Low to the Ground: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh”

Stylized portraits of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, author of Aurora Leigh.

[This essay on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh is a multi-part series which includes Ezekiel Yu’s essay on the same topic, as well as a three-hour video conversation with the authors, which can be found here.]

It’s not often that one encounters a novel constructed in verse. Of course, there have been many written over centuries, but they have also been labeled epic. They are often long, arduous and the protagonist undergoes numerous adventures, fights, defeats, and battles. Homer comes to mind. Virgil. The Epic of Gilgamesh. These verses are important works written by men. So, who is this Elizabeth Barrett Browning to attempt her own version of it? Are there any battles in Aurora Leigh? Not unless one considers her battle of self. Any great adventures? Not unless one thinks this when to traveling to London, Paris, or Florence. Any lands get overtaken? No. Are there any serfs in need of social justice at least? Alas, no. (Tolstoy is crying behind his ivory tower.) So, what is this novel in verse about exactly? Well, a young woman in search of finding her creative talent, a young woman feeling out of place, a passionate, emotional individual in search of someone to love. What is more important—to create or to love? Is there a place that occupies both? This is Aurora Leigh.

Already one can see how her novel/poem (I will from here on out refer to Aurora Leigh as a poem) was not taken seriously. Sure, there are some nice turns of phrases, but women don’t have the intellect or creativity to reach the highs men can. So, this is just a nice little poem she wrote as a distraction whilst cooking for Bobby and in no way does she rank alongside her more respected husband. Should you choose to quote me reader, I ask that you do not take what I just wrote out of context. Women have much to fight against. It’s not easy to feel second rate, or to not be taken seriously simply because of one’s gender. Partially the bias is due to her choice of subject matter (easily labeled ‘women’s topics’ in its time) but let’s be honest—had she written an epic in the more classic sense, that is, more in line with Homer, she would have been ridiculed.

Aurora Leigh has been labeled a feminist work, but then there are also moments that make the work seem anti-feminist. For one, she ends up with the guy in the end—her cousin, Romney Leigh, but at least beforehand she puts up a fight first. He is not the most charming individual, and he occupies a sense of male entitlement that is reminiscent of the era. Aurora often battles her own self-worth, wanting to creatively make something of herself and yet she still possesses the Romantic notion of long-lost love. I prefer to not give a label to this work, but rather, to examine it for its literary merits. Too often social and political agendas become the focus, rather than the craft that holds it in place. ‘Good aims not always make good books,’ Aurora says in the First Book. She is a well-developed character who is going to vacillate between reality and dream, practicality and fantasy. This is expected when one is complex and multifaceted.

Much like her heroine, Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born in Italy but then moved to England as a child. In the poem, Aurora’s Italian mother dies when Aurora Leigh is still a young girl. Lonely and imaginative, she feels out of place in England both in looks and in temperament. Her aunt tells her that she needs to ‘be more English,’ as her dark, curly hair grows into a nuisance, which she is forced to smooth down into braids. Note the poetic way she describes her feelings of underwhelm when it comes to visual England:

(As if God’s finger touched, but did not press
In making England) such an up and down
Of verdure, —nothing too much up or down,
A ripple of land; such little hills, the sky
Can stoop so tenderly and the wheat fields climb;
Such nooks of valleys lined with orchises,
Fed full of noises by invisible streams;
And open pastures where you scarcely tell
White daisies from white dew,—at intervals
The mythic oaks and elm-trees standing out
Self-poised upon their prodigy of shade,—
I thought my father’s land was worthy too
Of being my Shakespeare’s.

We get a sense of any idealism becoming crushed by the reality before her. Of course, she wants to love England not just because of Shakespeare, but also because it is her father’s land:

And when I heard my father’s language first
From alien lips which had no kiss for mine
I wept aloud, then laughed, then wept, then wept…

It doesn’t help, also, that her aunt is somewhat rigid and admits to not having liked Aurora’s mother. This creates a rift. The poem’s structure is lush and full of emotional skill, as in, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ability to craft feelings well. Her poetic observations are nonpareil regarding Victorian time. That she is able to endure such excellence throughout all nine books of Aurora Leigh is a testament to her enormous talent. Whilst the poem does have moments of fat (one might argue that it could be trimmed not by half but by a quarter the length) the moments continue to carry despite this and are well wrought.

