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elizabeth barrett browning - aurora leigh

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Aurora Leigh

Feminist critics such as Gilbert and Gubar have detailed a literary history in which the 19th century woman writer defined her literary vocation against a set of cultural myths that “represented woman and writer, motherhood and authorship, babies and books as mutually exclusive categories” as Van Dyne says. Aurora Leigh is an epic of a literary woman which rather than putting the emphasis on the woman rather than genius. Unlike Fern’s Ruth Hall where the heroine says “no happy woman ever writes”, Aurora Leigh insists on the fact of female authorship, with the phrase “I write” repeated four times in the opening.

As a novel epic which allowed Elizabeth Barret Browning to deal with life as fully as prose, AL capitalizes upon the success of women in the novel. At the same time, as Stone notes, it defeats “the double bind whereby female achievement was devalued” as women writers were both confined to the private sphere, and declared limited. As AL is the culmination of EBB’s search for a poetics of contemporaneity, the poem itself can be seen as an Odyssean quest for poetic identity, charting Aurora’s development from stillborn poems to a new poetics for “a living, throbbing age”, breaking with the idea that women’s voice should be confined to the lyric mode. This development as Stone argues in part parallels Barrett’s own. Like EBB who critics often note had no literary models, Aurora has no mother tongue, her mother’s only words enjoining silence. As Hirsch argues, in the 19C the writing daughter’s quest for a ‘singular’ heroine produces plots in which the heroine disidentifies with the fate of other women, particularly mothers. Aurora’s ambivalence about her mother is illustrated in the often cited portrait passage, which as Reynolds argues is invested with the capacity to represent all forms of feminine incarnation, symbolizing the killing of women into art and the way “women exist in male imagination only as extremes” as Ellman says.

The Victorian fascination with the conjunction of women and corpses is linked to the paradigm of female life in death figures and the angel in the house. In order to become a poet, Aurora must deconstruct this dead self, the death portrait or heroic statue whose debilitating influence is illustrated in the Princess Marie, as the “marble eye” which “fed slowly from her living youth.” The images of creativity as failed maternity in al seem to suggest that as Barabara Johnson says it is as if male writing is by nature procreative, women’s infanticidal, what Suleiman describes a gender asymmetry accompanying the analogy between books and babies. Aurora ripping her verses up and finding no blood realises that “the heart in them was just an embyro’s heart/which never yet had beat”, rejecting the ‘light’ poetry Romney had predicted she would write as “gasps of make-believe galvanic life.”

Like Aurora who begins her career as a poet writing happy pastorals, EBB had used the “slight vehicle” of the ballad in order to explore the myths of 19c womanhood. While these ballads were read as light verse, they can be seen as repudiating victorian ideas to which they apparently appeal, subverting the Victorian retrogressive medievalism which represented women as “half-chattel and half-queen,” through feminist revisions in which the damsel usurps some of the knights functions. This can also be seen in AL, where the plot thwarts R’s attempts to be the rescuing knight. In the Romaunt of the Page, the page is a heroic figure who denounces the knight’s womanly ideal, rejecting the assertion that women are “unwomaned” if they leave their proper sphere. However the page also succumbs to the ideal of womanly virtue. As Mermin notes, the fact that the page hears her dead mother’s prayer, and the dirge for the abbess at the end which indicate Mother Nature approves her choice makes this an examination of the self-sacrifice and self-immolation associated with mothers in EBB’s poetry, in a way which can be compared to Bertha in the Lane, where Bertha’s stresses the immensity of her sacrifice in terms which foreground resentment “I have given/ all the gifts required of me.” AL, as Leighton argues, can be seen as continuing the work of the ballads, in rescuing women from the thrall of being ‘not seen’, the sense that “either woman is passive or she doesn’t exist” as Cixous put it. This is centrally represented in an early passage which reworks the debilitiating collusion of work and love of the corrine myth. A rejection of Romney and his offer of the poet’s wreath as ornament makes clear that Aurora’s “vocation is to be a poet not a statue” as Leighton put it, and that she has her own “work to do” in the real world.

Moers argues that denial of access to the real made it fascinating to women, making AL a poem of escape from both the marital home and the palace of art. As Kaplan has argued, it is possible to see AL in terms of feminist theory which argues that women’s language, because suppressed “re-enters discourse with shattering force.” AL’s poetics of the body, and its insistent evocation of the physical female can be seen as part of EBB’s desire to make female experience speak in her poem, as well as a way to claim both biological and cultural authority to speak, as du Plessis argues.

As Aurora feels her hair begin to “creep and burn”, EBB can perhaps be seen as anticipating the way the Medusa became the “passionate symbol for the woman poet’s liberated self” as Bennett notes. It is significant that what Cixous calls “the good mother’s milk” which flows through the poem flows first from the Medusa’s hair in the portrait, perhaps suggesting the possibility of reading AL in terms of ecriture feminine.

