Browning's womanhood contributes to her strength and relevance as a poet, just as Aurora's intimacy with the plight of (some?) women in this novel-poem illuminates aspects of Victorian culture that may have otherwise never been uncovered. But I worry that Aurora chooses the identity of poet over her identity as woman, which may undermine some of the usefulness of her arguments about poetry. Aurora writes of her twentieth birthday in Book 2, line 1, "as I stood/ woman and artist, — either incomplete,/both credulous of completion." This possible contradiction is illuminated during the sections of the poem where Aurora Leigh directly confronts the poetry of men and women and theories of the poet. She looks down upon the men poets (like Tennyson) whose work makes use of primarily historical or mythological settings or themes. Aurora argues in Book five that the sole work of poets is to "represent the age,/ Their age, not Charlemagne's" (ll. 202-3). Yet she wants to have room for epic, imagination, distance, and in this wish defers to the male-poet convention (since epics are mostly written by men) which is, arguably, a way to claim substance and relevance in a world of poetry that is dominated by men. This is debatably a step backwards for a poet whose "sole" work is to represent her age. She even reverts to solely masculine pronouns as she argues her point:
It takes a soul,
To move a body: it takes a high-souled man,
To move the masses, even to a cleaner stye:
It takes the ideal, to blow a hair's-breadth off
The dust of the actual. [Book 2, ll. 479-83]
And later, in Book five,
The critics say that epics have died out
With Agamemnon and the goat-nursed gods;
I'll not believe it. . . .
All actual heroes are essential men,
And all men possible heroes: every age,
Heroic in proportions, double-faced,
Looks backwards and before, expects a morn
And claims an epos. [ll. 139-41, 151-55]
There are places in the text, as in the above, where Aurora leaves her story, her pronoun even, for this spar with the male-established conventions of poetry, but concurrent with the establishment of her epic and the weaving in of the women-novelists' traditions in plot and theme, Aurora, and Browning, ultimately stays with her story of Marian and Romney, illuminating some of her "present age".
So does this work? Does Aurora abandon her responsibility to the women whose lives she seems to have special insight into for the epic of male poets — does this sense of reference, imagination, get in the way of this "sole" work of the poet? Does this remove Aurora's womanhood in favor of her position as poet?
What effect does her choice of pronoun in some of the above passages have on her arguments? Is she being ironic, or should these choices be taken seriously?
How does all the references, the actual weaving of an epic from bits of stories and themes from such a large range of sources affect her audience base- does the poem, in order to be fully comprehended, require certain education or experiences of the audience, if so, or if not, might this risk prove or disprove her argument about the place of poetry in modern life? Do you think this novel-poem experiment was successful by her own criteria:
But poets should
Exert a double vision: should have eyes
To see near things as comprehensively
As if afar they took their point of sigh,
And distant things as intimately deep
As if they touched them. Let us strive for this. [Book 5, ll. 183-88]
Last modified 8 October 2003