lizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh explores art and the power and place of the artist. Browning looks at the idea of the artist’s mission and relationship to commonality. Artists, who are inherently uncommon, somehow transcend the place of man and function in this world between earth and stars. Although the following passage arguably comments more about art than Biblical interpretation, it seems Biblically-rooted in considering the uncommon position of the artist. The artist makes a sacrifice for humanity — to give words and creation to reflect upon the human condition. In this way the artist exists as a pseudo- or quasi-God figure, burdened both to represent the human state and to suffer from it.

The artist’s part is both to be and do,
Transfixing with a special, central power
The flat experience of the common man,
And turning outward, with a sudden wrench,
Half agony, half ecstasy, the thing
He feels inmost, — never felt the less
Because he sings it. Does a torch less burn
For burning next reflections of blue steel,
That he should be the colder for his place
‘Twixt two incessant fires, — his personal life’s,
And that intense refraction which burns back
Perpetually against him from the round
Of crystal conscience he was born into
If artist-born? O sorrowful great gift
Conferred on poets, of a twofold life,
When one life has been found enough for pain!
We, staggering �neath our burden as mere men,
Being called to stand up straight as demi-gods,
Support the intolerable strain and stress
Of the universal, and send clearly up
With voices broken by the human sob,
Our poems to find rhymes among the stars!” [V, l. 367-88]

The artist exists somehow in between — caught amongst “fires.” That artist is somehow between reflection and creation — existence and somehow capturing that existence. The depiction of men as “mere” and the commonality in life as something “sorrowful” in which to be stuck, presents a strange place for the artist. Browning writes that artist must “stand up straight as demi-gods,” that poetry somehow inscribes this knowledge and power on selected individuals. The use of the term “demi-god” immediately establishes a religious connection. Previously, we’ve discussed the creation of man as Godly — the question of art’s power.

Although Browning does not raise the artist to a divine status, she does ascribe her (or him) a place above general humanity. Artists and writers have the ability to “support the intolerable strain and stress,” represent the “voices broken by the human sob.” The artist, who sheds light on human suffering, thus provides a voice for the burden of humankind. In some ways this conception of the artist-poet becomes Christ-like — carrying the burden of human kind, giving it heavenly voice, and thus retribution. Poets are then in a grievous position — for they must make these sacrifices for the benefit of humanity. The poet, though, is immortalized. His or her poems will live “among the stars.” So the poet is a complex position, they are drawn by the passion of creativity and rhyme and by the passions of men. They have a higher gift but are still mortal. Yet their work can be immortalized, made almost heavenly in the stars, and thus they make the sacrifice of writing their words for the benefit of the human condition.


1. Although this passage makes poets seemed burdened, is there something self-involved in this burden. They have been given a “sorrowful, great gift” — the gift may be difficult but it also may result in fame. Could this then be viewed as self-depricatory?

2. Is the poet being portrayed as a Christ-representation? There is something about the self-sacrificial aspect that results then in a freeing and ascention that leads me to this suggestion? Thoughts?

3. In my first reading response I wrote about the power of the reader, but here I want to raise the question the power of the writer. According to Aurora Leigh, when the poet writes about the human condition, what is the comparative value of the writer’s power with words to the reader’s power of interpretation ?


Last modified 25 March 2011