he Saturday Review's assessment of Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh opens with several vehement declarations, the first of which proves perhaps most shocking to today's reader: "The negative experience of centuries seems to prove that a woman cannot be a great poet . . . Mrs. Browning's poem is open to criticism in all its three component parts, of fable, manners, and diction." The critic's primary complaint lies in Barrett Browning's choice and execution of the novel-poem genre: she has "failed in the attempt to achieve several simultaneous impossibilities. A novel in blank verse, containing twelve thousand lines, is in itself alarming to an ordinary reader." The reviewer continues by assailing her use of metaphors throughout the poem: "an unbroken series of far-fetched metaphors indicates a deliberate exercise of ingenuity which is in itself essentially prosaic." According to the critic, Aurora expresses herself in "long strings of allusive phrases" and Romney Leigh seems "equally incapable of calling a spade, in plain language, a spade." As readers unfamiliar to the climate into which Aurora Leigh appeared, this review allows us to understand the general feeling of nonacceptance among contemporary critics of Barrett Browning's unconventional attempt at the "novel-poem".
The columnist for The Westminster Review, however, finds considerably less to criticize with regard to choice and use of genre and suggests that contemporary minds welcome innovations: "At the present day such deviations, in Art at least, are not apt to be harshly judged. The age is past when critics presumed to lay down rules for poetry, strict as the dogmas of heraldry, and more meaningless. . .We favour an artist who has ventured on a new method, or sought to evolve a new design; let him but keep within the bounds of reason, he obtains the praise of originality." In contrast to the critique in The Saturday Review, the critic from The Westminster Review finds that Barrett Browning crosses the "bounds of reason" with decidedly less severity. "The general success of this effort is remarkable," declares the Westminster Review. But here, too, the reviewer observes defects, "diffusive style" and problematic metaphors among the most discussed: "Mrs. Browning's greatest failure is in her metaphors: some of them are excellent, but when they are bad — and they are often bad, — they are very bad." Although the reviewer believes that "the poem contains passages of concentrated beauty and sustained grandeur, enough to establish half a dozen reputations," the "novel-poem" as a whole cannot receive acceptance.
An additional objection voiced by contemporary critics lies in Barrett Browning's choice of issues: "Life at a college, in a hospital, or in a special pleader's chambers, would furnish more interesting pictures to the world at large," The Saturday Review observes. But the suggestion of a lack of universality in the poem merely introduces another complaint: "The philosophy of the poem is its least valuable part. It amounts to a vague intimation that some socialist theory yet undiscovered may, under the mysterious inspiration of Art, hereafter correct what are too hastily assumed to be the gratuitous evils of the world." This dissatisfaction with Barrett Browning's supposed message suggests to today's student that perhaps contemporary readers failed to recognize the importance of Aurora Leigh's statements about women's struggle for freedom and identity.
The Westminster Review also finds fault with Barrett Browning's supposed intent: "Poetry about poetry is the last thing to descend to the people. We suspect the large sale of Aurora Leigh has done but little to renovate or purify the alleys of London." Aurora Leigh may not have given strength to the working classes in a manner comparable to Dickens or Gaskell, but the strength Barrett Browning's work added to women and women artists' activity in society merits comment. Although only marginally comprehended by contemporary reviewers, Aurora Leigh's treatment of crucial issues would earn it the distinction of "masterpiece" among later critics.
The Saturday Review 2 (December 27, 1856), 776-78.
The Westminster Review 12 ( October 1, 1857), 399-415.
Last modified 1993