"Tulips on Dunghills": regendering the Georgic in Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.
This convergence of factors is developed in her letter to Hugh Stuart Boyd, one of Barrett Browning's great intellectual companions, where she confesses her failure to appreciate Virgil ("I have tried hard to like olives & the Aeneid upon principle--and I could succeed on neither point") in contrast to her love of Homer ("Critics who think it necessary to compare Virgil & Homer [they may as well compare the mouse with the mountain!) after delivering up the praise of judgement to Virgil, are graciously pleased to leave the fire with Homer"). (2) Virgil is the "mouse" here, Homer the "mountain"; Virgil "judgement," Homer "fire." Virgil's character traits here she attributes to Bro, and likewise Homer's to herself. As such, Bro, reflecting the Roman, is rational, reflective, moderate, and judicious, while she, the Greek, is imaginative, inspired, enthusiastic, and ardent. Elsewhere in her essay, "On Ancient and Modern Literature," the contrast is hyperbolized between the "plagiarist Virgil," and the "sublime conceptions of Homer the father of the lyre." (3)
Browning, I claim, invokes these distinctions in Aurora Leigh in order for Aurora to "cultivate" her own aesthetic, drawing from each perspective and regendering both as feminine. In so doing, she appropriates Virgil's georgic, infuses it with the ardent enthusiasm of her Homer, and uses it, finally, to critique Romney's Virgil. As such, she challenges masculinist Greek and Roman views of history and offers instead a history inspired by her own vision, one anticipating Kevis Goodman's recently developed sense of "georgic modernity" in Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism. (4) Echoing the Virgilian georgic themes in her poem, she transforms conventional georgic "roots" in agricultural labor to include both tending the soil and also tending social ills, human relationships, and words themselves.
While still young and living with her English aunt, Aurora the aspiring poet famously decides to crown herself with some "headlong ivy," rationalizing that she may "In sport, not pride ... learn the feel of it, / Before my brows be numb as Dante's own." (5) She is interrupted by her cousin Romney who reminds her that women "Scarce need be poets," and warns her to "Keep to the green wreath, / Since even dreaming of the stone and bronze / Brings headaches, pretty cousin, and defiles / The clean white morning dresses" (2.93, 93-96). Her response: "I perceive / The headache is too noble for my sex. / You think the heartache would sound decenter, / Since that's the woman's special, proper ache" (2.110-113), and the exchange more generally, are widely anthologized as displaying paradigmatic nineteenth-century assumptions about feminine gender roles.
This dialogue as it extends on into Aurora Leigh's Book 2, and especially as it exhibits Romney's ascription of conventional gender roles to his cousin Aurora, provides background for my larger argument about Browning's appropriation of such conventionally gendered assumptions into her insights about genre, here the Virgilian georgic. Romney, then, holds conventional views about women in the period (the cult of domesticity), for example advising Aurora that,
this same world Uncomprehended by you, must remain Uninfluenced by you. Women as you are, You give us doating mothers, and perfect wives, Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints! We get no Christ from you,--and verily We shall not get a poet, in my mind! ... you, Aurora, with the large live brow And steady eyelids, cannot condescend To play at art, as children play at swords, To show a pretty spirit, chiefly admired Because true action is impossible. (2.218-231)
At the heart of this passage lie Romney's concrete assumptions about the idealized roles of women as Angels in the House: in his mind, they are equipped to be "doating mothers, and perfect wives, / Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints," and consequently "We get no Christ from you,--and verily" (more significantly, Browning suggests) "We shall not get a poet." As if for compensation, he informs Aurora that she as a woman is free "To play at art, as children play at swords," or "To show a pretty spirit." And yet Aurora learns, to her apparent discredit, that because she "cannot condescend" to appreciate such compensation, she therefore merits no "admir[ation]." (6) Romney's message to Aurora (and by implication all women) is that because the world is "Uncomprehended" by you, then the "same world" must remain "Uninfluenced by you." Where women possess little capacity for understanding, in other words, they offer little potential for influence, for "true action." Certainly this limiting view works against him in Aurora's eyes, particularly one hundred lines later where she refuses his first proposal.
