This Week In My Classes: The Radicalism of Aurora Leigh

aurora-leigh-oxfordIn 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:elizabeth-barrett-browning_engraving

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:the-tryst

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.

ebbgordigiani1That 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.

To Robert Graves: Thank You For All That!

There’s one way in which Robert Graves is important to me that has nothing to do with Goodbye to All That or any of the other significant contributions he made to literary history, and that’s his role in turning me from a history major into an English major–and thus steering me down the whole professional road I have since followed. I told most of this story once before, in a post I wrote appreciating the important teachers in my life. I had always been a passionate reader but a skeptic about the idea of literary criticism (anyone can read, right? so what is there to study?). History, on the other hand, was about something measurable. But things changed, ultimately in my view of history and the degree to which it too is literary, but first in my attitude towards literary criticism:

one day we had read a poem I really liked (it was Robert Graves’s “The Cool Web“) and I finally put my hand up and ventured some replies to his questions about Graves’s language and how particular words fit the central ideas of the poem. He seemed pleased! My answers were good! I knew what he was talking about! Things started to fall into place. He wasn’t making things up, because I could see them there too, in the poem, and thinking about how the details of form and language built up the whole piece made the poem better, more pleasurable, more exciting to read. It was like something coming into focus, something I (as someone who had always loved to read both fiction and poetry) had always seen, but had never really looked at.

I began contributing more often to class discussion (though I never became particularly voluble as a student–despite being, um, chatty in real life, I always felt both shy and nervous about speaking up), and more significantly I became absorbed by the process of literary analysis and interpretation. My first-year experience motivated me to enter the 2nd-year English pre-Honours program U.B.C. then offered, and in a little twist of fate, the sight poem I was given for my oral exam in it was “The Cool Web.” I felt almost like I was cheating because I knew the poem so well! The exam went well (don’t worry, there was more on it that “The Cool Web,” so it’s not like I coasted completely!) and the next year I started my combined Honours program in English and History, a combination of interests that sustained me through an Honours thesis on Carlyle’s The French Revolution and Middlemarch as ‘novels’ and ‘histories,’ then a Ph.D. thesis on gender and genre in Victorian historical writing…and on to the emphasis I still put on historical contexts and historiographical interests in the texts I teach. (From my fall course evaluations: “Too much history for an English class.” Huh.) I didn’t much like the Graves I met in his autobiography, and I don’t know much about the man himself beyond that, but I will always be glad I happened upon him in that form at that moment. “Who can tell what may be the effects of writing?” George Eliot asks in Middlemarch–and it is amazing, really, to reflect on the difference one poem made in my life.

“The Cool Web” was the poem I chose for today’s Close Reading tutorials, where we are preparing for an annotation assignment due next week. I still find it a wonderfully stimulating (and teachable) poem:  complex and artful enough to be interesting, direct enough to be accessible, and surprisingly moving.

The Cool Web

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky, and the drums,
We shall go mad, no doubt, and die that way.

This Week in My Classes: Poems and Prelates

And we’re underway! It’s still a bit chaotic (cue rant about Pet Peeve #47, the long class add-drop period, which sends students the message that they can join a 12-week course 2 weeks in and expect not to be behind) but most of the students seem to have made it back from the break (PP #53, why don’t they just come back for the first day of term?) and even if they haven’t, it seems reasonable to start acting as if they have, including holding them accountable for catching up to us. Though this makes me sound cranky, I’m actually feeling pretty perky today, mostly because I enjoy being back in the classroom and I’m pretty keen about the material we’re working on in both of my classes.

