Sep 13, 2010

Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning: a Guest Post by Jenny

Note from Ana: First of all, happy Book Blogger Appreciation Week, everyone! I'm currently on a blogging hiatus, and so I'll have to miss out on the fun this year. But I hope you have a great time and appreciate the heck out of one another, as you all certainly deserve it. As I explained last week, a few lovely bloggers are taking care of my blog while I'm gone, and today's guest post is by Jenny from Jenny's Books.

Jenny is an excellent and incredibly funny writer (I'll let this story about her blue library card or her post tags speak for themselves). She's also someone I'll be eternally grateful to: she nudged me to read Dorothy L. Sayers, forbid me from starting with
Gaudy Night, and introduced me to the likes of Hilary McKay and Jean Webster (of Daddy-Long-Legs fame).

Jenny's post is about
Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barret Browning. You might remember that earlier this year I read and absolutely loved Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning's letters (also at Jenny's urging). Aurora Leigh is a book I've never posted about, but it's one that means the world to me - I can trace my love of all things Victorian directly to the class in which I read it. But I'm not the one who's supposed to be telling you all about it, so I'll shut up now and let Jenny convince you that Elizabeth Barrett Browning is as awesome as it gets.

Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett BrowningThe problem with kids today (don't you find?) is that they just don't write enough epic poetry. If only we could all be Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Her Aurora Leigh is a book-length poem about women and men, art and charity work, marriage and sexual mores, and the respective value of living by one's head or by one's heart, and it is absolutely marvelous. I would say the best way to advertise its charms is to display them at length, so here we go. The eponymous (how much do I love the word "eponymous"?) Aurora Leigh is an English-Italian orphan living in England with an English aunt, who
...had lived, we'll say,
A harmless life, she called a virtuous life,
A quiet life, which was not life at all,
(But that, she had not lived enough to know).
When Aurora is eighteen years old, her intensely practical and very well-intentioned cousin Romney proposes to her. It's a very St. John Rivers sort of proposal: he says that he wants to work to improve the lot of Man and desires Aurora as his helpmeet. But she refuses, saying that she wants to dedicate her life to writing poetry, which Romney considers a useless past-time, when there are people living in poverty that need to be helped. They have a smashing and eloquent argument about the relative values of his work and hers:
If your sex is weak for art [says Romney]
(And I who said so, did but honour you
By using truth in courtship) it is strong
For life and duty. Place your fecund heart
In mine, and let us blossom for the world
That wants love's colour in the grey of time.
To which Aurora replies:
For me,
Perhaps I am not worthy, as you say,
Of work like this!...perhaps a woman's soul
Aspires, and not creates! yet we aspire,
And yet I'll try out your perhapses, sir;
And if I fail...why, burn me up my straw
Like other false works--I'll not ask for grace....I
Who love my art, would never wish it lower
To suit my stature.
The poem takes us through years in Aurora's life, as she works to become a poet and Romney works to reform humanity through his social programs. His passion for social reform leads him to seek a wife among the lower classes, a humble girl called Marian Erle from a vagrant family, to prevent which nuptial bliss the (apparently) socially conscious Lady Waldemar applies to Aurora, now a successful London poet. Relatively successful:
I worked with patience which means almost power.
I did some excellent things indifferently,
Some bad things excellently.
You may be surprised to hear that Lady Waldemar is not as nice as she pretends to be. Aurora Leigh sees right through her ("Nay, go to the opera! Your love's curable.")

Browning is at her very best in this poem when she is writing about love and art. Knowing what I do about Elizabeth Barrett Browning--how she lived under the thumb of her oppressive father, reaching the outside world through her poems and correspondence, until she met Robert Browning and they eloped adorably--Aurora's struggles with her art are the strongest thing in the poem.
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.
As a reader, one of my favorite things is to read one book and realize that an author I like has read it before me. I like seeing lines of influence. Elizabeth Peters read Dorothy Sayers; Neil Gaiman read Hope Mirlees; they couldn't have written the books they wrote without reading these authors first. When I was reading Aurora Leigh, I was struck by how much of Aurora Leigh must have infiltrated the mind of LM Montgomery before she wrote her Emily series, my go-to books about authoressing when I was a wee lass. The themes are sort of the same anyway, the relative importance of love and art and doing the kind of work you were born to do ("Books succeed / And lives fail"), and the handling of them falls along strikingly similar (but not derivative) lines.

