Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh revolves around two cousins who take different approaches to contributing to society. Aurora uses poetry as a means to convey her thoughts on man’s role in God’s world; in the Eighth book, she says that

'Tis impossible
To get at men excepting through their souls . . .
And poets get directlier at the soul,
Than any of your economists. [lines 537-41]

Romney takes a more hands-on approach to the reform of society, turning his own mansion into a home for the poor. Aurora feels dissatisfied with her work, but Romney tells her that it has moved him, and that others, too, regard it as a worthy contribution. Romney’s lack of success, on the other hand, manifests itself more materially: eventually an angry mob burns down Leigh Hall after misinterpreting his intentions. He describes his failure to Aurora, who comforts him by rationalizing that God does not turn away any who work in his name, whether they succeed or not. Romney comes to accept her point:

He cried, ÔTrue. After Adam, work was curse,
The natural creature labors, sweats, and frets.
But, after Christ, work turns to privilege,
And, henceforth, one with our humanity,
The Six-day worker working still in us
Has called us freely to work on with Him
In high companionship. So, happiest!
I count that Heaven itself is only work
To a surer issue. Let us work, indeed,
But no more work as Adam, — nor as Leigh,
Erewhile, as if the only man on earth
Responsible for all the thistles blown
And tigers couchant, struggling in amaze
Against disease and winter, snarling on
For ever, that the world’s not paradise,
Oh cousin, let us be content, in work,
To do the thing we can, and not presume
To fret because it’s little.

Although the verse-novel clearly advocates the need for spiritual reformation in Victorian society, this passage appears to criticize reform movements in general with subtlety. Romney first expostulates the way in which Christ has changed society to illustrate the change that should be made in his own (and other’s) attitude towards reform. God has not cursed the earth any longer, and mankind no longer must work in order to be forgiven; Christ has erased this debt. Work, then, comes in form of a blessing where it once was a punishment — it allows the individual to attain the divine and the right to ascend to heaven. Spirituality becomes a more personal matter; the newer mode of thought values the process of working in God’s name or even believing over the material fruit reaper, such as the number of people converted or the churches built. Herein lies the implication that Romney’s reform methods (and perhaps others as well) focus too much on earthly society and less on one’s spiritual state. The last few lines suggest this reading; “let us be content” refers to the individual’s peace with God while “presume to fret” accentuates the way in which man sees himself as vital to God’s larger plan. It suggests that the reformer becomes preoccupied by finding a way to prove his worth to God and thus behaves more selfishly rather than actually being dedicated to social amendments. By attempting to exert huge surface changes in society, man overestimates his own importance and power and thus only binds himself closer to the material and further from true spirituality.

Questions

1. Is this a valid reading of the passage? Did Browning mean to implicate social reformists as self-validating rather than righteous? Does she suggest there is any worth in such movements?

2. Aurora’s book succeeds in the eyes of her critics while Romney fails miserably. Keeping in mind the aforementioned quote from Book Eight, what are the implications of Aurora’s success? Does Browning suggest that enlightenment becomes attainable through art and not social work?

'Tis impossible
To get at men excepting through their souls . . .
And poets get directlier at the soul,
Than any of your economists.

4. Following the logic that Aurora succeeds and Romney fails, does Aurora become a Christ figure while Romney takes on Adam's role? How does the rest of the book confirm or deny this?

3., Browning laments man’s materialistic ways, just as Carlyle and Ruskin do. If the above interpretation applies, what would either of these men think of her suggestion that social reform only adds to materialism? Would they agree that morality and enlightenment focuses on the individual and that art is the proper medium to achieve this?


Victorian Overview E. B. Browning Aurora Leigh

Last modified 23 March 2011