In Close Reading, we’re working through some basic elements of poetic analysis: last week, we talked about diction; today, I reviewed major types of figurative language; and Wednesday and Friday we’ll focus on scansion. In theory, this is review for most students, but in practice, especially since we have muddied diluted diversified our core curriculum and program requirements so much, there’s no guarantee they will have spent time on it. And if they have, there’s no guarantee, of course, that they will have retained, much less mastered, it. So I really do focus on the basics. The immediate goal is to grasp what the elements are–to be able to recognize and name them. But this in itself is not much of an objective, and especially because this is an upper-level course, I try hard to emphasize that the real goal is to be able to talk better about poetry, to be able to recognize what’s going on in a poem when we read it, to be as precise as we can about its effects. In the handout I prepared for them, I quoted this excerpt from a good book called Poetic Designs:

No one reads the rules for the game of … hockey for pleasure; yet no one can possibly understand the game without knowing the meaning of ‘icing the puck’ or ‘offside.’  Without this understanding, the game is a meaningless blur.  Only with it does the game begin to ‘make sense.’  But prosody, like the rules of hockey, is not simply a body of information that one learns and then ‘applies.’  The truly informed fan sees the offside happen before the whistle blows, experiences it in the stir of action.  In poetry as in sport, the observer’s eyes—and ears—must be educated to this same point of instinctive understanding.

Yes, I had some hope that the hockey analogy would appeal to a room full of Canadian 20-somethings! But the same principle applies to, say, quilting: if you know what the norms and standards and challenges are, you can appreciate “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing” when you see it, not just at an analytic level, but “in the stir of action.” If you don’t know much about it, you might like it just fine, and you might have a strong personal response to it, but you couldn’t appreciate it in the same way you could if you had that “instinctive understanding” that combines knowledge and excitement, insight and affect. One of our first readings was Frost’s “Design,” for instance. It’s a deceptively simple poem; it adds to my appreciation of its deceptive simplicity that I see how regular the first line is–that sing-song rhythm leads us along as if into a harmless nursery rhyme–and then find my poetic innocence betrayed by the irregularities that follow. I’m not a hard-core poetry expert, and I sometimes think that helps in this particular class: we’re not going after the most obscure or complex levels of analysis, just practicing how to develop and support our reading. We’re trying to understand how we know what we think we know about our readings, as well as why they have the effects and meanings they do.

In 19th-Century Fiction, today was our first day on Barchester Towers. I took pretty much the whole time myself, with some introductory framing comments about Trollope and his aesthetic, and then an explanation of the basic hierarchy and social significance of the Church of England in the mid-Victorian period. About Trollope, I noted the ways his rather literal novels resist ideas about what is literary, being neither difficult nor particularly poetic. He was never really the go-to novelist for the fancier kinds of literary theory, not yielding as well to symbolic, psychoanalytic, or deconstructive approaches. But he has proved amenable particularly to ethical criticism (as with Ruth ap Roberts’s nicely titled The Moral Trollope). I talked about his interest in institutions, not just the church in the Barsetshire novels but the law and government in the Palliser series, and about his exploration of the interaction between institutions–which have their own abstract logic and their larger missions and priorities–and the individuals who actually constitute those institutions. That’s the point at which some explanation of the Church of England becomes essential, from the general, such as the extent to which it is always already a political institution (not to mention a social and educational one), to the particular–such as what it means for the position of Warden to be ‘in the Bishop’s gift’ or why the impending change of government matters so much to the novel’s very opening question, who will be the new Bishop of Barchester? I always feel a bit bad when I talk so much, but then, it’s pretty hard to navigate intelligently in Barchester Towers without knowing something about these matters. Once you get the idea, you can be “in the stir of action” as you read it. Next time we will get into the novel itself, and into class discussion, starting (as you always must and should, in Trollope) with people: we’ll talk about Archdeacon Grantly, Mr Slope, and Mr Harding to start with, I think, sorting out what they stand for and what the larger implications are of the antagonisms among them.

I really hope that the students are finding Barchester Towers amusing. How could they not? There’s the brilliant comedy of Mrs Proudie’s reception, for instance, at which Signora Neroni’s sofa strips the Bishop’s haughtily arrogant wife of her finery, and there’s the constant entertainment of Trollope’s narrator, who really comes into his own here, after warming up so charmingly with The Warden: “And now, had I the pen of a mighty poet, would I sing in epic verse the noble wrath of the archdeacon.” Good heavens!

