. . . .

Taylor, Barbara. Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. 1983. . . .

Thomson, Patricia. The Victorian Heroine: A Changing Ideal 1837-1873. 1956.

——. George Sand and the Victorians: Her Influence and Reputation in Nineteenth Century England. 1977. . . .

Tompkins, J. M. S. "Aurora Leigh". The Fawcett Lecture, 1961. Bedford College, 1962.

Todd, Janet. Feminist Literary History. Oxford. 1988....

Weinstein, Mark. W. E. Aytoun and the Spasmodic Controversy. Yale Studies in English, 165 (Yale, 1968)

Woolf, Virginia, A Room of One 's Own. Harmondsworth, Middlesex. 1973.

——. "Aurora Leigh." The Common Reader. 2nd ser. 1932, reprinted 1975. .. .

Zanona, Joyce. "The Embodied Muse: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Feminist Poetics." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 8 (1989): 240-262.

William Edmondstoune Aytoun (review date 1857)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Mrs. Barrett Browning—Aurora Leigh" in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. LXXXI, No. CCCCXCV, January, 1857, pp. 23-41.

[In the following excerpt, Aytoun summarizes the plot of Aurora Leigh and gives it a mixed assessment; he criticizes some of the book's themes while admiring Browning's poetic style.]

For the application of his gifts, every author is responsible. He may exercise them well and usefully, or he may apply them to ignoble purposes. He may, by the aid of art, exhibit them in the most attractive form, or his execution may be mean and slovenly. In the one case he is deserving of praise; in the other he is liable to censure. Keeping this principle in view, we shall proceed to the consideration of this new volume from the pen of Mrs. Browning,—a lady whose rare genius has already won for her an exalted place among the poets of the age. Endowed with a powerful intellect, she at least has no reason to anticipate the treatment prophesied for her literary heroine, Aurora:—

You never can be satisfied with praise
Which men give women when they judge a book
Not as men's work, but as mere woman's work,
Expressing the comparative respect
Which means the absolute scorn. 'Oh, excellent!
What grace! what facile turns! what fluent sweeps!
What delicate discernment—almost thought!
The book does honour to the sex, we hold.
Among our female authors we make room
For this fair writer, and congratulate
The country that produces in these times
Such women, competent to—spell.'

Mrs. Browning takes the field like Britomart or Joan of Arc, and declares that she will not accept courtesy or forbearance from the critics on account of her sex. She challenges a truthful opinion, and that opinion she shall have.

Aurora Leigh is a story of the present time in nine books. When we say a story, it must not be understood in the sense of a continuous narrative or rather poem of action, for a great portion of the work is reflective. Still there is a story which we shall trace for the information of the reader, abstaining in the mean time from comment, and not making more quotations than are necessary for its elucidation. The poem is a monologue, and the opening scene is laid in Tuscany.

The father of Aurora Leigh, an Englishman of fortune and a scholar, fell in love with a young Florentine girl, whom he first saw bearing a taper in a religious procession. They were married; but the wife died shortly after she had given birth to her sole daughter, Aurora. The widower, in a frenzy of grief, withdrew to a cottage among the mountains, and there occupied his time in the education of his child, who soon became a proficient in the classics.

The trick of Greek
And Latin he had taught me, as he would
Have taught me wrestling or the game of fives,
If such he had known,—most like a ship-wrecked man
Who heaps his single platter with goats' cheese
And scarlet berries; or like any man
Who loves but one, and so gives all at once,
Because he has it, rather than because
He counts it worthy. Thus my father gave;
And thus, as did the woman formerly
By young Achilles, when they pinned the veil
Across the boy's audacious front, and swept
With tuneful laughs the silver-fretted rocks.
He wrapt his little daughter in his large
Man's doublet, careless did it fit or no.

This mode of tuition—the same, by the way, which Dominie Sampson proposed for the mental culture of Lucy Bertram—had a strong effect upon the character of Aurora, who throughout the poem discourses in a most learned manner. When she was only thirteen her father died, and she was brought away, most reluctantly, from her pleasant Italy, to dwell in foggy England with a virgin aunt, who is thus described:—

I think I see my father's sister stand
Upon the hall-step of her country-house
To give me welcome. She stood straight and calm,
Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight
As if for taming accidental thoughts
From possible pulses; brown hair pricked with grey
By frigid use of life (she was not old,
Although my father's elder by a year),
A nose drawn sharply, yet in delicate lines;
A close mild mouth, a little soured about
The ends, through speaking unrequited loves,
Or peradventure niggardly half-truths;
Eyes of no colour,—once they might have smiled,
But never, never have forgot themselves
In smiling; cheeks, in which was yet a rose
Of perished summers, like a rose in a book,
Kept more for ruth than pleasure,—if past bloom,
Past fading also.
She had lived, we'll say,
A harmless life, she called a virtuous life,
A quiet life, which was not life at all,
(But that, she had not lived enough to know),
Between the vicar and the county squires,
The lord-lieutenant looking down sometimes
From the empyreal, to assure their souls
Against chance - Vulgarisms, and, in the abyss,
The apothecary looked on once a-year,
To prove their soundness of humility.
The poor-club exercised her Christian gifts
Of knitting stockings, stitching petticoats,
Because we are of one flesh after all,
And need one flannel (with a proper sense
Of difference in the quality)—and still
The book-club, guarded from your modern trick
Of shaking dangerous questions from the crease,
Preserved her intellectual. She had lived
A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage,
Accounting that to leap from perch to perch
Was act and joy enough for any bird.
Dear heaven, how silly are the things that live
In thickets, and eat berries!
I, alas,
A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage,
And she was there to meet me. Very kind.
Bring the clean water; give out the fresh seed.

This prim old lady was not exactly to Miss Aurora's mind; indeed, there was not much love lost between them, for Aunt Marjory had been sorely incensed, and with good reason, as will presently appear, at her brother's marriage with a foreigner, and never thoroughly forgave the daughter. However, she did her duty by her in her own fashion, supplementing her education by giving her instruction in such things as are usually taught to English girls, an intellectual regimen which excited the profoundest disgust in Aurora. However, she had strength enough to stand the trial, though occasionally threatening to die; and her patience was at length rewarded by finding her father's books in a garret. These she devoured furtively, and lighting upon the poets, at once perceived her vocation.

At last, because the time was ripe, chanced upon the poets.
As the earth
Plunges in fury, when the internal fires
Have reached and pricked her heart, and, throwing flat
The marts and tempels, the triumphal gates
And towers of observation, clears herself
To elemental freedom—thus, my soul,
At poetry's divine first finger-touch,
Let go conventions and sprang up surprised,
Convicted of the great eternities
Before two worlds.

So Aurora began to make verses, and found herself all the better for the exercise. But there were more Leighs in the world than Aurora. She had a cousin, Romney Leigh, the proprietor of Leigh Hall, who, even as a youth, exhibited queer tendencies:—

Romney, Romney Leigh.
I have not named my cousin hitherto,
And yet I used him as a sort of friend:
My elder by few years, but cold and shy
And absent—tender, when he thought of it,
Which scarcely was imperative, grave betimes,
As well as early master of Leigh Hall,
Whereof the nightmare, sate upon his youth
Repressing all its seasonable delights,
And agonising with a ghastly sense
Of universal hideous want and wrong
To incriminate possession. When he came
From college to the country, very oft
He crossed the hills on visits to my aunt,
With gifts of blue grapes from the hothouses,
A book in one hand,—mere statistics (if
I chanced to lift the cover), count of all
The goats whose beards are sprouting down toward hell,
Against God's separating judgment-hour.
And she, she almost loved him,—even allowed
That sometimes he should seem to sigh my way;

It made him easier to be pitiful,
And sighing was his gift.

This young gentleman, after his own odd fashion, has conceived an attachment for Aurora; nor is he an object of total indifference to her, though her mind is more occupied with versification than with love. The two characters, male and female, are meant to stand in strong contrast to each other. Romney is a Socialist, bent on devoting himself to the regeneration of mankind, and the improvement of the condition of the working classes, by carrying into effect the schemes of Fourier and Owen—the aim of Aurora is, through Art, to raise the aspirations of the people. The man is physical, the woman metaphysical. The one is for increasing bodily comfort, the other for stimulating the mind. Both are enthusiasts, and both are intolerably dogmatic. Now it so happens that, on the morning of the twentieth anniversary of her birthday, Miss Aurora sallies forth early, with the laudable purpose of crowning herself after the manner of Corinna, and is surprised by Romney in the act of placing an ivy wreath upon her brows. Romney has picked up a volume of her manuscript poems, which he returns, not, however, with any complimentary phrase, but rather sneeringly, and forthwith begins to read her a lecture, in a high puritanical strain, upon the vanity of her pursuits. This, of course, rouses the ire of Aurora, who retorts with great spirit on his materialistic tendencies. In the midst of this discussion he has the bad taste to propose, not so much, as he puts it, through love, but because he wants a helpmate to assist him in the erection of public washing-houses, soupkitchens, and hospitals; whereupon our high-souled poetess flies off at a tangent:—

'What you love,
Is not a woman, Romney, but a cause:
You want a helpmate, not a mistress, sir—
A wife to help your ends—in her no end!
Your cause is noble, your ends excellent,
But I, being most unworthy of these and that,
Do otherwise conceive of love. Farewell.'

'Farewell, Aurora? you reject me thus?' He said.

'Why, sir, you are married long ago.
You have a wife already whom you love,
Your social theory. Bless you both, I say.
For my part, I am scarcely meek enough
To be the handmaid of a lawful spouse.
Do I look a Hagar, think you?'

Aunt Marjory, when she hears of this refusal, is frantic, and rates Aurora soundly for rejecting a fortune laid at her feet. She explains that by a special clause in the Leigh entail, offspring by a foreign wife were cut off from succession—that no sooner was Aurora born than the next heir, Romney Leigh's father, proposed that a marriage should be arranged between his son and the child, so that the penalties of disinherison might be avoided—and that Romney, by asking her to marry him, was in fact carrying out that intention. Otherwise Aurora is a beggar, for her aunt has no fortune to leave her. Such suggestions as these, when they occur in romance and poetry, always prove arguments in favour of obstinacy; and Aurora, even though she likes Romney, fixes upon them as insuperable obstacles to the marriage:—

Romney now was turned
To a benefactor, to a generous man,
Who had tied himself to marry—me, instead
Of such a woman, with low timorous lids
He lifted with a sudden word one day,
And left, perhaps, for my sake.—Ah, self-tied
By a contract,—male Iphigenia, bound
At a fatal Aulis, for the winds to change,
(But loose him—they'll not change); he well might seem
A little cold and dominant in love!
He had a right to be dogmatical,
This poor, good Romney. Love, to him, was made
A simple law-clause. If I married him,
I would not dare to call my soul my own,

Which so he had bought and paid for: every thought
And every heart-beat down there in the bill,—
Not one found honestly deductible
From any use that pleased him! He might cut
My body into coins to give away
Among his other paupers; change my sons,
While I stood dumb as Griseld, for black babes
Or piteous foundings; might unquestioned set
My right hand teaching in the Ragged Schools,
My left hand washing in the Public Baths,
What time my angel of the Ideal stretched
Both his to me in vain! I could not claim
The poor right of a mouse in a trap, to squeal,
And take so much as pity, from myself

In short, she will be her own mistress, and work out her own independence. Her aunt dies, leaving Aurora about three hundred pounds. She peremptorily rejects a large sum of money which Romney, with delicate generosity, had attempted to place at her disposal, without allowing her to incur the sense of obligation, and starts for the metropolis:—

'I go hence
To London, to the gathering-place of souls,
To live mine straight out, vocally, in books;
Harmoniously for others, if indeed
A woman's soul, like man's, be wide enough
To carry the whole octave (that's to prove),
Or if I fall, still, purely for myself.

Locating herself at Kensington, she begins her literary career, and achieves distinction. One day she is waited on by a certain Lady Waldemar, who gives her the astounding information that her cousin Romney, whom she had not seen for three years, is on the eve of marriage—

To a girl of doubtful life, undoubtful birth.
Starved out in, London, till her coarse-grained hands
Are whiter than her morals.

This Lady Waldemar is personally in love with Romney Leigh, and comes to ask the aid of Aurora in breaking off the ill-assorted marriage. Aurora, however, having conceived a disgust to her visitor (which is not surprising, seeing that her conversation is so flavoured with allusions to garlic, that even the Lady of Shallot would have recoiled from her whispers), refuses to have any participation in the matter, but resolves immediately to see this girl, Marian Erle, who resides in a garret somewhere in the purlieus of St. Giles. After passing through the abominations of that quarter, and receiving the maledictions of thief and prostitute, the poetess discovers the object of her search, and hears her story. Marian Erle, the selected bride of Romney Leigh, was the daughter of a tramp and squatter on the Malvern Hills, and her education was essentially a hedge one. Her father drank and beat his wife, and the wife in turn beat her child. When Marian arrived at the age of puberty, her unnatural mother was about to sell her as a victim to the lusts of "a squire," when the girl, in horror, ran away, burst a blood-vessel in her flight, was found senseless on the road by a waggoner, and conveyed to an hospital in a neighbouring town, where Romney Leigh was a visitor. Finding that she was friendless and homeless, he procured her a place in a sowing establishment in London, which she quitted to attend the deathbed of a poor consumptive companion, who had sunk under the pressure of overwork. Here Romney Leigh again appeared, and after the death of her friend, proposed to marry her, fashioning his proposal thus:—

'Dear Marian, of one clay God made us all,
And though men push and poke and paddle in't
(As children play at fashioning dirt-pies),
And call their fancies by the name of facts,
Assuming difference, lordship, privilege,
When all's plain dirt,—they come back to it at last;
The first grave-digger proves it with a spade,
And pats all even. Need we wait for this,
You, Marian, and I, Romney?
She, at that,
Looked blindly in his face, as when one looks
Through driving autumn-rains to find the sky.
He went on speaking.
Marian, I being born What men call noble, and you, issued from
The noble people,—though the tyrannous sword
Which pierced Christ's heart, has cleft the world in twain
'Twixt class and class, opposing rich to poor,—
Shall we keep parted? Not so. Let us lean
And strain together rather, each to each,
Compress the red lips of this gaping wound,
As far as two souls can,—ay, lean and league,
I, from my superabundance,—from your want,
You,—joining in a protest 'gainst the wrong
On both sides!'

While Marian is telling her story to Aurora, Romney comes in, looks certainly a little surprised at finding his cousin there, but is by no means disconcerted. Naturally enough Aurora supposes that he must be influenced by a very strong passion for the girl whom he is about to make his wife, and congratulates him, with what sincerity we need not inquire, on having made choice of so fair and gentle a creature. Romney, however, utterly denies the soft impeachment, in so far as it implies that his affections were any way engaged. Ordinary men contract marriages from love—he is influenced by a far higher principle. He says:—

'You did not, do not, cannot comprehend
My choice, my ends, my motives, nor myself:
No matter now—we'll let it pass, you say.
I thank you for your generous cousinship
Which helps this present; I accept for her
Your favourable thoughts. We're fallen on days,
We two, who are not poets, when to wed
Requires less mutual love than common love,
For two together to bear out at once
Upon the loveless many. Work in pairs,
In galley-couplings or in marriage-rings,
The difference lies in the honour, not the work,—
And such we're bound to, I and she. But love,
(You poets are benighted in this age;
The hour's too late for catching even moths,
You're gnats instead), love!—love's fool-paradise
Is out of date, like Adam's. Set a swan
To swim the Trenton, rather than true love
To float its fabulous plumage safely down
The cataracts of this loud transition-time,
Whose roar, for ever henceforth, in my ears,
Must keep me deaf to music.

In short, the man has not an atom of love for the girl, whom he proposes to wed entirely from motives of general philanthropy! At this Aurora is somewhat disgusted; but, wishing to show kindness to her cousin—perhaps to testify her own indifference, which, however, is rather feigned than real—she suggests that the marriage should take place at her house. But Master Romney will not hear of such an arrangement, as it might weaken the effect of the grand moral lesson which he intends to convey to society:—

He answered, 'But it is:—I take my wife
Directly from the people,—and she comes,
As Austria's daughter to imperial France,
Betwixt her eagles, blinking not her race,
From Margaret's Court, at garret-height, to meet
And wed me at St. James's, nor put off
Her gown of serge for that. The things we do,
We do: we'll wear no mask, as if we blushed.

The following sketch of the company assembled to witness the marriage ceremony is too racy and rich to be omitted here. As the union was to be typical of the inpending abolition of all class distinctions, Romney determined that it should be celebrated in the presence of high and low, and issued cards accordingly.

A month passed so, and then the notice came;
On such a day the marriage at the church.
I was not backward.
Half St. Giles in frieze
Was bidden to meet St. James in cloth of gold,
And after contract at the altar, pass
To eat a marriage-feast on Hampstead Heath.
Of course the people came in uncompelled,
Lame, blind, and worse—sick, sorrowful, and worse,
The humours of the peccant social wound
All pressed out, poured out upon Pimlico,
Exasperating the unaccustomed air
With hideous interfusion: you'd suppose
A finished generation, dead of plague,
Swept outward from their graves into the sun,
The moil of death upon them. What a sight!
A holiday of miserable men
Is sadder than a burial-day of kings.

They clogged the streets, they oozed into the church
In a dark, slow stream, like blood. To see that sight,
The noble ladiess tood up in their pews,
Some pale for fear, a few as red for hate,
Some simply curious, some just insolent,
And some in wondering scorn,—'What next? what next?'
These crushed; their delicate rose-lips from the smile
That misbecame them in a holy place,
With broidered hems of perfumed hand-kerchiefs;
Those passed the salts with confidence of eyes
And simultaneous shiver of moire silk;
While all the aisles, alive and black with heads,
Crawled slowly toward the altar from the street,
As bruised snakes crawl and hiss out of a hole
With shuddering involutions, swaying slow
From right to left, and then from left to right,
In pants and pauses. What an ugly crest
Of faces rose upon you everywhere
From that crammed mass! you did not usually
See faces like them in the open day:
They hide in cellars, not to make you mad
As Romney Leigh is.—Faces! O my God,
We call those, faces? men's and women's—ay,
And children's;—babies, hanging like a rag
Forgotten on their mother's neck,—poor mouths,
Wiped clean of mother's milk by mother's blow,
Before they are taught her cursing. Faces!—phew,
We'll call them vices festering to despairs,
Or sorrows petrifying to vices: not

A finger-touch of God left whole on them;
All ruined, lost—the countenance worn out
As the garments, the will dissolute as the acts,
The passions loose and draggling in the dirt
To trip the foot up at the first free step!—
Those faces! 'twas as if you had stirred up hell
To heave its lowest dreg-fiends uppermost
In flery swirls of slime,—such strangled fronts.
Such obdurate jaws were thrown up constantly,
To twit you with your race, corrupt your blood,
And grind to devilish colours all your dreams
Henceforth,—though, haply, you should drop asleep
By clink of silver waters, in a muse
On Raffael's mild Madonna of the Bird.

So there they wait—that strangely assorted company—the denizens of St. Giles thronging on the inhabitants of St. James—both parties curious to behold the marriage which is to inaugurate the future revolution and fusion of society. Romney Leigh appears to do the honours; but time rolls on, and still the bride comes not. The fashionables stare and talk gossip; the vulgar murmur, and desire a smoke—until a rumour to the effect that something is amiss, pervades the throng.

A murmur and a movement drew around;
A naked whisper touched us. Something wrong!
What's wrong? The black crowd, as an overstrained
Cord, quivered in vibrations, and I saw—
Was that his face I saw?—his—Romney Leigh's—
Which tossed a sudden horror like a sponge
Into all eyes,—while himself stood white upon
The topmost altar-stair, and tried to speak,
And failed, and lifted higher above his head
A letter,—as a man who drowns and gasps.

'My brothers, bear with me! I am very weak.
I meant but only good. Perhaps I meant
Too proudly,—and God snatched the circumstance,
And changed it therefore. There's no marriage—none.
She leaves me,—she departs,—she disappears,—
I lose her. Yet I never forced her "ay,"
To have her "no" so cast into my teeth,
In manner of an accusation, thus.
My friends, you are all dismissed, Go, eat and drink
According to the programme,—and farewell!'

At this St. Giles' rises in insurrection, cursing Romney as a seducer, and accusing him of having made away with the girl. There is a superb row, with threats of violence and arson, until the police enter and clear the church.

Beyond an engimatical letter of leave-taking, which gives no explanation of her avoiding the marriage ceremony, we hear nothing of Marian for a long time. Romney retires to Leigh Hall, which he has turned into a "phalanstery," by which term, we presume, is meant an Owenite community. Miss Aurora continues her devotion to the muses, and becomes more notable day by day; but a horrid suspicion crosses her that Lady Waldemar has found the weak side of her wealthy cousin. For, at a conversazione at the house of a certain Lord Howe she learns that the fair and intriguing Waldemar is commonly considered as Romney's pet disciple—nay, that she is considered as his bride intended. In the words of Mrs. Browning, which we give without the metrical divisions,—

You may find her name on all his missions and commissions, schools, asylums, hospitals. He has had her down with other ladies, whom her starry lead persuaded from other spheres, to his countryplace in Shropshire, in the famed phalanstery at Leigh Hall, christianised from Fourior's own, in which he has planted out his sapling stocks of knowledge into social bursaries; and there, they say, she has tarried half a week, and milked the cows, and churned, and pressed the curd, and said 'my sister' to the lowest drab of all the assembled castaways. Such girls! Ay, sided with them at the washing-tub.

Lady Waldemar, in a very spiteful speech, confirms this impression; and Miss Aurora, who all this time has had a secret hankering for her cousin, determines to square her balances with her publisher, and to depart for Italy.

In Paris she encounters Marian, and finds her a mother. The explanation is, that Lady Waldemar had tampered with the girl; and by representing to her that her marriage with Romney would be his social ruin, induced her to take flight on the day preceding that which had been arranged for the nuptials. The place of her future destiny was Australia, but her ladyship had confided her to the charge of an unprincipled soubrette, who, whether or not by design of her mistress, took Marian over to France, conveyed her to an infamous house, and sold her, while under the influence of drugs, to violation. On awakening to a sense of her situation and wrongs, the unfortunate girl became mad, and was allowed to make her escape, underwent various adventures and vicissitudes, and finnally brought into the world a male child, in whom her whole existence was wrapt up, and for whom alone she lived, when she was recognised and challenged by Aurora in the streets of Paris. The sequel may be easily imagined. Miss Leigh, convinced of Marian's innocence, insists that she, with her child, shall accompany her to Florence; and there are some letters and cross purposes, into which, for the mere sake of the story, it is not necessary to enter. In fine, Aurora, in the full belief that Lady Waldemar, to whom she has sent a most insulting letter, is now the wife of her cousin, becomes melancholy and heartsick, and time drags wearily on, until one night, watching the stars from her terrace, she is startled by the sudden apparition of Romney by her side. Gentler than in his early youth, and far more humble, Romney first pays homage to her genius, and then confesses that his social schemes have proved an utter failure.

'My vain phalanstery dissolved itself;
My men and women of disordered lives,
I brought in orderly to dine and sleep,
Broke up those waxen masks I made them wear,
With fierce contortions of the natural face;
And cursed me for my tyrannous constraint
In forcing crooked creatures to live straight;
And set the country hounds upon my back
To bite and tear me for my wicked deed
Of trying to do good without the church
Or even the squires, Aurora. Do you mind
Your ancient neighbours? The great book-club teems
With "sketches," "summaries," and "last tracts" but twelve,
On socialistic troublers of close bonds
Betwixt the generous rich and grateful poor.
The vicar preached from "Revelations" (till
The doctor woke) and found me with "the
On three successive Sundays; ay, and stopped
To weep a little (for he's getting old)
That such perdition should o'ertake a man
Of such fair acres,—in the parish, too!
He printed his discourses "by request;"
And if your book shall sell as his did, then
Your verses are less good than I suppose.
The women of the neighbourhood subscribed,
And sent me a copy bound in scarlet silk,
Tooled edges, blazoned with the arms of Leigh:
I own that touched me.'
'What, the pretty ones?
Poor Romney!'
'Otherwise the effect was small.
I had my windows broken once or twice
By liberal peasants, naturally incensed
At such a vexer of Arcadian peace,
Who would not let men call their wives their own
To kick like Britons,—and made obstacles
When things went smoothly as a baby drugged,
Toward freedom and starvation; bringing down
The wicked London tavern-thieves and drabs,
To affront the blessed hill-side drabs and thieves
With mended morals, quotha,—fine new lives!—
My windows paid for't. I was shot at, once,
By an active poacher who had hit a hare
From the other barrel, tired of springeing game
So long upon my acres, undisturbed,
And restless for the country's virtue (yet
He missed me)—ay, and pelted very oft
In riding through the village. "There he goes,
Who'd drive away our Christian gentlefolks,
To catch us undefended in the trap
He baits with poisonous cheese, and lock us up
In that pernicious prison of Leigh Hall
With all his murderers! Give another name,
And say Leigh Hell, and burn it with fire.
And so they did, at last, Aurora.

The worst of it was, that the garrotters, ticket-of-leave men, and street-walkers, with whom he had filled his house, thought the proceeding rare fun, and joined in the incendiarism; and Will Erle, Marian's father, "tramp and poacher," whom he had attempted to reclaim, struck Romney on the head with a burning brand as he was leaving the house, inflicting an injury which brought him nearly to the verge of the grave. In the course of conversation Romney undeceives Aurora as to his connection with Lady Waldemar, but declares that he considers himself bound, notwithstanding her misfortune, to wed Marian, and to adopt her child. Marian, who has overheard this, comes forward, and after a passionate scene of great beauty, rejects the offer. Here we cannot resist a quotation.

'I have not so much life that I should love
—Except the child. Ah God! I could not bear
To see my darling on a good man's knees,
And know by such a look, or such a sigh,
Or such a silence, that he thought sometimes,
"This child was fathered by some cursed wretch"—
For, Romney,—angels are less tender-wise
Than God and mothers; even you would think
What we think never. He is ours, the child;
And we would sooner vex a soul in heaven
By coupling with it the dead body's thought,
It left behind it in a last month's grave,
Than, in my child, see other than—my child.
We only, never call him fatherless
Who has God and his mother. O my babe,
My pretty, pretty blossom, an ill-wind
Once blew upon my breast! can any think
I'd have another,—one called happier,
A fathered child, with father's love and race
That's worn as bold and open as a smile,
To vex my darling when he's asked his name,
And has no answer? What! a happier child
Than mine, my best,—who laughed so loud to-night

He could not sleep for pastime? Nay, I sware
By life and love, that, if I lived like some,
And loved like—some—ay, loved you, Romney Leigh,
As some love (eyes that have wept so much, see clear),
I've room for no more children in my arms;
My kisses are all melted on one mouth;
I would not push my darling to a stool
To dandle babies. Here's a hand, shall keep
For ever clean without a marriage-ring,
To tend my boy, until he cease to need
One steadying finger of it, and desert
(Not miss) his mother's lap, to sit with men.
And when I miss him (not he me) I'll come
And say, "Now give me some of Romney's work,
To help our outcast orphans of the world,
And comfort grief with grief." For you, meantime,
Most noble Romney, wed a noble wife,
And open on each other your great souls,—
I need not farther bless you. If I dared
But strain and touch her in her upper sphere.
And say, "Come down to Romney—pay my debt!"
I should be joyful with the stream of joy
Sent through me. But the moon is in my face—
I dare not,—though I guess the name he loves;
I'm learned with my studies of old days,
Remembering how he crush'd his under-lip
When some one came and spoke, or did not come:
Aurora, I could touch her with my hand,
And fly, because I dare not.'
She was gone.

And so Marian departs. But now comes an awful disclosure—Romney is blind. The blow struck by the poacher had destroyed the visual nerves; and for that unfortunate Lord of Leigh, the glory of the sun, moon, and stars, was but a remembrance. So Aurora, who had always loved him, even though she would not allow it to herself—and whom he had never ceased to love amidst his perverted dreams of duty—gives her whole woman's heart to the helpless; and the poem closes with the interchange of vows and aspirations.

Such is the story, which no admirer of Mrs. Browning's genius ought in prudence to defend. In our opinion it is fantastic, unnatural, exaggerated; and all the worse, because it professes to be a tale of our own times. No one who understands of how much value probability is to a tale, can read the foregoing sketch, or indeed peruse the poem, without a painful feeling that Mrs. Browning has been perpetrating, in essentials, an extravaganza or caricature, instead of giving to the public a real lifelike picture; for who can accept, as truthful representation, Romney's proposal of marriage to an ignorant uneducated girl whom he does not love; or that scene in the church, which is absolutely of Rabelaisian conception? We must not be seduced by beauty and power of execution from entering our protest against this radical error, which appears more glaring as we pass from the story to the next point, which is the delineation of character. Aurora Leigh is not an attractive character. After making the most liberal allowance for pride, and fanaticism for art, and inflexible independence, she is incongruous and contradictory both in her sentiments and in her actions. She is not a genuine woman; one half of her heart seems bounding with the beat of humanity, while the other half is ossified. What we miss in her is instinctiveness, which is the greatest charm of women. No doubt she displays it now and then, and sometimes very conspicuously, but it is not made the general attribute of her nature; and in her dealings with Romney Leigh, instinct disappears altogether. For we hold it absolutely impossible that a woman, gifted as she is represented to be, would have countenanced a kinsman, whom she respected only, in the desperate folly of wedding an uneducated girl from the lowest grade of society, whom he did not love, simply for the sake of a theory, thereby making himself a public laughing-stock, without the least chance of advancing the progress of his own preposterous opinions. There is nothing heroic in this; there is nothing reconcilable with duty. The part which Aurora takes in the transaction, degrades rather than raises her in our eyes; nor is she otherwise thoroughly amiable; for, with all deference to Mrs. Browning, and with ideas of our own perhaps more chivalric than are commonly promulgated, we must maintain that woman was created to be dependent on the man, and not in the primary sense his lady and his mistress. The extreme independence of Aurora detracts from the feminine charm, and mars the interest which we otherwise might have felt in so intellectual a heroine. In fact, she is made to resemble too closely some of the female portraits of George Sand, which never were to our liking. In Romney we fail to take any kind of interest. Though honour-able and generous, he is such a very decided noodle that we grudge him his prominence in the poem, do not feel much sympathy for his misfortunes, and cannot help wondering that Aurora should have entertained one spark of affection for so deplorable a milksop. Excess of enthusiasm we can allow; and folly, affecting to talk the words of wisdom, meets us at every turning: but Romney is a walking hyperbole. The character of Marian is very beautifully drawn and well sustained, but her thoughts and language are not those of a girl reared in the midst of sordid poverty, vice, and ignorance. This is an error in art which we are sure Mrs. Browning, upon mature consideration, will acknowledge; and it might easily have been avoided by the simple expedient of making Marian's origin and antecedents a few shades more respectable, which still would have left enough disparity between her and Romney to produce the effect which Mrs. Browning desires. Lady Waldemar is a disgusting character. Mrs. Browning intended her to appear as despicable; but it was not therefore necessary to make her talk coarse and revolting. As an example let us cite the following passage:—

Of a truth, Miss Leigh,
I have not, without struggle, come to this.
I took a master in the German tongue,
I gamed a little, went to Paris twice;
But, after all, this love!—you eat of love,
And do as vile a thing as if you eat
Of garlic—which, whatever else you eat,
Tastes uniformly acrid, till your peach
Reminds you of your onion. Am I coarse?
Well, love's coarse, nature's coarse—ah, there's the rub!
We fair fine ladies, who park out our lives
From common sheep-paths, cannot help the crows
From flying over,—we're as natural still
As Blowsalinda. Drape us perfectly
In Lyons velvet,—we are not, for that,
Lay-figures, look you! we have hearts within,
Warm, live, improvident, indecent hearts,
As ready for distracted ends and acts
As any distressed sempstress of them all
That Romney groans and toils for. We catch love
And other fevers, in the vulgar way.
Love will not be outwitted by our wit,
Not outrun by our equipages:—mine
Persisted, spite of efforts. All my cards
Turned up but Romney Leigh; my German stopped
At germane Wertherism; my Paris rounds
Returned me from the Champs Elysées just
A ghost, and sighing like Dido's. I came home
Uncured,—convicted rather to myself
Of being in love—in love! That's coarse you'll say.
I'm talking garlic.

In this there is neither truth, power, nor humour. The offence against taste is so rank that it cannot easily be forgiven.

In poetry passages such as that which we have quoted are intolerable, because by juxtaposition with others exquisite in themselves, they impair our capacity for enjoyment. Anything very hideous or revolting taints the air around it, and produces a sensation of loathing, from which we do not immediately recover. Hence poets, even when their situations are of the most tragic nature—even when they are dealing with subjects questionable in morality—do, for the most part, sedulously avoid anything like coarseness of expression, and frame their language so as to convey the general idea without presenting special images which are calculated to disgust. Indeed, whilst reading this poem, which abounds in references to art, we have been impressed with a doubt whether, with all her genius, accomplishment, and experience, Mrs. Browning has ever thought seriously of the principles upon which art is founded. For genius, as we all know, or ought to know, is not of itself sufficient for the construction of a great poem. Artists, like architects, must work by rule—not slavishly indeed, but ever keeping in mind that there are certain principles which experience has tested and approved, and that to deviate from these is literally to court defeat. Not that we should implicitly receive the doctrines laid down by critics, scholiasts, or commentators, or pin our faith to the formula of Longinus; but we should regard the works of the great masters, both ancient and modern, as profitable for instruction as well as for delight, and be cautious how we innovate. We may consider it almost as a certainty that every leading principle of art has been weighed and sifted by our predecessors; and that most of the theories, which are paraded as discoveries, were deliberately examined by them, and rejected because they were false or impracticable. In the fifth book of this poem there is a dissertation upon poetry, in which Mrs. Browning very plainly indicates her opinion that the chief aim of a poet should be to illustrate the age in which he lives.

But poets should
Exert a double vision; should have eyes
To see near things as comprehensively
As if afar they took their point of sight,
And distant things, as intimately deep,
As if they touched them. Let us strive for this.
I do distrust the poet who discerns
No character or glory in his times,
And trundles back his soul five hundred years,
Past moat and drawbridge, into a castle-court,
Oh not to sing of lizards or of toads
Alive i' the ditch there!—'twere excusable;
But of some black chief, half knight, half sheep-lifter,
Some beauteous dame, half chattel and half queen;
As dead as must be for the greater part,
The poems made on their chivalric bones.
And that's no wonder: death inherits death.

Nay, if there's room for poets in the world
A little overgrown (I think there is),
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne's,—this live throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,

Than Roland with his knights, at Roncesvalles.
To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce
Cry out for togas and the picturesque,
Is fatal,—foolish too. King Arthur's self
Was commonplace to Lady Guenever;
And Camelot to minstrels seemed as flat
As Regent Street to poets.

Never flinch,
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava of a song,
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That, when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say,
'Behold,—behold the paps we have all sucked!'
That bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets ours beating. This is living art,
Which thus presents, and thus records true life.'

This, in our apprehension, would lead to a total sacrifice of the ideal. It is not the province of the poet to depict things as they are, but so to refine and purify as to purge out the grosser matter; and this he cannot do if he attempts to give a faithful picture of his own times. For in order to be faithful, he must necessarily include much which is abhorrent to art, and revolting to the taste, for which no exactness of delineation will be accepted as a proper excuse. All poetical characters, all poetical situations must be idealised. The language is not that of common life, which belongs essentially to the domain of prose. Therein lies the distinction between a novel and a poem. In the first, we expect that the language employed by the characters shall be strictly natural, not excluding even imperfections, and that their sentiments shall not be too elevated or extravagant for the occasion. In the second, we expect idealisation—language more refined, more adorned, and more forcible than that which is ordinarily employed; and sentiments purer and loftier than find utterance in our daily speech. Whilst dealing with a remote subject the poet can easily effect this, but not so when he brings forward characters of his own age. We have been told that both the late John Kemble and his sister Mrs. Siddons had become so accustomed to the flow of blank verse that they carried the trick of it into private life, and used sorely to try the risible faculties of the company by demanding beef or beer in tragic tones and rhythm. That which would have sounded magnificently on the stage was ludicrous at a modern table. Mrs. Browning has evidently felt the difficulty, but she cannot conquer it. In this poem she has wilfully alternated passages of sorry prose with bursts of splendid poetry; and her prose is all the worse because she has been compelled to dislocate its joints in order to make it read like blank verse. Let us again revert to the experiment of exhibiting one or two of these passages printed in the usual form:—

We are sad to-night. I saw—(goodnight, Sir Blaise! ah Smith—he has slipped away) I saw you across the room, and stayed, Miss Leigh, to keep a crowd of lion-hunters off, with faces toward your jungle. There were three; a spacious lady five feet ten, and fat, who has the devil in her (and there's room) for walking to and fro upon the earth from Chippewa to China; she requires your autograph upon a tinted leaf'twixt Queen Pomare's and Emperor Soulouque's; pray give it; she has energies, though fat; for me, I'd rather see a rick on fire than such a woman angry. Then a youth fresh from the back-woods, green as the underboughs, asks modestly, Miss Leigh, to kiss your shoe, and adds, he has an epic in twelve parts, which when you've read, you'll do it for his boot,—all which I saved you, and absorb next week both manuscript and man.

Is that poetry? Assuredly not. Is it prose? If so, it is as poor and faulty a specimen as ever was presented to our notice. It would not pass muster even in a third-rate novel, where sense is an element of minor consideration, and style is habitually disregarded. Here is an extract from an epistle by Lady Waldemar:—

Parted. Face no more, voice no more, love no more! wiped wholly out like some ill scholar's scrawl from heart and slate—ay, spit on, and so wiped out utterly by some coarse scholar. I have been too coarse, too human. Have we business in our rank with blood in the veins? I will have henceforth none; not even to keep the colour at my lip. A rose is pink and pretty without blood,—why not a woman? When we've played in vain the game, to adore,—who have resources still, and can play on at leisure, being adored: here's Smith already swearing at my feet that I'm the typic She. Away with Smith!—Smith smacks of Leigh, and henceforth, I'll admit no Socialist within three crinolines, to live and have his being. But for you, though insolent your letter and absurd, and though I hate you frankly, take my Smith! For when you have seen this famous marriage tied, a most unspotted Earl to a noble Leigh (his love astray on one he should not love), howbeit you should not want his love, beware, you'll want some comfort. So I leave you Smith; take Smith!

What a rare specimen of a rhythmical fashionable letter! Still more singular is the effect when the mob becomes articulate:—

Then spoke a man, 'Now look to it, coves, that all the beef and drink be not filched from us like the other fun; for beer's spilt easier than a woman is. This gentry is not honest with the poor; they bring us up to trick us.' 'Go it, Jim,' a woman screamed back. 'I'm a tender soul; I never banged a child at two years old, and drew blood from him, but I sobbed for it next moment—and I've had a plague of seven. I'm tender: I've no stomach even for beef, until I know about the girl that's lost—that's killed, mayhap. I did misdoubt, at first, the fine lord meant no good by her or us. He maybe got the upper hand of her by holding up a wedding-ring, and then . . a choking finger on her throat last night, and just a clever take to keep us still, as she is, poor lost innocent!'

Reading such passages as these—so flat, distorted, and unworthy—shall we not exclaim with Mrs. Browning herself,

Weep, my Æschylus,
But low and far, upon Sicilian shores?

It is not the part of critics to strain their vision so as to detect spots on the disc of the sun; but it is their duty to mark the appearance of even a partial eclipse. It is far easier, as it is more pleasant, to praise than to condemn; but praise, injudiciously or indiscriminately bestowed, cannot be commended, since it leads to the perpetuation of error. In dealing with the works of authors of high name and established repute, it is of the utmost importance that the judgment should be clear and calm; for we know by experience that the aberrations or eccentricities of a distinguished artist are immediately copied by a crew of imitators, who, unable to vie with their original in beauties, can at least rival him in his faults. We doubt not that, before a year is over, many poems on the model of Aurora Leigh will be written and published; and that conversations in the pot-house, casino, and even worse places, will be reduced to blank verse, and exhibited as specimens of high art. To dignify the mean, is not the province of poetry—let us rather say that there are atmospheres so tainted that in them poetry cannot live. Its course is in the empyrean or in the fresh wholesome air, but if it attempts to descend to pits and charnel-vaults, it is stifled by the noxious exhalations. We by no means confound the humble with the mean. The most sanctified affections, the purest thoughts, the holiest aspirations, are as likely to be found in the cottage as in the castle. Wherever there is a flower, however lowly, beauty may be seen; the prayer of a monarch is not more heeded in heaven than the supplication of an outcast; the cry of a mother is as plaintive from the dungeon as though it sounded from the halls of a palace. This very poem which we are reviewing affords a remarkable illustration of the æsthetical point which we are anxious to enforce. We have already said that the character of Marian Erle is beautifully drawn and well sustained, and yet it is the humblest of them all. But in depicting her, Mrs. Browning has abstained from all meanness. If she errs at all, it is by making the girl appear more refined in thought and expression than is justified by her previous history, but that is an error on the safe side, and one which may be readily excused. Marian, little better than a pariah-girl, does undoubtedly attract our sympathies more than the polished and high-minded Aurora, the daughter of a noble race—not certainly as the bride of Romney, but as the mother of a hapless child. There, indeed, Mrs. Browning has achieved a triumph; for never yet—no, not in her "Cry of the Children," one of the most pathetic and tear-stirring poems in the English language—has she written anything comparable to the passages which refer to Marian and her babe. Take for example this description:—

I saw the whole room, I and Marian there Alone.
Alone? She threw her bonnet off,
Then sighing as 'twere sighing the last time,
Approached the bed, and drew a shawl away:
You could not peel a fruit you fear to bruise
More calmly and more carefully than so,—
Nor would you find within, a rosier flushed
There he lay, upon his back,
The yearling creature, warm and moist with life
To the bottom of his dimples,—to the ends
Of the lovely tumbled curls about his face;
For since he had been covered over-much
To keep him from the light-glare, both his cheeks
Were hot and scarlet as the first live rose
The shepherd's heart-blood ebbed away into,
The faster for his love. And love, was here
As instant! in the pretty baby-mouth,
Shut close as if for dreaming that it sucked;
The little naked feet drawn up the way
Of nestled birdlings; everything so soft
And tender,—to the little holdfast hands,
Which, closing on a finger into sleep,
Had kept the mould of't.
While we stood there dumb,—
For oh, that it should take such innocence
To prove just guilt, I thought, and stood there dumb;
The light upon his eyelids pricked them wide,
And, staring out at us with all their blue,
As half perplexed between the angelhood
He had been away to visit in his sleep,
And our most mortal presence,—gradually
He saw his mother's face, accepting it
In change for heaven itself, with such a smile
As might have well been learnt there,—never moved,
But smiled on, in a drowse of ectasy,
So happy (half with her and half with heaven)
He could not have the trouble to be stirred,
But smiled and lay there. Like a rose, I said:
As red and still indeed as any rose,
That blows in all the silence of its leaves,
Content, in blowing, to fulfil its life.

Now contrast that with, the stuff, which we have put into the form of prose, and then tell us, good reader, if we are not justified in feeling annoyed, and even incensed, that a lady capable of producing so exquisite a picture, should condescend to fashion into verse what is essentially mean, gross, and puerile? We must have no evasions here, for this is an important question of art. We may be told that Shakespeare, in his highest tragedies, has introduced the comic element; and his example, so distinguished as almost to amount to an unimpeachable authority, may be cited in defence of Mrs. Browning. But, on examination, we shall find that there is no analogy. In the first place, whenever Shakespeare descends to low comedy, he makes his characters discourse in prose, thereby marking broadly the elevation of sentiment and dignity which belongs to verse, and he does so even when low comedy is excluded. When Hamlet is familiar, as with the players, Polonius, the gravediggers, or Osric, he speaks in prose; and the rhythmical periods are reserved for the higher and more impassioned situations. So in Othello, in the scenes between Iago, Cassio, and Roderigo. So in Julius Cœsar (in which, being a classical play, the temptation lay towards stateliness), whenever the citizens or the cynical Casca are introduced; and in Henry V., in the night-scene before Agincourt, there is even a more remarkable instance of this. It was evidently the view of Shakespeare that verse is the proper vehicle for poetry alone: he would not dignify ignoble thoughts or common sentiments by admitting them to that lofty chariot. Mrs. Browning follows the march of modern improvement. She makes no distinction between her first and her third class passengers, but rattles them along at the same speed upon her rhythmical railway.

There is no instance of a poem of considerable length which is free from faults and blemishes; and whatever may be said to the contrary, the detection of existing faults is the real business of the critic. He either is, or is supposed to be, the holder of the touchstone, by means of which true metal is distinguished from that which is base, and he is bound in duty to declare the result of his investigation. In the present instance, while dealing with Aurora Leigh, we have been at some pains to arrive at the metal. Our task has been rather that of an Australian or Californian gold-seeker, who puts into his cradle or his pan a spadeful of doubtful material. From the first shaking there emerges mud—from the second, pebbles—but, after clearance, the pure gold is found at the bottom, and in no inconsiderable quantities.

If we have not been able conscientiously to praise the story, either as regards conception or execution, no such restriction is laid upon us while dealing with isolated passages. Mrs. Browning possesses in a very high degree the faculty of description, presenting us often with the most brilliantly coloured pictures. In this respect, if we may be allowed to institute such a comparison, she resembles Turner, being sometimes even extravagant in the vividness of her tints. By this we mean that she has a decided tendency, not only to multiply, but to intensify images, and occasionally carries this so far as to bewilder the reader. The following sketch of London is drawn in her most florid manner:—

So, happy and unafraid of solitude,
I worked the short days out,—and watched the sun
On lurid morns or monstrous afternoons,
Like some Druidic idol's flery brass,
With fixed unflickering outline of dead heat,
In which the blood of wretches pent inside
Seemed oozing forth to incarnadine the air,—
Push out through fog with his dilated disk,
And startle the slant roofs and chimneypots
With splashes of fierce colour. Or I saw
Fog only, the great tawny weltering fog,
Involve the passive city, strangle it
Alive, and draw it off into the void,
Spires, bridges, streets, and squares, as if a sponge
Had wiped out London,—or as noon and night
Had clapped together and utterly struck out
The intermediate time, undoing themselves
In the act. Your city poets see such things,
Not despicable. Mountains of the south,
When, drunk and mad with elemental wines,
They rend the seamless mist and stand up bare,
Make fewer singers, haply. No one sings,
Descending Sinai: on Parnassus mount,
You take a mule to climb, and not a muse,
Except in fable and figure: forests chant
Their anthems to themselves, and leave you dumb.
But sit in London, at the day's decline,
And view the city perish in the mist,
Like Pharaoh's armaments in the deep Red Sea,—
The chariots, horsemen, footmen, all the host,
Sucked down and choked to silence—then, surprised
By a sudden sense of vision and of tune,
You feel as conquerors though you did not fight,
And you and Israel's other singing girls,
Ay, Miriam with them, sing the song you choose.

There can be no doubt as to the power which is here exhibited, but in our opinion the passage is overwrought. There is a prodigality of illustration which mars the general effect by creating confusion. In marked contrast to it is our next extract. Aurora, returning to Italy, is watching on deck for the first glimpse of her native land.

That night we spent between the purple heaven
And purple water: I think Marian slept;
But I, as a dog a-watch for his master's foot,
Who cannot sleep or eat before he hears,

I sate upon the deck and watched all night,
And listened through the stars for Italy.

I felt the wind soft from the land of souls;
The old miraculous mountains heaved in sight,
One straining past another along the shore,
The way of grand dull Odyssean ghosts
Athirst to drink the cool blue wine of seas
And stare on voyagers. Peak pushing peak
They stood: I watched beyond that Tyrian belt
Of intense sea betwixt them and the ship,
Down all their sides the misty olive-woods
Dissolving in the weak congenial moon,
And still disclosing some brown convent-tower
That seems as if it grew from some brown rock,—
Or many a little lighted village, dropt
Like a fallen star, upon so high a point,
You wonder what can keep it in its place
From sliding headlong with the waterfalls
Which drop and powder all the myrtle-groves
With spray of silver. Thus my Italy
Was stealing on us. Genoa broke with day;
The Doria's long pale palace striking out,
From green hills in advance of the white town.
A marble finger dominant to ships,
Seen glimmering through the uncertain grey of dawn.

That is poetry—splendid, magnificent poetry—without intermixture of conceits or far-fetched images. Our younger poets, who, as a class, aspire to dazzle rather than to please, might derive a very useful lesson from the study of these extracts. The first is undoubtedly gorgeous, but it is so overlaid with ornament that it leaves no distinct impression on the mind; the second is a perfect picture, which once seen can never be forgotten. To these we are tempted to add a third, descriptive of Florence:—

I found a house, at Florence, on the hill
Of Bellosguardo. 'Tis a tower that keeps
A post of double-observation o'er
The valley of Arno (holding as a hand
The outspread city) straight toward Ficsole
And Mount Morello and the setting sun,—
The Vallombrosan mountains to the right,
Which sunrise fills as full as crystal cups
Wine-filled, and red to the brim because it's red.
No sun could die, nor yet be born, unseen
By dwellers at my villa: morn and eve
Were magnified before us in the pure
Illimitable space and pause of sky,
Intense as angels' garments blanched with God,
Less blue than radiant. From the outer wall
Of the garden, dropped the mystic floating grey
Of olive-trees (with interruptions green
From maize and vine) until it was caught and torn
On that abrupt black line of cypresses
Which signed the way to Florence. Beautiful
The city lay along the ample vale,
Cathedral, tower and palace, piazza and street;
The river trailing like a silver cord
Through all, and curling loosely, both before
And after, over the whole stretch of land
Sown whitely up and down its opposite slopes,
With farms and villas.

The reader will find in the volume itself descriptions almost as vivid and charming as the above of English scenery; for Mrs. Browning, when her palette is not overcharged with carmine, can paint such things as perfectly as Morland, Gainsborough, or Constable. Witness the few following lines, which we cannot deny ourselves the pleasure of extracting:—

I flattered all the beauteous country round,
As poets use . . the skies, the clouds, the fields,
The happy violets hiding from the roads
The primroses run down to, carrying gold—
The tangled hedgerows, where the cows push out
Impatient horns and tolerant churning mouths,
'Twixt dripping ash-boughs,—hedgerows all alive
With birds and gnats and large white butterflies,
Which look as if the May-flower had caught life
And palpitated forth upon the wind,

Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist,
Farms, granges, doubled up among the hills,
And cattle grazing in the watered vales,
And cottage-chimneys smoking from the woods,
And cottage-gardens smelling everywhere,
Confused with smell of orchards. 'See,' I said,
'And see! is God not with us on the earth?
And shall we put Him down by aught we do?
Who says there's nothing for the poor and vile
Save poverty and wickedness? behold!'
And ankle-deep in English grass I leaped,
And clapped my hands, and called all very fair.

Nor is the great genius of Mrs. Browning less conspicuous in other portions of the poem which relate to the natural affections. Once and again, whilst perusing this volume, have we experienced a sensation of regret that one so admirably gifted should have wasted much of her power upon what are, after all, mere artistic experiments, when by adhering throughout to natural sentiment and natural expression, she might have produced a work so noble as to leave no room for cavilling or reproach. The tendency to experiment, which is simply a token of a morbid craving for originality, has been the bane of many poets. Their first victory being won, they think it incumbent on them to shift their campaigning-ground, and alter their strategy, forgetful that the method which has brought them success, and which they intuitively adopted because it was most suited to their powers, is precisely that most likely to insure them a future triumph. For ourselves, we are free to confess that we have not much faith in new theories of art; we are rather inclined to class them in the same category with schemes for the regeneration of society. Mrs. Browning, beyond all modern poets, has no need of resorting to fantasias for the sake of attracting an audience. For whenever she deserts her theories, and touches a natural chord, we acknowledge her as a mistress of song. In proof of which we cite the description of Marian Erle, the outcast girl, when waking from her trance in the hospital:—

She stirred;—the place seemed new and strange as death.
The white strait bed, with others strait and white,
Like graves dug side by side at measured lengths,
And quiet people walking in and out,
With wonderful low voices and soft steps,
And apparitional equal care for each,
Astonished her with order, silence, law:
And when a gentle hand held out a cup,
She took it, as you do at sacrament,
Half awed, half melted,—not being used, indeed,
To so much love as makes the form of love
And courtesy of manners. Delicate drinks
And rare white bread, to which some dying eyes
Were turned in observation. O my God,
How sick we must be ere we make men just!
I think it frets the saints in heaven to see
How many desolate creatures on the earth
Have learnt the simple dues of fellowship
And social comfort, in a hospital,
As Marian did. She lay there stunned, half tranced,
And wished, at intervals of growing sense,
She might be sicker yet, if sickness made
The world so marvellous kind, the air so hushed,
And all her wake-time quiet as a sleep;
For now she understood (as such things were)
How sickness ended very oft in heaven,
Among the unspoken raptures. Yet more sick,
And surelier happy. Then she dropped her lids,
And, folding up her hands as flowers at night,
Would lose no moment of the blessed time.