From these comments detailing the limitations of women, Romney expands his perspective to include more far-reaching claims regarding the limitations of civilization, past, present, and future:
The world, we're come to late, is swollen hard With perished generations and their sins: The civiliser's spade grinds horribly On dead men's bones, and cannot turn up soil That's otherwise than fetid. All success Proves partial failure; all advance implies What's left behind; all triumph, something crushed At the chariot-wheels; all government, some wrong: And rich men make the poor, who curse the rich, Who agonise together, rich and poor, Under and over, in the social spasm And crisis of the ages. (2.263-274)
Romney's vision in these lines shows an entirely bleak picture of civilization, one in which "success," "advance," "triumph," "government," "rich," and "poor" alike are all mere signifiers pointing to dismal "failure," "wrong," and "agon[y]," in short, the "social spasm / And crisis of the ages." In keeping with his conventional ideas about gender, the civilization Romney represents here is masculinized (run by "rich men") and produces only the bankruptcy of what has been an historically masculine ideal (the "fetid" soil of "dead men's bones" (7)). In these opening books of the poem, Romney's broadening critique from women to civilization is used by Browning to posit a necessary, causal relation between his ideas about gender and the consequent "crisis" and "failure" of civilization.
Expressing his ideas about civilization here, Romney engages imagery characteristic of the georgic, for example where he observes that our world of "perished generations and their sins" has left the "civiliser's spade" no viable medium to work. In his view, those who would cultivate, "grind!) horribly / On dead men's bones," inevitably "turn[ing] up" the characteristically "fetid" soil of history. Such images are notable for their backward-looking fatalism and likewise notable for their similarity to an equally dismal future as envisioned in the first Book of Virgil's Georgies:
Scilicet et tempus veniet, cumfinibus illis agricola incurvo terram molitus aratro exesa inveniet scabra robigine pila, aut gravibus rastris galeas pulsabit inanis, grandiaque effossis mirabitur ossa sepulcris. (A time shall come when in those lands, as the farmer toils at the soil with crooked plough, he shall find javelins eaten up with rusty mould, or with his heavy hoes shall strike on empty helms, and marvel at the giant bones in the upturned graves.) (Georgies, 1.493-197; qtd. in Goodman, 1)
Virgil's "farmer" in these lines, clearly also performing the work of the "civilizer," turns up the same ruins as does Romney's spade: moldy rusted "javelins," "empty helms," and the same dead men's "giant bones." Here Browning, given her verbatim repetition of key terms from Virgil, is relating Romney's to Virgil's perspective in his Georgies.
Romney's georgic-inspired view here represents what Kurt Heinzelman has characterized as an "enabling critical principle" of Virgil's Georgies. (8) Though Heinzelman, in his "Roman Georgic in the Georgian Age," has suggested that this critical principle is "obscured or distorted by the time any Romantic writer could re-create [it] as culturally useful" (186), I want to argue that in this context it is precisely the aspect Browning responds to so forcefully in her own writing. In short, and in the quotation above where Romney means to suggest a spiraling downwards of civilization (where "All success / Proves partial failure," and "all advance implies/What's left behind" [2.267-269]), his perspective is marked by a "georgic view of history as devolution" (Heinzelman, 187). With his mention of the grinding work of the "civiliser's spade," we see in relief (and with Heinzelman) how this georgic-inspired perspective "maps cultural entropy under the sign of labor":
'redit agricolis labor actus in orbem, / atque in se sua per vestigial volvitur annus' (The farmer's toil returns, moving in a circle, as the year rolls back upon itself over its own footsteps). In this treadmill of history, natural process itself seems to be the living "vestigial" of an ever-accumulating archaeological residuum. (186-187)
The final images from Virgil's text above--the "farmer's toil return[ing], moving in a circle," the "year roll[ing] back upon itself'--direct us back to Romney's sense of the "failure" inherent in "all success," the remainder in "all advance"; with Virgil, he sees history as a "treadmill" of "ever-accumulating archaeological residuum."
Where Romney's perspective engages with both past and future tenses, it again echoes Virgil's speaker in the Georgies passage quoted above ("A time shall come when in those lands, as the farmer toils at the soil with crooked plough, he shall find javelins eaten up.") Both, in other words, view the present moment in the future anterior, or from the perspective of what shall have been: at some time in the future, the toiling farmer shall come to know today's present by way of the (un)buried objects it leaves behind, its "javelins eaten up with rusty mould," its "empty helms," and its "giant bones" in "upturned graves." Without overlooking Virgil's emphasis on the farmer's georgic instruments of labor, his "crooked plough" and "heavy hoes," I would note here how the sense of georgic-inspired discovery in these lines relies on a sense of present experience projected into the future (paraphrased as something like, "as we turn up the soil of rusted, empty, and decayed civilizations, so will our future counterparts"); this projection suggests a circularity anticipating Romney's own emphasis on the remainder inherent in "all advance" ("all advance implies/What's left behind" [2.268-269]). In the end, both georgic-inspired views of "history as devolution" are temporal-historically comprehensive: where they link past, present, and future, they are relentless in their anticipation of the future as a dismal repetition of the past.
