Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh has several themes in common with Carlyle's "Characteristics." Two in particular stand out from the portions of the texts chosen for inclusion in Norton: that the Victorian period was as much a time for greatness as any of the ages that passed before, and that the type of self-examination Carlyle and Browning saw in their society was flawed. Short passages from each work suffice to illustrate the first theme. Browning points out that

The critics say that epics have died out
I'll not believe it. I could never deem. . . .
That Homer's heroes measured twelve feet high. . . .
All actual heroes are essential men,
And all men possible heroes. [1086]

This passage from Aurora Leigh is remarkably like Carlyle's observation, "how everywhere the eternal fact begins to be recognized, that there is a Godlike in human affairs; that God not only made us and beholds us, but is in us and around us; that the Age of Miracles, if it ever was, now is" (Norton 963). This observation of Carlyle's is part of a hopeful ending to his detailed exposition of the ills of society; earlier parts of "Characteristics" view the psychological development of English society in a less optimistic fashion. Examples of his thought earlier (see below) in the essay lead us to the second thematic intersection between "Characteristics" and Aurora Leigh. Both authors indicate that Victorian society was examining itself in the wrong way. Carlyle feels that the logical, intellectual manner in which critics were attempting to examine Victorian culture was improper. He writes: "The healthy Understanding, we should say, is not the Logical, argumentative, but the Intuitive; for the end of Understanding is not to prove and find reasons, but to know and believe." (Norton 955). This concept is similar to one of Browning's observations in Aurora Leigh, that "Every age, / Through being beheld too close, is ill discerned / By those who have not lived past it," (Norton 1086), which she follows, after an extended "forest for the trees" analogy, with the following statement:

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. [1087]

Although Browning fails to mention intuition specifically, the notion of seeing distant objects intimately and extremely close objects comprehensively involves an act of imagination, a mental leap quite different from simple observation.


Victorian Overview Thomas Carlyle

Last modified 20 February 2002