have stated previously that if Patmore shares a poetic vision with any of his contemporaries, that contemporary is Elizabeth Barret Browning. It is almost strik,ing how similar Browning's famous Kuntslerroman, Aurora Leigh published in 1857, only three years after Patmore's first installment of the Angel, is in plot structure and theme to the first half of The Angel in the House . In fact, we could easily construe the young Aurora as a female parallel to Felix, for both protagonists resolve their struggles as poets and lovers in the same philosophical principle; the ideal artistic vision is a vision of transcendence into the divine, or the eternal realm, and we can only arrive at this spiritual progression of the body through true love, or the unification of two separate souls. Like Patmore, E.B. Browning seems to have shared a very Carlylean notion of poetic insight as a kind of ability, as Wordsworth described it, "to see into the heart of things." However, Browning's conception of what she calls the poet's "double vision" shares all of the subtleties of Patmore's theories which distinguish him slightly from Carlyle, for like Patmore's metaphor of the photographic plate, Browning's "double vision" acts like a photographic lens allowing the poet to see both microcosmically and macrocosmically into nature:
But poets should
Exert a double vision; should have eyes
To see near things as comprehensively
As if they took their point of sight,
And distant things, as intimately deep
As if they touched them. [Fifth Book, lines 183-187]
Moreover, Browning's notion of the poetic vision is one which like Patmore's aspires towards a kind of poetic mysticism and an ability to guide its readers in matters of the spirit. However, like Felix, Aurora realizes by the end of the poem that a real love, symbolic of the Platonic unification of two souls, is the ideal subject for the poet and that only in excercizing such a poetry and vision of love can Aurora experience and communicate this mystic secret of spiritual transcendence:
I flung closer to his breast,
As sword that, after battle, flings to sheathe,
And in that hurtle of united souls
The mystic motions which in common moods
Are shut beyond our sense, broke in on us. [Ninth Book, lines 833-837]
Having sought a poetry that expresses the kind of double vision that Aurora advocates early on in Browning's long poem, she realizes that this mystic insight is not simply reserved for poets but also for lovers, and thus only in giving herself over to a binding, or unifying, love with Romney can Aurora attain a divine, or extraordinary poetic perspective. Therefore, the artist's creative ability to transport his or her reader into a supernatural or divine realm must necessarily be coupled with his or her ability to reveal the secrets of transcendent love. Thus Felix and Aurora, Patmore's and Browning's respective autobiographical characters, are co-conspirators in their poetic resolution that the poet, a mystic in his or her own right, becomes like a prophet announcing the possibility of resurrection through nuptial love. Just as Patmore has Felix challenge his reader in his heavily punned farewell to the pleasures of the body and earthly desires, E.B. Browning concludes her Kunstlerroman with a passage that begins as follows: "It is the hour for souls; / That bodies leavened by the will and love, / Be lightened to redemption" (Ninth Book, lines 939-941). In essence, Browning sets up a kind of universal hierarchy reminiscent of the Socratic philosophy in Plato's Symposium . In order to arrive at a kind of reformed immortality and in order to surpass the transient temptations of the earthly realm, she concludes that we must reach a supreme love of God, as Patmore or Donne would suggest, by first striving for nuptial love or for the interdependent love between two human souls. Barrett Browning's Romney invokes this sort of organized spiritual hierarchy when he states in the last book of Aurora Leigh: "First God's love. / 'And next,' he smiled, 'the love of wedded souls, / Which still presents that mystery's counterpart" (Ninth Book, lines 880-882).
