01 June 2012

Aurora Leigh

Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is a long poem (a long poem) about the life of a female poet in the nineteenth century whose life is divided between England and Italy. But it's not about EBB herself, really. You could see this approach as similar to Simon Amstell's Grandma's House except that no-one ever called EBB a post-modern ironist.

The poem's had an interesting critical history. It received a mixed reaction on publication, and after EBB's death 1861 it disappeared from view, unlike, say, her Sonnets from the Portuguese, which continued to be popular. In the 1970s feminist literary theorists repopularised it, and it was one of the first publications of The Women's Press (in 1978).

The introduction to this edition, by Kerry McSweeney, tends to see the poem as having survived the feminist attention, sees that as a stage in its critical rediscovery, rather than as the only, or best, way of reading. He comes close to suggesting that it can't be a feminist work because EBB was no feminist and "what is enunciated is not a feminist vision". The fact that feminists including George Eliot and Virginia Woolf enjoyed and praised the work suggests there is a feminist vision within it. And once again, we find that the text that is created when the poem is read is not the same as the text that was written.

For me, I found the earlier parts of the poem astonishingly feminist for their time. Aurora Leigh is fiercely independent and sets out to make her own way in life living off her poetry and rejecting marriage to her wealthy cousin, Romney. At the end of the poem they are reconciled, after he is blinded, and, reader, she marries him. The last two books (of nine) disappointed me: Aurora loses some of her independence of spirit and her christianity is more prominent. Earlier, it had seemed that she was in part dramatising the Church of England's reaction to the crisis of faith, showing how belief had become more philosophical than historical, but towards the end the belief becomes less considered, more axiomatic. There's also a regrettable triumphalism over Romney's renunciation of his progressive social aims. A feminist view could see this as an indictment of Aurora Leigh's society, which is seen to allow her to succeed only in the sphere of poetry and, ultimately, marriage.

The style of the poetry is sometimes difficult. Characters have improbably long and fluent speeches in blank verse and there's a lot of influence of German philosophy in the very language used. I'm thinking of terms like "artist-soul" and other compounds which read like calques. It's also obvious that EBB was incredibly well-read and fearsomely intelligent.

I don't think it's outlandish to suggest that the neglect of the poem for about 100 years was partly because of the feminism within it, which fans and critics alike recognised. EBB had stepped outside the proper sphere of the lady poetess, while the Sonnets, and her life story as an invalid love-object, gave the world a woman much easier to read, anthologise and admire.

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