lizabeth Barrett Browning peppers an exchange between Romney and Aurora with Biblical allusions from Eve to Christ in the midst of Romney’s roundabout marriage proposal. One segment of it, turning from Romney’s concerns about the modern world, addresses the validity of Aurora’s poetry as a calling. Romney questions at length the practical use of her poetry in the face of so much suffering and then moves on to the limitations of her gender. But Aurora delicately preempts this, adopting his careless example of Miriam’s singing after the crossing of the Red Sea and applying Miriam’s role to herself.
The world's hard pressed;
The sweat of labour in the early curse
Has (turning acrid in six thousand years)
Become the sweat of torture. Who has time,
An hour's time . . think! . . to sit upon a bank
And hear the cymbal tinkle in white hands!
When Egypt's slain, I say, let Miriam sing!�
Before . . where's Moses?'
'Ah — exactly that
Where's Moses? — is a Moses to be found? —
You'll sink him vainly in the bulrushes,
While I in vain touch cymbals. Yet, concede,
Such sounding brass has done some actual good,
(The application in a woman's hand,
If that were credible, being scarcely spoilt,)
In colonising beehives.'
'There it is! —
You play beside a death-bed like a child,
Yet measure to yourself a prophet's place
To teach the living. None of all these things,
Can women understand.
The placement of this offhand reference to a Biblical female voice weakens Romney’s following spiel about the disadvantages of female poets. Unbeknownst to the characters, it also sets up curious though perhaps imperfect correspondences with another Biblical incident, in which Miriam disapproves of Moses’s choice of wife.
Do Romney's words imply that he ought to take the role of Moses, or just that humanity needs a Moses to lead them from the evils of the modern world ?
2. Aurora much more clearly links herself to Miriam through cymbals. Romney too makes the connection later. In addition, Aurora says,
But sit in London, at the day's decline,
And view the city perish in the mist
Like Pharaoh's armaments in the deep Red Sea, —
The chariots, horsemen, footmen, all the host,
Sucked down and choked to silence — then, surprised
By a sudden sense of vision and of tune,
You feel as conquerors though you did not fight,
And you and Israel's other singing girls,
Ay, Miriam with them, sing the song you choose.
What support does Miriam’s role in the Bible lend to Aurora’s calling as a poet? Romney chastises Aurora for claiming a prophet’s place. Would Miriam’s disputed status as a prophet have played into this?
3. Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses for his marriage with a Cushite woman; God punishes Miriam alone with leprosy. What ramifications might this hold for both Aurora Leigh and Browning, speaking out as a female poets and, in Romney’s words, prophets?
4. The Cushite woman is an outsider. If we concede that Romney is (or is trying to be) a type of Moses, does Aurora’s attitude towards either of Romney’s potential marriages parallel Miriam’s attitude towards her brother’s? If not, is the similarity unintentional on Browning’s part or meant as a contrast?
Last modified 14 March 2011