Although as Zonana argues, Aurora’s silencing her voice and allowing her blood to speak implies the poetics of the body seems to be a poetry of silence, suggesting the quietism some have seen as implicit in ecriture feminine, the expressive possibilities of woman writing herself is opposed in the poem to the “full-voiced rhetoric” which silences the voices of women like Marian. As in A Curse for a Nation where the angel enjoins a “curse from the depths of womanhood” in AL EBB connects her writing with the cause of silenced women. Aurora finds in Marian, the “unpermitted story of the age” in Leighton words. However as Leighton notes the feminist provocation of the poem is not in its referencess to prostitution which was a subject of debate at the time, but in the attitude of the speaker who sees the silence which permits evils as a sign of guilt, indicting the fact that women like Marian “can’t tell all [their] wrong/without offense”.

Unlike Gaskell’s Ruth, EBB rejects expiation. In this poem, as Mermin put it “speaking what isn’t supposed to be spoken is a sign of strength” as the poem enters into debates on all forbidden subjects, rushing into drawing-rooms “to meet without mask the humanity of the age”. Aurora’s finding Marian in this sense represents as her discovery of a living poetics articulated in the ars poetica of book 5.

As Kaplan notes EBB links women’s intervention into political debate and the role of the woman writer, taking the imperative to work articulated by Bodichon in 1857 as including poetry. Bringing “the personal and marginal into the genre of the public and patriarchal” as Firedman says, EBB fits the explosive material of the social novels of the 40’s to the epic, bringing into collusion Lady Geraldine’s aristocratic milieu and a grim underworld of cruelty in the Runaway Slave. As Mermin argues, middle class literary women’s protests on behalf of the poor reflect the likeness they perceived between their own situations and those of the more obviously disempowered. This connection can be seen in the use of what Leighton describes as the masculine imagery of trampling in Cry of the Children: “tread onward to your throne/amid the mart”, in Runaway Slave which describes the treading to clay of a whole race, and in Marian’s story, beaten down/ by the hoofs of maddened oxen. AL can be seen, like Casa Guidi Windows, as a story of “parental failure and maternal love” in Mermin’s words, making the case that women and poetry will change the world. As Stone points out, Romney’s compulsion to nurture is represented in female terms “the world tugging at my skirts”, like Aurora’s comment “note men! They are but women” suggesting that gender is not the ultimate reality. In the same way, Aurora’s socialistion by her aunt suggesting that, as de Beauvoir argues, in many ways one is not born but becomes a woman.

This sense of gender as a stylized repetition of acts makes social change not a matter of separate spheres but combination of the material and spiritual. Aurora’s vision in Du Plessis’s words posits that “true awakening will be brought about only by poetry and God not politics” that “it takes a soul/to move a body” and that the creation of a new world will be possible when everyone feels the “artists ecstasy.” This position can be seen as elitist, articulating a “topos of benign authority” as Deirdre David puts it, and in this regard critics such as Kaplan have pointed to the representation of the poor as nightmarish “lumpen motley”. However, as Mermin points out, EBB’s claim for the renovating force of poetry can be seen as revolutionary in its implicit claim that the true subject of poetry belongs to the woman’s sphere. This idea can be traced back to A Poet’s Vow which despite its focus on great men sees the distinguishing mark of poets, as of women, is that they bleed, suggesting that the source of poetry is not the prince’s quest for the princess but Christ’s vicarious suffering. In AL this can be seen in what Stone argues is the inversion of the chivalric romance as woman is represented as knight errant “woman’s trade/to suffer torment for another’s ease.”

Aurora’s attempt to rescue Marian is a vision of the knightly quest, although significantly she first leads and then is led, paralleling the chiasmic structure of the poem as a whole. This foregrounding of the circle as a privileged female form is evident in Aurora and Marian’s return to Florence. As Friedman says the significance of the mother is shown in the structural circularity which centers on the mother as the site of preoedipal desire. In this sense, the symbolism of being two mothers suggests not a capitulation to the Victorian ideal of motherhood but in Wyatt’s words the “fantasy of a nurturant family” in women’s writing “where responsibility for nurturing is extended to a whole circle of mothering people” and “even when the mother is not there, the circle remains” its diffuse bonds extending to a circle of nurturing people. In AL, the idea that women and poetry can change the world results in a vision of a New Jerusalem, maternal love and the artisit’s ecstasy “blowing all class-wall’s level as Jericho”. That this is Aurora’s vocation is underscored when Romney realises “art’s a service.”

This reinterpretation of the artists role as self-sacrifice aligns Aurora’s work with feminine ideology, as Du Plessis points out, culminating in the articulation of a Victorian aesthetic of service at the end. However as Gilbert and Gubar have noted Aurora’s vow to work for Romney doesn’t obliterate the poem’s revolutionary impulses, and in fact allows Aurora to claim both the hero’s traditional reward of success and the heroine’s reward of marriage. In contrast to Tennyson’s The Princess which ends with the hero saying “Lay thy sweet hands in mine; and trust to me” AL ends with a reversal of gender roles, Romney telling Aurora to “work for two, as I for two shall love.”

Ultimately, women’s role in the modern world, the double-breasted Mother Age which EBB makes shockingly literal is redefined as Aurora enters the public space. Aurora as the prophet of revelation speaks the last word, the vision of the celestial city is hers.



written: 2004
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