Week 14

Week 14: Aurora Leigh

Elizabeth Barrett Browning–Aurora Leigh (1856)
Herbert F Tucker– Aurora Leigh: Epic Solutions to Novel Ends (1993)
Peter Stallybrass–Against Thinking (1997)
Virgina Woolf– On Aurora Leigh (1935)
Dan Cohen–Searching for the Victorians


I.         What was your reaction to this work of art? Did it draw you in, or did it feel alienating? What was your experience of reading it?

  1. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered.”
  2. Virginia Woolf: “Aurora Leigh, the novel-poem, is not, therefore, the masterpiece that it might have been. Rather it is a masterpiece in embryo; a work whose genius floats diffused and fluctuating in some pre-natal stage waiting the final stroke of creative power to bring it into being. Stimulating and boring, ungainly and eloquent, monstrous and exquisite, all by turns, it overwhelms and bewilders; but, nevertheless, it still commands our interest and inspires our respect.”

II.         Genre Confusion

  1. Poetry vs. Prose – What does it mean to be a novel in prose? How do we read it versus how we read prose novels?

i.     “If the plot of this tale had been developed in a prose fiction, some objections might have been urged on the score of probability. But we are not sure that the demand should be pressed so rigorously on a poem.” (British Quarterly 266)

ii.     Blackwood’s formal and generic collapsing of poetry and prose (pg 35)

  1. Formal Subversions – Close reading of dialogue. How does the dialogue in particular give us a way into examining the experiential difference of reading poetry and prose?

i.     Woolf: “Then again, what will the poet do with dialogue? In modern life, as Mrs. Browning indicated when she said that our stage is now the soul, the tongue has superseded the sword. It is in talk that the high moments of life, the shock of character upon character, are defined. But poetry when it tries to follow the words on people’s lips is terribly impeded.”  (pg 5)

ii.     “Romney, in short, rants and reels like any of those Elizabethan heroes whom Mrs. Browning had warned so imperiously out of her modern living-room. Blank verse has proved itself the most remorseless enemy of living speech. Talk tossed up on the surge and swing of the verse becomes high, rhetorical, impassioned; and as talk, since action is ruled out, must go on and on, the reader’s mind stiffens and glazes under the monotony of the rhythm.” (pg. 6)

iii.     Close reading: “‘I am a girl…A sister of charity.’” (pg. 49-50)

  1. Prose – Realism

i.     Woolf: “Forced by the nature of her medium, she ignores the slighter, the subtler, the more hidden shades of emotion by which a novelist builds up touch by touch a character in prose. Change and development, the effect of one character upon another—all this is abandoned.”

“Thus, if Mrs. Browning meant by a novel-poem a book in which character is closely and subtly revealed, the relations of many hearts laid bare, and a story unfalteringly unfolded, she failed completely. But if she meant rather to give us a sense of life in general, of people who are unmistakably Victorian, wrestling with the problems of their own time, all brightened, intensified, and compacted by the fire of poetry, she succeeded.”

ii.     Realist poetry – can we think of this as a different genre from the realism of the realist novel? For example, considering temporal realism as opposed to realism of form.

  1. Metafiction and Self-Reference

i.     “This metaphoric suspension [of closure in book VII] constitutes a kind of narrative suspense, an unresolved harmony that keeps “mysterious tune” with the sacramental cosmic processiveness Aurora has invoked in book 5. It also places in epic perspective the novelistic realism that ostensibly superintends the final two books.” (Tucker pg. 79)

ii.     “When the poet writes,/He writes: mankind accepts it if it suits,/And that’s success: if not, the poem’s passed from hand to hand” (154)

iii.     Ways of seeing

  1. “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.” (152)
  2. Poetry – Lyric (and) Epic – Classical vs. modern forms

i.     Can poetry be divorced from epic? Can poetry transcend classical form and content?

ii.      “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” (pg. 152)

“Never flinch,/ But still, unscrupulously epic, catch/Upon the burning lava of a song/ The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age” (pg. 153)

iii.      Woolf: “we may suspect that Elizabeth Barrett was inspired by a flash of true genius when she rushed into the drawing-room and said that here, where we live and work, is the true place for the poet.”

