In Book 2 of Aurora Leigh, Cousin Romney chides Aurora for her poetic aspirations, citing some reasons that are proven false and others that are curiously insightful. Despite the falsity of his views on women artists in general, his views on the nature of art, and what is required to produce it, resonate with Aurora’s experiences throughout the rest of the book, wherein Aurora must struggle mightily to overcome her own youth and frivolity to create a work of true literary merit. Toward the beginning of the novel, Romney characterizes Aurora as an Eve-figure, suspended in the garden of youth, who has yet to make a journey through the reality of the world:

                         You, you are young
As Eve with daybreak on her face,
But this same world you are come to, dearest coz,
Has done with keeping birthdays, saves her wreaths
To hang upon her ruins, and forgets
To rhyme the cry with which she still beats back
Those savage, hungry dogs that hunt her down
To the empty grave of Christ. The world’s hard-pressed;
The sweat of labor in the early curse
Has (turning acrid in six thousand years)
Become the sweat of torture. Who has time,
An hour’s time — think! To sit upon a bank
And hear the cymbal’s tinkle in white hands?
When Egypt’s slain, I say, let Miriam sing!
Before — where’s Moses? [44]

He then, significantly, uses Christ imagery to describe the role of the artist, arguing that women can become mothers, wives, “sublime Madonnas and enduring saints” , but “no Christ from youÑand verily, we shall not get a poet, in my mind.”

Although Romney speaks with a secular purpose, his transition from Eden to Christ makes his message very clear: one cannot approach great art from the vantage point of youth and innocence, but must be expelled from the Edenic paradise of youthful vanity, make the difficult and often sorrowful journey through the world, and ultimately sacrifice oneself to the cause of one’s art in order to produce work of truly redemptive value. Romney thus is not just making a general statement on women as artists; he is pointing out to Aurora her own innocence, youth and insularity, which would preclude her from abandoning her charming but ultimately vapid and “polytheistic” trifles to create something truly universal and divine:

The polytheists have gone out in God,
That unity of Bests. No best, no God!
And so with art, we say. Give art’s divine,
Direct, indubitable, real as grief. [43]

Aurora, then, while “personal and passionate,” is not yet experienced, worldly or serious enough to create a truly sublime work of art; and in this, Romney proves quite correct. Although Aurora, contrary to his view, does have the potential to be a serious artist, the subsequent chapters of the poem see her struggling mightily to escape the frivolity of her initial literary forays in order to create a literary masterpiece. While she has the opportunity to enjoy a comfortable life writing popular poetry, she instead chooses to make a self-sacrificial effort, appealing to higher powers (in this case, the Muses), selling her possessions, and working tirelessly despite uncertainty and despair. The implication is that any truly great work of art requires a considerable sacrifice on the part of the author, and it is from this sacrifice that it this work in part derives its redemptive value. Thus Romney’s chastisement of Aurora, although not entirely correct, ultimately does have several interesting implications for Aurora’s later experience as a struggling female artist.

Questions

1. Romney is not himself a writer but rather devotes his life to social work; as such, he has unusually little tolerance for what he deems to be narcissistic dabblings in literature. Are we meant to wholeheartedly accept his view, particularly in light of the fact that he later amends his position with respect to Aurora’s literary potential and accomplishments? .

2. What exactly does Romney mean when he implies that artists must have Christ-like qualities? Is this more an emphasis on the universal (rather than self-interested) quality of their work, or on the self-sacrifice needed to accomplish these ends? Or is it a commentary on something else?

3. Toward the end of the book, has Aurora truly accomplished what Romney has described, and become an artist? Is this something that can ever be fully accomplished, or is it a continuing journey that demands ever greater growth and sacrifice?


Victorian Overview E. B. Browning Aurora Leigh

Last modified 18 March 2011