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Friday, April 29, 2011

Healing Social Wounds

Sunday in the Backwoods (1858) by Thomas Faed
Romney's political/social beliefs are on greater display in Book IV.  His proposed marriage to the poor and abused Marian Erle is more than a noble act; it is a symbolic union that he hopes will begin a reworking of the socially stratified English society.

though the tyrannous sword
Which pierced Christ's heart, has cleft the world in twain
'Twixt class and class, opposing rich to poor,–
Shall we keep parted? Not so. Let us lean
And strain together rather, each to each,
Compress the red lips of this gaping wound,
As far as two souls can (122-8).

By invoking Christ's death, he identifies this mission as a Christian duty.  The world is bleeding with no tourniquet to stop it.  Romney sees the world as wounded by the social divide that persists between the rich and poor.  Romney has great compassion toward the grief-stricken, "As ministering spirits to mourners" (82).  He found Marian as a "half-dead, half-live body left behind/With cankerous heart and flesh" (91-2) in need of care.  To heal the "gaping wound" Romney first plans to marry Marian in a symbolic rite of social unity.  Then he wants to set up phalansteries, utopian communities that eliminate many social distinctions.  By disrupting the Victorian social order, Romney hopes to re-institute a society favored by God.

of one clay God made us all,
And though men push and poke and paddle in't
(As children play at fashioning dirt-pies)
And call their fancies by the name of facts,
Assuming difference, lordship, privilege,
When all's plain dirt,–they come back to it at last (109-14).

Romney believes all men were created equal and should remain that way socially.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Love According to Lady Waldemar

Lady Colin Campbell (1897) by Giovanni Boldini

Lady Waldemar visits Aurora to declare her love for the latter's cousin, a weird declaration considering Lady Waldemar and Aurora have never met.  Lady Waldemar is a rich widow, the opposite of what Romney seeks, and hopes to convince Aurora to discourage the impending marriage between Romney and the poor and abandoned Marian.  Forgetting the element of love, Lady Waldemar schemes to marry Romney because she feels that he has an obligation to marry someone from his social class.

Despite her declarations, Lady Waldemar never convinces neither Aurora nor the reader that she loves Romney.  She uses words like "vile," "acrid," and "coarse" to describe love, causing Aurora to contradict her sentiments by calling love a sacred thing.

Apologise for atheism, not love!
For, me, I do believe in love, and God (Book III, 477-8).

Lady Waldemar's aversion to love extends to an aversion of Romney, whom she calls "a monster" (511) because of his preference for lower class women.  Social issues are not of importance to her and she mocks Romney's beliefs:

If you do not starve, or sin,
You're nothing to him (565-6).

And, despite reading socialist literature, listening to Romney's speeches in the Commons, and dressing like a poor woman, all of which acts she will not sustain if married to Romney, she barely attracts Romney's attention.  Obviously, if she opposes love and Romney's views, and she is already rich, there is another motive behind her scheme to marry Romney.  Her opposition to Romney's views could play a major role in her scheme.

Furthermore, Lady Waldemar treats love as something to which she must reluctantly submit.  Characterized as a sin that has overtaken her, love entices Lady Waldemar and she is willing to indulge.  Describing women of her class, she states:

we have hearts within,
Warm, live, improvident, indecent hearts,
As ready for distracted ends and acts
As any distressed sempstress of them all
That Romney groans and toils for (461-5).

These women, including Lady Waldemar herself, yield to these desires that paint love as an unholy thing.  Similarly, Lady Waldemar views love as a fever to which she has succumbed and can't remedy:

We catch love
And other fevers, in the vulgar way.
Love will not be outwitted by our wit,
Nor outrun by our equipages:–mine
Persisted, spite of efforts (465-9).

Lady Waldemar has no control over her love and might as well be under the influence of a medium.

All my cards
Turned up but Romney Leigh (469-70).

Lady Waldemar has no choice but to "love" Romney because it is her fate, which is connected to her belonging to Romney's class.

