Having reached the grand age of 14, Elizabeth Barrett peered back into the distant past. She recorded in her journal that, when she was nine, ‘works of imagination only afforded me gratification and I trod the delightful fields of fancy without any of those conscientious scruples which now always attend me when wasting time in frivolous pleasure.’ She is wiser now, but her scruples don’t lead her to renounce pleasure:
My feelings are acute in the extreme but as nothing is so odious in my eyes as a damsel famed in story for a superabundance of sensibility, they are carefully restrained! I have so habituated myself to this sort of continued restraint, that I often appear to my dearest friends to lack common feeling! – I do not blame them. They know me not and I feel a sort of mysterious pleasure in their mistake! –
The thrill comes not just from being misunderstood, but from her understanding of her own pleasure as a bit of an enigma. Elizabeth would continue to enjoy both the wilfulness and the mysteriousness of the feeling; the OED credits her with the invention of ‘pleasurehood’. That coinage occurs in an early poem which appears to be fretful about gratification. In her translation of St Gregory Nazianzen’s ‘Soul and Body’, she has the rhetorician pray for the right words, ones that ‘may flourish/Of which mine enemy would spoil me,/Using pleasurehood to foil me!’ But the poem’s own fondness for verbal flourishes isn’t easily disentangled from pleasurehood. Her writing often uses pleasure as a foil; more often, though, it wants to be foiled by pleasure.
A hundred years later Barrett Browning had become a damsel famed in story. In 1934 Virginia Woolf observed that ‘“Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” is glanced at perhaps by two professors in American universities once a year; but we all know how Miss Barrett lay on her sofa; how she escaped from the dark house in Wimpole Street one September morning; how she met health and happiness, freedom, and Robert Browning in the church round the corner.’ Lady Geraldine’s courtship had been drowned out by talk about Elizabeth’s. Aurora Leigh wasn’t faring any better. The first edition had sold out in a fortnight in 1856 and more than twenty reprints had come out by 1902, but after that there wasn’t another edition until 1978. ‘I don’t want any more of Aurora Leigh for the next century,’ Elizabeth had quipped when going through proofs for the fourth edition; the next century would oblige her. The poem Wilde had seen as ‘much the greatest work in our literature’, that Ruskin had called ‘the greatest poem which the century has produced in any language’, was nowhere to be found. ‘It is one of the longest poems in the world,’ Swinburne said, ‘and there is not a dead line in it.’ You can react to these testimonials with incredulity or amusement and still wonder why later generations didn’t bother to read her.
Modernism may be one explanation for this reversal in fortunes, but the image of the sickly invalid, the tyrannical father and the knight in shining armour have something to do with it too. People knew that Miss Barrett lay on her sofa, and this made them less inclined to know other things. In 1922 Amy Lowell imagined her as ‘stretched out upon a sofa’, ‘squeezed in stiff conventions’, and therefore ‘not herself so curious a technician/As to admit new-fangled modes of writing’. Barrett Browning was in fact a highly curious technician, as Woolf realised. Her essay on Aurora Leigh appeared when The Barretts of Wimpole Street still lit up Broadway, but Woolf wasn’t only interested in the poet’s life, her soft furnishings and her spaniel (she published Flush the following year). ‘Whatever Mrs Browning’s faults,’ Woolf noted, ‘she was one of those rare writers who risk themselves adventurously and disinterestedly in an imaginative life which is independent of their private lives and demands to be considered apart from personalities.’ Very few heeded this demand.
The early poetry isn’t adventurous. ‘I used to write of virtue with a large “V”, & “Oh Muse” with a harp – , & things of that sort,’ she confessed to Robert. Whether poetry should or could be in league with Virtue would continue to preoccupy her, but by the time Aurora asks ‘Is art so less a thing than virtue is?’ you feel she’s on the side of art regardless of which side art is on. In their selection of her writings, Josie Billington and Philip Davis have wisely decided not to include much from her early collections (Aurora Leigh occupies around two-thirds of the space the volume devotes to poetry). Still, what they do include occasionally glints with better things to come. The poet notes in her preface to The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838) that ‘The Romaunt of Margret’ was ‘intended to enforce’ the truth that ‘the creature cannot be sustained by the creature’. The ghostly figure that speaks to Margret tells her the man she loves is dead:
He lovëd none but thee!
That love is transient too.
