Aurora Leigh

Virginia Woolf

BY ONE OF THOSE IRONIES of fashion that might have amused the Brownings themselves, it seems likely that they are now far better known in the flesh than they have ever been in the spirit. Like so many other Victorian worthies they have been transformed in the past few years into figures of romance, passionate lovers with curls and side whiskers, peg-top trousers and sweeping skirts. In this guise thousands of people must know and love the Brownings who have never read a line of their poetry. They have become two of the most conspicuous figures in the bright and animated procession which, thanks to our modern habit of printing letters and writing memoirs and sitting to be photographed, keeps step with the paler, subtler, more obscure shades who, in times gone by, lived solely between the pages of their books. Henceforward the history of English literature will be accompanied by the pageant of English writers—Tennyson with his wideawake, Swinburne with his balloon of red hair, George Eliot, elongated and equine, Stevenson, romantic in tropical shirt sleeves, Meredith, Hardy, Oscar Wilde, Whistler—we know them all by their clothes, by their habits, by their private tastes and vices even if we have never read their books. To such immortality—and we can hardly disparage it if we approve of telephone and airplane—the Brownings laid themselves particularly open. Their story, exploited in a popular current play, appeals to all that is dramatic and romantic in our natures. He must be dull, blind, and no better than a bookworm who does not pore with delight over the picture of tiny Miss Barrett issuing one September morning in 1846 from Wimpole Street with the spaniel Flush under one arm and the maid Wilson following behind to meet Browning, Italy, health, and freedom in the church round the corner.

But it cannot be denied that the works of the Brownings have lost lustre even as much as their persons have gained it. “Sordello,” “The Ring and the Book,” and “Men and Women,” “Pippa Passes” and the rest are said, if we interpret the ripples on the surface correctly, to have lost their vigor, their resonance, their significance. The modern verdict begins to hint that Robert Browning was a commonplace, hearty, middle-class poet who smothered a breezy and essentially shallow mind under a tangle of untidy verbiage, which it is no longer worth anybody’s while to sort and part in order to find the rather dubious treasures concealed within. As for Elizabeth Barrett Browning her fate as a writer is even worse. 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. Christina Rossetti 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 pass 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 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.

Books were to her not an end in themselves but a substitute for living.

If therefore we take “Aurora Leigh” from the shelf and open it, it is not so much in order to read it as to muse with kindly condescension over this token of bygone fashion: it is not a book but a dusty mantle with fringes and furbelows that our grandmothers actually wore; a cluster of wax fruit that they stood in a glass case on the drawing-room table among albums, views of Jerusalem, and handsome models of the Taj Mahal carved in alabaster. But to the Victorians, undoubtedly, the book was very dear as a book. Thirteen editions of “Aurora Leigh” had been demanded by the year 1873. And, to judge from the dedication, Mrs. Browning herself was not afraid to say that she set great store by it—“the most mature of my works,” she calls it, “and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered.”