Given his view of the hopelessness of a civilization whose progress ("advance") implies its own entropy, one including a female sex wholly unequipped to think a way out, Romney's skeptical reactions to Aurora's determination to "suffer and toil" (4.1157) over her work make perfect sense. And yet, if she must persist in her motto that "Art's life" (4.1157), he will at least suggest an artistic genre for her. Noticing her pale and wan complexion, he observes:
You take it gravely, cousin; you refuse Your dreamland's right of common, and green rest. You break the mythic turf where danced the nymphs, With crooked ploughs of actual life,--let in The axes to the legendary woods, To pay the poll-tax. (4.1159-64)
Here, in much the same manner as previously when he attributes to women roles as "perfect wives, / Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints," Romney rebukes Aurora for refusing culturally prescribed and idyllically pastoral "dreamland's right of common and green rest" for the hard labor of "actual life." Not only does she "break the mythic turf where danced the nymphs," but she has the audacity to break it with the "crooked ploughs" of "actual life," in the form of the georgic. And Romney borrows from the Georgies to make his point: his descriptor phrase "crooked ploughs" is lifted verbatim from Virgil, and in employing it, he highlights the "inscriptive character" of the georgic (Heinzelman, 201). Here, Aurora's use of the "crooked plough" as metaphorical stylus or pen exposes the raw truth of her feminine appropriation of the phallus. The final lines of the quoted text reveal the extent to which Aurora has taken on a masculine role: "ploughs" here have morphed into "axes" whose purpose works both metaphorically and literally in the narrative logic: she penetrates the "legendary woods" of Romney's projected fantasy in order to support her life as a London-based woman writer. In short, she "axes" to pay her "tax[es]." (9) Romney's rebuke captures her content and genre: she will represent "actual," rather than "mythic" life, and she will introduce it by wielding the "crooked ploughs" of the georgic.
The brilliance of Barrett Browning's account of Aurora's work lies in its hand-in-glove response to Romney's own gendered and generic complaints. Responding to his comment about the "civiliser's spade" and its "fetid" soil, Aurora invokes his masculine deity and a masculinized georgic to inquire of Romney's God whether "He who makes, / Can make good things from ill things, best from worst, / As men plant tulips upon dunghills when / They wish them finest?" (2.284-287). Here, she endorses a renewed function for the georgic: where her "men plant tulips upon dunghills," they cultivate unfettered by the medium in which they plant. Likewise, her civilizers work unconstrained by the "fetid" soil of history, a soil polluted by the "sins" of "perished generations." Her repetition of the spading metaphor in the following book carries much the same determination to "prosper," regardless of the means: "I but change my instrument; / I break the spade off, digging deep for gold, / And catch the mattock up" (3.293-295). Aurora's georgic suggests renewed hope in the cultivation of beauty to come: should the "spade" break, she employs the "mattock"; should the topsoil prove "fetid," she digs deeper "for gold."
What I want to suggest here is that Aurora revises Romney's Virgilian-inspired use of the Georgic to update it for her own more optimistic view of her creativity and of the civilization in which she lives and labors. As such, and to supplant Romney's Virgilian-inspired georgic, I suggest that she presents her own feminized version of the "georgic modernity" identified by Kevis Goodman. To unpack what I mean by this, I would like to turn to Goodman's recent and illuminating study Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism, in which she traces the modern development (through the late eighteenth century) of georgic verse in relation to a variety of cultural studies related concerns. Goodman reviews recent critical consensus on the georgic, which has located its attraction in the "promise of matters more 'realistic' or workaday than other genres (and has faulted them for defaulting on a promise they do not entirely make)" (11) and invokes instead a Virgilian-inspired sense of the georgic. She explicates the Virgilian inscriptive pun on versus, which in the Georgies can designate "both the furrows of the field and the lines of verse on the page" (1), informing her reader that Virgil's double sense of versus results in books that are "as much about the tending of words as they are about agriculture and other forms of terraculture; they are concerned not only with words (verba) as bearers of things (res) but also with words as things, exerting friction within representation and requiring labor and care." With their deliberately "soaring words" amplifying the rural res of their subject matter, the Georgies displayed and were understood by their readers to display a "gorgeous verbal tekhne." It is this quality of the georgic, according to Goodman, that is taken forward into history, accounting for its "ongoing theoretical as well as historical significance in the longer course of modernity" (11). By my account, it is a feminized version of this attribute--its "gorgeous verbal tekhne"--that Browning, through Aurora, capitalizes on in her account.