The wild hawk’s bill doth dabble still
I’ the mouth that vowed the true.
These last lines don’t quite sabotage the moral they should be illustrating, yet the action of the wild hawk’s bill is delectable as well as monstrous. What comes through most strongly is her pleasure at seizing on this detail, and on this particular dance of vowels and consonants.
‘Mrs Browning was Elizabethan in her luxuriance and her audacity,’ Chesterton remarked. Edgar Allan Poe spoke of ‘the fervid rush and whirl of her genius’. Their essays are still the best on her poetry because they respond so fully to her appetite for risk, her dislike of verse that opts for ‘some safe sigh/Cooped up in music ’twixt an oh and ah, –’ as she puts it in Casa Guidi Windows. ‘Nothing is more remarkable about Mrs Browning’s work than the absence of that trite and namby-pamby elegance which the last two centuries demanded from lady writers,’ Chesterton continued. ‘If the phrase explain itself, she is far more a great poet than she is a good one.’ Aurora Leigh wouldn’t have required an explanation; she admits her early poems were ‘the worse done, I think,/For being not ill-done’. Barrett Browning often seemed to enjoy criticism more than praise, or to read criticism as a form of praise; it suggested to her that she was on to something. Chesterton’s commentary on what was ill-done is revealing in this respect:
When she was writing the poetry of self-abandonment she really abandoned herself with the valour and decision of an anchorite abandoning the world. Such a couplet as:
Our Euripides, the human,
With his dropping of warm tears,
gives to most of us a sickly and nauseous sensation. Nothing can be well conceived more ridiculous than Euripides going about dropping tears with a loud splash, and Mrs Browning coming after him with a thermometer. But the one emphatic point about this idiotic couplet is that Mrs Hemans would never have written it. She would have written something perfectly dignified, perfectly harmless, perfectly inconsiderable.
She dreams up similar tears on other occasions: ‘I hear my hot soul dropping on the lines in showers of tears –’, the speaker of ‘Lady Geraldine’s Courtship’ says. Such lines are driven by the same impulses that shape her more memorable writing. She said of Aurora Leigh that ‘the intention of the poem everywhere is to raise the spiritual above the natural’ – that may be its intention, but its intensity is felt most strongly when things or people are brought low. The orphan is soon all at sea:
the very sky
(Dropping its bell-net down upon the sea
As if no human heart should ’scape alive,)
Bedraggled with the desolating salt,
Until it seemed no more that holy heaven
To which my father went.
A few pages on, Aurora recalls diving into books to get at their ‘salt of truth’, setting herself against those who wanted to ‘dry out from my drowned anatomy/The last sea-salt left in me’. Later, in Italy, she imagines herself being absorbed by the darkening landscape, ‘like some passive broken lump of salt/Dropt in by chance to a bowl of oenomel,/To spoil the drink a little’. Aurora Leigh does not aspire to be a sweet poem – honeyed words, like honeyed wines, are usually mixed with other things. This writer is a saliferous creature.
Whenever the word ‘soul’ appears in Barrett Browning’s poetry, body fluids are not far away. As the loving couple kiss in ‘Bianca among the Nightingales’,
from such soul-height went
Such leaps of blood, so blindly driven,
We scarcely knew if our nature meant
Most passionate earth or intense heaven.
Such lines don’t raise the spiritual above the natural; they saturate one with the other. As the ending of Aurora Leigh draws near, the reader might be forgiven for surmising that it’s the thought of the wedding night, not simply the marriage of true minds, which causes the couple’s excitement. Thinking about how close they sat, ‘So close my very garments crept and thrilled/With strange electric life’, Aurora talks of the ‘hurtle of united souls’ and compares herself to an over-brimming wine-cup. Romney preaches about ‘the love of wedded souls’, yet smiles as he lingers on the figure of the ‘shadow-rose, upon the water of life … human, vital, fructuous rose’. Although he takes care to allude to the rose of Sharon in the Song of Solomon, this isn’t the only flower he has on his mind.