From a glance at her letters we shall see that she had had the book in mind for many years. She was brooding over it when she first met Browning, and her intention with regard to its form was almost the first of those confidences about their work which the lovers delighted to share—“my chief intention,” she wrote, “just now is the writing of a sort of novel-poem… running into the midst of our conventions, and rushing into drawing rooms and the like, ‘where angels fear to tread’; and so, meeting face to face and without mask the Humanity of the age, and speaking the truth of it out plainly. That is my intention.” But for reasons which later become clear, she hoarded her intention throughout the ten astonishing years of escape and happiness, and when at last the book appeared in 1856 she might well feel that she had poured into it the best that she had to give. Perhaps the hoarding and the saturation which resulted have something to do with the surprise that awaits us. At any rate, we cannot read the first twenty pages of “Aurora Leigh” without becoming aware that the Ancient Mariner who lingers, for unknown reasons, at the porch of one work and not of another has us by the hand, and makes us listen like a three years’ child while Mrs. Browning pours out in nine Books of blank verse the story of Aurora Leigh. Speed and energy, forthrightness and complete self-confidence—these are the qualities that hold us enthralled. Floated off our feet by them we learn how Aurora was the child of an Italian mother “whose rare blue eyes were shut from seeing” her when she was scarcely four years old. Her father was “an austere Englishman, / Who, after a dry lifetime spent at home / In college-learning, law, and parish talk / Was flooded with a passion unaware,” but died too, and the child was sent back to England to be brought up by an aunt. The aunt, of the well-known family of the Leighs, stood upon the hall step of her country house dressed in black to welcome her. Her somewhat narrow forehead was braided tight with brown hair pricked with gray; she had a close, mild mouth; eyes of no color; and cheeks like roses pressed in books, “Kept more for ruth than pleasure,—if past bloom / Past fading also.” The lady had lived a quiet life, exercising her Christian gifts upon knitting stockings and stitching petticoats “Because we are of one flesh, after all, / And need one flannel.” At her hand Aurora suffered the education that was thought proper for women. She learnt a little French, a little algebra; the royal genealogies of Oviedo; the internal laws of the Burmese empire; by how many feet Mount Chimborazo outsoars Teneriffe; what navigable river joins itself to Lara; and what census of the year five was taken at Klagenfurt; also how to draw nereids neatly draped, to spin glass, stuff birds, and model flowers in wax. For the aunt liked a woman to be womanly. Of an evening she did cross-stitch and embroidered a shepherdess with pink eyes owing to some mistake in her choice of silks. Under this torture of education, the passionate Aurora complained, certain women have died; others pine; a few who have, as Aurora had, “relations with the Unseen,” survive, and walk demurely, and are civil to their cousins, and listen to the vicar, and pour out tea. But also they retire to their bedrooms. For Aurora was blessed with a little room papered in green, with a green carpet and green curtains to the bed. All the world outside was green, in the tame manner of the English countryside. There was a green lime tree, green turf, green elms. The sun set behind a distant ridge, and if you looked out at sunset you saw the sheep run along the outline, small as mice. And then her Cousin Romney called to walk with her, or the painter Vincent Carrington, “Whom men judge hardly as bee-bonneted, / Because he holds that, paint a body well, / You paint a soul by implication.” With them sometimes she talked; but her chief escape was provided by books, books, books! “I had found the secret of a garret-room / Piled high with cases in my father’s name, / Piled high, packed large,—where creeping in and out,... / Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs / Of a mastodon,” she read and read. The mouse indeed took wings and plunged, for “It is rather when / We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge / Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound, / Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth— / ’Tis then we get the right good from a book.” And so she read and read.

This hasty abstract of the first book of “Aurora Leigh” does it, of course, no justice, but having gulped down the original much as Aurora herself advises soul-forward, headlong, we find ourselves in a state where some attempt at analysis and the ordering of our multitudinous impressions becomes imperative. The first of these impressions and the most pervasive is the sense of the writer’s presence. Through the voice of Aurora, the character, the circumstances, the idiosyncrasies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning ring in our ears. Mrs. Browning could no more conceal herself than she could control herself, a sign no doubt of imperfection in an artist, but a sign also that life has impinged upon art more than life should. Again and again in the pages we read, Aurora the fictitious seems to be throwing light upon Elizabeth the actual. The idea of the poem, we must remember, came to her in the early Forties, when the relation between a woman’s art and a woman’s life was at its closest, so that it is impossible for the most austere critic of that work not to take into account the circumstances under which it was done. And, as everybody knows, the life of Elizabeth Barrett was of a nature to affect the most authentic and individual of gifts. Her mother died when she was a child; she plunged, under the guidance of family friends, headlong into the classics and read privately and profusely; her favorite brother was drowned; her health broke down; she was immured by the mad tyranny of her father in a sick room in Wimpole Street; and after years of almost conventual seclusion she slipped out at the age of forty and married a poet. Such are the facts, and the effect of those facts upon her deserves close scrutiny by those who read “Aurora Leigh.” She herself has described it.