Ultimately, Aurora recognizes her love as false, saying "your love's curable" (709).  Lady Waldemar does not love Romney but feels obligated to marry him to prevent him from marrying below himself.  She does not believe in love but believes in duty.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

An Inspired Poet

Girl Reading (1878) by Charles Perugini
In the beginning of Book III, Aurora Leigh describes her literary career after seven years in London.  The London city life, the expectations of critics, as well as the need for money affect the quality of her work.  Aurora soon realizes that poetry is no longer an Art when one begins to write from compulsion rather than from inspiration.

Aurora begins her literary career with youthful energy that evaporates after years of demands and expectations being placed on her.

And, after our first girding of the loins
In youth's fine linen and fair broidery,
To run up hill and meet the rising sun,
We are apt to sit tired, patient as a fool,
While others gird us with the violent bands
Of social figments, feints, and formalisms,
Reversing our straight nature, lifting up
Our base needs, keeping down our lofty thoughts,
Head downward on the cross-sticks of the world (13-21).

The hard f sound in line 18 demonstrates the weight of the burdens being hammered down on her.  She gets worn down to the point that she calls herself "a mere flaccid nerve" (37).  Part of the reason she has deteriorated is the city life, something new to one raised in her aunt's country home and in the mountains of Italy.  The pomp and circumstance of life in London makes Aurora feel like "a kerchief left out all night in the rain" (38), causing her to be cross and cynical.  She also receives numerous unsolicited letters from critics and editors dictating to her how and what to write.  One critic tells her he "wants another volume like the last" (67) while another asks for "another book/Entirely different" (68-9).  The contradicting expectations highlight the pressure under which Aurora finds herself to produce popular works.  In addition, another critic, Jobson,

recommends more mirth,
Because a cheerful genius suits the times,
And all true poets laugh unquenchably
Like Shakspeare and the gods (84-7).

Aurora's writings are not things of inspiration but things of others' expectations.  At the same time, she receives letters asking for literary advice as well as requests from struggling artists for money, of which Aurora herself is in need.  The demands placed on her are much more than she expected, and they prevent her from producing her best work.

The request for money, however, is one that Aurora fully understands.  She has come to realize that one cannot live on the wages of poetry {"In England, no one lives by verse that lives" (307).} and resolves to write critical pieces for magazines to make money.  Aurora realizes that writing for money will not produce great work.

What you do
For bread, will taste of common grain, not grapes,
Although you have a vineyard in Champagne,–
Much less in Nephelococcygia,
As mine was, peradventure (321-5).

The goal of the artist is to give to others, not riches.  Ultimately, Aurora concludes that one should write from inspiration not for gain.

Get work; get work;
Be sure 'tis better than what you work to get (167-8).

What one gets to write pales in comparison to enjoying the process of writing.  Aurora knows that in order to enjoy her writings she must reject outside expectations.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Woman's Vocation

Book II addresses a woman's vocation and whether popular literature is proper for the female sex.  During the Victorian Era, female writers struggled to attain the level of success available to their male counterparts.  Writers such as George Eliot as well as the Bronte sisters published works using masculine pseudonyms in order to have their works taken seriously.  In Aurora Leigh, Romney Leigh, a prototypical Victorian gentleman, rejects female writers as inferior to male writers, not being able to produce works of the same quality.  Romney's greater fault, however, is his inability to see poetry's significance as an Art.  He views Art as a weak and ineffective means of making a social statement.  Ultimately, his contention with Aurora is that female writers are incapable of making a social statement because they lack knowledge about how the world works.

Romney's foremost agenda in life is as a social reformer.  As such he has to deal with real life problems in the face.  However, according to Romney, poets are idealistic and fail to deal with reality.  He calls them "lovers of the beautiful" (line 1226), to portray them as oblivious to the pain and suffering in the world.  They must be oblivious because no one could witness such anguish and despair without actively curing the problem.

Being man, Aurora, can stand calmly by
And view these things, and never tease his soul
For some great cure? (279-82).