From Goodman (borrowing from Heinzelman), we learn that the georgic in its recent incarnation can be tied to the course of modernity and yet it "quite suddenly disappeared, at least by name, from literary practice into the fissure of a Foucauldian epistemic break" (2). Where it disappeared "only in name, not as a cultural practice" (11), it flourished as a "rhizomatic underpresence," becoming a "foundation for poetic practices during the later eighteenth century, offering itself to that period as an occasion for negotiating temporal flux, spatial extension, and concerns about the transmission not only of traditional precept ... but also of new scientific information and 'intelligence'" (10). As a "protean discursive form," it becomes
adaptable to almost any subject; it narrates agricultural uses of nature and also defines the new careerism of the writer (who is no pastoral singer); it advocates "progress," the march of civilization, but is subversively archaeological in seeing history as embedded, repetitive, and inescapable; it ... honors, above all things, a rhetoric of local detail; and it projects a cult of domesticity against an inherently disruptive erotics of labor. (Heinzelman, 184)
In addressing Barrett Browning's text as georgic, I locate numerous of these characteristics: among them its adaptability, its double sense of versus and its rhizomatic importance to modernity, and in particular its "rhetoric of local detail." Goodman, drawn by an evolving "inner side" of modern literature, seeks beyond the overwhelming scholarly tendency to concentrate on the "'smoothness' of georgic's apparent pleasures," signaling her interest instead in the "communicative or perceptual interferences" emerging within the poetry, these "interferences" or "clashes" serving for her as the "ground ... out of which georgic can plow a sensation of history as affective discomfort, cognitive 'noise'" (Goodman, 9-10). Browning's Aurora, I claim, engages a number of these modern georgic tendencies as Goodman has identified them, particularly the role of its full and noisy "presentness" in interfering with history. In commenting on one of Romney's Virgilian-inspired claims, for example, Aurora responds by showing not only how well-acquainted she (voicing Browning) is with his classically based georgic, but also the extent to which she will appropriate it for her own use. And as is evident in the text above, Aurora has her own use for Virgil's/Romney's "spade" and "plow": rather than use them to discover "ill things" such as "rusty" weapons and "giant bones," she will instead produce "good things" by "plant[ing] tulips upon [the] dunghills" of history. Finally, in an uncanny instance where Aurora's sense of the georgic anticipates Goodman in challenging Romney, the cult of domesticity he projects on her from the outset is displaced by Aurora with what Goodman refers to as an "inherently disruptive erotics of labor."
Where I see Browning's Aurora to be regendering and modernizing a contemporary sense of the georgic, I am responding to critical discussion over the poem that has emphasized it as both challenging assumptions about gender and as negotiating novelistic and poetic genres. Mermin and Leighton, for example, see the work as a "generic anomaly," as a novel-poem with a complex "fusion of two apparently incompatible genres [which] gives it a startling originality and allows for a scope and flexibility that neither genre alone could provide." (10) Only one recent reading considers the poem under its generic aspect as georgic: Anne Wallace's strikingly original "'Nor in Fading Silks Compose': Sewing, Walking, and Poetic Labor in Aurora Leigh." (11) For its careful attention to the work of the georgic in the poem, Wallace's study deserves more than mere mention here, particularly where she reads "gender against the genres which metaphorize art as 'labor'" and turns for illumination to what she refers to as the "sotto voce genres of georgic and its early nineteenth-century extension, peripatetic" (225). Aurora's primary function, concludes Wallace, is not georgic but peripatetic, especially where she exists as "one of "Wordsworth's pedestrian-poets" (227).
