Aurora Leigh, we see a young woman struggling in her exertions to become a writer, and in the first four books of the poem, we tend to focus more on the implications of the young artist's gender than on her occupation. However, in the fifth book, Elizabeth Barrett Browning introduces the subject of the artist's relationship to the outside world. The chapter begins as Aurora's reaction to yet another discussion with her cousin Romney that occurs at the end of the fourth book. The question then becomes one of the difference between the artist and the common person. Browning has Aurora take the opinion that the artist is extraordinary in that he or she becomes a creator of life. In Aurora's monologue, the artist has a peculiar ability to see that which is hidden from the average eye:
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. [lines 182-187]
This vision, which seems almost to mimic the nature of a photographic lens, becomes both the artist's advantage and his or her demise, for this ability imposes greater demands on the artist. Here, the writer has the ability not only to affect but to transform the outside world. Aurora describes this act as an inversion in which the inward emotions of the artist are externalized. In this sense, the spirit, or soul, of the artist is expelled into the external world, affecting humanity and creating life. However, Browning's Aurora takes this praise of the artist / writer to yet another level when she speaks of the artist's ability to hover over the human world from an almost divine perspective (lines 115-120). In the first stanza of the fifth book, Aurora elaborates on this theme when she enumerates all of the things that the artist both observes and transposes. The last element in the list goes beyond the earthly seasons and passions which have already been mentioned and moves the reader into a more spiritual realm:
. . .ecstatic souls,
Who, in a rush of too long prisoned flame,
Their radiant faces upward, burn away
This dark of the body, issuing on a world
Beyond our mortal? — can I speak my verse
So plainly in tune to these things and the rest,
That men shall feel it catch them on quick, . . .
To hold and move them . . .? [lines 20-28]
This passage reveals a number of things about Aurora's beliefs as to the role of the artist and the nature of the afterlife. Aurora talks of the body in an almost Blakian sense; the body becomes the prison, or the outer bound, of the spirit. Can the artist then envision such things beyond the earthly world and convey the supernatural experience of the soul's passage into the immortal realm? Aurora asks. Furthermore, she wants to feed this aspiration or experience to the hearts of humanity until we can both know and experience such a transformation. As Aurora states in her exquisite paradox, she wants to "hold and move them;" she wants to distill all earthly motion and fixate upon an upward movement to the divine and spiritual. Thus, Aurora alludes to an even greater possibility for the artist as a passageway between two worlds — that of the human world and the divine. The writer, in drawing out the soul of the reader, offers that which is immortal to the earthly world. The question then becomes is Aurora successful in her undertakings? Or are her aspirations for the artist only reflective of a certain youthful hubris?
Browning keeps the character of Romney present throughout the poem, and soon we come to see Romney as a counterpart and even an opposition to Aurora's beliefs about women and art. What then is Browning's intention in constantly drawing out this relationship between the two characters?
Is there some merit to Romney's views? That is to say does Romney highlight any shortcomings or signs of unnecessary pride in Aurora's character?
Is Aurora on target with her views about the artist, or does she distance the artist too much from the human world?
Last modified 8 October 2003