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'Aurora Leigh' by Elizabeth Barrett BrowningI’m now up to Book 4 of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel in blank-verse AURORA LEIGH and am enjoying it very much. Told in the first-person it's about a woman who attempts to forge a literary career for herself. There's a great deal about woman's role, and marriage and class - oh, there's a lot going on.
I have to read carefully to be quite sure I’m taking it all in, poetry being denser and more compacted than prose usually is. There is a beautiful balance I think between narrative and reflection and character drawing, and it has many passages of lovely description. Mrs Browning’s poetic narrative is much easer to read than her husband’s sometimes tortured stories like ‘The Ring and the Book’. But there is definitely an echo of Robert at times.
This is a typical passage where Aurora, now a writer, at a friend’s request visits a poor young woman to persuade her against an unsuitable marriage to her (Aurora’s) cousin, Romney Leigh.
No wise beautiful
Was Marian Earle. She was not white nor brown,
But could look either, like a mist that changed
According to being shone on more or less.
The hair, too, ran its opulence of curls
In doubt ‘twixt dark and bright, nor left you clear
To name the colour. To much hair perhaps
Which seemed to droop on that side and on this,
As a full-blown rose uneasy with its weight,
Though not a breath should trouble it. Again
The dimple in the cheek had better gone
With redder, fuller rounds: and somewhat large
The mouth was, though the milky little teeth
Dissolved it to infantine a smile!
For soon it smiled at me; the eyes smiled too,
But ‘twas as if remembering they had wept,
And knowing they should, some day, weep again.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s AURORA LEIGH sent me to Virginia Woolf’s very interesting essay about it in Collected Essays Vol.5. She begins by summarising attitudes to EBB in the 1930s. Woolf writes:
Nobody reads her, nobody writes about her, nobody troubles to put her in her place. One has only to compare her reputation with Christina Rossetti’s to trace her decline. CR mounts irresistibly to the first place among English women poets. Elizabeth, so much more loudly applauded during her lifetime, falls further and further behind. That she was noble and passionate we allow; perhaps half one sonnet might muster if the preceding lines were expunged; but her grammar is slipshod, her style slovenly, and her mind confused, turbulent, and excessive. The primers dismiss her with contumely; her importance, they say, ‘has now become merely historical. Neither education nor association with her husband ever succeeded in teaching her the value of words and a sense of form.’ In short, the only place in the mansion of literature that is assigned to her is downstairs in the servants’ quarters, where, in company with Mrs Hemans, Eliza Cook, Jean Ingelow, Alexander Smith, Edwin Arnold, and Robert Montgomery, she bangs the crockery about and eats vast handfuls of peas on the point of her knife.
And then for several more illuminating and entertaining pages VW proceeds to tell us why, for all its faults, AURORA LEIGH is a compulsive read, and very worthwhile anyone’s reading time. The six volumes of Virginia Woolf’s Collected Essays are a treasure-trove of literary delights.
Still reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning's 'Aurora Leigh' and have just reached the Eighth Book of nine. I think the poem is at its least readable when EBB is analysing her own and other characters' motives and she draws philosophical conclusions. These things don't seem to sit well in blank verse. At least not in EBB's. But when she goes into narrative or descriptive mode she is at her best, this where her talent lies. I like this section, where Aurora now living in Italy, writes about her experience of and response to the natural world. And it's so beautifully mid-Victorian.
Any 19thC poet would be pleased with.... 'and all the silent swirl / Of bats, that seem to follow in the air / Some grand circumference of a shadowy dome / To which we are blind....'