  1. How is the genre project here potentially a feminist one?

i.     Tucker: “Where epic paused from singing the story to sign the song instead, and urged not the hero’s concerns but the poet’s, it made an opening that Barrett Browning was quick to occupy and distend for purposes of her own…She found in epic models a traditional means to an untraditional, genuinely novel end, by crossing the linear plot of the Künstelrroman with desultory devices drawn from women’s traditions of epistolary and diaristic narrative” (68)

ii.     Michael’s paper: “In the end, her feat of heroism is achieving the success that any man might desire, despite the manner in which Victorian society might like to force her into a “woman’s place.”  While it might seem less impressive than slaying a dragon, Beowulf slew the dragon to protect his kingdom, not for his own glory.  Similarly, Aurora Leigh aims not to exalt the heroine simply for glory, but as the first woman of a new age.  That is, after all, the role of the Übermensch: to herald what is to come.”

iii.     Is Aurora a hero?

III.         Gender Contusion

  1. Close reading of Christina’s quote
  2. Tucker: “Substituting what she writes in the moving present for what Romney said in an emotional past, Aurora so conjugates narratorial present with narrated history as to wrest from her mate the conjugal authority bestowed on him by Victorian patriarchy” (69)
  3. Female art vs. male art; poetess vs. poet

i.     Reviews: “It places Mrs. Browning beyond dispute at the head of all poetesses, ancient or modern, and although it will be judged diversely by diverse minds, no one, we fancy, will venture to claim for any other woman’s poem an equal rank.” (The Leader)

ii.     “Women as you are,/Mere women, personal and passionate,/You give us doting mothers, and perfect wives,/Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!/We get no Christ from you—and verily/We shall not get a poet, in my mind” (pg. 44)

iii.     “The book does honour to the sex, we hold. Among our female authors we make room/For this fair writer, and congratulate/The country that produces in these times/Such women, cometent to”…spell’.” (pg. 45)

iv.     “But what he said…I have written day by day,/ With somewhat even writing. Did I think that such a passionate rain would intercept/ And dash this last page?” (318)

  1. Male vs. female expression: Romney and his charity work vs. Aurora and her poetry What is AL saying about the relationship of art to the outside world and the value of art within a larger context?
  2. Sierra’s close reading

i.     “Unlike the “springboarding” female friendships that Sharon Marcus points to as integral components of the marriage plot, Barrett Browning’s narrative eventually, ironically, finds no “room” for Marian … Rather than becoming a source of companionship, the union of two women “alone” re-doubles the solitary nature of their condition “Alone./Alone” where even the two words sit on separate lines from one another, formally divided.”

ii.     Sharon Marcus QUOTE

  1. Christina’s close reading

i.     “Her request seems to be that readers should read in a more supposedly feminine manner without an aim towards gain, to read emotionally and in a manner that is free to follow the author and narrator wherever they go and to find things that are unexpected.”

IV.         How do we read? Just, close and distant readings

  1. Our reading practices in the seminar

i.     “We get no good,/By being ungenerous, even to a book,/ And calculating profits—so much help/By so much reading. It is rather when/We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge/Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound,/Impassioned for its beauty and sault of truth–/’Tis then we get the right good from a book.” (pg. 25)

  1. Stallybrass

i.      “The great Renaissance tradition of commonplacing was a systematic practice for overcoming the originality (ie, unacknowledged repetitiveness) of one’s own mind by organizing one’s reading as a database. In this pedagogy, reading is a technology of inventorying information to make it reusable” (1582)

ii.     “You are not, nor should you be, the origin of your own thoughts (any more than you are the origin of your own voice). Having your own thoughts in the literal sense is as impossible as having your own language.” (1584)

iii.     Alison’s summary

  1. “To end provocatively, I want to suggest that Stallybrass errs when he assumes that originality is a ‘burden’ or form of discipline for writing subjects. The way Margaret Oliphant imagines “writing as reading, with much the same feeling” as, at least for her, not only a pleasingly “original way of putting it” in and of itself (as she puts it), but as a radical form of experiencing via not ‘just’ thought or work but the imagination.”
  2. Danielle’s Cohen summary

i.     “Cohen highlights the split between pure and applied reason, but I would argue that the gulf between objective and subjective knowledge is even more difficult for digital humanists to bridge. In constructing a database, Cohen treats each English book that appeared in the Victorian era with the same weight. This is the objective, scientific approach. In doing so, he downplays the subjective literary tastes that propelled novels like Eliot’s Middlemarch to the forefront of the English canon and left many, many more novels behind.”

  1. Research round-up –what kind of things would we like to do with our texts?

i.     What did you look up?

ii.     What were you trying to visualize?

iii.     What were your keywords?

iv.     What was the difference between your distant readings and close readings?

v.     Research questions and experiments? Does anyone have one that they want to discuss?

Talk about Dorian Gray and next week’s class