It is this kind of hierarchy, of course, which ultimately complicates modern criticism concerning Victorian gender theory, for the message which writers such as Browing and Patmore were trying to convey to their readers is one which ultimately is incompatible with any kind of gender-specificity. Of course, both Patmore and E.B. Browning were aware of the kind of female idolatry characteristic of their contemporaries' writing, and this is why both poets deliberately seem to have chosen the Kunstlerroman as the format for their verse. Just as Felix can overcome a superficial approach to love in which the male figure worships and idolizes the female, Aurora ultimately decides that she does not have to reject male love to succeed as a female poet. If true love is defined by the union of souls, then it is a genderless love, and if true love is the ideal poetic subject, then Patmore and Browning most likely would have wished for us to transcend the limitations of the gender question by the time we arrive at their poetic resolutions, or climaxes. E.B. Browning specifically addresses this critical point when she has Aurora arrive at the following epiphany in her union with Romney:
The man, most man,
Works best for men, and, if most men indeed,
He gets his manhood plainest from his soul:
While, obviously, this stringent soul itself
Obeys our old rules of development;
The Spirit ever witnessing in ours,
And Love, the soul of soul, within the soul,
Evolving it sublimely.[Ninth Book, lines 874-881]
The reader of Aurora Leigh interested in gender theory will notice that throughout the poem Aurora makes sharp distinctions between "man" and "woman," between the feminine and the masculine, but here she sheds this obsessive genderization when she ultimately substitutes the term "man" for "soul." The true man she concludes is he who finds his manhood, or himself, in his soul, but if this soul "obeys our old rules of development," which refer to the kind of progression illustrated in my above analysis, then the soul, complete only in its union with another soul, is unlike the body in that it possesses neither a gender nor a sex. The second half of Aurora's statement thus redirects her reader once again towards this ideal class of love represented in the union of souls. Here, love is defined as "the soul of soul," or in other words it is simultaneously both the innermost essence or region of the soul and the greater union of two individual souls. The "Spirit" then becomes the ever-present observer, or that which witnesses or attests for love. However, Browning is careful to acknowledge the fact that the "Spirit" only functions in this extraordinary, or divine, way when it is "ours," or in other words when it arises out of the union of two individuals.
Moreover, the unique syntax of lines 879 through 881 allows the "Spirit" to be both a subject and the direct object of the alternate subject "Love" and its verb "evolving." Hence, Browning's Aurora concludes that "Love" is that which allows the spirit to evolve "sublimely." Here, of course the adverb "sublimely" acts primarily in the sense of its synonyms "loftily" or "highly," and thus Aurora literally asserts that love allows the spirit to metamorphose into a higher state or form. However, "sublimely" also seems to invoke here the Wordsworthian notion of the sublime in which the sublime becomes a liminal sensation of something that teeters on the boundaries of two worlds, emotions, or states of being. Thus Browning is able to illustrate here a love, or a spiritual union, which anticipates transcendence, which marks our ability to cross over the boundaries separating two distinct regions, the earthly realm and the heavenly realm. "Recollected in tranquility," as Wordsworth would say, Aurora's mystic vision and transcendental experience become the substance of great poetry and consequently the subject of Browning's own Aurora Leigh . Therefore, E.B. Browning's poetic philosophy along with her vision of love as it exists in its idyllic state and as it relates to poetry is strikingly compatible with Patmore's poetic intentions behind the Angel in the House and the theories of poetry which he expounds in his essays "Real Apprehension" and "Love and Poetry."
If we return for a moment to Browning's image of the "soul of soul, within the soul," however, we realize that her philosophical notions of poetry and love take their roots not only in Patmore but also in other Victorian influences. This notion of one soul existing in another clearly refers to Tennyson's closing line of In Memoriam, (before the Epilogue) "Until we close with all we loved, / And all we flow from, soul in soul" (Section 131, lines 11-12). The reader of In Memoriam will recall the climax of Tennyson's poem in which the speaker arrives at a revelatory moment of Carlylean poetic vision (see essay "On Borrowed Time"). Here, when the speaker's epiphanic realization occurs, he exclaims of Hallam that his "living soul was flashed on mine" (Section 95, line 36). The image of one soul layered or imprinted onto another both evokes a mystical conception of the universe as something which is concentrically organized and points to a kind of love which transcends the boundaries of time and space. Upon returning to this significant scene in Tennyson's In Memoriam, we can thus see an entire tradition of poetic vision which lies in its wake, and Patmore, like Swinburne and E.B. Browning, is a clear follower of the spiritual and conceptual implications behind Tennyson's famous poetic climax and epiphany. Nevertheless, although Barrett Browning's "soul of soul" undoubtedly alludes to Tennyson's In Memoriam, we must remember that when Patmore wrote The Angel in the House, he was specifically referring to the divine nature of romantic love in his climactic prelude, and not like Tennyson, to a platonic and elegiac kind of eternal bond. As I have stated previously, Patmore did intend in some sense to divorce himself from the Romantic, fleeting and yearning kind of sexualized love which Tennyson so often expounded in his shorter works such as "The Lady of Shalott."
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh and Other Poems. Ed. John Robert Glorney Bolton and Julia Bolton Holloway. London: Penguin Books, 1995.
Patmore, Coventry. The Angel in the House. 2 vols. London: Macmillan and Co., 1863.
Patmore, Coventry. Principles in Art. London: George Bell and Sons, 1889.
Last updated 29 July 2004