Elizabeth Barret Browning introduces in the opening of Aurora Leigh the figure of a portrait that has the power to transfix a child-speaker:

Therefore very strange
The effect was. I, a little child, would crouch
For hours upon the floor with knees drawn up,
And gaze across them, half in terror, half
In adoration, at the picture there, —
The swan-like supernatural white life
Just sailing upward from the red stiff silk
Which seemed to have no part in it nor power
To keep it from quite breaking out of bounds. [134-42]


If we consider that Browning opens her poem by acknowledging herself as the voice of the poem within the poem, as well as referencing the act of writing — "Of writing many books there is no end;/ And I who have written much in prose and verse" (1-2) — should we read the painting as a symbol for poetry? Does Browning use it at any other point in the poem? How does the figure of a portrait — of one person in one moment — compare to what Browning sets out to do in her poem?

Why does the speaker look at the picture in terror? What significance is there to the fact that the picture is painted of her dead mother, yet seems to have the "supernatural" ability to convey a "white life" that cannot be kept from "breaking out of bounds?" What claims is Browning making for the power of art?

Is it significant that Browning begins her story by establishing the absence of her mother? How is this related to the various different portraits of mothers that we have seen in other Victorian novels?


Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. Chicago: Academy, 1989.

Last modified 15 March 2004