Ay, but every age
Appears to souls who live in't (ask Carlyle)
Most unheroic. Ours, for instance, ours:
The thinkers scout it, and the poets abound
Who scorn to touch it with a finger tip:
A pewter age, — mixed metal, silver washed;
An age of scum, spooned off the richer past,
An age of patches for old gaberdines,
An age of mere transition, meaning nought
Except that what succeeds must shame it quite
If God please. That's wrong thinking, to my mind,
And wrong thoughts make poor poems. [Book 5, ll. 155-66]
In this passage from Aurora Leigh (1857) Elisabeth Barrett Browning explicitly points out Carlyle's weakest characteristic, even going as far as naming him. In view of this poem, Carlyle seems particularly backwards and conservative when he whines about their century. "How changed in these new days! Truly may it be said, the Divinity has withdrawn from the earth," he complains, adding that "an iron, ignoble circle of Necessity embraces all things; binds the youth of these times into a sluggish thrall, or else exasperates him into a rebel" (Norton 958). He rehashes the time-old cliché of the contemporary world and youth going to shambles, which thinkers, from Plato to Allan Bloom, have ceaselessly bashed into our ears.
In this passage Browning merely points this weakness out — with a scornful finger tip. She reserves her arguments for other stanzas in her carefully constructed poem, the structure of which closely resembles Carlyle's essay. It has the same argumentative and logical slant. Furthermore, not only does her technique resemble Carlyle's in the structure of the poem, but she uses the same lively interjections Carlyle has throughout his essay.
"Nay," he exclaims, "is not the diseased self-conscious state of literature disclosed in this one fact [...]." (Norton 956)
"Ay," Browning cries back, "but every age appears to souls who live in't [...] most unheroic."
Moreover, she uses Carlyle's own characteristic satiric analogies and imagery to show the faultss in his and of other contemporary thinkers's reasoning. They see their century, says she, as "an age of scum, spooned off the richer past." This implies that she considers the present to be the cream of the past, as "spooning off from the richer past" evoques an image of skimming milk for the cream. With this imagery, Carlyle's vision of the present is more subtle than the other "thinkers" Browning criticizes. Carlyle, whose "Present is the living sumtotal of the whole Past," would compare his times to whole, pasteurized milk; only the impurities are boiled away by time and change. "Thus in all Poetry, Worship, Art, Society, as one form passes in another, nothing is lost: it is but the superficial, as it were the body only, that grows obsolete and dies" (Norton 962).
Elisabeth Barrett Browning's reason for vehemently defending her century (or to be more precise, the contemporary world) is easily understood in the context of the political, social and cultural atmosphere surrounding her. The nineteenth century was an age of transition; not merely an age of transition meaning nought, but an exciting period of change. New ideas, from women's rights to Darwin's theories of evolution, led to great expectations for the near and far future. Even Carlyle abandoned his nostalgic comparisons of the past with the present to turn to the future. "Nevertheless so much has become evident to every one, that this wondrous mankind is advancing somewhither; that a least all human things are, have been and forever will be, in Movement and Change." If Carlyle is lead to contradict his bleak notion of his godless times, dazzled by the nineteenth century's dynamism, then it is no wonder that in this same context Browning defended her times with such passion, and with such contempt for those who dismissed it.
Last modified 26 November 2004