In Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning litters her poem with religious imagery and allusions. Of particular interest is one specific category of religious references: images of the apocalypse. Appropriately enough, there is a cluster of references to the apocalypse at the end of Aurora Leigh. In their discussion that closes the poem, Romney asks Aurora to:
Now press the clarion on thy woman's lip
(Love's holy kiss shall keep consecrate)
And breathe thy fine keen breath along the brass,
And blow all class-walls level as Jericho's
Past Jordan, — crying from the top of souls,
To souls, that, here assembled on earth's flats,
They get them to some purer eminence. [IX 929-935]
While Aurora here figures in the apocalyptic tradition as the destroying angel, the instrument of god's wrath, she simultaneously operates in the model of the prophet, exhorting the people to aspire to "some purer eminence." She responds to Romney in a similar vein, but with a different inflection:
Beyond the circle of the conscious hills,
Were laid in jasper-stone as clear as glass
The first foundations of that new, near Day
Which should be builded out of heaven to God.
He stood a moment with erected brows
In silence, as a creature might who gazed, —
Stood calm, and fed his blind majestic eyes
Upon the thought of perfect noon: and when
I saw his soul saw, — 'Jasper first,' I said,
'And second, sapphire; third, chalcedony;
The rest in order, — last, an amethyst.' [IX 954-64]
By using the language that describes the foundations of New Jerusalem to describe her shared project with Romney, Aurora appropriates for herself the role of God the creator. Aurora's multiple roles in this figuration of the apocalypse raises several questions.
1. How does Barrett Browning use of religious imagery function in this passage? Does this text truly organize itself in an apocalyptic fashion, or is it instead employing a kind apocalyptic typology? Here Aurora is described as a type of God the destroyer, God the creator and the Old Testament prophets. How would an apocalyptic text differ, if at all?
2. The contrasting images of Aurora as creator and destroyer are evocative of a similarly multivalent image of a woman, namely the portrait of Aurora's mother described in I 148-173. What does this incredible multiplicity of figurations suggest about Aurora's approach to interpretation?
3. In this final section, the apocalypse has both occurred (New Jerusalem is being built) and has yet to occur (the shattering of the wall of Jericho evokes the destruction that accompanies the apocalypse). This suggests that perhaps there may be different contexts for the apocalypse. Is apocalypse under discussion a personal one or a socio-political one? Or both?
4. In a poem that is saturated with religious imagery, there is relatively little in the way of the form of organized religion. Is Aurora's apocalypse specifically Christian, or is it merely a generalized trope of many religions, express in Christian context?
Last modified 19 March 2008;
Thanks to Dorothy Willis for catching a typo!