“I have lived only inwardly,” she wrote, “or with sorrow, for a strong emotion. Before this seclusion of my illness, I was secluded still, and there are few of the youngest women in the world who have not seen more, heard more, known more, of society, than I, who am scarcely to be called young now. I grew up in the country—had no social opportunities, had my heart in books and poetry, and my experience in reveries. My sympathies drooped towards the ground like an untrained honeysuckle…. It was a lonely life, growing green like the grass around it. Books and dreams were what I lived in—and domestic life only seemed to buzz gently around, like the bees about the grass. And so time passed and passed—and afterwards, when my illness came… and no prospect (as appeared at one time) of ever passing the threshold of one room again; why then, I turned to thinking with some bitterness… that I had stood blind in this temple I was about to leave—that I had seen no Human nature, that my brothers and sisters of the earth were names to me, that I had beheld no great mountain or river, nothing in fact…. And do you also know what a disadvantage this ignorance is to my art? Why, if I live on and yet do not escape from this seclusion, do you not perceive that I labour under signal disadvantages that I am, in a manner, as a blind poet? Certainly, there is a compensation to a degree. I have had much of the inner life, and from the habit of self-consciousness and self-analysis, I make great guesses at Human nature in the main. But how willingly I would as a poet exchange some of this lumbering, ponderous, helpless knowledge of books, for some experience of life and man, for some…” She breaks off, with three little dots, and we may take advantage of her pause, to turn once more to “Aurora Leigh.”

What damage had her life done her as a poet? A great one, we cannot deny. For it is clear, as we turn the pages whether of “Aurora Leigh” or her letters—one often echoes the other—that the mind which found its natural expression in this swift and chaotic poem about real men and women was not the mind to profit by solitude. A lyrical, a scholarly, a fastidious mind might have used seclusion and solitude to perfect its powers. Tennyson asked no better than to live with books in the heart of the country. But the mind of Elizabeth Barrett was lively and secular and satirical. She was no scholar. Books were to her not an end in themselves but a substitute for living. She raced through folios because she was forbidden to scamper on the grass. She wrestled with Aeschylus and Plato because it was out of the question that she should argue about politics with live men and women. Her favorite reading as an invalid was Balzac and George Sand and other “immortal improprieties” because “they kept the colour in my life to some degree.” Nothing is more striking, when at last she broke the prison bars, than the fervor with which she flung herself into the life of the moment. She loved to sit in a café and watch people passing; she loved the arguments and politics and strife of the modern world. The past and its ruins, even the past of Italy and Italian ruins, interested her much less than the theories of Mr. Hume the medium, or the politics of Napoleon, Emperor of the French. Italian pictures, Greek poetry roused in her a clumsy and conventional enthusiasm in strange contrast to the original independence of her mind when it applied itself to the affairs of the moment.

It is a masterpiece in embryo: a work whose genius floats diffused and fluctuating in some prenatal stage.

Such being the natural temper of her mind, it is not surprising that even when she was triply imprisoned by sex, health, and her father in a bedroom in Wimpole Street it was her intention to write a novel-poem. But her circumstances forbade. She was as she said “a blind poet.” She had seen no human nature. She had lived entirely alone, guessing at what was outside and inevitably magnifying what was within. The loss of Flush the spaniel affected her as the loss of a child might have affected another woman. The tap of ivy on the pane became the thrash of trees in a gale. Every sound was enlarged, every incident exaggerated, for the silence of the sick room was profound and the monotony of Wimpole Street was intense. Wisely she waited until her escape gave her some measure of proportion and knowledge. But it cannot be doubted that the long years of seclusion had done her irreparable damage as an artist, so that when at last she was able to rush “into drawing rooms and the like,” and meet “face to face without mask the Humanity of the age,” and speak “the truth of it out plainly,” she was too weak to stand the shock. Ordinary daylight, current gossip, the usual traffic of human beings left her exhausted, ecstatic, and dazzled into a state almost of intoxication.

“Aurora Leigh,” the novel-poem, is not therefore the masterpiece that it might have been. Rather it is a masterpiece in embryo: a work whose genius floats diffused and fluctuating in some prenatal stage waiting the final stroke of creative power to bring it into being. Stimulating and boring, ungainly and beautiful, monstrous and brilliant all by turns, it still nevertheless rouses our interest and respect. For it becomes clear as we read that, whatever Mrs. Browning’s faults, she was one of those rare people who risk themselves adventurously and disinterestedly in an imaginative life which is independent of their private lives and demands to be considered on its own account. Her “intention” survives; the interest of her theory redeems much that is faulty in her practice. If we may abridge and simplify Aurora’s own argument in the fifth Book of her poem, her reasons for attempting to write a novel-poem run something like this. The sole work of poets, she said, is to present their own age, not Charlemagne’s. More passion takes place in drawing rooms than with Roland and his knights at Roncesvalles. “To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce, / Cry out for togas and the picturesque, / Is fatal,—foolish too.” For living art presents and records true life, and the only life we can truly know is our own.

