In an essay on Elizabeth Barrett Browning's novel in verse, Aurora Leigh, Virginia Wolff relays an account by Barrett Browning concerning her limitations as an artist. Within the body of this lament, the Victorian poet emphasizes how her disengagement from society hampered her growth and success as a poet:
Before this seclusion of my illness, I was secluded still, and there are few of the youngest women in the world who have not seen more, heard more, known more, of society, than I, who am scarcely to be called young now . . . Human nature, that my brothers and sisters of the earth were names to me, that I had beheld no great mountain or river, nothing in fact . . . And do you also know what a disadvantage this ignorance is to my art? Why, if I live on and yet do not escape from this seclusion, do you not perceive that I labour under signal disadvantages — that I am, in a manner as a blind poet? [p. 442]
Barrett Browning's insecurities concerning her ability to capture humanity without direct reference to human experience is reflected in the musings of her literary heroine, Aurora Leigh. Leigh both extols the ability of authors to depict the concrete reality of the present historical era, while simultaneously placing the art of the poet in the realm of the ethereal. The author seems almost contradictory when describing both the purpose and the worth of literary artists. For Barrett Browning manages to stress the necessity of grounding art in the sphere of the "Here and Now", as Graham Swift writes, while also purporting that it is the spiritual, rather than the material or formulaic, nature of poetry that truly epitomizes "living art" (150).
Immediately after Romney's wedding to Marian Erle fails tragically to unfold in Book Four, Barrett Browning launches Book Five with Aurora's pronouncements concerning the duties of the poet. These declarations and remonstrations seem not only to be directed at a general artistic audience, but also at herself. This long monologue serves to direct and mold Aurora's path to achieve poetic greatness in her age. The first aspect of this "treatise" on the nature and purpose of verse addresses the essentiality of grounding the subject of poetry in the present time, in the society that the poet and the poet's audience is experiencing at the time the words are being written. Aurora scorns authors who rely upon fables and fairytales of the past — a mythical age — to inspire great works of literary art.
Though being beheld too close, is ill-discerned
By those who have not lived past it . . .
But poets should
Exert a double vision; should have eyes
To see near things as comprehensively
As if afar they took their point of sight,
And distant things as intimately deep
As if they touched them. Let us strive for this.
I do distrust the poet who discerns
No character or glory in his times,
And trundles back his soul five hundred years,
Past moat and drawbridge, into a castle-court,
To sing-oh, not of lizard or of toad
Alive I' the ditch there, — 'twere excusable,
But of some black chief, half-knight, half sheep-lifter,
Some beauteous dame, half chattel and half queen,
As dead as dead must be, for the greater part,
The poems made on their chivalric bones;
And that's no wonder; death inherits death.
Nay, if there's room for poets in this world
A little overgrown, (I think there is)
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne's — this live, throbbing age. [lines 167-203, pp. 148-49]
But soon after declaring the wisdom of capturing the present or the material reality of society in poetic lines, Aurora continues her discourse by emphasizing the virtues of poetry inspired by the spirit, rather than by the "external".
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava of a song
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
"Behold, — behold the paps we all have sucked!
This bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets our beating: this is living art,
Which thus presents and thus records true life."
What form is best for poems? Let me think
Of forms less, and the external. Trust the spirit,
As Sovran nature does, to make the form;
For otherwise we only imprison spirit
And not embody. Inward evermore
To outward, — so in life, and so in art
Which still is life. [lines 213-29, p. 150]
Do you find incongruities in Aurora's argument for basing poetry in the material realities of the present, using a form that is inspired by the spiritual rather than the "external" realm? Aurora stresses that poetry should be "Of forms less . . . For otherwise we only imprison spirit," do you believe that this speaks to actual format of Barrett Browning's poetry — a poem in blank verse? How is Barrett Browning's own biography related to this monologue on the purpose of the poet?
Why does Aurora have a distaste for authors who depict stories of the past? Is there no room for poetry that reflects upon ages that are already gone? Though two completely different genres and historical periods, how is history perceived differently (or similarly) by the protagonists in Aurora Leigh and Waterland?
What is Aurora's relation to nature in this novel? It is nature that first seems to awaken the poet in the young protagonist in the midst of being stifled by her overbearing aunt following her father's death. In the above selection, Aurora excuses any poetry concerning the "nature" of nature in the past tense, stating,
To sing — oh, not of lizard or of toad
Alive I' the ditch there, — 'twere excusable,
while displaying scorn for poetry written about people of the past. Do you think Aurora — -or Barrett Browning — privileges nature over human subjects? Why or why not?
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
Wolff, Virginia. "Aurora Leigh" in Browning, Aurora Leigh.
Last modified 16 March 2004