Discussion Topic

Criteria for good poetry in Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and their application to other poems

Summary:

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh outlines criteria for good poetry, including emotional depth, authenticity, and social relevance. These criteria can be applied to other poems by examining their ability to evoke strong emotions, their sincerity in expression, and their engagement with contemporary social issues.

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What criteria for good poetry does Elizabeth Barrett Browning establish in Aurora Leigh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How can the criteria for good poetry in Aurora Leigh be used to analyze other poems?

Clearly it is only a very confident or foolhardy poet that debates the true nature of poetry in their own work, as they obviously invite criticism of their poetry through holding up their own work as an example of good poetry. The criteria that Elizabeth Barrett Browning suggests are the hallmark of "good" poetry are actually rather hard to measure or quantify. She states that good poetry teaches "essential truths" to mankind about what it is to be human, and enlarges our understanding of the divine, which are rather abstract qualities.

In addition, she argues that good poetry will have a particularly emotional response on the reader, which she defines in her own experience as follows:

But the sun was high
When first I felt my pulses set themselves
For concords; when the rhythmic turbulence
Of blood and brain swept outward upon words,
As wind upon the alders blanching them
By turning up their under-natures till
They trembled in dilation.

Again, it is difficult to "measure" the impact that a poem has on us, and of course, given the very different nature of humans, one could argue that good poetry cannot be merely defined by whether or not it has a similar impact.

However, moving away from the subjective nature of her criteria, perhaps we can take from her definition of good poetry some statements that might help us to analyse poetry. Does it help us to understand more about the condition of being human? Does it create some kind of emotional response in us that strikes a chord with who we are? Such questions might be useful in order to take the heart of what Elizabeth Barrett Browning calls "good poetry" and use it as a measuring rod to assess other poems.

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