Critical Overview

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Perhaps the best summary of the critical reaction to Aurora Leigh is the following quote from William Edmondstoune Aytoun, the famous literary critic for Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine: "With all its faults, this is a remarkable poem; strong in energy, rich in thought, abundant in beauty." Aytoun had blasted the poem as "fantastic, unnatural, exaggerated" and had found the character of Aurora to be unattractive, some of the language coarse and revolting, and the images often bewilderingly intensified. Nonetheless, writing in 1857, he felt that Aurora Leigh sustained Browning's high reputation.

Similarly, W. C. Roscoe, a contemporary of Aytoun's, wrote in the National Review that Browning "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." Roscoe thought the poem excessively long with superfluous detail and remarked that the characters were "vague hazy embodiments given to certain contrasted sets of ideas." Another contemporary, Henry Fothergill Chorley, commented that he could write page after page about "the huge mistake of the plan, the disdain of selectness in its details." On the other hand, he could also write multiple pages about "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."

A later critic, examining the work of the greater Victorian poets, wrote in 1892 for The Victorian Age of English Literature: "The remarkable thing in [Aurora Leigh] is its energy and strong poetical vitality, the rush and spring of life" of its narrative, which, however, was "not sufficient for the fervour and power of utterance." Not long after, in the early twentieth century, changes in taste and critical emphasis led to a devaluation of Browning's work. Her irregular meters and half rhymes did not suit a new insistence on technical correctness. Besides, cultural expectations assumed that no great poetry could contain womanly topics. On the other hand, Browning's relationship with her husband was the stuff of romance and the appropriate realm of a woman, so she was idealized as the loving companion of her husband, the great poet Robert Browning. Her own talents were thereby dismissed.

Toward the end of the twentieth century, however, the growth of women's studies led to a reexamination of Aurora Leigh from a feminist perspective. This reevaluation has led to a new appreciation of the innovative techniques and messages contained in the poem. In 1986, Dorothy Mermin declared in the Victorian Newsletter that Aurora Leigh "goes farther than any other poem or novel of the Victorian period towards transcending the limits imposed on literature by gender." In her analysis of Aurora Leigh for the Review of English Studies, Catherine Maxwell comments on the "many allusions and intertextual influences." Maxwell also points to the "poem's intelligent self-consciousness, its images of visual art, especially portraiture, and its metaphors of reading and writing."

Regardless of the critic or the century, the innovative uniqueness of Aurora Leigh provides a challenge. Although she was writing in 1980, Kathleen Hickok probably speaks for every reader when she says in the International Journal of Women's Studies, "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." As with all new inventions, there are flaws and missteps in Aurora Leigh. Nonetheless, the consensus is that this verse novel was a bold step for a poet, a grand experiment, and a remarkable achievement.

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Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Poetry Criticism)

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