Aurora Leigh, the 350-page poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, was first published in 1856, at which time the unique work received mixed reviews. An 1857 article from The Saturday Review describes Browning's poem as "wholly and obviously a fiction."
The characters are few and unreal — the incidents, though scanty, are almost inconceivable — and the heroine and autobiographer, as a professed poetess, has tastes and occupations which are, beyond all others, incapable of poetical treatment. . . The details of authorship probably possess a professional interest for those whom they concern; but life at a college, in a hospital, or in a special pleader's chambers, would furnish more interesting pictures to the world at large. . . The book will best display its real merits in a second reading, when the paradoxes in action, language, and thought which encumber the composition are tacitly set aside. . . With all her imperfections, most of which are voluntary, Mrs. Browning may claim at least an equal rank with any poetess who has appeared in England. ("Aurora Leigh," Saturday Review, 2 (No. 61, December 27, 1856), 776-78).
So, the critic considers Browning a competent English poet, but finds fault with her technique. Characters in Aurora Leigh, the reviewer complains, are few and unbelievable: action centers primarily around Aurora, whereas Romney and Marian Erle are two others who receive a fair amount of treatment. The journalist admits that this narrative discussion of an artist's life Browning intended to write with the exclusion of a long list of characters or intensely descriptive settings. The critic mourns the absence of locations such as a college or hospital because he believes these busy spots would provide more interest, more action to engage the reader. He suggests that a second reading improves one's perception of the piece. Perhaps in the second reading it is possible for one who first expected grand detail and the proliferation of elaborate characters, contained in so many Victorian novels, to appreciate the primary function of Aurora's dialoque. For example, the following passage contains only the thoughts of Aurora and offers no specific setting, but conveys crucial information about this woman's first of two philosophies about love. By way of such lengthy monoloques as this one, Browning develops fully the character of Aurora, the character from which she expected the reader to learn the most. "He had a right to be dogmatical,/ This poor, good Romney. Love, to him, was made/ A simple law-clause. If I married him, I would not dare to call my soul my own,/ Which so he had bought and paid for: every thought/ And every heart-beat down there in the bill" (Bk I, p.62)
Browning allows Aurora to describe her own emotions, her independence, and the actions of other characters. Most of the time, the reader exists inside the poet's mind.
Leigh Hunt, in a letter to Robert Browning, told the poet's husband that Aurora Leigh was
a unique, wonderful and immortal poem; astonishing for its combination of masculine power with feminine tenderness; for its novelty, its facility, its incessant abundance of thought, and expression; its being an exponent of its age. . . its lovely willingness to be no loftier, or less earthly, than something on an equality with love. I cannot express myself as thoroughly as I would; I must leave that to the poet, worthy of the poetess, who sits at her side" (p.739).
More interested in the universality of Aurora Leigh, this critic extols the virtues of Browning's blend of masculine and feminine forces. Of course, he acknowledges that the poem reflects the Victorian age. Judging from his statement about the poem's equality with love and earthliness of the poem, however, Hunt believes the work to make a statement about mortal life and emotional nature. Not so much concerned with the woman poet's dynamic personal strength, he praises the poem's excessive abundance of emotion. The following passage applies to this critique, showing Aurora expressing her feelings in a long gust of poetical phrases. "So many seasons I had forgot my Springs;/ My cheeks had pined and perished from their orbs,/ And all the youth blood in them had grown white/ As dew on autumn cyclamens: alone/ My eyes and forehead answered for my face (Bk. 4, p.154)."
Finally, an article in The Westminster Review calls Browning's attempt at writing a novel, which is simultaneously a poem, a daring and not wholly successful one.
Once into the vortex of the story we are whirled on, forgetful of criticism, of the authoress, and of ourselves. This is a high recommendation, and has contributed largely towards the enthusiastic reception of the work; but when one has leisure to be censorious, he is met by defects equally striking. The difficulties of the design have not been entirely surmounted. The authoress is given to a diffusive style: she drags us through many pages in "Aurora Leigh" which are unnecessary, trifling, and wearisome. That it may become a story, it sometimes ceases to be a poem. . . (Westminster Review, 1857)
Obviously, constructing a poem 350 pages in length is no small task. Whereas Browning succeeds at conveying Aurora's deeply personal thoughts, longings, and philosophical decisions, the novel as poem does experience fairly unpoetic moments. The following passage includes dialogue between Marian Erle and Aurora, an instance which wavers between the constructs of poem and novel in somewhat awkward state. "She looked the whiter for her smile./ 'There's one at home,' she said, 'has need of me/ By this time, - and I must not let him wait./ 'Not even,' I asked, 'to hear of Romney Leigh?'/ 'Not even,' she said, 'to hear of Mister Leigh,'" (Bk 6, p.214). This example sounds similar to non-poetic novels of the time, illustrating that Browning did not continue in completely rhythmic, flowing style throughout "Aurora Leigh."
Hunt, Leigh. [letter to Robert Browning on January 1, 1857 reprinted in Cornhill Magazine 76, No. 456 (December, 1897):. 738-49.
Last modified 1993