But what form, she asks, can a poem upon modern life take? The drama is impossible, for the standard of public taste has sunk so low that only servile and docile plays have any chance of success. Moreover, what we (in 1846) have to say about life is not fit for “boards, actors, prompters, gaslight and costume”; our stage is now the soul itself. Therefore—but here Aurora had to confess that though she can see what she wishes to do, what she actually does falls short. All she can say is that she has wrung her lifeblood on to every leaf of her book. As for the rest, “Let me think / Of forms less, and the external. Trust the spirit, . . . / Keep up the fire / And leave the generous flames to shape themselves.” And so the fire blazed, the flames shaped themselves.

The desire to deal with modern life in poetry was not confined to Miss Barrett. Robert Browning said that he had had the same ambition all his life. Coventry Patmore’s “Angel in the House” and Clough’s “Bothie’’ were both to precede “Aurora Leigh” by some years. The novelists, after all, were dealing triumphantly with modern life in prose. “Jane Eyre,” “Vanity Fair,” “David Copperfield,” “Cranford,” “The Warden,” “Scenes of Clerical Life,” “Richard Feverel,” all trod fast on each other’s heels in the twelve years between 1847 and 1859. The poets may well have felt, with Aurora Leigh, that modern life had an intensity, a beauty, and an ugliness of its own. Why should all these spoils, they asked naturally, fall to the lot of the prose writers? Why should the poet be forced back to the remoteness of Charlemagne and Roland, the toga and the picturesque, when Jane Eyre and Lord Steyne and Peggotty and the battle of Waterloo and the humors and ironies of village life, drawing-room life, club life, and street life all cried aloud for celebration? It was true that the old form in which poetry had dealt with life—the drama—was obsolete; but was there none other that could take its place? Mrs. Browning, convinced of the divinity of poetry, pondered, seized as much as she could of actual experience, and then at last threw down her challenge to the Brontës and the Thackerays in blank verse. It was in blank verse that she gave her proof that the poets need not trundle back five hundred years, “past moat and drawbridge, into a castle court” but can step out boldly into the streets of Shoreditch and Kensington; her testimony that they need not only sing of knights and dames but can also celebrate my aunt and the vicar, Romney Leigh and Vincent Carrington, Marian Erle, Lord Howe, and Aurora Leigh. But can they?

Surely here, in the street and the drawing room, is a promising subject: modern life is worthy of the muse.

Let us see what happens to a poet when he poaches upon a novelist’s preserves and tries to give us not merely a lyric about his own feelings, or an epic about men and women in togas, but the story of many lives that move and change and affect each other and are inspired by all the interests and passions which are ours at this precise moment in the middle of the age of Queen Victoria. In the first place, there is the story; the tale must be told; and how is the poet to convey to us the necessary information that the hero has been asked out to dinner? As quietly, a novelist would say, and prosaically as possible. For example, “While I kissed her glove in a melancholy mood a note was brought saying that her father sent his regards and asked me to dine with them next day.” Emphasis is carefully avoided. But poetry with its raised voice and emphatic accent has to say:

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

—at which we laugh. The simple words have been made to strut and posture and take on an emphasis which they cannot bear without becoming ridiculous. Then, again, what will the poet do with dialogue? In modern life, as Mrs. Browning indicated when she said that our stage is now the soul, the sword has been superseded by the tongue. It is in talk, slow or rapid, pointed with wit, or incoherent with passion, in dialogue or soliloquy, that character is expressed and defined. It is by what Becky Sharp or Richard Feverel said that we know them and their position of the moment. But poetry when set to report the speech that winds in and out of the intricacies of character, and gives accent to the crisis is terribly impeded. Listen to Romney talking to his old love Marian about the baby which she has borne another man—

“May God so father me, as I do him,
And so forsake me, as I let him feel,
He’s orphaned haply. Here I take the child
To share my cup, to slumber on my knee,
To play his loudest gambol at my foot,
To hold my finger in the public ways”