Romney believes it is impossible for one to know of the great suffering and not immediately want to fix it.  Art by itself cannot cure these social ills, pursuing only "sleek fringes" (138) rather than actual ends and means.  Therefore, Romney does not take poetry as an Art seriously and considers it a juvenile way of addressing the world, since poets are content "to play at art, as children play at swords" (229).  Ultimately, poets have little effect on the world and Romney judges poetry a weak profession, particular when employed by a woman. 

Equally women have little experience in the world and know even less about it, making them unlikely to be able to have a social impact without a man's help.  First of all, they have no proper worldview.

Your quick-breathed hearts,
So sympathetic to the personal pang,
Close on each separate knife-stroke, yielding up
A whole life at each wound; incapable
Of deepening, widening a large lap of life
To hold the world-full woe (184-9).

Women can sympathize on a personal level but not en masse, causing Romney to comment, "You (women) weep for what you know" (213).  Therefore, women should little influence a world they don't understand.

Therefore, this same world
Uncomprehended by you must remain
Uninfluenced by you. Women as you are,
Mere women, personal and passionate,
You give us doating mothers, and chaste wives.
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints! (218-23).

As Romney points out above, women do well as wives, and he is perfectly willing, desirous even, to make Aurora his wife, though she rejects his offer.  With him to guide her, she would perform well as his partner in the fight against social wrongs.  When Aurora states that she prefers to be a free thinker, even if such a choice would force her to endure headaches, Romney responds:

  'Dear Aurora, choose instead
To cure them. You have balsams' (109-10).

Romney acknowledges that Aurora has the ability to do social work and wants her to work with him.  He believes a woman needs the guidance of a husband to be a productive member of society.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Free as a bird

Birds of the Air (1879) by Albert Moore
In Book I, Browning describes the journey of the title character from Italy, the homeland of her mother, to England, the homeland of her father.  After both parents die, Aurora Leigh goes to live with her aunt in the English countryside.  Browning uses bird imagery in describing Aurora's experience in order to illustrate the ability of literary endeavours to free and elevate a person. 

Upon first arriving in England, Aurora laments her removal from Italy while feeling trapped in her new country. which she compares to "A nature tamed/ And grown domestic like a barn-door fowl" (lines 635-6).  England is an unimpressive bird, dreary and not as picturesque as her homeland Italy, which has

multitudinous mountains, sitting in
The magic circle, with the mutual touch
Electric, panting from their full deep hearts
Beneath the influent heavens, and waiting for
Communion and commission.   Italy
Is one thing, England one (lines 622-7).

Despite Aurora's discontent with England, her aunt is comfortable in the inhibitive atmosphere.

She had lived
A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage,
Accounting that to leap from perch to perch
Was act and joy enough for any bird (lines 304-7).

Aurora describes herself as a "wild bird scarcely fledged" (line 310), brought to live in a cage.  Her room she describes "as green as any privet-hedge a bird/Might choose to build in" (line 568-9), defining herself as a bird that remains close to the ground, rather than one that flies high.  Nevertheless, everything in her room is green, symbolically surrounding herself with life though feeling dead inside.  A reason for that feeling is that she wishes to bury her past. 

My own self-pity, like the red-breast bird,
Flies back to cover all that past with leaves (lines 737-8).

In England Aurora feels like a trapped bird.  Part of the trap is that she is limited in her reading, being allowed only books that describe a woman's proper role in society according to Victorian standards. 

I read a score of books on womanhood
To prove, if women do not think at all,
They may teach thinking, (to a maiden aunt
Or else the author)–books demonstrating
Their right of comprehending husband's talk
When not too deep, and even of answering
With pretty 'may it please you,' or 'so it is' (lines 427-33).

Instead of being allowed to develop into her own person, Aurora is being formed and fashioned into a woman that fits Victorian society.  Her aunt expected "a woman to be womanly" (line 443), meaning non-intellectual and looking pretty.

Nevertheless, Aurora experiences a liberation when she begins to read according to her own discretion.  Suddenly, she could appreciate nature again.