One more quotation, and we have done with extracts. We have thought it our duty to point out what seemed to us egregious faults; but not, on that account, are we blind to the many beauties of the poem. We envy the imagination that can conceive a sweeter picture than this:—

Marian's good,
Gentle and loving,—lets me hold the child,
Or drags him up the hills to find me flowers,
And fill those vases, ere I'm quite awake,—
The grandiose red tulips, which grow wild,
Or else my purple lilies, Dante blew
To a larger bubble with his prophet-breath;
Or one of those tall flowering reeds which stand
In Arno like a sheaf of sceptres, left
By some remote dynasty of dead gods,
To suck the stream for ages and get green,
And blossom wheresoe'er a hand divine
Had warmed the place with ichor. Such I've found
At early morning, laid across my bed,
And woke up pelted with a childish laugh
Which even Marian's low precipitous 'hush'
Had vainly interposed to put away,—
While I, with shut eyes, smile and motion for
The dewy kiss that's very sure to come
From mouth and cheeks, the whole child's face at once
Dissolved on mine—as if a nosegay burst
Its string with the weight of roses overblown,
And dropt upon me. Surely I should be glad.
The little creature almost loves me now,
And calls my name . . 'Alola,' stripping off
The rs like thorns, to make it smooth enough
To take between his dainty, milk-fed lips,
God love him!

It has been well remarked that the chief defect of modern British poems consists in the carelessness of their construction. Plot, arrangement, and even probability, are regarded as things of minor moment; and the whole attention of the artist is lavished upon expression. This, if we are to judge from antecedents, is a symptom of literary decadence. The same tendency is observable in the later literature of Greece and Rome; nay, it may be remarked within a narrower sphere—as, for example, in the writings of Euripides—the last of the great Hellenic triumvirate. Æschylus excelled in energy and masculine strength; Sophocles in his development of the passions; Euripides in expression—but, with Euripides, Athenian tragedy declined. It is ever an evil sign when mere talk is considered by a nation as something preferable to action, for it shows that sound and pretension are becoming more esteemed than sense and deliberate purpose. We might, upon this text, say something the reverse of complimentary to a large body of politicians; but we refrain from mingling the political with the poetical element. It is however, impossible to deny the fact that, by many, brilliant writing, or writing which seems brilliant, is esteemed as of the highest kind, without regard to congruity or design. This is a grievous error, which cannot be exposed too broadly; and to it we trace the almost total extinction, in our own day, of the British drama. Our great dramatists, with Shakespeare at their head, succeeded in gaining the attention of the public by the interest of their plots, far more than by the felicity of their diction; and until that truth is again recognised and acted on, we need not expect a resuscitation of the drama. Also be it remembered, that a plot—that is, a theme—well-considered, developed, and divided, must, to make it effective, be adequately and naturally expressed. Adequate expression is no more than the proper language of emotion; and emotion must be tracable to some evident and intelligible cause. All this is disregarded by our "new poets," as they love to style themselves, who come upon their imaginary stage, tearing their hair, proclaiming their inward wretchedness, and spouting sorry metaphysics in still sorrier verse, for no imaginable reason whatever. One of them has the curse of genius upon him, and seems to think that delirium is the normal state of the human mind. Another rails at Providence because he has not been placed in a situation which he supposes commensurate to his merits. A third, when he sets his characters in motion, pulls the strings so violently as to make them leap like fantoccini. A fourth is a mere crowder, and spins merciless rigmaroles about the "heart of the coming age." Now with the exception of the crowder, each of these men has some intellect and power; but they do not know how to apply it. They think that the public will be content to receive their crude thoughts as genuine notes of issue from the Bank of Genius, if so be that they are dressed up in a gaudy, glittering, and hyperbolical form; and they ransack, not only earth and sea, but heaven itself for ornaments. All this while they forget that there is no meaning in their talk; that people who are desirous to hear a story, do not call the minstrel in for the purpose of listening to his disappointed aspirations, or the bleatings of his individual woes, but because they require of him, as a professed member of the greatest craft since the prophets disappeared, a tale of energy or emotion that shall stir the heart, or open one of the many fountains of our common sympathy.

We could wish—though wishes avail not for the past—that Mrs. Browning had selected a more natural and intelligible theme which would have given full scope for the display of her extraordinary powers; and we trust that she will yet reconsider her opinion as to the abstract fitness for poetical use of a subject illustrative of the times in which we live. It may be that there is no difficulty which genius cannot conquer; at the same time, we cannot commend the wisdom of those who go out of their way on purpose to search for difficulties. It is curious to observe that poets in all ages have shrunk from the task of chronicling contemporaneous deeds. These are first confined to the tutelage of the muse of history; nor is it until time has done its consecrating office, that poetry ventures to approach them. The bards of old touched their harps, not for the glorification of their compatriots, but in memory of the deeds of their ancestors. No one supposes that the time has yet arrived when the Peninsular War or the sea-victories of Britain can be taken up as proper epical themes, though Nelson and Wellington have both entered into the famous mansions of the dead. This universal repugnance to the adoption of immediate subjects for poetical treatment, seems to us a very strong argument against its propriety; and certainly Mrs. Browning has not succeeded, by practice, in establishing her theory. There is sound truth in the observation that no man ever yet was a hero in the eyes of his valet, and the remark is equally just if we extend it from individuals to the masses. We select our demigods from the dead, not from the living. We cannot allow fancy to be trammelled in its work by perpetual reference to realities.

Still, with all its faults, this is a remarkable poem; strong in energy, rich in thought, abundant in beauty; and it more than sustains that high reputation which, by her previous efforts, Mrs. Browning has so honourably won.

George Eliot (review date 1857)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: Review of Aurora Leigh, in Westminster and Foreign Quarterly Review, Vol. XI, No. 1, January, 1857, pp. 306-10.

[In the following excerpt, Eliot praises Aurora Leigh's emotive power, claiming that it is Browning's infusion of "genuine thought and feeling" that distinguishes the work from those of her contemporaries.]

Foster, the essayist, has somewhere said that the person who interests us most is the one that most gives us the idea of ample being. Applying this remark to books, which are but persons in a transmigrated form, we discern one grand source of the profound impression produced in us by Aurora Leigh1. Other poems of our own day may have higher finish, or a higher degree of certain poetic qualities; but no poem embraces so wide a range of thought and emotion, or takes such complete possession of our nature. Mrs. Browning is, perhaps, the first woman who has produced a work which exhibits all the peculiar powers without the negations of her sex; which superadds to masculine vigour, breadth, and culture, feminine subtlety of perception, feminine quickness of sensibility, and feminine tenderness. It is difficult to point to a woman of genius who is not either too little feminine, or too exclusively so. But in this, her longest and greatest poem, Mrs. Browning has shown herself all the greater poet because she is intensely a poetess.

The story of Aurora Leigh has no other merit than that of offering certain elements of life, and certain situations which are peculiarly fitted to call forth the writer's rich thought and experience. It has nothing either fresh or felicitous in structure or incident; and we are especially sorry that Mrs. Browning has added one more to the imitations of the catastrophe in "Jane Eyre," by smiting her hero with blindness before he is made happy in the love of Aurora. Life has sadness and bitterness enough for a disappointed philanthropist like Romney Leigh, short of maiming or blindness; and the outflow of love and compassion towards physical ills is less rare in woman than complete sympathy with mental sorrows. Hence we think the lavish mutilation of heroes' bodies, which has become the habit of novelists, while it happily does not represent probabilities in the present state of things, weakens instead of strengthening tragic effect; and, as we said, we regret that Mrs. Browning has given this habit her strong sanction. Other criticisms might be passed on Aurora Leigh, considered as a representation of incident and dialogue, but we are little inclined to spend our small space in pointing out faults which will be very slightly felt by any one who has heart and mind enough to respond to all the beautiful feeling, the large thought, and the rich melodious song of this rare poem. "Quel grand homme est le seigneur Pococuronte! rien ne peut lui plaire!" is a kind of praise to which we do not in the least aspire. We would rather be suspected of obtuseness to many faults than fail in giving the due tribute of reverence and admiration to a single great merit.

The most striking characteristic of Aurora Leigh, distinguishing it from the larger proportion of that contemporary poetry which wins the applause of reviewers, is, that its melody, fancy, and imagination—what we may call its poetical body—is everywhere informed by a soul, namely, by genuine thought and feeling. There is no petty striving after special effects, no heaping up of images for their own sake, no trivial play of faney run quite astray from the control of deeper sensibility; there is simply a full mind pouring itself out in song as its natural and easiest medium. This mind has its far-stretching thoughts, its abundant treasure of well-digested learning, its acute observation of life, its yearning sympathy with multiform human sorrow, its store of personal domestic love and joy; and these are given out in a delightful alternation of pathos, reflection, satire playful or pungent, and picturesque description, which carries us with swifter pulses than usual through four hundred pages, and makes us sorry to find ourselves at the end. . . .


1Aurora Leigh. By Elizabeth Barrett Browning. London: Chapman and Hall. 1856.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Case, Alison. "Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh." Victorian Poetry 29, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 17-32.

Contends that in Aurora Leigh Browning transgressed the conventions of the novel.

Castan, C. "Structural Problems and the Poetry of Aurora Leigh." Browning Society Notes 7, No. 3 (December 1977): 73-81.

Considers the development of Aurora from an unreliable narrator into a fully informed and mature character.

Cooper, Helen. "Woman and Artist, Both Complete." In Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Woman and Artist, pp. 145-88. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Emphasizes the confluence of poetic authority and feminine emotion in Aurora Leigh.

David, Deirdre. "Woman's Art as Servant of Patriarchy: The Vision of Aurora Leigh." In Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, pp. 143-58. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987.

Contends that, despite feminist interpretations to the contrary, Aurora Leigh engages in a traditional and conservative endorsement of patriarchal politics.

Freiwald, Bina. "The praise which men give women': Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and the Critics." Dalhousie Review 66, No. 3 (Fall 1986): 311-36.

Surveys the reception of Aurora Leigh by Browning's contemporaries as well as by modern critics, claiming that female critics such as Virginia Woolf have served as correctives to those who interpret the poem as mere autobiography.

Gilbert, Sandra M. "From Patria to Matria: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Risorgimento." PMLA 99, No. 2 (March 1984): 194-211.

Parallels Browning's attitude toward Italy's developing national identity with the struggle of the female poet for creative autonomy.

Holloway, Julia Bolton. "Aurora Leigh and Jane Eyre." Brontë Society Transactions 17, No. 2 (1977): 126-32.

Considers the influence of Jane Eyre on Browning's Aurora Leigh, focusing specifically on the blinding of Romney.

Leighton, Angela. "'Because men made the laws': The Fallen Woman and the Woman Poet." Victorian Poetry 27, No. 2 (Summer 1989): 109-27.

Contends that Browning assumed the voice of the fallen woman in order to undermine the stereotype that women are "either types of 'vice' or types of 'virtue'."

Radley, Virginia L. "Aurora Leigh: The Artist as Woman." In Elizabeth Barrett Browning, pp. 120-5. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972.

Summarizes and evaluates Aurora Leigh against a backdrop of primarily negative reviews.

Reynolds, Margaret. "Aurora Leigh: 'Writing her story for her better self." Browning Society Notes 17, Nos. 1-3 (1987-88): 5-11.

Uses the relationship between Aurora and Romney to illustrate that love and sex underlie the creative impulse.

Ridenour, George M. "Robert Browning and Aurora Leigh." The Victorian Newsletter No. 67 (Spring 1985): 26-31.

Compares the philosophies of art, characterization, and themes of Aurora Leigh with Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book.

Rosenblum, Dolores. "Face to Face: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Nineteenth-Century Poetry." Victorian Studies 26, No. 3 (Spring 1983): 321-38.

Discusses the female face in Aurora Leigh as a mirror of humanity, situating Browning in a larger "Romantic visionary aesthetics."

Steinmetz, Virginia. "Beyond the Sun: Patriarchal Images in Aurora Leigh." Studies in Browning and His Circle 9, No. 2 (Fall 1981): 18-41.

Contends that Barrett Browning's symbolic use of hands and the sun in Aurora Leigh elucidates the poet's relationship with male authority figures, particularly with her father.

——. "Images of 'Mother-Want' in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh." Victorian Poetry 21, No. 4 (Winter 1983): 351-67.

Discusses Aurora Leigh's maternal imagery and Aurora's search for her origins, primarily her search for a mother-figure.

Stephenson, Glennis. "Love and Life: The Expansion of Boundaries in Aurora Leigh." In Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Poetry of Love, pp. 91-116. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989.

Examines Barrett Browning's exploration of the social definition of love, and how this is specifically played out in the relationship between Aurora and Romney.

Sutphin, Christine. "Revising Old Scripts: The Fusion of Independence and Intimacy in Aurora Leigh." Browning Institute Studies 15 (1987): 43-54.

Argues that the ending of Aurora Leigh represents a non-traditional and feminist approach to marriage when studied in relation to its nineteenth-century social context.

Taplin, Gardner B. "Aurora Leigh." In The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, pp. 310-47. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957.

Closely summarizes the plot and provides a historical overview of the critical opinions of Aurora Leigh.

Tompkins, J. M. S. Aurora Leigh: The Fawcett Lecture, 1961-62. London: Bedford College (University of London), 1961, 21 p.

Discusses Aurora Leigh as Browning's exploration of the physical and moral, individual and social position of a woman writer. (Reprint of Tompkins' 1961 lecture.)

Tucker, Herbert F. "Aurora Leigh: Epic Solutions to Novel Ends." In Famous Last Words: Changes in Gender and Narrative Closure, edited by Alison Booth, pp. 62-85. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

Considers the epic conventions used in the poem as Browning's "means for loosening the realist novel's grip on Victorian narrative as a shaper of women's lives."

Wilsey, Mildred. "Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Heroine." College English 6, No. 2 (November 1944): 75-81.

Contends that the title character of Aurora Leigh redefines the role of marriage, paradoxically, as liberating for the wife's independent nature.

Zonana, Joyce. "The Embodied Muse: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Feminist Poetics." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 8, No. 2 (Fall 1989): 241-62.

Portrays the title character as a muse who inspires poetic achievement but resists traditional idealization and objectification.

Additional coverage of Browning's life and career can be found in the following sources published by Gale Research:Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 1, 16, and 61;Discovering Authors; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 6;World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present; andDictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 32.

W. C. Roscoe (review date 1857)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Aurora Leigh," in The National Review, Vol. 4, No. VIII, April, 1857, pp. 239-67.

[In the following excerpt, Roscoe claims that Aurora Leigh shows great poetic promise, but faults its excessive length, finding the work filled with unnecessary detail and its characters vague and indistinct.]

If we rightly understand her, [Elizabeth Parrett Browning] tells us that Aurora Leigh is her attempt in a poem "unscrupulously epic" to "represent the age" in which she lives. She admits that to most men their own age, being too close, is as ill-discerned, as would be the lineaments of that colossal statue into which Xerxes proposed to carve Mount Athos to the peasants "gathering brushwood in his ear." But, she says,

Poets should
Exert a double vision; should have eyes
To see near things as comprehensively
As if after they took their point of sight,
And distant things as intimately deep
As if they touched them.

She tells us, that if there is any room for poets in the world, their sole work is to represent their own times. And she seems to think that in a single poem a poet can condense a sort of distillation of his age; and this she has attempted in Aurora Leigh. Such, at least, is what we gather from the poem itself.

Now there is no doubt that every great poet must more or less give expression to the times in which he lives. No man can be a great poet whose power and knowledge are not derived from an insight into the actual life which surrounds him; and it is impossible that the conditions under which he has lived, and the things which he has most familiarly known, should not leave their impress upon him, and through him, upon his work. As Wordsworth's poetry is haunted by the influences of the lakes and mountains; as the nature of the Scottish peasant underlies the genius of Burns; as a self-willed worldly spirit clings to the highest flights of Byron; as Milton cannot shake off the Puritan, and even Shakespeare has some flavour of the courtier,—so it is idle to suppose every poet and every man does not carry the impress of the less close but more universal influences of the social conditions which surround him. It does not follow, however, that he is the greatest poet who most fully and most immediately reproduces these influences in the gross; still less that it is the highest effort of the poet consciously to devote himself to this task. Man is greater and more interesting than the life he lives, and it is greater to paint him simply under the conditions of his own nature than under any restricted conditions of circumstances; it is profounder and more lasting to use the special surroundings in which men exist (and without using which they cannot be painted at all) to body forth the men themselves than to attempt to reproduce an abstract whole of men and their lives as they live at a given time,—a higher task to use the age to show a man than to use men to show an age. When it was said of the greatest poet that he was of no age, it was no idle compliment; it was not meant that he wrote of things abstract and disconnected from the realities of every age; but that he pierced to those deeper realities which underlie all the ages of men, which are what the root and springing sap of the tree are to the fleeting generations of its leaves. He used the special as a body for the universal. It is true, a poet may legitimately take a lower flight than this; he may choose to embody the leading ideas and characteristics of the period of time in which he lives; and this, no doubt, is a higher artistic effort than to attempt to embody those of any other particular age,—if for no other reason, because he is dealing with things more real, more familiar, and in all probability of a deeper interest. It does not follow, however, even if this be his direct object, that his events and his characters must be chosen from those which immediately surround him. He may select in the past, or invent for himself, the framework of his poem of modern ideas; or he may deal with the ideas of the past for the sake of some bearing they have, either by contrast or analogy, on the ideas of the present. Kingsley's Saint's Tragedy, and Tennyson's Princess, are cases in point. Mrs. Browning, however, holds,—and the idea is a common one at the present day,—that it is higher effort to represent modern ideas in their actual modern dress. Perhaps it is. Certainly it is a much more difficult one. Perhaps the poet ought to be able to see his own times at the same moment with the eyes of one removed from them and one near to them; but we know no poet who has ever done so. It is obvious enough to cite Homer; but even granting that "Wolff's an atheist," it is not easy to believe that "the tale of Troy divine" was written in the actual times it deals with. The Homeric poems give us our knowledge of the Homeric age; but whether they are a true description of the times of Achilles, or a story cast in those times, and an incidentally true delineation of the manners and thoughts of a later time in which they were written, is, to say the least of it, an open question. Even the satirist paints his times, not as they are, but in their relation to a special preconceived idea of his own. No doubt it is easy to clothe some of the simpler elements of the present life in the dress of the time; but the deeper and more searching the knowledge of a poet of the great and fundamental characteristics of the life which surrounds him, the more difficult and intricate a task does it become to reproduce these things in their actual context with the thousand crossing and entangled details through which he has pierced to and gathered up their real significance. His instinct,—and we think it is a true one,—is, to take what he has gained quite away from these complications; and crystallize it in some new form, in which it may shine in fuller clearness and simplicity.

However this may be, Mrs. Browning has undertaken to build a poem purely from modern materials. She has produced a work which, in completeness of form and artistic execution, falls far short of many of her previous efforts; but which in matter far surpasses the best of them. A wider experience, a profounder philosophy, a more real and human knowledge, attempt to find a voice in language more removed than that of any of her other poems from the adequacy of genuine simplicity, and are couched in a semi-dramatic form, which is one the author's genius least qualifies her to deal successfully with. As is natural, nay, inevitable, from the conformation of Mrs. Browning's mind, her poem deals primarily with ideas of her own; and all the narrative and dramatic elements in the book are but the constituent materials in the erection of an edifice of thought. We cannot help thinking, that where this is the case, care should be taken that these elements should preserve the same secondary place in the poem that they do in the matter. Mrs. Browning has unfortunately given a most undue prominence to the least valuable and most defective part of her work. Unpossessed, as we have before said, of that pliancy and mobility of mind which qualifies a poet to deal with details of external life, she selects a poem to which such details are indispensable, and even then overlays her matter with a mass of them totally unnecessary. Minuteness of incident receives the utmost redundancy of expression; and the real thread of her meaning runs through the whole like a golden wire strung thick with beads, and obscured from all but special research. Perhaps one reader in a thousand can master Mrs. Browning's poem at a single reading; though, indeed, some parts of it are so contrived as that it shall be impossible to understand them on a first perusal (as in that behaviour and those allusions of Romney, in his interview with Aurora, which result from his blindness, of which we are ignorant). The poem is worth reading once, twice, thrice, oftener, till you do understand the full force and significance of all it contains: but it is a long poem, a very long poem; and we fear Mrs. Browning would not be pleased with a statistical return of those who have received from it only confused impressions and a brief excitement of the imagination and feelings. It would have been a greater, a simpler, a truer, and a more valuable poem, if it had been compressed within one-fourth of its present limits. Nor is its author unwise only in her excess of detail and exuberance of secondary matter. It was necessary that she should deal with human beings; but it was not necessary that she should display them by dramatic forms, and so conduct her story as to lay bare the most prominent defect of her poetic genius in its most undisguised nakedness.

There are many persons in the poem who are made to express themselves in the first person; but characters, except in brief description, there are none,—nothing but vague hazy embodiments given to certain contrasted sets of ideas. They do not deceive us for an instant. We never think of them as individuals who have, or ever have had, life, as we do of Agamemnon, or Hamlet, or Cuddie Headrigg; we see them at once to be only some other person's notion of a person;—phantoms which may have had flesh-and-blood antecedents, but now walk only in books, and whose vaporous unsubstantial forms betray them to be but reveries of the poet, simulating speech and motion. Aurora Leigh, the poetess, tells her own story; and yet even with her you never feel that you know her personally, or have pierced beyond one or two of the marked and prominent characteristics of her nature. You are conscious that she is but the representative of the real poet behind; and that she comes forward only to give a voice to the inner convictions, the intellectual questionings and problems, and the heart's solutions of the artist who employs her. The poetess, the philanthropist, the woman of fashion, and the vagrant child, all express themselves in exactly the same language, use the same tropes, the same recondite imagery, and are on the same high level of intellectual cultivation and vigorous thought. The child of brutal parents, kept pure by the instincts of her own nature, but owing her only intellectual discipline to stray half-torn volumes, picked up from wandering pedlars, does not scruple to talk of "madrepores," and invariably employs more recondite forms of expression than would be used by one woman in a hundred of the educated classes of England.

The characters were meant to be distinct, nay, were no doubt conceived as distinct; but in passing through the author's mind, they have retained so much of her, and lost so much of what is distinctive, that they seem only like shadows of herself in various attitudes and different lights. In actually describing what she has seen, however, whether in nature or in human character, Mrs. Browning is often very successful. Lord Howe is well touched:

Let me draw Lord Howe;
A born aristocrat, bred radical,
And educated socialist, who still
Goes floating, on traditions of his kind,
Across the theoretic flood from France,—
Though, like a drenched Noah on a rotten deck,
Scarce safer for his place there. He, at least,
Will never land on Ararat, he knows,
To recommence the world on the old plan:
Indeed, he thinks, said world had better end:
He sympathises rather with the fish
Outside, than with the drowned paired beasts within
Who cannot couple again or multiply:
And that's the sort of Noah he is, Lord Howe.
He never could be any thing complete,
Except a loyal, upright gentleman,
A liberal landlord, graceful diner-out,
And entertainer more than hospitable,
Whom authors dine with and forget the port.
Whatever he believes, and it is much,
But no-wise certain . . now here and now there, . .
He still has sympathies beyond his creed,
Diverting him from action. In the House,
No party counts upon him, and all praise
All like his books too, (he has written books)
Which, good to lie beside a bishop's chair,
So oft outreach themselves with jets of fire
At which the foremost of the progressists
May warm audacious hands in passing by,
—Of stature over-tall, lounging for ease;
Light hair, that seems to carry a wind in it,
And eyes that, when they look on you, will lean
Their whole weight half in indolence, and half
In wishing you unmitigated good,
Until you know not if to flinch from him
Or thank him—'Tis Lord Howe.

Marian, too, the daughter of the people, is admirably described,—rather, we should say, admirably conceived; and the fine and most truthful and delicate conception glimmers through the brief description. But, unfortunately, Mrs. Browning will not rely on description; and when Marian comes to speak for herself we are utterly thrown out, and a nondescript confused image of a somewhat affected young woman, of vast powers of poetical expression, usurps the place of that true idea we in vain attempt to hold steadily before us. Thus she paints the personal appearance of Marian:

No wise beautiful
Was Marian Erle. She was not white nor brown,
But could look either, like a mist that changed
According to being shone on more or less.
The hair, too, ran its opulence of curls
In doubt 'twixt dark and bright, nor left you clear
To name the colour. Too much hair perhaps
(I'll name a fault here) for so small a head,
Which seemed to droop on that side and on this,
As a full-blown rose uneasy with its weight,
Though not a breath should trouble it. Again,
The dimple in the cheek had better gone
With redder, fuller rounds: and somewhat large
The mouth was, though the milky little teeth

Dissolved it to so infantine a smile!
For soon it smiled at me; the eyes smiled too,
But 'twas as if remembering they had wept,
And knowing they should, some day, weep again.

It seems strange, that one who can both observe and describe so accurately, should stand always at arm's length from other minds, and should be powerless to paint people as they appear to themselves, or to make them paint themselves as they appear to others. The only trace of dramatic power occurs now and then in some brief flash, which is, indeed, only the shining of a spark of accurate observation, and makes the surrounding dimness more noticeable; as when, in Marian's letter, she says:

I'm poor at writing at the best,—and yet
I tried to make my gs the way you showed.

Aurora Leigh is the daughter of an English gentleman and an Italian mother, born in Italy, early orphaned, and brought back to be educated in England by a maiden-aunt. Under all the repressions and exactions of a young lady's education more recondite than we have elsewhere heard of, she leads an inner life of her own, familiar with nature and the books of her dead father's collecting; and at the age of twenty years, walking in the dewy garden on the morning of her birthday, she crowns herself with an ivy-wreath—a poet by anticipation. Mrs. Browning describes the child let loose in the world of books in some lines replete with that wealth of thought, and that rich and vivid imagination, which, with all its shortcomings and sins against true keeping, make Aurora Leigh a great poem. But our space for quotation is limited, and we turn rather to those lovely verses in which she describes the young poetic girl rejoicing in the external beauty around her:

I flattered all the beauteous country round,
As poets use . . the skies, the clouds, the fields,
The happy violets hiding from the roads
The primroses run down to, carrying gold,—
The tangled hedgerows, where the cows push out
Impatient horns and tolerant churning mouths
'Twixt dripping ash-boughs,—hedgerows all alive
With birds and gnats and large white butterflies
Which look as if the May-flower had caught life
And palpitated forth upon the wind,—
Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist,
Farms, granges, doubled up among the hills,
And cattle grazing in the watered vales,
And cottage-chimneys smoking from the woods,
And cottage-gardens smelling every where,
Confused with smell of orchards. 'See,' I said,
'And see! is God not with us on the earth?
And shall we put Him down by aught we do?
Who says there's nothing for the poor and vile
Save poverty and wickedness? behold!'
And ankle-deep in English grass I leaped,
And clapped my hands, and called all very fair.

Standing with her ivy-wreath on her head, and her arms raised to bind it on, she is startled by her cousin Romney Leigh. Romney is a philanthropist, as she is a poet. The physical distress and pain of the universe, the misery of his fellow-men, have weighed so deeply on his spirit, that, in the violence of a sort of despair, he has dedicated his whole life and being to the effort of lightening their toil, and satisfying at least the cravings of the illfed multitude for the supply of their bodily wants. He comes to ask her to be his wife. He has found a volume of her poems. He warns her against playing with art, which he assumes is all a woman can do, and bids her choose the nobler work, to seek some cure for the social strait; he asks her to help him with love and fellowship through bitter duties. She turns on him sharply enough with the retort, that she who, he says, is not competent to stand alone, or to sing even like a blackbird, can never be competent to uphold him and to love. "Any thing does for a wife," she tells him. And when he replies, that though her sex is weak in art, it is strong for life and duty, and still urges their common task, she retorts upon him, that he loves a cause and not a woman, and wants not a mistress but a helpmate,—to bear about with him a wife, a sister, like the apostle. Like a man, she says, he talks of woman as only the complement of his own sex; but

That every creature, female as the male,
Stands single in responsible act and thought,
As also in birth and death.

That the work proposed must be not only his best, but her best work, the best she was ordained to, before she can love and work with him. That she too has her vocation; and though the world were twice as wretched, no less necessary work than his, nay, more so; for that his best success would be but failure, if man,—all his physical wants supplied, and the best socialistic union and plenty prevailing,—should not have the poet to keep open the pathways to and from the unseen world which surrounds them. Nay, she tells him he cannot attain his own poor limits of material ease without the poet's aid:

It takes a sail
To move a body; it takes a high-souled man
To move the masses, even to a clearer stage;
It takes the ideal to blow a hair's breadth off
The dust of the actual. Ah, your Fouriers failed,
Because not poets enough to understand
That life develops from within.

For herself, she says, perhaps she is not worthy of work like this, perhaps a woman's soul aspires and not creates; yet she will try out these perhapses, and, at any rate, will love her art, and not wish it lower to suit her own stature. So they part; yet a shadow passes over her, as if it were hard to refuse even the mere potentiality of love. But when her somewhat grim and straightlaced aunt declares she loves Romney, in spite of her refusal, she indignantly repudiates the charge, and is naturally confirmed in her feelings by finding that Romney had motives of generosity for marrying her, and might possibly, therefore, not be prompted by love alone, or even, if so, might oppress her with too resistless an obligation. Aurora's aunt dies, and she and Romney go out on their several paths into the world. After years, and at the end of the book, they meet again in Italy. She is somewhat worn with her work, supporting herself with one hand, and labouring for her art with the other. She has tasted the emptiness of reputation, the disgusts of shallow applause and false criticism, the painful sense of her own shortcomings. She has bent the whole force of her energy and life to one great task, and accomplished it; but still her ideal lies unreached before her. She thinks the artist may be childless like the man; and when she gathers fame, though it be the love of all, her woman's heart is troubled with the absence of the love of one. Thus wearied, she goes to her native Italy to rest. Romney's failure has been more complete. A Lady Waldemar,—drawn in colours more coarse and repulsive than there seems occasion for, and whose character seems to be somewhat sacrificed to Mrs. Browning's taste for high-pressure writing,—falls in love with him. He, on the other hand, has resolved to marry the Marian of whom we have spoken, with the view of establishing a sort of matrimonial suspension-bridge over the gulf which separates English classes. Lady Waldemar spirits Marian away on the very wedding-day, and she is decoyed into some den of infamy in France, where she falls a victim to violence. All Romney's schemes for the reconstruction of the world fail. He turns Leigh Hall into a phalanstery, and brings all the country about his ears. The very wretches he had brought in "cursed him for his tyrannous constraint, in forcing crooked creatures to live straight;" and they and the scandalised peasantry unite together and burn the Hall down, Romney himself losing his eyesight by the malice of one whom he was saving. In France, Aurora has found Marian; and has taken her and her boy, the offspring of her misery, with her to Italy. Thither comes Romney too, who has learned her miserable history, to redeem his old obligations, and make her his wife. He finds Aurora; and has a long conversation with her, in which they confess and compare their several failures and shortcomings. Their colloquy is full of noble poetry; and wants but compression, and the greater closeness, strength, and simplicity, which compression gives, to make it entirely worthy of the great powers of the author. The blind Romney, whose aspiring reconstructive schemes God has defeated, and put himself aside like a broken tool, confesses the truth of the words Aurora had spoken on that June-day which parted their youth. He sees now that his ends were too low, that his despair of the world, and his harassing desire to reconstruct it, as if he alone could do it and were needful to success, betrayed a want of faith, and merited the lesson of humility he had received. He speaks with bitter scorn of his presumptuous endeavour.

to stand and claim to have a life
Beyond the bounds of the individual man,
And raze all personal cloisters of the soul
To build up public stores and magazines,
As if God's creatures otherwise were lost,
The builder surely saved by any means!
To think,—I have a pattern on my nail,
And I will carve the world new after it,
And solve so, these hard social questions,—nay,
Impossible social questions,—since their roots
Strike deep in Evil's own existence here,
Which God permits because the question's hard
To abolish evil nor attaint free-will.
Ay, hard to God, but not to Romney Leigh!
For Romney has a pattern on his nail,
(Whatever may be lacking on the Mount)
And not being overnice to separate
What's element from what's convention, hastes
By line on line, to draw you out a world,
Without your help indeed, unless you take
His yoke upon you and will learn of him,—
So much he has to teach; so good a world!
The same the whole creation's groaning for!
No rich nor poor, no gain nor loss nor stint,
No potage in it able to exclude
A brother's birthright, and no right of birth,
The potage,—both secured to every man;
And perfect virtue dealt out like the rest,
Gratuitously, with the soup at six,
To whoso does not seek it.

And it needs Aurora to remind him that

If he strained too wide,
It was not to take honour, but give help;
The gesture was heroic. If his hand
Accomplished nothing . . (well, it is not proved)
That empty hand thrown impotently out
Were sooner caught, I think, by One in heaven,
Than many a hand that reaped a harvest in
And keeps the scythe's glow on it.

She too confesses,

We both were wrong that June-day,—both as wrong
As an east wind had been. I who talked of art,

And you who grieved for all men's griefs . . what then?
We surely made too small a part for God
In these things. What we are, imports us more
Than what we eat; and life, you've granted me,
Develops from within. But innermost
Of the inmost, most interior of the interne,
God claims his own, Divine humanity
Renewing nature,—or the piercingest verse,
Prest in by subtlest poet, still must keep
As much upon the outside of a man,
As the very bowl in which he dips his beard.
—And then, . . the rest. I cannot surely speak.
Perhaps I doubt more than you doubted then,
If I, the poet's veritable charge,
Have borne upon my forehead. If I have,
It might feel somewhat liker to a crown,
The foolish green one even.—Ah, I think,
And chiefly when the sun shines, that I've failed.
But what then, Romney? Though we fail indeed,
You . . I . . a score of such weak workers, . . He
Fails never. If He cannot work by us,
He will work over us. Does He want a man,
Much less a woman, think you? Every time
The star winks there, so many souls are born,
Who all shall work too. Let our own be calm:
We should be ashamed to sit beneath those stars,
Impatient that we're nothing.

Aurora has supposed Romney married to Lady Waldemar; and as he amazedly vindicates himself from the charge, as involving an incredible degradation, and reminds her of the claim that Marian Erle has on him, she herself appears between them, and the poem deepens to the pathos of her renunciation of him; for her love for him (if it was not always worship rather than love) is lost in her passion for her child; and thence the strain rebounds and scales the highest heaven of joy as the secret of Aurora's heart is wrung from her by the sudden knowledge of Romney's blindness, and her passionate and capacious nature finds in his love its full contentment. The barriers of her pride fall away, and she learns the error of her life,—that she had striven to be an artist instead of a woman, rather than been content to be a simple woman, and let her art spring from that true basis; and the truth, which is the deepest moral of the work, overwhelms her with its sudden conviction, that great as is art, greater is the human life of the artist; and greatest, love, which is the centre of that life and of all life—

Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God
And makes heaven.

As the theme deepens, and the faulty artist forgets herself in the true poet, the verse runs smooth and clear; the startling, jarring metaphors are subdued to the element in which they move, and the verse is no unfit medium for the lofty matter. Our brief argument of the poem is not for the purpose of conveying any adequate idea of its varied contents; but only preserves the sequence of incident and follows the main clue of thought sufficiently to enable us to quote some of the later passages, which give the best idea of the best parts of the work:

'Ah!—not married.'

'You mistake,' he said;
'I'm married. Is not Marian Erle my wife?
As God sees things, I have a wife and child;
And I, as I'm a man who honours God,
Am here to claim them as my child and wife.'

I felt it hard to breathe, much less to speak.
Nor word of mine was needed. Some one else
Was there for answering. 'Romney,' she began,
'My great good angel, Romney.'
Then at first,
I knew that Marian Erle was beautiful.
She stood there, still and pallid as a saint,
Dilated like a saint in ecstasy,
As if the floating moonshine interposed
Betwixt her foot and the earth, and raised her up
To float upon it. 'I had left my child,
Who sleeps,' she said, 'and, having drawn this way,
I heard you speaking, . . friend!—Confirm me now.
You take this Marian, such as wicked men
Have made her, for your honourable wife?'

The thrilling, solemn, proud, pathetic voice.
He stretched his arms out toward the thrilling voice,
As if to draw it on to his embrace.
—'I take her as God made her, and as men
Must fail to unmake her, for my honoured wife.'

She never raised her eyes, nor took a step,
But stood there in her place, and spoke again.
—'You take this Marian's child, which is her shame
In sight of men and women, for your child,
Of whom you will not ever feel ashamed?'

The thrilling, tender, proud, pathetic voice.
He stepped on toward it, still with outstretched arms,
As if to quench upon his breast that voice.
—'May God so father me, as I do him,
And so forsake me as I let him feel
He's orphaned haply. Here I take the child

To share my cup, to slumber on my knee,
To play his loudest gambol at my foot,
To hold my finger in the public ways,
Till none shall need inquire, 'Whose child is this,'
The gesture saying so tenderly, 'My own.'

She appeals to Aurora; and she too gives her verdict:

That Romney Leigh is honoured in his choice,
Who choses Marian for his honoured wife.

Her broad wild woodland eyes shot out a light;
Her smile was wonderful for rapture. 'Thanks,
My great Aurora.' Forward then she sprang,
And dropping her impassioned spaniel head
With all its brown abandonment of curls
On Romney's feet, we heard the kisses drawn
Through sobs upon the foot, upon the ground—
'O Romney! O my angel! O unchanged
Though, since we've parted, I have past the grave!
But Death itself could only better thee,
Not change thee!—Thee I do not thank at all:
I but thank God who made thee what thou art,
So wholly godlike.'
When he tried in vain
To raise her to his embrace, escaping thence
As any leaping fawn from a huntsman's grasp,
She bounded off and 'lighted beyond reach,
Before him, with a staglike majesty
Of soft, serene defiance,—as she knew
He could not touch her, so was tolerant
He had cared to try. She stood there with her great
Drowned eyes, and dripping cheeks, and strange sweet smile
That lived through all, as if one held a light
Across a waste of waters,—shook her head
To keep some thoughts down deeper in her soul,—
Then, white and tranquil as a summer-cloud
Which, having rained itself to a tardy peace,
Stands still in heaven as if it ruled the day,
Spoke out again.

She renounces him on the grounds we have indicated; and we move on to where, after learning Romney's never-failing love and the greatness of his calamity, the floodgates of Aurora's passion are broken down:

No matter: let the truth
Stand high; Aurora must be humble: no,
My love's not pity merely. Obviously
I'm not a generous woman, never was,
Or else, of old, I had not looked so near
To weights and measures, grudging you the power
To give, as first I scorned your power to judge
For me, Aurora: I would have no gifts
Forsooth, but God's—and I would use them, too,
According to my pleasure and my choice,
As he and I were equals,—you, below,
Excluded from that level of interchange
Admitting benefaction. You were wrong
In much? you said so. I was wrong in most.
Oh, most! You only thought to rescue men
By half-means, half-way, seeing half their wants,
While thinking nothing of your personal gain.
But I who saw the human nature broad,
At both sides, comprehending, too, the soul's,
And all the high necessities of Art,
Betrayed the thing I saw, and wronged my own life
For which I pleaded. Passioned to exalt
The artist's instinct in me at the cost
Of putting down the woman's,—I forgot
No perfect artist is developed here
From any imperfect woman. Flower from root,
And spiritual from natural, grade by grade
In all our life. A handful of the earth
To make God's image! the despised poor earth,
The healthy odorous earth,—I missed, with it,
The divine breath that blows the nostrils out
To ineffable inflatus: ay, the breath
Which love is. Art is much, but love is more.
O Art, my Art, thou'rt much, but Love is more!
Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God
And makes heaven. I, Aurora, fell from mine:
I would not be a woman like the rest,
A simple woman who believes in love,
And owns the right of love because she loves,
And, hearing she's beloved, is satisfied
With what contents God: I must analyse,
Confront, and question; just as if a fly
Refused to warm itself in any sun
Till such was in leone: I must fret
Forsooth, because the month was only May;
Be faithless of the kind of proffered love,
And captious, lest it miss my dignity,
And scornful, that my lover sought a wife
To use . . to use! O Romney, O my love,
I am changed since then, changed wholly,—for indeed,
If now you'd stoop so low to take my love,
And use it roughly, without stint or spare,
As men use common things with more behind,
(And, in this, ever would be more behind)
To any mean and ordinary end,—
The joy would set me like a star, in heaven,
So high up, I should shine because of height
And not of virtue. Yet in one respect,
Just one, beloved, I am in nowise changed:

I love you, loved you . . loved you first and last,
And love you on for ever. Now I know
I loved you always, Romney. She who died
Knew that, and said so; Lady Waldemar
Knows that; . . and Marian: I had known the same
Except that I was prouder than I knew,
And not so honest. Ay, and, as I live
I should have died so, crushing in my hand
This rose of love, the wasp inside and all,—
Ignoring ever to my soul and you
Both rose and pain,—except for this great loss,
This great despair,—to stand before your face
And know I cannot win a look of yours.
You think, perhaps, I am not changed from pride,
And that I chiefly bear to say such words,
Because you cannot shame me with your eyes?
O calm, grand eyes, extinguished in a storm,
Blown out like lights o'er melancholy seas,
Though shrieked for by the shipwrecked,—O my Dark,
My Cloud,—to go before me every day
While I go ever toward the wilderness,—
I would that you could see me bare to the soul!—
If this be pity, 'tis so for myself,
And not for Romney: he can stand alone;
A man like him is never overcome:
No woman like me, counts him pitiable
While saints applaud him. He mistook the world:
But I mistook my own heart,—and that slip
Was fatal. Romney,—will you leave me here?
So wrong, so proud, so weak, so unconsoled,
So mere a woman!—and I love you so,—
I love you, Romney.'
Could I see his face,
I wept so? Did I drop against his breast,
Or did his arms constrain me? Were my cheeks
Hot, overflooded, with my tears, or his?
And which of our two large explosive hearts
So shook me? That, I know not. There were words
That broke in utterance . . melted, in the fire;
Embrace, that was convulsion, . . then a kiss ..
As long and silent as the ecstatic night,—
And deep, deep, shuddering breaths, which meant beyond
Whatever could be told by word or kiss.

She learns how he had ever loved her, since he,

A boy still, had been told the tale
Of how a fairy-bride from Italy,
With smells of oleanders in her hair,
Was coming through the vines to touch his hand;

and how the very strength of his devotion, and the greatness of his worship, had made him feel, too, that she must be made part of his "dedication to the human need," and "prove he kept back nothing, not his soul." And again the tide of joy rolls up, and gives a fuller voice than any other poet has ever done to the intensity of love's rapture in a woman's heart:

But oh, the night! oh, bitter-sweet! oh, sweet!
O dark, O moon and stars, O ecstasy
Of darkness! O great mystery of love,—
In which absorbed, loss, anguish, treason's self
Enlarges rapture,—as a pebble dropt
In some full wine-cup, over-brims the wine!
While we two sate together, leaned that night
So close, my very garments crept and thrilled
With strange electric life; and both my cheeks
Grew red, then pale, with touches from my hair
In which his breath was; while the golden moon
Was hung before our faces as the badge
Of some sublime inherited despair,
Since ever to be seen by only one,—
A voice said, low and rapid as a sigh,
Yet breaking, I felt conscious, from a smile,—
Thank God, who made me blind, to make me see!
Shine on, Aurora, dearest light of souls,
Which rul'st for evermore both day and night!
I am happy.'
I flung closer to his breast,
As sword that, after battle, flings to sheath;
And, in that hurtle of united souls,
The mystic motions which in common moods
Are shut beyond our sense, broke in on us,
And, as we sate, we felt the old earth spin,
And all the starry turbulence of worlds
Swing round us in their audient circles, till
If that some golden moon were overhead
Or if beneath our feet, we did not know.

He accepts the limits that have been assigned him through his calamity, and bids the artist assume her true functions, nor cease from her labour on the earth; and together they turn their faces to the East, to await God's great coming day of final restoration.

A noble poem, and every where throughout it the poet shows greater than her work. Indeed, given a poem of certain excellence, and the degree in which it shows defectiveness in the interpretive faculty (in which we have described Mrs. Browning as wanting) is but a measure of the higher order of personal qualities necessarily present in the poet; who by that very defectiveness is thrown back more than another on the resources of his own mind and nature. Mrs. Browning is conscientiously devoted to her art; it is no by-work to her, but the deliberately undertaken business of her life. There is no reason why she should not gain a much higher degree of artistic unity and simplicity than she now possesses. The fountains of her genius show an unfailing freshness and force; and high as Aurora Leigh stands, its author may live to look back on it as only a stepping-stone to the highest things of which she is capable.

C. C. Everett (review date 1857)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Elizabeth Barrett Browning," in North American Review, Vol. LXXXV, No. 177, October, 1857, pp. 415-41.

[In the excerpt that follows, Everett finds fault with several stylistic elements of Aurora Leigh, but finds that it succeeds primarily as a spiritual autobiography, tracing, as it does, the development and maturation of a woman and a poet.]

[Elizabeth Barrett Browning's] poem, Aurora Leigh, contains some faults of a very different description; which appear to be caused, to a great degree, by carelessness. The style is at times diffuse; a fault, to which the freedom of blank verse can easily entice one of Mrs. Browning's ardent temperament. It is difficult to conjecture at what epoch of the story the book purports to have been written. It does not seem to have been written in the form of a journal, while the events were taking place; nor yet after the story was completed. It opens, indeed, as if this latter were the case. The heroine begins by saying,

I . . .
Will write my story for my better self;

and the reader supposes that she had it all in her mind at that moment. When she says, therefore, in regard to Romney Leigh,

I attest
The conscious skies and all their daily suns,
I think I loved him not . . nor then, nor since . .
Nor ever,

the reader believes it.

In the third book we find her sitting, a maiden lady and an authoress, reading letters and commenting upon them, in a manner that puts us very much in mind of Ruth Hall; and the reader thinks that that is where the story must have left her; and though it looks very much as if she were in love with her cousin, yet he must be mistaken about it. Notwithstanding all this, she says in the last book:

I love you, loved you . . loved you first and last,
And love you on for ever. Now I know
I loved you always, Romney.

This contradiction confuses the reader, and he feels almost as if he were trifled with.

Besides this confusion in the point of view from which the heroine regards the story she is telling, we find the same figures repeated, in a manner scarcely to be accounted for, except on the ground of carelessness. It is related that, when the works of Jean Paul were revised, it was found that, notwithstanding the abundance, we might almost say the super-abundance, of figures with which they are crowded, scarcely one had been repeated. A similar examination of the Aurora Leigh would furnish a very different result; thus we read:

Sweet heaven, she takes me up
As if she had fingered me and dog-eared me
And spelled me by the fireside, half a life!

This Aurora says of Lady Waldemar. We afterwards find Romney saying to Aurora:

You thought to have shut a tedious book
And farewell. Ah, you dog-eared such a page,
And here you find me.

Other examples might be adduced of the same kind. So long as these are gathered from pleasing objects, or at least from objects that are not unpleasing, they simply mar the artistic beauty of the work; but when they are taken from objects which excite our repugnance, this repetition becomes almost offensive. Thus one of Mrs. Browning's favorite figures is taken from the "chin band." This expression suggests, not the repose of death, but its powerlessness and its ghastliness, and, if used at all, should be employed only when the strongest effects are to be produced.

Another peculiarity of the Aurora Leigh is suggested by the example just cited. Mrs. Browning seems, as some one has said, to have adopted some realistic theory in regard to art. Thus she compares Romney, devoting his life to purposes of philanthropy, after his disappointment in love, to a man drowning a dog. Through the whole poem, truth of description is never yielded to taste, even though this truth may excite our loathing. Examples of this might be given, but it would be a thankless task to select from a work so full of beauty that which is fitted only to excite feelings of repulsion. . . .

Here [in Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning's] whole past life, with its many griefs and disappointments, with its aspirations and its failures, and with its final crown of love and joy, is placed before us. In it we have the substance of the earlier and that of the later poems, each of which had been before incomplete without the other, made the elements of a new and more perfect work, their union mediated by deeper views of art and of life than she had before expressed. We do not mean that it is, in the common sense of the word, an autobiography, like the earlier and the later sonnets. That which before had gushed directly from her heart is now treated as something entirely outside of herself. Yet so far as the spiritual development is concerned, it may be called an autobiography. It appears to express the complete development of the life of a woman and of an artist. The child of English and Italian birth begins her life in Italy. The lonely father does the best he can for her, and cradles her among the mountains, that the gentle influences of nature may supply, as far as possible, the want of a mother's care. She says, he taught her what he had learned the best, "Grief and Love," and we see that he cared for her with more than a mother's tenderness, though without a mother's gladness. So the unconscious childhood passed, and the child awoke

To full life and its needs and agonies.
His last word was 'Love,'

And none was left to love in all the world.

Now comes the transition from the poetry of childhood to the prose of life, from Italy to England. Torn from every influence which had lent its aid to her earlier years, she was committed to the care of her father's sister, who lived

A harmless life, she called a virtuous life,
A quiet life, which was not life at all,
(But that she had not lived enough to know).

This well-meaning kinswoman made the utmost effort to engraft her own prosaic nature upon the child, and to fashion her according to her own notion of a woman; that is, she taught her to sit with her back to the window, that she might not see the trees, to read nice books upon womanhood, to brush "with extreme flounce the sciences," and if ever she caught her "soul agaze in her eyes," she knew how to bring it back to crochet, cross-stitch, or some other stupid task. Aurora seems to have been docile and compliant; yet she found a way to let the sunshine and the lime-tree in; she read the poets too when "the time was ripe," and while "the patient needle spilt the thread," she says she was not sad.

My soul was singing at a work apart
Behind the wall of sense.

So her girlhood was fashioned, and the crisis came, on that June morning when she stood

Woman and artist,—either incomplete.

She laid the poet's crown from off her brow to receive from her cousin Romney that offering of love, which we find afterwards she did not take too coldly. There was a conflict for her then, a sacrifice to be made; she had the strength to choose the sterner part, and replaced the crown of ivy. So the two separated, and were left alone with their ideals. We follow their respective courses, and see how nobly they pursued them, how faithfully they always kept them pure above the dust, in all things striving for their fulfilment. We never have to tremble lest either will stoop too low; we trust them through all perplexities, sure that each carries a consecrated aim. But when all is done, when each has found the desired success, disappointment comes with it. The work has been accomplished, the ideal has been embodied; but the very success of their plans involves the most terrible failure of them. They do not gain satisfaction; they only have opened before them a larger vision.

With this self-depression comes the true mutual recognition, when each beholds the other's purpose pure and high, when each sees the imperfection of the aim which has been pursued; and though the June morning lost nothing of its nobleness, another morning rose to crown that day.

Let us now examine more closely the objects they sought, and the cause of their failure.

Romney was a mere reformer of the outward evils of society. He says of himself:

My soul is gray
With poring over the long sum of ill;
So much for vice, so much for discontent,
So much for the necessities of power,
So much for the connivances of fear,—
Coherent in statistical despairs,
With such a total of distracted life, . .
To see it down in figures on a page,
Plain, silent, clear . . as God sees through the earth
The sense of all the graves! . . that's terrible
For one who is not God, and cannot right
The wrong he looks on.

That there was hope in the future did not satisfy him.

Observe,—it had not much
Consoled the race of mastodons to know
Before they went to fossil, that anon
Their place should quicken with the elephant;
They were not elephants but mastodons.

He saw only the physical evils of life, and attempted to remedy them by physical means.

I beheld the world
As one great famishing carnivorous mouth,—
A huge, deserted, callow, black, bird Thing,
With piteous open beak, that hurt my heart,
Till down upon the filthy ground I dropped,
And tore the violets up to get the worms.
Worms, worms, was all my cry: an open mouth,
A gross want, bread to fill it to the lips,
No more!

