Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh

The author of the blurb on the Oxford edition of Aurora Leigh does not love poetry. “Aurora Leigh is the foremost example of the mid-nineteenth-century poem of contemporary life,” it reads, a sentiment so bloodless that the Oxford editors had the sense to headline it with a quote from George Eliot: “no poem [of our own day] embraces so wide a range of thought and emotion, or takes such complete possession of our nature.” For Eliot to praise the scope of a poem says something about its power, and I can’t help but resent whichever editor thought it appropriate to add “of our own day” in brackets. True, it is implied by preceding language in Eliot’s review of the poem, but its presence in a blurb serves no further purpose than to remind readers that Aurora Leigh’s excellence is merely historical. It is good [for its time].

In my posts here, I have avoided talking about books I teach and research. But I’ll make an exception for Aurora Leigh, because unlike Shelley’s Frankenstein, Wordsworth’s Prelude, Dante’s Inferno, or any of the other books in my usual work rotation, Browning’s epic does not enjoy a wide contemporary fanbase, even among scholars. This is tragic, because Aurora Leigh is beautiful.

To try and properly explain why is the work of a book. Maybe someday I’ll write one. For now, I want to briefly describe two of the poem’s most remarkable qualities.

First: like Wordsworth’s Prelude, Browning’s poem is an internal epic. Its plot follows shifts in the thoughts and feelings of her heroine Aurora, not events. Since thoughts and feelings are so abstract, writers of long poems about them must find ways of keeping readers invested in the nuances of their development. And since they’re poets they should do so artfully, without lapsing into the ugly tedium of explanatory psychology. Wordsworth’s solution is to elevate mental abstraction into its own vatic language—to make abstraction sublime (“my brain / worked with a dim and undetermined sense / of unknown modes of being”).

Browning’s solution appears in Aurora Leigh’s opening lines. These read:

Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will now write for mine—
Will write my story for my better self
As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
Long after he has ceased to love you, just
To hold together what he was and is.

It is easy to miss, in Browning’s graceful concision, how well that final simile embodies an extraordinarily complex emotion. She is describing the feeling of using artifacts of abandoned friendship to draw lines of continuity between a person’s past and present, implying that who we were might be best remembered through the eyes of others—the more distant from us now, the better. That Browning uses this simile for Aurora’s autobiography makes it even richer. Her present (better) self looks back on her past’s passionate self-portrait as it addresses her future, and it is her very indifference to this past portrait, to whom she now feels like a stranger, that helps her see why she is still the same person. And I’m sure I’m missing further nuances.

Anyway, Browning’s way of handling abstractions is to cast each thought or feeling into a metaphor so vivid that it becomes concrete, its details as visible as the cuts in a clay statue. Given that the whole poem is about reconciling ideals and reality, abstract ardor and concrete action, it’s surely intentional. As Aurora remarks, “Every natural flower which grows on earth / Implies a flower upon the spiritual side, / Substantial, archetypal, all aglow / With blossoming causes” (AL 7.840-3).

Second: Aurora Leigh’s blank verse is flawlessly graceful. You often hear two things said about blank verse. First, it is the most conversational meter in English, the closest metric approximation of speech. Second, it is the language’s most elevated form, suitable for epic. These qualities are not inherently contradictory. But they are hard to combine. Doing so requires an ear for the grace of plain speech and a faith in its power, unaided by purple description. Browning has both. The poem’s opening again demonstrates it. Her final line, “To hold together what he was and is,” a set of very simple words, uses the inherent pace of each to gradually slow the line down. The long slow “o” of “hold” tumbles into the quick syllables of “together” before stilling in the final set of iambs, each one slower than the first: “what he was and is.” The iambs here feel like heavy pendulums swinging gradually to a stop. They are measured, stately, powerful—epic. Isolated, this line reads like prose; read in context, it shows how casual speech, when heard as metric, can be profoundly graceful.

I could go on, but this entry is already too long. To sum: Aurora Leigh is glorious and you should read it. I’ll sign off with a passage demonstrating both the qualities I mention above:

I did not write, nor read, nor even think,
But sat absorbed amid the quickening glooms,
Most like some passive broken lump of salt
Dropped in by chance to a bowl of oenomel,
To spoil the drink a little and lose itself,
Dissolving slowly, slowly, until lost.

(Aurora Leigh, Book 6, lines 1306-11)