I sat alone, and drew the blessing in
Of all that nature. With a gradual step,
A stir among the leaves, a breath, a ray,
It came in softly, while the angels made
A place for it beside me. The moon came,
And swept my chamber clean of foolish thoughts
The sun came, saying, 'Shall I lift this light
Against the lime-tree, and you will not look?
I make the birds sing–listen! (lines 650-8).

As the birds began to sing, Aurora acknowledges her ability to make music through her poetry.

Young men, ay, and maids,
Too often sow their wild oats in tame verse.
Before they sit down under their own vine
And live for use. Alas, near all the birds
Will sing at dawn,–and yet we do not take
The chaffering swallow for the holy lark (lines 948-53).

Her voice has been restored by her return to reading and writing.  The liberation is illustrated when she proclaims, "Poetry, my life/My eagle" (918-9), no longer associated with low living birds but now flying high in the air.  Poetry has elevated her above petty arguments, such as a woman's place in society.  This issue causes contention with her cousin Romney, but Aurora does not seek the approval of others or fear hat they think.  When she writes she feels

as safe from harm
As sings the lark when sucked up out of sight,
In vortices of glory and blue air (lines 1054-6).

Once again, Aurora is elevated and able to escape the cares of the world to an extent, though she acknowledges that "the world of books is still the world" (line 792).  Nevertheless, she refuses to allow outside forces to interfere with her productivity. 

howsoe'er the world
Went ill, as he related, certainly
The thrushes still sang in it (lines 1113-5).

Her song, her writings, are uninterrupted by lowly things.

Browning uses the bird imagery of Book I to show that reading and writing can elevate one, particularly women, to a higher intellectual plane than that allowed by societal rules.  Though this discrepancy will become a bone of contention between Aurora and Romney, the former remains steadfast in her pursuit of literary success.  The ultimate signal of freedom for Aurora, the death of her aunt, takes place in Book II, freeing Aurora completely from the cage.  Nevertheless, Aurora has begun her flight in the skies with her retreat to reading and writing.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Virginia Woolf on Aurora Leigh

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf wrote her essay "Aurora Leigh" as part of a larger work The Second Common Reader.  Much like contemporary critics, Woolf praised and criticized the work.  Though in the dedication E.B.B. calls Aurora Leigh "the most mature of my works," Woolf calls the work "a masterpiece in embryo." 

Woolf argues that E.B.B.'s biggest weakness was her lack of experience in life.  Describing Browning's reading habits, Woolf writes:

"Books were to her not an end in themselves but a substitute for living.  She raced through folios because she was forbidden to scamper on the grass."

E.B.B. was confined to her room, sometimes by illness, sometimes by choice, so that sh had little interaction with real people outside her family.  Because of this, when she moved to Italy with Robert, she "loved to sit in a cafe and watch people passing; she loved the arguments, the politics, and the strife of the modern world."

One imperfection in Aurora Leigh that Woolf points out is the author's inability to conceal herself in the narrative, which she calls "a sign also that life has impinged upon art more than life should."

Nevertheless, Woolf also praised the best qualities of the poem:  its "speed and energy, forthrightness, and complete self-confidence."  Obviously, E.B.B.'s skills in writing cannot be denied, even if her execution of the work is flawed.

In choosing to write a "novel in verse," Browning sought to paint a modern portrait of Victorian society.  Woolf writes:

"Living art presents and records real life, and the only life we can truly know is our own."

Browning wanted a modern work but failed to recognize poetry's limited ability to described modern interaction.  "Blank verse has proved itself the most remorseless enemy of living speech," Woolf states, leading to conversations that are "high rhetorical impassioned."  By "following the lilt of her rhythm rather than the emotions of her characters, Mrs. Browning is swept on into generalisation and declamation."  Woolf desires more feeling from the work.

Ultimately, E.B.B.'s aim in writing the piece will determine its success:

"If Mrs. Browning meant by a novel-poem a book in which character is closely and subtly revealed, the revelations 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."