The days went by. I took up the old days
With all their Tuscan pleasures, worn and spoiled,–
Like some lost book we dropt in the long grass
On such a happy summer-afternoon
When last we read it with a loving friend,
And find in autumn, when the friend is gone,
The grass cut short, the weather changed, too late,
And stare at, as at something wonderful
For sorrow,–thinking how two hands, before,
Had held up what is left to only one,
And how we smiled when such a vehement nail
Impressed the tiny dint here, which presents
This verse in fire for ever! Tenderly
And mournfully I lived. I knew the birds
And insects,– which look fathered by the flowers
And emulous of their hues: I recognised
The moths, with that great overpoise of wings
Which makes a mystery of them how at all
They can stop flying: butterflies, that bear
Upon their blue wings such red embers round,
They seem to scorch the blue air into holes
Each flight they take: and fire-flies, that suspire
In short soft lapses of transported flame
Across the tingling Dark, while overhead
The constant and inviolable stars
Outburn those lights-of-love: melodious owls,
(If music had but one note and was sad,
'Twould sound just so) and all the silent swirl
Of bats, that seem to follow in the air
Some grand circumference of a shadowy dome
To which we are blind: and then, the nightingale
Which plucks our heart across a garden-wall,
(When walking in the town) and carry it
So high into the bowery almond-trees,
We tremble and are afraid, and feel as if
The golden flood of moonlight unaware
Dissolved the pillars of the steady earth
And made it less substantial. And I knew
The harmless opal snakes, and large-mouthed frogs,
(Those noisy vaunters of their shallow streams)
And lizards, the green lightnings of the wall,
Which, if you sit down still, nor sigh too loud,
Will flatter you and take you for a stone,
And flash familiarly about your feet
With such prodigious eyes in such small heads!–
I knew them though they had somewhat dwindled from
My childish imagery,–and kept in mind
How last I sat among them equally,
In fellowship and mateship, as a child
Will bear him still toward insect, beast, and bird,
Before the Adam in him has foregone
All privilege of Eden,–making friends
And talk, with such a bird or such a goat,
And buying many a two-inch-wide rush-cage
To let out the caged cricket on a tree,
Saying, 'Oh, my dear grillino, were you cramped
And are you happy with the ilex-leaves?
And do you love me who have let you go?
Say yes in singing, and I'll understand.'
I finished, somewhat thankfully, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, her first-person poetic novel about a writer woman’s life and loves. It has many beautiful sections in its nine books, but there are definitely passages which are like trudging through deep snow. She is at her best in the dramatic and descriptive parts, but the poem decidedly plods when she is being philosophical and indulges in long verse conversations with Romney Leigh about the meaning of their lives. This extract is, I think, EBB at her dramatic and passionate best.
O dark, O moon and stars, O ecstasy
Of darkness! O great mystery of love,–
In which absorbed, loss, anguish, treason's self
Enlarges rapture,–as a pebble dropt
In some full wine-cup, over-brims the wine!
While we two sate together, leaned that night
So close, my very garments crept and thrilled
With strange electric life; and both my cheeks
Grew red, then pale, with touches from my hair
In which his breath was; while the golden moon
Was hung before our faces as the badge
Of some sublime inherited despair,
Since ever to be seen by only one,–
A voice said, low and rapid as a sigh,
Yet breaking, I felt conscious, from a smile,–
'Thank God, who made me blind, to make me see!
Shine on, Aurora, dearest light of souls,
Which rul'st for evermore both day and night!
I am happy.' 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,
And, as we sate, we felt the old earth spin,
And all the starry turbulence of worlds
Swing round us in their audient circles, till
If that same golden moon were overhead
Or if beneath our feet, we did not know.
Unfortunately there are rather too many passages like this one below.
He paused upon the word, and then resumed;
'Fewer programmes; we who have no prescience.
Fewer systems; we who are held and do not hold.
Less mapping out of masses, to be saved,
By nations or by sexes. Fourier's void,
And Comte is dwarfed,–and Cabet, puerile.
Subsists no law of life outside of life;
No perfect manners, without Christian souls:
The Christ himself had been no Lawgiver,
Unless He had given the life, too, with the law.'
But I'm glad to have made the acquaintance of this famous poem.