—in short Romney rants and reels like any orator on a tub or like any of those Elizabethan heroes whom Mrs. Browning had so carefully warned off her modern drawing room. Blank verse has proved itself the most remorseless enemy of modern speech. Talk tossed up on the surge and swing of the verse becomes high, rhetorical, impassioned; and since the talk, for there is no action to stop it, goes on, the reader’s mind stiffens and glazes under the monotony of the rhythm. Following the lilt of her rhythm rather than the emotions of her characters, Mrs. Browning is swept on into generalization and declamation. 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. Change and development, the effect of one character upon another—all this is abandoned. The poem becomes one long soliloquy, and the only character that is known to us, and the only story that is told us, are the character and story of Aurora Leigh herself.

Thus if Mrs. Browning meant by a novel-poem a book in which character is closely and subtly revealed, in which the heart in its complexity is laid bare, in which the effect of one life upon another is displayed, in which a story unfalteringly unfolds itself, she failed completely. But if she meant rather to give us the sense of life in general, of people who are undoubtedly Victorians in substance wrestling with problems which are unmistakably Victorian in nature, all brightened and intensified and compacted by the fire of poetry, she succeeded. Aurora Leigh with her passionate interest in social questions, her ambitions as artist, her disabilities as woman, her longing for knowledge and freedom, is the true daughter of her age. Romney too, with his phalanstery and his earnest morality, is no less certainly a mid-Victorian gentleman who has thought about the social question and been converted, unhappily as it turned out, to the doctrines of Fourier. The aunt, the antimacassars, and the country house from which Aurora escapes are real enough to fetch high prices in a second-hand shop at this moment. The broad aspects of what it felt like to be a Victorian are seized as surely and stamped as vividly upon us as in any novel by Trollope or Mrs. Gaskell.

Indeed, if we compare prose novel and the novel-poem, the triumphs are by no means all to the credit of prose. As we rush through page after page of narrative in which a dozen scenes that the novelist would smooth out separately are pressed into one, in which pages of deliberate description are fused into a single line, we cannot help feeling that the poet has outpaced the novelist. Her page is packed twice as full as his. Characters too, if they are not shown in conflict but snipped off and summed up with something of the audacity of a caricaturist have a vigor and completeness that prose with its gradual approach cannot rival. The general aspect of the world—here a scene in a church, here a flower market, here a London sunset, here a suburb—the look of things seen from a height by a bird as it flies, are all conveyed by the compressions and elision of poetry and the emotional current of metre with a brilliancy and with a continuity that mock the prose writer and his slow accumulations of careful detail.

For these reasons “Aurora Leigh” remains with all its imperfections a book that still lives and can still be read. And when, after all, we think how dead, for all their merits, the plays of Beddoes and Sir Henry Taylor are, how dead in our time are the classical dramas of Robert Bridges, we may suspect that Elizabeth Barrett was right when she rushed into the streets and drawing rooms, armed so curiously with blank verse, and declared that here, where we live and work and have our being, is the true place for a poet. At any rate, her courage was justified in her own case. For her faults, both of nature and circumstance—her ignorance, her bad taste, her tortured ingenuity, her floundering and scrambling and confused impetuosity—have here space to spend themselves without inflicting a deadly wound; while her gifts of ardor and abundance, her brilliant descriptive powers, and her shrewd and caustic vein of humor when turned upon the life that she herself had seen and known, infect us with her own enthusiasm. We laugh, and we protest, and we find a thousand absurdities it may be, but we read to the end enthralled.

Yet perhaps the best tribute that we can pay to “Aurora Leigh” is that it makes us wonder why it has left no successors. Surely here, in the street and the drawing room, is a promising subject: modern life is worthy of the muse. And yet the rapid sketch that Elizabeth Barrett flung off when she leapt from her sofa and threw open the door upon her time, as if to tempt poets of greater skill and fortune to follow after, remains unfinished. The conservatism or the timidity of poets still leaves the chief spoils of modern life to the novelist. We have no novel-poem of the age of George the Fifth.

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) was an English novelist and essayist, known especially for Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and A Room of One’s Own.
Originally published:
June 1, 1931


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