I will begin an analysis of each book within Aurora Leigh and then address the Preface contained within the Norton Critical Edition, which I feel greatly misses the point behind this major and important work. Aurora Leigh should not be anyone’s ‘feminist symbol’, as to reduce the poem to such only then reduces it to an agenda. Literature constructed at high caliber deserves to be upheld as any great work, regardless of creator. It is paramount. Barrett Browning shows that one need not travel to all parts of the earth in order to create something of legacy. That her inward battles are every bit important as those of Odysseus. And those classic themes are every bit Romantic as that of Homer’s protagonist’s rise and defeat. Or in other words, she is no different than the men and so she deserves to be examined accordingly.

The Books

Aurora Leigh is both a poem (novel in verse) but also the name of the protagonist. She is a de facto stand-in for Barrett Browning herself, and throughout the work, we watch her grow and age not just into adulthood but also into a burgeoning artist. The story itself is not complex, but rather simple. Yet, it is her way with expression, her emotion, and her poetic skill that sets this major work apart.

First Book — Third Book

Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will write now for mine,—
Will write my story for my better self…

And so begins the opening lines of Aurora Leigh: her story within her story, her poetic text rich. Descriptions unfold naturally via her astute choice of words. As example, note the contrast between how she feels about her rigid, English aunt with that of herself:

…She had lived
A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage,
Accounting that to leap from perch to perch
Was act and joy enough for any bird.
Dear heaven, how silly are the things that live
In thickets, and eat berries!
I, alas,
A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage,
And she was there to meet me. Very kind.

Already the young Aurora sees herself differently from others, as well as her surrounds. Everywhere runs counter to how she feels inside. This becomes the crux of her character, wherein she must rely on her tenacity if she ever will achieve her art. It is she who wants to decide her world, not the other way around. She does not wish to be ‘beaten down into sameness,’ and so the poem becomes an inward battle of identity, of self. Aurora feels she clashes with the ordinary, and as any artist knows, the ordinary is our nemesis.

Her cousin Romney is ill suited, and yet he feels that he is worthy of Aurora’s love. He feels entitled to it and he expresses himself as sexist, which was typical of that time. Of course, all is said under the guise of honesty and so-called helpfulness. (He does not recognize that there is anything wrong with what he says, but more importantly, at first neither does she.) As example, there are many exchanges between the two that show Romney to be a dolt who does not only understand art but also does not understand women. It is important to note, however, how Aurora feels about her womanhood in the beginning:

We came so close, we saw our differences
Too intimately. Always Romney Leigh
Was looking for the worms, I for the gods.
A godlike nature his; the gods look down,
Incurious of themselves; and certainly
‘‘Tis well I should remember, how, those days,
I was a worm too, and he looked on me.

Aurora observes that Romney is mired in practicality. He lacks the Romance and imagination she craves. Rather, he enjoys surrounding himself with ‘worms’ or in other words—those he feels are beneath him. He longs to be the rescuer and Aurora does not seek rescue. Instead, she ‘looks for the gods,’ yet admits that she too is a ‘worm’ just as well, being that she is only a woman. In the Second Book, once Romney hears of Aurora’s drive to become a poet, he goes on to say:

But men, and still less women, happily,
Scarce need be poets. Keep to the green wreath,
Since even dreaming of the stone and bronze
Brings headaches, pretty cousin, and defiles
The clean white morning dresses.

Note his condescending words—‘pretty cousin,’ where he then speaks of ‘clean white morning dresses,’ not just merely as a symbol of purity but also elitism. (In Victorian times, only the rich could afford to wear white, as the poor’s lack of frequent laundering would render white garments soiled. This is just another example of his hypocrisy, but more on that later.) It is not tough to see what he is saying: ‘Don’t worry your pretty little woman head over such intellectual matters, Aurora.’ He later admits that Aurora writes ‘as well or as ill as any woman.’ Then, if that is not already enough:

—Women as you are,
Mere women, personal and passionate,
You give us doting mothers, and perfect wives,
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you,—and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind.

