In her novel-poem Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning explores the identity of the female poet and demonstrates how this poet might not simply survive but succeed in Victorian society. Her protagonist, Aurora Leigh, is determined to become an independent poetess in the face of discouraging men, most of whom do not understand or respect her sense of empowered femininity. Moreover, Aurora comes to realize that although men freely circulate in both private and public spheres, women are largely confined to the private, domestic space. In adhering to this restrictive gender role, women have little opportunity to represent themselves publicly, let alone develop public careers. However, Aurora finds that her life as a poet is one of liberating, private contemplation. She relishes the time she spends alone in her world of books and, even more incredibly, prepares herself for the possibility of literary fame.
When members of her social circle discourage her aspirations for public recognition, Aurora can find other, imaginative ways to link her private to her public life. The outdoors provides a place where she feels free to express herself, a connection we see formed at the beginning when mother nature becomes a surrogate mother to her after her real mother's death. Aurora frequently uses natural imagery to explain her poetic process, a stylistic choice that transplants her private, poetic practice into a public space. In the passage below, Aurora uses natural metaphors to describe herself as she works on her poems. She explains that when she writes continuously, her cheeks lose their color as roses lose their petals, her tired eyes rest in "orbits of blue shadow" like planets, and her "rhythmic thought" succumbs to diurnal and nocturnal cycles. Aurora's imaginative identification with nature allows her to conceive of her subjectivity as both corporeal and spiritual, and, potentially, both private and public.
Day and night
I worked my rhythmic thought, and furrowed up
Both watch and slumber with long lines of life
Which did not suit their season. The rose fell
From either cheek, my eyes globed luminous
Through orbits of blue shadow, and my pulse
Would shudder along the purple-veined wrist
Like a shot bird. Youth's stern, set face to face
With youth's ideal: and when people came
And said, "You work too much, you are looking ill,"
I smiled for pity of them who pitied me,
And I thought I should be better soon perhaps
For those ill looks. Observe — "I," means in youth
JustI . . . the conscious and eternal soul
With all its ends, — and not the outside life,
The Parcel-man, the doublet of flesh,
The so much liver, lung, integument,
Which make the sum of "I" hereafter, when
World-talkers talk of doing well or ill.
I prosper. I but change my instrument;
I break the spade off, digging deep for gold,
And catch the mattock up [Book Three, page 86 in the Academy edition].
1. Why does Aurora integrate the natural world into her artistic, poetic subjectivity? In what ways does her identification with nature enable this subjectivity? Is her engagement with nature simply romantic?
2. How does Aurora conceive of her outer corporeality and inner "eternal soul"? In what ways does the dialectic of interior spirit and exterior body inform Aurora’s poetic process? How might this notion of mind as separate from body affect her view of the private versus public spheres? Does the female poet herself become a spectacle as a result of the division of mind and body, and if so how might this be threatening to Aurora?
3. Aurora describes herself as digging for gold using a spade and mattock (i.e. pick-axe). Is nature, then, a resource to be exploited or is it the venerable "smooth order of creation" she talks about in Book Two? As a poet, is she embedded harmoniously in nature, as her string of metaphors suggests, or is she working against nature, as this final image of intrusive and/or oppositional movement implies?
4. Does Browning believe that such imaginative engagement with the outer, public sphere offers women an opportunity for career development and ultimately gender equality? What are the limitations of Browning’s formulation of female liberation?
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. Chicago: Academy, 1989.
Last modified 15 March 2004