Marian, who exercizes for Wallace a more "common," "material" form of women's labor is instead associated with the georgic. As such, her story takes center stage for Wallace: her sewing in fact "functions as the saving cultivating labor that preserves her past into a potential future.... [I]ndeed [she suggests], it seems as if Barrett Browning might be constructing [Marian's] sewing as georgic labor" (227). As the argument develops, it privileges the material elements (related to Victorian women, their sewing and walking) that come to displace more critically acknowledged themes in the poem. (12) Thus for Wallace, the poem's "crucial relations among women, work, and writing" are reformulated as the "problematically entangled" connections between "sewing, walking and poetry," and Marian Erie's story is revealed to set out "the full dimensions of this entanglement." And yet, by the conclusion of her argument, Wallace's privileged metaphors of sewing and walking (imaged in the poem as "sister-labor[s] of poetry") have yielded only an "ideological impasse," a "developing deadlock[,] a thorough devaluation of women's work," where "metaphors of material agency give way to those of transcendent love" (227)
For Wallace, then, the narrative triumph of Aurora and Romney's love story at the conclusion of the poem displaces, even erases, the work's important attention to feminine material agency, and this displacement is what produces her "impasse" or "deadlock." Though Wallace has gained a number of valuable insights along the way, her trade-off of material agency for transcendent love is ultimately unsatisfactory. Instead, I would suggest, both can be maintained through the narrative's conclusion: where Marian sews throughout and Aurora writes throughout, each retains her agency, and the two together remain "sister-labor[ers]" (227). As such, Marian's role as feminine material agent is important to the extent that it complements and illuminates Aurora's own. In my reading, then, Marian's story--where she rehearses a "degraded" past and anticipates a more hopeful future--serves to illustrate my central point regarding Aurora's more optimistic, modern, updating of the georgic as it is evident in her "dunghills" into "tulips" metaphor. Key evidence of this is in Marian's childbirth, an essential, material event in her life and the one that offers her, finally, assurance of a more hopeful future. In short, Marian's childbirth literalizes the numerous generative and resurrection metaphors Aurora engages with in subsequent books of her narrative.
In her role as Aurora's "Muse," (13) finally, Marian speaks, and the telling of her story is a key moment in the narrative. Emphasizing the importance of feminine speech in this extended narrative speech act, Mermin reminds us that repressed perspectives such as Marian's are all the more valuable where they replace silence or absence with a voiced presence: regardless of her working class-inflected use of the language, "what matters is that Marian speak and be understood" (Mermin, 216). Where her speaking out in the poem is used to break convention and as such "work" doubly as labor and as political act, Marian functions as an invaluable coordinate of this narrative's "triple female speaker." It is the inscriptional labor that goes into her story, her "shared, confrontational, emancipatory right to language," as Leighton reminds us, "which marks Barrett Browning's sense of herself ... as a woman poet, and as a poet speaking for women," and as she is embodied in her character Aurora (Leighton, 157).
The second half of this discussion will focus on Browning's representation of Aurora's inscriptional labor. Recalling Goodman's observation that it is this quality of the georgic that accounts for its "ongoing theoretical as well historical significance in the longer course of modernity" (11), I suggest that this attention to "verbal tekhne" is the key to what Wallace's Victorian cultural-studies account of the poem omits and what, in our post-Foucaudian world, is too often omitted in such cultural-studies approaches: a keen sensitivity to the "radical intransitivity" of modern literature. (14) I will move now to an extended analysis of Aurora's "verbal tekhne," not only where it provides evidence of her own unique georgic formulations but also as it represents thematically her modern regendering of Romney's masculinist, Virgilian georgic.
Aurora is given the whole of Book 5 to reflect on writing in general and on her writing in particular. Thus, it is no mistake that Book 5 is at the structural heart of the poem: it is here that Browning's Aurora moves to formulating her own, very earthy, poetics without relying on a
cue from Romney. (15) The Book's remarkable opening shows the extent to which she utilizes the images of georgic cultivation to construct her own poetics:
Aurora Leigh, be humble. Shall I hope To speak my poems in mysterious tune With man and nature?--with the lava-lymph That trickles from successive galaxies Still drop by drop adown the finger of God In still new worlds? ... With spring's delicious trouble in the ground, Tormented by the quickened blood of roots, And softly pricked by golden crocus-sheaves In token of the harvest-time of flowers? (5.1-11)
It is for good reason that Aurora frames this opening verse paragraph of Book 5 with the self-injunction to "be humble," given that in these lines she lays open the audacity of her poetic hubris. The opening move suggests she will use her poetic voice to sing in "tune" together with "man and nature." This "mysterious tune" initiates a succession of modifications, all used to inform and expand Romney's (Virgilian) sense of artistic limitation: she will speak "with the lava-lymph," "with summer-days," "with spring's delicious trouble," "with winters and with autumns," with "sexual passion," "with mother's breasts," "With multitudinous life," and "With the great escapings of ecstatic souls" (5.3-20). The closing frame suggests a similarly audacious proposal, where she asks, "can I speak my verse / So plainly in tune to these things and the rest, / That men shall feel it.... / Alike imperious as the primal rhythm / Of that theurgic nature?" (5.24-30). Where Aurora's poetry would take on the "primal rhythm" of a "theurgic nature," her god is not an object of thought or study, but rather, etymologically, an agent of work ("theurgic," from theo + ergon [divinely assisted labor]), thus emphasizing her own poetic aspiration as an active, elemental force of nature, one driven by supernatural power. The closing series of images above, the "spring's delicious trouble," the "quickened blood of roots," and the pricking "crocus-sheaves," convey not only a powerful erotic charge, but as "token" of a future "harvest-time" they anticipate both natural and poetic fulfillment.
