In the pages preceding this passage, Aurora reflects upon the nature of her poetry and the enduring quality of epic poetry. She contrasts writing poetry with writing plays and then contemplates her own identity as a writer. "Alas, I still see something to be done, / And what I do falls short of what I see," Aurora remarks. She declares: "I've set myself to art! What then? what's done? / What's done, at last?" In response, she calls attention to the product of her "life-bloods" — her book. While some books are "as cold and flat as grave-yard stones," Aurora's book embodies the passion within her. She eloquently describes the artist's role and creative experience in the following passage.

While Art Sets action on the top of suffering:
The artist's part is both to be and do,
Transfixing with a special, central power
The flat experience of the common man,
And turning outward with a sudden wrench,
Half agony, half ecstasy, the thing
He feels the inmost: never felt the less
Because he sings it. Does a torch less burn
For burning next reflectors of blue steel,
That he should be the colder for his place
'Twixt two incessant fires, — his personal life's
And that intense refraction which burns back
Perpetually against him from the round
Of crystal conscience he was born into
If artist-born? O sorrowful great gift
Conferred on poets, of a twofold life,
When one's life has been found enough for pain!
We, staggering 'neath our burden as mere men,
Being called to stand up straight as demi-gods,
Support the intolerable strain and stress
Of the universal, and send clearly up,
With voices unbroken by the human sob,
Our poems to find rhymes among the stars!
— Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book V, lines 364-387, p. 147-148

Discussion Questions

1. How does Browning employ imagery effectively to describe the exquisite act of poetic creation and the suffering of the poet?

2. What is the exact connection that is drawn between the poet's "personal life" and her "great gift"? How are these two entities inextricably bound to one another?

3. How does the poet bear the "intolerable strain and stress / Of the universal"?

4. How does this discussion of the life of the artist with its inherent difficulties relate to Virginia Woolf's reflections in "A Room of One's Own," to which the sentiments of Aurora Leigh have often been compared?


Victorian Overview E. B. Browning

Last modified 21 March 2003