Three issues I have tried to deal with here
Of methodology, genre and merit
For method – all things must begin with google
And so I google this Aurora Leigh
I find the dedication to John Kenyon
And google him in turn to find that he
Had written to the daughter of Sam Coleridge
Who replied thus: charming is this poem
But the poet has done grave injustice
To the classics that she scarce understands.
Thus Sara Coleridge echoes the father
Admonishing Aurora, “Silly Girls
Who plant their flowers in our philosophy
To make it fine, and only spoil the book!”
My next methodological step is
To read, unread, reread each flower, every
Philosophy. To read with sympathy
And then to read again, to search for men
And women, eyes and nose, highs and lows, rhymes
and prose, all those in Barrett Brownings words.
On then, to genre – Aurora Leigh is
A poem, novel, travel narrative
And autobiography complicated
By aspects of Elizabeth in two
Disparate protagonists. In this epic tapestry is woven lyric threads,
And at th’ abortive wedding in part four
There’s drama, as the wait is felt and told
By the voices of despised nobility.
Another avenue for assumed voices
Is found in the epistolary parts
That, like The Ring and Book, whose “evidence”
was written, for there were no open courts,
Aurora Leigh records, in layers of irony
Communications and their misreadings.

To novel, travelogue, and self-writing
We can add one more prose genre – criticism –
To which Aurora Leigh could well belong:
“A woman cannot do the thing she ought,
Which means whatever perfect thing she can,
In life, in art, in science, but she fears
To let the perfect action take her part
And rest there: she must prove what she can do
Before she does it” – an eternal truth
To which a presidential candidate
might testify. And so to the doing
Of poetry we see the addition
Of a saying, in the lines that bludgeon us
With meaning, and with what their meaning means.

Now to merit – shall we, as Arnold would do
Apply the touchstone method – mark this line
Addressed to Waldemar – “To love and lie!
Nay–go to the opera! your love’s curable.’”
IS this an echo or a separate note
In harmony with Shakespeare’s “men have died
from time to time, and worms have eaten them,
but not for love”? On to the next precept
Of subjective judgement. Could one have written
A proem or a povel like this one?
I think I demonstrate that I could not
My pentameter could hardly be verse.

On the canonizability of
Aurora Leigh – Mary Poovey would ask
Does this poem serve a desired or desirable
function? It serves three. It is a showcase.
It is herstory. It is pleasure. First as
showcase – what does it show? Victorians.
Xenophobic, necrophilic, also
Melancholic, anti Catholic, though the
Maenadic, hebraic, erotic side
Of Catholic Italy is contrasted
Favourably with an England “so
Clipped and rational, that if you seek
for any wilderness/You find, at best,
a park.” Other Victorianisms are
the dead mother (who is essential back
story for a writer – kill the mother,
and you have a lifetime of artistic fodder)
And the Woman Question – but more about that later
Note also fading aristocracy,
Foiled by a rising middle class. Each of
the main characters in Aurora Leigh
Is classed ambiguously – Where Ms. Leigh
Is always classed with lions, Marian
Is “stag” or “fawn”, links lower in the chain.
Aurora speaks aristocratically
When she says in disregard for food or rent,
“My soul is not a pauper; I can live
At least my soul’s life, without alms from men”
And yet elsewhere she speaks in bourgeoisie
She says to Romney that “Whoever says
To a loyal woman, ‘Love and work with me,’
Will get fair answers” Romney spirals down
In ironic fulfillment of his cause
To raze the remnants of feudal constructions
Be careful what you wish for, Romney Leigh
Marian, we hear, is quite unsuited
To housework – and in this she is indulged
By otherwise unsympathetic parents
And therein lies Marian’s odd privilege.
Physiognomically speaking, her low brow
Her neither brown nor whiteness and her hair
In Pre-raphaelite curls race her as “other”
To the quasi Saxonness of Aurora
Whose mother is Italian but blue eyed;
And for Aurora’s other attributes
Lady Maud threw down, when she was born
“ The undeniable lineal mouth and chin”

The xenophobic entail, then, is shown
To be ludicrous, and yet Aurora is
Not all England – she’s Romney’s Italy
Also, his little Chaldean who reads
His “meaning backward like [her] eastern books,
While he is from the west, dear.”