‘If it is not a complete and finished poem,’ the editors suggest of Aurora Leigh, ‘it is because its legacy is to make a start.’ Indeed, when Aurora recalls early on that she ‘stood/Woman and artist, – either incomplete,/Both credulous of completion’, you don’t feel particularly curious to know how it’s all going to turn out: the story, in any case, is dull. But Barrett Browning is one of the great beginners. Her starts are characterised by sudden jolts, rushes of blood, quickening pulses. Poetry is arousal, the shiver or throb of ‘life in a new rhythm’, and writing itself is a startling, sensual pleasure. This edition contains extracts from the courtship correspondence, and in one of her early letters to Robert she confesses:
Like to write? Of course, of course, I do. I seem to live while I write – it is life, for me. Why what is it to live? Not to eat and drink and breathe, … but to feel the life in you down all the fibres of being, passionately and joyfully. And thus, one lives in composition surely … not always … but when the wheel goes round and the procession is uninterrupted. Is it not so with you? oh – it must be so. For the rest, there will necessarily be a reaction, … and, in my own particular case, whenever I see a poem of mine in print, or even smoothly transcribed, the reaction is most painful. The pleasure, … the sense of power, … without which I could not write a line, is gone in a moment, and nothing remains but disappointment and humiliation.
The headlong rush of this – all dots and dashes, riffings and reworkings – is itself an avoidance of the smoothly transcribed. It brings to mind what Hippolyte Taine discerned in Aurora Leigh: ‘A system of notation … created from instant to instant, out of anything and everything’. The editors’ decision to take the first edition of the poem as their copy text is a good one (most recent editions reprint the revised 1859 edition, the last she worked on before her death in 1861). As they observe, the punctuation of the first edition feels more improvised, and it’s in tune with the reckless glee of some of the poem’s finest moments.
Elizabeth speaks of feeling life not ‘through’ or ‘in’ the fibres of being, but ‘down’ them, and the liquidity of Aurora Leigh – what its heroine refers to as ‘the rhythmic turbulence/Of blood and brain’ – is usually apprehended as a stirred and stirring depth. This feeling for the life of writing, for life while writing, is the poem’s real subject. Or perhaps it’s what the poem wants most to be about. Aurora and her creator experience delight as a blend of agitation and revelation, and the composition of poetry is a route both to discomposure and to groundedness:
And as the soul
Which grows within a child, makes the child grow, –
Or, as the fiery sap, the touch from God,
Careering through a tree, dilates the bark,
And rough with scale and knob, before it strikes
The summer foliage out in a green flame –
So life, in deepening with me, deepened all
The course I took, the work I did.
This is characteristic of the way things are made to explode rather than unfold in the poem, of the way it seeks to portray process as being achieved during a radiant instant.
I’ve been discussing the poem as though it doesn’t mention ‘Melbourne’s poor-bills, Ashley’s factory bills’, or ‘Some learned member of the Institute’, or ‘Fourier’s void,/And Comte is dwarfed, – and Cabet, puerile’. The feminist revaluation of Barrett Browning’s work that gained momentum in the 1980s tended to focus on her poetry’s socio-political commitments, its need to be ‘of use’ (‘there’s the point/We sweep about for ever in argument’, Aurora observes). Recent editions of the poems contain appendices on ‘Religion and Factory Reform’, ‘Transatlantic Abolitionism’, ‘The Italian Question’ and ‘Prostitution’. As well as providing notes on Melbourne, Ashley, Fourier, Comte, Cabet and all the rest, this edition includes protest poems like ‘The Cry of the Children’, ‘The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point’ and ‘Lord Walter’s Wife’, though the blurb claims that the attention paid to Barrett Browning’s place in a female tradition has tended to ‘rigidify’ her contribution to English literary culture. The editors suggest that their selection tells ‘the Story of a Poet’, and that this story involved ‘less the externals of life than the sheer internal spirit configuring itself in any shape it could find’. The propulsive style of the text, rather than the pressure of context, is their priority.
