Barrett Browning's conceptualization of heroism develops alongside her feminist aesthetic project — an attempt to combine the masculine-coded novel and feminine-coded poem to portray the contending loyalties of a woman writer entering the public sphere. Aurora searches for heroes in the present age, not in the patrilineal tradition of Classical literature. Barrett Browning's novel-poem enacts not only the gendering of the Victorian heroine but also her democratization. Again, Armstrong reminds us of the mutual interdependence of the rise of the middle-class and the rise of the domestic woman. "Half-poets even," as Aurora argues in Book Four, "are still whole democrats" (4.315). In the following passage from Book Five, Aurora explains how seemingly prosaic middle-class figures portray heroism in the same measure as their religious and literary predecessors:

The critics say that epics have died out
With Agamemnon and the goat-nursed gods;
I'll not believe it. I could never deem
As Payne Knight did, (the mythic mountaineer
Who travelled higher than he was born to live,
And showed sometimes the goitre in his throat
Discoursing of an image seen through fog,)
That Homer's heroes measured twelve feet high.
they were but men: - his Helen's hair turned grey
Like any plain Miss Smith's who wears a front;
And Hector's infant whimpered at a plume
As yours last Friday at a turkey-cock.
All actual heroes are essential men,
And all men possible heroes: every age,
Heroic in proportions, double-faced,
Looks backward and before, expects a morn
And claims an epos. (5.139-154)

"All actual heroes are essential men," Aurora argues, "and all men possible heroes." "Critics," such as the philologist Payne Knight, glorify the epic heroes of Classical literature, lamenting that these "epics have died out / With Agamemnon and the goat-nursed gods." By contrast, Aurora attempts to democratize the hero — to deflate the epic proportions of "Homer's heroes" and to suggest how middle-class figures and their literary ancestors share a common heroism and mutability: "Helen's hair turned grey / Like any plain Miss Smith's."

Victorian industrial expansion had debased the Golden Age of classical literature to a "pewter age...an age of scum" (5.160-161). As a result, many Victorian poets dismiss the "most unheroic" concerns of everyday heroes and "scorn to touch" an age shaped by the burgeoning middle-class. Since the Victorian period was primarily free of war, authors such as Tennyson and Browning perhaps found themselves with no martial heroes of their own and subsequently delved into Medieval literature in search of inspiration. Barrett Browning satirizes this Medieval Revival, such as Tennyson's reappropriation of the Arthurian Legend in the Idylls of the King and Robert Browning's "Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower Came." "I do distrust the poet who discerns / No character or glory I his times, / And trundles back his soul five hundred years" (5.189-191). Notice above how Aurora refers to her age as "double-faced." Aurora's comments in the passage below suggest to me that Barrett Browning's ideal poet mediates, disciplines, and domesticates a series of binary oppositions — the relationship between past and present, tacit meaning and symbolism, masculine and feminine:

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. [5.183-188]

Aurora's "double vision" recalls Armstrong's idea that the household space becomes a site for the surveillance, observation, and control of competing ideologies — a microcosmic site which "doubles" for the broader middle-class condition. In the next stanza, Aurora goes on to suggest that the "live, throbbing" Victorian age "spends more passion, more heroic heat, / Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms, Than Roland with his knights at Roncesvalles" (5.205-207 my emphasis). In other words, the sexual practices and kinship relationships within Victorian drawing-rooms produces middle-class domestic women who supplant the male martial heroes of Medieval chivalric romance. Several lines later, Barrett Browning re-emphasizes the Victorian Period's doubleness, calling it a "full-veined, heaving, double-breasted age" (5.216) Barrett Browning puns upon several meanings of the words "double-breasted." On one hand "double breasted" suggests the lapels of a man's coat — perhaps a signifier of masculine merchant-class ambition. On the other hand "double-breasted" connotes the woman's bosom. "Behold, — behold the paps (breasts) we all have sucked!" (5.219). These "full-veined, heaving" breasts are emblems of maternal plenitude and nourishment.

Related Material


Victorian Overview E. B. Browning The Warden The Warden

Last modified 1996