Perhaps I am being too harsh on Romney. Or not. It is not difficult to see why Aurora rejects him. Who would want to be with someone occasioning such puerility? Already he sets her up as inferior due to both her gender and her early lack of poetic skill. Yes, she admits that much of her verse is lifeless due to lack of practice, but Romney comes across as annoying and insecure. Women are made for sainthood but never Christ—who was a man. Only a man can affect change. Only a man can save the world. Likewise, poetry was considered an intellectual pursuit and not something that should be occupied within any woman’s pretty little mind.

Aurora rejects his hand, but she does not react to his patronizing, as any anger she feels does not erupt until later. I mean, how much of this could you take, reader? Granted, it was a different time then, but still. The Second Book ends with Aurora at 27, wherein she then goes to London in her attempt to make herself into an artist. She earns wages by writing for small magazines and continues to remark that her verse lacks verve and in order to achieve poetic greatness, she will have to work. Meanwhile, Romney is left behind. Good riddance because he has a lot of growing up to do, it seems. But then, he is not really gone, is he?

The Third Book gets more in touch with Aurora’s artistry. She is most certainly an opinionated young woman. Take, for instance, her opinion regarding the English way of life:

In England, no one lives by verse that lives;
And, apprehending, I resolved by prose
To make a space to sphere my living verse.
I wrote for cyclopedias, magazines,
And weekly papers, holding up my name
To keep it from the mud.

Ah, so even in Victorian times, a poet could not make money on quality. Instead, she is forced to write for copy, for the ephemera of the daily brain. Whilst Aurora Leigh appears to have grown more confident, she confesses to working late into the evening, struggling on the brim of poverty. The pressure constrains her. She admits the midnight oil begins to stink after a time. Yet tenaciously, she continues. Throughout her verse, her words are clear and complementary to her plight. Likewise, Romney seems out of the picture, due to his refusal to write her. That is, until Lady Waldemar appears. She is upper crust, condescending and claims she is in love with Romney. Aurora takes an immediate dislike towards her. In fact, Lady Waldemar informs her that Aurora, despite her name, is ‘as dull as any London afternoon.’ To put it bluntly, she is quite the elitist asshole. Yet, Aurora fights back when Romney is mentioned:

Who tells you that he wants a wife to love?
He gets a horse to use, not love, I think…

Here, despite her empathetic tenderness, Aurora recognizes (and more importantly, speaks aloud) that Romney’s need for a wife extends to nothing more than one’s need for a horse. You go, Aurora. (To quote a great line from Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose: ‘You can’t ride two horses with one behind.’) And as for Romney? The dude is a douche and Aurora can do better. Later, in the Third Book, Aurora encounters a poor, young woman named Marian Earle who has endured a life of sadness and suffering, and she too claims to love Romney, albeit she continually dismisses herself as inferior. Also interesting to note that Marion much resembles Elizabeth Barrett Browning in real life, as in, she has a supposed mess of dark hair that could ‘lodge the birds in all that hair.’

The poem now begins to set a class precedence, as in, the elite versus the poor. Romney is a hypocrite who wishes to ‘lower himself’ among the lesser classes as a means of perhaps alleviating his guilt. Once again, he reveals himself as condescending—a man who is willing to ‘marry beneath him’ as some sort of favor. His attitude is akin to someone telling you, ‘I know you are beneath me on every level, but not to worry, I plan to marry you anyway and to make your life better as a means of proving what a good person I am.’ Dude, piss off already. Once again, perhaps I am being too hard on our dear Romney. Or not. The man occupies such a sense of entitlement that he is someone for whom it is difficult to sympathize.

A portrait of Elizabeth Barrett Browning with a quote from Aurora Leigh.
Image via Smithsonian Libraries.

Fourth Book — Sixth Book

In the Fourth Book, Romney (out of his own apparent feelings of social guilt and obligation) has asked Marian to marry him, wherein she remarks that she is unworthy. Once more, we can see the self-deprecation amongst women of this era, even for a schmuck like Romney. Yet Aurora, whilst engaging in much of this inferiority herself, eventually comes to disavow herself from it. But as example, in response to Romney’s proposal, Marian mutters:

I know I am not worthy–nay, in truth,
I’m glad on’t, since, for that, he chooses me.
He likes the poor things of the world the best;
I would not therefore, if I could, be rich,
It pleasures him to stoop for buttercups;
I would not be a rose upon the wall
A queen might stop at, near the palace-door,
To say to a courtier, ‘Pluck that rose for me,
It’s prettier than the rest.’ O Romney Leigh!
I’d rather far be trodden by his foot,
Than lie in a great queen’s bosom.’

