Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Aurora Leigh

Before I talk about Aurora Leigh, here’s the second paragraph of Woolf’s essay “Aurora Leigh” (read aloud in my Brownings class yesterday, said to be FAMOUS).  Keep in mind that Woolf is writing from the literary perspective of 1932.

 . . . fate has not been kind to Mrs. Browning as a writer.  Nobody reads her, nobody discusses her, nobody troubles to put her in her place.  One has only to compare her reputation with Christina Rossetti’s to trace her decline.  Christina Rossetti mounts irresistibly to the first place among English women poets.  Elizabeth, so much more loudly applauded during her lifetime, falls farther and farther behind.  The primers dismiss her with contumely.  Her importance, they say, “has now become merely historical.  Neither education nor association with her husband ever succeeded in teaching her the value of words and a sense of form.”  In short, the only place in the mansion of literature that is assigned her is downstairs in the servants’ quarters, where, in company with Mrs. Hemans, Eliza Cook, Jean Ingelow, Alexander Smith, Edwin Arnold, and Robert Montgomery, she bangs the crockery about and eats vast handfuls of peas on the point of her knife.

Bangs the crockery!  I can only picture EBB with her long dark hair and some cumbersome black gown heavily shifting her way through a narrow passage between kitchen tables in a dark old kitchen taking pans—I know, VW says crockery—and hitting the sides of the tables with the dullness of church bells or dinner calls and maybe also grunting!  And the peas! 

This does remind me of a passage in Orlando where an unnamed writer who will never be named but is simply known to be Shakespeare writes in Orlando’s estate kitchen.

So let’s be serious.


This week in my Brownings seminar we’re reading EBB’s verse-novel Aurora Leigh, something with which EBB wanted to “touch this everyday life of our age” (this in a letter we’ve looked at in the back of our Norton edition, written to Mary Mitford on 30 December 1844).  So, along with references to the Industrial Revolution and other modernizations of poetic subject matter, EBB addresses the Woman Question and the Socialist Question—titles, our professor has told us, that are respectively used to refer to Victorian debates surrounding women’s rights or the growing class divide and poverty in industrial England.  Romney, Aurora’s cousin, speaks for a kind of approach to social discontent and poverty that is, as a class member pointed out, very much in the vein of how we think of utilitarianism (though this is anachronistic, we were told; utilitarianism came after the publication of AL and EBB is thinking more specifically of Continental social theorists such as Charles Fran├žois-Marie Fourier).  In a very interesting way, in Book II EBB has Aurora address Romney’s social zealotry and her struggle to be taken seriously as a woman writing through the Romantic idea of the individual: finding the universal in individual things, as Romantic poets do, means rejecting what are labelled as mathematical mass-scale social solutions, solutions which ignore the importance of sympathetic individual connections or specific circumstances in helping others.  As for the Woman Question, the Romantic Individual is taken up as a model for the fulfillment of the individual’s abilities and aspirations, regardless of sex; in refusing her cousin’s marriage proposal, Aurora answers                                             

  Whoever says

To a loyal woman, ‘Love and work with me,’

Will get fair answers if work and love,

Being good themselves, are good for her—the best

She was born for.  (2.439-43)


Anyhoo, this is all by way of leading up to what this post is really going to consist of (because it hasn't begun yet), my response on AL.  I'm posting the response because I haven’t been reading or thinking much about books that aren’t class-assigned.  And because the response is very much like something I would write here.  Though a little warning if you proceed: the response sounds somewhat confused in the paragraph about spaces.  My meaning can be worked out if you put in a little more effort that you should have to; I was writing at 5 in the morning.


