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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

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