This level of low self-esteem is very difficult to comprehend, albeit it does happen. Marian is someone who has come from a background of poverty and struggle, and so she already feels herself unworthy of anyone. In the world of psychology, she would be the poster child for codependency. Note again the reference to low flowers—this time, buttercups. Always the image of stooping comes to mind whenever thinking of women. They are beautiful and fragrant, but like flowers, remain low to the ground. She comes to admit that she is ‘much fitter for her handmaid than his wife.’

Yet, in a shocking turn of events, Marian stands Romney up at the altar, believing she is unworthy of him. But there is more to it than that, as she leaves him a letter wherein she expresses how she could never be happy as his wife:

I could never be happy as your wife,
I could never be harmless as your friend.

That she gathers the gumption to reject him speaks for an inner tenacity that she might not have realized she had. It is noted that Elizabeth Barrett Browning constructed Marian in her image—that is, someone with ‘dark hair and a mess of curls’, someone who also feels out of place and almost represents the weaker side of herself, whilst Aurora Leigh represents her stronger side. Meanwhile, Aurora is still contemplating the ideas of art:

‘…What is art,
But life upon the larger scale, the higher,
When, graduating up in a spiral line
Of still expanding and ascending gyres,
It pushes toward the intense significance
Of all things, hungry for the Infinite?
Art’s life,–and where we live, we suffer and toil.’

Aurora Leigh views art as a sort of sanctity, a refuge from this life we live, which is full of suffering. If she is in fact attempting to comfort following Romney’s personal affliction, and this only stresses the importance that art does have in her life. It is something that mends and cures. Art is the high and life is the low.

‘Reflect, if Art be, in truth, the higher life,
You need the lower life to stand upon,
In order to reach up into that higher:
And none can stand a-tiptoe in the place
He cannot stand in with two stable feet.
Remember then!–for art’s sake, hold your life.’

Seeing Romney amid his mental disarray following Marian’s rejection gives Aurora a newfound respect for him. He has been helping the less fortunate and perhaps does wish to make himself into a better person. But there is still a longing within her, where she wishes to be noticed, despite her gender difference:

We women are too apt to look to one,
Which proves a certain impotence in art.
We strain our natures at doing something great,
Far less because it’s something great to do,
Than, haply, that we, so, commend ourselves
As being not small, and more appreciable
To some one friend.

Aurora Leigh shames herself by insisting she need be humbler. She wants notice—to be ‘not small’, in addition to being appreciated and understood by one friend. Really, she is telling herself this, as she very much wishes to be a great artist and appreciated for such. But given the shame within this Victorian Era, she still feels she needs to deny herself:

And the highest fame was never reached except
By what was aimed above it. Art for art,
And good for God Himself, the essential Good!
We’ll keep our aims sublime, our eyes erect,
Although our woman-hands should shake and fail;
And if we fail…but must we?

And herein remains the self-deprecation. What is wrong with wanting to achieve artistic greatness and also getting recognized? Although Aurora has shown herself to be an empathic individual, she is here tapping into her pride and vanity, which gives her guilt. There is simply nothing wrong with these wants, and yet again she continues to battle the mores of the day. Not to mention that Romney, from years earlier, only added to her shame.

But what is Art? In the Fifth Book, Aurora defines it wonderfully:

…While art
Sets action on the top of suffering:
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 the inmost: never felt the less
Because he sings it. Does a torch less burn
For burning next reflectors 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!

Here, we see Aurora describing the artist as one who is a ‘Demi-god’, or rather, one who lives a double life. Artists are, according to her, setting suffering into motion. They put their pain into action. They hold a power that distinguishes them from the ‘flatness’ of the ‘common man’, all whilst feeling the strain and stress for having to do so. It is a tremendous responsibility, after all. Many look up to artists as sages, as icons, as heroes. But what of those artists themselves? Who do they look up to if not other artists? Or perhaps their loneliness overtakes, and they end up envying the common man? Not that the artist craves commonness per se, but more so she will look from afar and wonder how others are capable of feeling the happiness that eludes her.

