Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s verse novel Aurora Leigh considers Blblical imagery as it applies to fiction. Aurora discusses the literary world in which there is still some reality but in which this reality is different from the everyday. Barrett Browning invokes Biblical reference to consider the ambivalence of power in literature and its interpretation.

“Yet behold,
Behold! — the world of books is still the world,
And worldlings in it are less merciful
And more puissant. For the wicked there
Are winged like angels; every knife that strikes
Is edged from elemental fire to assail
A spiritual life; the beautiful seems right
By force of beauty, and the feeble wrong
Because or weakness; power is justified
Though armed against Saint Michael; many a crown
Covers bald foreheads. In book-world, true,
There’s no lack neither, of God’s saints and kings,
That shake the ashes of the grave aside
From their calm locks and undiscomfited
Look steadfast truths against Time’s changing mask.
True, many a prophet teaches in the roads;
True, many a seer pulls down the flaming heavensv Upon his own head in strong martyrdom
In order to light men a moment’s space.
But stay! — who judges? — who distinguishes
Twixt Saul and Nahash justly at first sight,
And leaves King Saul precisely at sin,
To serve King David?” [I, l.748-769]

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Barrett Browning establishes an insightful commentary on the literary world. In this first statement: “world of books is still the world,/ and worldlings in it are less merciful/and more puissant,” the speaker establishes the power of writing and the reality within literature specifically the Bible. Through the use of the word “merciful,” which often evokes a thought of a Christ and/or God immediately suggests that Aurora is going to address Biblical themes. She goes on to discuss the danger in literature — where “the wicked” are “winged like angels” and “spiritual life” can be so directly “assailed.” There is a falsity than to literature, but also a reassurance in this falsity. The sinful appear angelic, the spiritual can be overthrown. Perhaps she is suggesting a freedom in this “world of books,” where the norms of daily understanding are thrown aside from this topsy-turvy imaginary world. She refers to the presence of “god’s saints and kings” in literature to be the upholding of “steadfast truth.” That it is the spiritual characters whose presence in books, keeps some sense of grounding and justification. Then, though, her thought turns to think ask this question: “who judges?” The Biblical reference she evokes with “Saul and Nahash” and “King Saul” and “King David” serves exemplify Biblical characters who are scorned in the eyes of God for they question His authority. These individuals either disrespect or directly defy God, and God would judge them. In the literary world, though, the reader has some power to judge. Therein, perhaps, is a bit of the realization in Aurora’s question: “who judges?” In this “world of books” the reader is bestowed some power to ascribe judgment even on the spiritual figures.

Questions

1. Barrett Browning writes that “the beautiful seems right/ by force of beauty,” by using “seems” does she suggest that that there is falsity or danger in believing something beautiful to be “right” by virtue of its appearance?

2. The answer to her series of questions following “who judges?” is “not a child.” This then seems to address the danger in power she ascribes by even asking the question “who judges?” For how can a child make such decisions and appraisals. Except that any reader is given to interpret, so how do the two align?

3. Aurora suggests an understanding of extreme figures in literature even as a child, by making Biblical reference does she suggest that the Bible is literature/fiction (this of course goes back to the many discussions of the place of Bible as fiction or as fact)?


Victorian Overview E. B. Browning Aurora Leigh

Last modified 18 March 2011