In my seminar on the Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ we started work last week on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1856 verse-novel Aurora Leigh. It’s usually kind of hard going for the students: although it does have many of the familiar features of a Victorian marriage plot novel, it also includes (among quite a bit of more miscellaneous material) long meditations on, and also arguments about, the nature and purpose of poetry in the modern world — and its 9 books of blank verse add up to a total of approximately 15,000 lines of iambic pentameter, which, let’s face it, is not the easiest reading even when the verse itself is thrilling … which, frankly, for long stretches Aurora Leigh is not.
And yet, having said that, there are plenty of things that are thrilling about Aurora Leigh. The challenge is just helping students to get excited about some of them before they’ve completely disengaged from the effort to tramp through EBB’s often ungainly poetry. One of them is the sheer bravado of the exercise itself: an epic poem, on the scale of Paradise Lost, but about the life of a nineteenth-century woman poet. This is probably the single most daring thing about Aurora Leigh, that it insists on, not just the importance, but the epic potential of contemporary female life, at a time when such a thing seemed both artistically and socially inconceivable. “The critics say that epics have died out,” says the eponymous narrator in a famous passage in Book 5; “I’ll not believe it,” and in particular she refuses to accept that her own age offers no heroic subjects suitable for epic treatment:
Nay, if there’s room for poets in the world
A little overgrown, (I think there is)
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne’s,–this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights, at Roncesvalles.
“Never flinch,” she advises the modern poet,
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon a burning lava of a song,
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That, when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
‘Behold,–behold the paps we all have sucked!
That bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets ours beating. This is living art,
Which thus presents, and thus records true life.’
The whole poem is an extraordinary appropriation of epic conventions in the pursuit of revising gender conventions — and, as that excerpt shows, it does have some moments of great poetic vigor.
EBB works out her theory of poetry in other fascinating and sometimes exhilarating ways across the course of the poem — I get particularly excitable about the sections of Book VII in which Aurora begins to draw connections between her initially very high-minded idealism and the more material kinds of social reform which the poem also advocates but she at first disdains:
Thus is Art
Self-magnified in magnifying a truth
Which, fully recognized, would change the world
And shift its morals. If a man could feel,
Not one day, in the artist’s ecstasy,
But every day, feast, fast, or working-day,
The spiritual significance burn through
The hieroglyphic of material shows,
Henceforward he would paint the globe with wings,
And reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree,
And even his very body as a man,–
Which now he counts so vile, that all the towns
Make offal of their daughters for its use…
But usually, and understandably, Aurora’s (and EBB’s) developing theory of poetic double-vision is less engaging to students than Aurora’s resistance to the traditional marriage plot. (The two aspects of the poem, as I hope they realize by the end, are of course connected.) It is very common for the first proposal in a 19th-century novel to be rejected, but Aurora’s reasons are not common — and neither is the explicitness with which she lays them out to her hapless suitor. He appeals to her to give up her idle fantasy (as he sees it) of writing poetry and (St. John Rivers-style) join him in his work of social reform. “Men and women make / The world,” he says earnestly, “as head and heart make human life”;
‘Women as you are,
Mere women, personal and passionate,
You give us doating mothers, and chaste wives.
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you,–and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind.’
For its time, it’s a perfectly conventional vision of the sexes and their separate spheres, but Aurora is having none of it:
With quiet indignation I broke in.
‘You misconceive the question like a man,
Who sees a woman as the complement
Of his sex merely. You forget too much
That every creature, female as the male,
Stands single in responsible act and thought
As also in birth and death.’
She insists, that is, on her autonomy, on her right to an independent identity defined not by her relationship to any man but by her own choices and actions: “I too have my vocation–work to do” she tells him defiantly, “Most serious work, most necessary work / As any of the economists.'” And (having also rejected his attempt to give her financial support for this “necessary work”) off she goes to London, to live as a single woman supporting herself by her writing.
As if that’s not radical enough, Aurora Leigh also unabashedly takes on the plight of ‘fallen women’ and the sexual double standard that shames an unwed mother while shrugging off men’s culpability. “God knows me, trusts me with the child; but you,” exclaims the “murdered” Marian Erle, “You think me really wicked?” It is hard to grasp today how boldly EBB defied propriety with this plot line, something she has Marian herself call attention to, along with the hypocrisy that propriety relied on:
‘Enough so!–it is plain enough so. True,
We wretches cannot tell out all our wrong,
Without offence to decent happy folk.
I know that we must scrupulously hint
With half-words, delicate reserves, the thing
Which no one scrupled we should feel in full.’
She not only tells Marian’s story, but insists on Marian’s untainted purity, again, in defiance of Victorian norms. Something I expect we’ll talk about is why she does this — what strategic and political purpose it serves — but also what the limits are of this approach to the fallen woman.
That Aurora Leigh has not lost its radicalism — that we are still fighting on some of the same fronts — was made unexpectedly clear to me this past weekend, as with so many others I watched the story of Donald Trump’s now-infamous bus tape break, and then one pontificating man after another denounce it in the name of his daughters (or his wife or his great aunt or whatever). For some men — too many men — women are still seen primarily as complementary, their value uncomfortably entangled with ownership (all those possessive pronouns!), their right to respect and dignity somehow contingent on their belonging to someone else (someone else male, of course). My tweet quoting that excerpt of the poem got liked and retweeted more than any other tweet of mine that I can remember. Emphasizing the arguments of the poem, though, as I have also done here, while wholly consonant with some of EBB’s aims, is not meant to reduce her achievement to a social or political one, one with purely ideological value. This genre-bending work also offers what, to me at least, are some really wonderful poetic moments. Appropriately, as the love story and the aesthetic theory reach their convergent culminations in the final volume, it’s there that the verse itself rises to its most ecstatic heights:
But oh, the night! oh, bitter-sweet! oh, sweet!
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!
For once, our Victorian heroine (like her author) ends her story without compromise — and with poetry too.