Romney established a phalanstery in his paternal hall on socialistic principles. Society tends more and more to become a mere machine; the reformers seek too often to complete the process. But the individual makes himself felt more strongly for the constraint. It is too often thought, that men have naturally only the principle of love within them; it is forgotten that the principle of hate is no less one of the original elements of the soul; or rather, that principle of opposition and negation which, when stimulated, grows to hate. Thus every atom contains the twofold element of attraction and repulsion; let the power of attraction have undue force for one moment, that of repulsion will make itself felt more powerfully in the next. Love and hate thus sleep together in the human breast; hate has the quicker senses of the two, and he who would make love must be careful not to move too harshly, or the sterner brother will start up before the gentler. Attraction or love is the principle which binds society together; the principle of repulsion is that by which the individual preserves his identity. Neither of these principles is to be sacrificed to the other. The surrender of our will must be a voluntary surrender; thus does the individual preserve his rights by the very act of yielding them. In the words of Tennyson, in the hymn with which the "In Memoriam" opens,

Our wills are ours, we know not how;
Our wills are ours, to make them thine.

This fact was overlooked by our reformer. He won the hate instead of the love of those he sought to save. With jeering shouts they burned his hall, and he himself was made blind among its ruins. Not only did he seek to distort the nature of others, but his own. Even his love he attempted to make merely a co-worker. He even endeavored to force it into still greater opposition to its true nature. He saw his error later, and exclaims:

Distort our nature never, for our work,
Nor count our right hands stronger for being hoofs.
The man most man, with tenderest human hands,
Works best for men,—as God in Nazareth.
Fewer programmes; we who have no prescience.
Fewer systems; we who are held and do not hold.
Less mapping out of masses, to be saved,
By nations or by sexes. Fourier's void,
And Compte is dwarfed,—and Cabet, puerile.
Subsists no law of life outside of life;
No perfect manners, without Christian souls.
The Christ himself had been no Lawgiver,
Unless He had given the life, too, with the law.

He had felt that the world was to be renewed by his own labors alone, and, failing in his plans, he doubts of all things.

I was wrong,
I've sorely failed; I've slipped the ends of life,
I yield; you have conquered.

This he says sadly to Aurora; but she answers:

I've something for your hearing also. I
Have failed too. . . .
I've surely failed, I know; if failure means
To look back sadly on work gladly done.

She sees more clearly than he the great fault in all their plans. She says:

We both were wrong that June-day,—both as wrong
As an east wind had been. I who talked of art,
And you who grieved for all men's griefs . . . what then?
We surely made too small a part for God
In these things.

In alternating speech they paint the true life. It is Aurora who speaks first:

The man, most man,
Works best for men: and, if most man indeed,
He gets his manhood plainest from his soul:
While, obviously, this stringent soul itself
Obeys our old rules of development;
The Spirit ever witnessing in ours,
And Love, the soul of soul, within the soul,
Evolving it sublimely. First, God's love.'

'And next,' he smiled, 'the love of wedded souls,
Which still presents that mystery's counterpart.
Sweet shadow-rose, upon the water of life,
Of such a mystic substance, Sharon gave
A name to! human, vital, fructuous rose,
Whose calyx holds the multitude of leaves.—
Loves filial, loves fraternal, neighbor-loves,

And civic, . . all fair petals, all good scents,
All reddened, sweetened from one central Heart!'

We cannot follow further this closing scene, which glows with love and promise. They sit talking of the past and of the future, looking forward with a joyous faith, until the night has passed and the redness of the dawn gleams upon them. In the flaming jasper clouds is imaged the glory of which they speak. They stand together, hand in hand, their faces turned towards the brightness of the morning; she, the singer, the representative of the spiritual life, gazing with her clear vision into the heavens, yet no longer spurning the worker by her side; he blinded in his struggle with vice and suffering, and wearied with his labors upon the earth, yet his face catching something of the glory of the coming day: the two, in their loving union, imaging the time when the singer and the worker, the spiritual and the blind material, having accomplished their separate missions, shall be blended into one. Thus they stand, and see the new heaven descending amid the clouds.

My Romney!—Lifting up my hand in his,
As wheeled by Seeing spirits towards the east,
He turned instinctively,—where, faint and fair,
Along the tingling desert of the sky,
Beyond the circle of the conscious hills,
Were laid in jasper-stone as clear as glass
The first foundations of that new, near Day
Which should be builded out of heaven, to God.
He stood a moment with erected brows,
In silence, as a creature might, who gazed:
Stood calm, and fed his blind, majestic eyes
Upon the thought of perfect noon. And when
I saw his soul saw,—'Jasper first,' I said,
'And second, sapphire; third, chalcedony;
The rest in order, . . last, an amethyst.'

Besides the relation in which the Aurora Leigh stands to the great question of life in general, it has a particular application to the questions which have been started in regard to the nature and position of woman. It is often thought that a large mental culture tends to unfit her for the more tender and domestic relations of life. Here is illustrated the reverse of this. Aurora and Romney could not meet in the highest union of love until they had each attained to the highest development of which they were separately capable. When this was accomplished, they became united in a love as much more noble than that of common lovers, as their individual development was more perfect than that of ordinary individuals. This view is entitled to great consideration, as coming from one who has herself passed through both stages, that of the lonely struggle and of the reward.

Algernon Charles Swinburne (essay date 1898)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: A Prefatory Note to Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Heinemann, Ltd., 1898, pp. 3-8.

[In the following essay, Swinburne recalls his first reading of Aurora Leigh, and claims that the book pays adequate tribute to the genius of its author.]

The hardest task to which a man can set his judgment is the application of its critical faculty to the estimate of work neither classical nor contemporary. It is not now of the present, and as yet it is not of the past. We may be unable to forget the impression it made on our boyhood when fresh from the maker's hand, and we cannot be sure that something too much of unconscious reaction from the crudity of juvenile enthusiasm may not now interfere with the impartial temperance of a maturer estimate. But if there is any real element of eternal life, any touch of greatness in the work, no man whose opinion is worth the record will fail to recognise that there was more of truth, of justice, of sound sense and right instinct, in the enthusiasm which saw no spots on the sun than in the criticism which allowed them to obscure it. The magnificent work of Mrs. Browning is exceptionally certain to evoke such enthusiasm, to provoke such reaction, and to receive such ultimate, if far from unqualified, homage. No English contemporary poet by profession has left us work so full of living fire. Fire is the element in which her genius lives and breathes; it has less hold on earth than Tennyson's or Browning's or Miss Ingelow's, and less aerial impulse, less fantastic or spiritual aspiration, than Miss Rossetti's. But all these noble poets seem to play with life and passion like actors or like students if compared with her. The devout and undevout imaginations which caught hold on her passionate fancy and her sensitive conscience flew up at once into utterance, and became as Marlowe's—'all air and fire'; which by no means always 'made her verses clear' as those ofthat prince of poets. Nor was the fine madness of her inspiration always such as 'rightly should possess a poet's brain.' But in moral ardour and ethical energy it is unlike any other woman's; and the peculiar passion which it gave to her very finest work, the rush and glow and ardour of aspiring and palpitating life, cannot properly be compared with the dominant or distinctive quality of any other poet. Such poems as Confessions and The Cry of the Children could only have been written by a woman, and could have been written by one woman alone: the cruel injuries inflicted on them by revision and alteration of the original text can only serve to show how utterly the power and the glory of her genius depended on the first confident impulse of lyric emotion. It is no dispraise to her intelligence to say so—unless it be dispraise to say or imply that she was a great woman and a great poet.

The advent of Aurora Leigh can never be forgotten by any lover of poetry who was old enough at the time to read it. Of one thing they may all be sure—they were right in the impression that they never had read, and never would read, anything in any way comparable with that unique work of audaciously feminine and ambitiously impulsive genius. It is one of the longest poems in the world, and there is not a dead line in it. The noble passion and the noble pathos of its greater parts are alike indiscussible and irresistible. And even if we allow that it might not irrationally be defined as a lyrical poem in nine books of blank verse, we must admit that it contains some really admirable sketches and outlines of lifelike and acceptable figures. Lord Howe is excellent; but I must needs express my wonder that his painter should have given, or been permitted to give, the name of a hero to the image of a dilettante. The career of Aurora in London is rather too eccentric a vision to impose itself upon the most juvenile credulity: a young lady of family who lodges by herself in Grub Street, preserves her reputation, lives on her pen, and dines out in Mayfair, is hardly a figure for serious fiction.

Genius cannot do everything: the great Dumas, to whom Mrs. Browning paid so handsome and creditable a tribute in this very book, was hardly well advised when he set his name to a pathetic and tragic work of fiction—a 'scene of clerical life' in England—which appealed to the reader's sympathetic compassion for the sorrows of a humble vicar, expelled from his modest vicarage by the merciless tyranny of his proud and unscrupulous curate, whose lawless love had been rejected, despite its dazzling offers, by the vicar's virtuous daughter and her equally virtuous family; which is doubtless difficult to believe. Mrs. Browning's pictures of English life and society are, of course, less delicious than this: at times she hits off most accurately, with the admirable intuition or instinct of genius, certain notable types and certain undeniable characteristics of her countrymen; but her point of view, if compared with that of such a realist in fiction as here she would fain have shown herself, is not less obviously that of an outsider.

This is a secondary if a serious matter: the treatment of character and conduct, the handling of passion and principle, is a more important subject for critical consideration. Aurora is, of course, in all essentials a conscious and intentional portrait of the author by herself—a study from the life after her own spiritual and intellectual likeness, set in the frame of an utterly and obviously imaginary experience: and, as such, this figure has an absolutely unique interest. No equally great genius, no equally noble nature, ever set itself, as far as I know, with the same strenuous and conscientious ardour, to the discharge of a task so nearly comparable to that which was naturally undertaken by such egoists, if not egomaniacs, as Rousseau, St. Augustine, and George Sand. In her there is nothing of autolatry, veiled or barefaced, conscious or unconscious; the absolute purity of her selfless and dauntless and infinite sincerity, her passionate and single-hearted and headstrong devotion to whatever great cause might attract or whatever great illusion might allure her sympathy, is too childlike and heroic for any comparison to be possible with these. To this great and glorious Englishwoman, who was never more obviously and more regrettably English and womanish than when decrying or denouncing her country, the modest and wholesome scepticism which keeps fast and firm hold on principle and honour, but feels itself bound to test and examine the articles of the faith which may reassure and the details of the evidence which may convince it, was as impossible as the submissive and implicit infidelity which makes cardinals of men who do not even believe in the existence or understand the nature of belief in anything whatsoever.

The heroic and feminine enthusiasm which can never for an instant see more than one thing at a time, or see more than one side of a question at any time, succeeds in making the figure of Aurora as naturally as it fails in making the figure of Romney real and vital, conceivable and credible. The close of the poem is so magnificent in the passion and exaltation of its grave and profound rapture that no reader not unworthy to read anything so noble and so great will ever be able to remember at the moment whether the man is or is not as living a figure as the woman whom we see made one with him for ever in the light of imagination and of love. But no reader not given over to sentimental or hysterical hallucination will afterwards fail to realise and recollect the too evident fact that many a woman whom no one would name in the same day with Mrs. Browning has succeeded as thoroughly as she has failed in painting at full length—under the modern conditions and restrictions of literary fidelity—a recognisable and acceptable portrait of a man. Marian, if not more credible, is much more conceivable than Romney. A noble lady of exceptional character and genius who attempts to imagine the emotions of a poor good girl under almost unimaginable afflictions will at least succeed in representing something of a real woman's emotions, even though the form they take in her imagination, the excess and the expression of them, may be obviously and obtrusively impossible; for we can hardly believe that an Isabella could have been begotten by Barnardine on Mrs. Overdone. But when such allowance as is only due to genius has duly been made for improbabilities and incredibilities of detail, there is but one view possible to any eye but that of a Fitzdottrel. The piercing and terrible pathos of the story is as incomparable and as irresistible as the divine expression of womanly and motherly rapture which seems to suffuse and imbue the very page, the very print, with the radiance and the fragrance of babyhood. There never was, and there never will be, such another baby in type as that. Other poets, even of the inferior sex, have paid immortal tribute to the immortal Godhead incarnate in the mortal and transitory presence of infancy; the homage of one or two among them, a Homer or a Hugo, may have been worthy to be mistaken for a mother's; but here is a mother's indeed; and 'the yearlong creature' so divinely described, must live in sight of all her readers as long as human nature or as English poetry survives. No words can ever be adequate to give thanks for such a gift as this.

Martha Hale Shackford (essay date 1935)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "E. B. Browning: Aurora Leigh," in E. B. Browning; R. H. Home: Two Studies, The Wellesley Press, Inc., 1935, pp. 5-27.

[In the following essay, Shackford discusses Aurora Leigh in the context of Browning's other works and her literary interests, as well as in relation to other narrative poems.]

The manuscript of Aurora Leigh is a green-bound octavo notebook of about four hundred pages, written in a small, cramped, delicate hand. A reader needs a magnifying glass in order to decipher the text, where corrections, emendations, and amplifications, written at various angles, give many pages some resemblance to a literary spider's web. In this first draft the heroine's name was Aurora Vane; minor differences between the manuscript and the printed versions offer an interesting study of Mrs. Browning's critical judgment. Aurora Leigh was first published early in January, 1857, by Chapman and Hall; a fortnight later, a second edition was issued; between 1857 and 1884 eighteen printings were made necessary by the demand for the book. Probably the most enthusiastic reader (except Robert Browning) was John Ruskin who in a long letter to the author said, in part:

I think Aurora Leigh the greatest poem in the English language, unsurpassed by anything but Shakespeare—not surpassed by Shakespeare's Sonnets—and therefore the greatest poem in the language. I write this, you see, very deliberately.

At the other extreme is the opinion of a distinguished modern critic who wrote of Aurora Leigh: "the work will probably survive the exaggerated contempt which its undeniable faults have called down upon it in our day."

Although Mrs. Browning herself had high hopes for the lasting success of Aurora Leigh, she was not guilty of self-laudation, being a cool and sane critic of pretentiousness on the part of authors, and she touched merrily the weakness of those who had delusions of greatness. A note written August 12, 1846 to Robert Browning is illustrative:

Here is a letter from a lady in a remote district... who sends me lyrical specimens, and desires to know if this be Genius. She does not desire to publish; at any rate for an indefinite number of years; but for her own private and personal satisfaction, she would be glad to be informed whether she is a Sappho or George Sand or anything of that kind.

Furthermore, Mrs. Browning was aware that her own widely extended reputation was based partly upon the fact of her femininity rather than upon her artistic merit. The hero of Aurora Leigh said to the heroine:

You never can be satisfied with praise
Which men give women when they judge a book
Not as mere work but as mere woman's work,
Expressing the comparative respect
Which means the absolute scorn: "Oh, excellent!
What grace, what facile turns, what fluent sweeps,
What delicate discernment almost thought!
The book does honor to the sex, we hold,
Among our female authors we make room
For this fair writer, and congratulate
The country that produces in these times
Such women, competent to. . . . spell."

Regarding the future rank of Aurora Leigh it is safest not to offer prophecy; yet the work may be judged, today, in comparison with other narrative poems of the nineteenth century and, with some justice, may be given a comparative position. It stands below The Prelude, Hyperion, Childe Harold, The Ring and the Book, but certainly far above certain works that had a vogue in their time. What is the reputation, to-day, of Southey's long epics which so fascinated and influenced young Shelley, Thalaba particularly? What is the fate of LallahRookh for which Moore was paid £3000 upon its publication? Who now reads Gertrude of Wyoming? The Princess to-day seems sentimental and mawkish, not even required reading for our defenceless high-school students, though it must be remembered that Tennyson by this gilded poem helped somewhat to reconcile the Age to academic women. Surely Aurora Leigh, despite any and all faults, holds a secure place among nineteenth-century poems, for its theme has perennial appeal, its scope is wide, its drama realistic, its tone liberal, its manner distinguished, and its wisdom that of a sound and acute thinker. Aurora Leigh does not propound the views of a cult; it is not bent on mere description or on local color; it has no such record of intimate personal experiences as appears in Patmore's The Angel in the House, nor is it the expression of emotional bias as is The City of Dreadful Night. Moreover, it is free from many of the blemishes which disfigure Mrs. Browning's earlier poems, The Romance of the Swan's Nest, The Lay of the Brown Rosary, Lady Geraldine's Courtship, and that over-ambitious experiment in the circle of the supernatural, The Seraphim, in all of which poems appear themes tenuous, sentimental, egotistical, developed by a technique often faulty, with too much "scope" for rimes that "droop." These poems are notably amateurish in execution, weakened by a hovering, uncertain stroke, and an equally tremulous sentiment that falls short of genuine lyric emotion. Moreover, the learned lady is dominant. One critic, favorably inclined toward Mrs. Browning's verse, spoke harshly of her "abstruse wanderings of thought" and "terrible phalanxes of Greek and German expressions."

On the other hand, in looking over the works of the many women poets of the century, especially such popular authors as L. E. L., Mrs. Norton, Mary Howitt, Mrs. Barbauld, Mrs. Hemans, Jean Ingelow, we must be aware that Mrs. Browning grapples with ideas more frequently than do these other women poets. She gradually grew away from plaintive ballads and naive reveries. In such poems as Crowned and Buried, Cowper's Grave, The Dead Pan, A Drama of Exile, The Cry of the Children, the sonnets, Work, and Cheerfulness taught by Reason, she welded thought and feeling in imaginative phrases. Sonnets from the Portuguese is a series of lyrics, incontestably one of the great works of the nineteenth century, and also one of the most spiritual epithalamia ever written. Even if in individual sonnets there appear inferior lines, feeble or fanciful, the sequence as a whole is a melodious, intense, stately expression of "essential passions of the heart." The imaginative elements are impressively individual, not imitative; the figures of speech have a freshness, an appropriateness, a force due to the fact that they are shaped out of the heart of experience. Casa Guidi Windows may be not a poem but a document on the problems that underlie political unity, yet as a document it will be read along with other famous passages on civil liberty.

Not only because of her ardor and sensibility, her love of nature, her profound interest in questions, social or individual, ethical or more distinctly religious and mystical, did Mrs. Browning win a place in the annals of nineteenth century poetry; she was much more than a cultured, sympathetic woman, she was a student and an independent thinker. She read the Greek text of the tragedies of Æschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, all of the dialogues of Plato, besides many other works of Hellas. Already, in the juvenile poems published by her proud father, The Battle of Marathon and An Essay on Mind, she showed both wide reading and speculative intelligence, though these poems are absurdly priggish and pedantic, bristling with countless learned allusions. An Essay on Mind, in well-pointed Popian couplets, so neatly epitomizes the history of philosophy and literature that it would be profitable reading for candidates for the doctor's degree. She was not a trained systematic thinker, she had too much of the acquisitive, too much of the quickly intuitive in her mental habit. Maturer works, in prose, that show learning more discreetly are:Some Account of the Greek Christian Poets, which appeared first as papers in The Athenaeum, 1842, as did also The Book of the Poets, a critique sparkling with piquant, penetrating comments on English poets from Chaucer to Wordsworth. Prometheus Bound, published anonymously in 1833, revised and republished in 1850, gives a comprehensive illustration of Mrs. Browning's powers. It is one of the most vivid and most idiomatic translations from Æschylus, and even if specialists may demur about an interpretation here or there, Mrs. Browning's translation is a remarkable piece of work, showing finely imaginative sympathy with the dramatist's spirit of rebellion against tyranny. Especially successful is her rendering of those complexly woven double-epithets which give the pages of Æschylus such fire, glamour, subtlety of thought, and such deep, overflowing melody.

All these aspects of her reading and study are seen reflected in Aurora Leigh, and other influences, too, appear as a result of her unexpected freedom of adventure in her father's library. The story has frequently been told of her father's command that she should not read the books "on this side," but apparent permission was granted for all others; so the young poetess read with ardor Tom Paine's The Age of Reason, Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, Hume's Essays, Werther, Rousseau, and Mary Wollstonecraft. Throughout her life Mrs. Browning read widely in various fields, as will be shown later. In March, 1853, for example, she wrote to Mrs. Jameson: "We have been meditating Socialism and mysticism of various kinds, deep in Louis Blanc and Prudhon, deeper in the German spiritualists, added to which I have by no means given up my French novels." . . . More, however, than anything else Aurora Leigh was inspired by and influenced by Mrs. Browning's devotion to prose fiction.

Fiction she read assiduously. Her letters to Robert Browning and to Miss Mitford are full of mention of her invalid's solace and her artist's pleasure in the novels of Scott, Thackeray, Dickens, Kingsley, Disraeli, Ainsworth, Bulwer-Lytton, the Brontës, Mrs. Gaskell, Mrs. Stowe, Jane Porter, Mrs. Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Mrs. Shelley and many other English or American writers. More directly influential upon Aurora Leigh were novels by the French writers: Dumas, Balzac, Madame de Staël, George Sand, and dramas by Dumas fils, Scribe and others. We should picture Mrs. Browning in Casa Guidi reading in the long warm afternoons, or in the winter evenings beside the fire, novels and yet more novels. Robert's catholicity of taste did not equal hers, for his critical faculty was much more active, and, too, he evidently did not need the physical or mental relaxation gained from fiction.

Aurora Leigh is the inevitable result of this reading of many novels. Writing to her cousin, John Kenyon, in October, 1844, Miss Barrett had said:

I have a great fancy for writing some day a longer poem, [than Lady Geraldine's Courtship]. . . . a poem comprehending the aspect and manners of modern life, and flinching at nothing of the conventional.... Now I do think that a true poetical novel—modern and on the level of the manners of the day—might be as good a poem as any other, and much more popular besides. Do you not think so?

A glance at the story element of Aurora Leigh will show how, in nine books, not quite eleven thousand lines in all, the author developed a plot. Aurora Leigh, daughter of an English father and an Italian mother, was transferred from Italy to England when as a child she was left an orphan. Under the strict care of her father's spinster sister, she lived in rural England, loving nature and books, but fiercely opposed to becoming a proper Victorian young lady. Having refused to marry her cousin Romney, heir to the Leigh estate, because she found him too laggard a lover, too absorbed in philanthropic projects, she went to London, and there in an incredibly short time achieved success in literature. One day she was visited by Lady Waldemar and told that Romney was about to marry, out of humanitarian motives, a daughter of the people, Marian Earle, a mésalliance for various reasons, but opposed by Lady Waldemar because she was seeking to marry him herself. Rapidly events marched. Aurora made very friendly overtures to Marian, the wedding day arrived, but no bride came to church to wed magnanimous Romney. During the following months Aurora sought tirelessly for Marian and at last discovered the fugitive in Paris supporting herself and her, nameless, son. The story of Marian's flight because of Lady Waldemar's jealous and unscrupulous interference; the account of her being drugged and betrayed, victim of greed and lust; the recital of her efforts to find work for herself before and after the child's birth; the brief suggestion of her sufferings at the hands of employers who penalized her for her misfortune, occupy many spirited and sympathetic pages. Aurora carried Marian and the child to Florence where all three were happily established in a villa on the hillside. Meanwhile Romney solaced himself by supervising the work of conducting Leigh Hall, his ancestral home, as a retreat for poverty-stricken and otherwise wretched men and women of the lower classes, initiating thus an experiment after the ideas of certain French socialists. It is evident, though not a very effectively managed element of the story, that Aurora had always loved Romney, therefore, when he appeared in her garden in Florence on a beautiful summer evening, readers are not surprised to discover that after two books of ardent argument between Romney and Aurora, regarding social problems and their own personal problems, the two confessed their love, but not before Romney had in knightly fashion offered to wed Marian Earle. She, intuitively aware of Aurora's feeling for Romney, sacrificed her own happiness. The conclusion came when Romney, just before his departure, revealed the fact that he had lost his sight as a consequence of the fire which destroyed Leigh Hall, and Aurora with a passionate access of tenderness dedicated herself to him. The poem ends in a symbolic dawn in which the true Aurora is seen at last.

The story is a readable and fairly well-sustained narrative, though delayed by frequent digressions on artistic or social topics. Told in the form of an autobiography, with some elements that are obviously drawn from Mrs. Browning's own life, this would-be novel has not sufficient projection and artistic escape from the author's controlling hand; she did not show adequate skill in developing either situation or characters. Moreover, the plot has a tendency toward melodrama in its exaggeration of both good and evil and in the suddenness of certain events. Thus, the death of Aurora's aunt, the quick success of Aurora the author, the extreme perfidy of Lady Waldemar, the unnecessary blinding of Romney undermine the naturalness of the tale.

However, if digressions and over-stimulation take turns in bewildering the seeker for a story, they are balanced for the more tolerant reader by elements that do not appear in some excellent narratives. A turn for epigram, sometimes philosophical truth, sometimes a satiric thrust, gives Aurora Leigh a challenging tone. There is an almost constant liveliness, a play of humor in the poem giving it a lightness of touch which redeems the work from being a novel with a purpose. Mrs. Browning had read to good purpose Dryden, Pope, Byron, the best of Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, and, early in her life, Piers Plowman, because of her residence in the Malvern Hills. Her instinctive humor, developed and trained by her reading, served as an effective aid in Aurora Leigh. Mrs. Browning's humor has been too much ignored in the solemn efforts to appreciate her sensibility and her spirituelle exaltation. She has been sentimentalized as a spectacle, on her invalid's couch; her dog, her husband, her son, have been made melodramatic properties, and she has been robbed of her real personality and vigor. Few letters of the nineteenth century are comparable with hers in lambent flashing appreciation of little incongruities, such shrewd and piercing thrusts at weakness, or hypocrisy, or mistaken opinion. Her letters to Robert Browning are delightfully full of little flippancies and tart, well-directed shafts at books or persons deserving a bit of ridicule. And many of the more personal passages have playful, teasing elements, passages which show how a poetess in love may be whimsical, tender, irreverent, and bewildering to her more ceremonious and intensely serious lover.

Almost every page of Aurora Leigh gleams with some humorously turned comment, some piquant phrase, some pointed satire, charmingly urbane. The smugness of the Victorian, or, as she dubbed it, "the Pewter Age," is exposed, and illusions of various sorts are mercilessly pilloried in a neat style. Detached samples of her humor will serve no purpose, for it is always the context which sets off the flash, but one or two specimens will serve, such as the gibe at Romney's preö ccupation with the lower classes:

Had I any chance
With Mister Leigh, who am Lady Waldemar
And never committed felony?

or, more objectively:

The world's male chivalry has perished out,
But women are knights-errant to the last;
And if Cervantes had been Shakespeare too,
He had made his Don a Donna.

or a brief generalization:

Humility's so good
When pride's impossible.

or an ironic thrust at vague idealists:

Recipes for .... ..
.... ..acting heroism without a scratch. . . . .

or, even more pictorially:

He sets his virtues on so raised a shelf,
To keep them at the grand millennial height,
He has to mount a stool to get at them.

Contrasted with her playful humor, the overflow of her own happy, full, and thoughtful days in Florence, is the high stern note of an idealism, artistic, social, religious. A certain sympathy with the mood of Victorian Evangelicalism turned her into a presumptive teacher and preacher. In a letter to Ruskin about Miss Mitford, Mrs. Browning wrote, November, 1855:

She never taught me anything but a very limited admiration of Miss Austen, whose people struck me as wanting souls, even more than is necessary for men and women of the world. The novels are perfect as far as they go—that's certain. Only they don't go far enough, I think. It may be my fault.

There is perhaps too much soul in Aurora Leigh, too much accent on abstract issues when more concrete details are needed for the reader's imagination to work upon, if he is to get pleasure in a work of fiction.

There is abundant concreteness of detail in the setting of the poem, for Mrs. Browning's acquaintance with England, Italy, and France were such as to make it possible for her to place her story in scenes faithfully described,—rural England and London, Paris, Northern Italy, and Florence. The following passage, describing the approach to Genoa, by sea, shows the nature artist's power in word and phrase and image, catching the very look of the Italian shore, in a description, charming and memorable:

Peak pushing peak
They stood. I watched, beyond that Tyrian belt
Of intense sea betwixt them and the ship,
Down all their sides the misty olive-woods
Dissolving in the weak, congenial moon,
And still disclosing some brown convent-tower
That seems as if it grew from some brown rock,
Or many a little lighted village, dropt
Like a fallen star upon so high a point,
You wonder what can keep it in its place
From sliding headlong with the waterfalls
Which powder all the myrtle and orange groves
With spray of silver. Thus my Italy
Was stealing on us. Genoa broke with day,
The Doria's long pale palace striking out,
From green hills in advance of the white town,
A marble finger dominant to ships,
Seen glimmering through the uncertain grey of dawn.

The better known description of the Florentine villa,in part Villa Briochion on Bellosguardo, where Isa Blagden, the Brownings' friend, lived, need not be quoted in full, though a few lines demand acknowledgment—such as the vignette of Florence, seen from Bellosguardo:

I found a house at Florence on the hill
Of Bellosguardo. 'Tis a tower which keeps
A post of double-observation o'er
That valley of Arno (holding as a hand
The outspread city) straight towards Fiesole.
And Mount Morello and the setting sun,
The Vallombrosan mountains opposite,

From the outer wall
Of the garden drops the mystic floating grey
Of olive trees (with interruptions green
From maize and vine), until 'tis caught and torn
Upon the abrupt black line of cypresses
Which signs the way to Florence. Beautiful
The city lies along the ample vale,
Cathedral, tower and palace, piazza and street,
The river trailing like a silver cord
Through all, and curling loosely, both before
And after, over the whole stretch of land
Sown whitely up and down its opposite slopes
With farms and villas.

The setting is made very real, both in locale and in general conditions of social background, adding to the realism of the dramatis personae. The author pictured Victorian life in the drawing-room, in the studio, in the slums of London, and in the beautiful Florentine villa; we see class distinctions and prejudices sharply contrasted, we hear the soft drawl of the sophisticated gentleman as well as the harsh voice of poverty and squalor. Moreover, she presented both sides of the Victorian era, emphasizing its humanitarianism, its simplicity, its essential efforts after justice and happiness for all, its untiring zeal for finding truth in science and religion; but she also exposed the irresponsibility of many well-fed, over-dressed persons, inclined to fatuous trust in a Providence that had, for all time, created a distinction between rich and poor, a Providence that relieves the pious from any need of struggle to defeat chaos and chance in economic life.

Mrs. Browning was essentially a Romantic, and also, hers was one of the clearest voices crying out in the second half of the nineteenth century for liberty, equality, and fraternity, continuing and echoing strains she had heard in the works of the great Revolutionary poets. But her special plea was for the liberty of women, a plea particularized in the histories of Aurora Leigh and Marian Earle who from different classes of society, one the leader, the other, led, illustrate many (but not all!) of Mrs. Browning's doctrines in regard to women's rights, women's duties, women's sufferings, and women's potential capabilities. This passionate desire for the liberation of womankind and the equally passionate sympathy with victims of injustice and tyranny must have been defined very early in Mrs. Browning's life, or she would not have chosen, from all the Greek tragedies, Prometheus Bound, for translation. Here in the work of Æschylus, she found portrayed two chief figures who illustrate the bitterness and almost helpless pain of bondage and persecution,—Prometheus and Io. Io is one of the most interesting characters in Greek myth, the prototype of helpless womanhood victimized by masculine power. Is there not a direct relationship between Marian Earle's fate and wanderings and Io's? The innocence, the helplessness, the prolonged and bitter suffering of Marian Earle, treacherously betrayed through the greed of Lady Waldemar's maid-servant to "carniverous" man, are depicted by a courageous, sympathetic woman, a champion of the defenceless. Moreover, Mrs. Browning lived in an era when gifted women were winning high regard. Not only Mary Wollstonecraft, Madame de Staël, and George Sand, pioneers, but lesser persons well-known and admired by her: Miss Mitford, with whom Mrs. Browning had been long associated in an intimate friendship; Mrs. Jameson, the "Mona Nina" addressed in many letters; Harriet Martineau, Margaret Fuller, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Hosmer, sculptress; Fanny Kemble, the actress, Mrs. Siddon's niece; Frances Power Cobbe, social reformer, and, slightly, Florence Nightingale.

With high-hearted enthusiasm and genuine knowledge of her subject Mrs. Browning portrayed Aurora Leigh, succeeding in that portrait much better than in those of the other dramatis personae of the poem. The girl, Aurora, ardent, generous, intellectual, and painfully lonely, rebelled against her conventional aunt's efforts to instil into the young mind the ideals proper for a Victorian woman, namely, a weak and timid view of life, a deference to rank and money, a distinctly "fugitive and cloistered virtue," and an acquiescent will. Bent on self-expression, eager for life and for the world of ideal values, she found expression and satisfaction in Art, spurning marriage as proposed by Romney and interpreted by her Aunt. She pictured wifehood in lurid colors, but, fortunately for her, only in soliloquy!

Love, to him, was made
A simple law-clause. If I married him.
I should not dare to call my soul my own
Which so he had bought and paid for: every thought
And every heart-beat down there in the bill;
Not one found honestly deductible
From any use that pleased him! He might cut
My body into coins to give away
Among his other paupers; change my sons,
While I stood dumb as Griseld, for black babes
Or piteous foundlings; might unquestioned set
My right hand teaching in the Ragged Schools,
My left hand washing in the Public Baths,
What time my angel of the Ideal stretched
Both his to me in vain.

Certain dangers, certain tendencies in the feminine attitude towards life are suggested in one early debate between Aurora and Romney, when Romney's spontaneous scepticism about her "art" is an irritant to the ambitious and self-confident Aurora. With a frankness almost suicidal in a writer, Mrs. Browning expounds the fact that women, as artists, and as individuals, take things too personally, lack the generous objectivity of the large, free, tolerant and genuinely artistic imagination:

The human race
To you means, such a child, or such a man,
You saw one morning waiting in the cold,
Beside that gate, perhaps. You gather up
A few such cases, and when strong sometimes
Will write of factories and of slaves, as if
Your father were a negro, and your son
A spinner in the mills. All's yours and you,
All, colored with your blood, or otherwise
Just nothing to you. Why, I call you hard
To general suffering.

It is obvious that Aurora's compassion for Marian Earle is in part prompted by the unrealized, unconfessed love of Aurora for Romney, though unselfish, untiring energy are shown in Aurora's search for the lost Marian, and in Aurora's beautiful and successful efforts to atone to Marian for evils wrought by the lustful cruelty of man, by the indifference of society to such outrages, and by persecution on the part of self-righteous virtue. Little by little Aurora approaches a state where she begins to reject worldly, egotistical success, and dreams of life made perfect by love.

The portrait of Romney is not as vivid as is that of Aurora; it is too earnest a tract. We see him unquestionably kind, wholly virtuous, intelligent, and almost mechanically self-sacrificing. But like the characters in the dramas of Joanna Baillie (regarded by Mrs. Browning "as the first female poet in all senses in England"), Romney is characterized too entirely by one "passion,"—philanthropy. He is a sort of humanitarian chimera, bloodless, it would seem, and one wonders why Lady Waldemar sought his love:

Have you heard of Romney Leigh,
Beyond what's said of him in newspapers,
His phalansteries there, his speeches here,
His pamphlets, pleas, and statements, everywhere?

Beginning badly in his too abstract wooing of Aurora, he went on to worse by planning a marriage with Marian Earle, based on a desire to solve a social problem rather than on a legitimate desire for love and congenial companionship. But he had courage, stubborn tenacity of purpose, for in this project of marriage he defied a society with deep-rooted, archaic ideas regarding the inviolability of class. When, after her tragedy, he again asked Marian to marry him he was sincerely performing an atonement to one of the many victims of evil, ground down to tragedy by misfortunes of birth, economic forces, and the brutal rapacity of certain individuals.

Founding a "phalanstery" in Leigh Hall, he tested theories promulgated in France and in England by philosophical socialists. In the middle of that century there was much study of the doctrines of Fourier, Comte, Proudhon, Le Blanc, and Cabet. Romney's hostelry was modeled after Fourier's phalanstère, founded in 1830, at Condé-sur-Vire. A phalanstère, technically the residence of a phalange or about 1,800 persons, was "to include all aspects of human capacity, to give life either common or solitary." This institution was planned by a "thinker" who recognized in man "twelve radical passions out of whose free play harmony would be educed." Romney, however, gathered together poor and broken spirits suffering from various forms of ignorance and sin, and he regulated his establishment by autocratic fiat, seeking to coerce his men and women to redemption and happiness. By "trying to do good without the church or even the squire" he offended the county; the peasants were vaguely displeased by his innovations and by his reception of London thieves and dissolutes. Finally between the peasants and the joyous help of the ungrateful inmates of the phalanstery Leigh Hall was set on fire and thoroughly destroyed.

The fire which ended this social experiment brought a blinding flash of light to Romney, showing him how priggish and arbitrary he had been, in a situation where only the brotherhood and humor of a Saint Francis could really prevail. The story was slowly unfolded, in that Florentine garden, by Romney who, with caustic irony, at his own expense, exposed his futile efforts to predate the millennium, bestowing liberty, equality, fraternity, soup, and virtue by a careful schedule. His terse summary and neat anti-climax in the following verses, present in miniature the fine ideals and the faulty methods of his program:

So much he has to teach! so good a world!
The same the whole creation's groaning for!
No rich nor poor, no gain nor loss nor stint;
No pottage in it able to exclude
A brother's birthright, and no right of birth
The pottage—both secured to every man,
And perfect virtue dealt out like the rest
Gratuitously, with the soup at six,
To whoso does not seek it.

Relentlessly he pointed out the poetic justice which rewarded his patronizing, theoretical, yet autocratic methods:

My men and women of disordered lives,
I brought in orderly to dine and sleep,
Broke up those waxen masks I made them wear,
With fierce contortions of the natural face,—
And cursed me for my tyrannous constraint
In forcing crooked creatures to live straight.

In a debate, growing more and more dramatic, drawing more and more to harmony of opinion, these two persons, Aurora and Romney, discussed the causes of his failure and, inclusively, the failures of many socialistic theories, fashioning a somewhat Platonic dialogue, in which Mrs. Browning had a chance to express her ideas on certain social problems. Romney, penitent, satirized the materialism, the mechanical and mathematical program to which he had subscribed:

We talk by aggregates,
And think by systems, and, being used to face
Our evils in statistics, are inclined
To cap them with unreal remedies
Drawn out in haste on the other side of the slate.

Aurora added:

If we give,
Our cup of water is not tendered till
We lay down pipes and found a Company
With Branches.

The conclusion reached by Romney was that:

. . . men who work can only work for men,
And, not to work in vain, must comprehend
Humanity and so work humanly,
And raise men's bodies still by raising souls,
As God did first.

Romney stands for many good men and women of the Age, who had inherited Rousseau's doctrines regarding Return to Nature, innate virtue, instinctive love, and good will, but who had failed to understand Rousseau's plea for individualism. These people expected to see evil traits translated into virtue by waving the magician's wand called "good will." Romney found to his surprise and pain that the passions of the crafty, mean, and cruel have a terrible tenacity. Aurora, the artist, had been wiser than he, and had warned him long before, against externalism in reforms:

I hold you will not compass your poor ends
Of barley-feeding and material ease,
Without a poet's individualism
To work your universal. It takes a soul
To move a body: It takes a high-souled man
To move the masses, even to a cleaner stye:
It takes the ideal, to blow a hair's breadth off
The dust of the actual.—Ah, your Fouriers failed,
Because not poets enough to understand
That life develops from within.

Shaken by his failure, sardonically distrustful of the single individual's effort, Romney tended to lapse into a sort oflaissez-faire mood:

I stood myself there worthier of contempt,
Self-rated in disastrous arrogance,
As competent to sorrow for mankind,
And even their odds. A man may well despair,
Who counts himself so needful to success.

To this Aurora:

And yet take heed, I answered, lest we lean
Too dangerously on the other side,
And so fail twice. Be sure, no earnest work
Of any honest creature, however weak,
Imperfect, ill-adapted, fails so much,
It is not gathered as a grain of sand
To enlarge the sum of human action used
For carrying out God's end. No creature works
So ill, observe, that therefore he's cashiered.

Later, in a happy mood, Romney formulated his new faith:

Fewer programmes, we who have no prescience.
Fewer systems, we who are held and do not hold.
Less mapping out of masses to be saved,
By nations or by sexes. Fourier's void,
And Comte absurd, and Cabet, puerile.
Subsist no rules of life outside of life,
No perfect manners, without Christian souls;
The Christ Himself had been no Lawgiver
Unless he had given the life, too, with the law.

But Aurora added one deeper idea, growth through love:

The man, most man,
Works best for men, and, if most man indeed,
He gets his manhood plainest from his soul:
While obviously this stringent soul itself
Obeys the old law of development,
The Spirit ever witnessing in ours,
And Love, the soul of soul, within the soul,
Evolving it sublimely.

This pronouncement of Aurora is the key to Mrs. Browning's belief, and is the theme of the poem,—growth through love, a doctrine enunciated by many thinkers, especially by Plato, Christ, Dante, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Browning, inParacelsus. Stead-fastly holding to this doctrine she had tested by it certain modern schemes and found them wanting. Reading, pondering and often discussing with her husband the progress of various moderns she had arrived at very clear cut judgments regarding Socialism. Her Letters offer keen comments on the subject. About 1850, she wrote to Isa Blagden (Letters, I: 467):

Christian Socialists are by no means a new sect, the Moravians representing the theory with as little offence and absurdity as may be. What is it, after all, but an out-of-door extension of the monastic system? The religious principle, more or less apprehended, may bind men together so, absorbing their individualities, and presenting an aim beyond the world; but upon merely human and earthly principles no system can stand, I feel persuaded, and I thank God for it. If Fourierism could be realized (which it surely cannot) out of a dream, the destinies of our race would shrivel up under the unnatural heat, and human nature would, to my mind, be desecrated and dishonored—because I do not believe in purification without suffering, in progress without struggle, in virtue without temptation. Least of all do I consider happiness the end of man's life. We look to higher things, have nobler ambitions.

Also, in every advancement of the world hitherto, the individual has led the masses. Thus, to elicit individuality has been the object of the best political institutions and governments. Now, in these new theories, the individual is ground down to the multitude, and society must be "moving all together if it moves at all"—restricting the very possibility of progress by the use of the lights of genius. Genius is always individual.

Possibly her stand was based somewhat upon Margaret Fuller's reports of the failure of the American experiment at Brook Farm, for it was in 1848 and 1849 that Margaret Fuller, after her marriage to Count D'Ossoli, saw much of the Brownings. In 1852 Mrs. Browning wrote to Mrs. Martin:(Letters, II: 61):

As for the socialists, I quite agree with you that various of them, yes, and some of their chief men, are full of pure and noble aspiration, the most virtuous of men, the most benevolent. Still, they hold in their hands, in their clean hands, ideas that kill, ideas which defile, ideas which, if carried out, would be the worst and most crushing kind of despotism. I would rather live under the feet of the Czar than in those stages of perfectibility imagined by Fourier and Cabet, if I might choose my "pis aller"! All these speculators (even Louis Blanc, who is one of the most rational) would revolutionize, not merely countries, but the elemental conditions of humanity, it seems to me; none of them seeing that antagonism is necessary to all progress. A man in walking, must set one foot before another, and in climbing (as Dante observed long ago) the foot behind "é sempre il piu basso." Only the gods (Plato tells us) keep both feet joined together in moving onward. It is not so, and cannot be so, with men.

Mrs. Browning's conception of good included liberty for the masses as well as for the classes, not merely political enfranchisement but the liberty to grow through individual effort, error, blunder. What Mrs. Browning thought important for the future of the race is,—freedom from the consciousness of being directed, supervised from above, in a fashion which implied authority rather than persuasion, suggestion, guidance. Leaders she did believe in, most certainly, but such leaders as will coö perate, not coerce. Progress comes through strange, miserable, passionate experience, often through mistakes, or through a driving need for understanding; there must be some lure held out to each person, some desire awakened, some power quickened, some motive crystallized whereby self activity may be stirred to more and more complete self-guidance.

Her attitude towards these social questions is an application of Mrs. Browning's theory of Art, involving her philosophy of the beautiful, whether in specific creation of poem or painting, or in the harmonies achieved by human souls in their mortal lives. There are many discussions short and long in Aurora Leigh regarding art, all of which help us to understand better her conceptions of "the principle of beauty," her idealistic faith that in life as in art man can


The spiritual significance burn through
The hieroglyphic of material shows.

The following quotation summarizes very well the composite nature of her sources, and enunciates her ideas regarding the origin, the method, the purpose, and the influence of poetry as one of the several arts. Aristotle and Plato, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley are surely remembered here:

Art's the witness of what is
Behind this show. If this world's show were all,
Then imitation would be all in art;
There, Jove's hand gripes us!—For we stand here, we,
—If genuine artists, witnessing for God's
Complete, consummate, undivided work;
—That every natural flower which grows on earth
Implies a flower upon the spiritual side,
Substantial, archetypal, all a-glow
With blossoming causes,—not so far away,
But we, whose spirit-sense is somewhat cleared,

May catch at something of the bloom and breath,—
Too vaguely apprehended, though indeed
Still apprehended, consciously or not,
And still transferred to picture, music, verse,
For thrilling audient and beholding souls
By signs and touches which are known to souls.

Social science should be an art, and the construction of a social cosmos should be an imaginative achievement, a harmony. In the passage by this "memorable lady" referred to in Meredith's sonnet, The World's Advance, she had made Aurora say:

What is art
But life upon the larger scale, the higher,
When, graduating up in a spiral line
Of still expanding and ascending gyres,
It pushes toward the intense significance
Of all things, hungry for the Infinite?
Art's life,—and where we live, we suffer and toil.

Among the influences noted in Aurora Leigh three seem to be of chief importance: Madame de Staël, George Sand, Robert Browning, influences affecting both thought and form. Little has been said regarding Madame de Staël's place in Mrs. Browning's pantheon. Surely this cosmopolitan woman's life and prestige affected the portrait of Aurora, and the novel Corinne seems to have contributed to the plot. Corinne half English and half Italian was born in Italy and brought up by an Aunt, until Corinne was taken to England to spend a lonely girlhood under the guardianship of a frigid unsympathetic English step-mother. Escaping at length, Corinne went to Italy where she became famous as an improvisatrice, possessing brilliant poetic gifts, scholarship, and great personal charm. By her beauty she won the love of Lord Nevil, a cold English noble. Though Aurora Leigh is the most decorous of rebels she seems to be kin to the intense Corinne whose letter (Book XIV) to Lord Nevil has some interesting ideas in common with Aurora. Between Romney and Albert, the hero of George Sand's Consuelo and The Countess of Rudolstadt there are some parallels, also, for the two men are similar in their priggish virtue, in their absorbed devotion to humanitarian causes, in their inability to take life joyously. Both are deeply concerned with schemes carefully thought out for a social Utopia.

More than suggestions for plot and characters came from Madame de Staël and George Sand; certain attitudes and opinions were probably deepened, especially by careful reading of the works of George Sand. I do not know if anyone has suggested that George Sand's name, Aurore Dudevant, may have influenced the christening of Mrs. Browning's ardent heroine, Aurora Leigh. The admiration Mrs. Browning felt for George Sand was of early growth, vividly and often expressed. Two sonnets (1844) as well as various allusions in her letters show her unbounded and daring enthusiasm for the Frenchwoman's gifts. To Mr. Chorley, of The Athenaeum, she wrote, in 1845:

I am more of a latitudinarian in literature than it is generally thought expedient for women to be; and I have that admiration for genius which dear Mr. Kenyon calls my "immoral sympathy with power"; and if Madame Dudevant is not the first female genius of any country or age, I really do not know who is. And then she has certain noblenesses—granting all the evil and "perilous stuff"—noblenesses and royalnesses which make me loyal.

In spite of George Sand's defiance of moral and civil law, Mrs. Browning was able to admire the humanitarian and the artist, and to agree with Matthew Arnold in tribute to George Sand's intense feeling for nature, and for humble life, her passionate plea for greater naturalness and sincerity in social life, her desire for justice, her faith in individualism as opposed to the rule of class or creed. But Robert, less fascinated by the robust, not to say wilful and passionate, woman, had not his wife's tolerance, and some of Mrs. Browning's Letters give playful glimpses of Robert's stiff efforts to be courteous to this lady whose "terrestrial lavendars and supercelestial blues," were symbolically offensive to him. Mrs. Browning, however, far outstripped both George Sand and Madame de Staël in her conception of the depth and potential power of character, in her conception of the fundamental significances of life and death. She has a far steadier, saner, more understandable view of humanity than do these other two women who present too exalted and impossible portraits of feminine character.

The most dominant influence—felt all through the poem in technique of verse as well as in thought and feeling—was, as we know, that of Robert Browning. One or two selected instances may stand for several. Fra Lippo Lippi had expressed the doctrine in the last two verses:

The rising painter, Vincent Carrington,
Whom men judge hardly as bee-bonneted,
Because he holds that, paint a body well,
You paint a soul by implication.

Many lines from Browning come to mind as one reads the following on "success and failure":

All success
Proves partial failure: all advance implies
What's left behind; all triumph, something crushed
At the chariot wheels, all government something wrong.

And rich men make the poor, who curse the rich.

Possibly she recalled in One Word More:

Where the heart lies let the brain lie also;

Life means, be sure,
Both heart and head,—both active, both complete
And both in earnest.

And here is a glowingly frank tribute to her husband, the author of Pippa Passes and of Saul:

"There's nothing great
Nor small," has said a poet of our day,
Whose voice will ring beyond the curfew of eve,
And not be thrown out by the matin's bell:
And truly, I reiterate, nothing's small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere.

Inevitably Aurora Leigh (1857) must be paralleled with The Ring and the Book (1868), for each represents its author's most mature thought and art. Both poems have Italian settings, both present the problem of the dependent woman, in one case Marian Earle, in the other, Pompilia, and we see the rescue of each one, her evolution of soul under stress. Romney a highly magnanimous but professional philanthropist is an interesting contrast to Caponsacchi, a priest suddenly become a liberator and a soldier saint. The development of each of these characters out of immaturity into a strong and sensitive understanding of the purpose of life is traced with compelling power. Aurora Leigh herself epitomizes the ideas of Mrs. Browning regarding love and marriage, who draws her romantic tale to a close with a happy marriage. The Ring and the Book is of sterner import, it is a tragedy wherein the chief characters suffer irrevocably, but possess forever, Browning says, the principle of love and life. A deeper knowledge of The Ring and the Book can be gained through study of Aurora Leigh written a dozen years earlier in the complete happiness of the Casa Guidi. The unanimity of thought and feeling between husband and wife is evident, and evident also are the differences in their imaginative power, their conceptions of feeling. Because Mrs. Browning had a more trusting, simpler faith in divine providence she sometimes begs the question regarding evil and sorrow, being able to endure all things, through religious fervor. Browning's faith equally convinced, threw upon man a greater burden of responsibility, and also a greater need of initiative, of speculation and experiment and defiance of convention. An interesting comparison may be made between the Pope's monologue in The Ring and the Book and the dialogue between Aurora and Romney in the last two books of Aurora Leigh.

The following passage, presenting liberal views, social and deeply religious, expresses the philosophy of progress, shared by Elizabeth and Robert Browning:

What height we know not,—but the way we know,
And how by mounting ever, we attain,
And so climb on. It is the hour for souls,
That bodies, leavened by the will and love,
Be lightened to redemption. The world's old,
But the old world waits the time to be renewed,
Toward which, new hearts in individual growth
Must quicken, and increase to multitude
In new dynasties of the race of men;
Developed whence, shall grow spontaneously
New churches, new economies, new laws,
Admitting freedom, new societies
Excluding falsehood: He shall make all new.

Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (essay date 1979)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "The Aesthetics of Renunciation," in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, Yale University Press, 1979, pp. 539-80.

[In the excerpt that follows, Gilbert and Gubar claim that Aurora Leigh "may well have been the most reasonable compromise between assertion and submission that a sane and worldly woman poet could achieve in the nineteenth century."]