This Week in My Classes (January 6, 2009)

That’s right, another term has begun. Blogging about teaching has become yet another reminder for me of how cyclical academic work is: to everything there is, indeed, a season. As my years in this job add up, I am increasingly self-conscious about the potential the work has for becoming repetitive (if it’s the second week of January, it must be The Moonstone…). At the same time, I am also increasingly appreciative of the on-again, off-again rhythm, the three-month bursts of intense concentration, barely-controlled chaos, and incessant demands and deadlines, followed by an interval of relative calm–still full of work, but without the same feeling that you are just grasping at the next thing in a never-ending chain. Sometimes, in between terms, you don’t even do much real work on evenings and weekends!

Here’s what’s up this term. Once again, by popular demand (and to help meet my ‘quota’ for what our higher-ups tactlessly call “bums-in-seats”), I’m teaching Mystery and Detective Fiction. Some of you will remember the convolutions I went through trying to revamp the reading list for this course. I undertook that re-thinking process a bit belatedly, as I had already ordered most of my books for this term; I am using a new anthology, the Longman Anthology of Mystery and Detective Fiction instead of the Oxford Book of Detective Stories, which means a different selection of short texts, and I have added Auster’s City of Glass. But otherwise the major landmarks of the course are the same as last winter’s version. Next year, however…. One text I’m sure I won’t change is, actually, The Moonstone. It’s just so much fun; I’m not sure I’ll ever be sorry to wake up on a Monday morning in January and realize it’s Gabriel Betteredge Day. We haven’t done much yet this term. Tomorrow’s “Big Intro Lecture” day. I just hope more of the students have actually bothered to get back in town.

My other class is a new one for me, an upper-level seminar on “Victorian Literature of Faith and Doubt.” Back when we still offered a lot of full-year courses, I sometimes taught a Victorian literature survey, and it included a “crisis of faith” unit (along with the “Woman Question” unit that became the basis of another special topics seminar I have now offered several times). I thought I’d like to get back to some of the prose and poetry I don’t otherwise get to teach much, and religion is not only the quintessential 19th-century topic but also a topic of some personal interest to me; this new seminar is the result. I would not feel competent to offer a graduate level course on this material, but I’ve been brushing up on key texts and contexts and I think (I hope!) I’m going to be OK for my purposes this term. I’ve got my intro lecture on “varieties of 19th-century faith and doubt” ready to go. We haven’t done much but organizing so far, but one comment in yesterday’s class meeting did take me by surprise–maybe unreasonably, I don’t know. The students were signing up for seminar presentations and I remarked that they seemed to be avoiding Hopkins. “It’s because we’ve never heard of him,” one of them said. Never heard of Hopkins? Am I crazy to find this startling in a room full of 4th-year English Honours and Majors students? I’ve been trying to remember when I first came across Hopkins and what my first reading would have been. I’m thinking it was “God’s Grandeur” in my second-year Chaucer-t0-Yeats survey class, or maybe (since I was the kind of person who read around) I just encountered him while reading on my own. I always teach something by Hopkins when I’m doing a poetry class or a class with a poetry unit; I’m pretty sure that when I taught Close Reading (still my most challenging and rewarding pedagogical assignment) we did at least “God’s Grandeur” and “The Windhover” every year. It’s hard to think of poetry that better illustrates both the rewards and the limits of close reading! Dear readers, do you read–have you read–any Hopkins? How obscure is he these days?

To close, then, because I’m in a poetry frame of mind, here’s a study in contrasts from my ‘faith and doubt’ syllabus: my favourite section of In Memoriam (Tennyson, often belittled for his “pretty” language, shows he can be stark and restrained with the best of them) and a dose of Hopkins (ah! the ecstasy of that last moment). Go ahead: scan them both. You know you want to.

from In Memoriam A.H.H.


Dark house, by which once more I stand

Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more —
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge & shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast & with ah! bright wings.