The Fifth Book within Aurora Leigh is one of the richest with regard to ideas on art and where art falls within life and history. I could continue quoting, but one can see the evidence within her verse that Elizabeth Barrett Browning is a master with words. On the surface, the poem of Aurora Leigh appears simple and straightforward—longing, lost love, gained love, art, and achievement. But what distinguishes it is her obvious mastery and richness of her verse.

In the Sixth Book, Aurora travels to France, where she spends her early musings within the realm of daydream. She ponders art, beauty, and life, but not before she begins by ripping the English once again:

The English have a scornful insular way
Of calling the French light. The levity
Is in the judgment only, which yet stands;
For say a foolish thing but oft enough,
(And here’s the secret of a hundred creeds,–
Men get opinions as boys learn to spell,
By re-iteration chiefly) the same thing
Shall pass at least for absolutely wise,
And not with fools exclusively.

Humorously, she is taking a stab at society—that is, men and their opinions. ‘Opinions are like assholes…’ is what she might as well be speaking, tongue-in-cheekily. Compared to England, France represents pure beauty. Romance. Wandering the streets, she engages in productive daydream. She appears the most at peace since leaving England, and yet within the Sixth Book, Aurora Leigh witnesses Marian upon the streets. It is years later, and the young woman is depleted and with child. Aurora follows her, wherein she then comes to chastise her for having a child out of wedlock. But then, the steadfast and not so weak Marian reveals that she was not seduced, but rather assaulted. This resulted in her child. In shock, Aurora immediately recants her accusation, wherein she then offers apology for the struggling Marian:

But I, convicted, broken utterly,
With woman’s passion clung about her waist,
And kissed her hair and eyes,–’I have been wrong,
Sweet Marian’. . (weeping in a tender rage)
‘Sweet holy Marian! And now, Marian, now,
I’ll use your oath although my lips are hard,
And by the child, my Marian, by the child,
I’ll swear his mother shall be innocent
Before my conscience, as in the open Book
Of Him who reads for judgment. Innocent,
My sister! let the night be ne’er so dark,
The moon is surely somewhere in the sky:
So surely is your whiteness to be found
Through all dark facts. But pardon, pardon me,
And smile a little, Marian,–for the child,
If not for me, my sister.’

Once again, we are given the glimpses of Victorian society, where one having a child without husband is worthy of condemnation. Aurora Leigh is quick to judge; yet she does not know the facts. Upon hearing Marian’s story, her empathy overtakes her—and she offers her kindness.

There are so many layers here one could discuss. In the interim, Aurora has not spoken to Romney for two years. He is a background character, and one that more so represents her longing. It is possible that she has longed for him throughout this time, but she also regularly denies herself her true feelings. The ending of the Sixth Book is perhaps the most beautiful within that melancholic dream. Marian represents sadness and sweetness and someone in need of love. See her and love her for the person she is:

And there I sate, one evening, by the road,
I, Marian Erle, myself, alone, undone,
Facing a sunset low upon the flats,
As if it were the finish of all time,–
The great red stone upon my sepulchre,
Which angels were too weak to roll away.

How beautiful is this an ending for any chapter? Passionate and full, and so continues the saga of Aurora Leigh.

Seventh Book — Ninth Book

Aurora Leigh occupies a richness within her own verse and her own dream. There are so many elements to this work that it would take a full poem—book length—to cover all of it. Aurora is kind, passionate, empathetic, spunky, tenacious, and authentic. She does not like Lady Waldemar for her manipulation and lack of authenticity. Aurora finds this woman to be a phony. One day, she loves Romney and the next she does not. She regularly denigrates Marian—a person whom Aurora has come to love and respect. (Should you wish to know more, I suggest you read the text.)

