Aurora Leigh is, in large part, a discourse on the task of the genuine poet. Barrett Browning is resolute in her communication of the poetic act as fundamentally religious. Nowhere is this connection between poetry and the religious made clearer than in the Seventh Book, where Barrett Browning writes:
Art's the witness of what Is
Behind this show. If this world's show were all,
Then imitation would be all in Art;
There, Jove's hand grips us! For we stand here, we, If genuine artists, witnessing for God's
Complete, consummate, undivided work;
— That every natural flower which grows on earth
Implies a flower upon the spiritual side,
Substantial, archetypal, all a-glow
With blossoming causes, — not so far away,
But we, whose spirit-sense is somewhat cleared,
May catch at something of the bloom and breath,
Too vaguely apprehended, though indeed
Still apprehended, consciously nor not,
And still transferred to picture, music, verse,
For thrilling audient and beholding souls
By signs and touches which are known to souls. [Book 7, Lines 834-50]
1. Writing about the task of the poet, Barrett Browning focuses on the act of witnessing. What does is mean to "witness"? What might frustrate the poet's ability to witness? How might we compare Barrett Browning's religious conception of witnessing to Robert Browning's construction in The Ring and the Book?
2. Throughout Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning articulates an interest in the twofold nature of the artist. She writes that the artist's part in both to be and do (Book 5, Line 367), and "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" (Book 5; Lines 383-386). The poet's task is at once the solitary task of comprehending sight and the social act of communicating this divine sight to the reader. The poet is both the truth-seeker and the truth-teller. How might this conception of the poet's task be read with or against Robert Browning construction of the poet's duty in The Ring and the Book?
3. Does the statement that "every natural flower which grows in earth/ Implies a flower upon the spiritual side" construct a world in which everything is a typological representation of the divine?
4. The poet's role is one of endowing the word or event with significance. The poet, whose spirit-sense is somewhat cleared, is capable of rendering the world into meaningful and affecting language. In the Book 1, Barrett Browning writes that the poet says the word so that "it burns you through/ With a special revelation, shakes the heart/ Of all the men and women in the world,/ As if one came back from the dead and spoke,/ With eyes too happy, a familiar thing/ Become divine in the utterance" (Book 1; Lines 905-910)! This imagery places the poet in a prophetic role. Like a priest, the poet acts as a conduit between the divine and the everyday. Is Barrett Browning allowing for the possibility that the poet is taking over the divine task traditionally assigned to the priest? How does Barrett Browning work out the characteristics of the poet as witness and the poet as prophet? Are these two constructions in conflict?
5. In Barrett Browning's system of thought, is it possible for a poet to be a genuine artist and also an atheist? Or is art a necessarily religious act? One step further, is the poet divine?
6. Given Barrett Browning's treatment of the poet in this passage, would we say that the poet's task is performative or communicative?
7. In 1850, Kierkegaard wrote: "One can know nothing at all about Christ; he is the paradox, the object of faith, existing only for faith. But all historical communication is communication of 'knowledge,' hence from history one can learn nothing of Christ . . . History makes out Christ to be another than he truly is, and so one learns to know a lot about Christ? No, not about Christ, for him nothing can be known, he can only be believed" (Training and Christianity, pp.388-389). How can we consider Barrett Browning's idea in the context of this statement? And, conversely, how can we consider Kierkegaard's statement in the context of Barrett Browning's construction of the poet?
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. Chicago: Academy, 1989.
Last modified 22 March 2004