Aurora Leigh, the heroine of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's novel poem of the same name, is a character whose feistiness, fortitude, and conviction are expressly clear from early on. Perhaps the earliest and most unmistakable instance of Aurora's determination is her rejection of her cousin Romney's marriage proposal on the grounds that Romney desires a "helpmate," not a wife. She feels he makes a grave mistake to think that she would be content to give up all her vocations (writing poetry, in particular) to stand at his side. She is also deeply offended by his lack of faith in the intelligence and influence of women writers.
A decade later, Romney comes to Aurora at her home in Florence to express his admiration for her recent book. He also apologizes for his earlier disavowal of women's writing capabilities. He attempts to convey to Aurora his newfound respect for poetic and artistic pursuits. He also claims that such pursuits are actually more successful in aiding humanity than his own lofty notions of charity and philanthropy, which have proved literally disastrous, Leigh Hall has been burned and Romney blinded.
Yet Aurora does not express satisfaction with Romney's expression of regret, nor does she feel complimented that her book overcame him "like soft rain/Which falls at midnight, when the tightened bark/Breaks out into unhesitating buds,/And sudden protestations of the spring" (Book VII, Lines 595-8). Instead, she reasserts her belief in the importance of art, but this time she adds that God's power far surpasses any influence that the artist or philanthropist may wield and thereby humbles such impassioned efforts:
"You wholly misconceive,"
I returned, — "I'm glad of it:
But keep from misconception, too, yourself:
. . . If I am sad at all,
Ten layers of birthdays on a woman's head,
Are apt to fossilise her girlish mirth,
Though ne'er so merry: I'm perforce more wise,
And that, in truth, means sadder. For the rest,
Look here, sir: I was right upon the whole,
That birthday morning. 'Tis impossible
To get at men excepting through their souls,
However open their carnivorous jaws;
And poets get directlier at the soul,
Than any of you oeconomists: — for which,
You must not overlook the poet's work
When scheming for the world's necessities.
The soul's the way. Not even Christ himself
Can save man else than as He hold man's soul;
. . . I said, so far, right, yes; not farther, though:
We both were wrong that June-day, — both as wrong
As an east wind had been. I who talked of art,
And you who grieved for all men's griefs . . . what then?
We surely made too small a part for God
In these things. What we are, imports us more
Than what we eat; and life you've granted me,
Develops from within. But innermost
Of the inmost, most interior of the interne,
God claims his own, Divine humanity
Renewing nature, — or the piercingest verse,
Prest in by subtlest poet, still must keep
As much upon the outside of a man,
As the very bowl, in which he dips his beard.
. . . Ah, I think,
And chiefly when the sun shines, that I've failed.
But what then, Romney? Though we fail indeed,
You . . I . . a score of such weak workers, . . He
Fails never. If He cannot work by us,
He will work over us. Does he want a man,
Much less a woman, think you? Every time
The star winks there, so many souls are born,
Who shall work too. Let our own be calm:
We should be ashamed to sit beneath those stars,
Impatient that we're nothing."
[Book VIII, Lines 526-579]
1. Much of this passage refers to Aurora's earlier rejection of Romney's marriage proposal:
a. For example, in Book II, Aurora says, "your Fouriers failed,/Because not poets enough to understand/That life develops from within" (Lines 483-5). "Fouriers" refers to Charles Fourier, a social theorist whom Browning objected to for "the loss of individuality that she felt his creed demanded" (Norton footnotes). In her later exchange with Romney, Aurora says, "life you've granted me,/Develops from within. But innermost/Of the inmost, most interior of the interne,/God claims his own." What can we make of this slight but significant change?
b. Aurora once reprimanded Romney, "'You misconceive the question like a man,/Who sees a woman as the complement/Of his sex merely." Browning reminds us of this earlier exchange when Romney accuses Aurora, "You wholly misconceive". Aurora replies she is glad to be mistaken and also warns Romney to himself be weary of misconceiving. Why does Browning use this theme of perception and impaired perception in Aurora Leigh? In what other ways might this theme relate to the relationship between Romney and Aurora, for example, Aurora's mistaken belief that Romney has married Lady Waldemar?
2. After asserting that "poets get directlier at the soul than any of your oeconomists" and confidently declaring that "the soul's the way", Aurora claims that she and Romney "were both wrong that June-day, — both wrong. . . I who talked of art,/And you who grieved for all men's griefs. . . what then?/We surely made too small a part for God/in these things.". Why does Aurora adjust her claims from ten years past, what can be made of her progression from devoted artist to devoted servant of God? How might Aurora's (newfound?) reverence for God affect readers' perceptions of her earlier assertions of an artist's importance and power? Why might Browning call into question the importance or value of poetry within her own poem?
3. What does Aurora mean by "He/Fails never. If He cannot work by us,/He will work over us. Does he want a man,/Much less a woman, think you? Every time/The star winks there, so many souls are born,/Who shall work too." Why does Aurora refer to "so many souls. . . who shall work too"? How does Aurora feel about the artist in relation to the masses in relation to God? Is she implying a hierarchy in relations to the soul?
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Last modified: 22 March 2004