Context: Aurora Leigh, orphaned daughter of an English noble and his Florentine wife, lives in England with an aunt who brings her up very strictly. But in spite of her upbringing, Aurora becomes a poet. She is visited in her aunt's home by her cousin, Romney Leigh, a wealthy young man who intends to dedicate his life to social uplift. Although he has a passion for good works, he is personally rather chilly so far as his emotions are concerned. Romney proposes marriage to Aurora, but as neither one loves the other, she refuses him. At this point in the story the aunt dies, and Aurora moves to London to make her living as a writer; she is markedly successful in her undertaking and gains a modicum of fame. She is visited by the beautiful Lady Waldemar, who is in love with Romney and who wishes to enlist Aurora's aid in breaking off Romney's prospective marriage to Marian Erle, a charming girl of low-class family. Aurora refuses to help Lady Waldemar, but keeps her silence to Romney about Lady Waldemar's project. She hears him call her good and reflects upon all the evil that good people do: good mothers use their children in intrigues, good critics ruin poets, good statesmen pull down states, good patriots ruin their causes. She concludes her reflection with the prayer that God may pardon all good men.
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 hope,
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!