Source: The Second Common Reader (1960) by Virginia Woolf

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Summary of Aurora Leigh

Knowing the plot of Aurora Leigh does not ruin the poem because the true treasure is in Browning's writing style.  The poem opens in Florence, Italy where the title character is born to an English father and an Italian mother.  Both parents die while Aurora is young, forcing her to go to England to live with her father's sister.   There she meets her cousin Romney Leigh with whom she differs on the vocation of women and the importance of art.  Aurora rejects Romney's offer of marriage, preferring a single life as a writer.  Romney places a greater significance on attacking social problems and experiences a couple of bad relationships based on a partnership in social reforms.  Meanwhile, Aurora enjoys a successful writing career.  Ultimately, neither tastes true fulfillment until they agree to marry and work together.

Among the ideas the poem addresses are the vocation of women, a woman's education, the function of writing and the writer, and the influence of love on art.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was born in northern England to parents who owned Jamaican plantations.  She was the oldest of 12 children, 11 of which survived to adulthood.  Even as a young girl she was well-read and studied Greek while writing poetry.  Her favorite novelists at the time were George Sand and Sir Walter Scott.  During her middle teen years, she developed a serious respiratory illness that nearly caused her to become an invalid and troubled her the rest of her life, forcing her to to treat her ailment with opium.  She also had to deal with the death of her mother in 1828, which caused deep regret that she could not be with her in her last moments, as well as the death of a brother.

She was jealous of her brother Edward (whom she called 'Bro')  because he attended school while she stayed at home.  Nevertheless, during this time she published her first poem, "The Battle of Marathon," in which she attempted to imitate the style of Alexander Pope.  Her first work of critical significance was The Seraphim and Other Poems (1838).  Her reception of criticism placed great significance on the ability to be recognized rather than on the positivity or negativity of reviews.  The Barretts moved to London in 1835, moving in 1838 to the Wimpole street residence, where her father would live the rest of his life. 

During the 1840s, Elizabeth became impressed by the poetry of Robert Browning, a fellow English poet who she refused to meet due to shyness.  Nevertheless, a mutual friend (John Kenyon) put the two in contact and they developed a lengthy and increasingly intimate correspondence during 1845-6.  During this period Elizabeth wrote her Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), "Portuguese" being Robert's pet name for the dark-haired Elizabeth.  The sonnets describe the development of their friendship and eventual engagement.  The couple secretly married in 1846 and immediately left for the Continent, eventually settling in Italy.  Upon the revelation of this deed, Elizabeth's father disowned and disinherited her.  After two miscarriages, Elizabeth had a son in 1849, which she named Penini.

She and her son adopted the Italian cause and showed great enthusiasm for the Italian independence movement.  During this time in Italy Elizabeth published the works Casa Guidi Windows (1851) and Poems Before Congress (1860), both of which in support of the movement.  Elizabeth died in Florence in June 1861 in her husband's arms, after which Robert and Pen left Italy to live in London.

Aurora Leigh (1857), a novel in verse, is at times autobiographical and describes a female writer's pursuit of a career while also dealing with women's issues and social responsibility.  The title figure ultimately chooses between marriage and independence.

Source:  Elizabeth Barrett Browning:  The Life and Loves of a Poet by Margaret Forster.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin

Harriet Beecher Stowe
The way in which Stowe wrote the story, dramatically presenting the evil of the system of slavery, ensured that the novel could not be ignored as just another piece of anti-slavery propaganda.  The novel solicited a reaction from both sides and guaranteed that pro- and anti-slavery factions could not co-exist in the United States.  There was no compromise possible between the two groups, either secession would take place or the South would have to accept the economic devastation of the end of slavery. 

Therefore, Lincoln's statement about Stowe being responsible for the Civil War has some validity.  The country was already on the slippery slope towards war, but the publication of Stowe's novel signified that the country was past the point of no return.  Stowe's work successfully presented the case against slavery and encouraged other nations that the time was right to end slavery in America.  Northerners who may have been timid before could no longer be timid.  This war literally put brother against brother and caused rifts that still were not healed 100 years later.

Nevertheless, the novel has come under criticism of racism and the term "Uncle Tom" has adopted a negative connotation.  Some even view the book as children's literature.  Ultimately, however, the novel will be judged for the significant impact it had during one of this country's most critical periods in its history.


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