Moving on
To Herstory – like class and race, gender
And sexuality are troubled here,
As are attitudes to motherhood
and women’s art. Aurora speaks a good deal of writing
But writing is inextricable
From the gender question. On one hand,
Aurora sees herself as genderless
“As a palm tree, rather than an a lush
And overbearing vine.” The artist, thus
Is placed beyond gender, and classed above
Two sorts of mothers – Marian’s marylike sort
Note Marian’s name -derived from the virgin
And yet unisex. The other sort is
The mother whose children’s poor milky mouths
Are “Wiped […] of mother’s milk by mother’s blow
Before they are taught her cursing.” Here the charm
The lovely crap, the old mystique about
Maternal instinct and mother’s duty
Are deconstructed quite summarily
Now hear these lines, written so long before
Roe v. Wade: “I ripped my verses up,
And found no blood upon the rapier’s point:
The heart in them was just an embryo’s heart,
Which never yet had beat, that it should die:
Just gasps of make-believe galvanic life;
Mere tones, inorganised to any tune.”
When Romney speaks in Miltonic terms of
A womans’ role to cure, not cause headaches
Little does he sense he’ll be undone
Weakened, symbolically castrated by
Disability. And so as clothed
In her father’s doublet, careless of its fit,
Aurora grapples with the irony
Of doing busy work, embroidery,
That she may be useful, while inside
A lion, or a lioness – she’s not sure which
Is roaring across time to Judith Butler
About the discursive limits of sex,
this same Aurora speaks of pregnant thought
And says “poets (bear the word)”, which calls to mind
Bearing the Word by Homans, who equates
In troubling and essentialist ways, feminine art
With childbirth. This plays into the equation
Of the masculine with the intellectual
And the feminine with Mother Nature –
Aurora Leigh teems with life and nature.
In that, it falls into Romantic tropes
And scoffs Classics: “Five acts to make a play?
And why not fifteen? Why not ten? or seven?
What matter for the number of the leaves,
Supposing the tree lives and grows? exact
The literal unities of time and place,
When ’tis the essence of passion to ignore
Both time and place? Absurd. Keep up the fire
And leave the generous flames to shape themselves.”
Yet later Aurora critiques the poets who want to withdraw to the “daisies” –
she believes one should also observe
the swarthiest faces in the urban crowds:
She also critiques Byron and pope, excepting
Keats who is in touch with his feminine side
So much for childbearing and pain, now pleasure.
As A novel, ‘tis a marriage plot, a joy
For those of us who love Harlequin tales
And really, who does not? The narrative
Is formed into a ring, a wreath, a circle
By returning to the questions and inequities
Of the start. Mountains abound here and stairs
Aurora and Marian are higher dwellers
Joining the ranks of madwomen in attics,
Renaissance beloveds on pedestals
And Juliets on balconies; Romney
“Who has climbed a mountain-height and carried up
His own heart climbing, panting in his throat
With the toil of the ascent, takes breath at last,”
To be rejected. What, on god’s green earth
Do women want, asks Lacan. Leigh replies,
As Romney climbs a mountain once again
Without his sight. We do not know his face
Romney Leigh has never been described.
The objects are the women – and his gaze
Confers upon them stone wreaths and headaches.
Now blinded, he is still – as turned to stone
He has become the looked-upon, Edward
Rochester to Aurora’s Jane. When first
He popped the question, St John style, he said
To Aurora “If your sex is weak for art,
(And I who said so, did but honour you
By using truth in courtship) it is strong
For life and duty.” His proposal meets
The same fate as his brother’s from Jane Eyre
“You have a wife already whom you love,
Your social theory. Bless you both, I say.
For my part, I am scarcely meek enough
To be the handmaid of a lawful spouse.”
As blind and burnt out Rochester, Romney
Has lost the gaze that must objectify.
Leighton’s thought on this is echoed in
Aurora’s words on the panopticism
Of her old life: “Nay, the very dog
Would watch me from his sun-patch on the floor,
In alternation with the large black fly
Not yet in reach of snapping. So I lived.”
So, sightless, Romney comes to claim his bride
Disrupting the two mother family
With lengthy declarations of his sins
To which his love says, “Why, Ulysses’ dog
Knew him, and wagged his tail and died: but if
I had owned a dog, I too, before my Troy,
And if you brought him here, I warrant you
He’d look into my face, bark lustily,
And live on stoutly, as the creatures will
Whose spirits are not troubled by long loves.”
In other words, she’s changed – but note, at last,
She thinks she is Ulysses, Romney thinks
She’s his Penelope. So in some ways
Some things are left untidy but dear reader
like every good Harlequin book, this ends
with two chapters of climactic resolution
An extended declaration of their love,
And the standard linear full stop of a kiss.

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