In Book Eight of Aurora Leigh Romney, who finally see the error of his ways, recognizes both Aurora's status as a truly great poet and the truth of her philosophy. In language evocative of the rebirth associated with religious conversion, Romney states that he has changed his mind about Aurora's poetry:
saying "You have written poems, sweet,
Which moved me in secret, as the sap is moved
In still March-branches, signless as a stone:
But this last book o'ercame me like soft rain
Which falls at midnight, when the tightened bark
Breaks out into unhesitating buds
And sudden protestations of the spring." [Book VIII, ll. 592-98]
But as often happens in conversations between Romney and Aurora Leigh, Romney puts scripture to use in a different fashion than does Aurora. In the past, this signaled the open disagreement between the two cousins. Here, however, they should be in agreement, but yet the scriptural differences persist. While reading this speech of Romney's consider that it is preceded by Aurora's statement "What we are, imports us more/ Than what we eat" (Book VIII, ll. 556-57).
We're too materialistic, — eating clay
(Like men of the West) instead of Adam's corn
And Noah's wine, clay by handfuls, clay by lumps,
Until we're filled up to the throat with clay,
And grown the grimy colour of the ground
On which we are feeding. Ay, materialist
The age's name is. God himself, with some,
Is apprehended as the bare result
Of what his hand materially has made,
Expressed in such an algebraic sign
Called God; — that is, to put it otherwise
They add up nature to a nought of God
And cross the quotient. There are many even,
Whose names are written in the Christian church
To no dishonour, diet still on mud
And splash the altars with it. You might think
The clay, Christ laid upon their eyelids when,
Still blind, he called them to the use of sight,
Remained there to retard its exercise
With clogging incrustations. Close to heaven,
They see for mysteries, through the open doors,
Vague puffs of smoke from pots of earthenware;
And fain would enter, when their time shall come,
With quite another body than Saint Paul
Has promised, — husk and chaff, the whole barley corn,
Or where's the resurrection?' [Book VIII, ll. 630-54]
1. Romney has signaled on the previous page that he has come to agree with Aurora that all physical things have a spiritual counterpart (ll. 616-20) — but how does this connect to the anti-materialism of this passage? Certainly Aurora is unlikely to have any fondness for the Philistines Romney decries. The materialistic image of the passage is not the financial materialism of the moneychangers in the Temple, but mud, dirt or clay, the source of all of Aurora's much beloved spiritual nature. Not mention that dust is that from which man was created and to which he will return. Should this be read as sign that Romney is still misinterpreting Aurora's ideas?
2. In direct opposition to Aurora's injunction against judging people by what they eat, Romney contrasts the fallen men and women of the times who eat clay "instead of Adam's corn/ And Noah's wine." The footnote in the Norton Edition (1996) glosses the corn and wine "as God-given and therefore good things" (271). Recourse to the scripture in question muddies the waters considerably. In Genesis 3, God tells Adam "cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life," and in Genesis 9 Noah "planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren." Neither the corn or the wine are unambiguously positive, in fact both are the result of (or result in) a curse. Is Romney misusing scripture? Is this a sign from Barrett Browning that he is still missing the point?
3. When Romney lampoons those who apprehend God as "the bare result/ Of what his hand materially has made," in what ways is this appreciably different from the vision of spiritual nature we see in the text. Given the absence of formal religious structures, is there more to Aurora's faith than her appreciation of "what his hand materially has made"?
4. Does Christ's use of clay as agent in healing the blind destabilize Romney's use of clay or earth as the signal of debased material excess?
Last modified 1 November 2004