The volume’s longest footnote on the poetry is a case in point. It doesn’t gloss Aurora Leigh’s renowned attempt to ‘catch/Upon the burning lava of a song,/The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age’, but examines the lines just after these, which begin: ‘What form is best for poems?’ Billington and Davis quote from manuscript versions to show that Barrett Browning’s ‘second thoughts were as improvised as her first ones’, and that the shape of the lines is ‘found or realised, as much as aimed for’. It’s a helpful distinction; Aurora Leigh is a poem about not being able to contain yourself, about ‘realising’ yourself by letting the impromptu have its way with you and your plans. In her letters Barrett Browning speaks of ‘an obliquity of the will’, of how poetry ‘is like a will to be written’, and the first lines of Aurora Leigh allow the unwitting and the wilful to collide:
Of writing many books there is no end;
And I who have written much in prose and verse
For others’ uses, will write now for mine, –
Which is not to say that she’s sure about what her uses are, or that this uncertainty is experienced as a predicament. ‘Aurora, let’s be serious,’ Romney later implores, ‘work for ends, I mean for uses,’ but the poem keeps postponing its assent to his version of seriousness. Romney sounds like some earlier reviewers of Barrett Browning’s poetry. In 1850 G.H. Lewes observed that, although she had been gifted with the ‘power of song’, she had little to sing: ‘Her playing is like that of a great artist, who precludes the composition of some noble work by running his fingers over the keys to try the capabilities of the instrument.’ This is one of those criticisms at which she would have bristled, yet would also have secretly enjoyed. Despite all the talk about works, aims, uses and causes, it’s fitting that the OED’s only recorded instance of the word ‘disutilised’ appears in Aurora Leigh.
The first spoken utterance in Aurora Leigh – ‘Hush, hush – here’s too much noise!’ – could be read as a wry anticipation of the response of such critics; it was the way the poem spoke, as well as what it said, that rankled some. One observed that the verse ‘runs riot in prose cut up into lines of ten syllables’, and others omitted the line breaks when quoting it in order to make the same point. Blackwood’s complained that the poet allowed the demotic to rub shoulders with the distinguished: ‘Mrs Browning follows the march of modern improvement. She makes no distinction between her first and third-class passengers, but rattles them along at the same speed upon her rhythmical railway.’ Aurora Leigh insists on using words like ‘pshaw’ and ‘phew’; it wants to register ‘pants and pauses’, to make room for slips, stutters and splutterings. And when it does rise to a spiky eloquence, it aims to provoke those who think certain things beneath them. Aurora is stinging about authors of ‘bucolics, where the cows/Would scare the writer if they splashed the mud/In lashing off the flies’. There’s often a lash or smack in the writing, and a love of mudslinging. ‘I grow insolent when I have a pen in my hand,’ Barrett Browning once confessed, and the tiresome bits of Aurora Leigh – those moments when verse paragraphs lead off with proclamations such as ‘Humanity is great …’ or ‘Thus is Art …’ – are never very far away from flashes of epigrammatic insolence. Lady Waldemar is ‘as slippery as spilt oil/On marble floors’, a woman who ‘gave me such a smile, so cold and bright,/As if she tried it in a ’tiring glass/And liked it’. Reading lines like these, it’s not hard to see why Wilde admired the poem, or why Barrett Browning might have enjoyed Gwendolen’s riposte to Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest: ‘On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind. It becomes a pleasure.’
Aurora Leigh isn’t generally Wildean, however, and some of its most arresting moments come from a different blend of duty and pleasure. The electric pace is occasionally slowed as Barrett Browning receives a shock from stillness or calmness. When Aurora is introduced to Marian’s baby, she wants to denounce the mother’s promiscuity and lecture her on the wages of sin (this is before she realises that the child is the consequence of rape). But she becomes transfixed by tiny details, the child’s ‘little holdfast hands,/Which, closing on a finger into sleep,/Had kept the mould of ’t’. She can’t take her eyes off it:
The light upon his eyelids pricked them wide,
And, staring out at us with all their blue,
As half perplexed between the angelhood
He had been away to visit in his sleep,
And our most mortal presence, – gradually
He saw his mother’s face, accepting it
In change for heaven itself, with such a smile
As might have well been learnt there, – never moved,
But smiled on, in a drowse of ecstasy,
So happy (half with her and half with heaven)
He could not have the trouble to be stirred,
But smiled and lay there. Like a rose, I said:
As red and still indeed as any rose,
That blows in all the silence of its leaves,
Content, in blowing, to fulfil its life.
The hushed awe of the lines is somehow enhanced by the whimsical weaving of fancies round the baby’s smile. The mixture of the sleepy and the fervent in a phrase like ‘a drowse of ecstasy’ – or even the resplendent blandness of ‘But smiled and lay there’ – makes the baby seem a world away from any words that might be summoned to speak of him. Aurora Leigh often warms to self-absorbed, self-delighting things in this way. And besides being just themselves, these things are also images of what poetry might be. They encourage in others the kind of attention Barrett Browning hopes for from readers, one that has forgotten any purpose or designs it might have. The description of the way Marian gazes at the baby, drinking it in, ‘Self-forgot, cast out of self,/And drowning in the transport of the sight’, echoes Aurora’s earlier account of how she plunged headlong into reading, ‘read my books,/Without considering whether they were fit/To do me good’.
