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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.

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