Throughout Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning deals with ideas of literature, the author, the reader, and acts of interpretation. In many of the passages that focus on the artist and art, Barrett Browning's constructions are set in terms of religious imagery. In the following passage, the reader is treated to a particularly rich series of religious images dealing with the relationship between the book and its reader.
[T]he 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 of weakness; power is justified
Though armed against Saint Michael; many a crown
Covers bald foreheads. In the book-world, true,
There's no lack, neither, of God's saints and kings,
That shakes the ashes from the grave aside
From their calm locks and undiscomfited
Look stedfast truths against Time's changing mask.
True, many a prophet teaches in the roads;
True, many a seer pulls down the flaming heavens
Upon his own head in strong martyrdom
In order to light men a moment's space.
But stay! — who distinguishes
— Twixt Saul and Nahash justly, at first sight,
And leaves king Saul precisely at the sin,
To serve king David? who discerns at once
The sounds of the trumpets, when the trumpets blow
For Alaric as well as Charlemagne?
Who judges wizards, and can tell true seers
From conjurors? The child, there? Would you leave
That child to wander in a battle-field
And push his innocent smile against the guns;
Or even the catacombs, — his torch
Grown ragged in the fluttering air, and all
The dark a-muter round him? Not a child. [Book I; ll. 748-778]
1. Barrett Browning writes, "power is justified/ Though armed against Saint Michael." Here, Barrett Browning creates what seems to be an opposition between the powers contained within a book and the power of Saint Michael, the heavenly scribe. Is Barrett Browning pointing to an opposition between the book and the forces representing God? If so, how can we place this opposition in the context of Barrett Browning's construction of art as an ideally religious act?
2. Barrett Browning sets up a series of comparisons and asks the question, "Who judges?" These oppositions — between Saul and Nahash and conjurers and true seers — seem to be conflicts that only God can resolve. Where does this leave the reader? Should reading be treated as a fundamentally religious act, in which God's guidance is sought? If only God can guide the reader, where does this leave the author and critic? Does this set of images infantalize the reader?
3. Who is the child? Should the child be read within a religious framework — as a typological representation of Christ — or within a social framework — as a representation of innocence susceptible to assault from a corrupt society?
4. This Biblical imagery creates a space of tension — an area of moral and religious conflict — within the book and between the book and the reader. What are the stakes of interpretation? Is reading simply the act of choosing between right and wrong or good and evil? Or do these images allow for a more nuanced reading of Barrett Browning's understanding of reading and the relationship between reader and book?
5. Is Barrett Browning setting Saul and Nahash up as major text types? Given that neither Saul nor Nahash is favored by God, what does this say about Barrett Browning's feelings toward literature in Book I? Is this a pessimistic view of the book and reading? How does her use of an allusion to Saul relate to her husband's typological poem, "Saul"?
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. Chicago: Academy, 1989.
Last modified 1 November 2004