n Book 5 of Aurora Leigh, Aurora scorns her shared propensity with other women to pursue art not for its own sake, but for personal reasons: out of vanity and with the aim of impressing others. She reminds herself that she must remain “humble,” pursuing art as an end in itself rather than merely to prove her worth to her cousin Romney, who has doubted her worth as an artist. We have already seen Aurora compare her pursuit of art to a more general striving after the divine, essentially equating devotion to one’s art with religious devotion (Browning 141). At the beginning of book 5, this religious characterization of art takes on an interesting sectarian twist, using language that recalls — and would seem to enthusiastically valorize — Protestant ideas of direct communion with the divine. Browning has Aurora heap scorn on those who, lacking the ability to pursue divine good for its own sake, require earthly “mediation,” a worldly matter to strive for in order to aim them in the direction of the general good, and something tangible — some “sweet saint’s blood” — to spur them on toward their ultimate goal:

                         There it is,
We women are too apt to look to One,
Which proves a certain impotence in art.
We strain our natures at doing something great,
Far less because it’s something great to do,
Than haply that we, so, commend ourselves
As being not small, and more appreciable
To some one friend. We must have mediators
Betwixt our highest conscience and the judge;
Some sweet saint’s blood must quicken in our palms
Or all the life in heaven seems slow and cold:
Good only being perceived as the end of good,
And God alone pleased, --that’s too poor, we think,
And not enough for us by any means. [142]

The dichotomy that Browning creates between “good for its own sake” on the one hand and the reliance on “mediators” and “saints” on the other calls to mind many early Protestant characterizations of Catholicism: by relying on this type of earthly mediation, one’s devotion to the higher cause — be it the divine, the spiritual, or the creation of art itself — becomes weaker, less worthy and less pure. Aurora sharply criticizes this approach not only as adulterating the artistic and devotional process, but as demonstrating the weakness and effeminacy of the devotees themselves:

                         This vile woman’s way
Of trailing garments, shall not trip me up:
I’ll have no traffic with the personal thought
In art’s pure temple. [142]

Aurora then reiterates her position with a triumphant flourish:

                         Art for art,
and good for God himself, the essential Good! [143]

Given the secular topic of the speech, it is unlikely that Browning means this as a straightforward endorsement of one religious doctrine over another; but the metaphors she uses are striking, and the frequency with which Aurora shuns all worldly motivations in favor of a more abstract and intangible (and ultimately more “divine”) goal does have interesting implications for the author’s own religious predilections and attitude toward devotional practice.

Questions

1. Would Browning’s audience by and large have been receptive to Browning’s characterization of devotional practice, or would it have been a departure from contemporary cultural norms? Would it have been seen as strange to couch the striving after art in such religious terms?

2. We know that Evangelicals both inside and outside the Church of England, to a greater extent even than non-evangelical Anglicans, emphasized a direct and personal connection to the divine and frown on the overemphasis of ritualistic church practice. Is it likely that Browning’s own Evangelical upbringing influenced her attitude toward other methods of devotional practice, or is she more likely drawing on more general Victorian cultural attitudes that sought a more direct union between man, nature and the divine?

3. In an earlier Book 5 speech, Aurora implies that nature and the divine are, to a certain extent, one and the same, arguing that her art tries to capture both the nature of God and the nature of life. To illustrate her point she draws on metaphors of the natural world, the seasons, sexual love and the hearts of men. Her art, she claims, would attempt to speak true to “the primal rhythm of that theugic nature” (142). Does this admixture of divine and worldly imagery strengthen or weaken her later statements about the need for worldly “mediation”? Is it fair even to compare the two speeches, or is Aurora making completely different claims with them?

Bibliography

Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. “Norton Critical Edition” Ed. Margaret Reynolds. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.


Victorian Overview E. B. Browning Aurora Leigh

Last modified 23 March 2011