lizabeth Barrett Brown's Aurora Leigh presents the story of a young female poet and her struggles with both her art and her Victorian society. Browning from the start depicts Aurora as a girl with strong morals and an eye for the sublime. Her cousin, Romney Leigh, criticizes her for her expansive views of beauty and needles her by saying that a woman can never fulfill a poet’s role. As a man dedicated to social change, he chastises her for her attention to verse rather than material means of alleviating social issues. Aurora, however, feels that she can produce true art and that a poet, by finding beauty in everything, can respect and lend credibility to social movements focusing on reform. Book Three of the poem begins with a paraphrased version of John 21.18 followed by a discussion of the apostle Peter’s death, where Peter, upon hearing that he faces execution, attempts to flee his fate but ultimately listens to Jesus when told that he must return to be martyred and thus glorified by God. He chooses to be crucified head down, both to increase his suffering as well as to die in a way different from Christ, thus acknowledging his position far below the divine. Aurora concludes that all humans must similarly meet their fate and die for their own cause, whatever it may be. She continues to muse about this difficult decision in the next verse:

For “tis not in mere death that men die most,
And, after our first girding of the loins
In youth’s fine linen and fair broidery
To run up hill and meet the rising sun,
We are apt to sit tired, patient as a fool,
While others gird us with the violent bands
Of social figments, feints, and formalisms,
Reversing our straight nature, lifting up
Our base needs, keeping down our lofty thoughts,
Head downward on the cross-sticks of the world.
Yet He can pluck us from that shameful cross.
God, set our feet low and our forehead high,
And show us how a man was made to walk!

Aurora suggests in this passage that faith and religion exists in a world constrained by society. She characterizes society itself as “violent,” describes social “figments,” alluding to the man-made nature of society, and uses the words “feints” and “formalisms” with the intention of highlighting the way in which society mouths pious words without any real spiritual conviction and falsifies faith. She creates an image of the individual as one bound to a cross like Peter, head down, tied by the bonds of social convention. The individual not only must suffer in this way, but these bonds also “reverse our straight nature,” a line indicating the upside-down position but also suggesting that society also manages to wreak a negative change within a person, reversing the natural goodness of man to one more preoccupied with “base needs” while it “keep[s] down lofty thoughts,” presumably spiritual and moral musings. She ends the passage with a plea to God to “set our feet low and our forehead high,” a reversal of Peter’s head-down position, a move which would illuminate the correct way in which the individual (and by extension, society) should operate. Before this plea, however, Aurora tells the reader that God has the power to “pluck us from that shameful cross.” This clearly leads into her plea for a spiritually reformed society, but also brings to mind the way in which Peter was plucked from the cross—saved in death, glorified in martyrdom and raised to Heaven. This added allusion seems to complicate the line by insinuating that one can become beloved and glorified by means of being constrained by society while also stating that society should become entirely reformed according to God’s instruction. Browning seems to demonstrate (intentionally or not) that flawed social constraints have the power to both corrupt and sanctify the individuals who are bound to them.

Questions

1. The first line of the quoted passage states that ““tis not in mere death that men die most.” Where, then, do men die most? Can one find the answer within this passage or does Browning have a greater spiritual meaning in mind? Would the answer have been obvious to her contemporary audience?

2. Did Browning intend the double-meaning in the third to last line, “Yet He can pluck us from that shameful cross”? Can it be read as one or the other, and if so which would Browning have preferred? If she did mean to present the conflicting effects of being bound by society (in that it causes suffering yet God saves those who martyr themselves), how does this fit in with the rest of the text? Where else can such conflict be found?

3. This passage focuses on the individual and his or her interactions with society. Where do larger groups like the Church fit in? Would the Church be considered constrained, or is it constraining society? Does Browning take a position for or against the church in this passage, or is the reader left guessing?

4. The poem in its entirety certainly focuses on the condition of society, yet it also pays much attention to the role of Art within it. Where does art fit in to religious claims like these? Do poetry and spirituality work together or does art act as another way in which society focuses on the human and superficial overmuch (as Romney Leigh believes at least initially)?

5. Browning clearly makes claims about the state of society similar to her contemporaries including both her husband Robert Browning and John Ruskin, saying that society concerns itself too much with the material and earthly when it should have more spiritual aspirations. In what other ways, if any, does Aurora Leigh align itself with other Victorian texts we have read? How does it stand apart from them?


Victorian Overview E. B. Browning Aurora Leigh

Last modified 14 March 2011