In “The Embodied Muse: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Feminist Poetics,” Joyce Zonana describes Aurora Leigh as “a woman artist who is simultaneously poet and muse” (241). Attempting to recast an assortment of feminist critical readings that assign the blinded Romney or the fallen Marian the position of muse within Browning’s text, Zonana argues that Aurora is able to embody both muse and poet because of her connection by the end of the text with both the feminine spiritual realm and the masculine bodily/physical realm. Zonana contrasts the fusion of poet and muse within Aurora to the way other women are seen both within the text and within the literary time period. Speaking of images of femininity, Zonana writes,

The images of womanhood that Aurora finds in her mother’s portrait are of course the traditional, highly bifurcated images of Western patriarchal literature — as Aurora herself acknowledges. Yet these images serve as appropriate characterizations of the mother and function to define the possibilities of womanhood for Aurora; the mistake she makes is not that she accepts these ‘male-defined’ images, but that she believes they cannot coexist in one being. [248]

Here, Zonana gestures to the beauty of the female form in terms of the “traditional” and “male-defined” images offered by male poets and society alike. Illustrations of the female body as beautiful are present throughout the text, in descriptions of Aurora, her mother’s portrait, and the other primary female characters. However, it is towards the latter half of the poem/novel that Aurora also offers descriptions of beautiful women that appear in less than ideal forms, such as when she describes Marian with “her great / Drowned eyes, and dripping cheeks, and strange sweet smile” upon seeing Romney in Book IX (306, lines 293-4). Although this is certainly not a disparaging description, it is far from descriptions of heavenly female muses offered by male poets of the time. It is instead a portrayal that is realistic, earthy even, as Aurora displays a woman whose features are briefly soggy. The inclusion of such descriptions is important in Zonana’s figuration of Aurora’s move to poet/muse, as Aurora begins as a poet, then becomes “a fully embodied, earthly muse” (249). In other words, Browning manages to synthesize in Aurora what has remained separated by a self/other divide in other texts that consider the form of the muse. For as Zonana asserts at the end of her piece, “No mortal can sing without a muse who embodies the union of heaven and earth” (259).


Zonana mentions in passing the possibility of a relationship between Romney’s blindness in Aurora Leigh and Rochester’s blinding in Jane Eyre (258). Although this is a claim that Browning denied (and there are many other sources for the blind man/female muse formula), how does the blinding of the male love objects figure in each text? What is the relationship to the type of life each woman is able to access after the blinding of their lover?

Is there a way to read Aurora’s dual embodiment (of poet and muse, self and other) in terms of the Kristevean abject? How does the abject itself relate to Aurora’s ability to become an “earthly muse”?

How does the inclusion/acceptance of abject circumstances and descriptions of the abject within the text relate to the feminist underpinnings of the novel?

What is the place of nature in the text? How does it function in relation to the moments of urban destitution? Are the multiple aqueous and oceanic metaphors drawn throughout the text doing more than invoking the epic form?


Zonana, Joyce. “The Embodied Muse: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s a Aurora Leigh and Feminist Poetics/ ” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 2 (1989): 241-62. [] Web. 21 Mar 2010.

Victorian Overview E. B. Browning

Last modified 22 March 2010