In the Fifth Book of Aurora Leigh Elizabeth Barrett Browning's protagonist Aurora contemplates the tradition of epic poetry and compares preceding ages — immortalized in epic poetry — with her own:
If there's room for poets in this world . . .
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne's - this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Than Roland with his knights at Roncevalles.
To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce,
Cry out for togas and the picturesque,
Is fatal, — foolish, too. King Arthur's self
Was commonplace to Lady Guenevere. [ll. 199-210, p. 142-143]
She wisely observes: "Ay, but every age / Appears to souls who live in it, / Most unheroic" (ll. 154-156). In contrast to those artists who glorify the past and disparage their own era, Aurora seeks, as a writer, to represent her own age and its heroic brilliance. In a comparable passage from The Warden in which the classical past of Greek tragedy is juxtaposed with the present, Trollope represents Eleanor as a modern Iphigenia and comically exposes her inability to sacrifice herself fully for the sake of her father, despite her earnest and noble intentions.
But Mary, the traitress, stood fast by the door, and permitted no such retreat. Poor Iphigenia!
And with a volley of impassioned love, John Bold poured forth the feelings of his heart, swearing, as men do, some truths and many falsehoods . . . and so at last, all her defenses demolished, all her maiden barriers swept away, she capitulated, or rather marched out with the honors of war, vanquished evidently, palpably vanquished, but still not reduced to the necessity of confessing it.
And so the altar on the shore of the modern Aulis reeked with no sacrifice. [154-155]
Both of these passages focus upon the celebrated literary traditions of the past in contrast with the present age. The theme of Browning's passage is that the poets ought to celebrate their own age, rather than shortsightedly idealize the heroic past, which was, after all, itself once the present. The theme of Trollope's passage is that pure and noble intent and idealized heroic virtue — such as that epitomized by the figures of Greek tragedy — are in reality often confronted by the deeper complexities of human nature and life. The comedy of the passage lies in Trollope's portrayal of Eleanor, as she unrealistically attempts to play the selfless role of Iphigenia but is instead overcome by the more appealing and persuasive forces of passion and love. Browning and Trollope use literary and historical allusions, which are very familiar to their readers, in order to elucidate their respective themes. This use of allusion strengthens their arguments by providing very specific, well-known examples that contrast with their present-day counterparts.
Browning refers to several historic figures, including Charlemagne and the Frankish commander, Roland, and also alludes to the legend of King Arthur and Lady Guenevere, which is traditionally set in the historic period following Britain's separation from the Roman Empire. Aurora specifically incorporates these allusions, which are concrete and celebrated examples of the past — both real and mythic — glorified in art, into her explanation to provide greater insights into the issue of past versus present. Artists revere what was once the present simply because it is antiquated and therefore seems "picturesque" and idyllic in comparison to the modern world. Aurora explains that this is purely a matter of perspective, as she dryly remarks: "King Arthur's self Was commonplace to Lady Guenevere." In response to those who particularly uphold the classical world as superior to the modern and believe the epic "died out / With Agamemnon and the goat-nursed gods" (ll. 139-140), she defends her age and "every age, Heroic in proportions" (ll. 151-152) and denies that the epic endures. The lack of appreciation of any era by its inhabitants is due, Aurora claims, to it "being beheld too close . . . ill-discerned / By those who have not lived past it" (ll. 166-167). However, Aurora argues that a true poet should "exert a double vision; should have eyes / To see near things as comprehensively / As if afar they took their point of sight" (ll. 183-185) and be able to discern the "character or glory in his times" (ll. 188-189). Thus, the poet's greatness lies in his or her far-reaching vision and faculties of perception, which allow one to perceive enduring qualities of an era that withstand the passage of time.
Like Browning, Trollope uses allusion as a means of comparison. Specifically, in Chapter XI of The Warden, appropriately titled "Iphigenia," Trollope likens Eleanor to Iphigenia, who was sacrificed on the shore of Aulis for the sake of her father, Agamemnon, in order to appease Artemis and allow the Greek fleets favorable winds to set sail from Aulis. Quixotic Eleanor valiantly resolves to "personally implore John Bold to desist from his undertaking" (138). However, she vows, "as a pure maiden . . . she could not appeal to his love, nor under such circumstances could she allow him to do so," as "there would be no sacrifice" in an agreement which allowed her such a personal reward (138). The comparison of Eleanor to Iphigenia is comic indeed, for, as the anonymous third-person narrator remarks to his readers:
Miss Harding was much younger than you are, and could not, therefore, know as you may do, to what dangers such an encounter might expose her. She may get kissed; I think it very probably that she will; but I give my solemn word and positive assurance, that the remotest idea of such a catastrophe never occurred to her as she made the great resolve now alluded to. (140)
Thus, the allusion to Iphigenia is essentially ironic because there exists such a disparity between Eleanor's noble and naïve intentions to sacrifice herself wholly as Iphigenia did and the actual outcome of her situation. Her lofty ideals of selfless love and self-denial for the greater good of her father are weakened under the powerful influence of Bold and her passionate love for him. Inevitably, good-intentioned and incredibly naïve, Eleanor must give way to her heart's inclinations, and she is "vanquished evidently . . . but still not reduced to the necessity of confessing it." By means of this episode featuring such a classical comparison, Trollope comically illustrates how people often idealistically desire to undertake noble actions of heroic proportions; however, the usual mortal outcome generally falls short of such grand ideals. Despite the complete selflessness of the act in theory, as she perceives it, which she believes justifies such a daring confrontation with Bold, in practice Eleanor does not sacrifice herself and does not relinquish her future with Bold. Concludes Trollope: "And so the altar on the shore of the modern Aulis reeked with no sacrifice."
The passages from Aurora Leigh and The Warden both contain elements of fantasy and realism. Browning's allusions include both historical figures — such as Charlemagne — and legendary figures — such as King Arthur and Lady Guenevere. By including them side-by-side, she defends both the real and the fantastic that figure in established literary traditions, specifically in epic poetry. Although Aurora Leigh is a modern epic poem of sorts written in blank verse and unfolding the lives of fictional characters, Browning addresses current and extremely relevant Victorian issues (and even alludes to Carlyle as a critic of the modern age). Thus, she speaks to real concerns and figures of her day and provides extremely insightful commentary on the writer's role in society. Similarly, Trollope portrays both Eleanor's thought process and her actions in a highly detailed manner. The lively and comically melodramatic scene between Bold and her is presented with thorough narration and a lighthearted tone. Trollope brilliantly employs realism as a style throughout the novel. However, his allusion to Iphigenia, a figure from Greek tragedy, and his satirically melodramatic narration add a subtle element of the fantastic to this episode.
Last modified 10 May 2003