Elizabeth Barrett Browning also made most of her finest poetry out of her reconciliation to that graceful or passionate self-abnegation which, for a nineteenth-century woman, was necessity's highest virtue. But because she had little natural taste for the drastic asceticism [Christina] Rossetti's temperament and background seem to have fostered, Barrett Browning ultimately substituted a more familiar Victorian aesthetic of service for the younger woman's somewhat idiosyncratic aesthetic of pain. Her masterpiece, Aurora Leigh (1856), develops this aesthetic most fully, though it is also in part an epic of feminist self-affirmation. Aurora Leigh is too long to analyze here in the kind of detail we have devoted to "Goblin Market," but it certainly deserves some comment, not only because (as Virginia Woolf reports having discovered to her delight)69 it is so much better than most of its nonreaders realize, but also because it embodies what may well have been the most reasonable compromise between assertion and submission that a sane and worldly woman poet could achieve in the nineteenth century. Indeed, as we shall see, Emily Dickinson's implicit rejection of Barrett Browning's compromise no doubt indicates just how "mad" and unworldly the "myth" of Amherst was.

Briefly, Aurora Leigh is a Künstlerroman in blank verse about the growth of a woman poet and the education of her heart through pride, sympathy, love, and suffering. Born in Florence to an Englishman and the Italian bride he has been disinherited for marrying, its heroine comes to England as a thirteen-year-old orphan, to be initiated into the torments of feminine gentility by her censorious maiden aunt, an ungentle spinster who acts (like so many women in novels by women) as patriarchy's agent in "breeding" young ladies for decorous domesticity. Partly perhaps because of her un-English and therefore unconventional childhood, Aurora refuses to submit to her aunt's strictures; early, studying her dead father's books, she decides to become a poet. When her highminded, politically ambitious cousin Romney Leigh—a sort of reincarnated St. John Rivers—asks her to become his wife and helpmate, she proudly declines his offer, explaining that she has her vocation, too: art, which is at least as necessary as social service.70

Here, although the specific polarities of self-developing art and self-abnegating "work" recall the prototypical Victorian polarities Tennyson described in, say, "The Palace of Art," Barrett Browning gives the girl's self-justifying speech a feminist dimension that sets her rejection of Romney into precisely the tradition of rebellious self-affirmation that Jane Eyre so notoriously pioneered when she rejected St. John's marriage proposal. Repudiating Romney's patronizing insinuation that women "play at art as children play at swords, / To show a pretty spirit, chiefly admired / Because true action is impossible," she refuses also his invitation to "love and work with me," to work "for uses, not / For such sleek fringes (do you call them ends, / Still less God's glory?) as we sew ourselves / Upon the velvet of those baldoquins / Held 'twixt us and the sun." As passionately assertive as Jane, she insists that "every creature, female as the male, / Stands single in responsible act and thought . . . [and] I, too, have my vocation,—work to do, . . . Most serious work, most necessary work."71 At this point in the book, she is "all glittering with the dawn-dew, all erect" and, in a metaphor Dickinson was later to convert to her own uses, "famished for the noon." For this reason, it seems to her, as with masculine aggressiveness she seeks "empire and much tribute," that it is both contemptible and contemptuous for someone to say "I have some worthy work for thee below. / Come, sweep my barns, and keep my hospitals, / And I will pay thee with a current coin / Which men give women."

Significantly, however, Aurora Leigh begins where Jane Eyre leaves off. Jane rejects St. John's invitation to a life of self-denying work, and enters instead a self-gratifying earthly paradise about which Brontë is unable to give us many details; but Aurora has a whole career ahead of her, and a career—poetry—whose perils are precisely those dangers of hyperbolic self-aggrandizement associated with the prideful "it" that she revealingly calls "the devil of my youth." Thus where Jane's assertion was the product of a long struggle for identity, Aurora's is the postulate with which a long renunciation (or repression) of identity must begin. Jane had to learn to be herself. Aurora has to learn not to be herself.

The particular agent of Aurora's education is Marian Erle, a "woman of the people" who functions as a sisterly double, showing her the way to act and suffer, first by loving and serving Romney, and then by (not quite intentionally) sacrificing her virginity for him. Romney is about to marry Marian Erle as a political gesture toward social equality but Marian is persuaded to renounce him by Lady Waldemar, a self-indulgent and "bitchy" aristocrat who is in love with him herself. Packed off to France under the care of one of this "lady's" servants, Marian—in properly Richardsonian fashion—is trapped in a whorehouse, drugged, raped, impregnated, and driven temporarily mad. What Aurora has to learn from all this is, first, sympathy, and then service. Tormented by her belief that Romney (whom she really loves) plans to marry Lady Waldemar, Aurora goes to Paris, where she encounters the abused Marian and her illegitimate child. By this time Aurora Leigh is a famous and quite formidable poet. But she quickly decides to make a home in her "motherland" of Florence for Marian and the child, a decision that does seem to strike a happy feminist balance between service and "selfishness." Aurora will continue to write her ambitious poems, yet Marian and her child will be secure.

Watching Marian tend the baby, however, the proud poet has learned more than the pleasures of humility. She has learned to envy that "extremity of love" in which a woman is "self-forgot, cast out of self." At this point, Romney appears in Florence and reveals that he has no intention of marrying Lady Waldemar, and moreover that he has been blinded while attempting to rescue Marian's drunken father from a conflagration that destroyed the Leighs' ancestral mansion. On the surface, therefore, he seems to have metamorphosed from a stonily righteous St. John Rivers to a seductively vulnerable Rochester. Softened by her affection for Marian and chastened by this news, Aurora finally concedes to her Victorian audience that "Art is much; but love is more," especially for a woman.

Art symbolizes heaven; but love is God
And makes heaven. I, Aurora, fell from mine,
I would not be a woman like the rest,
A simple woman who believes in love,
And owns the right of love because she loves,
And, hearing she's beloved, is satisfied
With what contents God: I must analyze,
Confront, and question, just as if a fly
Refused to warm itself in any sun
Till such was in leone. . . .


The imagery of her confession is significant, suggesting that in her love Aurora is as unlike Jane Eyre as Romney, despite his blindness, is unlike Rochester. For a woman not to love is to "fall" from heaven like Satan or Eve; to love, on the other hand, is to be like a contented fly, basking in the noontide sun without rivalrously seeking to displace it.

Married to blind Romney, Aurora will be both as wife and as artist her husband's helpmeet. She will not so much desire the sun (the way she did when younger) as she will study it, harvest it, benefit from it. "Gaze on, with inscient vision, toward the sun," Romney admonishes her, "And from his visceral heat pluck out the roots of light beyond him," for "Art's a service, mark: / A silver key is given to thy clasp, / And thou shalt stand unwearied, night and day, / And fix it in the hard, slow-turning wards."73 In other words, the artist, and specifically the woman poet, is neither a glittering and inspired figure nor a passionately self-assertive Jane Eyre. Rather, she is a modest bride of Apollo who labors for her glorious blind master—and for humanity too—in an "unwearied" trance of self-abnegation almost as intense as the silent agony Rossetti's dream queen endured in "From House to Home."

As her name indicates, therefore, Aurora becomes the dawn goddess who ministers to the god Dickinson was to call "the man of noon" by laying "the first foundations" of his reconstructed house. As Romney feeds his "blind majestic eyes / Upon the thought of perfect noon," his artist-wife describes the biblical stones of light she sees in the east—jasper, sapphire, chalcedony, amethyst—from which the visionary walls are being built. Like Dorothea ministering to Casaubon, she enacts Milton's daughter's idealized role: the role of dutiful handmaiden to a blind but powerful master. And just as sightless but still severely patriarchal Romney now seems to be half Rochester and half St. John Rivers, she and her author appear to have achieved a perfect compromise between the docility required by Victorian marriage and the energy demanded by poetry. They have redefined the relationship between the poet's "inspiration" and the poet herself so that it reflects the relationship of a Victorian sage and his submissive helpmeet.

At the same time, however, just as George Eliot's allusion to Milton's daughters hints at secret fantasies of rebellion even while ostensibly articulating a patriarchal doctrine of female servitude, Barrett Browning's compromise aesthetic of service conceals (but does not obliterate) Aurora Leigh's revolutionary impulses. For though the chastened Aurora vows to work for Romney, the work Barrett Browning imagines her doing is violent and visionary. As if to mute the shock value of her imaginings, Barrett Browning has Romney rather than Aurora describe Aurora's task. Part of this poet's compromise consists in her diplomatic recognition that Victorian readers might be more likely to accept millenarian utterances from a male character. But the millenarian program Romney outlines is not, of course, his own; it is the revolutionary fantasy of his author—and of her heroine, his wife-to-be—discreetly transferred from female to male lips. He himself concedes this point, though he also elaborates upon the tactful notion that a loving Victorian marriage will sanctify even revolution.

Now press the clarion on thy woman's lip,
(Love's holy kiss shall still keep consecrate)
And breathe thy fine keen breath along the brass,
And blow all class-walls level as Jericho's . . .

he cries, adding, so there should be no mistake about the sweeping nature of his program, that

.. . the old world waits the time to be renewed,
Toward which new hearts in individual growth
Must quicken, and increase to multitude
In new dynasties of the race of men,
Developed whence shall grow spontaneously
New churches, new economies, new laws
Admitting freedom, new societies
Excluding falsehood: HE shall make all new.


The fact that a divine patriarch, aided by a human patriarch and his helpmeet, shall "make all new" does not, finally, conceal the more startling fact that all must and shall, in Barrett Browning's scheme, be made new.

Emily Dickinson, who wrote that she experienced a "Conversion of the Mind" when she first read "that Foreign Lady" Elizabeth Barrett Browning, must have perceived the Romantic rage for social transformation concealed behind the veil of self-abnegating servitude with which Aurora Leigh concludes.75 She must have noticed, too, that the celestial city Aurora sees in the sunrise at the end of the poem is, after all, Aurora's and not blind Romney's to see, perhaps because it is that shining capital, the new Jerusalem. If the "heat and violence" of Aurora Leigh's heart have been tamed, then, at least her dawn-fires have not been entirely extinguished. It is for this reason, no doubt, that Barrett Browning, while looking everywhere for "grandmothers," became herself the grand mother of all modern women poets in England and America. Certainly she was the spiritual mother of Emily Dickinson who, as we shall see, rejected her compromises but was perpetually inspired by the "inscient vision" with which she solved the vexing "problem" of poetry by women.


69 See Woolf, Aurora Leigh, in The Second Common Reader [New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932].

70 The hint of incest in the courtship of the lovers, together with the striking parallelism of Aurora Leigh's name with the name of Byron's half-sister Augusta Leigh, suggests that Barrett Browning may be simultaneously retelling and "purifying" the legendary story of Byron's shocking romance with Augusta. It has also been suggested that Mrs. Gaskell's Ruth was the source for the Marian Erle story.

71Aurora Leigh, [in The Poetical Works of ElizabethBarrett Browning (New York: Crowell, 1891)], pp. 22-27.

72 Ibid., p. 173.

73 Ibid., p. 177.

74 Ibid., p. 178.

75 See J. 593, "I think I was enchanted / When first a sombre Girl—/ I read that Foreign Lady—/ The Dark—felt beautiful—" .. .

Kathleen K. Hickok (essay date 1980)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "New Yet Orthodox: Female Characters in Aurora Leigh," in International Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 3, No. 5, September/October, 1980, pp. 479-89.

[In the following essay, Hickok explores Browning's feminist inversion of conventional literary and social norms in Aurora Leigh.]


Interest in Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, has revived during the last few years, chiefly because of the feminist perspective from which this remarkable "verse novel" examines nineteenth-century England. In turn, renewed interest in Aurora Leigh has led to re-evaluation of Barrett Browning's1 other poems, especially those depicting female figures, a process rewarded with rediscoveries of numerous of her poems long ago allowed to disappear from the literary canon of Victorian poetry.2 We must not forget, however, that just as Aurora Leigh exists in the context of Barrett Browning's other poetry, her other poetry itself exists in the context of the nineteenth-century feminine poetic tradition in England—a tradition exemplified by such poets as Felicia Hemans, Letitia Landon, Mary Howitt, and Caroline Norton; a tradition with which Elizabeth Barrett Browning was demonstrably familiar.3

Under this microscope, her poems appear not as sui generis, but as part of a field of established poetic figures, themes, and purposes shared by her feminine peers. To name several, these included, first, stereotypical female figures such as the lovelorn pining maiden, the fallen woman, the self-sacrificing wife, and the bereaved mother; second, critical examination of the Victorian ideology of love and marriage—especially criticism of the marriage ideal, of the presumed differences between woman's love and man's, and of the tension in gifted women's lives between love and fame; and, finally, the aim of social protest—concerning English seamstresses, child labor, prostitution, the American slave trade, and the miserable condition of the British poor. For each of these traditions there were established poetic norms of imagery, plot, theme, point of view, and tone.

Of course, it is true that an imaginative difference, a twist of plot, or a mastery of imagery usually saved Barrett Browning's poems from the tedium of most giftbook verse. In Book III of Aurora Leigh, Aurora remarks upon the difficulty of simultaneously observing and transcending conventionality in her work:

My critic Belfair wants another book
Entirely different, which will sell (and live?)
A striking book, yet not a startling book,
The public blames originalities. . . .
Good things, not subtle, new yet orthodox,
As easy reading as the dog-eared page
That's fingered by said public fifty years,
Since first taught spelling by its grandmother,
And yet a revelation in some sort:
That's hard, my critic Belfair.


Barrett Browning accomplished this task to some extent in popular poems like "The Poet's Vow" (1836), "The Romaunt of the Page" (1839), and "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" (1844). By and large, however (as I have shown elsewhere5) her early poetry fell well within conventional expectations and traditional forms.

However, Aurora Leigh is another matter entirely. In Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning departed from the feminine traditions of the century with sufficient force to impress many, alarm some, and startle nearly all of her readers.6 Years later Swinburne remembered, "The advent of Aurora Leigh [in 1856] can never be forgotten by any lover of poetry who was old enough at the time to read it . . . they never had read, and never would read anything in any way comparable with that unique work of audaciously feminine and ambitiously impulsive genius."7 Swinburne was right: Aurora Leigh was a courageous, thorough-going exposition of feminist beliefs about nineteenth-century women. Yet Barrett Browning conveyed her socially advanced ideas in a vehicle which—despite its claim to singularity as a verse novel—represented well known female characters involved in specifically female predicaments, all of which were already quite femiliar to the reading public. The audacity and the achievement of Aurora Leigh resided in its confrontation all at once of so many social and personal facts of nineteenth-century English life and in its challenge to the validity of the conventions which customarily concealed those facts.

Barrett Browning realized, of course, just what she had dared to do; consequently, she was astonished by the poet's sensational popular success. She had fully expected, she said, "to be put in the stocks" for it "as a disorderly woman and free-thinking poet."8 Yet she also believed it to be "nearer the mark . . . fuller, stronger, more sustained" than any of her previous poems.9 Apparently, the technique of presenting radical ideas within a familiar context—"new yet orthodox"—constituted a camouflage sufficient to get the poem past the reading public's barricades of self-defensive disapprobation.

Of course, there were objections from some quarters to the immorality and impurity of the situations and the shamelessness and coarseness of the language in the poem. Furthermore, Aurora Leigh was not, finally, a critical success. In addition to their other reservations, reviewers were nearly unanimous in finding the poem's characterizations weak and its major figures unattractive. Since, with the exceptions of Romney Leigh and Aurora's father, all these characters are female, it is most illuminating to approach the poem's relationship to its social and literary context by examining Barrett Browning's various representations of English womanhood within it.


In Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning focuses on female characters in each of the three social classes in England. Lady Waldemar, of course, represents the upper class. She is an idle aristocratic lady, who dabbles somewhat carelessly in philanthropy and affairs of the heart. Aurora Leigh, despite an aristocratic heritage from her father, is essentially a middle-class professional woman, who depends upon her own earnings as a writer for support. Marian Erle comes from the lower class. The daughter of a "tramp," she has become (with the help of Romney Leigh) a seamstress, in order to avoid a life of prostitution. Until she and her illegitimate child are rescued by Aurora, she lives a life of abject poverty which constantly borders upon outright destitution. From the poem's glorification of Marian Erle and vilification of Lady Waldemar, we might conclude that Barrett Browning's sympathies lay with the oppressed lower classes of England.

However, that would be an oversimplification. Marian's father is an unsavory character who drinks, beats his wife, and evades employment; in turn, her mother abuses Marian and tries to barter her virginity for favors from a neighboring squire. Lady Waldemar's servant later succeeds where Marian's mother failed, by selling Marian into sexual slavery. Furthermore, the throngs of angry poor people who threaten and finally maim the generous, if misguided, aristocrat Romney Leigh are nasty, brutish, and ungrateful mobs. Romney himself is a gentleman in the best sense of the word, and though his social peers are sometimes snobbish and hypocritical, they also include admirable men like Vincent Carrington, the painter, and Lord Howe, Aurora's faithful friend and correspondent. Despite the novelistic way in which characters of diverse social classes are made to rub elbows throughout the poem, class consciousness does not supply its unity of perspective. Feminist consciousness does.10

In Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning explored virtually all the women's roles with which the public was familiar in mid-nineteenth-century England. By considering the poem's female characters in terms of their social roles and in light of the continual feminist commentary upon women in general which Aurora provides, we can discover the full force of the poem: Aurora Leigh rejects the conventional wisdom about women at virtually every point.

The interaction between Aurora and the three women who were significant figures in her childhood immediately illustrates some of the poem's departures from tradition. To begin with, Aurora's mother was not an Englishwoman at all, but a foreigner, a Florentine, whose southern charms won the heart of Aurora's austere English father "after a dry lifetime spent at home / In college-learning, law, and parish talk" (I. 66-67). Through love of her, he "had suddenly / Thrown off the old conventions, broken loose / From chin-bands of the soul.. ." (I. 176-178). Unfortunately, this woman was so weakened by the birth of Aurora that she died when the child was only four years old. Aurora's recollection of her sense of loss owes something, perhaps, to many popular women poets' descriptions of maternal death, as well as to Barrett Browning's own bereavement at age twenty-two.

I felt a mother-want about the world,
And still went seeking, like a bleating lamb
Left out at night in shutting up the fold,—
As restless as a nest-deserted bird . . .

(I. 40-43)

Yet her dead mother's portrait on the wall stirs the child not simply to adoration but also to terror.

And as I grew
In years, I mixed, confused, unconsciously,
Whatever I last read or heard or dreamed,
Abhorrent, admirable, beautiful,
Pathetical, or ghastly, or grotesque,
With that still face . . .

(I. 146-151)

The mother figure becomes for Aurora a kind of Lamia, alternately benign and malignant, according to the child's own fantasies and fears. This unsentimental depiction of childhood bereavement is much more psychologically sound than the treatment of the subject in most popular women's poetry.

In her natural mother's stead, Aurora has Assunta, an Italian servant whose devotion to the child is quite touching. Assunta cares for Aurora until she is thirteen, when the English father suddenly dies and his relatives send for Aurora to come to England. Once again, Aurora is separated from maternal love; both she and the faithful servant are devastated with grief.

I do remember clearly how there came
A stranger with authority, not right
(I thought not), who commanded, caught me up
From old Assunta's neck; how, with a shriek,
She let me go,—while I, with ears too full
Of my father's silence to shriek back a word,
In all a child's astonishment at grief
Stared at the wharf-edge where she stood and moaned . . .

(I. 223-230)

The demands of English laws and customs separate the child and her surrogate mother—who is, after all, only a servant and thus beyond consideration; we feel both the injustice and the inevitability of this outcome. By the time Aurora, as a grown woman, returns to Italy, her beloved Assunta is dead. The longlasting affection between Barrett Browning and her own maid-servant Wilson may have contributed to the representation of this female servant in Aurora Leigh. In any case, its sympathetic depiction of Assunta is extraordinary, considering that women's poetry in the nineteenth century generally failed to characterize female domestics at all; and the recognition of a genuine love between mistress and servant shows unusual sensitivity on Barrett Browning's part to the humanity of the serving class.

Reaching England, Aurora is turned over to the care and tutelage of her maiden aunt, whom Barrett Browning approached with neither of the prevailing attitudes—sentimentality or ridicule—but with a degree of individuality which distinguishes this particular spinster from the current poetical stereotype.

She stood straight and calm,
Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight
As if for taming accidental thoughts
From possible pulses; brown hair pricked with grey
By frigid use of life . . .
Eyes of no colour,—once they might have smiled,
But never, never have forgot themselves
In smiling; cheeks, in which was yet a rose
Of perished summers, like a rose in a book,
Kept more for ruth than pleasure,—if past bloom,
Past fading also.

(I. 272-276, 282-287)

This physical description of Aunt Leigh emphasizes the repression and rigidity of a single woman who found herself consigned to "A harmless life, she called a virtuous life, / A quiet life, which was not life at all" (I. 288-289). She fills her days with the poor-club, the book-club, obligatory calls from the neighbors, and hatred for her brother's wife, Aurora's mother. When she dies, some seven years after Aurora's arrival in England, she is found sitting "Bolt upright in the chair beside her bed" (II. 925) with blank open eyes and an unbudging posture that aptly reflect her living personality.

Looking back, Aurora recognizes the essential difference between her aunt and herself, and expresses this difference in a classic image from women's poetry—that of the caged bird.

She had lived
A sort of caged-bird life, born in a cage,
Accounting that to leap from perch to perch
Was act and joy enough for any bird.
.. . I, alas,
A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage,
And she was there to meet me. Very kind.
Bring the clean water, give out the fresh seed.

(I. 304-307, 309-312)

Aurora was not an ideal English girl when she came to Aunt Leigh, but a natural, undisciplined, Italian child, and the spinster determined to take her in hand and mold her into the courtesy-book ideal of English maidenhood. Consequently, Aurora, who had been tutored by her father from his own store of genuine knowledge, is now set to the task of absorbing the English girl's customary mix of trivial information, accomplishment, and conventionality. Only her communings with nature and her clandestine reading from her father's library enable her spirit to survive. The long passage in which Aurora describes the struggle (I. 372-481) is classic in its denunciation of both the process and the product of women's education. Aunt Leigh fails in her attempts to quench the spark of independence and intellectuality which Aurora brought within herself from her Italian girlhood. "Certain of your feebler souls," Aurora conceded, "Go out in such a process; many pine / To a sick inodorous light" of English womanhood. "My own," she thanks God, "endured" (I. 470-472).

The character of Aurora is the most fully delineated in the poem, which traces her growth and maturation, the cultivation of her talents, and the education of her heart. After her successful defiance of the conventional demands of English girlhood, Aurora continues to reject current social ideas which pertain to her own situation and to the condition of women in general. She refuses to marry her cousin Romney and subordinate or abandon her artistic pursuits in order to participate in his own vocation of social work. "You want a helpmate, not a mistress, sir," she accuses, "A wife to help your ends,—in her no end" (II. 402-403). Mistakenly, she believes their match would be loveless, utilitarian, and she chooses instead to award her devotion to her art. "You'll grant that even a woman may love art, / Seeing that to waste true love on anything / Is womanly, past question" (II. 495-497). Aurora's objections to marriage are undeniably feminist and, in light of English law and custom, justifiable. Yet she misunderstands her own emotional needs, and we the readers recognize from the beginning what it takes Aurora many lonely years to perceive: her own need for intimacy and her love for her cousin Romney.

So deep are these emotions that Aurora, in absence of any other opportunity, acts them out by playing husband and father to Romney's affianced Marian Erle and her illegitimate child. All through Book VII of the poem, Aurora takes on an androgyny of character," dismissing her feminine tears and fears and letting the man inside her (VII. 212, 230)11 predominate over the woman. "It is very good for strength," she learns, "To know that someone needs you to be strong" (VII. 414-415). She takes full responsibility for Marian and her baby, conveying them to Italy and safety in her own dead father's house, where the three form a tight little family group. Aurora soon discovers, through putting on the masculine role, that male-female personality distinctions are artificial, and that there is no magic in masculinity after all:

Note men!—They are but women after all,
As women are but Auroras!—there are men
Born tender, apt to pale at a trodden worm . ..

(VII. 1017-1019).

This new-found sympathy with men as human beings like herself is part of what softens Aurora toward Romney and enables her in the poem's conclusion to recognize and declare her love for him. Of course, the fact of his blindness is significant also. His handicap finally equalizes them, in a way, and allows Aurora to exercise both her sympathy and her strength. The marriage they now contemplate will be passionate, mystical, mature—a union of separate souls each bringing its own capacities to the joint endeavor humbly to do God's work. If this is an idealized version of marriage, it is at least more egalitarian than the conventional marriage ideal of complementary male-female roles. Furthermore, Barrett Browning manages here to do something that even the most critical of her contemporary women poets failed to do: she not only criticizes the existing structure of marriage, but she boldly envisions a joyful alternative.

In thus viewing Aurora in relationship to her man, we must not neglect her other great passion: her art. Ellen Moers has rightly called Aurora Leigh the "epic of the literary woman"12 Despite Swinburne's protest that Aurora's life as a professional writer was "too eccentric" to be believed,13 it is quite convincingly presented. We see her struggling with the double standard of literary criticism which frustrated so many women writers (II. 232-243), opening her fan mail (HI. 210-232), and experiencing doubts about the quality of her work (I. 881-895). Aurora is constantly aware of financial pressures, writing for cyclopedias, magazines, and weekly papers, just to buy a little time to pursue her poetry (III. 306-328). She is her own most severe critic, always unsatisfied with her completed work and striving to make the next poem better than the last. Barrett Browning does not shrink from admitting the diligent work and punishing schedule Aurora's artist's life requires:

I worked on, on.
Through all the bristling fence of nights and days
Which hedges time in from the eternities,
I struggled,—never stopped to note the stakes
Which hurt me in my course. The midnight oil
Would stink sometimes; there came some vulgar needs;
I had to live that therefore I might work,
And, being poor, I was constrained, for life,
To work with one hand for the booksellers
While working with the other for myself And art.

(III. 295-305)

Aurora has a high conception of her calling and a determination to maintain her integrity as a poet. When, in the story's conclusion, she tells Romney, "Art is much, but Love is more" (IX. 656), it is not as a repudiation of Art but as a greater testimony to the joy of love. "O Art, my Art, thou'rt much," she continues, "but love is more! / Art symbolises heaven, but Love is God / And makes heaven" (IX. 657-659). The pursuit of artistic excellence and public fame is not wrong in itself, but only insofar as it necessitates the sacrifice of human love. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was herself living proof that this sacrifice was avoidable, even in nineteenth-century England.

Lady Waldemar, the villain of the poem, twits Aurora on their first meeting with the contemporary stereotype of the literary woman:

You stand outside,
You artist women, of the common sex;
You share not with us, and exceed us so
Perhaps by what you're mulcted in, your hearts
Being starved to make your heads: so run the old
Traditions of you.

(III. 406-411)

Yet in her arrogance of speech, she reveals not a truth about women artists, but rather a hint of her own potential for cruelty. Some critics have felt that Lady Waldemar is made to appear worse than she actually is, by being presented only through the eyes of the jealous Aurora, and that judged impartially, she would seem less a femme fatale.14 Others have dismissed her as a mere adventuress,15 a stereotypical "Wicked Lady of Quality."16 Certainly there is something of the femme fatale in Lady Waldemar's deceptiveness and her sexual appetite, but she can perhaps be judged most accurately by observing in her the dilemma of the post-Regency aristocrat, the bored lady of leisure. Both her coarseness of language and her sophistication of manner can be seen as attributes of Regency society. Now that a different era is upon her, she attempts to take on the colors of the "modest women" (III. 580) of the present day, but succeeds only in achieving hypocrisy. In this result, she resembles Lady Howe, whose air of condescension is her most natural attitude (V. 582-607).17

Lady Waldemar's chief crime is that she does not take life as seriously as a proper Victorian woman ought to do. She unintentionally mocks Romney's attempts to do good by playing at philanthropy as a sort of lovers' game, and she offends Aurora Leigh by the frankness and physicality of her feelings for Romney.

Am I coarse?
Well, love's coarse, nature's coarse—ah, there's the rub.
We fair fine ladies, who park out our lives,
From common sheep-paths, cannot help the crows
From flying over,—we're as natural still As Blowsalinda.

(III. 454-459)

Outrageous though she may be, Lady Waldemar's earthiness and cynicism are attractive in their own colorful way—to the modern reader—at least, if not to the like of Romney, Aurora, and their peers. The callous way in which she dispatches Marian Erle to the colonies is reprehensible, of course. But the blame for Marian's abduction and rape lies with the unscrupulous servant, not with Lady Waldemar directly. Probably she is sincere when she expresses her regrets about the incident and writes to "thank" Aurora Leigh "For proving to myself that there are things / I would not do—not for my life, nor him" (IX. 19-20). She is not merely a conventional villain, nor yet a careless aristocrat. She seems rather to be an anachronism, a vital, energetic woman vexed by the century's continuing encroachments upon her freedom to express those qualities. Her attachment to Romney Leigh, invested though it is with pride, represents a genuine attempt to find a niche. "I cannot choose but think," she writes Aurora, "That, with him, I were virtuouser than you / Without him" (IX. 167-169), and the statement has a ring of truth.

The well known case of Marian Erle must be considered in light of both existing social conditions and the mid-century literary tradition of the fallen woman. The primitive life-styles among the lowest classes of England were definitely conducive to the type of casual immorality epitomized in Marian's mother's attempt to sell her daughter to a local squire. Marian's frantic flight into the city, the hopelessness of her life as a seamstress (like Lucy Gresham), and the squalor of her living quarters are accurately presented. Furthermore, the horrifying circumstances of her abduction, rape, and imprisonment in a Paris brothel were not unrealistic, as W.T. Stead's series of articles on the white slave trade would later attest.18 Neither is Marian's reintegration into society unlikely; had she married a respectable man and settled into a bland domesticity, it would not have violated probability, but only literary and social conventions.

In "A Year's Spinning" (1846), Barrett Browning had depicted the fallen woman in an entirely conventional manner: seduction, abandonment, illegitimate motherhood, infant death, and the grave. In Aurora Leigh, Marian's childhood friend Rose Bell, who apparently has become a prostitute of the sort later interviewed by sociologist Bracebridge Hemyng,19 seems to be irrevocably lost to sin. Even Marian pities Rose: "I heard her laugh last night in Oxford Street, / I'd pour out half my blood to stop that laugh, / Poor Rose, poor Rose!" (III. 927-929). Barrett Browning, of course, knew, and on occasion adhered to, the literary stereotype of the harlot's inevitable progress to the grave or to perdition.

In depicting Marian Erle, however, she rejected those familiar patterns entirely. Marian's story is in consonance with the reality, not the myth, of the "great social evil" of England. She is not seduced, but raped; she is not abandoned by a faithless lover, but flees from sexual captivity. Her devotion to her illegitimate infant son is rewarded by smiles and affection, not by bereavement. The child cannot even be properly said to "redeem" his mother, for, though despoiled, she has never sinned. When Marian is offered the incredible option of honorable marriage, she refuses; nor does she then sink into a premature grave, but lives peacefully on, for the sake of her son. It is only as a mother, and not as a ruined woman, that Marian approaches conventionality. In declining Romney's offer of marriage, she replies, "Here's a hand shall keep / For ever clean without a marriage-ring, / To tend my boy . . ." (IX. 431-433). No doubt the story of Marian Erle owed something to Mrs. Gaskell's Ruth (1853), but Barrett Browning's fallen heroine's fate far exceeds Mrs. Gaskell's for social realism and for sheer audacity. Furthermore, the astonishing facts are that Aurora Leigh appeared one year before William Acton's ground-breaking study Prostitution,20 six years before Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor,21 and almost thirty years before Stead's "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon." Her literary representation of Marian Erle was far ahead of its time.

Contemporary critics who disliked the characters of Aurora Leigh and Lady Waldemar adored Marian Erle, although they found her idealistic beliefs and elegant language to be out of synchrony with her lower-class background.22 The sentimental appeal of the guiltless sexual victim was perhaps irresistible. However, the unrelenting realism with which Barrett Browning articulated Marian's wrongs and alluded to the extent and horrors of English prostitution raised eyebrows among most conservative English readers. In describing these tabooed subjects in the most explicit language, Barrett Browning purposely defied both literary and social conventions. In her own defense, she explained, "If a woman ignores these wrongs, then may women as a sex continue to suffer them; there is no help for any of us—let us be dumb and die."23


Aurora Leigh believed in performance, rather than argument, as the way to prove the validity of women's God-given abilities and prerogatives (VIII. 813-846). Elizabeth Barrett Browning obviously shared this opinion, for Aurora Leigh was an incredibly wide-ranging and intense poetical production, for a poet of either sex. After Aurora Leigh, no subsequent poem of hers ever "caught the crowd"24 in quite the same way. The poetry she published between 1856 and her death in 1861 reached a certain level of sophistication appropriate to her age and experience, but by and large, it also lapsed back into tradition and conventionality in its characterization of women. With the achievement of Aurora Leigh, however, the continuing significance of her contribution to the literature of women was assured. The risk she had dared to take in defense of nineteenth-century womanhood was justified by the popular impact, if not by the critical reception, of her longest poem. Today, without even a hint of condescension, we may pronounce Aurora Leigh the nineteenth-century masterpiece among English poems written by and about women.


1 "Barrett Browning" seeps to be the most respectful shorthand version of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's name which will at the same time distinguish her from her husband.

2 See, for example, Helen Cooper, "Working into Light: Elizabeth Barrett Browning," in Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), pp. 65-81.

3 Barrett Browning published poetry in various ladies' giftbooks and annuals, as did most popular women writers of her day. Among these were Findens' Tableaux, Keepsake, The Amaranth, and The English Bijou Almanack. She wrote thoughtful poems upon the deaths of Felicia Hemans and Letitia Landon. In his biography of Barrett Browning, Gardner B. Taplin notes that she knew the writings of Mary Howitt and Caroline Norton; he also records an instance of her satisfaction with a copy of the Literary Souvenir, in 1826. See Gardner B. Taplin, The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957), pp. 128, 237, 411.

4 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Complete Works, ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1900), IV, 80-81, Book III, lines 68-79. Further citations from the poem will be from this edition and will be referred to by book and line number.

5 See my doctoral dissertation, "Representations of Women in the Work of Nineteenth-Century British Women Poets," Chapter X (University of Maryland, 1977).

6 See Taplin, pp. 310-13, 337-47, on the reception of Aurora Leigh.

7 Algernon C. Swinburne, "Introduction," Aurora Leigh (London, 1898), p. ix, quoted in Taplin, p. 310.

8The Letters of Elizabeth BarrettBrowning, ed. Frederic G. Kenyon (New York: Macmillan, 1898), II, 252.

9 Ibid., II, 253.

10 For a provocative Marxist-Feminist analysis of the poem, see Marxist-Feminist Literature Collective, "Women's Writing: 'Jane Eyre,' 'Shirley,' 'Villette,' 'Aurora Leigh'," in Eighteen-Forty-Eight: The Sociology of Literature, ed. Francis Barker, John Coombes, et. al., Proceedings of the Essex Conference on the Sociology of Literature, July 1977, pp. 185-206.

11 Barrett Browning had recognized and, to some extent, applauded this aspect of the character of George Sand, whom she very much admired. See the 1844 sonnets, "To George Sand: A Desire" and "To George Sand: A Recognition." The former opens, "Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man, / Self-called George Sand!" (II, 239). George Sand's novels are generally acknowledged as sources for Aurora Leigh.

12 Ellen Moers, Literary Women: The Great Writers (New York: Doubleday, 1977), p. 60.

13 Quoted in Moers, p. 310.

14 J. M. S. Tompkins, "Aurora Leigh," The Fawcett Lecture, 1961-62 (London: Bedford College, 1961); reviewed in Modern Language Review, 58 (October, 1963), 625-26.

15 Taplin, p. 320.

16 Alethea Hayter, Mrs. Browning: A Poet's Work andIts Setting (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1963), p. 171.

17 For this observation on Lady Howe, I am indebted to Elaine Ruth Harrington, "A Study of the Poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning," doctoral dissertation, New York University, 1977, p. 338.

18 W. T. Stead, "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon," a series of articles in the Pall Mall Gazette during July, 1885.

19 For London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. IV (see note 21 below).

20 William Acton, Prostitution (1857), ed. Peter Fryer (New York: Praeger, 1969).

21 Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the LondonPoor (1862); Vol. IV rpt. as London's Underworld, ed. Peter Quennell (London: Spring Books, 1957).

22 See Taplin, p. 341.

23 Barrett Browning, Letters, II, 254.

24 Ibid., II, 242.

Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi (essay date 1981)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Aurora Leigh: The Vocation of the Woman Poet," in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 35-48.

[In the essay that follows, Gelpi sees Aurora Leigh as a metaphorical investigation of Browning's changing attitudes toward herself her profession, and womanhood in general]

In recent years Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh has reemerged, after more than half a century of neglect, as a strikingly important Victorian poem, historically significant in its interaction with the works of other Victorian writers and immediately relevant in its depiction of a feminist consciousness. Cora Kaplan's essay on the poem uses the earlier insights of Ellen Moers and Patricia Thomson to bring both these aspects of the poem together.1 She demonstrates that the plot of Aurora Leigh, far from being a pastiche of those scenes and characters from other writers which had caught Barrett Browning's fancy, is in fact "an overlapping sequence of dialogues" with other texts. The borrowings from Madame de Staël, George Sand, Charlotte Brontë, Alfred Tennyson, and others give Barrett Browning the opportunity to comment, positively and negatively, on the responses of these writers to various aspects of Victorian society, including "the woman question," and to define her own ideas—coming in the process to feminist insights applicable and significant today.

Barrett Browning's witty and broad-ranging treatment of her society is marred only, Kaplan points out, by the intellectual and imaginative constriction in her presentation of the working class, particularly of working-class women. Her sentimental depiction of the poor seamstress Marian Earle shows Barrett Browning to be limited by class values which she accepts without question, even while questioning so much else in her society. The effectiveness of her feminist vision is thereby hampered both for her own day and for ours.

Except in terms of this social consciousness, Kaplan's excellent analysis only glances at Aurora Leigh as a reflection of Barrett Browning's sensibility. Yet the poem is a bildungsroman as well as a novel/poem of social concern: "I have put much of myself in it—I mean to say, of my soul, my thoughts, emotions, opinions; in other respects, there is not a personal line, of course," Barrett Browning wrote.2 Although no personal line comes through the plot, the images of the poem tell a separate story: not the public story of a woman poet living in Victorian society but the inner story of such a woman's feelings about herself, particularly about her femininity. In her concern for the poor, Barrett Browning seems to have been unaware of how much her thinking was narrowed by the presuppositions of her class, but when thinking about women, whether poor or affluent, she recognized very clearly the influence of a similar conditioning. That is, she saw women's central problem as the antifeminine biases they had themselves internalized. While telling Aurora's story, then, Barrett Browning is also describing the process by which she herself threw off those "mind-forg'd manacles," an underplot which unfolds primarily through the metaphorical language of the poem.

When Aurora Leigh was widely and enthusiastically read, its imagery was in the accepted judgment its chief drawback: "Mrs. Browning's greatest failure is her metaphors: some of them are excellent, but when they are bad—and they are often bad—they are very bad" ran the 1857 criticism of the Westminster Review. The3 critic then went on to give as his chief and best example of "a perfect shoal of mangled and pompous similes" a passage from Book I which describes a portrait of Aurora Leigh's mother. The portrait, Aurora explains, was painted after her Italian mother's death, which occurred when Aurora was four. In place of the shroud customary in such funerary portraits the mother was, at the insistence of her grieving maidservant, robed in her best red brocade. The resulting picture was a source of fascination yet also of terror to Aurora as she was growing up:

I mixed, confused, unconsciously,
Whatever I last read or heard or dreamed,
Abhorrent, admirable, beautiful,
Pathetical, or ghastly, or grotesque,
With still that face . . . which did not therefore change,
But kept the mystic level of all forms,
Hates, fears, and admirations, was by turns
Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite,
A dauntless Muse who eyes a dreadful Fate,
A loving Psyche who loses sight of Love,
A still Medusa with mild milky brows
All curdled and all clothed upon with snakes
Whose slime falls fast as sweat will; or anon
Our Lady of the Passion, stabbed with swords
Where the Babe sucked; or Lamia in her first
Moonlighted pallor, ere she shrunk and blinked
And shuddering wriggled down to the unclean;
Or my own mother, leaving her last smile
In her last kiss upon the baby-mouth
My father pushed down on the bed for that,—
Or my dead mother, without smile or kiss,
Buried at Florence.

(I. 147-168)4

Nothing that we learn about Aurora's mother either before or after this passage justifies the association with her of such negative figures as the Medusa or a Lamia. She is described as deeply and passionately loved by both her English husband and their child, a love just as deeply returned. One might consider the possibility that, ahead of her time, Barrett Browning realized the depths of irrational anger which a child—or even we adult, older children—have for a loved one who by dying has, as it were, abandoned us and so left us feeling as Aurora did:

I felt a mother-want about the world,
And still went seeking, like a bleating lamb
Left out at night in shutting up the fold.

(I. 40-42)

The images in these lines themselves suggest such a sense of betrayal on the lamb's part from the mother-shepherd who has, seemingly, deserted it. However, such an image contains none of the ferocity present in the Medusa passage. If Barrett Browning meant to argue for feelings as violent as those in the child's heart, she would be artistically obliged to explain them.

Nor can the Medusa passage be considered an eruptive autobiographical digression expressing Barrett Browning's feelings toward her own mother. Perhaps the most negative comment ever made by her about her mother was the description to Robert Browning of her mother's nature as "harrowed up into some furrows by the pressure of circumstances," and that seems more a comment on the unhappy effects of her father's dominating spirit than on the mother's hurt and narrowed one.5 Beside it too must be set these lines from Barrett Browning's personal diary, written when she was twenty-five, three years after her mother's death. They begin with what appears to be a remembrance of something said by Mrs. Barrett herself:

"You will never find another person who will love you as I love you"—And how I felt that to hear again the sound of those beloved, those ever ever beloved lips, I wd. barter all other sound & sights—that I wd. in joy & gratitude lay down before her my tastes & feelings each & all, in sacrifice for the love, the exceeding love which I never, in truth, can find again. Have I not tried this, & know this & felt this: & do I not feel now, bitterly, dessolately, that human love like her's, I never can find again!6

Thinking of the description of the portrait as applicable either to Aurora's fictional mother or Barrett Browning's real one only confuses interpretation. This strange piling up of ambivalent and paradoxical images—"angel" and "witch"; "loving Psyche" and "still Medusa"; Lamia as she "wriggled down to the unclean" and "my own mother, leaving her last smile / In her last kiss upon the baby-mouth"—is explicable within the context of the whole poem if we think of the portrait before which the young Aurora sits brooding not as the image of her mother but as the image to her of womanhood itself.7 The phrases thus interpreted describe the deep ambivalence she feels about being a woman. Central to their paradoxes is the thought that if as woman she is to be an artist, she will betray her role as mother; yet the mother in her will also in turn betray and transfix the artist. So the artist's "dauntless Muse" and "loving Psyche" will never find fulfillment, turned to stone by the "mild milky brows" of her mothering role. At the same time, the mother's reward for having suckled babes will be the swords of her unfulfilled artistic ambitions.

It is noteworthy that with the exception of Aurora's mother and of the faithful servant Assunta, whose appearances are very brief and early, and of Marian Earle, whose significance will appear later, there are no attractive women in Aurora Leigh. There is even something emulative, sycophantic, and therefore untrustworthy about Aurora's worshipping admirer Kate Ward, who "desires the model of my cloak, / And signs 'Elisha to you'" (III. 53-54). Aurora's difficulty in finding the companionship of women congenial may be the result in part of her mother's absence. From her mother, Aurora says explicitly, she might have imbibed a loving openness of spirit which her father's earnest concern for her could not replace: "Fathers love as well [as mothers] / —Mine did, I know,—but still with heavier brains, / . . . So mothers have God's license to be missed" (I. 60-64). Then also, the English aunt who takes over Aurora's education after her father's death is a cold, unloving woman, much concerned with Aurora's acquisition of "feminine" accomplishments yet harsh in her feelings towards women. "My father's sister was to me / My mother's hater," says Aurora (I. 359-360).

These apparently coincidental circumstances begin to seem part of a pattern when we realize that there are no other more appealing mothers or mother-surrogates in the poem. No matter what their social class, mothers are presented as cold, self-centered, and destructive. Marian Earle's father is a drunken wastrel and a wife-beater, but the child's experience of beating is from her mother: when beaten by her husband, "she turned / (The worm), and beat her baby in revenge" (III. 868-869). Even a mother-surrogate who makes a "cameo" appearance adds, in what seems to be her only function in the poem, yet another instance of womanly hardness of spirit toward other women. Marian goes to the aid of another seamstress, Lucy Gresham, dying of consumption. Aurora's cousin, Romney Leigh, enters the room after Lucy has died, at which Lucy's bedridden grandmother, taking him for the undertaker and fearing lest she be confused with the corpse, speaks these words of grief:

If Lucy here . . . sir, Lucy is the corpse . . .
Had worked more properly to buy me wine;
But Lucy, sir, was always slow at work,
I shan't lose much by Lucy.

(IV. 71-74)

One further quick example: Marian says of a woman who makes a white slave of her, selling her to French brothel-keepers, "('Twas only what my mother would have done) / A motherly, right damnable good turn" (VII. 9-10).

Lady Waldermar, the most significant villainess of the poem though not herself a mother, provides us with the most important further clues to the meaning behind the images describing Aurora's mother's portrait. The latter was in physical appearance made up of sharply contrasted red and white:

That swan-like supernatural white life
Just sailing upward from the red stiff silk
Which seemed to have no part in it nor power
To keep it from quite breaking out of bounds.

(I. 139-142)

Several books later, without alluding to the grotesque resemblance-in-difference, Aurora thus describes Lady Waldermar at a soirée:

The woman looked immortal. How they told,
Those alabaster shoulders and bare breasts,
On which the pearls, drowned out of sight in milk,
Were lost, excepting for the ruby clasp!
They split the amaranth velvet-bodice down
To the waist or nearly, with the audacious press
Of full-breathed beauty.

(V. 618-624)

In one description the white breast rising from the crimson bodice becomes an image of heavenly aspiration in the other of worldly enfleshment; yet the images, just as images, are striking in their similarity.

Again, when Aurora hears from Marian Earle of Lady Waldemar's role in preventing Marian's marriage to Romney Leigh, the epithets with which Aurora mentally describes her dwell continually, obsessively, on the image of a Lamia: "that woman-serpent" (VI. 1103); "The Lamia-woman" (VII. 152); "Lamia! shut the shutters, bar the doors / From every glimmer on thy serpent-skin!" (VII. 170-171). These are only a few examples; they recur with virtually every allusion to Lady Waldemar from this point in the story.

Indeed, Aurora "over-reacts" to Lady Waldemar's villainy, taking it for granted, for instance, that Lady Waldemar planned for Marian a journey which would end not in Australia but in a brothel—a suspicion later shown to be untrue (IX. 84-92). Her vehemence betrays Aurora as being in what C. G. Jung would call a "shadow relationship"8 with Lady Waldemar: that is, some of Lady Waldemar's attitudes and reactions are uncomfortably and unadmittably close to Aurora's own. When she blames Lady Waldemar for persuading Marian Earle to flee from marriage, she seems to have forgotten the words of Marian's farewell letter to Romney. In it Marian mentions Lady Waldemar's nine or ten visits but makes even more significant the single visit from Aurora: "ever since / I've pondered much a certain thing she asked . . . / 'He loves you, Marian?'" (IV. 944-946). Thinking of Lady Waldemar as the "shadow" aspect of Aurora's own psyche gives added significance to Lady Waldemar's parting words. In her farewell letter to Aurora she sneers at women poets as capable of scattered fine thoughts but wanting "string to tie our flowers" (IX. 59). She continues, "Male poets are preferable, straining less / And teaching more" (IX. 65-66). Hers is the voice of Aurora's own self-distrust, the disabling faithlessness of the inner oppressor.9

To recapitulate then: The portrait of Aurora's mother, not as it looks in fact (that, of course, is unknowable) but as in Aurora's imagination it appears, mirrors her ambivalence toward femininity itself. This ambivalence means that as a woman she "but slenderly knows herself," thus unwittingly causing both herself and others great pain and leading her to share, albeit unconsciously, in the very circle of woman-evil she wishes to avoid.

Because of her divided attitude toward being a woman, Aurora cannot recognize her own love for Romney—although other women in the poem, good and bad, know her feelings (IX. 685-687). Instead, she turns away from painful ambivalence by becoming identified with masculinity, a process in which Romney figures with importance yet with another kind of ambivalence. We must take it as highly significant not only that Romney is a first cousin who bears the same name but that he looks like Aurora: "Your droop of eyelid is the same as his," writes Lady Waldemar contemptuously (IX. 163); "Your cousin!—ah, most like you!" (IV. 939) is Marian's comment. Remembering Barrett Browning's love for her younger brother Edward, we might take the counsinship to be both vehicle for and bar to fantasies of incest. Without discounting that actual relationship as the creative source for Aurora's imagined one, I would suggest that the resemblance and relationship between them are significant in that they make of Romney Aurora's "alter ego," the brother in her soul. That thought was expressed as long ago as 1861 by J. Challen in the National Quarterly Review, who noted that "The whole of the interest of the story consists in the intellectual and moral development of two personages, both of whom are projections of Mrs. Browning's own nature" (Works, IV, 231), but the idea has had little subsequent exploration. Seeing Romney and Aurora in this way, as the dual expression of a single though ambivalent mind, provides a different, interiorized plot to the poem.

On Aurora's twentieth birthday Romney catches her as she is crowning herself with ivy leaves in a daydream of poetic success. He teases her and makes light of her capabilities, not only because he thinks little of the worth of poetry but because he believes that she as a woman can never write poetry of the first order. Then (with the worst possible sense of timing) he asks that she devote her life instead to helping him, as his wife, in the philanthropical works he thinks truly significant. In the verbal sparring between them which surrounds Romney's clumsy proposal, her subsequent refusal, and her departure for London, the metaphors used clearly show Aurora's identification with the masculine. Yet because her womanhood can never be completely denied or forgotten, the metaphors also blend and blur masculinity and femininity.

In thinking about herself as a poet, for instance, Aurora imagines herself as the effeminately beautiful young Trojan prince, Ganymede, whom Zeus's eagle carried up to Olympus to serve as cup-bearer. The cup of her poetry becomes in the image a masculine not a feminine instrument giving pleasure to the effeminized mouths of the gods, as she keeps "the mouths of all the godheads moist / For everlasting laughters" (I. 924-925).

Again, belief in herself as a poet leads Aurora to escape when possible from her conventional life as an English young lady and see herself as a deer—but a stag, not a doe: "I threw my hunters off and plunged myself / Among the deep hills, as a hunted stag / Will take the waters" (I. 1071-73). There are too many such examples to cite them all, but consider the complex image with which Aurora describes her father's instruction to her in the classic languages. She compares her situation to that of the young Achilles when his mother, Thetis the sea-nymph, hid him in women's clothing among the maidens at the court of Lycomedes so that he might not be called to serve in the Trojan War. He was wrapped in women's garments through a mother's agency, Aurora in man's through a father's:

And thus, as did the women formerly
By young Achilles, when they pinned a veil
Across the boy's audacious front, and swept
With tuneful laughs the silver-fretted rocks,
He wrapt his little daughter in his large
Man's doublet, careless did it fit or no.

(I. 723-728)

The poor "fit" of the doublet creates two problems. First of all, dividing as it does her sense of a self which is learned, poetic, and masculine from a self that is social, visible, and feminine, the masculine identification tends to exacerbate the very ambivalence toward the feminine which it promised to circumvent. Worse still, the doublet becomes a shirt of Nessus (if I may myself be allowed a metaphor) since it involves identification not only with learning and poetic power seen as male prerogatives but with all male attitudes, including male derogation of the feminine. So the sense of herself as masculine, which she feels she needs in order to think seriously of herself as a poet, becomes the sense also which eats into the flesh of her self-esteem. She is manlike (according to the culture's associations with masculinity) in some respects but not, after all, a man, just as Achilles was not a woman. Yet through cultural conditioning she shares men's feelings that men are inherently superior to women.

Thus in their first quarrel Romney's questioning of her powers is in fact only an expression, a projection of her own divided feelings about herself. We know Romney only through Aurora's consciousness of him, and at this point in their relationship he functions for her as the intellectual Charles Tansley does for Lily Briscoe in Virginia Woolf s To the Lighthouse: a voice in her head repeating, "Women can't write. Women can't paint." Or, to phrase the thought in Romney's image: "When Egypt's slain, I say, let Miriam sing! / Before—where's Moses?" (II. 171-172). A few lines later he repeats the idea more explicitly:

Women as you are,
Mere women, personal and passionate,
You give us doating mothers, and perfect wives,
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you,—and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind.

