It is Aurora, the goddess of dawn, who dispels the clouds beneath Olympus and gathers together the first faint rays of light into daybreak. The child Aurora Leigh is rather lost in these Italian heights. She gathers only a few infant memories to light her mother's portrait, a few caresses from her widowed father. Unlike that tenant of Olympus, Aurora Leigh, as she is quick to point out to Lady Waldemar, is no sybil or muse, no prophetess, no deity. She is certainly no angel. Leigh aspires, instead, to the mortal pantheon of great storytellers, those who commit the gods to page and thereby make them real: Homer, Virgil and Ovid.
"Of writing many books there is no end," she opens the blank verse poem. If there is no end, there is also no beginning. In Leigh's recollection of her childhood, there is no "first and broad impression," no "here and now." There is only that "murmur of the outer infinite," a ceaseless mnemonic echo. This serves not only to upset the linear flow of time and tense in Aurora Leigh but also to enlarge and transform the possibilities and terrain of poetry itself. Thus philosophical strolls and garden walks, classical allusions and domestic details, questions of equality and womanhood, are contiguous concerns in the poem.
Leigh later elaborates her conception of echo or murmur memory, writing, "Let who says/ 'The souls a clean white paper,' rather say,/ A palimpsest, a prophet's holograph/ Defiled erased and covered by a monk's" (1.822). For if the soul is always already over and under-written, then all souls – all infinitely inscrutable– are worthy of transcription; and poetry, as soulful art, is an open path for Browning and Aurora Leigh to walk. They will be their own great poets. To this end Leigh spurns love proposals; she is quintessentially rude and flighty; and, most importantly, both Browning and her poet Leigh write in their own chosen voices.
Their poem is itself a palimpsest that offers many overlapping opinions on what poetry is, who may write it, and to what it may allude. How does the soul as palimpsest figure in Leigh's argument for the legitimacy of women poets and writers? Keep in mind the following passages as well:
You give us doting mothers, and perfect wives,
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you, — and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind. [2.222-2.225]
"The world of books is still the world, I write,
And both worlds have God's providence, thank God,
To keep and hearten. [1.792-1.794]
What is poetry for Aurora Leigh? What does it do? How does it relate to "forgetting oneself" and losing control? Examine in light of the following passage about her father's sister:
Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight
As if for taming accidental thoughts
From possible pulses . . .
A close mild mouth, a little soured about
The ends, through speaking unrequited loves
Eyes of no color, — once they might have smiled
But never, never have forgot themselves. [1.275-1.282]
What does Aurora Leigh make of Romney's devotion to philanthropy, public service, as compared with her poetic art? What role, and to what extent, does each play in shaping the world for Leigh?
Romney and Leigh:
Such work I have for doing, elbow deep
In social problems, — as you tie your rhymes
And bring the uneven world back to its round . . .
And feuds of Earth, intestine heats have made
To keep men separate, — using sorry shifts
Of hospitals, almshouses, infant schools,
And other practical stuff of partial good
You lovers of the beautiful and whole
Despise by system. "I despise? The scorn
Is yours, my cousin. Poets become such
Through scorning nothing." [2.1215-30]
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. Chicago: Academy, 1989.
Last modified 15 March 2004