And so begins the Seventh Book, where we witness more of Aurora’s empathy regarding Marian. The young woman has undergone abuse at the hand of another, thus resulting in a child. ‘THE woman’s motive? shall we daub ourselves/ With finding roots for nettles? ’tis soft clay/ And easily explored…” We get yet again a reference to imagery low to the ground (nettles), which she has come to rebel against, when correlating it with womanhood. Marian offers an interesting contrast to Aurora, in that she represents what Aurora might have become, had she lacked her creative drive. It is this creativity which keeps Aurora’s ambition in place:

‘The devil’s most devilish when respectable.
But you, dear, and your story…’

Aurora mutters to Marian most wisely and cleverly. After all, how does one successfully manipulate? Earn the respect of others first. Of course, she is referring to Lady Waldemar. Believing that Lady Waldemar is married to Romney, when Aurora finally sees him again, she behaves coldly. In writing Lady Waldemar a letter, she is bitter and scathing in her reproach. Aurora does not hold back:

‘Ponder this.
If haply you’re the wife of Romney Leigh,
(For which inheritance beyond your birth
You sold that poisonous porridge called your soul)
I charge you, be his faithful and true wife!

Aurora Leigh is angry because of how Lady Waldemar has regarded Marian. Also, her manipulation and pettiness does not sit well with Aurora, whom by now has had her book published, which has resulted in praise from her painter friend, Vincent Carrington:

‘…Meantime your book
Is eloquent as if you were not dumb;
And common critics, ordinarily deaf
To such fine meanings, and, like deaf men, loth
To seem deaf, answering chance-wise, yes or no,
‘It must be,’ or ‘it must not,’ (most pronounced
When least convinced) pronounce for once aright:
You’d think they really heard, and so they do…

Hearing such praise is a turning point for Aurora Leigh, who now regards herself as a real artist. She remains modest of course, but she is not so willing to surrender herself into submission vis-à-vis a man. Aurora and Marian depart for Italy together, and yet still Aurora ponders the thrill of art with that of being an artist:

Books succeed,
And lives fail. Do I feel it so, at last?

Aurora is now more optimistic regarding her artistic fate, and much of the remaining portions of the Seventh Book address her ideas with art, ending rather poetically, as she muses over her feelings for Tuscany:

I lay and spoke not. But He heard in heaven.
So many Tuscan evenings passed the same!
I could not lose a sunset on the bridge,
And would not miss a vigil in the church,
And liked to mingle with the out-door crowd
So strange and gay and ignorant of my face,
For men you know not, are as good as trees.

‘As good as trees.’ What does she mean? Well, trees give shade and they are higher than the ground, and they do serve a purpose. But trees are not gods. Nor are men. Much of the inner dilemma for that of Aurora Leigh involves her need for external validation, that is, for her to prove herself to the world that she matters. This, of course, remains an ongoing battle throughout the work. In the beginning, she doubted herself and it did not help that Romney only added to that doubt. But now, with age and time, she has come to develop into her talent, yet still she values the opinions of others, as we witness with Vincent Carrington. In the Eighth Book, Romney reappears (yay, joy!) but he is a different man now. Firstly, we learn that he never married Lady Waldemar but also that he thinks highly of Aurora’s work:

‘The poet looks beyond the book he has made,
Or else he had not made it. If a man
Could make a man, he’d henceforth be a god
In feeling what a little thing is man:
It is not my case. And this special book,
I did not make it, to make light of it:
It stands above my knowledge, draws me up;
‘Tis high to me. It may be that the book
Is not so high, but I so low, instead;
Still high to me. I mean no compliment:
I will not say there are not, young or old,
Male writers, ay, or female, let it pass,
Who’ll write us richer and completer books.
A man may love a woman perfectly,
And yet by no means ignorantly maintain
A thousand women have not larger eyes:
Enough that she alone has looked at him
With eyes that, large or small, have won his soul.
And so, this book, Aurora, so, your book.’

This is a huge turning point for Romney. Now, he views Aurora Leigh in the higher place—that she is now above him. With the numerous references to women being low to the ground, now he, Romney, is the one who is low. (He is not even a tree!) Why there needs to be a competition I will perhaps never understand. Why must one sex be lower or higher than the other? Why measure in terms of degrees? Why not just examine each person and her talents individually?

But Romney’s begrudging flattery does not stop Aurora, wherein she rebelliously and most confidently rebuffs:

I took him up austerely, “You have read
My book, but not my heart; for recollect,
‘Tis a writ in Sanscrit, which you bungle at.
I’ve surely failed, I know, if failure means
To look back sadly on work gladly done,
To wander on my Mountains of Delight,
So called (I can remember a friend’s words
As well as you, sir), weary and in want
Of even a sheep-path, thinking bitterly…
Well, well! no matter. I but say so much,
To keep you, Romney Leigh, from saying more,
And let you feel I am not so high indeed,
That I can bear to have you at my foot,
Or safe, that I can help you.