(II. 220-225)

To the Aurora who, as we have seen in the images just discussed, passionately identifies with male power and male leadership, and turns shuddering away from "doating mothers" and "perfect wives," Romney could find no bitterer terms than those which deny her any likeness to a Moses or a Christ. Her answering strategy is to use images that sneeringly feminize him. When she learns from her aunt after she has rejected Romney's proposal that in fact Romney agreed to an arrangement made years before between her father and his that the cousins marry in order to preserve for Aurora a share in the family fortune, she feels no gratitude. She enjoys instead seeing him in the situation of one of the most helpless women in mythology, the maiden Iphigenia sacrificed at Aulis so that the winds might blow her father's ships to Troy. Aurora herself becomes powerful and dominant (and therefore male), contemptuously ordering not death but release:

Ah, self-tied
By a contract, male Iphigenia bound
At a fatal Aulis for the winds to change
(But loose him, they'll not change).

(II. 778-781)

As she leaves for London, Romney writes one last appeal, bungling matters as hopelessly—or as stubbornly—as ever by seeing her still as his feminine "angel in the house":

Write woman's verses and dream woman's dreams;
But let me feel your perfume in my home
To make my sabbath after working-days.

(II. 831-833)

The Keatsian synesthesia of his "let me feel your perfume" gives her the retort she needs. In an image reminiscent of that which describes the virginal Madeline of "The Eve of St. Agnes"—"Clasp'd like a missal where swart Paynims pray"—Aurora writes back to Romney:

I know your heart,
And shut it like the holy book it is,
Reserved for mild-eyed saints to pore upon
Betwixt their prayers at vespers.

(II. 836-839)

Her image makes him one in spirit and kind with the angel-wife he has described and transforms her into a Byronic worldling with a heart of gold who resists attempting the angel's seduction.

In the short run this reversal of roles is a satisfying vent for anger. The difficulty at its center lies in the fact that by feeling the lofty kindness mixed with contempt typical of a masculine cavalier toward a Romney whom she has made feminine and passive, she shares in the very derogation of the feminine which she justly resents. She cannot really win that way either. By the end of the second book of the poem, in fact, we can see—and the images underline the fact—that her male identification has led her to scorn women and has cut her off as well from the possibility of loving a man.

The plot of this verse novel is blocked out in the traditional form of introduction, rising action, turning point or crisis, falling action, climax, and resolution. Near the center of the poem comes the critical insight which will show her the way through the psychic impasse just described. At what was to be his wedding, as Romney lamely attempts to explain Marian's nonappearance to an angry mob of paupers and instead rouses them to attack him, Aurora suddenly "sees":

with a cry
I struggled to precipitate myself
Head-foremost to the rescue of my soul
In that white face.

(IV. 873-876)

Interestingly, just before that moment, Romney is described for the first time in strongly masculine terms as standing his ground "with his masterful pale face,—/ As huntsmen throw the ration to the pack" (IV. 850-851). The image, coming where it does, suggests that the conscious recognition of how deeply she is identified with Romney, how much, that is, she has internalized masculine values, makes it possible for Aurora to return his masculinity to him as something which, so to speak, they share. The same consciousness, though, brings the first glimmering sense of how much her femininity suffers from this identification, an awareness which will make eventually possible her reconciliation with her own womanhood. But first the glimmer must grow. She must see how negative a force the "Romney-in-her-mind" is to her poetic gift. In the long meditation on art which begins the fifth book, Aurora chides herself as "womanish" for her dependence on Romney's good opinion of her and comes in the process to see that her image of her poetic power as a masculine figure is the source also of her self-doubt. She describes that image with the word used earlier of Romney, "my soul":

But I am sad:
I cannot thoroughly love a work of mine,
Since none seems worthy of my thought and hope
More highly mated. He has shot them down,
My Phoebus Apollo, soul within my soul,
Who judges, by the attempted, what's attained,
And with the silver arrow from his height
Has struck down all my works before my face
While I said nothing. Is there aught to say?
I called the artist but a greatened man.
He may be childless also, like a man.

(V. 410-420)

"Epipsychidion"—"soul within my soul"—the phrase which for Shelley signified union with a feminine Muse leading to the rapturous artistic fertility which is the concluding vision of his poem—is for Aurora a sterile union because she can think of any artist, herself included, only as a man. Her first use of the word "man" in the lines just quoted seems generic, but the second, emphasizing as it does the humanly biological, shifts its meaning subtly to give the impression that real poets are in fact men. That niggling thought sterilizes her imagination.

The next important stage in Aurora's process of self-understanding is described not through images but in overt action and statement, consistent with the increasing clarification she experiences. After she has heard Marian's pathetic story of being sold to a brothel and there raped, angry at herself for the mental judgments she has been making about Marian's illegitimate child, Aurora embraces her. She uses a significant phrase to describe the moment: "I . . . / With woman's passion clung about her waist / And kissed her hair and eyes" (VI. 778-780, my italics). And as she asks Marian to accompany her to Italy, she calls her a friend. Together they will be "two mothers" to the child (VII. 124). Thus, her identification with Marian as woman both in the sexual humiliation Marian has endured and in the ecstatic joy of motherhood she has experienced reconciles Aurora more than ever before in the poem to her own womanhood. The incident has another significance as well in what Barrett Browning calls the "double action" of the poem.10 It is the first instance in which we see the imaginative Aurora involved in the physical care of a fellow human being, while just at this time, we learn later, the actively charitable Romney lies quiet for the first time, listening to and deeply moved by Aurora's poetry. The split between "masculine" activity and "feminine" spiritual insight is disappearing.

The new advance in Aurora's acceptance of womanhood brings with it a virtually simultaneous recognition of her true feeling for Romney, but a recognition mingled with despair at the belief that she has lost him to the villainous Lady Waldemar. Broken in spirit, she is still enough the old Aurora to despise her tears as womanish; yet even this thought brings with it a sudden understanding of the problem described earlier with so many obscure images: "It seems as if I had a man in me, / Despising such a woman" (VII. 212-213). Previously her sense of this internal man's contempt had made all her struggles to act creatively seem petty and useless. Open recognition of his presence makes it possible for her to use him—in this case to act in making Marian's true history known to Romney:

If, as I have just now said,
A man's within me,—let him act himself,
Ignoring the poor conscious trouble of blood
That's called the woman merely.

(VII. 229-232)

It remains for these new insights to permeate, inform, and metamorphose her sense of herself as an artist, yeast in the loaf. Their effects become visible in Aurora's culminating meditations in Book VII on the meaning of art. The terms of her ideas themselves are deeply neoplatonic, but explication of them, while important to any consideration of Barrett Browning's aesthetic theory, is not relevant to the theme I have been tracing. What is significant in that connection, however, is the image Aurora associates with the artist both at the beginning and at the end of the passage on artistic endeavor. She sees the artist, she sees herself as an artist, no longer as boyish Ganymede plucked up by Jove's eagle, but as Io, the young girl whom Jove transformed into a heifer to hide her from a suspicious Juno. The myth usually describes Juno, not fooled for a moment, as the deity who sends a gadfly to pursue Io. Aurora, interestingly, associates the gadfly instead with Jove as another version of the tormenting yet activating "man within." The artist's sense of truth hounds her, she says:

As Jove did Io; and, until that Hand
Shall overtake me wholly and on my head
Lay down its large unfluctuating peace,
The feverish gad-fly pricks me up and down.

(VII. 830-833)

The final reconciliation with her womanhood comes in a Florentine church as she watches the women—of course they are women, she notes—praying. A detached observer, male or at least asexual in that she is detached from these women worshippers, she sees a hunchbacked spinster, a young girl, an old woman. Out of the confused and drab lives of these "poor blind souls," she muses, God must somehow bring salvation. Then a sudden jolting recognition interrupts these thoughts in which she as artist hobnobs with God, as it were, about the spiritual condition of beings very different from herself. She has described the women as young ravens who "cry for carrion." There comes a break in the line, and she exclaims:

O my God,
And we, who make excuses for the rest,
We do it in our measure. Then I knelt,
And dropped my head upon the pavement too,
And prayed, since I was foolish in desire
Like other creatures, craving offal-food,
That He would stop His ears to what I said,
And only listen to the run and beat
Of this poor, passionate, helpless blood And then
I lay, and spoke not: but He heard in heaven.

(VII. 1263-72)

If I may skip ahead for a moment, I believe that these lines offer the true explication for the famous statement near the conclusion, "Art is much, but Love is more!" (IX. 656), which is often interpreted as Aurora's utter capitulation and retreat into Victorian domesticity as the angel in Romney's house. I believe Barrett Browning's point rather is that although the artist—here the literary artist—uses words and forms them into images, "the deep truth is imageless," and her response to that truth as a human can only be wordless. Her thought is one put in other terms by T. S. Eliot when he writes in Four Quartets: "The poetry does not matter." Neither Eliot nor Barrett Browning, of course, is denying the worth of the struggle to express artistically the vision of life which each holds true, but they both believe that vision to transcend any possible expression of it.

The silence of the moment in the church lengthens out, becomes a period for which Jungians could use the alchemical term "nigredo"—a blackening, a deliquescence and decomposition of materials in the alembic whose conclusion seems annihilation but is actually metamorphosis. Barrett Browning's image carries the same thought as she describes "quickening glooms" in which Aurora sits, not reading, writing, or even thinking, "Most like some passive broken lump of salt / Dropped in by chance to a bowl of oenomel" (VII. 1308-09).

In that state of dissolution, the speck of salt drowned in the honey-drink, she gazes out one evening on what in one sense is the city of Florence spread out beneath her but is more truly the vision of her own inner depths, seeing "some drowned city in some enchanted sea, / Cut off from nature" (VIII. 38-39). There her quickening imagination spies "the man within" but in a new form:

a sea-king with a voice of waves,
And treacherous soft eyes, and slippery locks
You cannot kiss but you shall bring away
Their salt upon your lips.

(VIII. 41-44)

Not Phoebus Apollo now with his arrow of judgment to annihilate her work, nor Jove to goad yet mock her with unfulfillable fantasies of power, but a force through which she can explore her own inner deeps—that is what he has become. All his negative qualities seem to have vanished save for the treachery in his "soft eyes" and the slipperiness of a presence no sooner promised than withdrawn.

Then Romney Leigh appears on her balcony: "the sea king! In my ears / The sound of waters. There he stood, my king!" (VIII. 60-61). He is hers, and he is blind.

But why? Why did Barrett Browning feel that Romney must be blinded? An exhaustive answer to that question would demand an essay of its own, involving as it does a number of fictitious Victorian gentlemen blinded and often maimed as well by their feminine creators to the unease of Victorian reviewers and the horror of later Freudian critics.11 Barrett Browning's ladylike but implacable response to remonstrance on the subject, "He had to be blinded, observe, to be made to see . . . I am sorry, but indeed it seemed necessary,"12 is not a particularly enlightening answer, since Aurora too comes to "see" herself and others very much better in the course of the poem but is physically unscathed in the process.

Many difficulties involving the justice meted out to Romney as a fictional personality become irrelevant, however, if we continue to think of him as a projection of the man within Aurora and thus a vehicle for Barrett Browning's extended meditation on the experience of being both woman and artist. In these terms, the answer to why the sea-king's soft eyes are "treacherous" will also explain why Romney must be blinded. And surely that answer lies in an association between the sea-king's eyes and the eyes of Phoebus Apollo which aim his "silver arrow" of judgmental criticism. Blinded, the sea-king/Romney is not castrated or weakened; on the contrary, he is a far more effective because an undivided source of poetic power.

Up to this point in the poem the "man within" had been essentially Aurora's critic and thus an aspect of that self-distrust which Barrett Browning sees as the principal barrier to women's achievement.13 When she has Aurora complain of the prating about "women's rights" and "women's mission," she is speaking to this point, not rebuking feminist effort; a woman's lack of faith in herself—"she must prove what she can do / Before she does it" (VIII. 818-819)—makes her talk rather than act, stultifying her creative élan.

As Aurora comes to love and trust her own womanhood, Romney, no longer a critic, becomes a Muse. As such he is the dramatic projection of that faith in self-blind faith if you will—and self-acceptance which underlie all true creativity, whether in the arts, in social endeavor, or in human interaction. Aurora's creative gift and Romney's belief in it form "Love, the soul of soul, within the soul, / Evolving it sublimely" (IX. 880-881). Their reunion on the starlit balcony is not a prelude to a life of Victorian domesticity with the roles amusingly reversed, she the worker, Romney the loving helpmate; much less is it an idealized version of the Brownings' romance. "They," Aurora and Romney, are the united spirit of a creative woman at last trustful of her power.


1 Ellen Moers, Literary Women (Garden City, N. J., 1976), pp. 55-62; Patricia Thomson, George Sand and the Victorians (London, 1977), pp. 54-60; Cora Kaplan, "Introduction," Aurora Leigh and Other Poems (London, 1978), pp. 5-36.

2The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Frederic G. Kenyon (London, 1897), II, 228.

3 Rpt. in The Complete Works of Mrs.E. B. Browning, Arno edition, ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke (New York, 1901), IV, 206. Ellen Moers compares the "jumble of metaphors in Aurora Leigh" to "the clutter of objects on a Victorian table top" (Literary Women, p. 62).

4 All citations from Aurora Leigh are taken from Volumes IV and V of the Arno edition, hereafter cited as Works. Roman numerals refer to the nine books of the poem, Arabic to the line numbers.

5 Barrett's words are "Scarcely was I woman when I lost my mother—dearest as she was & very tender,. . . but of a nature harrowed up into some furrows by the pressure of circumstances.... A sweet, gentle nature, which the thunder a little turned from its sweetness—as when it turns milk—One of those women who never can resist,—but, in submitting & bowing on themselves, make a mark, a plait, within,... a sign of suffering" (The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett 1845-1846, ed. Elvan Kintner [Harvard Univ. Press, 1969], II, 1012).

6The Barretts at Hope End: The Early Diary of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Elizabeth Berridge (London, 1974), p. 137.

7 Kaplan has a similar thought when she describes the portrait as "the representation of women in western culture" (Aurora Leigh, p. 20), but does not explain the ambivalent images.

8 C. G. Jung, "The Shadow," Aion: Researches intothe Phenomenology of the Self (Princeton Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 8-10.

9 The thought is close to Barrett Browning's "secret profession of faith" made to Robert Browning in July, 1845, but is not, given my interpretation of Aurora Leigh, to be taken as her final opinion: "There is a natural inferiority of mind in women—of the intellect .. . not by any means, of the moral nature" (Letters, ed. Kintner, I, 113).

10Letters, ed. Kenyon, II, 243.

11 One of her reviewers, for instance, murmured, "We think the lavish mutilation of heroes' bodies, which has become the habit of novelists, while it happily does not represent probabilities in the present state of things, weakens instead of strengthening tragic effect" (Works, IV, 204). The best-known modern statement of distress over the Victorian literary women's imaginary violence toward their heroes is Richard Chase's essay, "The Brontës, or Myth Domesticated," in Forms of Modern Fiction, ed. William Van O'Connor (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1948), pp. 102-119. For a reconsideration of the meaning of the motif, cf. Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), p. 150.

12Letters, ed. Kenyon, II, 242.

13 I am grateful to Sandra Donaldson, whose comments on an earlier version of this essay helped me to clarify this point. The Madwoman in the Attic (Yale Univ. Press, 1979) was published while this paper was in press, and so I could not incorporate the fine ideas of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar about Aurora Leigh.

Dorothy Mermin (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "Genre and Gender in Aurora Leigh, in The Victorian Newsletter, No. 69, Spring, 1986, pp. 7-11.

[In this essay, Mermin contends that Aurora Leigh transgresses the distinction between poetry and fiction, and between males and females, claiming that the "novel in verse" ends "with an assertion of the primacy of poetry's world and values over the novel's, and of women over men. "]

Elizabeth Barrett Browning devoured novels voraciously and indiscriminately, especially French ones of a kind that a respectable Englishwoman could hardly admit to knowing. In novels she found some of the experience of life that her sex and seclusion had denied her, and that she felt she needed to give color and reality both to her life and to her art. She was thinking of prose fiction in these terms in 1845 when she described the project that was to issue twelve years later as Aurora Leigh. "My chief intention just now," she said, "is the writing of a sort of novel-poem . . . running into the midst of our conventions, & rushing into drawing-rooms & the like, 'where angels fear to tread'; & so, meeting face to face & without mask the Humanity of the age, & speaking the truth as I conceive of it, out plainly" (Letters, ed. Kintner, 1:31).

Of all the important Victorian long poems, Aurora Leigh is the only "novel-poem," or novel in verse. Arthur Hugh Clough in exuberant youth and Robert Browning late in his career wrote what might be called long short stories—The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich, Red-Cotton Night-Cap Country, The Inn Album—but these are not really much like novels. Unlike other long Victorian poems, Aurora Leigh is a continuous story told retrospectively by a single speaker, with a contemporary setting and a thoroughly novelistic plot—that of the bildungsroman, or more specifically the kunstlerroman—much of which in fact is borrowed from other novels. Like a Victorian novel, it is deeply attentive to characterization and to the development of character and of relationships through time; it is analytic and satirical in its presentation of society, rushing not only into drawing-rooms but into slums and brothels as well, and running more fearlessly than an angel into immediate questions of political philosophy and social reform with which contemporary novelists were also very much concerned. But its heightened feeling and language, especially its elaborate metaphors and ostentatious epic similes, are deeply and often obtrusively "poetical."

Aurora herself insists that genre—or form—does not matter:

What form is best for poems? Let me think
Of forms less, and the external. Trust the spirit,
As sovran nature does, to make the form;
For otherwise we only imprison spirit
And not embody. Inward evermore
To outward,—so in life, and so in art
Which still is life.

(V. 223-229)

A play, she says, should have as many acts as it needs—fifteen, perhaps, or ten, or seven (V. 229-239). She would not think the work in which she herself appears disqualified for epic status by having only nine books. Such disdain for genre rules was common in the nineteenth century: the Victorians wrote poems in all sorts of strange and nameless forms without worrying about how to define them. Generically, Aurora Leigh was only one anomaly among many, but it was a peculiarly bold one.

Early readers of Aurora Leigh, like many later ones, were deeply struck and also, often, profoundly disturbed by its transgressions, in particular by its apparent violations of two boundaries: between poetry and fiction, and between masculine and feminine—the boundaries, that is, of genre, and of gender. Reviewers distinguished between poetic and novelistic aspects, regardless of whether or not they approved of the mixture or of which parts they preferred; some admired the intensely poetical sections which others found strained and excessive, while some liked the pathos, or the social satire. Many found large parts of it beneath the dignity of verse. The Athenaeum sympathetically recognized it as something difficult to assess, because unprecedented: "we have no experience of such a mingling of what is precious with what is mean—of the voice of clarion and the lyric cadence of harp with the cracked schoolroom spinet—of tears and small-talk—of eloquent apostrophe and adust speculation—of the grandeur of passion and the pettiness of modes and manners—as we find in these nine books of blank verse. Milton's organ is put by Mrs. Browning to play polkas in May-Fair drawing-rooms" (1425).

Milton's organ (by which expressive phrase the reviewer means, of course, that exclusively male form the epic) in a lady's drawing-room—transgressions of genre and gender go together, as Tennyson showed when he symbolized the relations of men and women in The Princess by the juxtaposition of narrative and lyric. (In The Princess, however, the two elements meet but do not mingle.) The blurring of sexual boundaries in Aurora Leigh was remarked by reviewers with varying degrees of pleasure or distress. It was a matter not just of plot or setting or character, but of the gender characteristics of the poem as a whole. Leigh Hunt saw a wonderful mixture of "masculine power and feminine tenderness' in it (739), and George Eliot made the same point more fully: Mrs. Browning, she said, "is, perhaps, the first woman who has produced a work which exhibits all the peculiar powers without the negations of her sex; which superadds to masculine vigour, breadth, and culture, feminine subtlety of perception, feminine quickness of sensibility, and feminine tenderness" (306). Others, however, while equally excited, were less pleased. A reviewer for the Westminster Review complained that the poet used to "prove her manhood" by the coarseness of her language and an "ostentation of strength" (401, 400). Several thought Aurora herself disagreeably unwomanly. They found transgressions of other boundaries, too: between the "universal element" and "the peculiarities of our time," and between the beautiful and the repulsive (Everett 441, 423) as well as in mixed metaphors, in lines written by a woman not fit for women to read, and, in general, in sins against taste and decorum that crossed the boundary between literature and parts of life that could not be written about. (There are others, too: the fact that Aurora's name after marriage to Romney Leigh will still be Aurora Leigh, for instance, eradicates the line between daughter and wife; Marian is sexually violated and yet remains pure, mother and maid at once; and Virginia Woolf heard the author's voice too clearly in the poem and found, as one might with many poets of mid-century, that her life impinges too much on her art (222).

Transgressions of genre and of gender in Aurora Leigh, along with the lesser transgressions that these subsume, are linked as interrelated parts of Barrett Browning's attempt to remake the structures she had inherited from male predecessors in order to create a place for herself. Victorian women poets tended to use narrative or a narrative frame whenever they wanted to express feelings, ideas, or relationships that did not fit the conventions and implied narrative contexts of poetic tradition. Emily Brontë's strange and violent lyrics spring from the Gondal story and are often inexplicable without it. Christina Rossetti seems in her religious and amatory short lyrics to be expressing only the kinds of experience—yearning, resignation, renunciation, self-repression, and so on in that dreary litany of sorrow—appropriate to female figures in nineteenth-century poetry; she put her rebellious or radically unconventional feelings about sexuality and the relations between the sexes into narratives like "Goblin Market" and "The Prince's Progress," which give quite unexpected contexts and meanings to the feelings expressed in the lyrics. Barrett Browning's early explorations of woman's lot and of her own unconscious feelings come mostly in the form of ballads or strange, dream-like narratives: lyric would not accommodate them. She expresses a mother's murderous ambivalence towards her baby, for instance, not in lyric—simply as lyric, it would have been incomprehensible and shocking, and therefore inexpressible—but in a long dramatic monologue that justifies the feeling with a narrative context of slavery, rape, and racial difference. By turning not just to narrative but to the novel, furthermore, she could escape the dominance of male forerunners and place herself in a powerful female tradition. Once she had said of the English poets, "I look everywhere for grandmothers and see none" (Letters, ed. Kenyon, 1: 232): but the family resemblances between Aurora Leigh and Corinne, Consuelo, and Jane Eyre, or between Marian Erle and Mrs. Gaskell's Ruth—aunts and cousins at least, if not grandmothers—suggests similar relationships among their authors, even if Barrett Browning herself did not care to acknowledge them.

The contemporary life in which the poem is set, furthermore, offered Barrett Browning a world that seemed uniquely rich in opportunities for a woman poet. Her male contemporaries, oppressed by a sense of belatedness, did not find it so. Arthur Hallam, for instance, thought the nineteenth century a late and tired time for poetry—the nation was hostile to "the poetic impulse," he said, and so poets were inevitably melancholy and withdrawn (189, 190). Matthew Arnold exhorted his friend Clough to reflect on "how deeply unpoetical the age and all one's surroundings are. Not unprofound, not ungrand, not unmoving:—but unpoetical" (99). Dante Gabriel Rossetti told William Morris that it was better to paint pictures than write poems, because the poetry "'has all been said and written'" (Mackail 1: 110). Romney Leigh (whose function is to represent the male viewpoint, although not a poet's) speaks in a similar vein of "the world we've come to late," "swollen hard / With generations perished of their sins" (II. 160, 263). The Idylls of the King and The Ring and the Book are set far in the past, well away from Victorian England. Maud, Modern Love and Amours de Voyage uneasily test out poetic attitudes in contemporary, novelistic settings which make them look ineffectual and silly—unlike Aurora Leigh, in which juxtapositions of lyric intensity and modern daily life are not intended (whatever their effect may be) to play off against or diminish each other. But for women poets there was no lost heroic age to be regretted, no female tradition that could make a modern women's poetry look inadequate or out of place. On the contrary: when Elizabeth Barrett was a child she intended to become (as she put it later) "the feminine of Homer" (The Brownings' Correspondence 1: 361), the first and greatest of women poets—and although she soon learned to moderate this ambition, it seemed to many people even before Aurora Leigh was published, and still more afterwards, that she had achieved it. Aurora herself sets out to prove that women can be poets (II. 1181-1187), and before the poem ends she has done so. She is Aurora, the dawn of a new era.

Elizabeth Barrett's problem from the very beginning had been to find an epic subject that would accommodate a female hero, and this too led her to value her own times. While male poets were finding heroes, if at all, in the past (Thackeray wrote his great novel of nineteenth-century England explicitly without one), Elizabeth Barrett had looked backwards and seen no more female heroes than poetic grandmothers. The Battle of Marathon, published when she was fourteen, is an Homeric epic about male warriors, with no women in it except goddesses and a few Athenian "matrons" who only get in the way of the action and are quickly disposed of. Her next long poem, The Seraphim, evades the issue by having no human characters at all, dramatizing the crucifixion through the conversation of a couple of angels. A Drama of Exile does find a heroine, but only by going through and beyond Milton all the way back to the first woman and presenting the fall and its aftermath from the point of view of Eve—who can be heroic, unfortunately only through her repentance and her ability to suffer. Barrett Browning also wrote ballad-narratives, but Aurora Leigh scornfully describes women in the ballad world as "half chattel and half queen" (as they are in her author's ballads and also, we might add, in the poems by Tennyson and Browning that are set in a similar world: despite Browning's poetical woman-worship and exemplary behavior to his wife, or Tennyson's somewhat feminized heroes, their poems—even The Princess, in the end—rigidly adhere to conventional gender roles for women; imagine a female knight in Tennyson's Camelot, where "work" is represented only as fighting battles, or a Pompilia who can write). There are no happy endings for women—no attainment of power, work, or even love—in Barrett Browning's narratives until "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," when she finally arrives (and she was almost forty years old by then) in modern times.

Male poets resisted with varying degrees of firmness critics' frequent injunctions to write on modern subjects. Matthew Arnold in sheer perverseness went so far as to compose a shamelessly ersatz Greek tragedy. Browning wrote two long narratives with contemporary settings, Red Cotton Night-Cap Country and The Inn Album, but they show a world in which all attempts at heroism turn out to be foolish, useless, and perverse. But Aurora Leigh joyfully declares that poetry is still possible, that even Homer's heroes were only men, that all men (by which word, as usual, she means women) are possible heroes, and that every age can be heroic (V. 146-153). Poets'

sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne's,—this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights at Roncesvalles.

(V. 202-207)

In drawing rooms, of course, there are women. Aurora Leigh is the "unscrupulously epic" (in Aurora's words [V.214]—"unscrupulous" because it does not respect prescribed boundaries) culmination of Barrett Browning's epic ambitions.

The novelistic form did more than replace the epic structures that had excluded women. It offered a way to explore a woman poet's place both in the world and—a more subtle, interesting, and important matter—in poems. As poet, Aurora is conceived by herself and others in various discrepant ways: as the Muse (III.363; V.796) and antithetically as Danae impregnated by Jove, as the mother of works which have died in embryo (III.247-248) or been killed like Niobe's children. But muses don't write, and mothers as nineteenth-century women poets see them don't either. In a gloomy moment she thinks of herself as Niobe (in contradistinction to Pygmalion): her poems are not separate creations like Pygmalion's Galatea but are born like a woman's children from her own flesh—her children, parts of herself—and unlike Pygmalion she cannot satisfy with art her need for love. Often she is thought of (in the common Victorian habit, railed at by some poets, practiced by almost all) as herself a work of art: a book that others "dog-ear" (V. 1054) or refuse to read. She both speaks and is the poem whose name is also her own, and she spends a lot of time trying to distinguish between her poems and herself.

Barrett Browning works out the question of a woman poet's place within poems, however—as informing intelligence and speaking subject rather than object and other—mostly in terms of Aurora's relations with the kinds of female figures who normally appear in nineteenth-century poems by men but could not themselves be poets or epic protagonists. There is no natural place in a poem for a woman like Aurora unless she chooses either to exist simply as the object of male desire, essentially speechless (which is what Romney proposes early on), or—if she wants to speak—to speak only her unapparently unrequited love. She refuses to take those places: she sends Romney away and doesn't acknowledge her love—that is, doesn't speak it except by indirection—until nearly the end of the story. Her predecessors come from novels, not poems; they are Corinne and Jane Eyre. And yet she is in a poem, not in a novel, and like her creator she is a poet. What, then, is her relation to the kind of women who do inhabit poems, appearing in them as erotic object, or mysterious Other? This is perhaps the central problem that the poem has to work out, and her relations to women are therefore exceptionally intense.

Are they possible selves, since she's a woman too? Or objects of desire, since she's the poet? She experiences men as belonging to the world of what Myra Jehlen calls exteriority (596, 598) and describes them coolly, usually satirically—even her father, even Romney; but the female characters have an almost mythic depth and intensity and arouse her strongest, most complex feelings. Aurora is looking for a mother in relation to whom she might find her place and her identity: in the tradition of women's bildungsromanen, the poem traces the heroine's attempt to return to the pre-Oedipal maternal world figured by nature. Of her own dead mother she has only the recollection of a few words spoken to her—"Hush, hush—here's too much noise" ([I.17] a legacy that would preclude for a girl who wants to write any simple possibility of identification with her mother); and a deeply ambiguous portrait in which she appears as the composite of woman in her various roles as literary object, "Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite" (I.154), Lamia and Our Lady of the Passion, a portrait onto which Aurora projects her fantasies and her experiences of women in literature. This is woman as mysterious Other; Aurora can neither become her—for then she would cease to be the speaking subject, nor—because she is a woman herself—establish a relationship with her.

And so the image splits into two somewhat more realistic, novelized figures; virtuous Marian Erle and wicked Lady Waldemar, the victimized innocent and the predatory sophisticate, the good mother and the bad. They bear in their names, however, the traces of the mythicized female figures of the preternatural and of nature from whom they spring: Marian Erle, virgin mother and fairy, Lady Waldemar (wald-e-mar) of the forest and the sea. The original image also spills over onto other figures that are female for male poets, turning what is safely metaphorical in men's writings into something disturbingly literal. The Romantic poets' maternal Nature turns into the explicitly breast-like hills of Italy; and the image of the "Mother-Age," which is almost inert when Tennyson uses it in "Locksley Hall," has the power to shock even now in Barrett Browning's version. "Hide me from my deep emotion, O thou wondrous Mother-Age," Tennyson's hero innocuously cries (line 108); but Aurora Leigh, astonishingly, says:

Never flinch,
Eat still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava of a song
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That, when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
"Behold,—behold the paps we all have sucked!
This bosom seems to beat still. . . .

(V. 213-220)

What Aurora learns from her intense relations with these various figures, who together represent the normal female population of poetry, is first, that she isn't one of them; and second, that she doesn't, after all, have to define herself as a poet in terms of her relation to them. That is, she is neither the female object of a male poem, nor the male subject for whom these figures are objects of desire. This is figured in her detachment at last from Lady Waldemar and Marian, in her changing relation to Romney, and in the diminishing of her uncomfortable awareness of herself as a physical object, something to be seen. The first effect of Romney's declaration of love is that everybody seems to be looking at her all the time—even the servants, even the dog; her aunt dies, in effect, as a result of such looking: as soon as Aurora wishes that her aunt would "'sleep, / And spare [her] yet the burden of [her] eyes'" (II.909-910), she discovers that the offending fending eyes are sightless in death. She accepts Romney's love only when he too is blind, his blindness signaling the crucial reversal of roles and power between them. His arrival at the end of the story is heralded by her image of him as her "sea-king"—a male version of the mysterious, half natural half human erotic Other that men have figured as a mermaid. When she rejected his love, early in the story, she spoke of his heart as a book that she would not read any more (II.836-837); now, accepting his place as text or object rather than beholder, he describes himself as a book that she has "dog-eared" (VIII.77) and asks her to reopen it. She can look, with or without desire, as she pleases, at him, but he can't look at her. She is no longer the object; she has defined a new space for a woman: as epic protagonist, as speaking subject.

But this is not simply a matter of reversing roles, which can only be done in very limited ways, at least in nineteenth-century poems. Barrett Browning retains the identification of woman with the inner, spiritual, emotional, and subjective sphere that she found everywhere, in poetry, in fiction, and in the fictions of life itself, which identifies women with poems. She doesn't switch gender roles; instead, she switches the locus of power within them. She asserts that power resides only in the inner life: in poetry, that is, and in women, and so in the woman poet most of all. Romney is forced to acknowledge that social change will be brought about not by politicians, philosophers, or philanthropists, but by poets. In the story's final and decisive transgression of the lines of gender, Romney asserts that when they marry, Aurora will "work for two"—real "work" having been defined as writing poems—and he "for two, shall love" (IX.911-912). The novelistic story concludes, that is, with an assertion of the primacy of poetry's world and values over the novel's, and of women over men.

Perhaps the oddest thing of all about Aurora Leigh is the thoroughly happy ending—happy for the heroine, at any rate, if not for her disempowered and humiliated lover. The Idylls of the King, The Ring and Book, Empedocles on Etna, Modern Love, Amours de Voyage—all the great long Victorian poems end in failure or loss (except, perhaps, In Memoriam, which begins there). Heroines of novels don't do much better: even Jane Eyre has no real independence, no vocation comparable to Brontë's or Barrett Browning's. Maggie Tulliver dies, and Dorothea Brooke exerts a quiet and unacknowledged influence as the wife of a political reformer, settling into precisely the sort of life that Aurora indignantly rejects when Romney offers it to her. It has often been remarked that women novelists do not imagine lives for their heroines that are as successful, in terms of achievment or scope for achievement, as their own (see Heilbrun 71-92). But in her strange mix of genres, Barrett Browning did what women novelists had not done, and perhaps could not do. Alone among heroines of bildungsromanen in the nineteenth century, Aurora follows the central part of the male pattern of development as Jerome Hamilton Buckley describes it: she leaves the provinces, goes to the city, and has (in effect) two love-affairs, one debasing and one ennobling (Lady Waldemar, that is, and Marian Erle [17-18]).1 The novelistic context and elaboration of plot allows Aurora to work her way out of the passive position of erotic object to which women in poems had been relegated; and at the same time the poetry establishes a context in which freedom and the heroic triumph of the spirit feel not only appropriate but possible and which (if the poem is successful for us) proves, in the very texture of the work, its energy, zest, and self-confidence, the heroine's vocation. By transgressing the boundaries of genre—by appealing not from literature to life, but from one genre to another, and back again—Aurora Leigh goes farther than any other poem or novel of the Victorian period towards transcending the limits imposed on literature by gender.


1 The pattern of the female bildungsroman, which differs notably from the male version, is analyzed by Abel, Hirsch, and Langland. Aurora Leigh has many of the characteristics of both kinds.

Works Cited

Abel, Elizabeth, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland. The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Hanover, N. H.: UP of New England, 1983.

Arnold, Matthew. The Letters of Matthew Arnold to Arthur Hugh Clough. Ed. Howard Foster Lowry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932.

Rev. of Aurora Leigh. The Athenaeum 1517 (Nov. 22, 1856): 1425-1427.

Rev. of Aurora Leigh. Westminister Review 68, n. s. 12 (1857): 399-415.

Barrett, Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett 1845-1846. Ed. Elvan Kintner. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1969.

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. The Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke, 6 vols. 1900. Rpt. ed. New York: AMS, 1973.

——. The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Ed. Frederic G. Kenyon. 4th ed. 2 vols. London: Smith Elder, 1898.

, and Robert Browning. The Brownings' Correspondence. Ed. Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson. 2 vols. to date, Winfield, KS: Wedgestone Press, 1984-.

Buckley, Jerome Hamilton, Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1974.

[Eliot, George.] Rev. of Aurora Leigh. Westminster Review 67, n.s. 11 (1857): 306-310.

[Everett, Charles Carroll.] "Elizabeth Barrett Browning." North American Review 85 (1857): 415-441.

Hallam, Arthur, "On Some of the Characteristics of Modern Poetry, and on the Lyrical Poems of Alfred Tennyson." The Writings of Arthur Hallam. Ed. T. H. Vail Motter. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1943. 182-198.

Heilbrun, Carolyn. "Women Writers and Female Characters: The Failure of Imagination." Reinventing Womanhood. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979. 71-92.

[Hunt, Leigh.] "Aurora Leigh: an Unpublished Letter from Leigh Hunt." Cornhill Magazine n. s. 3 (1897): 738-749.

Jehlen, Myra. "Archimedes and the Paradox of Feminist Criticism." Signs 6 (1981): 575-601.

Mackail, J. W. The Life of William Morris. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1899.

Tennyson, Alfred. The Poems of Tennyson. Ed. Christopher Ricks. London: Longman's, 1969.

Woolf, Virginia. "Aurora Leigh." The Second Common Reader. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1932.

Angela Leighton (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: "'If orphaned, we are disinherited': The Making of the Poet," in Elizabeth Barrett Browning, The Harvester Press, 1986, pp. 114-40.

[In the following essay, Leighton claims that in Aurora Leigh Browning traces the liberation of her own creative abilities through Aurora's "failed quest" for her father and her subsequent acceptance of her "disinherited state. "]

Barrett Browning first projected the composition of Aurora Leigh as early as 1844. She wrote to her cousin and friend, John Kenyon, of her wish to write another poem like 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship'. Such a poem would be longer and more ambitious, but similarly 'comprehending the aspect and manners of modern life, and flinching at nothing of the conventional' (Kenyon, I, 204). Some months later, she embellished this first description in a letter to Miss Mitford: 'And now tell me,—where is the obstacle to making as interesting a story of a poem as of a prose work . . . Conversations & events, why may they not be given as rapidly & passionately & lucidly in verse as in prose—'. Her main intention in such a work, she stresses, is 'to go on, & touch this real everyday life of our age, & hold it with my two hands'. She adds, confidently: 'I want to write a poem of a new class' (MRM, III, 49).

A year later, she had not yet begun this poem but was still contemplating its composition. She informed Robert that 'my chief intention just now is the writing of a sort of novel-poem . . . running into the midst of our conventions, & rushing into drawing-rooms & the like "where angels fear to tread"; & so, meeting face to face & without mask the Humanity of the age' (Letters: 1845-1846, I, 31). The poem she outlines will be crusadingly modern, iconoclastic and outspoken, and it will contain, as well as philosophical digressions on the age, the popular interest of a story. Barrett Browning did not begin to write Aurora Leigh until after her marriage and the birth of Pen. It belongs, therefore, to some of the happiest years of her life—years in which she became a wife, mother, cosmopolitan traveller and tireless observer of the revolutionary events in Europe after 1848. It was published in 1856, a few months before the death of Mr Barrett.

In its exuberant and fierce commitment to the present, Aurora Leigh indeed succeeds in being 'a poem of a new class'. Not only does Barrett Browning unflinchingly relate a story of modern life, highly charged and melodramatic as it is; she also successfully promulgates a message of literary contemporaneity which other writers of the time enthusiastically welcomed. She repudiates the habit of nostalgia which tempts the Victorian poet with the glamour of the past, and from this new sense of the present she develops a crusadingly female poetics. The heroine of the work is a poet herself, who writes the story of her life and literary success as one example of the general cause of women's emancipation and independence. The 'real everyday life of our age' which Barrett Browning confronts in Aurora Leigh is mainly the 'real everyday life' of women, in all its small domestic detail; and it is from this specific bias that she derives a theory of women's writing as contemporary, combative and self-sufficient. However, it is one of the strengths and merits of the work that it also traces the hidden personal cost of this achievement.

Between 1846, the year of Elizabeth's marriage, and 1857, the year of Mr Barrett's death, there was no word from him. Although Elizabeth wrote many pleading letters to the father who might once have bound her to him 'hand and foot' (Kenyon, I, 291), his silence was unremitting. On one visit to England, in 1851, her continuing hopes for reconciliation must have been finally dashed by his abrupt return of all her past letters, unopened. Yet, in spite of this characteristically unsparing rigidity, the cherished ideal of her father continued to haunt his daughter, and all the rich compensations of her new life continued to be measured, in a sense, against the fact of his silence. 'All her life [the daughter] may longingly seek that lost state of plenitude and peace',1 de Beauvoir writes.

In Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning builds her hopeful political message of independence and equality for women upon a hidden last quest for the father. That quest is mapped in the sub-plot of the story, and its end is realised in Aurora's final knowledge and acceptance of her 'orphaned' and 'disinherited' state. Thus, it is not only a literary, but also a personal nostalgia for the past which this poet must repudiate in order to fulfil her own high specifications for poetry. In order to write 'a poem of a new class' which touches the 'real everyday life of our age', Barrett Browning finally dispossesses herself of the powerful figure of the father, both in fact and in imagination. The 'feminist' conviction of Aurora Leigh grows out of this harsh emotional and imaginative loss.

There are three interrelated stories in the work. First, there is the story of Aurora's life. Born of an Italian mother and English father, Aurora is early orphaned of them both, and is reared by an English aunt. She comes in time to reject the oppressive, puritanical education of this aunt, as well as the more insidiously oppressive offer of marriage by her rich cousin, Romney. She chooses instead to live alone in London and to earn her living by writing. Finally, through a series of novelistic detours, she returns to Italy to find that literary success and love are not irreconcilable after all. Secondly, there is the story of Marian Erle, the working-class girl to whom Romney also proposes, in a highminded attempt to match his practice to his socialistic theories. Marian comes under the evil influence of the aristocratic Lady Waldemar, who persuades her to desert Romney on the very day of the wedding and to escape to France. Here she is raped in a brothel, gives birth to a child, and is finally discovered by Aurora, with whom she goes to Italy to live in an alternative liaison of women. It is there that Romney finds them both, when, defeated and broken by the practice of his misplaced philanthropical ideals, he too arrives in Italy. Thirdly, there is the underlying story of Aurora the poet, who is a scarcely disguised representative of Barrett Browning herself. This is an autobiography of literary development, which takes the form of a poetic quest for two figures whose presences shape Aurora's growth as a poet. It is this third story which holds the key to Barrett Browning's purpose and achievement in Aurora Leigh.

The main plot of the work is that of an improbable melodramatic romance interlaced with long philosophical digressions on the art and spirit of the age. In its general references and outline, this plot is indebted, as Cora Kaplan has shown,2 to a large number of other nineteenth-century works, among which the most prominent are Madame de Staël's Corinne and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. The sub-plot, however, remains characteristically and underivatively Barrett Browning's own. It traces Aurora's quest for two figures, whom she seeks with the lover-like urgency of a poet seeking her muse. The first of these is the father, whose presence is movingly and anxiously solicited, as if in a last appeal by the daughter whose strong consciousness of disinheritance had come cruelly true in life. It is this appeal to the past which the poem ultimately rejects and supersedes, in order to free Aurora for her second quest—for a sister.

Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others' uses, will write now for mine,—
Will write my story for my better self. . .

(I, 1-4)

Aurora Leigh begins with a declaration of literary purpose which the whole poem then supports. Aurora has already 'written much in prose and verse', but this, her latest book, will be a different story, which answers to the requirements of her 'better self. The fact that the poem opens with a fanfare on the theme of writing reveals the extent to which this is the story of that self's writing. Beneath its flamboyant plot, Aurora Leigh is a woman's 'Prelude', which is concerned to chart the origins and development of the woman poet's mind. These origins are not, however, nurturing Wordsworthian presences of nature, but, true to Barrett Browning's Victorian and daughterly preoccupations, they are the heroine's actual parents. It is these whom she invokes at the start: 'But still I catch my mother at her post / Beside the nursery door' (I, 15-16), and then, more intimately: 'Still I sit and feel / My father's slow hand, when she had left us both' (I, 19-20). These presences are so vivid to the speaker's imagination that the writing slips into a present tense of strongly nostalgic recuperation.

However, the very vividness of these memories of mother and father betrays the curiously apprehensive foreboding which prompts them. Aurora does not simply commemorate those first powerful influences on her life; she also thinks, in the present tense:

O my father's hand,
Stroke heavily, heavily the poor hair down,
Draw, press the child's head closer to thy knee!
I'm still too young, too young, to sit alone.

(I, 25-8)

'His hand would not lie so heavily,' Elizabeth once wrote of her own father, 'without a pulse in it' (Letters: 1845-1846, II, 882). The image of the father's hand in her poetry is one which, as Virginia Steinmetz points out,3 often links strong human love and hard, God-like authority. This first description of the father in Aurora Leigh clearly draws on the contradictions in the character of that real father. His hand is a comfort to the child, but it is also unthinkingly heavy.

However, this description of the father is already loaded with intimations of change. The generalised present tense of these first passages subtly mixes fact and memory, event and premonition. The child who thinks, 'I'm still too young, too young, to sit alone', does so in the same grammatical time as Aurora who writes it many years later, and this trick of perspective carries an emotional and imaginative significance which the whole poem confirms. The sense of impending death comes earlier in the speaker's consciousness than it does in the poem's narrative, and thus it impresses the adult's foreboding on the chronology of events. Furthermore, it suggests a connection which will recur, with striking frequency, throughout the work. Although, in the plot, Aurora's father dies when she is thirteen, in Barrett Browning's consciousness he dies as soon as she begins to write.

This connection is evident in the apposition of lines which follows:

I'm still too young, too young, to sit alone.
I write.

(I, 28-9)

The declaration 'I write' interrupts the sequence of events in a way that is highly suggestive. In the poet's imagination, the idea of losing her father and of having, therefore, 'to sit alone', leads by some swift association of ideas to the act of writing. Barrett Browning's insistence on the verb 'to write' in these first paragraphs of Aurora Leigh4 goes with a premonition of being dispossessed of a mother and a father. The very break between the first and second paragraphs, like the famous 'awkward break'5 noted by Virginia Woolf in Jane Eyre, is resonant with possible connections. The one connection which so much of Barrett Browning's work corroborates is that between the fear of being 'orphaned' and the confidence of being able to write.

After this richly revealing confusion of ideas in the first passages of Aurora Leigh, Book I relates in a more orderly way the deaths of Aurora's mother and father, and the child's subsequent exile from her homeland, Italy, to her father's land, England. The mother dies first. 'She was weak and frail' (I, 33), Aurora tells, in words which recall Barrett Browning's descriptions of her real mother in her letters. This death is then obscurely linked with the mothering role: 'The mother's rapture slew her' (I, 35). It is not a literal death in childbirth which is referred to here, but some vague excess of motherly experience. All Elizabeth Barrett's old distrust and antagonism towards the figure of the mother is then vented in Aurora's confused, horrified attitude to her mother's portrait. As Barbara Gelpi has shown, this portrait becomes the focus of all the child's wild and frightened imaginings about 'womanhood itself.6 In the firelight, the white of the woman's skin and the red of her ballroom gown contrast luridly: 'That swan-like supernatural white life / Just sailing upward from the red stiff silk' (I, 139-40). The portrait then draws the child's thoughts into a region of shifting and uncertain images of woman: it is 'by turns / Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite' (I, 153-4), or else a 'Muse' (155), a 'Psyche' (156), a 'Medusa' (157), 'Our Lady of the Passion' (160), a 'Lamia' (161). These are all either threatening or tragically defeated figures of womanhood. Even the 'Muse' is not one to inspire poems, for she is about to be overcome by 'a dreadful Fate' (155). The Gothicism of this whole passage recalls the younger poet's profound anxiety of womanliness—an anxiety which, in her early ballads, turned the figure of the ghostly mother into a sometimes grotesque object of suspicion and fear.

Predictably, Aurora Leigh confirms that it is the father whose image dominates and inspires the daughter poet. Aurora relates that, after her mother's death:

He left our Florence and made haste to hide
Himself, his prattling child, and silent grief,
Among the mountains above Pelago . . .

(I, 109-11)

The 'prattling child' and the austerely 'silent' father make a strange company in the little mountain house. Their touchingly incongruous intimacy is not only, however, an authentic fact of the narrative; it is also a sign of what is to come. The idea of the father's 'silence' is one which soon acquires, not only the harsh authority of subsequent events, but also the subtle, guilty authority of an imaginative need.

Aurora tells:

I was just thirteen,
Still growing like the plants from unseen roots
In tongue-tied Springs,—and suddenly awoke
To full life and life's needs and agonies
With an intense, strong, struggling heart beside
A stone-dead father. Life, struck sharp on death,
Makes awful lightning.

(I, 205-11)

As has been pointed out, 'Aurora loses her mother at the Oedipal moment—age four—and her father as she attains the menarch.'7 This timing of the father's death has an eerie deliberateness about it. It happens suddenly and inexplicably, without narrative justification; but it retains, nonetheless, some hidden connection with Aurora's awakening to 'full life'. The juxtaposition is cruel, but apposite. It may be that Elizabeth's own experience of her father's tyrannical opinions about 'the iniquity of love-affairs' (Letters: 1845-1846, II, 1072) lies behind this carefully timed literary death. Certainly, the passage strongly reinforces the connection made many years before in the ballads: it is the daughter's growth into womanhood, with all its wider physical and emotional needs, which signifies the loss of the father to her; she has ceased to be to him 'as if... a child'.

But there is another connection in the passage. It is not only the daughter's emotional development, but also her literary development which coincides with the father's death. The imagery of the passage confuses the two. Aurora grows as if from 'roots / In tongue-tied Springs' to find, beside the fact of her 'stone-dead father', her own 'intense, strong, struggling heart'. Such language recalls the early drama of 'The Tempest'. There is the same sudde juxtaposition of the 'struggling' protagonist and the dead man, and the same contrast between the desired self-expression of the one and the silence of the other. The very strength of life in Aurora provides a cruel contrast to, but also a subtle reason for, the father's death. 'Life, struck sharp on death, / Makes awful lightning,' Barrett Browning writes. Such imagery carries an irresistible suggestion, not only of emotional violence, but also of literary exhilaration. Just as the daughter wakes to womanhood and self-expression, so the father, by some ruthless logic of the imagination, appears 'stone-dead'. So sharp is the clash between daughter and father that it seems like life won at the cost of death; like speech won from some profound subsconscious crime against that father, the 'familiar'. Out of this clash, however, comes poetry: 'lightning'.

But it is characteristic of Aurora Leigh, as of all Barrett Browning's work, to feel the loss behind its power, and to go on hearing the silence behind its speech. This is the legacy of the father muse. Aurora claims that the last word of her dying father was to "'Love, my child, love, love!'" (I, 212). However, the rest of the poem makes clear that the real legacy of the father to his poet daughter is a legacy to hear, behind all the new and varied sounds of her life, his powerful silence. It is that silence which fills her imagination with its harshly formative strength of contradiction. Thus, when the child Aurora is torn away from her Italian home and Nanny, it is 'with ears too full / Of my father's silence to shriek back a word' (I, 227-8). It is not her father's last word to "'love'" which rings in her ears, but his last 'silence'.

Sandra Gilbert has argued that Aurora's subsequent struggle to survive is a struggle between 'two paysages moralisés, her mother country of Italy and her fatherland of England';8 and she concludes that Aurora chooses the generous nurture and eroticism of Italy and rejects the 'patriarchal history'9 represented by the father's tongue and country. But this ideological alignment fails to take into account the poem's movingly persistent quest for the lost father in the landscapes of both England and Italy. The significance of each of those places is a significance provided by the father's absence from them. Aurora's real choice is not so much one of motherland or fatherland, as it is the choice to survive in a world which, because of the father's absence, is all a desert. The story of her development and eventual independence as a woman and as a poet is a story wrung out of the emotionally and imaginatively realised fact that 'If orphaned, we are disinherited'.

Aurora first feels the meaning of her new orphaned state in the boat which takes her to England. She finds that 'the very sky' (I, 244) is

Bedraggled with the desolating salt,
Until it seemed no more that holy heaven
To which my father went. All new and strange;
The universe turned stranger, for a child.

(I, 247-50)

The estranged and bewildered child finds that, with the loss of her father, the mark of the whole 'universe' is to be strange and bewildering. The sense of a 'holy heaven' which contains the presence of that father quickly fades before the literal 'desolating' grey of the real sky. Not only is there a new emptiness at the heart of things in Aurora's consciousness; there is also a new pressing and oppressive fullness. The obstructing reality of the actual sky takes the place of the 'holy heaven' of her child's faith. Just as in the grieving sonnets of 1844, the visionariness of 'stars and sun' is denied to the true mourners in the desert, so here, any consoling vision of 'heaven' is slowly usurped by the ordinary, separating fact of the sky. Skies, for Barrett Browning, are only a consolation to those whose loss is redeemable.