Despite Aurora Leigh’s and Barrett Browning’s interest in the way people argue things out, the poet and the poem are frequently drawn towards unaccountable feelings. When Robert told Elizabeth that he couldn’t explain why he cared for her, she was jubilant: ‘When unreasonableness stands for a reason, it is a promising state of things, we may both admit.’ Luxuriating in ‘that high reason of no reason’ a few days later, she added: ‘I would rather be cared for in that unreasonable way, than for the best reason in the world.’ In Aurora Leigh, Romney sounds effete whenever he tries to provide a rationale for his feelings – as does the poem whenever it tries to do something similar. At her most characteristic, Barrett Browning trusts to the inordinate as a guard against the fraudulent; ‘Rationalism & infidelity go together they say!’ she wrote to Robert. Both were pleased when Leigh Hunt remarked on Aurora Leigh’s ‘noble and sweet avowal, after all, of a participation of error; its lovely willingness to be no loftier, or less earthly, than something on an equality with love.’ Poetry, like love, is a form of errancy, and errancy contains that mixture of verve and disorientation she both courts and craves. As Aurora finally says of Romney, ‘he loved largely, as a man can love/Who, baffled in his love, dares live his life.’
In her preface to Poems (1844), she claimed that ‘Poetry has been as serious a thing to me as life itself; and life has been a very serious thing: there has been no playing at skittles for me in either. I never mistook pleasure for the final cause of poetry.’ This wasn’t quite true, and it became less true. By the time she wrote Aurora Leigh, she didn’t think that playing and seriousness need be set in opposition; the poem’s opening pages tell of word games played in infancy and insist that from such trifles children learn ‘Love’s holy earnest in a pretty play,/And get not over-early solemnised.’ Solemnity is less likely to be truly serious than play: she says that, in contrast to her mother, her father loved her with a will ‘more consciously responsible,/And not as wisely, since less foolishly’. If Barrett Browning never mistook pleasure for the final cause of poetry, nor did she mistake talk about final causes for the whole story of what poetry meant to her. When she wrote to Robert about ‘the pleasure, … the sense of power, … without which I could not write a line’, she was admitting that this sense meant more to her than whether it was ethical or not. Elsewhere she wrote that ‘I have that admiration for genius which dear Mr Kenyon calls my “immoral sympathy with power”’; the confession sounds more like a boast than a regret. In some moods she takes exception to her own shamelessness, but she frequently takes delight in it, or understands that delight may include shame. From the start, she was really a poet of guilty pleasures; an early poem speaks of ‘the child-cheek blushing scarlet for the very shame of bliss’.
Aurora Leigh made Leigh Hunt blush. Even the title got him going: ‘A great thing too,’ he told Robert, ‘like a master’s note or two of prelude on an instrument; “Auròra Leigh”, it sounds to me like the blowing of the air of a great golden dawn upon a lily; strength sweetness (fill up that gap for me, please, for my cheeks are burning).’ A couple of years later, Hunt’s glowing terms find their way into ‘A Musical Instrument’, where ravage and recklessness abet creative achievement. The great god Pan is to be found ‘breaking the golden lilies’, making ‘piercing sweet’ music by tearing out reeds, opening up gaps and blowing air: ‘Then dropping his mouth to a hole in the reed,/He blew in power by the river.’ The writer’s pleasure as well as horror at this power – the way her rhythm becomes its accomplice, not simply its anatomist – is what allows the baffled poem to dare to live its life.
Critics have sometimes wanted to rescue Barrett Browning from something – from neglect, from critical misprision, from herself – and she could at times indulge this fantasy of rescue even as she expressed reservations about it; when she wrote to Robert that ‘it would be unbecoming to lie here on the sofa and make a company-show of an infirmity’, she knew just how beguiling infirmity might be. But a comment she made in the first letter she sent to him – cut from the version provided in this edition – says more about her, and about the ravenous, predatory instincts of her writing: ‘It is difficult to get rid of people when you once have given them too much pleasure – that is a fact, & we will not stop for the moral of it.’