. . . I stooped

And lifted the soiled garland from the earth,

And set it on my head as bitterly

As when the Spanish monarch crowned the bones

Of his dead love.  (Aurora Leigh 2.808-12)


Aurora crowns herself twice in Book II of Aurora Leigh.  After the first crowning, Aurora’s poetic ambitions are insulted by Romney, and her aunt casts Romney’s proposal and Aurora’s refusal in less lofty light than either did; Romney proposes out of a concern for Aurora’s material well-being and Aurora is no more than a contrary girl who resists her feelings (see 2.685-91).  Romney’s rival for Aurora, Aurora’s poetry, is not transcendent and eternal, but rather made transient, and low: Aurora’s aunt imagines Aurora wanting flirtatious “running knots in eyebrows” (2.663), echoing metaphors of immature poetry—“Many . . . /Hav[ing] strung their losses on a rhyming thread,/As children, cowslips” (1.946)—or else frivolous occupation—“I [Aurora] would . . . dance/At fairs on tight-rope” (2.253-4).  Upon crowning herself a second time, Aurora’s lofty poetic crown has been dragged through the earthly, the silly, the material, and is “soiled” by “the earth” on which it fell. 

The difference between the earthly and the transcendent—or rather, the way in which they are brought to bear on one another—is a central theme surrounding the usefulness or relevance of poetry as a vocation, and is the basis of Romney’s and Aurora’s debate in Book II. The time that elapses between Aurora’s first self-crowning and her second is, I think, related to the space in which earthly and transcendent intermingle.  Aurora addresses this space elsewhere as the province of the poet: “the artist keep[s] up open roads/Betwixt the seen and unseen” (2.468-9).  There is something unbearable about the lack of such of a space, a scenario in which “every heart-beat” can be set “down there in [a] bill” (2.788).   And Aurora’s alienation from Romney is pictured as a space between “divided rocks” (2.1246); it is an unnatural space that forbids communication between Aurora’s lofty ambitions and Romney’s earthly “missionariness” (1.435), “bar[ring] . . . mutual sight and touch” (2.1247).

I think it’s possible to take the crownings in Book II, and what elapses between them, as a microcosm of the novel.  In the time that elapses between one crowning and the next—between one stage of maturity and another—Aurora is exposed to that space in which the earthly and the transcendent are made to interact or are otherwise each shown to be insufficient when taken alone.  So, leading up to the second crowning, Romney proposes that Aurora “come down” and touch individuals among the multitude of earthly suffering, saying she’ll come to find in “every woman” her “mother’s face” (2.385, 2.390): it’s difficult to distinguish Romney’s vision from his accusation that Aurora’s lofty, individualistic poetry finds “A whole life at each wound” (2.187).  It’s also difficult to reconcile Aurora’s rounded poetic vision, in which “men plant tulips upon dunghills” (2.286), with her grief for her father, up in Heaven, where she imagines “Not even [her] father[ ] look[s] from work or play” to see who “‘cries’” below—Aurora (2.740-1).

The interpretation of the spaces and crownings as elements of a bildungsroman, or a k├╝ntslerroman, can be loosely linked to a basic analysis of Aurora’s metaphor of the “Spanish monarch” (2.211).  If Aurora is both the subject and object of her self-crowning, then is she the “Spanish monarch” or “his dead love” (2.212)? Can she be both? And, if so, what part of her is to die, and what to live on to crown that dead self? This crowning can be  compared to Aurora’s writing of her life, a task which also demarcates between selves, as early on Aurora claims to write for her “better [older] self” (1.4).

                At the same time, I think the self-crowning metaphor is perhaps more rich in interpretations than what I’ve suggested.  I think it may be connected to anxieties Aurora has about assimilation and agency—whether it is she or the poets who speak through her poetry (1.890-4).  And it is in some way informed by the wonder that precedes and blinds “Analysis,” in which “Being acted on and acting seem the same” (1.968).  These passages raise questions of agency that can be seen to feed back into Romney and Aurora’s debate through the opposition between individualistic transcendence and the social interdependence of the earthly state.  But I think there’s more to be thought about when it comes to the relationship of “Analysis” to the crowning metaphor—whether the individual figuration of the Spanish king and his dead love signals an analytical separation of subject and object.  Or if, in Book II, Aurora still contains herself through her self-crowning within that wonder of poetry that “know[s]not if the forests move or we” (1.970).

 Ultimately, what I’m getting at through the crowning metaphor is perhaps simply a version of the  question of what kind of perspective—on one’s agency, principles, and vocation—Aurora gets in writing on herself.