This contrast between poetic vision and ordinary sight is made again when Aurora describes her reluctant survival in England:

I did not die. But slowly, as one in swoon,
To whom life creeps back in the form of death,
With a sense of separation, a blind pain
Of blank obstruction, and a roar i' the ears
Of visionary chariots which retreat
As earth grows clearer . . . slowly, by degrees;
I woke. . .

(I, 559-65)

As she becomes accustomed to life again, the 'visionary chariots' seem to retreat with their beloved company of dead. They leave her with a form of sensory deprivation which is more like death than life, however: 'a blind pain / Of blank obstruction, and a roar i' the ears'. All the new sights and sounds of the world to which Aurora once again awakes merely obtrude senselessly upon her imagination's desire for the other lost visions. Because she cannot see or hear her father in this world, its clarity is an oppression: an 'obstruction' of things and a 'roar' of sounds. With the father, the very imaginative resources of poetry seem to have been lost.

However, this exchange, which seems at first to be an exchange of life for death, of vision for dull sight, will become the principle of Barrett Browning's poetics. Aurora's gradual realisation of her 'orphaned' state is one which comes by finding that the salty, grey sky takes the place of the 'holy heaven', and that the clear 'earth' takes the place of 'visionary chariots'. The substitution of something loveless, hard and literal for the inspiring presence of the father is one on which the daughter's poetry must grow.

This principle of an exchange is suggested again in Book II. Aurora, now become a woman, encounters her cousin Romney in the garden in June, and there rejects his humiliating proposal of marriage. She accuses him of merely desiring a helpmate in his philanthropical projects, and of belittling her own different vocation of writing. Her description of that vocation, however, is one which still calls upon the memory of her father. She tells Romney:

I too have my vocation,—work to do,
The heavens and earth have set me since I changed
My father's face for theirs . . .

(II, 455-7)

The public message of Aurora Leigh is that the poet's work is as socially and politically beneficial as the philanthropist's. However, its private message is much less assured, and concerns the difficult, nearly unprecedented struggle of the woman poet to define her creativity. Barrett Browning's new poetics of contemporary commitment to the age is one which the woman achieves only through a principle of exchange or choice. Thus, Aurora admits that she has 'changed' her 'father's face' for a view of 'heavens and earth'. Although this new view is large and full, the father's absence makes it seem empty. 'Fatherlessness,' writes André Bleikasten, 'is not so much the absence of a relationship as a relationship to absence.'10 The exchange of a father for the whole world, Barrett Browning knew, is in some ways an exchange of something for nothing. Nonetheless, it is that nothing which must nourish her imagination, and prepare it to meet 'this real everyday life of our age'. It is not her 'father's face' but the estranging 'heavens and earth' which have set Aurora to write poetry.

It is interesting that, at one point, Aurora distinguishes her bad early verses from her mature poems in terms of two different attitudes to the muse and of two different landscapes. In the first, she generalises:

We call the Muse,—'O Muse benignant Muse,'—
As if we had seen her purple-braided head,
With the eyes in it, start between the boughs...

(I, 980-2)

This easy confidence of finding the muse, like the lovely ladies of old, in a wood, is the mark of false poetry. True creativity, she knows now, comes in a very different place:

In order to discover the Muse-Sphinx,
The melancholy desert must sweep round,
Behind you as before.—

(I, 1020-2)

It is only in the 'melancholy desert', in the saddening and confusing plains that sweep, significantly, 'Behind' as well as 'before', that the muse is to be found. It is in the 'desert' of a world that harbours no beloved spirits of the past that Barrett Browning eventually discovers the muse of her contemporary 'feminist' epic.

But first, her quest for the lost father is pursued to its end. That the death of her father is not just a narrative strategy to liberate the heroine for life and love, as it is in many Victorian novels, is shown by the reluctance with which Aurora's imagination consents to that death. Her struggle with the figure of the dead, forsaking father is one which rivals in its emotional and poetic intensity the struggle between herself and Romney. Thus, for instance, at the moment when she rejects Romney's proposal of marriage and asserts her own vocation to be a poet, her thoughts turn to the presence which might have rivalled Romney for love:

I had a father! yes, but long ago—
How long it seemed that moment. Oh, how far,
How far and safe, God, dost thou keep thy saints
When once gone from us! We may call against
The lighted windows of thy fair June-heaven
Where all the souls are happy,—and not one,
Not even my father, look from work or play
To ask, 'Who is it that cries after us,
Below there, in the dusk?' Yet formerly
He turned his face upon me quick enough,
If I said 'Father.' Now I might cry loud;
The little lark reached higher with his song
Than I with crying. Oh, alone, alone,—
Not troubling any in heaven, nor any on earth,
I stood there in the garden, and looked up
The deaf blue sky that brings the roses out
On such June mornings.

(II, 734-50)

Having defended her different vocation of writing, Aurora is left to savour her loneliness. At the moment of her triumphant self-assertion as a poet, she looks for her father and finds him absent: 'Oh, alone, alone'.

This cry of despair is poignantly placed. Aurora has just crowned herself, as if in imitation of Corinne, poet laureate of the garden, and she has just proved to herself, and to Romney, that her ambition is strong and self-sufficient. But it is not so much from Romney's love that her self-sufficiency must be won, as from her father's. When she looks, the scene of her victory seems desolate and unresponsive. The 'fair June-heaven' is no different from the first heavy skies which the child saw on her journey to England. Both intrude themselves in place of the father's 'face'. For all its 'lighted windows', there is nothing to be seen in this summer sky; no one looks down through it, 'Not even my father'.

The very transparency of the sunlit atmosphere is another form of 'blank obstruction'.

Once again, this Victorian daughter poet finds that the routes of vision, which might lead to the beloved dead, are blocked. Her imagination finds only the literal, spiritless spaces of the real sky, and remains 'alone, alone'. This moment in the garden is a crucial and symbolic one. 'June' is not just a time of year, but the sign of Aurora's poetic success. When Romney returns at the end of the poem to make a very different proposal of marriage, the memory of this day in June provides the leitmotif of his recognition of Aurora's superiority over himself. He greets her, for instance, as the 'same Aurora of the bright June-day' (VIII, 320), and as his unfailing 'June-day friend' (VIII, 609). June is the summer and high noon of her poetic ambition, and it is the June in her which proves, at the end, resilient and triumphant.

However, at the time, the June-day also has another connotation. Aurora finds that the cost of her ambition is not only the loss of Romney, but the loss, in her imagination, of the figure of her father. The windows of the 'June-heaven' are empty and its light is 'deaf. The place where the daughter poet realises her vocation, and ambitiously crowns herself poet, is the place where she must also realise her desolation and her disinheritance. Aurora's imagination finds that the place, for all its sun and roses, is still, to her, a desert:

Oh, alone, alone,—
Not troubling any in heaven, nor any on earth,
I stood there in the garden . . .

It is interesting that a little earlier, when Aurora crowns herself a poet with audacious but premature self-confidence, she crowns herself not with bay or myrtle, but with 'ivy' (II, 50); which is, she tells, 'as good to grow on graves / As twist about a thyrsus' (II, 51-2). She chooses as the symbol of her new-found power, one that will remind her of 'graves'. The association lies at the heart of Barrett Browning's poetics. Although the sunny stage-set of Aurora's poetic triumph is a garden in June, the true landscape of her poetic consciousness is still that of 'a desert place' full of 'tombs'.

The extent to which the quest for the father in Aurora Leigh is also an intensely personal one is suggested by a passage in Book V, where Aurora admits she envies other poets, not their work, but their appreciative families. She therefore envies Mark Gage his mother, on whose knee he 'lays his last book's prodigal review' (V, 525). It is clearly Barrett Browning herself who speaks so feelingly here of the other poet's mother. Parents are still, in her imagination, the inspiration and the goal of writing, and it is in the knowledge of what she herself has lost that she then invokes their once powerful names:

Dearest father,—mother sweet,—
I speak the names out sometimes by myself,
And make the silence shiver. They sound strange,
As Hindostanee to an Ind-born man
Accustomed many years to English speech;
Or lovely poet-words grown obsolete,
Which will not leave off singing. Up in heaven
I have my father,—with my mother's face
Beside him in a blotch of heavenly light;
No more for earth's familiar, household use,
No more. The best verse written by this hand
Can never reach them where they sit, to seem
Well done to them.

(V, 540-52)

Just as once the 'prattling child' kept company with the 'silent' father, and just as the girl struggled for self-expression beside his 'stone-dead' body, so here the poet still tests her words, her 'lovely poet-words', against the fact of father's and mother's absence. But against that absence they ring false. 'They sound strange' and 'obsolete'. The names which serve at the start as an invocation of the daughter's beloved first muses become, for lack of any response, a mere poeticism—a tired routine. 'Dearest father,—mother sweet' is a nostalgic and redundant call. To go on invoking presences which do not reply, and which may not be attending any more, is to indulge in a mere incantation of sweet names. "'O Muse, benignant Muse'" is the rashly confident summons of the immature poet. The mature poet no longer calls, but stands alone in 'the melancholy desert'.

Once again, Aurora finds that the actual sky mocks her nostalgic imaginative aspirations. 'Up in heaven / I have my father,' she thinks. But the religious and Romantic possibilities of that 'heaven' have also 'grown obsolete'. The best she can imagine is 'a blotch of heavenly light' where her mother's face might be. The larger visionary scope of skies is denied to this Victorian daughter, and in their place she confronts only the ordinary, empty atmosphere. Her imagination thus begins to learn its disinheritance even from 'the Dead'. These are increasingly distant and irrecoverable figures, who do not answer to their own dear names, and whose presences are gradually lost behind the bare literalness of the contemporary world.

The story of Aurora's development as a woman poet is thus one which depends on a characteristic poetics of the 'disinherited' daughter. But it also depends on a poetics of the 'disinherited' Victorian. The two are linked. Aurora finds, not only that the spirit of the one particular father is absent from the new landscapes of her life, but also that the spirit of the literary 'grandfathers' has gone. Even Italy, for all the erotic and maternal splendour of her hills, remains an alien and empty landscape which repudiates the mytho-poeic yearnings of this belated poet. When Aurora approaches the Italian border, she needily invokes some sentient spirit of the place:

My own hills! Are you 'ware of me, my hills,
How I burn toward you? do you feel to-night
The urgency and yearning of my soul,
As sleeping mothers feel the sucking babe
And smile?

(V, 1266-71)

But she is too honest to grant her own wishes, and the answer she supplies is negative: 'Still ye go / Your own determined, calm, indifferent way' (V, 1273-4). Her retrogressive desire for a mother, or at least for some mothering spirit of Nature, is denied, and she confronts a landscape which is merely 'determined, calm, indifferent'. Aurora must learn, even in Italy, to stand alone in the desert, and to write without mythologies and without muses. Orphaned of both father and 'grandfathers', this Victorian daughter stands alone in the literal, indifferent and unhaunted landscapes of the world, and finds in these desert plains the place of poetry.

However, it is not till nearly the end of Aurora Leigh that this literalism of the imagination is accepted without regret. When Aurora first reaches Italy, her thoughts are still moved by nostalgia for the past. She writes:

And then I did not think, 'My Italy,'
I thought 'My father!' O my father's house,
Without his presence!

(VII, 490-2)

Italy cannot yet make up for what Aurora has lost. The place is still, in her consciousness, only an outer shell of something that has fled: the father's 'presence'. It is that father who might have given significance to the place, like some presiding genius loci, or answering muse. But there is only the place, without its spirit; the house without the father in it.

The connection between the fact of fatherlessness and poetic creativity is made a few lines later, when Aurora moralises on the sense of loss which the beauty of Italy does not alleviate but merely reinforces. The idea of her father's empty house reminds her of the fate of being without dreams in an alien world. She writes:

'Tis only good to be or here or there,
Because we had a dream on such a stone,
Or this or that,—but, once being wholly waked
And come back to the stone without the dream,
We trip upon't,—alas, and hurt ourselves;
Or else it falls on us and grinds us flat,
The heaviest gravestone on this burying earth.

(VII, 497-503)

To wake altogether from dreams, this Victorian poet declares, is to find the place forlorn and literal and full of graves. Without the spirit of things, the earth is a place which seems to kill the dreaming spirit of the poet with the weight of its gravestones. Yet, to wake from dreams has been the long and repeated experience of this 'orphaned' poet. She woke first to 'full life' beside her 'stone-dead father'. Later, she woke 'slowly, by degrees' from dreams of 'visionary chariots'. Now, she wakes again among 'stones' which, because of the failure of her father's 'presence', are all like gravestones. The 'burying earth' is the cruel but authentic landscape of her waking poetic consciousness.

Thus, in spite of her declared individualistic and Christian world-view, Barrett Browning's imagination is in fact shaped by a different and more pessimistic creed. That imagination rejects any mystical encounter with the dead, and it rejects any poetic mythologising of the landscape. Having lost the smile of her beloved father so absolutely, it is the absence of his spirit which characterises the world of the daughter. She must survive without dreams of him in the modern, urbane, materialistic age which is her own. Having been 'disinherited' of the father, she is 'disinherited' also of the past, and the world comes bare and literal to her imagination.

But the sense of graves remains strong in Aurora's consciousness, and they continue to underlie her new perceptions of Italy. 'My graves are calm, / And do not too much hurt me' (VII, 929-30), she tells at one point, revealing how far 'graves' are something carried in the soul, as well as found in the landscape. A little later, she thinks she might be able to forget the dead altogether, and in a fine simile imagines how she might 'be a man' (VII, 985) and seal off the past from her consciousness:

I'm not too much
A woman, not to be a man for once
And bury all my Dead like Alaric,
Depositing the treasures of my soul
In this drained watercourse, then letting flow
The river of life again with commerce-ships
And pleasure-barges full of silks and songs.

(VII, 984-90).

Nonetheless, the language works against the intentions of the speaker. However much she may bury them again, the 'Dead' are still 'the treasures' of her 'soul', and all the richest 'silks and songs' of the river of life are poor by comparison. Below this brilliant, commercial, busy world of 'silks and songs', the sense of 'graves' remains strong and seductive. All the other riches her imagination has gained continue to be measured against their preciousness, and in the end, the passage betrays the fact that this poet is still indeed 'too much / A woman' to repress the dead so successfully. The high enterprise of her life and poetry, of her 'silks and songs', will retain this difference from that of men.

After this movingly reluctant attempt to bury the past, Aurora makes one last bid to find her father. The woman cannot yet relinquish what the man might bury with ease. In Florence, Aurora begins to discover her independence as a woman and her success as a poet, but she discovers them, at first, only in sad contrast to the past:

How I heard
My father's step on that deserted ground,
His voice along that silence, as he told
The names of bird and insect, tree and flower,
And all the presentations of the stars Across Valdarno, interposing still
'My child,' 'my child.' When fathers say 'my child,'
'Tis easier to conceive the universe,
And life's transitions down the steps of law.

(VII, 1110-18)

This touchingly heartfelt memory of the father's authoritative presence in childhood is one which connects that presence with the child's whole conception of 'the universe'. It is the father who gives, not only the 'names' of things, like Adam in the garden, but the meaning of things as well: 'the steps of law'. However, the woman is no longer a child, and the father is no longer there, to be her authority and her guide. To have power to walk alone and to be one's own namer of the world is to have lost for certain that first dependent companionship in the Eden of childhood. As a result, the woman who has become a namer and a poet in her own right walks on a 'deserted ground'. Even Valdarno, with all its birds and flowers and stars, seems, in the daughter's 'orphaned' consciousness, but a desert plain. In such a place she must 'conceive the universe' alone.

Aurora's life in Italy is thus one of gradually learned resignation and independence. It is not the realisation that she has loved and lost Romney, but that she has loved and lost her father, which tests and educates her imagination. It is this loss which turns the landscapes even of Italy into a 'melancholy desert'. She then makes one last attempt to break this mental solitude when she returns to visit the house in which she lived alone with him, as a child. The episode marks the last stage of Barrett Browning's long, hard quest for her beloved first muse. 'I rode once to the little mountain-house / As fast as if to find my father there' (VII, 1119-20), she writes.

What Aurora finds, however, is something else:

The house's front
Was cased with lingots of ripe Indian corn
In tessellated order and device
Of golden patterns, not a stone of wall
Uncovered,—not an inch of room to grow
A vine-leaf.

(VII, 1123-8)

Not only is the place barely recognisable, but Aurora is forced to witness the actual destruction of her father's bowers of vines: 'the lads were busy with their staves / In shout and laughter, stripping every bough / As bare as winter' (VII, 1135-7). This is reminiscent of Wordsworth's 'Nutting', and by implication of Barrett Browning's early quest poems, which went in search of 'a spirit in the woods'. But if it is this old hope which drives Aurora back to the landscape of her childhood, the reality which confronts her is very different, and her reaction is a sign of it: 'Enough. My horse recoiled before my heart; / I turned the rein abruptly' (VII, 1140-1).

The horror of this literal devastation of the father's garden is unmistakable. To interpret the episode as an ideological statement about the patriarchal house being taken over by 'female fertility symbols',11 as Sandra Gilbert does, is to miss the emotional point. Aurora is appalled and stunned by what she sees. But she is also harshly educated by it. The father's absence is finally experienced for what it is: the total failure of an old, idyllic world of childhood and of natural abundance and of Romantic hauntings. The bower has been lost, the garden deserted, all over again, and in their place Aurora finds the crudely utilitarian rule of trade and wealth: the 'tessellated order and device / Of golden patterns'.

The episode not only signifies at last the daughter's complete 'disinheritance' by the past; it also expresses something of the nature of the present in which she must live and write. The garden was always a place of lost childhood gladness in Barrett Browning's early poems. But in Aurora Leigh this loss has a new point. Aurora's nostalgic expedition to 'the little mountain-house' turns into a necessary confrontation with the remorseless order of the contemporary world. Aurora finds, not the ghostly spirits of the past, but the 'real everyday life of our age'. The father's Romantic garden has been ruined and overrun by a new order of things. The implication, not only of this one passage but of the whole poem, is that the new order is Barrett Browning's own. The pain of Aurora's discovery is the pain of the poet in her, at meeting 'face to face & without mask the Humanity of the age'. That this 'Humanity' is discovered at the expense of her beloved father's face is something the poem has predicted from its very first lines.

This episode represents the end of the quest. After the journey to her father's house, Aurora is resigned to be alone. She writes:

That was trial enough
Of graves. I would not visit, if I could,
My father's, or my mother's any more . . .

(VII, 1142-4)

The whole poem has been, till now, a 'trial' of 'graves'. Aurora has carried the sense of them, and the sense of one in particular, in her soul and in her imagination's eye. Those 'graves' came to mark and underlie the landscapes of the whole world. Whether the place was England or Italy, it was, to the 'orphaned' daughter, a burial ground, a place of stones, a desert plain.

However, after the expedition to the father's house, Aurora is changed. She is no longer nostalgic, lonely and haunted. She no longer searches out the spirits of her childhood's past, or calls the names of her 'Dearest father,—mother sweet'. Instead, she is content with the present. In the state of sudden creative exhilaration which ensues, the world around her acquires a new sufficiency and brilliance. She declares:

I'm happy. It's sublime,
This perfect solitude of foreign lands!
To be, as if you had not been till then,
And were then, simply that you chose to be . .. . . . possess, yourself,
A new world all alive with creatures new,
New sun, new moon, new flowers, new people—ah,
And be possessed by none of them!

(VII, 1193-6, 1200-3)

Here, Aurora greets a world which is no longer a substitute for her father's face and her father's presence. For the first time, her loneliness does not stem from a sense of his lack and absence, but is a 'perfect solitude', desired and willed. This is not the 'solitude' of the desert, in which objects seemed to be only more burial-stones on her consciousness; it is the 'solitude of foreign lands' that are full of new, live, ordinary things: 'New sun, new moon, new flowers, new people'. No longer 'possessed' by the figure of the absent father, Aurora gains a whole world for poetry instead, and gains it, suddenly, for free. There is no exchange in this acceptance of a 'new world all alive'. The last journey to the father's devastated garden, for all its horror, finally releases her from the burden of the past, and from the burden of her disinheritance. Self-sufficient and self-possessed, she at last knows her emancipation, as a woman and as a poet, from the long shadow of the father muse.

Aurora Leigh thus maps, in its sub-plot, the progress of Barrett Browning's own last quest for the father, whose silence in real life she was to hear in her imagination for so many years after she had 'disinherited' herself in actuality from his affection. Throughout the poem she registers that silence, she appeals against it and even hopes to break it, until, finally, she dispossesses herself of the memory of it in a 'new world all alive with creatures new'. In the end, the daughter poet who has been 'orphaned' and 'disinherited', both in her life and in her poetic consciousness, realises that she has also therefore been freed—freed to make her loss and her loneliness creative. It is over the daughter's failed quest for the absent father that the other quest of the poem—the quest for a sister—can proceed.


Kenyon: The Letters of Elizabeth Barret Browning, 2 vols, ed. Frederic G. Kenyon (London, 1897).

Letters: 1845-1846: The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett 1845-1846, 2 vols, ed, Elvan Kintner (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1969).

MRM: The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford: 1860-1854, 3 vols, ed. Meredith B. Raymond and Mary Rose Sullivan (The Browning Institute and Wellesley College, 1983).

References to Aurora Leigh are by volume and line number only, and are from Aurora Leigh and Other Poems, introduced by Cora Kaplan (London, The Women's Press, 1978). All other published poems are from The Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 6 vols, ed. Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke (New York, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1900).


1 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949; Harmondsworth, Women's Press, 1983), pp. 17-35.

2 Cora Kaplan, Introduction to Aurora Leigh (London, The Women's Press, 1983), pp. 17-35.

3 Virginia Steinmetz, 'Beyond the Sun: Patriarchal Images in Aurora Leigh', Studies in Browning and His Circle, 9 (1981), 18-41, p. 28.

4 Kaplan, small>4op. cit., p. 10.

5 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One 's Own, new edition (London, The Hogarth Press, 1931), p. 104.

6 Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi, Aurora Leigh: The Vocation of the Woman Poet', Victorian Poetry, 19 (1981), 35-48, p. 38.

7 Marxist Feminist Literature Collective, 'Women's Writing: Jane Eyre, Shirley, Villette, Aurora Leigh', in 1848: The Sociology of Literature, Proceedings of the Essex conference July 1977 (Colchester, University of Essex, 1978), p. 203.

8 Sandra M. Gilbert, 'From Patria to Matria: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Risorgimento', PMLA, 99 (1984), 194-209, p. 200.

9 Ibid., p. 202.

10 André Bleikasten, 'Fathers in Faulkner', in The Fictional Father: Lacanian Readings of the Text, ed. Robert Con Davis (Amherst, Mass., The University of Massachusetts Press, 1981), p. 117.

11 Gilbert, op. cit., p. 205.

Margaret Reynolds (essay date 1992)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

SOURCE: An introduction to Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, edited by Margaret Reynolds, Ohio University Press, 1992, pp. 1-77.

[In the following excerpt, Reynolds discusses the politics and literary influences that shaped Browning's Aurora Leigh. She also summarizes the poem and discusses its approach to issues of femininity.]


"Of course you are self-conscious—How cd. you be a poet otherwise? Tell me."

The readily retained (and easily caricatured) picture of Elizabeth Barrett Browning which is liable to overshadow interpretation of Aurora Leigh is, in part, the product of the memorable circumstances of her life, well documented through her own inveterate letter writing and well covered because of ideological assumptions about women and poetry. But it is also due, in large part, to Barrett Browning's own seriously held Romantic view of the significant worth of the individual and of the uniqueness of personal experience.

Barrett Browning is usually given a literary critical place in a mid-nineteenth-century context where she is compared either to her contemporaries among Victorian women novelists or else to mid-Victorian poets, particularly Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning. These alignments, though significant and probably valid in that her distinctive voice is not heard until the publication of The Seraphim and Other Poems in 1838, nevertheless obscure the formative influences of Barrett Browning's historical context. Born in 1806, Elizabeth Barrett's formative reading years fell circa 1816-1830 and make her, in that sense, not Victorian at all. The burdens for women poets of a Romantic (or specifically Wordsworthian) conception of the function of women in poetry (as Mother Nature who provides subjects for her poet son; as the mistress/Muse who is the silent subject of men's poetry) have been set out by Margaret Homans, but only a small amount of attention has been given to the effects of Barrett Browning's inherited Romanticism.42

At fourteen, Barrett Browning endorsed the liberal politics of self-consciousness and intellectual independence which characterized the tenets of Romanticism:

My mind is naturally independant and spurns that subserviency of opinion which is generally considered necessary to feminine softness. But this is a subject on which I must always feel strongly for I feel within me an almost proud consciousness of independence which prompts me to defend my own opinions and yield them only to conviction!!!!!!!

Better oh how much better to be the ridicule of mankind, the scoff of society than lose that self respect which tho' this heart [were] bursting yet would elevate me above misery—above wretchedness and above abasement!!! These principles are irrevocable! It is not I feel it is not vanity that dictates them! it is not I know it is not an encroachment on masculine prerogative but it is a proud sentiment which will never allow me to be humbled in my own eyes!!!

As far as poetry was concerned, Elizabeth Barrett accepted the notions of (divine) inspiration, the subjective character of poetry, and the role of the poet as a prophet for the time.43 During the 1820s, in her earliest expression of poetic theory, Barrett Browning emphasized the imperatives of the poet's task as mediator between God and man, joining "in mysterious union, the natural and spiritual, the mortal and the eternal, the creature and the Creator."44 In her articles published in The Athenaeum (1842),45 she described the "poetic temperament" as existing "half way between the light of the ideal and the darkness of the real," and she disclosed her poetic affiliations by evaluating the work of certain poets in subjective terms. Thus, for example, she attributed to Philip Sidney: "the compietesi 'Ars poetica' extant,—'Foole, sayde my Muse to mee, looke in thine heart, and write'".46

In 1842 Elizabeth Barrett's view on the real seemed to her to have shrunk to a very small compass, but the sources of the ideal, on the other hand, were readily accessible. Like Shelley's mysterious creative power arising from within,47 Elizabeth Barrett sought truth in her own mind.48 Contemporary poetic theory confirmed and sanctioned an inclination to introspection and the long habit (and prescription) of seclusion. At the same time the private processes of study, translation, reading, and criticism provided her with an internal world of reference made up exclusively of texts. Consequently, much of Barrett Browning's work then presents itself not as autobiography, but rather as an intellectual patchwork, "a discourse about society composed from other discourses."49

Eventually a thorough self-knowledge, supported by the observation gained through extended study, presented itself to Barrett Browning as an acceptable, albeit regrettable, substitute for the knowledge of a wider social world and an adequate apparatus for her function as a poet: "I have had much of the inner life—and from the habit of selfconsciousness of selfanalysis, I make great guesses at Human Nature in the main."50 There remains discernable in this remark, and in other letters (especially to Robert Browning), a tentativeness hinting at the anxiety which characterizes Barrett Browning's claims to the poet's role. To be a poet was for her enabling, but to be a woman (and eventually an invalid woman) introduced a difficulty which had to be negotiated.

Wordsworth remained an important presence in Elizabeth Barrett's work, but a still earlier and more immediate influence was the work of Mary Wollstonecraft. The first documented allusion to Elizabeth Barrett's adherence to Wollstonecraft occurs, interestingly, in a letter from her mother written in September 1821. Referring to a forthcoming marriage in the family, she speaks of her hopes for the bride's happiness: "tho' I hope she has no visionary hopes of finding it upon your & Mrs. Wolstonecrafts system; if so, it may at best be anticipated that she will offener find herself wrong than right: however it may do very well for an old maids singleness of will &c. I would not put you out of conceit with it, as long as it is yr. intention to belong to the sisterhood." Elizabeth Barrett's juvenile autobiographical essays echo the argument and tone of Wollstonecraft's Vindication,51 and although she was later to assert, apparently without any trace of irony that "I am not, as you are perhaps aware, a very strong partizan on the Rights-of-Woman-side of the argument—at least I have not been, since I was twelve years old," the name of Wollstonecraft occurs a number of times in Barrett Browning's correspondence, and her ideas still more frequently.52

Competent in contemporary (proto-)feminist theory as in contemporary poetics, the fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Barrett recognized that when she claimed her right to independent thought and expression, she was denying the conventions of female acquiescence ("My mind is naturally independant and spurns that subserviency of opinion which is generally considered necessary to feminine softness"); her claims were an annexation of "masculine prerogative." So Barrett Browning found herself at once within the positions of Romantic self-determination, yet simultaneously excluded, "alien and critical."53

As in other areas, the woman who claimed the part of the poet challenged (however unwillingly) man's primacy as the conventional repository of authority.54 And yet it was her allegiance to the literary discourses of "high Art" in poetry which yielded her a strategy for negotiating the terms of her own transgression. As a young woman living in a household which revolved around the patriarch55 and quite cut off from the masculine worlds of politics and study, Elizabeth Barrett found that without venturing too far into the rebellion marked out by Wollstonecraft, she could adopt an occupation which offered her a claim to existence and identity. The current character of poetic theory, where the poet functioned as an inspired prophet, offered Elizabeth Barrett a means of self-aggrandizement which did not affront too directly the common notion of female passivity.56

But there was a price. The gift of inspiration is an ambiguous one, for while it elevates the individual to the authoritative rank of prophet, it simultaneously debases her to the status of unconsenting instrument. Although of course limited by her specific cultural horizons, Barrett Browning acknowledged this paradox, and she seems to have been especially aware of its dangerous implications for the poet who was also a woman. The double aspects of the poet/prophet's role are respectively documented in two of Barrett Browning's best known poems, "The Soul's Expression" (1844) and "A Musical Instrument" (1860)57, and the ambiguities appear also in Aurora Leigh. In a notable passage, the poet is compared to the priestess of Apollo who, possessed by the god, is only able to utter the "oracular shriek" (5.945). Yet notwithstanding this, Aurora maintains throughout a proud consciousness of her role as one of the "truth-tellers" left to God (1.859).

Barrett Browning's published Dedications to her volumes of poetry betray the same combination of subservience and self-assertion and can be read as ironic commentaries on the restricted liberties of the female poet in the nineteenth century. In 1844, while insisting that poetry was an "earnest object" with her, she still cast herself as a child, appealing to her father for protection and conjuring "your beloved image between myself and the public."58 Similarly, the Dedication to Aurora Leigh, while boldly describing the poem as "the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered," invokes the generosity of her male cousin and friend as an intermediary.

The juxtaposition of Wordsworth and Wollstonecraft as formative influences on Barrett Browning does not just point up the poet's ambivalent relation to the traditions of poetry. Two central political issues dealt with in Aurora Leigh—the efficacy of nineteenth-century socialism and the "woman-question"—are both approached and resolved as problems related to the ideals and difficulties of individual freedom. Consistent in her commitment to personal development, certain discrepancies, or what might appear at first sight to be discrepancies, arise in Barrett Browning's political commentary and in her poetry. Cora Kaplan proposes that the sources of feminist humanism can be traced to the "separate but linked responses to the transforming results of the French Revolution" contained in two key texts, Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and Wordsworth's Prefaces to Lyrical Ballads (1800, 1802). Kaplan further suggests that those two discourses of feminism and Romanticism were related to, and contradicted by, the demands of democratic politics—thus opening the way for an explanation of the divergence often found in modern criticism between the principles of feminism and the principles of socialism.59 Elizabeth Barrett's particular cultural context places her at this confluence of Romantic and feminist ideology, and her intellectual life plotted a course between their contradictions which led her into a class conflict of "gifted" versus "other" and a condemnation of socialist endeavor which can be an embarrassment to some twentieth-century readers.

Barrett Browning's emphasis upon, and self-consciousness of, the individual will meant that she endorsed the arguments of Thomas Carlyle, especially his Heroes and Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (1840). She saw Carlyle himself as a hero, an inspired prose poet, fulfilling the office of the poet by "analysing humanity back into its elements, to the destruction of the conventions of the hour." Carlylean arguments in favor of individual development (and the collateral supremacy of the man of genius) are cited in book 2 and throughout Aurora Leigh where individual genius is opposed to and preferred to the socialist doctrine of collectivity.60

Yet Barrett Browning did undoubtedly look forward to reform, both social and feminist. She criticized the forces and conventions which gave rise to and permitted the continuance of child labor, slavery, prostitution, the sexual double standard, and class inequality. She argued vehemently in favor of woman's right to useful occupation,61 and, perhaps more unusually, she deplored the rigid allocation of character by gender which propriety demanded.62 Given that the theories of the early nineteenth-century socialists, Owen and Fourier for instance, had their origins in Romanticism and typically included a promise of relief for the oppressed and a challenge to the conventions of class and gender, they might for those reasons have appeared attractive to Barrett Browning's conscience. Fourier himself, so abused in Aurora Leigh, saw the state and status of women in any society as the measure of that society's progress, proposing that "the degree of emancipation of women is the natural measure of general emancipation." And yet Elizabeth Barrett Browning consistently criticized socialist principles because, in her view, in furthering the general good, they denied the exercise of individual will—an exercise already severely limited in the case of individual women.63

Barrett Browning's feminism very obviously grows out of her overriding perspective on individual freedom. Less obvious is the way in which some of her remarks, occasionally read today as antifeminist, result from the same priority. Thus, she argues against the oppressive channeling of the unique female talent into sanctioned activities, refuting Anna Jameson's suggestion that Florence Nightingale's ministry in the Crimea (however proper it may have been for her) could be accounted a step gained for her sex as a whole.64 Recalling her argument that individual talent requires an individual and not necessarily approved course of development, Barrett Browning dramatized the proposition in book 2 of Aurora Leigh where Aurora refuses to accept a marriage which would reduce her to the feminine role of social worker and purveyor of domestic balm for the refreshment of an embattled husband. But when, after nine books of self-sufficiency, Aurora finds love and marriage in a conventionally happy ending, some critics have read this, rather crudely, as a failure of principle,65 or an acquiescence in patriarchy's version of a mild general reform.66 But Barrett Browning hinges her plot on the growth of individual personality—and for the character Aurora, as she was conceived by her author, the compietesi freedom and self-recognition is to be found in the liberated expression of desire combined with the recognition of poetic originality and power.

Barrett Browning's letters suggest that she was unwilling to commit herself on the politics of Aurora Leigh. Certainly her self-conscious analysis of her position as a woman poet equipped her with the background for polemic, and in her private correspondence at the time she acknowledged that she was entering an area of contemporary debate and showed herself to have been acutely aware that her principal opponents in that debate, Tennyson (The Princess, 1847),67 and Coventry Patmore (The Angel in the House, 1854 and 1856),68 were likely to be afforded the public space in which to quarrel with her views. In October 1856, while she was still correcting proof for Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning commented on the state of the woman question:

Bessie Parkes is writing very vigorous articles on the woman question, in opposition to Mr. Patmore, poet & husband, who expounds infamous doctrines on the same subject—see 'National Review',—& send. {thus} them "with the author's regards" to Mrs. Browning—Oh if you heard Bessie Parkes!—she & the rest of us militant, foam with rage—But he'll have the best of it as far as I am concerned: inasmuch as I hear he is to Review in the North British my poor 'Aurora Leigh,' who has the unfeminine impropriety to express her opinion on various "abstract subjects,"—which Mr. Patmore cant abide, he says.69

Yet, in spite of this declaration, after the publication of Aurora Leigh Barrett Browning is to be found writing (admittedly to a friend who was not for the "rights of woman") that she was surprised that the public associated her work with the woman question: "Did you see in the list of Lectures to be delivered by Gerald Massey, (advertised in the Athenaeum) one on "Aurora Leigh, and the womans question?" .. . I did not fancy that this poem would be so identified as it has been, with that question, which was only a collateral object with my intentions in writing."70

In Aurora Leigh the woman question and the discussion concerning socialism are both made subservient to the reiterated arguments for individual liberty and self-recognition. Each of the three main characters enacts a learning process which is essentially private, and each one adopts to this end a subjective or self-conscious view which parallels (but does not mimic) Barrett Browning's own reliance upon "selfconsciousness of selfanalysis." But, a question remains as to how whole the idealized self, constructed and valued by a Romantic and liberal position, can ever be, when the subject is a woman.71 Barrett Browning's poetics were conceived within contemporary cultural structures which included a discrepancy between the elevated status accorded by the poetic inheritance and her oppressed place as a woman within that culture. The poet's political position was equally ambivalent: the promotion of a concept of individuality valorized her (female and therefore subversive) self-will, while it permitted exercise of power on the part of authorized genius, excusing social obligation and even forbidding general social reform. Just as her poetic theory was always in crisis and cannot be nearly labeled as consistently one, so her political views were similarly unsettled. In spite of a reiterated emphasis upon the idea of the unified psyche growing along an undeviating line leading to wisdom and integration, Barrett Browning's own politics, poetics, and personal needs were often in conflict, preventing the wholeness to which she apparently aspired. However, if for Barrett Browning, this fragmentation/conflict represented a problem to be controlled, for the twentieth-century reader it is clear that those very contradictions provided the impetus which engendered and empowered the ideas, both poetic and political, which shaped Aurora Leigh.


"You have in your vision two worlds . . ."

"But poets should
Exert a double vision;"


The presence of contradiction and revision in Barrett Browning's poetry is acknowledged in recent criticism, but how to describe and pinpoint those changes still presents a problem. It is too simple to argue, as some critics have done, for a change from solipsistic lyric to concerned commitment at a moment neatly fixed by a marriage which offered regeneration and social engagement.74 Barrett Browning did not abandon lyricism in 1846, nor was she suddenly motivated by social conscience. Her certainty of the mediating character of the poet remained constant, but her perception of how that mediation was best to be effected evolved with the years.

Barrett Browning's articles in The Athenaeum (1842) expressed her belief in the divinity of the poet's inspiration and in the necessity of subjectivity in poetic creation. But the consideration to which Elizabeth Barrett repeatedly turned in her articles did not content itself with an affirmation of the isolated role of the subject, but rather went on to speculate upon the relationship between the ideal and the real, and the poet's part in interpreting (and enacting) that relationship. She suggested that the poet who simultaneously perceives both ideal and real must adopt some means tending to their reconciliation, either by concentrating exclusively upon the spiritual ("subjectivity perfected"), or by endowing objective things with symbolic reference ("objectivity transfigured") or, "by attaining to the highest vision of the idealist, which is subjectivity turned outward into an actual objectivity."75 Concerned to define and substantiate her notion of the parts played by subject and object in the poet's work, Elizabeth Barrett cited Shakespeare as both a "natural genius" capable of rendering both the objective surfaces of the visible world and an artist able to expound the subjective significances of the spiritual world beyond.76 With this notional fusion in mind Elizabeth Barrett reiterated her idealist vision by adding that he who is "wise in nature"—an apparently objective exercise concerned with looking outward rather than in—is necessarily wise in self-knowledge and the subjective.77

At the end of her series of articles on the anthology The Book of the Poets, Elizabeth Barrett repeated her views on the close alliance of Nature and Art to argue for the poet's prerogative to seek the object of poetry in any chosen sphere: "Let a poet never write the words 'tree,' 'hill,' 'river,' and he may still be true to nature." Poetry is to be found wherever the poet sees an object susceptible of interpretation.78

The poetic function of enlarging the subject in such a way as to transform, and effectively absorb, the external objects (whatever their character) upon which the poet focuses, was further explored in Barrett Browning's review of Wordsworth's volume. The poet is described as one who envelops the objects of his contemplation with his own self, thus producing not simple mimetic description, but poetry which is realized intellectual insight.79

More than two years before her first exchanges with Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett had begun to formulate a theory of poetry which, trying to reconcile two differing poetic philosophies, extended her certainty of the value of subjectivity to incorporate and interpret the natural and social world in a multiple poetic view. Commentators have given little attention to Barrett Browning's Athenaeum articles, but critics have recently pointed to a presence in Elizabeth Barrett's early poetry which is concomitant with her view of poetry's double application. In general, nineteenth-century critics appreciated Barrett Browning's early work, her "Romaunts" and ballads, because they were sentimental, moral, often (debasedly) romantic or mock-medieval. Twentieth-century critics, for the most part, found them embarrassing. But those ballads, in spite of their defusing sentiment, often contain a condemnation of gender stereotypes, an anxiety about the demands of conventional feminine virtue, and a complaint against sexual inequality and the abuses of patriarchy.80 Although these poems appear at first sight to be what could be loosely termed subjective and feminine, being ostensibly concerned with art, emotion, and other "eternal verities," they prove on closer inspection to be objective—that is politicized, realistic, contemporary, confrontational—and consequently "masculine."

Elizabeth Barrett's closest literary confidante from 1836 to 1845 was Mary Russell Mitford, and the relationship between these two writers included an irresolvable difference of "poetical principle"; Mary Russell Mitford championed the cause of realism in art, in direct opposition to what she termed Barrett's "mysticism." When Elizabeth Barrett put aside her more usual metaphorical and visionary stance to write a story of contemporary life in "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" (1844), Mitford approved a defection which Barrett herself admitted: "Yes—I confess that 'Geraldine's Courtship' is on your principle rather than mine."81

By the time she wrote this, Elizabeth Barrett had, some months since, formed the idea (which was to inform Aurora Leigh) of "writing some day a longer poem of a like class—a poem comprehending the aspect and manners of modern life and flinching at nothing of the conventional," and she confided her maturing plan to Mary Russell Mitford: "And I mean to write a poem of length on your principle—a sort of novel-poem! I am looking about for a story—Something not too complex, and admitting of high application."82

When Mitford suggested Napoleon as an appropriate subject for the work, Barrett was forced to clarify her intentions and, in particular, to make clear that even while planning to write a realistic and modern poem, she had no wish to abandon her long-held conviction of poetry's spiritual aspect:

No—I . not am I fancy, afraid suit of Napoleon wd me. If I had a subject: it for a story of & my also own I might be as wild as I liked, & I shd . have a chance besides of interesting other people by it in a way I could not do with known story. And I dont want to have to do with masses of men,—I shd . make dull work of it so. A few characters—a simple story—& plenty of room for passion & thought—that is what I want.. & am not likely to find easily .. without your inspiration. Oh yes, my dearest friend,—I wrote "Lady Geraldine" on your principles, I admit: but still you shall grant to me that "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" has more mysticism (or what is called mysticism) in it,—hid in the story . . than all the other ballad-poems of the two volumes. I hold that. But people care for a story—there's the truth! And I who care so much for stories, am not to find fault with them. And now tell me,—where is the obstacle to making as interesting a story of a poem as of a prose work—Echo answers where. Conversations & events, why may they not be given as rapidly & passionately & lucidly in verse as in prose—echo answers why. You see nobody is offended by my approach to the conventions of vulgar life in "Lady raldine"—and it gives me courage to go on, and touch this real everyday life of our age, and hold it with my two hands. I want to write a poem of a new class, in a measure—a Don Juan, without the mockery & impurity, . . under one aspect,—& having unity, as a work of art,—& admitting of as much philosophical dreaming & digression (which is in fact a characteristic of the age) as I like to use. Might it not be done, even if I could not do it? & I think of trying at any rate.83

In this early summary of the plan for the work which was to become Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning emphasizes the blend of everyday life (the objective and real) with discursive philosophy (the subjective and mystic). The problem of finding a form enabling this amalgam preoccupied the poet and soon spilled into her correspondence with Robert Browning. Unlike Mitford, Browning endorsed many of Barrett's views on the purpose of poetry, and their literary exchanges from 1845 were to refine and extend the theoretical address of both poets. Early in their correspondence, even before the project for "a sort of novel-poem" was confided to Robert, the poets embarked with some polite competition for terms of commendation, upon a discussion concerning their artistic ideals and ambitions. Browning compared what he saw as Elizabeth Barrett's achievement with his own aspiration: "you do what I always wanted to do, hoped to do, and only seem now likely to do for the first time. You speak out, you,—I only make men & women speak—give you truth broken into prismatic hues, and fear the pure white light, even if it is in me . . ." Browning stressed Elizabeth Barrett's ability to express her own self in writing—"You speak out, you"—but while he declared himself to value that capacity for self-expression,84 he classified Elizabeth Barrett as a subjective poet, and he may have conceived her confessional style as private, autobiographical, and, in that way, feminine.85

Returning the compliment using the "language of the schools of the day," Elizabeth Barrett confessed to admiring in Browning's work his capacity for using not only the subjective, which permitted him an area of "abstract thought," but also the objective view, which allowed him to deal most intimately with "human passion."86 Her congratulatory description is followedby a telling comparison: "Then you are 'masculine' to the height—& I, as a woman, have studied some of your gestures of language and intonation wistfully, as a thing beyond me far! & the more admirable for being beyond." This remark (disregarding social motives) reveals Barrett Browning's theorized association of the masculine with the objective, and implies the analogous association of feminine and subjective. It also suggests her sense of gender definitions for appropriate subject and form ("I am afraid of Napoleon for a subject: & also it wd . not I fancy, suit me"; "a Don Juan, without the mockery & impurity").87

When the germ of the poem was first described to Robert Browning in February 1845, Elizabeth Barrett emphasized the character of her projected poem as one composed of varieties or oppositions fused. So the work was to be a novel but was also to be a poem; it was to encompass the real and the modern, but it was also to include an idealistic vision by "speaking the truth as I conceive of it." Because her intention included the introduction of the objective view of the real in modern life, she classed her enterprize as one specifically challenging the conventions appropriate to feminine poetry—"rushing into drawing-rooms and the like, 'where angels fear to tread.'"88

The literary exchange begun in 1845 did not end with the poets' marriage. In his "Essay on Shelley," an introduction to a volume of (forged) Shelley letters, written just over a year before Barrett Browning began work on Aurora Leigh, Robert Browning described the "subjective poet of modern classification" as one typically reaching toward a supreme intelligence through the route of his own soul's instincts:

Not what man sees, but what God sees—the Ideas of Plato, seeds of creation lying burningly on the Divine Hand—it is toward these that he struggles. Not with the combination of humanity in action, but with the primal elements of humanity he has to do; and he digs where he stands,—preferring to seek them in his own soul as the nearest reflex of that absolute Mind, according to the intuitions of which he desires to perceive and speak.

The objective poet by contrast, looked outward, endeavoring "to reproduce things external (whether the phenomena of the scenic universe, or the manifested action of the human heart and brain) with an immediate reference, in every case, to the common eye and apprehension of his fellow men."89 The specific quality which distinguished this second poet was discriminated as his "double faculty" of seeing more clearly than the average mind while minutely apprehending the capacity of his audience and tailoring his expression to the limits of their comprehension.

That Barrett Browning approved of these definitions is made clear in Aurora Leigh when she borrows Browning's metaphors (the seeds of creation and the double vision) to identify the aspirations of her poet-heroine. In book 3 Aurora assures herself of her genuine (if temporarily latent) poetic faculty:

"And yet I felt it in me where it burnt,
Like those hot fire-seeds of creation held
In Jove's clenched palm before the worlds were sown,—
But I—I was not Juno even!


The Aurora Leigh we meet in book 3 is a naturally subjective poet, because of her sex, and yet is threatened, by the fact of her gender, with exclusion from her poetic inheritance. In the pivotal book 5, which includes the longest and most sustained arguments on the appropriate character and function of poetry, the heroine argues that the poet should adopt a masculine and objective manner in order to represent and reproduce the external world of the modern age. Thus, as an aspiring objective poet, she proposes that it is the poet's (and her own) duty to "exert a double vision," able to perceive at once broadly and intimately (5,183-88).

For her poet-character, Barrett Browning conceived a blend of both poetic models, not abandoning the subjective (and more recognizably feminine) inward view but expanding the capacity of seeing to include the objective faculties of mimesis, drama, and realism which reflected the contemporary scene and its urgent social concerns, to make them an integral part of Aurora's vision.

Here Barrett Browning encountered, and overcame, a significant and demanding problem. The work which purports to be the autobiography of such a poet must necessarily enact the fusion of the artist's view of subject and object, must actively display and live out in the poetry itself the very qualities described as distinguishing the works written by the poet-heroine. To achieve such "living form"90 in verse required a new approach to form and narrative treatment.


"Education against development System against instinct"

When describing her plans for a verse-novel to Mary Russell Mitford and Robert Browning in 1844 and 1845, Elizabeth Barrett made particular reference to the necessity of seeking a "new story" for the purpose. One of her objections to Napoleon as a subject was that his was "a known story," for she wished to interest her readers in "a new way," not possible with a known story. To Browning also she reiterated the importance of originality, saying that only with a new story could she "take liberties" with the treatment.92 This concern suggests very clearly that, as initially conceived, part of the novelty of Barrett Browning's poem depended upon her being able to use elements of surprise and challenge which would not be open to her if her audience were able to anticipate her story. Knowledge in the reader, or expectations based on experience of conventional literary form, brought constriction in Barrett Browning's view. Familiar narratives and conventional forms were to be rejected in favor of a new story enabling a language and form which forced the poem into a lived existence by emphasizing its process of making.93 Her project, formal as well as political, was to privilege instinct and development as process, over the ordering limits of education and system.94

"Lady Geraldine's Courtship" (Poems 1844), a poem closely related to the genesis of Aurora Leigh, offers an early model for Barrett Browning's experiment with narrative treatment. Like the later verse-novel, the ballad is a first-person narrative, but it is also a curtailed autobiography in the form of a letter written (though not sent) by a male poet, Bertram, to an unnamed (male) friend and "fellow-student." The presence of the friend is conjured at the beginning of the poem to provide the impetus for self-revelation which inspires the ensuing work. The act of telling the story is presented as an act of appropriation as the poet-speaker attempts to exert some control over the events he narrates by organizing his story into a proper shape.95 This act of control on the poet's part is particularly desirable to the speaker—and potentially misleading for both speaker and reader—because the events which the poet would narrate are not yet resolved and their consequences still unknown.

As the poem unfolds the reader learns, through a retrospective summary, that the poet is staying at Wycombe Hall, that he was invited there by the owner of the estate, Lady Geraldine, and that his time there has been passed in her intellectual company. The narrative then approaches the present time at stanza 57 where the events of "this morning" are related, partly in dramatic dialogue. A break occurs when the poet-narrator faints before Lady Geraldine (stanzas 87-88), and the narrative finally catches up with the present as the speaker describes himself alone in his room in the act of writing his letter—the poem itself.96

For the conclusion, the narrative method changes from first to third person as it describes the resolution of Geraldine's approach to Bertram. The conversion of narrative method from first to third person is awkward and distracting; it suggests a degree of discomfort with this fantasy of reconciliation, especially as Lady Geraldine is still barely permitted any speech.97 Indeed, the change in narrative method, the emphasis upon Bertram's vision, Lady Geraldine's silence, the sense of trance, and chanting repetition, might all imply that these events are not real but a fantastic delusion. The possibility of such a reading challenges any notion of this poet's simple recommendation of cross-class marriage and the recognition of poetry's nobility as a cure for social ills.

The employment of a first person narrative, written in the midst of events, as opposed to comfortable retrospect, and liable consequently to error which is communicated to the reader as truth,98 as well as the change to third person immediate narrative, make "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" a potentially unsettling poem, capable of a subversive questioning of order and expectation through the use of an unknown story.

As some of Elizabeth Barrett's early ballads and romances included a doubleness through the juxtaposition of a sentimental surface with a condemnation of current values, so Barrett Browning's later poems often exhibited similar balancing acts through the use of more specifically technical literary devices. Such devices included reversal of conventional expectation, narrative unreliability; repetition and revision, dual time-scales allowing readjustment, and narratives split between speakers or rhetorically adjusted for particular listeners. The presence of these techniques promotes the involvement of the reader, as well as inserting a challenge to her perspectives on literature and on social issues (e.g., "Lord Walter's Wife"). The later poems also suggest an increasing exploitation of the idea of immediacy. Far from allowing her poems to rise from "emotion recollected in tranquillity," Barrett Browning's longer poems (e.g., Sonnets from the Portuguese, Casa Guidi Windows, and Aurora Leigh) claim to express the emotion of the moment, complete with misapprehension and error.