If you haven't read Elizabeth Barrett Browning before, a book-length poem may be an intimidating place to start. It intimidated me, but I sensibly read it one book at a time, until eventually I had read all nine. There were times when it dragged, because I didn't care for self-righteous Romney and his St. John ways. Browning's didacticism felt forced and stagey at times, which is kind of par for the course with Victorian writers. Set against this are her elegant turns of phrase and her often very modern-feeling lines.
This grows absurd! too like a tune that runs
I' the head and forces all things in the world,
Wind, rain, the creaking gnat or stuttering fly,
To sing itself and vex you;--yet perhaps
A paltry tune you never fairly liked.
Yeah, I know how that goes. I've got Carly Simon's "Mockingbird" running i' my head at the moment.


  1. First of all, Jenny, I love your library card post :) This book length poem definitely intimidates me, but I am intrigued because you and Ana both love it so much! I might just have to add it to the wish list :)

  2. I'm still a little scared to read this, but I actually think I'll be picking it up soon.

  3. Thanks for articulating so well the problem with kids today! Those newspaper articles that try to scare us about drugs, sex, and rock 'n roll ought to stop by here and find out the truth of the matter! :--) ...although, I must admit, after reading the excerpts, that I might prefer kids to be into the big 3 baddies rather than taking up your suggestion...

  4. I think you really have to work up a mood to enjoy epic poetry--but who can resist lines like "your love's curable"?

  5. Very cool post! I have not ever read anything by Browning, and though this does sound a little intimidating, it also sounds as though it's a really refreshing and interesting read. I am going to have to see if I can pick a copy up soon!

  6. A book long poem has me stunned. I am not good with poetry books, but I am intrigued.

  7. Regular old non-narrative poetry intimidates the HELL out of me, as does nineteenth century poetry, but I've had some previous luck with modern book-length poems. Perhaps this one might help me bridge the gap between the two?

  8. Boy, had I got this wrong! I always thought this was a Sensation novel! This does sound terrific though but I'm not all that good with poetry and one this size will probably just terrify me. Great review though.

  9. Just a moment....

    AURORA LEIGH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Oh I love this book. There I feel better.

    I liked Romney, because I thought she did a beautiful job of showing how fine the line IS between being devoted to a cause and self righteous and preachy. He kind of shows how hard it really is to be sincere about something like that - you're always fighiting the impulse to tell your own life story, instead of solving problems. In a sense, they are both doing the same thing throughout life - doing good things indifferently and bad things excellently. So there long conversation at the end (I won't spoil it) really resonated with me.

  10. At first I was like, Oh, this isn't my blog, I am not authorized to respond to comments on it; but then I felt rude. So, hi, everyone!

    Amy - Thanks! And do not be intimidated, really. I was too, but reading one book of the poem at a time helped a lot. I hope you do read it!

    Amanda - After your wild success with Sonnets from the Portuguese, how could you resist? :p Or if you are really intimidated, maybe read her love letters with Robert first. They are sweet.

    Jill - YOU ARE WELCOME. Although, yeah, I don't know if we want kids taking up epic poetry. There could quickly become a glut on the market.

    Jeanne - Not me--that was actually one of two lines in the poem that convinced me to read it in its entirety (the other being the thing about Aurora's aunt).

    Trisha - Thank you! :)

    Zibilee - I seriously have the world's biggest ever crush on both the Brownings. Their letters to each other make them seem so lovable and accessible, and now I find it much easier than I once did to read their stuff.

    Vivienne - I'm not the best at poetry books either. With collections of short poems, I quickly get bored and frustrated. Epic story-type poems are actually better for me.

    Memory - What modern book-length poems are out there? I'm so curious.

    Mae - This isn't exactly sensationy, but it does have things in common with books that are, and with Jane Eyre particularly. I noticed a lot of parallels there.

    Jason - YESSSSSSS! I love it so much too! I'm excited it's got other fans! And I LOVED the final scene. There were shades of Mr. Rochester to it, I thought at first, but the way they meet each other halfway is so gorgeous. I loved it.

  11. Thanks for this post. As someone whose writing mixes society and politics in with family life, I've always felt that Browning deserved more attention for Aurora Leigh, rather than (or maybe in addition to) her own love story.

  12. A couple of modern book-length poems of my acquaintance:

    PSYCHE IN A DRESS by Francesca Lia Block
    ASK THE DUST by Karen Hesse
    ANATOMY OF KEYS by Stephen Price

    ... and I know I've read at least two others, but they were pre-blogging so I don't have their titles noted down and I can't remember much about them. Blah.

  13. I came across a stanza of the poem in something else and was so intrigued that I decided to look it up and so landed here. When I first saw it's length I was going to give it up, but then read your post and am inspired to give it a try. (Plus, you have me with your first line!)

    And I get the bonus piece of trivia that Elizabeth Peters read Dorothy Sayers. Two of my favorite writers. I just like knowing that.

    I'm wondering if you have ever read the book, Possession? If you love the Brownings, I think you would enjoy it.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.