As the poem progresses, we witness a shift in Aurora’s confidence and stance both as an artist and a woman. As example, she delivers this observation most hilariously:

O cousin, let us be content, in work,
To do the thing we can, and not presume
To fret because it’s little. ‘Twill employ
Seven men, they say, to make a perfect pin:
Who makes the head, content to miss the point;
Who makes the point, agreed to leave the join:
And if a man should cry ‘I want a pin,
And I must make it straightway, head and point,’
His wisdom is not worth the pin he wants
Seven men to a pin, and not a man too much!

One could argue that the ever-present battle between men and women grows a bit heavy handed for the poem. The idea of gilding the lily comes to mind. There are certainly portions which drag on—not due to lack of skill but more so that these moments do grow repetitive. By the Ninth Book, readers will anticipate what is about to happen. Aurora realizes her love for Romney, but of course, she was not able to do so until he grew up, so to speak. He needed to recognize her for her, as his peer, rather than some Romantic idea within his head. Yet, in the end, Aurora gets the guy, which some might argue that this undermines the Feminist Premise, perhaps. Or does it? Perhaps her choice is a healthy one, where she is in control and there to decide when romance is appropriate.

Aurora Leigh admits her love, but Romney believes she is only extending her pity:

But I love you, sir;
And when a woman says she loves a man,
The man must hear her, though he love her not,
Which…hush!…he has leave to answer in his turn;
She will not surely blame him. As for me,
You call it pity, think I’m generous?

Instead, Aurora comes to realize that love and art do not need be separate. That one can have both in her life and as artist and woman—still survive. ‘Art symbolizes heaven, but love is God who makes heaven,’ she says. Indeed, it is possible for the two to coincide, but only once mutual respect is achieved. After all, how healthy is it for someone to continually regard herself as beneath another, simply because that person is the male gender? The concept is tired, but not so in Victorian Culture. In many respects, Aurora Leigh is a revolutionary figure, as she represents one’s desire to artistically achieve without having to compromise. Although many of these concepts seem stale today, it was not the case then. And how stale is it, really? Women are still fighting to be recognized for their achievements, myself included. Which makes it even more frustrating to read dopey criticism within this Norton Critical Edition.

Virginia Woolf on Aurora Leigh

I must be upfront in my admission that as a writer and person, Virginia Woolf annoys me. I find her work dull and pretentious, not to mention she was a nasty person in real life. But anyway, that is another tale. In reading her review of Aurora Leigh, I can ascertain that Virginia has not a clue. Although her comments are fairly praiseworthy, she chides Elizabeth Barrett Browning for the wrong reasons. As example, Woolf quotes some Victorian doggerel and calls it absurd:

While thus I grieved, and kiss’d her glove,
My man brought in her note to say,
Papa had hid her send his love,
And would I dine with them next day?

Now, Woolf is correct to call this verse absurd, but she is incorrect when she claims that Aurora Leigh’s dialogue resembles the above doggerel, which is actually from Coventry Patmore’s Canto V, Book I of “The Violets,” from The Angel in the House. Woolf then goes on to criticize Browning’s character development within Aurora Leigh, wherein she states:

Forced by the nature of her medium, she ignores the slighter, the subtler, the more hidden shades of emotion by which a novelist builds up touch by touch a character in prose.

Oh, Virginia, as if you are in a position to judge someone else’s character development. Mrs. Dalloway has some of the most inert, dull dialogue one can read. Likewise, To The Lighthouse is filled with overwrought prose, puerility, stiff-upper class melodrama and clichés. Yet academics love to rave about how ‘innovative’ it is as a literary work, when it is actually James Joyce-lite with clichés.

Whilst it is true that Aurora Leigh goes on for too long—I argue that about twenty-five percent its length could be cut, to say that her medium, that is, the poem form, hinders emotion is absurd. If anything, one could say there is too much emotion and passion. But Elizabeth Barrett Browning balances such said emotion with her many astute observations about art, literature, as well as the pursuit of one’s passion.