Casa Guidi Windows, the first of Barrett Browning's "Italian" poems, and one of those written during the eight-year interval between the conception and the composition of Aurora Leigh, drew on a known story. But it nonetheless presented a discomforting ambivalence through its reliance upon the poet's personal view. In Casa Guidi Windows the real political events of 1847-1849 were described in the manner of the objective poet; but the subjective is also employed as Barrett Browning makes herself the viewer and narrator of the tale. She is the actor who interprets the manner of Leopold II as he appears on the balcony of the Palazzo Pitti in 1847; she witnesses the arrival of the Austrian army of occupation and offers the bitterness of her own reaction as a measure of general opinion; she frankly owns her attitudes to political events and personalities to be influenced by her personal life, even including her own pregnancy; and in the smile of her own son, her Florentine, the poet sees a general hope for Italian freedom and rebirth. The work is presented as an intensely personal view which—and this is where the poem claims an originality of form—thereby obtains power as an authentic fragment of experience. What is revolutionary about the sexual politics of the poem is that the central voice which carries the weight of this truth through subjectivity, is clearly identified as that of a woman. With apparent subjectivity comes an actual objectivity; the conventional margin (the female self watching from a window) is translated to the actual center.

Barrett Browning certainly conceived of the value of Casa Guidi Windows as lying with its sincere presentation of a personal view, consciously including all her own errors of judgment as a measure of her developing perception. In the "Advertisement to the First Edition," the poet chose to point to the disparity between the optimistic opinion of Duke Leopold expressed in part 1 and the disillusionment recounted in part 2, as a means of proving the writer's honesty and thus adding to the work's authority and value. Barrett Browning's "confession of error"—"Absolve me, patriots, of my woman's fault / That ever I believed the man was true"—and the subjective view acknowledged in the "Advertisement," have been the evidence invoked to charge Barrett Browning's political poetry with naiveté. But such criticism completely fails to take account of the poet's arguments for the value of the personal view as the true measure of the universal. Her "confession" of her "woman's fault" is extraordinary, both for its own irony (it was a fault to believe a man and a ruler true) and for the simple way in which it has been misread by critics (only a woman could be so stupid—the critic forgetting what it is that she has been stupid about). Significantly, in the "Advertisement" Barrett Browning endorsed subjective error as representing, in itself, a form of truth: "But such discrepancies we are called upon to accept at every hour by the conditions of our nature, implying the interval between aspiration and performance, between faith and disillusion, between hope and fact."99

But subjective error in Casa Guidi Windows is recognizably that. Because Barrett Browning was dealing with recent events, her readers had access to a measure which enabled them to discern the degree of error included in her version. In 1851 any reader with an interest in European affairs might have known the eventual outcome of the historical events Barrett Browning was describing, and she or he might have been able to appreciate the irony of part 1 where the poet expresses the trust invested in the Grand Duke by witnesses to the scenes of 1847. Aurora Leigh, like Casa Guidi Windows, fused a description of the modern world with a private focus for observation and interpretation. But Aurora Leigh, unlike Casa Guidi Windows, told a new and unknown story where the reader was not to be permitted any indication which should help her to assess the partiality of its narrator by reference to historically verifiable fact.

Aurora Leigh displays the changing perceptions of one consciousness—explicitly female—in a given set of situations. But while in Sonnets from the Portuguese and Casa Guidi Windows the protagonist was (more or less) frankly Elizabeth Barrett Browning's self, in Aurora Leigh that prominence is given to a fictional character. The events which make up the plot of the verse-novel are not so much of interest for themselves as for the opportunities which they allow that character to raise, to ponder, and to resolve a variety of intellectual, cultural, and social questions. Carrying through her notion of the subjective view as the nearest approach to a genuinely objective view, Barrett Browning offers the reader intimate access to the consciousness of only one character, that one character being both actor and narrator—and a woman.

As the narrative progresses, certain problems arise out of this dependence upon the one consciousness. Like the poet-narrators of "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" and Casa Guidi Windows, Aurora writes her autobiography while living in the midst of the events she describes. Moreover, as her autobiography is also a record of Aurora's intellectual life, supposedly written while it is still being carried forward and before she reaches any resolved understanding of her personality and potential, the narrative must include error, misapprehension, modification, and revision. The reader is asked to share all the fluctuating opinions of the actor-narrator enacted before her, not to demand consistency but to experience each step toward a notional growth as and when Aurora herself experiences it. These are the liberties which appear in the story used for Barrett Browning's verse-novel, and yet few contemporary critics attended to that enterprise, inclining rather to view the narrative as "chaotic."100 The form of fictional autobiography allowed space to chart the conflicting processes of modification and reassessment. And crucial to this enacted experience is a chronological structure which gives the narrative a past, present, and future.101

Aurora Leigh's story covers a period of thirty years, by which time she is an acclaimed poet living in Florence. But Aurora does not tell her story from this vantage point, nor is the verse-novel constructed upon principles of retrospect and linear time. The narrative of Aurora Leigh begins in the midst of the period which spans the events described, and the Aurora who resolves to embark upon her autobiography at the beginning of book 1 is twenty-six or twenty-seven, a writer of only moderate repute, living alone in London.102 That it is this character (Aurora in her mid-twenties) whose narrative voice is intermittently encountered in books 1-4 of the work is implied at the opening of book 3, but that character herself is only fully explained to the reader at book 5.103

The initial pages of the first draft manuscript of Aurora Leigh throw light on this feature of the work, showing the opening of the chronological and narrative scheme and employing the confessional tone which colors the published version.104 In draft the poem commences with three passages: the first contemplates the discrepancy between the aspirations of youth and the realities of unfolding life; the second looks back upon the childhood of the narrator and begins "God help me—I am still—"; and the third, returning to the present situation of the speaker, discloses her intention to write (something) that very evening:

"Leave the lamp, Agnes, & go up to bed—
This hair does very well—I have to write
Beyond the stroke of midnight—."

Only on the fifth page of the draft does the heroine embark upon a retrospective autobiography. All three of the draft opening passages appeared in modified form in the published versions, but the first and the third of these were removed, apparently early in the composition process, to form the beginning of book 3. Thus, the evidence of the original version for the opening of Aurora Leigh indicates that the beginning of book 3 is related to the opening scene of the entire verse-novel. Moreover, it suggests that the work which Aurora sits down to write in book 3 is her autobiography. In revision Barrett Browning made the age and condition of her actor/narrator less explicit, but Aurora is still described as a woman living alone (1.28) and supporting herself by writing (1.2-3).

At 1.29 Aurora Leigh begins her story in the conventional way with an account of her parents, her birth, and childhood. Books 1 and 2 give a retrospective account of her youth and education, her developing vocation, and Romney's proposal, all the events being described as past, although many conversations are related in the present tense.

In the opening passage of book 3 (1-156) the present Aurora (living in London as a writer aged twenty-six or twenty-seven) is discovered. As at 1.1-9 the present tense is adopted for the initial reverie (3.1-24) and the immediacy of the scene is further emphasised by Aurora's address to her maid (3.25-35). It is seven years since Aurora's twentieth birthday (2.1238 and 3.146), and Aurora has not seen Romney Leigh for some eighteen months (as we discover at 5.572-73). This passage is actually written after the events described in books 3 and 4 have taken place: thus Carrington's letter refers to Romney's "phalansteries" (3.108) although Romney apparently did not found the Fourierist community at Leigh Hall until after the loss of Marian Erle (5.574-75). Also, Aurora opens her account of the failed wedding by confessing her own contribution by default to the events of that day (4.438-39, 445-50, 464-67) revealing that she knows of that failure before she begins writing. At 3.156 Aurora breaks off her present tense meditation in order to resume the retrospect on her past history: "No matter; I bear on my broken tale."

As in the first two books, books 3 and 4 are set in the past, though many scenes are related dramatically in the present tense. At book 5 the narrative catches up with the chronological development of the story and thereafter the retrospective narrative is discarded in favor of a series of "journal entries," each entry including a summary of events in the recent past but beginning and ending in the present tense. The first of these entries (5.579-1278) tells of the party at Lord Howe's which has taken place on the day upon which Aurora is writing (5.580, 1037) and ends with Aurora's decision to leave England for Italy (5.1261). The second journal entry shows Aurora in Paris, includes her sighting Marian Erle, and ends with her extended but futile search for the girl (6.1-411). The illusion of a diary is maintained with the immediacy of the next entry:

—I thank God I have found her! I must say
"Thank God," for finding her, although 'tis true
I find the world more sad and wicked for't.
But she—
I'll write about her, presently.
My hand's a-tremble, as I had just caught up
My heart to write with, in the place of it.
At least you'd take these letters to be writ
At sea, in storm!—wait now . .


The large block of narrative which follows, dealing with the discovery of Marian, her story, and agreement to travel to Italy, is related in the present tense though it takes place in the past. As the entry comes to a close in the present, Aurora reproduces the letters she has just written to Lord Howe and Lady Waldemar and carries the reader into her present as she speaks in soliloquy while watching over Marian and her child (7.391-94).

The following journal entry (7.395-1039) is written some time after Aurora's establishment in Florence and catches up with Aurora's present on the day when she receives the letter from Vincent Carrington. The verse moves through the past to the present tense to bring the reader into Aurora's present (7.661-62, 668-69, 672, 675, 696-97). The final entry (7.1040-311) covers a considerable period of time (7.1040, 1273) though no new incidents occur to advance the plot.

In books 8 and 9, a third narrative method is adopted. The action covered by these two books takes place on the one night, and yet no lapse of time is included which might allow Aurora the opportunity of formally recording the events. Instead, the living Aurora overlaps with the narrating Aurora at the moment of experience. Discussion with Romney is related in quotation marks (e.g., 8.71-78, 80-123, 129-35) while Aurora's thoughts in reaction are presented as responses to specific words, formulated at the moment of reaction, and uninfluenced by any later knowledge, including knowledge acquired on that same evening (8.78-80, 123-29, 136-40, 159-69). The formally realistic methods of simple retrospect (books 1-4) and journal entries (books 5-7) are displaced in the concluding books (books 8-9) in favor of a purely literary narrative approach which transgresses the rules of narrative order to record events while in progress.105

This narrative experiment takes up from "Lady Geraldine's Courtship": in that poem the difficulties of a narrative conclusion without mature retrospect are side-stepped by the resort to an omniscient third person. In the concluding books of Aurora Leigh however, the accessibility of strict representation is exploited by retaining the objective and realistic characteristics of the novel part of the verse-novel formula—that is, the colloquial language, the use of dialogue, and the device of the introduced letter. But at the same time the unrealistic narrative method of an immediate recording of events allows scope for the poetic and subjective elements of philosophic and prophetic digression.

The verse-novel does have a form, but it is one which is defined either by its opposition to—and evasion of—conventional forms (not novel, not epic, not lyric, not ballad, not drama),106 or else as an innovative and self consciously literary form. In its chronology, the poem has a precise pattern, the main action covering the ten years between Aurora's twentieth and thirtieth birthdays, but within that shape is a contrived pattern of repetitions which promote the possibilities for revision and comparison. In book 2, Aurora and Romney argue about poetry, the woman question, philanthropy, and independence; in book 8, Romney and Aurora's debate is resurrected and revised. Over books 3-5, Marian tells her story of isolation and humiliation; in books 6-7, her second story repeats and modifies her first.107

Just as events are repeated, so each of the three secondary characters reflect or parallel Aurora's experience. Similar techniques of repetition, inversion, and modification are employed for metaphors, images, ideas, and dialogues set up to be recalled and redefined at a later stage. Thus, for example, Marian twice refers to the painfully dazzling quality of Lady Waldemar's beauty (4.937-38 and 6.1007-10); the portrait of Aurora's mother is obliquely recalled on more than one occasion; and Romney's weak eyesight is remarked (4.976-77) foreshadowing his blinding.108 The image of the book, or the muse, the question of an ideal education, the influence of father and mother, are all repeated and reexamined without any resolving summary. Thus the very length of the verse-novel gives the work a figurative past, but that past is a shifting history and subject to constant revision.


"The artist's part is both to be and do"
"subjectivity turned outward into an actual objectivity"

As the narrative pattern of Aurora Leigh includes the doubling processes of repetition and revision, so the same procedure of fragmentation is evoked in the poet's employment of a multiplicity of voices. Aurora's is the overriding voice, but stories other than Aurora's are told: the histories of Aurora's parents (1.29-214 and 2.606-31); Marian's two stories (3.827-4.150 and 6.900-7.113); the homilies of Romney (2.129-324) or Lord Howe (5.922-51); Lady Waldemar's tale (3.344-737). The numerous letters included in the text (Romney to Aurora and vice-versa in book 2; Aurora to Lady Waldemar in books 5 and 7, and Lady Waldemar to Aurora in book 9; Vincent Carrington to Aurora in books 3 and 7) also create stories and texts other than Aurora's own. But those alternative versions are always mediated by Aurora's authoritative narrating voice as she takes over to repeat and reinterpret, offering those other stories with a double focus.111 More important and more striking still is the duality of Aurora's own voice as both actor and poet. Aurora Leigh describes the poet's art in terms of an amputation of experience on the one hand and of song on the other,112 and in her autobiographical narrative she acts out both parts, suffering and recording.

Barrett Browning's own literary creed recognized her ambivalent position as a woman poet on the margins of a tradition which enabled and excluded her, so that her accounts of the importance of poetry in her life are always couched in terms of a division between the natural and physical life and the truer life attainable in the practice of composition.113 And to Aurora, also a woman poet, Barrett Browning lends the same sense of the poetic as an alternative to nature and experience.

The metaphor which announces Aurora's autobiographical enterprise to the reader points to the split between the protagonist's role as actor and her role as self-regarding narrator:

Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others' uses, will write now for mine,—
Will write my story for my better self
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is


It also declares the exploratory nature of the ensuing narrative, which will craft the experience of the protagonist into poetic shape and which, through that very act of writing, will enable Aurora to construct and analyze her self. In the early books of the verse-novel, Aurora, as narrator, shows herself to be aware of the various attempts foisted upon her as an individual—and a woman—to write her story for her. Her aunt tells of the compact made between Aurora's father and Romney's, Vane Leigh, thus inscribing a plot for Aurora which is apparently foreordained (2.582-655). When Aurora tears up Romney's letter to her aunt—significantly unread—she escapes the "cruel springe" (2.1095) of the preordained story and the plotted self written for her by others.114 Only with the destruction of that text is she released into the possibility of self-construction which initiates the composition of her autobiography. At the beginning of the verse-novel "I write" is reiterated, bringing those two projects together,115 and the act of writing, in numerous forms, is emphasized and incorporated into the text. Autobiography, the private journal, and correspondence, as well as the professional acts of composing poetry and writing for the journals, are all represented within the verse-novel. In addition, the processes of writing and reading are recalled in elaborate metaphors usually relating to self-knowledge and knowledge of others (1.1-8; 824-32; 2.74-80, 369, 836-37; 5.39-41; 7.1232-35; 8.475-77).

The first four books of Aurora's story present to the reader Aurora the actor, the events of whose life are retailed, and Aurora the narrator, who comments upon those events from the point of view of her apparent maturity.116 The brooding presence of the narrating Aurora overshadows the early books of Aurora Leigh, where she examines the dialogue and interrupts the (apparently) precise account with a commentary upon the action which interprets the scenes and characters with retrospective knowledge and with seeming candor.117 The irony of this narrative method relies upon the ability of the reader to recognize the discrepancies between the versions which Aurora chooses to tell at any given time.

In these early books, the two roles of the protagonist, as actor and narrator/writer, are clearly distinguished both in chronological terms and also in terms of personality. At the same time, the two strains of literary form which make up the fabric of the poem—objective fiction and subjective lyric—are similarly aligned: the relation of events and conversations—the novelistic element—belongs largely to the past, and the heroine of that tale is the youthful Aurora characterized by enthusiasm and aspiration; the philosophical exposition and digression—the poetic element—is presented as retrospective commentary delivered in the present tense, and originates with the narrator, the Aurora of book 5 who is older, and as we are led to believe, wiser.

As from book 5 however, the narrative method comprising the journal entry sequence lessens the divide between actor and narrator, the interval between experience and expression is correspondingly curtailed, and the Aurora who both suffers and speaks is no longer temporally divided. The novelistic and poetic elements of the work are segregated still, but Aurora's lyrical reveries are no longer presented as a commentary on past events but take on a new, more urgently self-analytical character. Each aside or discursive passage is dedicated to testing and questioning, to exercises in self-recognition and self-definition; and it is the very act of writing up her journal entries which becomes the instrument of that process. For instance, concluding her account of the party at Lord Howe's with Lady Waldemar's spiteful speech, Aurora writes in her journal noting, "This reckoning up and writing down her talk / Affects me singularly" (5.1042-43) and then goes on to analyze the reasons for this reaction. In book 6, it is only while writing down the circumstances of her brief sighting of Marian some time after that event that Aurora recalls a facet of the memory of that encounter which she had attempted to suppress—the sight of the child in Marian's arms:

. . . can I keep my own soul blind
To the other half, . . the worse? What are our souls,
If still, to run on straight a sober pace
Nor start at every pebble or dead leaf,

They must wear blinkers, ignore facts, suppress
Six tenths of the road? Confront the truth, my soul!


The writing up of the story of Marian's rape is also used as a means of revealing to the narrator new aspects of her own character as, in the process of writing, Aurora relives the emotions engendered by the tale which she would now retell. Aurora records all her own temporary errors and misunderstandings (6.582-83, 612-17) without reference to the knowledge she has acquired before beginning to write, and so she leads up to a confrontation with her error, effected in the process of "writing up."

Aurora goes on attempting to "write herself'118 and to inscribe her own story, both through the choices which she makes in her life (for instance, the move from England to Italy; see 7.1193-96, 1200-1203), and through the writing of the text-within-the-text, the book which Aurora Leigh writes and publishes during the period of action covered in the verse-novel. Through the presence of that book in the poem, the work proposes a swerve away from its reiterated emphasis upon subjectivity and the construction of the identity of the female self and outward into an actual objectivity. Once Aurora has written herself clearly into contemporary history and culture by "publishing herself," she can be read and even be more accurately interpreted by the (masculine) public world from which her (feminine) private subjectivity should otherwise exclude her. Romney, Vincent Carrington, and Kate Ward all read Aurora's book, and, in different ways, endorse its general and political, as opposed to its private and personal, significance.119 Thus, as in Barrett Browning's Casa Guidi Windows, the feminine margin with its valorization of the subjective and personal is presented as the true account of the central, general, and political masculine world.

Cora Kaplan notes that Aurora Leigh, as an attempt "to discuss the relationship between women's experience, politics and creativity" stands behind other novels centering on women's writing, notably Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (1962).120 In fact, the two works are also remarkably similar in their strategy of initial disintegration, segregating prose narrative of events (Lessing's "Free Women" novel-within-novel; Barrett Browning's relation of the conventions of contemporary life in the plot of the verse-novel) and lyrical exposition and expansion upon politics, philosophy, and art (in Lessing's novel, the notebooks; in Aurora Leigh, the interspersed subjective commentary). Furthermore, in both cases, the emphasis in the philosophical and subjective discursive narrative is placed upon the construction of an individualized self to be analyzed and explored there. In this way, Aurora Leigh is recognizably an ancestor, not only to The Golden Notebook but also to all those experimental works which cross the boundaries between the genres of fiction and criticism to employ the digressions of history, or philosophy, or fantasy, as narrative tools. Thus firstly enabling the analysis of woman's subjectivity and secondly permitting a more overtly political project which confronts conventional restrictions upon the expression ofthat female self.121

Aurora's book, the text-within-the-text of Aurora Leigh, is an idealized projection of Barrett Browning's own verse-novel. Aurora's poetic theories, expounded in book 5, indicate that the book which she produces is composed on the same principles as those which inspired Barrett Browning.122 And it is not only the theory of poetry proposed and displayed in Aurora Leigh but even the actual circumstances of its publication which are mirrored with Aurora's own work; in 1856 Barrett Browning, like Aurora, left her poem in the hands of her publisher as she departed for Italy to await its publication and reception. In addition, Barrett Browning included in Aurora Leigh the two fantasies of a group of ideal readers and a welcoming public reception to her literary and political messages. In fact, as it turned out, Barrett Browning's model for the public reception accorded her poem remained only a fantasy, for the contemporary critical attention given to the actual verse-novel focused on the personal and not on the theoretical. And in the verse-novel itself, the conclusion is the place where Barrett Browning faces the possibility that her optimistic projections for the construction of an autonomous and written self might be exposed as fables of desire.

After she has written her book, Aurora's scope for action, both as actor and narrator, shrinks into a smaller sphere (7.1296-1311). This silencing and absence of text appears for the first time in a work which insists upon its self-consciousness as a text-in-process. When the verse-novel reaches its resolution with the union of Romney and Aurora, Aurora herself comments upon the transference of her written text into lived emotion:

I have written day by day,
With somewhat even writing. Did I think
That such a passionate rain would intercept
And dash this last page?


Aurora seems, at the end, to accept a limit on the poet's narrating capacity and confesses herself unable to articulate:

What he said, indeed,
I fain would write it down here like the rest,

What he said,
I fain would write. But if an angel spoke

In thunder, should we haply know much more
Than that it thundered? If a cloud came down
And wrapt us wholly, could we draw its shape,
As if on the outside and not overcome?

(9.728-29, 737-42)

The clue to the reason for this new silence on Aurora's part is suggested by the late introduction of the feminizing elements pressurizing Aurora: Marian as natural woman, Italy as motherland, her identification with other women. One possible resolution of Aurora's story, a resolution which Aurora is unable to articulate, is proposed by Romney.

A passage from book 7 prefigures this moment in the poem in arguing that "Love strikes higher with his lambent flame / Than Art can pile the faggots."123 As has long been recognized, Aurora's life-argument seems to rest, in the end, upon a love versus art opposition. Less immediately obvious is the fact that these two ideas are only relevantly opposed when the poet/artist under discussion is also a woman. Aurora (and, to some extent, Barrett Browning—like other women poets of the nineteenth century) internalizes the ideology of the woman's sphere where, as a woman, she can only be fully human with the fulfillment of romantic love and a sexual relation.124

Aurora Leigh is a narrative which involves a quest, but it is a heroine's quest for the whole self and, as such, requires a resolution which includes successful marriage as the conventionally defining characteristic of feminine completeness. But by accepting this part of the ideology of patriarchy, Aurora might be courting a self-silencing; once she is complete as a woman—and resolved as a story—she will not be able to go on with the speaking/writing of the self but will be authored by conventional expectations (as in Romney's account of an ending), losing those imperatives of self-determination which were the incentive to narrative in the first place."125 Yet as the poem concludes, Aurora resists that ending to insist that she will go on with her professional career. The poet's perspective on the nature of woman and the place of romantic expectation in that nature suggests the character of the assumptions which require that Aurora negotiate, and avoid, a potentially negative resolution.


"I'm a woman, sir,
I use the woman's figures naturally"


From the opening account of the conventionally feminine career of Aurora's mother (youth, marriage, childbirth, death), Barrett Browning initiates a discussion of the traditional, the natural, and the actual in the female character.127 Aurora's mother, associated with an other prearticulate world (a Wordsworthian "outer Infinite" where the only word she speaks is "Hush") and a foreign and sensuous land, is given priority in the introduction to her autobiography (1.1-19). The figure of the mother as the embodiment of Aurora's "anxiety of womanliness"128 is then powerfully represented in the portrait which haunts Aurora's childhood (1.128-75).

But in opposition to this womanly heritage is placed the image of Aurora's father, who embodies the masculine principle as intellectual, articulate, cold, conventional, and English—and his presence is invoked by Aurora as she begins to write:

0 my father's hand,
Stroke heavily, heavily the poor hair down,
Draw, press the child's head closer to thy knee!
I'm still too young, too young, to sit alone.

I write.


When Aurora begins to write her autobiography, at the age of twenty-six and while the self-construction enacted in the autobiographical process is still going forward, she perceives her mother as representing a feminine ideal which enjoins her to silence and offers a role model restricted to that of object to be viewed. Through her father, by contrast, Aurora envisions herself as empowered to speak as he gives her the qualifications which will allow her to enter literary discourse otherwise closed to her because of her sex. He provides a traditionally masculine education in the classics ("He wrapt his little daughter in his large / Man's doublet," 1.727-28), and encourages independent thought (1.189-90). Thus, when Aurora looks for literary models, it is to father-poets that she turns (1.1003-15). With this background Aurora cannot conform to the feminine mould which her aunt prescribes; she ridicules the trivial program of an orthodox female education (1.392-426),129 and incongruously embroiders her shepherdess with pink eyes (1.451). Aurora declares herself self-sufficient (1.470-80, 1026-66), and, claiming a vocation as a poet, she regrets the necessity of gender for any poet (2.90-91).

As Aurora reaches adulthood, she learns that it is not possible to reject altogether the imperatives of gender construction. Because of her alien mother, and, in effect, her own very femaleness which places her outside masculine traditions, she will be denied her rightful patrimony (1.606-13) and be forced to a position of dependency. In the proposal scene where Romney and Aurora dispute the area and scale of female achievement, Romney's conventional perspective can offer Aurora only two appropriate female roles; charity worker under his lead (2.350-77) or domestic solace and inspiration (2.832-33). Rejecting the abdication of power implicit in both these parts, Aurora accepts that by exchanging the heart for the head and becoming a writer, she must inevitably obtain an unsexed or transsexual condition (3.406-11 and 5.805-11). Thus Aurora's feminine inheritance is discarded and all her achievement as a poet is effected in her father's land and in his language.130 Associating the power of writing and the right to self-expression with the masculine, Aurora goes on with her search for the father, which is also a quest for her own literary authority.131

During this period of alienation from the traditional values associated with the feminine, Aurora Leigh has a great deal to say about women and the female character. And most of it is platitudinous and derogatory: the emotional life of woman is illogical, irrational, and not susceptible of control (2.701-6, 7.200-202, 966-67); it is the nature of woman to crave the approbation of some one certain man in all she attempts (5.43-44) and to find herself incapable of tolerating loneliness even though she may have chosen an independent life (5.439-41); women will, for love, submit to self-sacrifice (7.222-23) and yet persist in attention-seeking overreaction in trivial matters (8.188-92).132 But an inspection of these and similar passages reveals that each one follows directly on some penetrating realization on Aurora's part which almost (but not quite) forces her to confront her long-suppressed desire for her cousin. Associating her unnamed, indissoluble, and disruptive passion with her female nature, Aurora condemns that female character as weak, irresolute, and changeable, and values the masculine in her character as the site of reason and order:

Poor mixed rags
Forsooth we're made of, like those other dolls
That lean with pretty faces into fairs.
It seems as if I had a man in me,
Despising such a woman . . .

Put away
This weakness. If, as I have just now said,
A man's within me,—let him act himself,
Ignoring the poor conscious trouble of blood
That's called the woman merely.

(7.210-14, 228-32)

Nonetheless, when occasion arises, Aurora is shown to be not unwilling to play the traditionally feminine part. Sharing Romney's distress after the disappearance of Marian Erle, Aurora attempts to comfort him and to the task she brings a technique which she recognizes as typical of conventional female skills: "And I, instinctively, as women use" (4.1088-1108). Here Aurora gives up her self-consciously intellectual stance to relinquish reason for instinct (4.1088), her claim to speech for inarticulateness ("humming" and "murmuring" 4.1090, 1095), and her knowledge for "ignorance" (4.1091).133 Aurora might seem here to have established her identity sufficiently securely to be able to afford some concession to the old-fashioned values of her sex. But this murmuring and ignorance is far removed from Aurora's intelligent capacity for speech. To gain, momentarily, Romney's approval, Aurora indulges in a masquerade of womanliness,134 which she soon has to abandon for her old antagonistic asexuality (5.32-72) in the face of Romney's condescending evaluation of her poetry (4.1111-17). Testing out feminine roles in the first half of the verse-novel, Aurora can find none compatible with her professional life. Not, however, because woman and art are essentially incompatible but because Aurora's idea of the repertoire of the feminine is constricted by the stereotyped models available to her.

Because Aurora believes in the poet's (and her own) special capacity to see the truth, she is seduced into pronouncing the half-truths and generalizations which her private needs dictate as if they were absolutes. Yet the poem does not propose that Aurora's credos on womanhood be taken seriously, for the narrative includes a reconciliation with her sex in its account of Aurora's intellectual progress. This reconciliation is eventually effected through the mediation of Marian Erle.135 The trajectory described by Marian Erle's career inverts the pattern of Aurora's136 to demonstrate the essential need of the individual (woman) to establish a security of self-recognition. Marian is a natural woman: she "springs up" like a "nettle" (3.854-58) and begins life as an outcast (3.836-46), much as Aurora's feminine side is formulated in the foreignness of her mother. But where the middle-class Aurora is inducted into conventional social order by her father's education and her aunt's function as "patriarchy's paradigmatic housekeeper,"137 Marian, partly as a result of her class, remains altogether unsocialized, naturally female—a nettle and not an artifically selected pink (3.853).138

The comparison is an important one, for it clearly shows the way in which Barrett Browning employs and questions a conventional idea of woman as "undevelopt man." She draws on contemporary biological theories which, extrapolating from such facts as brain weight (which is theorized into an opposition of feminine intuition versus masculine reason and mentioned in Aurora Leigh at 1.60-63), argued that woman, like earlier forms of human development in the evolutionary chain, represented a lower form of life than that higher stage represented by man.139 From her first introduction, Marian is associated closely with natural images which suggest both her untroubled femininity—markedly unlike Aurora's—and the consequent exploitation which she suffers in common with all the natural world used by the higher order of civilized man. Even the description of Marian's birth affirms her alliance with a generalized Mother Nature who brings her forth in defiance of "man's law" and "the social code" (3.841-46).

Marian remains an outcast educated by looking at the sky (3.881-901), by reading the book of the earth (3.950-52), and through studying scraps of texts which she gleans to make "a nosegay of the sweet and good / To fold within her breast" (3.991-92). Without social power, she is bodily subject to exploitation: her parents regard her as a meal-ticket and her mother (whose own wretched experience Marian's life seems set to repeat) attempts to sell her, forcing her to flee from the hills and dwell in the town. There, too, Marian finds no companionship with her worldly fellow seamstresses, until one of them requires her womanly assistance in her illness.140

When Romney offers Marian marriage he also offers her the feminine role of assistant in philanthropic enterprise for which she is naturally suited. But in describing the scene of Romney's proposal, Barrett Browning uses a metaphor which suggests that here, too, Marian suffers the rapacious (though natural) physical exploitation of the weak by the strong and is more Romney's victim than his willing bride:

All the rest, he held her hand
In speaking, which confused the sense of much.
Her heart against his words beat out so thick,
They might as well be written on the dust
Where some poor bird, escaping from hawk's beak,
Has dropped and beats its shuddering wings,—the lines
Are rubbed so, . . .


Marian is willing, but blindly so, not recognizing any conditions which she herself might require of such a union. When Aurora questions Romney's love for Marian, the girl, puzzled at first that any woman might make demands (4.168-202), later realizes the significance of the question (4.944-49). In book 2, Aurora had refused Romney's offer of marriage because it reduced her to the status of a slave, denying her vocation and identity. Marian, we learn eventually, was prepared to accept the same reductive offer because she acquiesced in the necessity of female sacrifice:141

She felt his
For just his uses, not her own at all,

.. . let him write
His name upon her . . it seemed natural;

(6.906-7, 911-12)

In Marian's second story, the notional rape expressed by this formula is translated into actual experience of the extremes of sexual humiliation ("Do wolves seduce a wandering fawn in France? / Do eagles, who have pinched a lamb with claws, / Seduce it into carrion?" 6.767-69), and Marian does, literally, lose her identity and sense of self. She is deranged for some time (6.1230-68) and describes herself thereafter as changed, tortured into a different form as the sea marks a stone (6.809-12) or altered as death reshapes body and spirit (6.812-31). The evolutionary character of those passages is also rendered clear by the introduction of the "madrepores" passage in book 6 (804-12). As in a similar (though more extended) passage in Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke,142 Marian hallucinates an accelerated process of biological development from the lowest form of life where she loses all sense of a civilized individual self and becomes nothing but a body. That this process is figuratively applied to the "use-value"143 experience of women in the nineteenth century is made explicit later in the verse-novel when Aurora refers to the prevalence of prostitution in the "civilized" cities of Europe as the marketing of daughters as "offal" (7.864-66).

As a mother, too, Marian continues her role as natural (and subservient) woman. At first, she declares that it is only for the sake of her (male) child that she continues to live, and in that relation she remains unaware of any personal need:

She leaned above him (drinking him as wine)

. . . Self-forgot, cast out of self,
And drowning in the transport of the sight

(7.599, 604-5)

However, when Romney later comes to claim Marian, urged on by the apparent requirement of protection for the social exile, he finds that Marian (through Aurora's example) has learnt a new sense of her own worth which confers an independence:

.. . I, who felt myself unworthy once
Of virtuous Romney and his high-born race,
Have come to learn,—a woman, poor or rich,
Despised or honoured, is a human soul,
And what her soul is, that, she is herself,
Although she should be spit upon of men


Furthermore, after refusing Romney's offer of protective marriage, Marian can envisage a life without her son, which makes practical use of her female experience of suffering (9.436-39).

That Marian's career should examine a progression from a natural femininity of sacrifice to a learned self-respect and identity is endorsed by the replies which Barrett Browning gave to friends who complained of the violence meted out to the character. To Sarianna Browning she wrote, "Marian had to be dragged through the uttermost debasement of circumstances to arrive at the sentiment of personal dignity": Marian's progress is woman's evolution in little. In a lengthy unpublished letter, Barrett Browning compared Marian to Richardson's Clarissa, noting that Marian should be permitted dignity and purity and that she should "triumph" over Clarissa in being allowed to live.144

In contrast to Marian, Aurora Leigh begins her story with too much of the naturally masculine in her psychological character, and consequently she devalues the feminine. Although sufficiently sure of her special perception to defend Marian against Romney's suspicions "As I'm a woman and know womanhood" (4.1067), she nonetheless assumes the worst of the female character upon finding Marian in France with an illegitimate baby and accuses Marian of weakness in succumbing to a seducer and of complacency in contemplating the child, the fruit of her "sin" (6.612-17, 742-47). Marian's vindicating disclosure of the violent circumstances of her impregnation forces Aurora, and for the first time, to recognize her own fallibility. That acknowledgment is linked to her reconciliation to her nature as a woman, sharing in Marian's suffering:

But I, convicted, broken utterly,
With woman's passion clung about her waist
And kissed her hair and eyes,—"I have been wrong,
Sweet Marian" . . (weeping in a tender rage)

. . . Innocent,
My sister!

(6.778-81, 787-88)

Aurora begins by showing Marian the way to independence, but then Marian takes over to show Aurora the way toward an integrated female self. The point is emphasized in the rhetoric of the poem when Aurora leads Marian "As if .. . by a narrow plank / Across devouring waters" (6.482-83) but subsequently follows Marian: "Then she led / The way, and I, as by a narrow plank / Across devouring waters, followed her" (6.500-502).

Through the second part of the verse-novel, Aurora moves into a feminized environment in her mother's native land (5.1266-71) where she shares her household with Marian and her child and learns to appreciate the healing qualities of mutual support (7.409-416, 426-28, 504-14) and to involve herself actively in Marian's mothering (6.120-25, 930-57). Her newly discovered sympathy embraces women other than Marian, as Aurora revisits the city and the landmarks associated with her mother's life (7.1223-56). By the time Romney arrives, apparently intruding on this female world, Aurora can assert with new dignity a fact which has been obvious to the reader of the poem for some time: "I'm a woman, sir, / I use the woman's figures naturally" (8.1130-31). For throughout her narrative, even while condemning the feminine nature, Aurora has employed imagery explicitly female in its concerns—suckling, weaning, sewing, cooking, manipulating trailing skirts, and cumbersome arrangements of hair. From the beginning, Aurora's feminine perspective has yielded her an enriched poetic vocabulary, but it is only at the conclusion, once a "correct" balance between womanly and manly attributes has been achieved, that the value of that perspective can be acknowledged.

It should be noted here that Barrett Browning gave Marian Erle, and not Aurora, a personal appearance which very closely resembled her own (3.809-26; 6.399-401; 9.277-78). That Marian should be depicted as her author's physical self, while the character of Aurora portrayed her intellectual self-construction in writing, suggests again the inevitable duality which Barrett Browning conceived as necessary to the writing woman, a crossbreed, evolving out of a feminine nature and a masculine order.

But to have Aurora arrive at a correct balance between womanly and manly is not the whole solution to the questions which Aurora Leigh raises. Aurora begins with a stereotyped idea of what is possible for, and appropriate to, female achievement, and even after she has accepted Marian's "lesson" of reconciliation, she still retains the conventional notions which force women's lives into an opposition between love and art. Once arrived in Italy, and fully reintegrated into the feminine, Aurora finds that she is a "ghost" of herself (7.1158-64). She cannot act or write (7.1296-1311)—she has, after all, left behind her father's country and language and with it, apparently, all claim to action and to speech. She chooses not to revisit her mother's grave, partly because the tombstone can only be a false trace of the real existence it represents so inadequately and partly because even that "inscription" itself will soon be obliterated (7.1142-55). But now Aurora seems to be following her mother's pattern, and she is threatened with being wiped out as a text and as a producer of texts. With other ordinary women Aurora resigns herself to an apparently inevitable passivity and resolves not to ask but to wait for something to be given to her (7.1265-72).

At this point in the verse-novel, the acceptance of the feminine reinforces the imperative of silence proposed by the contemporary conventions of femininity and endorsed in Aurora Leigh by Marian and Aurora's mother. The only feminine element missing is romantic love and successful marriage which, according to the codes of the nineteenth-century feminine, should conclude the poem because only then will Aurora fully realize her human potential. Thus, if Aurora continued to integrate herself into the stereotypes of cultural history by accepting the earthy passivity which responds but does not act,145 then she would indeed dissolve her self (7.1308-11). But in fact, Aurora reaches this archetypal negative of femininity before the end of the poem, so that those critics who see her marriage as capitulation are taking too gloomy a view of the possibilities Barrett Browning proposed for her heroine.146

The ending of Aurora Leigh imagines a radical break from the traditions of the nineteenth-century feminine by proposing that a woman's life might contain both love and work and that each might reinforce, rather than contradict, the other. Aurora is threatened with the loss of her work well before the conclusion of the verse-novel; she is reduced to passivity at the end of book 7 but recovers her voice in books 8 and 9. Furthermore, before Aurora finally reaches a union with Romney she is faced with the prospect of having to give him up to Marian, and the image which she uses to describe that act of sisterly self-sacrifice includes the suggestion that she may also, thereby, give up poetry. Her robe as a poet is that of Aaron the prophet, embroidered with bells and pomegranates (7.1302-3). In her part as the feminine negative at the end of book 7 she still wears the robe, though she cannot "jingle bells upon [her] robe" or write. But when Aurora advises Marian to accept Romney, she describes her regret as the doffing of the poet/prophet's robe in preparation for death (9.251-54). Marian rejects Romney's offer and, as she has once already reversed roles with Aurora, "gives" Romney to Aurora (9.424-26, 439-52), permitting, not through law, but from a feminine and a specifically outcast position, Aurora's desire and marriage.

Marian Erle as natural woman functions as a mirror of possibilities for Aurora. But it is the figure of Romney Leigh which functions in the major part of the narrative as her most significant mirror. One contemporary reviewer of Aurora Leigh complained of Romney as a "noodle" who did not deserve his prominence in the poem.147 But it is that very prominence in itself which presents a problem, for Romney rarely appears before the reader without the bias of Aurora's vision. He enters the action of the plot only thrice (in books 2, 4, and 8-9), and yet his name is constantly repeated as all Aurora's musings are refined down to the two points of "Romney and me." Aurora thus reverses the tradition of the silent woman used by the male poet and lover to define himself: like the male sonneteer, Aurora does not recognize her lover's individual or independent life but reduces him to a cipher used as mirror for the personal purpose of self-construction.148 On Romney's first extended appearance in book 2, he is Aurora's "public" (2.59) and for him she will "perform" (2.253-55).

In an effort to justify herself and construct her own sense of a valued identity, Aurora continues to harp on Romney's early errors and earnest pomposity. Her resentment gradually leads her to give an increasingly wayward account of Romney's character. Believing him capable of self-deceit, Aurora grows disgusted—"How vile must all men be, since he's a man" (8.138). In the end she can believe not only that Romney is married to Lady Waldemar but that he nonetheless enviously wishes himself married to a girl (Kate Ward) whom he has never seen (8.123-37). At the conclusion of book 8, Romney laughs scornfully at Aurora's supposition that he is married to Lady Waldemar and accuses her of "forgery" (8.1231-35).149 Thus Aurora's impudent and disruptive intrusion into conventionally masculine traditions and texts has betrayed her into falsehood. The methods Aurora has hitherto used to create her identity are based only on the old traditions but with an added gender reversal. As a result, they still produce misreadings.

While Aurora creates Romney, her retrospective view of the image of Romney's face haunts her memory (2.510-11, 1172-73, 1237-38; 3.233-34), provokingly wielding an apparently inexplicable power (2.1238-42).>150 The reiterated emphasis upon Romney's face, Romney's look, Romney's eyes, so disturbing, and for most of the narrative, so unintelligible to Aurora, prepares the way for a conclusion which deprives Romney of his sight. Romney's looking at Aurora is constructed in her imagination as a narcissistic self-reflection. He functions as the "other" by which she is defined, offering an absolute against which she can assert her distinction.

Barrett Browning justified depriving Romney of his sight by an argument related to Milton's blindness.151 Romney has to be blind to the material world in order to learn to see the spiritual truths of Aurora's argument—and Aurora herself.152 But once Romney is blind, Aurora loses the gaze which created her difference of opposition and resistance—a difference which constructed her self, certainly, but constructed that self as a negative term.153 With Romney's gaze removed, Aurora can start with new terms, new forms of language. Having accepted a valuing of her female identity, Aurora needs to shed ideas of hierarchy and value in male and female—and one way that reeducation takes place is through the abolition of the systems of difference and measurement which Aurora had used to "make" a self.154

With the discovery of Romney's blindness comes release into autonomous action. No longer waiting to be given a resolution but inspired by desire and uninhibited by correct behaviour or proper form, Aurora declares herself unreservedly, and does not even mention marriage (though it is assumed). This conclusion, where Aurora is the active partner, is an explicit improvement upon the concluding scene of "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" where Geraldine appears as a silent statue whose desire has to be expressed and authorized by the male poet.

The end of the poem also affirms that Aurora will write again, working "for two" (9.911).155 She offers concrete evidence of renewed creativity with both a lyrical hymn (9.814-42) and an epic of revision (9.843-964) written into her text. Now, instead of masquerading as a woman, Aurora can express herself independently both of conventional prescription for the feminine and of the defining systems which gave her an identity through resistance. She is not complete or whole in the strictly conventional sense where the "undisciplined heart" learns its lesson—which is why she declines to write Romney's version of their resolving union. But Aurora is triumphant in that, having recognized difference, contradiction, opposition, and process, she can incorporate all of those failures and errors without needing a seamless truth—or even a neat pattern. She goes on polishing, adding, revising to the end, offering even at this late stage yet another, and different, version of the whole story of the verse-novel with her summary of Romney's version of the past (9.760-813). These constantly renewed attempts at repetition, variety, and revision suggest the inadequacy of any absolute conclusion. But they also indicate the potential for an approximation to vision through this legible, if fragmented, text.

The final lines of the poem acknowledge that the verse-novel itself is only a hieroglyph for a significance beyond its own formal "material" literary show (7.861); Aurora and Romney look out at the dawn—but what she imagines, and what he sees with his new spiritual vision, is the idea of "perfect noon" (9.961). Aurora herself, named for the promise of a new day, shadows out that dawn.


"I am inclined to think that we want new forms, as well as thoughts. The old gods are dethroned. Why should we go back to the antique moulds .. classical moulds, as they are so improperly called? .. . Let us all aspire rather to Life . . ."156

"What form is best for poems? Let me think Of forms less, and the external. Trust the spirit, As sovran nature does, to make the form";157

One of the most striking characteristics of Aurora Leigh, an aspect of the verse-novel much overlooked, largely because of a critical focus upon the supposed autobiographical and experiential nature of the poem, is the literariness of the work. When the poem opens with the announcement of Aurora's intention to write she not only claims a right to speak as a woman, but she draws attention to the character of the verse-novel as a self-conscious text which examines the processes of writing and reading. That the work itself was conceived (as was the ideal book which Aurora writes) as a crossbreed verse-novel, androgynous in its appropriation of the feminine subjective and the masculine objective, is one reason for its obsessive artfulness and introspection, but the ways in which that literary enterprise of textual self-examination are effected are diverse in character.

One result of this formal enterprise is an intertextuality which uses allusion to widen its scope of reference. That Aurora Leigh employs allusion as a formal device promoting "philosophical dreaming and digression"158 is a fact ignored by critics who (often unwittingly) downgrade the achievement of poetry written by women. Since the poem's first appearance, the story which was created for Aurora Leigh has been condemned by some as a patchwork of plagiarism, George Sand and Charlotte Brontë being the most regularly noticed influences.159 Other sources have been variously listed as Eugene Sue (especially his Mystères de Paris), Balzac, Charles Kingsley, Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth, Clough's Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich and, most persuasively, Germaine de Stael's Corinne, or Italy.160 If reductive source-hunting is the end, then the constituents of the plot of Aurora Leigh are an easy target for criticism. But this approach to the techniques of allusion betrays a critical doublethink, which essentially trivializes the reading process where the reader is a woman: novel-reading for her is a vice or a relaxation and the woman reader is excessively susceptible of influence because of her imitative nature.161

Cora Kaplan offered a positive description of the plot as "an elaborate collage of typical themes or motifs of the novels and long poems of the 1840's and 1850's," and much has been made since of the fact that Aurora Leigh is a dense work of textual and cultural reference, offering telling reinterpretations of familiar tropes, archetypes, myths, and literary texts.162 Thus Aurora Leigh becomes not a plagiarized would-be novel, but a poetic framework for suggestion and reference which foreshadows the constructive uses of fragmentation found in such later productions as Virginia Woolf s Between the Acts, or Angela Carter's art of bricolage.163 And this magpie form, which steals fragments of a tradition or language from which women have been alienated, to rewrite or invert them, can be defined in itself (though practiced in modernist and postmodernist works by both women and men164) as culturally feminine165.

Yet while the very form of the bastard verse-novel might express, in its diffuseness, the sense of female exclusion and marginalization both in and from a patriarchal culture, the example of Aurora Leigh shows how secret that femaleness has to be—in part, precisely because of the nineteenth-century woman author's acceptance of the ideology which excludes her. The most significant sources forming an allusive background to the poem were the works of Sand, Brontë and de Stael. Yet in Aurora Leigh, while the list of names or works cited include those of Aeschylus, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Keats, Browning, and Rousseau, not one woman author is named or quoted directly.166 Barrett Browning's experience of a personal anxiety of influence or rather, authority, meant that while allusions to the works of male writers are explicit, those to the works of female writers are implicit.167

As the techniques of allusion break up formal constrictions, responding to the challenge of a new form, so the verse-novel recommends a program of exchange between text and reader which similarly breaks up conventional literary order. The very length of the verse-novel, the changing narrative methods, the palindrome of the plot, the repetition and modification of dominant images, the use of "round" time and the shuffling of tenses, provide scope for reflection and revision in the reader's experience of the poem—and the narrative form of Aurora Leigh insists that the reader participate in that process. A model for this procedure is included in the account of an ideal poetics as Aurora imagines an active reader-response which would allow her to convey ideas to "thrilling audient and beholding souls / By signs and touches which are known to souls" (7.849-50).168

Barrett Browning's acknowledged aim in adopting formal methods which demanded the participation of the reader was related to her belief that the poet's art should live; taking God as the ultimate model for the artist, and God's art as the living world (5.434-35). Thus Aurora lives before the reader, all mistakes and confusions included, and we are expected to adjust assessment and judgment accordingly. In 1845 Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett had agreed that the dramatic poet should realize fictional characters before the eyes of the reader,169 and Barrett Browning included this necessity in her exposition of Aurora's poetic theory, "The rulers of our art" (5.307):

. . . conceive, command,
And, from the imagination's crucial heat,
Catch up their men and women all a-flame
For action, all alive and forced to prove
Their life by living out heart, brain, and nerve . . .


It is of course the metaphor of writing which provides the first and most fully realized range of allegories on the theme of reader participation. In the central reverie of Aurora Leigh (book 5) the author presents, through her poet-heroine, the principles of poetry which have motivated both the book composed by the fictional author (5.352, 1213, 1263-64) and Aurora Leigh itself. The circumstances of production are the same for both books, and at the conclusion of the verse-novel Romney Leigh acts as the incarnation of Barrett Browning's ideal reader, able to read and comprehend all Aurora's poem, delivered though it is in shadowing "signs and touches" (8.265-69, 283-88, 605-13). Thus, a circular displacement is enacted as Barrett Browning writes a verse-novel which dramatizes the autobiography of a fictional woman writer who herself, within the poem, writes a verse-novel which mirrors the form, scope, and proposed achievement of the actual poem, Aurora Leigh itself. And this very circularity suggests the living quality of the vision Barrett Browning's work attempts, which is not static and clearly seen but subject to interference and variety—as in Aurora's own vision at the climax of the poem:

His breath against my face
Confused his words, yet made them more intense,
(As when the sudden finger of the wind
Will wipe a row of single city-lamps
To a pure white line of flame, more luminous
Because of obliteration)


In addition to writing/reading images, Aurora Leigh employs a number of images where visual art, particularly the portrait,171 is invoked as an artifact powerfully suggestive to the viewer (or reader). Thus the narrator declares her intention to write her story in these terms (1.4-8), and each of the many portraits cited in the work is used, through the reactions of the viewer (usually Aurora herself), to reflect or emphasize some aspect of Aurora's personal narrative. The portrait of Aurora's mother is the medium which the child invests with capacity to represent all forms of feminine incarnation (1.145-63), and the reflexive suggestion of the portrait is developed as each incarnation is reenacted through the female characters in the poem: Aurora plays the part of the "dauntless Muse who eyes a dreadful Fate" (1.155) and the "loving Psyche who loses sight of Love" (1.156); her aunt, repressed and damaging, whose eyes are imaged as knives (1.327-330) represents Medusa; Marian, suffering virgin and mother, merges with "Our Lady of the Passion, stabbed with swords / Where the Babe sucked" (7.126-32); while Lady Waldemar becomes, in Aurora's imagination, the "woman-serpent" Lamia (6.1100-1101; 7.144-74).172

In book 3, Aurora's status as a poet, alternately aspiring and quiescent awaiting inspiration, is mirrored in the two pictures of Danae which the artist Vincent Carrington sends to her (3.122-35), and in which Aurora recognizes an implied application to her own situation (3.135-42).173 The irony of Carrington's portrait of Kate Ward, which shows her in a cloak of Aurora's pattern, holding in complimentary reverence the poet's latest book, is not lost upon Aurora, who at that point has lost all faith in her own literary capability (7.705-7). Even Romney's decisive attachment to the portrait of their shared ancestor Lady Maud (8.955-59), is not so much a device for facilitating Romney's tragedy as another mirror of Aurora's destiny—for the picture resembles Aurora herself, and Romney's rescuing it leads obliquely to their reunion.

Like the process of allusion, which steals a language appropriate to the woman author (both Aurora and Barrett Browning) who at once accepts and resists her marginalization, the metaphoric emphasis upon images derived from writing/reading and painting/being viewed suggest the besieged ambivalences of the nineteenth-century woman writer. Aurora shows herself (like Barrett Browning) to be conscious always of her dual role as active subject and passive object (artist/woman, writer/text, individual/portrait), and she takes that self-consciousness into her text by introducing other objects (literary texts, the idea of the book and the picture, mirror characters), against which to measure herself as subject. Her poetic language, a woman's language growing out of her oblique relation to cultural and literary order, cannot employ any positive terms but works, initially at least, through resistance and difference while it attempts a new language and form. Using this language, the woman poet (Aurora/Barrett Browning) adopts a poetic method which returns continually to herself and her difference, playing endlessly between the two—thus her experience of cultural marginalization (rather than any biological essence or authenticity) yields her both a subject and a form.174

To read Barrett Browning's verse-novel in the light of feminist theory is to acknowledge that there can be no jubilant and whole recovery of women's writing of the nineteenth century. When Barrett Browning looked for "grandmothers" and found only "poetesses," when she admired Robert Browning's masculine and objective method over her own subjective manner, when she attempted a synthesis of the two in the experimental form of the verse-novel, when she marshaled there metaphors, mirrors, and narrative procedures which relied upon difference and opposition, then Barrett Browning revealed her beleaguered position as a disinherited or bastard girl-child of the culture which fathered her. Her own awareness of that position was obvious to her only fitfully, but its effects can be clearly read from our perspective175—and the results of that potential for disintegration can be positive.

