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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.

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