Aurora Leigh, the novel-poem, is not, therefore, the masterpiece that it might have been,’ Woolf writes. She then goes on: ‘Rather it is a masterpiece in embryo; a work whose genius floats diffused and fluctuating in some pre-natal stage…Stimulating and boring, ungainly and eloquent, monstrous and exquisite, all by turns, it overwhelms and bewilders…’ and so on.

Again, Woolf is correct that the work has flaws, since Aurora Leigh can overwhelm at times in the word soup of it all, but that doesn’t mean that Barrett Browning did not achieve greatness. Greatness and perfection are not one in the same, after all. Again, it is ironic that Woolf would call another writer’s work ‘boring,’ given how dull and overwrought and word-soupy her own work is.

Likewise, the Norton Edition contains a preface that is equally pointless, wherein the editor, Margaret Reynolds, declares Aurora Leigh as a ‘feminist work,’ insomuch as how relevant it is to culture. It was forgotten, then feminism hit, then it mattered, but only because of feminism – blah blah blah. ‘When its uses are no longer so urgent, it will fade into history,’ Reynolds writes, in regard to Aurora Leigh. ‘But until then Aurora Leigh speaks to us, because it is empowering, because it is encouraging and cheerful, because it is necessary.’

Aside the emotional piffle, note that Reynolds does not mention artistic craft, as if to state that the only reason for Aurora Leigh’s value is because of the feminist perspective. But as indicated, there are many examples where Aurora Leigh could be argued as anti-feminist. Why do we need an —ism attached to it? Do we label Oscar Wilde and Hart Crane’s works as homosexual agenda pieces? What if the entire trope of the poem involved women’s need to defer to men and other ideas which don’t gel in today’s culture? What then? Is the work meaningless? Is craft gone? Ah, craft. We’re back to that again. That Aurora Leigh supposedly ‘fell out of fashion’ is nothing new, as this has happened with many great works over the years. Yes, it is convenient that feminism helped to elevate its status, but even without feminism, Aurora Leigh would never have gone forgotten, as great works never do.

Why this does happen is because of supply and demand. We live in a lowest common denominator culture, which craves immediacy over longevity, and the publishers cater to this. If they behaved as more the purveyors of great culture like they are supposed to, then great works would be pushed more and also published. ‘But the sales! We can’t sell this!’ How many copies of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird are sold? Why is this the case? Because students are forced to read it. Publishers have plenty of pap to push—and enough advertising could certainly sell modestly. The fact is that literature doesn’t sell anyway, and it is far easier to lump writers into ‘identity roles’ and political agendas and —isms than it is to explain the nuance of craft.

Great works ‘fall out of fashion’ all the time, but really, they never do. They always come back. The Internet has shown this. The future of literature rests with the casual reader—the young person who is curious to know more, to understand craft—this is the individual who will be the future champion of great works. Not the stiff academic who is clueless about craft and is laden with politics. As Aurora remarks in the First Book, ‘Good aims not always make good books.’ And it is insights as these that distinguish Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh from the rest of Vapid Victoriana. As any era, the Victorians had their strengths. But they could also drown their readers in affected purple prose, endless meanderings, and trite romantic nostalgia.

It is fairly common for great art to go overlooked—at least initially. And all art should be examined independently of its creator. It is important to not imbue too much of the personal within the metaphorical, even though those connections do exist. We all do it—most everyone does, albeit the difference is to recognize where life ends and art begins. Some might claim that they—life and art—are one in the same, except they are not. Most of life flounces about unfettered, without any guide to fasten it into place. It takes an artful eye to illuminate the otherwise ordinary. This is why great art is revisited, regardless of the current mores. It is within excellence that the artful soul triumphs.

‘Remember then! – for Art’s sake, hold your life.’

—Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, 1856.

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If you enjoyed this dissection of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leighcheck out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a dissection of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Galapagos, a philosophical look at kitsch, aesthetics, and NFTs with UK painter Ethan Pinch, and a long discussion of photography from Alfred Stieglitz to Fan Ho and Vivian Maier.

More from Jessica Schneider: Art of Observational Narrative: Karel Zemen’s “Journey to the Beginning of Time” (1955), Lessons In Vanity: On “Eyes Without a Face” (1960) by Georges FranjuChance, Hope, & Somber Vigor: “Three Colors: Red” (1994)