Barrett Browning's (conscious and unconscious) recognition of difference promoted the strengths of experiment, subversion, and challenge both in the subjects tackled in Aurora Leigh and in the narrative and literary forms adopted there. And even when Aurora achieves the full integration into the nineteenth-century ideal of human individuality (that is, through marriage), she attempts strenuously to escape the (conventional platitudes of the) feminine which would lead to resolution/dissolution and silence. Instead of accepting the stereotype that to be a woman writer is to be unsexed and to be forced to make a choice between love and art, Aurora forcefully claims both.

Aurora Leigh is a woman's book; as the story of a woman poet told by a woman poet, its subjects and their treatment, its narrative and poetic form, are all dictated by that fact. Too frequently, however, that fact has been read not in relation to the historical context and cultural assumptions which produced the verse-novel but in the light of other, unexamined, ideological assumptions about what constitutes a woman's book. In these repeated, but diverse, erroneous readings lies the reason for the variety of critical reaction to Aurora Leigh. Always perceived as a woman's book, it was consequently valued—as a gospel by sympathetic nineteenth-century readers, as an authentic record of female experience by twentieth-century feminist readers—and dismissed—as shrill and unwomanly by nineteenth-century reviewers, as chaotic, uncontrolled, and sloppy by twentieth-century humanist critics.

Aurora Leigh has never been admitted to the canon of literature; women's texts are only permitted to appear there provided they are not read as women's texts.176 When Aurora Leigh can be included in the canon,recognized as of human and therefore generally significant interest because of its overriding address to the theoretical (and practical) questions of the cultural and literary formation, exclusion, and prohibition of women in writing, then its significance as a primary text of the nineteenth century might be acknowledged.


41 . . . EBB to RB, commenting on his account of John Stuart Mill's marginal notes to Pauline, 27 Feb. 1845, RB/EBB Letters 1:31.

42 Homans, Women Writers, 12-40; Leighton locates her immediate literary influences in the Romantic poets, particularly Wordsworth. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 12-13. Kathleen Blake shows how that influence is translated into the work of the woman poet. "Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wordsworth: The Romantic Poet as Woman." Victorian Poetry, vol. 24, no. 4, (Winter 1986): 387-98. Helen Cooper reads Barrett Browning's "The Poet's Vow" (from The Seraphim) as the reinterpretation by the "daughter poet" of the female presence of Nature in Romantic poetry. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist (Chapel Hill and London, 1988), 37-43.

43 "In Romantic poetry, the self and the imagination are primary." Homans, Women Writers, 12; "Glimpses into my own life and literary character" (1820); ed. W. S. Peterson, BIS 2 (1974) 121-33 and The Brownings' Correspondence: 1:348-56; "I quite believe as you do that what is called the 'creative process' in works of Art, is just inspiration & no less.' RB/EBB Letters 1:96; in her articles for The Athenaeum (1842) she speaks of Wordsworth as the "poet-hero" and "poet-prophet." See also her references to the role of the poet in Aurora Leigh 1.858-69 and 5.1-343.

44 Preface to An Essay on Mind (London, 1826), xii. A comprehensive account (though as yet incomplete) of Barrett Browning's poetic theory is contained in Meredith B. Raymond's three articles in BSN vol. 8, no. 3 (1978): 3-7; vol. 9, no. 1 (1979): 5-9; vol. 11, no. 2 (1981): 1-11.

45The Athenaeum, 4, 11, 25 June and 6, 13, 27 August 1842. Five articles were devoted to reviewing an anthology, The Book of the Poets, and one to Wordsworth's Poems Chiefly of Early and Late Years, including the Borderers, a tragedy. Although the two reviews stand as separate pieces, together they form a coherent exposition of Barrett Browning's views on literature from Chaucer to Wordsworth.

46 Review of The Book of the Poets, The Athenaeum (11 June 1842): 521, 522.

47 ". . . the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure." Percy Bysshe Shelley, "A Defence of Poetry," Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments ed. by Mrs. Shelley (London, 1840) 1:47-48.

48 She was, of course, not exceptional in this. Compare J. S. Mill on the characteristics of contemporary poetry: "The truth of poetry is to paint the human soul truly: . . . Great poets are often proverbially ignorant of life. What they know has come by observation of themselves; they have found there one highly delicate, and sensitive, and refined specimen of human nature, on which the laws of human emotion are written in large characters." (1833), Mill's Essays on Literature and Society ed. J. B. Schneewind (New York and London, 1965), 106. See also Robert Browning Paracelsus (1835) 1:726-29: "Truth is within ourselves; it takes no rise / From outward things, whate'er you may believe. / There is an inmost centre in us all, / Where truth abides in fulness." The Poetical Works of Robert Browning, ed. Ian Jack and Margaret Smith (Oxford, 1983), 1:195. Nonetheless, as a woman claiming to find the sources of truth in her own soul, she was peculiarly vulnerable to the critics who found the self-conscious stance of the (woman) poet/prophet unattractive and ridiculous: "She had persuaded herself that she had a message from the Infinite to deliver, and to discover this she had only to dive deep enough into the depths of her own unassisted internal consciousness." William Stigand, "The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning," The Edinburgh Review, no. 232 (Oct. 1861): 519-20.

49 Deirdre David so describes Aurora Leigh. See Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy (London, 1987), 105.

50 EBB to RB, 20 Mar. 1845, RB/EBB Letters 1:41. This theme was to be taken up and reforged in Aurora Leigh on more than one level: there the poet who needs must practice self-examination, contemplating her own mind as the nearest reflection of the spiritual ideal, is in this way tempted not to look around her but to rely instead upon "great guesses at Human Nature."

51 Mary Moulton Barrett to EBB, [c. Sept. 1821], TheBrowning's Correspondence 1:132; see "My own character" (1818), "Glimpses into my own life and literary character" (1820-21), "My character and Bro's compared" (1821), and the two untitled essays (1827 and c. early 1840s) in The Brownings' Correspondence 1:347-62. The manuscript fragment of an "Essay on Woman" ("Man's noble powers, the Poets pen sustains") now in the collection of the University of Pennsylvania, may have been influenced by Elizabeth Barrett's reading of Wollstonecraft, but the attribution of the fragment is questionable, as the handwriting has not been identified as certainly EBB's. See Reconstruction D308.

52 [19] Feb. 1845, EBB to MRM 3:81. It may be significant that this was written at the time of the beginning of EBB's correspondence with RB; "Yes—I know Mary Wolstonecraft. I was a great admirer at thirteen of the Rights of women. I know too certain letters published under her name; but Godwin's Life of her I never saw & shd . like much to do so." 28-29 [27-28] Mar. 1842, EBB to MRM 1:379. ". . . and I read Mary Wolstonecraft when I was thirteen: no, twelve! . . and, through the whole course of my childhood, I had a steady indignation against nature who made me a woman, & a determinate resolution to dress up in men's clothes as soon as ever I was free of the nursery, & go into the world "to seek my fortune." "How," was not decided; but I rather leant towards being poor Lord Byron's PAGE." 22 July [1842], EBB to MRM 2:7. "Mary Wolstonecraft!—yes. I used to read Mary Wolstonecraft,—(the 'Rights of woman,') . . when I was twelve years old, & "quite agree with her." Her eloquence & her doctrine were equally dear to me at that time, when I was inconsoleable for not being born a man. Ah—if I had thought that I shd. have lived all my life without leaving my petticoats, both in the actual & metaphorical sense, how, at ten years old, I shd. have frowned myself to scorn!" 24 Dec. 1844, EBB to MRM 3:40.

53 "Again if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off of consciousness, say in walking down Whitehall, when from being the natural inheritor of that civilization, she becomes on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical." Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1973), 96.

54 Indeed, the woman poet's first anxieties often lie within the contradictions inherent in that challenge which sets up a conflict "between the romantic notion of the poet as the transcendant speaker of a unified culture and the dependant and oppressed place of women within that culture." Kaplan, "Language and Gender" in Sea Changes, 70. In Barrett Browning's case, Deirdre David sees her self-mythologizing into a member of the privileged elite and her affiliation with her male precursors and the male poets of her own generation as a compromise to her feminism. David, Intellectual Women, 97-98. However, this point of view takes no account of the fact that historical perspectives must give feminism different meanings at different times for different women. See Janet Todd Feminist Literary History (Oxford, 1988), 137.

55 It would appear that in the Moulton Barrett household women were "relative." Only sons were counted when Edward Moulton Barrett named his youngest children Septimus and Octavius. In 1810, after the birth of EBB's sister Mary (who died in infancy), Mary Trepsack, a close associate of the Moulton Barrett family, wrote to Elizabeth Barrett Williams, "Mary has had another Girl to the great disappointment of every one. . . ." The Brownings' Correspondence 1:311.

56 In her Intellectual Women, David offers an account of the ways in which Barrett Browning, as with other women writers of the period, negotiated a literary strategy which was both "resistant to" and "complicit with" the culture that simultaneously encouraged and demeaned them. The duality of elevation and debasement in the prophet/poet's role is one of these strategies.

57 Dorothy Mermin's reading of "A Musical Instrument" puts gender (and the woman poet's anxieties) back into the poem by referring to the legend of Pan and Syrinx. See "Barrett Browning's Stories," BIS 13 (1985): 99-112.

58 "Somewhat more faint-hearted than I used to be, it is my fancy thus to seem to return to a visible personal dependence on you, as if indeed I were a child again; to conjure your beloved image between myself and the public, so as to be sure of one smile,—and to satisfy my heart while I sanctify my ambition, by association with the great pursuit of my life, its tenderest and holiest affection." EBB, Dedication "To My Father," Poems (1844).

59 Cora Kaplan, "Pandora's Box: Subjectivity, Class and Sexuality in Socialist Feminist Criticism," in Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, ed. Gayle Greene and Coppélla Kahn. (London, 1985), 149-51.

60 See EBB's contribution to the essay on Carlyle in R. H. Horne's New Spirit of the Age (1844). W. Robertson Nicoli and Thomas J. Wise, Literary Anecdotes of the Nineteenth Century (London, 1895-96), 2:115-18; EBB to RB, 27 Feb. 1845, RB/EBB Letters 1:29; although Aurora Leigh exhibits some consciousness of the irony of Aurora's role as a hero (when she is clearly excluded from all exercise of strength by the fact of her sex), the text reveals a measure of acceptance of the contemporary cultural hierarchy even while it assumes the possibility of usurping the roles more usually assigned to men. In effect this case provides an example of the early procedures of feminist history which Elaine Showalter labels as "feminine." "Toward a Feminist Poetics" in The New Feminist Criticism, ed. Elaine Showalter (London, 1986), 137-38.

61 Her most powerful statement on this is contained in a letter of advice to Mary Hunter: "How good it is to have a thing to do,—for women especially . . if women are to be distinguished from human beings; and for single women, most especially. It seems to me that the cry for work does not come from a [restless ambition] but from a yearning for rest—In the very old times, women had less accomplishment & more occupation with an end = if they made pies & worked with their maids, it was a work, to order their homes aright—an end, if a low end. But when the fashion of refinement came up, & young ladies were to be taught to draw & play & read foreign verses, with no real artistic end>(mind?), but as poor puny amateurs, then corruption and misery fell upon women at once. Oh, if I had a daughter, she would be educated to stand by herself and work; she should learn nothing that she could not turn to use. I would rather have her a good housekeeper & cheapener in the market, than a fritterer away of time at the piano & painting & reading .. in an amateur fashion. Our fore>Grand fathers were wiser than we in some things—but I trust that our sons will be wiser than our grandfathers. For women now-a-days (taking the mass) are educated for the intellectual seraglio, no otherwise; & when the time for seraglios is past, & they remain unmarried, or with too small families of children to fill up their whole time, they are miserable, they cease to grow in their souls, the time hangs on them till it crushes them, . . there is no bright colour for them in the world.

If the injury were only in this world it would signify less. But I believe in a necessary relation between the natural & the spiritual. Every attitude & action of ours here involves a corresponding counterpart there. Therefore I cry & will cry to all who (hear?) {the page is torn} me & loudest to those whom I best . . . (love?) {torn page} work, work—any kind of work . . . (nothing?) {torn page} degrades except empty hands." EBB to Mary Hunter, 9 Jan. 1859. Berg Collection, New York Public Library. See Checklist 59:72.

62 Her proposition that men should be permitted more so-called feminine characteristics is less familiar than her arguments in favor of women's adoption of masculine roles. Examples are to be found in her letters—see for instance, her rejection of the word "manly" as an appropriate adjective to describe Charles Kingsley (Letters of EBB 2:134); her approving remarks on Tennyson's reaction to paternity—"I do like men who are not ashamed to be happy beside a cradle" (Letters of EBB 2:84), and her pleasure in her son's possessing a component of "girl-nature" (EBB to Mrs. Ogilvy, 100). In her poetry, see particularly the "good parenting" which Aurora receives at her father's hands.

63Charles Fourier, Théorie des Quatre Mouvements, Oeuvres Complètes (Paris, 1841-1845), 43. Quoted by Barbara Taylor in Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1983), x; "I would have the government educate the people absolutely, and then give room for the individual to develop himself into life freely. Nothing can be more hateful to me than this communist idea of quenching individualities in the mass. As if the hope of the world did not always consist in the eliciting of the individual man from the background of the masses, in the evolvement of individual genius, virtue, magnanimity." EBB to John Kenyon, 1 May 1848, Letters of EBB 1:363.

64 "Since the siege of Troy and earlier, we have had princesses binding wounds with their hands; it's strictly the woman's part, and men understand it so... . Every man is on his knees before ladies carrying lint, calling them 'angelic she's,' whereas, if they stir an inch as thinkers or artists from the beaten line (involving more good to general humanity than is involved in lint), the very same men would curse the impudence of the very same woman and stop there. .. . I acknowledge to you that I do not consider the best use to which we can put a gifted and accomplished woman is to make her a hospital nurse. If it is, why then woe to us all who are artists! The woman's question is at an end. The men's 'noes' carry it." EBB to Anna Jameson, 24 Feb. 1855, Letters of EBB 2:189.

65 "Mrs. Browning's heroine cannot, in justice to the species, be considered a career woman at heart. . . . She may scribble till midnight in her attic, review books, write a masterpiece and become famous, but all that makes her none the less ready to admit to Romney, whenever she is given a second chance, that ". . . Art is much, but love is more. / O Art, my Art, thou art much, but Love is more!" It is difficult to feel that, by her defection, the structure of women's employment lost one of its sturdier props." Patricia Thomson, The Victorian Heroine: A Changing Ideal 1837-1873 (London, 1956), 78.

66 Deirdre David sees concession in the conclusion of Aurora Leigh where woman's art is only to be used to bring about the erection of the conventional "New Jerusalem." See "'Art's a Service': Social Wound, Sexual Politics and Aurora Leigh" BIS 13 (1985): 113-36.

67 "At last we have caught sight of Tennyson's Princess & I may or must profess to be a good deal disappointed. What woman will tell the great poet that Mary Wolstonecraft herself never dreamt of setting up collegiate states, proctordoms & the rest, . . which is a worn-out plaything in the hands of one sex already, & need not be transferred in order to be proved ridiculous? ..." 28 May [1848], EBB to MRM 3:240. Marjorie Stone compares the two poems in their alliance of gender discussion with genre experiment. "Genre Subversion and Gender Inversion: The Princess and Aurora Leigh." Victorian Poetry, vol. 25, no. 2 (Summer 1987): 101-27.

68 For the relation between Aurora Leigh and The Angelin The House, and between Barrett Browning and Patmore, see explanatory annotation to 1:427-42.

69 EBB to Isa Blagden, [20 Oct. 1856], unpublished letter in the Fitzwilliam Museum. See Checklist 56:162. Two days earlier EBB had written to her sister on the same subject: "He [Coventry Patmore] has just written (& forwarded to me meanwhile) an article upon women, putting us all in our places most dogmatically. Fine mincemeat he will make of me in the North British! He must if he's consistent." EBB to Arabel, 18 Oct. 1856, unpublished letter in the collection of Ronald A. Moulton-Barrett and Myrtle Moulton-Barrett (hereafter cited as Moulton-Barrett Collection). See Checklist 56:160. Patmore's article appeared in the National Review 6 (Oct. 1856): 317-42.

70 EBB to Julia Martin, [14 May 1858], quoted from Kenyon Typescript (and dated therein 14 May 1857). See Checklist 58:54.

71 "for liberal humanism, feminist versions included, the possibility of a unified self and an integrated consciousness that can transcend material circumstance is represented as the fulfilment of desire, the happy closure at the end of the story. .. . As a result, the struggle for an integrated female subjectivity in nineteenth-century texts is never interrogated as ideology or fantasy, but seen as a demand that can actually be met, if not in 1848, then later." Kaplan, "Pandora's Box," in Making a Difference, 152. "Traditional humanism . . . is in effect part of patriarchal ideology. At its centre is the seamlessly unified self—either individual or collective—which is commonly called 'Man'. .. . Gloriously autonomous, it banishes from itself all conflict, contradiction and ambiguity. . . ." Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (London, 1985), 8.

72 EBB to RB, 15 Jan. 1845, RB/EBB Letters 1:9.

73Aurora Leigh 5:183-88.

74 For instance, "Elizabeth Barrett was a lyric poet with an interest in political and social questions; Elizabeth Barrett Browning was primarily a political poet.". . . Kaplan, Introduction to Aurora Leigh, 6. See also Gilbert, "From Patria to Matria, 194-211. It is even more simple—and more incorrect—to suggest that a change in EBB's poetry occurred because of her contact with Robert Browning—in the C20th, though not in the mid-C19th, regarded as the superior poet. That view was once a commonplace but, increasingly in the face of the elevation of Barrett Browning's literary status, the critical trend is to find 'Barrett Browning influences' in Robert Browning's poetry. See Nina Auerbach, "Robert Browning's Last Word," Victorian Poetry 22 (Summer, 1984): 161-73; U. C. Knoepflmacher, "Projection and the Female Other: Romanticism, Browning and the Victorian Dramatic Monologue," Victorian Poetry 22 (1984): 139-59; Adrienne Auslander Munich, "Robert Browning's Poetics of Appropriation," BIS 15 (1985): 69-78; James McNally, "Touches of Aurora Leigh in The Ring and the Book," Studies in Browning and His Circle 14 (1986): 85-90; and George M. Ridenour "Robert Browning and Aurora Leigh," Victorian Newsletter, no. 67 (Spring 1987): 26-32.

75The Athenaeum (11 June 1842): 521.

76 "That he was a great natural genius nobody, we believe, has doubted—. . . but that he was a great artist the majority has doubted. Yet Nature and Art cannot be reasoned apart into antagonistic principles. Nature is God's art—the accomplishment of a spiritual significance hidden in a sensible symbol. Poetic art (man's) looks past the symbol with a divine guess and reach of soul into the mystery of the significance,—disclosing from the analysis of the visible things, the synthesis or unity of the ideal,—and expounds like symbol and like significance out of the infinite of God's doing into the finite of man's comprehending. Art lives by Nature, and not the bare mimetic life generally attributed to Art: she does not imitate, she expounds. Interpres naturae—is the poet-artist; and the poet wisest in nature is the most artistic poet!" The Athenaeum (25 June 1842): 559.

77 "Every being is his own centre to the universe, and in himself must one foot of the compasses be fixed to attain to any measurement—nay, every being is his own mirror to the universe. Shakspeare wrote from within—the beautiful; and we recognise from within—the true. He is universal, because he is individual." The Athenaeum (25 June 1842): 559.

78 "Poetry is where God is! Can you go up or down or around and not find Him? In the loudest hum of your machinery, in the dunnest volume of your steam, in the foulest street of your city,—there, as surely as in the Brocken pinewoods, and the watery thunders of Niagara,—there, as surely as He is above all, lie Nature and Poetry in full life." The Athenaeum (13 Aug. 1842): 729.

79 "He is eminently and humanly expansive; and spreading his infinite egotism over all the objects of his contemplation, reiterates the love, life and poetry of his peculiat being in transcribing and chanting the material universe, and so sinks a broad gulf between his descriptive poetry and that of the Darwinian painter-poet school. Darwin was, as we have intimated all optic nerve, Wordsworth's eye is in his soul. He does not see that which he does not intellectually discern, and he beholds his own cloud-capped Helvellyn under the same conditions with which he would contemplate a grand spiritual abstraction." The Athenaeum (27 Aug. 1842): 757. Compare EBB's description of Wordsworth's expansiveness, "spreading his infinite egotism over all the objects of his contemplation," with the sense of expansion which the poet Aurora Leigh describes. See 1. 910-15, 5.1-30.

80 See Leighton's readings of "A Romance of the Ganges" (1838), "The Lay of the Brown Rosary" (1844), "The Romaunt of Margret" (1838), "Bertha in the Lane" (1844), and "The Romance of the Swan's Nest" (1844). Leighton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 32-39, 62-66, and 95-97. See also Mermin's readings of some of these poems and also of "The Romaunt of the Page" (1844). Mermin, "Barrett Browning's Stories," BIS 13 (1985): 99-112 and "The Damsel, the Knight and the Victorian Woman Poet," Critical Inquiry, vol. 13, no. 1 (Autumn 1986): 64-80.

81 Meredith B. Raymond and Mary Rose Sullivan, EBBto MRM, 1 :xxxvi-vii; 24 Dec. 1844; EBB to MRM 3:42.

82 EBB to John Kenyon, 8 Oct. 1844, Letters of EBB 1:204; 24 Dec. 1844, EBB to MRM 3:42.

83 30 Dec. 1844, EBB to MRM 3:49.

84 27 Feb. 1845, RB/EBB Letters 1:31; 13 Jan. 1845, ibid., 1:7. And he does express a similar creed in his work. Compare Pauline 268-76, Paracelsus 1:726-37, and the "Essay on Shelley," passim.

85 Karlin suggests that RB saw EBB as a subjective poet because the terms of Browning's compliment are essentially personal, revealing that he perceives of Barrett's poetry as first of all private in its uses. Contrastingly, he suggests that EBB saw RB as an objective poet because Elizabeth Barrett's compliment to him is couched in public terms, connecting his work to the arena in which it is conducted—that is, within the received "schools of the day." See Karlin, Courtship, 64.

86 "You have in your vision two worlds—or to use the language of the schools of the day, you are both subjective and objective in the habits of your mind. You can deal both with abstract thought & with human passion in the most passionate sense. Thus, you have an immense grasp in Art. ..." 15 Jan. 1845, RB/EBB Letters 1:9.

87 15 Jan. 1845, RB/EBB Letters 1:9; 30 Dec. 1844, EBB to MRM 3:49.

88 "But my chief intention just now is the writing of a sort of novel-poem—a poem as completely modern as 'Geraldine's Courtship,' running into the midst of our conventions, and rushing into drawing-rooms and the like, 'where angels fear to tread'; and so, meeting face to face and without mask the Humanity of the age, and speaking the truth as I conceive of it out plainly. I am waiting for a story, and I won't take one, because I want to make one, and I like to make my own stories, because then I can take liberties with them in the treatment." 27 Feb. 1845, RB/EBB Letters 1:31.

89 See Robert Browning's introductory essay to Lettersof Percy Bysshe Shelley (London, 1852), 7, 2.

90 "the language and structure of nineteenth-century poetry . . . aspires to 'Living Form,' to make, not to copy. What kind of language is chosen, what kind of organisation occurs, and what kind of difficulties are encountered, when the poem asserts that it 'Makes'?". See Isobel Armstrong, Language as Living Form in Nineteenth Century Poetry (Brighton, 1982), xi.

91 From EBB' s notes on the plot, at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire. See descriptions of manuscripts below.

92 30 Dec. 1844, EBB to MRM, 3:49; 27 Feb. 1845,

93RB/EBB Letters 1:31. See Armstrong's reading of Robert Browning's Sordello. "The language behaves as if the poem is always in the making, just at the point of being brought into being, always becoming, maintained by fiats and acts of mental and physical bravado which deliberately draw attention to the display of making fiction. . . ." Language as Living Form, 141.

94 EBB' s fragmentary notes on the plot (at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire) include these definitions. Compare the oppositions set out in her notes with her expressed reasons for objecting to contemporary socialist thought (see section 3 above). EBB's resistance to conventions of order in education and system anticipates the insights of feminist theory. Compare, for instance, Hélène Cixous: "It is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing .. . for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, coded." "The Laugh of the Medusa," in New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (Brighton, 1980), 253.

95 "Lady Geraldine's Courtship," 1:1-4; "Dear my friend and fellow-student, I would lean my spirit o'er you / Down the purple of this chamber tears should scarcely run at will" ibid., 1:1-2 (my emphasis).

96 Attention is drawn to the immediacy of the poet's process of writing: "but that "Bertram"—why, it lies there on the paper" and "But for me—you now are conscious why, my friend, I write this letter, / How my life is read all backward, and the charm of life undone," ibid., 84.1, 90.1-2.

97 Lady Geraldine appears in the conclusion as a vision, a statue ("Shining eyes, like antique jewels set in Parian statue-stone," conclusion, 3.2), and the fact of her silence is reiterated in stanzas 5-8 and 10.

98 E.g., Bertram's misreading of Geraldine's remarks in stanza 66.

99Casa GuidiWindows (London, 1851), v-vii and Casa Guidi Windows, ed. Julia Markus (Washington, D.C., 1977), xli, 2. 64-65, xvii-xix, xli.

100 In 1856 W. E. Aytoun complained that Aurora Leigh, in common with most British poetry, was carelessly constructed. See W. E. Aytoun, "Mrs. Barrett Browning—Aurora Leigh," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 81 (Jan. 1857): 40. EBB was unperturbed; the review "coming from the camp of the enemy (artistically and socially) cannot be considered other than generous." Letters of EBB, 2:255. For an account of W. E. Aytoun's attack on Aurora Leigh, a review he made the occasion for castigating all the "Spasmodic" school, see Mark Weinstein, William Edmondstoune Aytoun and the Spasmodic Controversy, Yale Studies in English, 165 (Yale, 1968): 187-90. In The Victorian Temper (London, 1952), 61-63, Jerome H. Buckley briefly considers Aurora Leigh as a "Spasmodic" poem.

101 Those writers who have commented on the chronology and narrative structure of Aurora Leigh are Tompkins, "Aurora Leigh"; Michael L. Magie, "The Verse-Novel: Bastard Child of the Nineteenth Century," (Ph.D. diss. University of California, 1971); C. Castan, "Structural Problems in the Poetry of Aurora Leigh,"BSN, vol. 7 no. 3 (Dec. 1977): 73-81; and Cooper, Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

102 The narrative organization of Aurora Leigh resembles that of Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights with part of the story delivered in retrospect before the conventional resolution of the tale (marriage/death of the protagonists) is reached.

103 When Aurora Leigh was first published, reviewers did not attempt to disentangle the difficulties of the chronology. The writer in the North American Review, who came closest to addressing the question, professed himself puzzled: "It is difficult to conjecture at what epoch of the story the book purports to have been written. It does not seem to have been written in the form of a journal, while the events were taking place; nor yet after the story was completed...." C. C. Everett, "Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning," 421-22.

104 See transcription in the Appendix.

105 Castan finds the form of books 8 and 9 unsatisfactory: ".. . Mrs. Browning had sacrificed realism in the method of narration in order to keep the final Aurora—fully informed and grown sound in judgement—out of the poem till the last minute. This gives the poem a highly dramatic conclusion. .. . To achieve this dramatic climax, however, Mrs. Browning cheated. This lessens for me its impact, for I am annoyed that knowledge has been withheld which, according to the epic situation, should have been given." "Structural Problems," 77. However, this complaint suggests the experimental strengths of the poem's departures from the dictates of realism, genre, order, and law.

106 "Five acts to make a play. / And why not fifteen? why not ten? or seven? / What matter for the number of the leaves, / Supposing the tree lives and grows?" Aurora Leigh 5:229-32.

107 Cooper offers a diagram of the poem's "palindromic" correspondences. See Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 153-54.

108 See Letters of EBB 2:246 where, writing to Anna Jameson about Romney's blindness, EBB makes it clear that she expected her reader to make the connection.

109Aurora Leigh 5.367.

110 EBB, The Athenaeum (11 June 1842): 521.

111 See, for instance, Aurora's account of how Marian's stories are retold in her narrative: "She told me all her story out, / Which I'll re-tell with fuller utterance,/ As coloured and confirmed in aftertimes / By others and herself too" (3.827-30) and "She told the tale with simple, rustic turns,—/ . . . I have rather writ / The thing I understood so, than the thing / I heard so" (4.151, 154-56). See also Aurora's reading of Lady Waldemar's letter: "I tore the meaning out with passionate haste / Much rather than I read it. Thus it ran. / Even thus. I pause to write it out at length" (8.1252-9.1).

112 "The artist's part is both to be and do, / Transfixing with a special, central power / The flat experience of the common man, / And turning outward, with a sudden wrench, / Half agony, half ecstasy, the thing / He feels the inmost,—never felt the less / Because he sings it." Aurora Leigh 5.367-73.

113 "What pleasure is like the pleasure of pen & ink work—when you are in the heat of it? Is it not the intense consciousness of Being—twenty senses instead of the natural complement—a doubling & tripling of the powers of life? And then, the great priviledge of throwing WORK between Life & its shadow: between yourself & all natural trouble & sense of frailty, Art & its ideal!" 6 July 1843, EBB to MRM2:263. "And, for happiness . . why my only idea of happiness, as far as my personal enjoyment is concerned, . . . lies deep in poetry & its associations. And then, the escape from pangs of heart & bodily weakness . . when you throw off yourself. . what you feel to be yourself, . . into another atmosphere & into other relations, where your life may spread its wings out new, & gather on every separate plume a brightness from the sun of the sun!" EBB to RB, 3 Feb. 1845, RB/EBB Letters 1:15. "Like to write? Of course, of course I do. I seem to live while I write—it is life, for me. Why what is to live? Not to eat & drink & breathe, . . but to feel the life in you down all the fibres of being, passionately & joyfully. And thus, one lives in composition surely...." EBB to RB, 20 Mar. 1845, RB/EBB Letters 1:42. "If my poetry is worth anything to any eye,—it is the flower of me. I have lived most & been most happy in it, & so it has all my colours; the rest of me is nothing but a root, fit for the ground & the dark." EBB to RB, 15 May 1845, RB/EBB Letters 1:65. "I . . . so weary of my own being that to take interest in my very poems I had to lift them up by an effort & separate them from myself & cast them out from me into the sunshine where I was not . . . making indeed a sort of pleasure & interest about that factitious personality associated with them . . but knowing it to be far on the outside of me . . myself. . not seeming to touch it with the end of my finger . . & receiving it as a mockery & a bitterness when people persisted in confounding one with another." EBB to RB, 31 Oct. 1845, RB/EBB Letters 1:255.

114 That one escape however, does not represent the last attempt at an unauthorized version of Aurora's story, each of which she has to explicitly reject and reverse: for instance, Lady Waldemar offers a story of the isolated and unsexed Sibyl based on "the old / Traditions of you" (3.406-24), and Lord Howe advises acquiescence to the stereotyped proposals of John Eglinton (5.863-971).

115 "Public writing and public speech, closely allied, were both real and symbolic acts of self-determination for women. Barrett Browning uses the phrase "I write" four times in the first two stanzas of book 1, emphasizing the connection between the first person narrative and the "act" of women's speech. .. ." Kaplan, Introduction to Aurora Leigh, 10.

116 For instance the reader is shown both the intolerance which the youthful Aurora felt for her aunt and her pedantic scheme of education (1.297-309, 442-46) and the contrasting understanding which the "grown up" Aurora can feel for her aunt's predicament (1.337-58; 2.893-95). Another contradiction is embodied in the presentation of Aurora's childish enthusiasm for life, books, and poetry which is juxtaposed with her more tentative commentary in retelling her story (1.798-801, 954-55).

117 A candor most misleading, of course, where she records her denial of love in the scene of Romney's proposal (2.497-98, 501-6) only later to deny this account of her indifference (9.681-83). Other characters in the poem recognize the existence of Aurora's desire for Romney (2.687-688; 3.731-33; 9.425-27), so that the reader is not left wholly without a guide. However, one contemporary reviewer complained, quoting these passages, of the poem's confusion: Everett, "Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning," 422. The reviewer in Blackwood's declared Aurora to be "incongruous and contradictory both in her sentiments and in her actions." Aytoun, "Aurora Leigh," 32. In a convincing article, published since this introduction was written, Alison Case also makes the point that Elizabeth Barrett Browning's special narrative technique in Aurora Leigh is designed to allow for the enactment of Aurora's processes of self-discovery. See Alison Case, "Gender and Narration in Aurora Leigh," Victorian Poetry (Spring 1991): 17-32.

118 "Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away . . . woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement." Cixous, "Laugh of the Medusa," in New French Feminisms, 245.

119 Romney's philosophy of public philanthropy and social change is overturned by Aurora's published insistence on the significance of the private and individual perspective (8.323-35); Carrington records the public recognition of the book as on a level with "our masculine white heats" (7.562-71); Kate Ward makes of the book an emblem of female achievement to be used "against" her lover and symbolically included in her portrait, thereby turning Carrington's "reading" of her in the painting into a self-dictated construction (7.603-8).

120 Kaplan, Introduction to Aurora Leigh, 35-36.

121 Such "daughter texts" might include George Eliot's Middlemarch, Virginia Woolf s Orlando, and A Room of One's Own, Cixous's "The Laugh of the Medusa," Rachel Blau DuPlessis's "For the Etruscans," Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, (1984), and Jeanette Winterson's The Passion (1987).

122 Aurora's extended discussion on the nature of and the appropriate form for poetry includes these conclusions: that poetry should expound the relation between the spiritual and natural worlds (5.120-27); that the era proper to poetry includes the modern age (5.139-88); and that the poet should dispense with traditional forms if she is to forge a new shape appropriate to the living impulse of her work (5.223-39).

123 "Art itself, / We've called the larger life, must feel the soul / Live past it. For more's felt than is perceived, / And more's perceived than can be interpreted, / And Love strikes higher with his lambent flame / Than Art can pile the faggots" (7.889-94).

124 In drawing on this juxtaposition Aurora Leigh can be placed in that peculiarly female subgenre in nineteenth-century poetry where the claims of home are weighed against the claims of art: e.g., Felicia Hemans's "Corinne at the Capitol" and "Woman and Fame," and Caroline Norton's "Obscurity of Women's Worth." That Barrett Browning was not wholly unaware of the "woman's sphere" proposition as a cultural platitude, is suggested by the fact that she puts the assertion of love's necessity to women into the mouth of a man, when Vincent Carrington tells Aurora of his engagement because "Most women (of your height even) counting love / Life's only serious business" (7.575-76).

125 "In nineteenth-century narrative, where women heroes were concerned, quest and love plots were intertwined, simultaneous discourses, but at the resolution of the work, the energies of the Bildung were incompatible with the closure in successful courtship or marriage. Quest for women was thus finite. . . ." Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth Century Women Writers (Bloomington, Indiana, 1985), 6.

126Aurora Leigh 8.1130-31.

127 As Barrett Browning's letters do make clear, she was a product of her context in believing in a difference between a masculine and feminine intellect, each of those characterized in stereotypical terms. Where she is unusual is in her belief that men and women need not possess one or the other category of characteristics straightforwardly as a result of biology but that a woman can possess a masculine intellect (and vice versa). 22 Sept. 1850, EBB to Mrs. Ogilvy, 32.

128 Leighton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 121. See also Gelpi, "Vocation of the Woman Poet," 35-48. Dorothy Mermin offers a discerning review of the various 'mother' images and guests which the poem presents. See Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry, 190-208.

129 Compare EBB' s remarks on the conventional education offered to middle class girls in her letter to Mary Hunter, 9 Jan. 1859, Berg Collection. See Checklist 59:72, quoted above in text.

130 "The girl then has to suppress or devalue that fullness of recognition [of the maternal body] in order to line up within the order of the phallic term" Jacqueline Rose, "Introduction II," in Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the École Freudienne, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose (London, 1982), 54; Gilbert, "From Patria to Matria" 194-209. It is, of course, a significant move when Aurora sells her father's books (5.1211-71) in order to return to her "mother country."

131 Leighton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 114-40.

132 Taking Aurora's pronouncements on women's failings at face value, David sees them as evidence of Barrett Browning's internalization of patriarchal values. See Intellectual Women, 145-52. But these exaggerated statements rather demonstrate Barrett Browning's ironic recognition of the difficulties that result through Aurora's temporary annexation of those values.

133 As Aurora's mother's nonverbal expressivity is defined by its association with the primitive essential which is prior to the order of Symbolic law obtaining in the social world (the Wordsworthian "outer Infinite" derived from the "Intimations" ode), Aurora, at this point, can only imagine a version of the feminine which is pre-linguistic and pre-thought. See Rose, "Introduction II" in Feminine Sexuality, 54.

134 See Joan Riviere, "Womanliness as a Masquerade" (1929) in Formations of Fantasy, ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan (London, 1986), 35-37.

135 Leighton balances Aurora's initial search for the "father" as exhibited in her early traditional poetic practice against her championing of the fallen "sister" in an experimental poetics appropriate to the modern age. See Leighton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 141-57.

136 Lady Waldemar (like Marian) represents a reflection and exaggeration of certain aspects of Aurora's character. She is a version of the socially constructed woman who fails to rebel, unlike Aurora, against the trivialities of female education and socialization.

137 ".. . Nelly Dean is patriarchy's paradigmatic housekeeper, the man's woman who has traditionally been hired to keep men's houses in order by straightening out their parlors, their daughters, and their stories." "Looking Oppositely: Emily Brontë's Bible of Hell" in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination (New Haven and London, 1979), 291-92.

138 In Marian's accounts of herself (and Lady Waldemar's argument concerning her unfitness for class translation), the processes of natural selection are opposed to the civilized processes of artificial selection. "You take a kid you like, and turn it out / In some fair garden: though the creature's fond / And gentle, it will leap upon the beds / And break your tulips, bite your tender trees; / The wonder would be if such innocence / Spoiled less" (6.932-37), and "'You take a pink, / 'You dig about its roots and water it / 'And so improve it to a garden-pink, / 'But will not change it to a heliotrope, / 'The kind remains'" (6.1044-48).

139 Alfred Tennyson, The Princess (1847), 7.259; compare Charles Darwin (whose Origin of the Species was not published until 1859 but whose propositions were common to other theorists in the 1850s): "It is generally admitted that with woman the powers of intuition, of rapid perception, and perhaps of imitation, are more strongly marked than in man; but some, at least, of these faculties are characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilization." The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London, 1871) 2:326-27.

140 In the manuscript, Lucy Gresham was initially described as a "sistersoul." See textual notes to 4.36-37. The revised reading extends the inevitability of Marian's isolation until her eventual alliance with Aurora.

141 Again, the comparison of developed civilization with the primitive is made through Aurora's analogy of Western bourgeois marriage (and the consequent legal annihilation of the woman) with the Hindu practice of suttee (4.176-202).

142 See explanatory annotation to 6.808.

143 The manuscript includes a deleted reference to the loss of "individual life." See textual notes to 6.808; "woman is traditionally use-value for man, exchange-value among men. Merchandise, then." Luce Irigaray, "Ce sexe qui n'en pas un" in New French Feminisms, 105.

144 EBB to Sarianna Browning, Nov. 1856, Letters of EBB 2:242; EBB to Arabel, 4 Oct. 1856, Moulton-Barrett Collection. See Checklist 56:142.

145 See Irigaray, "Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un" in New French Feminisms, 99-101, and Hélène Cixous's diagram of oppositions in "Sorties" in ibid., 90-91.

146 See particularly DuPlessis, Writing Beyond the Ending and David, Intellectual Women. See also Christine Sutphin's rejection of the "negative" ending in "Revising Old Scripts: The Fusion of Independence and Intimacy in Aurora Leigh," BIS 15 (1987): 43-54. Joyce Zanona argues that this passivity in book 7 is the point when Aurora begins to listen to her 'blood' and make herself into her own Muse; see "The Embodied Muse: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Feminist Poetics," Tulsa Studies in Women 's Literature, 8 (1989): 240-262.

147 W. E. Aytoun said Romney was "such a very decided noodle that we grudge him his prominence in the poem, do not feel much sympathy for his misfortunes, and cannot help wondering that Aurora should have entertained one spark of affection for so deplorable a milksop." "Aurora Leigh," 33.

148 Tompkins, "Aurora Leigh," 12; Jan Montefiore, "Two-Way Mirrors: Psychoanalysis and the Love Sonnet" in Feminism and Poetry, 97-134. Dorothy Mermin also makes this point in ".. . the blindness seems consequent on her needs rather than his." See Elizabeth Barrett Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry (1989): 214.

149 In some discarded lines in the draft manuscript at Wellesley, he also remarks on Aurora's inability to "read" him. See textual notes to 9.512.

150 Romney' s voice, like his face, haunts Aurora, his words echoing as accusations to be refuted or assessments to be conceded. See 3.237-41; 5.56-58, 487, 1076-77; 7.750-52; and 7.880-82.

151 When defending herself against the charge of plagiarizing Jane Eyre, Barrett Browning argued that his blindness rather resembled Milton's than Rochester's and added "For it was necessary, I thought, to the bringing out of my thought, that Romney should be mulcted in his natural sight." EBB to Anna Jameson, 26 Dec. 1856, Letters of EBB 2:246.

152 Karlin links Romney's blinding to the extended metaphors linking seeing and loving in the 1845-46 correspondence. Referring to two letters (EBB to RB, 1 May 1846 and 15 July 1846) Karlin suggests that in Elizabeth Barrett's view love "does without" true sight precisely because its transfiguration prevents clear seeing. Courtship, 136.

153 "the 'feminine' is constituted as a division in language, a division which produces the feminine as a negative term. If a woman is defined as other it is because the definition produces her as other and not because she has another essence." Rose, "Introduction H" in Feminine Sexuality, 55-56.

154 In fact, Aurora's difference from Romney is a dubious fact, for the cousins share the same name—and appearance (4.939;9.163).

155 Romney, by contrast, takes on the "woman's part" of doing the loving for two (9.912). See Sutphin, "Revising Old Scripts," BIS 15 (1987): 43-54.

156 EBB to RB, 20 Mar. 1845, RB/EBB Letters 1:42.

157Aurora Leigh 5.223-25.

158 30 Dec. 1844, EBB to MRM 3:49.

159 "It is only a novel á la Jane Eyre, a little tainted by Sand." William Bell Scott to William Michael Rossetti, 22 Dec. 1856, Ruskin: Rossetti: Pre-Raphaelitism Papers 1854-1862, ed. William Michael Rossetti (London, 1899) 147. Anna Jameson accused EBB of borrowing the catastrophe which caused Romney's blindness from Jane Eyre. See EBB to Anna Jameson, 26 Dec. 1856, Letters of EBB, 2:245-46. Other similarities have been noted since then. See Julia Bolton Holloway, "Aurora Leigh and Jane Eyre," Brontë Society Transactions 17 (1977): 126-32. The influence of George Sand's novels in supplying character types and melodramatic incident has been documented by Alethea Hayter, Mrs. Browning: A Poet's Work and Its Setting (London, 1962), 160-62 and Patricia Thomson, George Sand and the Victorians: Her Influence and Reputation in Nineteenth Century England (London, 1977), 54-60.

160 The best accounts of the influence of Corinne are to be found in Moers's Literary Women, 173-210 and passim, and in Kaplan's Introduction to Aurora Leigh, 17-22.

161 William Irvine satirizes the plot of Aurora Leigh as one "drawn from the teeming recollections of twenty years' compulsive novel-reading." Irvine and Honan, The Book, the Ring and the Poet, 349; this attitude to woman's reading is, of course, rooted in the nineteenth century, but its rudiment remains a common critical notion. See Kate Flint, "Reading the New Woman," BSN vol. 17, nos. 1-3 (1987-88): 55-57.

162 Kaplan, Introduction to Aurora Leigh, 14; see Kathleen Hickok, "'New Yet Orthodox': The Female Characters in Aurora Leigh," International Journal of Women's Studies, vol. 3, no. 5 (Sept./Oct. 1980): 479-89; Dolores Rosenblum, "Face to Face: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Nineteenth Century Poetry," Victorian Studies, vol. 26, no. 3 (Spring 1983): 321-38; Blake, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wordsworth," Victorian Poetry 24 (Winter 1986): 387-98; David, Intellectual Women, 143-58; Sutphin "Revising Old Scripts," BIS 15 (1987): 43-54; Cooper, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 145-88.

163 "I have always used a very wide number of references because of tending to regard all of western Europe as a great scrap-yard from which you can assemble all sorts of new vehicles . . . bricolage." Angela Carter in John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview (London, 1985), 92; 'stealing the language' is a term derived from Claudine Herrmann's Les Voleuses de Langue (Paris, 1979).

164 Carol Christ sees a direct precedent for Modernist poetry in Victorian experiments with pluralism of form and historical relativism, especially as exhibited in the long poem. See Victorian and Modern Poetics (Chicago and London, 1984), 115.

165 See, for instance, Cixous: "Woman un-thinks the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield. In woman, personal history blends together with the history of all women, as well as national and world history"—and, of course, literary history. "Laugh of the Medusa" in New French Feminisms 250. See also Alicia Suskin Ostriker, "Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythology" in Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Womens' Poetry in America (London, 1987), 210-38.

166 With the possible exceptions of Helen Sheridan's (Lady Dufferin's) poem "The Charming Woman" (see note to 5.1041) and Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights (see note to 5.1097-1105).

167 Compare this self-censoring process with Irigaray on the psychoanalytic marginalization of woman's sexuality. "The rejection, the exclusion of a female imaginary undoubtedly places woman in a position where she can experience herself only fragmentarily as waste or excess in the little structured margins of a dominant ideology. . . . The role of "femininity" is prescribed moreover . . . and corresponds only slightly to woman's desire, which is recuperated only secretly, in hiding, and in a disturbing and unpardonable manner." "Ce sexe" in New French Feminisms, 104.

168 Compare Robert Browning's requirement that his reader allow him "licences" which would permit him to "make shift with touches and bits of outlines which succeed if they bear the conception from me to you." Robert Browning to John Ruskin, 10 Dec. 1855, The Works of John Ruskin 36:xxxiv.

169 "And what easy work these novelists have of it! a Dramatic poet has to make you love or admire his men and women,—they must do and say all that you are to see and hear—really do it in your face, say it in your ears, and it is wholly for you, in your power, to name, characterize and so praise or blame, what is so said and done . . if you don't perceive of yourself, there is no standing by, for the Author, and telling you: but with these novelists, a scrape of the pen—out blurting of a phrase, and the miracle is achieved—'Consuelo possessed to perfection this and the other gift'—what would you more" RB to EBB, 10 Aug. 1845, RB/EBB Letters 1:150. EBB replied "there can be no disagreeing with you about the comparative difficulty of novel-writing & drama-writing." EBB to RB, 13 Aug. 1845, RB/EBB Letters 1:155.

170 Virginia Woolf s well-known image in "Modern Fiction" is reminiscent of this passage. "Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." The Common Reader 1:189. Certainly, the similarity of the two images provides a useful juxtaposition in arguing for the experiments of Aurora Leigh as ancestors of Modernist (and feminist) practice.

171 Antique sculpture is also used in this way: see explanatory annotation to 3.513-14; 517-19, 706; 5.798-99; and 7.666-67, 787.

172 Compare 1.139-142 and 5.618-624. See Tompkins, "Aurora Leigh," 14 for an account of Lady Waldemar's transformation into "woman-serpent," and see Gelpi, "Vocation of the Woman Poet," 39-40 for a comparison of the portrait with Lady Waldemar's appearance in book 5. All the snake images associated with Lady Waldemar derive from Aurora, with the one exception of that image at 9.112-13 where Lady Waldemar says of herself, "I shot my tongue against my fly / And struck him." In draft, however, the image was first applied to Lady Waldemar by Aurora. See textual notes to 7.312.

173 The first draft manuscript at Wellesley includes some discarded lines which refer to another picture (of Daphne) by Vincent Carrington which also applies to Aurora as poet. See textual notes to 7.562.

174 See Irigaray, "Ce sexe" in New French Feminisms, 99-106, and Montefiore, Feminism and Poetry, 147-52.

175 "at the pole of difficulty we have the construction of female subjects as speakers presented with a taboo against public speech, the price of and effects of that repression, a male centred linguistic tradition which, in an extreme form, is their female (and therefore human) identity. At the other pole is the field of language itself, open to invasion and subversion by female speakers. The overt and hidden subject of women's poetry is often a dialectic between those two poles." Kaplan, "Language and Gender" in Sea Changes, 92.

176 Terry Lovell, Consuming Fiction (London, 1987), 139.

Short Titles

BIS: Browning Institute Studies

BSN: Browning Society Notes

Reconstruction: The Browning Collections: A Reconstruction with Other Memorabilia, comp. Philip Kelley and Betty A. Coley (Winfield, Kansas, and London, 1984).

Checklist: The Brownings' Correspondence: A Checklist, comp. Philip Kelley and Ronald Hudson (The Browning Institute, 1978).

EBB to MRM: The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Mary Russell Mitford 1836-1854, ed. Meredith B. Raymond and Mary Rose Sullivan. 3 vols. (Winfield, Kansas, 1983).

EBB to Mrs. Ogilvy: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Letters to Mrs. David Ogilvy 1849-1861, ed. Peter N. Heydon and Philip Kelley (London, 1974).

Letters of EBB: The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Frederic G. Kenyon. 2 vols. (London, 1897).

RB/EBB Letters: The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Barrett 1845-1846, ed. Elvan Kintner. 2 vols. (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969).


Editions of Aurora Leigh

Aurora Leigh. 1857.

Aurora Leigh. New York and Boston, 1857.

Aurora Leigh. 1857. "Second edition."

Aurora Leigh. 1857. "Third edition."

Aurora Leigh. 1859. "Fourth edition," revised.

Aurora Leigh. 1860. "Fifth edition."

Aurora Leigh. Leipzig, 1872.

Aurora Leigh, prefatory note by Algernon Swinburne. 1898.

Aurora Leigh, ed. H. Buxton Forman. 1899.

Aurora Leigh, with an introduction by E. Wingate Rinder. 1899.

Aurora Leigh, traduit de l'anglais (by "A.B."). Paris, 1890.

Aurora Leigh, with an introduction by Charlotte Porter and Helen A. Clarke. 1902.

Aurora Leigh and Other Poems, introduced by Cora Kaplan. 1978. Women's Press facsimile reprint.

Aurora Leigh, introduced by Gardner B. Taplin. Chicago, 1979. Facsimile reprint.

Other works by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

An Essay on Mind. 1826.

"The Book of the Poets." The Athenaeum (4, 11, 25 June; 6, 13 August 1842). . . .

Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Barrett. 2 Vols. 1844.

Casa Guidi Windows. 1851. . . .

Casa Guidi Windows. Edited by Julia Markus. New York, 1977. . . .

Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning

Heydon, Peter N., and Kelley, Philip, eds. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Letters to Mrs. David Ogilvy 1849-1861. 1974. . . .

Kelley, Philip, and Hudson, Ronald, eds. The Brownings' Correspondence. 1809-43. vols. 1-8 Winfield, Kansas, 1984-90.

Kenyon, Frederic, ed. The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 2 vols. 1897. . . .

Kintner, Elvan, ed. The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Barrett and Robert Browning. 1845-46. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass., 1969. . . .

Raymond, Meredith B., and Sullivan, Mary Rose, eds. The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mary Russell Mitford 1836-1854. 3 vols. Winfield, Kansas, 1983. . . .

Contemporary reviews of Aurora Leigh

Aytoun, William Edmondstoune. "Mrs. Barrett Browning. Aurora Leigh." Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 81 (January 1857): 23-41. . . .

Everett, C. C. "Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning." The North American Review (October 1857): 415-41. . . .

Patmore, Coventry. "Mrs. Browning's Poems and Aurora Leigh." The North British Review, vol. 26, no. 52 (February 1857): 443-62. . . .

Stigand, William. "The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning." The Edinburgh Review, no. 232, (October 1861): 513-34. . . .


Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Poetry Criticism)