Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh brings the role of women to the fore in addressing the capabilities of the Victorian poet. Like Tennyson's "Lady of Shallot" Elizabeth Barrett Browning identifies how the genre of romance is a tradition dominated by patriarchal iconography. But unlike Tennyson's poem, which reveals to great dramatic effect how romance ultimately destroys female agency, Browning dismisses the genre altogether. Her rationale, as laid out in this famous passage from Book V, articulates a modern role for the female artist:
But poets should
Exert a double vision; should have eyes
To see near things as comprehensively
As if afar they took their point of sight,
And distant things as intimately deep
As if they touched them. Let us strive for this.
I do distrust the poet who discerns
No character or glory in his times,
And trundles back his soul five hundred years,
Past moat and drawbridge, into a castle-court,
To sing — of, not of lizard or of toad
Alive i' the ditch there, — 'twere excusable,
But of some black chief, half knight, half sheep-lifter,
Some beauteous dame, half chattel and half queen,
As dead as must bee, for the greater part,
The poems made on their chivalric bones;
And that's no wonder: death inherits death.
Nay, if there's room for poets in this world
A little overgrown, (I think there is)
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne's, — this living, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passions, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights at Roncesvalles.
As her touchstones for understanding romance, Browning might have had Walter Scott's popular metrical tales and historical novels in mind, or tangentially, Lord Bryon's oriental poems. Both writers seek to portray another age and another place rather than England's here and now. The poet's double vision, by contrast, offers a bi-focal lens for viewing its narrative world. The poet renders seemingly foreign objects in intimate detail just as the immediate and familiar receives similar attention. The problem with romance is that it mystifies the unfamiliar or the ancient while ignoring what Browning considers the pressing concerns of modern life. To call the proverbial knight in shining armor a "half knight, half sheep-lifter," or the beautiful damsel in distress "half chattel and half queen," is to point up the way romance clouds the lived relations of social life. Knights are less heroes than they are rustic sheep herders; woman are more properly the possessions of male authority than they are the agents of their own monarchical power. Browning would instead have the poet portray the impassioned, yet unheralded modes of daily life as lived "betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms." What matters little in depicting "this living, throbbing age" is the need to turn the world's ills into the stuff of "heroic heat." Rather it is the raw ambitions of an age that interest the poet.
From this vantage, I would want to explore further how the female poet reads through the symbolic displacements that steer the popular imagination towards romance and away from life in the drawing-room. Said differently, how does Browning envision the female poet "unmasking" the myths that the patriarchic culture would tell about itself? Conversely, how is Aurora Leigh surrounded by and ultimately tasked with normative models of female sociability?
1. In what way does Aurora Leigh resemble a novel of manners, guided by a recognizable marriage plot?
2. Besides Aurora herself, what other models of femininity does Browning set up in the characters of Aurora's Aunt, Marian Erle, Lady Waldemar, and the biblical example of Mariam?
3. How would Romney's commitment to social justice mar Aurora's poetic capabilities?
4. How does Browning gender the possibilities for the "full-veined, heaving, double-breasted age?"
Last modified 3 October 2006