These striking images at the outset of the poem's Book 5 introduce the soaring ambition of Aurora's own georgic-motivated creation story, one deeply rooted in the earthiness of the images engaged in these initial lines:
Earth (shut up By Adam, like a fakir in a box Left too long buried) remained stiff and dry, A mere dumb corpse, till Christ the Lord came down, Unlocked the doors, forced open the blank eyes, And used his kingly chrism to straighten out The leathery tongue turned back into the throat; Since when, she lives, remembers, palpitates In every limb, aspires in every breath, Embraces infinite relations.... ... See the earth, The body of our body, the green earth, Indubitably human like this flesh And these articulated veins through which Our heart drives blood. There's not a flower of spring That dies ere June, but vaunts itself allied By issue and symbol, by significance And correspondence, to that spirit-world Outside the limits of our space and time, Whereto we are bound. Let poets give it voice With human meanings.... (5.103-126)
The language here, especially to the extent that it characterizes Aurora's creative inspiration, points earthward throughout, in references to "earth" (5.103, 116, 117), "turf' (4.1161), "ground" (5.8), and, more negatively, "dunghills" (2.286) and "fetid soil" (2.266-67). These references to soil, to cultivation of the earth, metaphorize her own literary cultivation. Accompanying this is the sense of the poet's imaginative labor as parallel to God's inspired creation of--literally, cultivation of--man from earth initially, and especially the final apocalyptic resurrection of bodies into new insight. These verse paragraphs of Aurora Leigh's Book 5 are richly illustrative of a process of cultivation that links earth, the human body, plant and human life, the spiritual realm, and the "voice" of poetry. The convergence of these images forms an organizing metaphor for poetic creation in the poem as a whole, where the developing narrative thread invokes the poet's "eyes," "tongue," and earthly body (5.107, 109). As such, this metaphor draws extensively on the georgic at a number of levels, particularly as it reflects the central theme of cultivation.
The first sequence from the lines above presents an Earth initially "stiff and dry," a "mere dumb corpse," "shut up" and "too long buried," presumably by the sins of Adam. Christ the Lord comes down to effect an awakening, here metaphorically of the earth as "corpse": he "forces open the blank eyes," and "straighten[s] out / The leathery tongue" to invoke sentient operations of sight and significantly here, voice. Since her awakening, the earth "lives," "remembers," "palpitates," "aspires," and--striving beyond her finite nature--"embraces infinite relations" (5.103-112). Especially in its association with the return of Christ, this metaphor of awakening is framed as a regeneration or resurrection of human mortality in general and its aspiration toward "infinite relations." (16)
The second sequence of lines above, where it presents the "green earth" as "body of our body," as "human like this flesh / And these articulated veins," literalizes the opening metaphor. The "flower of spring" introduced in the next line works as a parallel metaphor for the human condition, particularly where it "vaunts itself allied" to a "spirit-world," which in this sequence serves much the same role as the "infinite relations" of the previous. The final optative, "Let poets give it voice / With human meanings," brings together the many elements of the image, here most literally where "it," signifying the "flower of spring" or its "vaunted alliance," is destined to be given "voice" by the "poets." Where "human meanings" in this construction are rendered by way of the poet's tools, that is, "issue and symbol," "significance/ And correspondence," the modifier "human" associates them explicitly with the mortal realm. And yet "human meanings" pale in contrast to the poet's immortal voice, particularly as we see it embodied in the divine resuscitation of Earth's "leathery tongue." Poetic voice in this context takes us through the conjoining of earth and flesh as "body of our body," toward "the limits of our space and time," toward, finally, infinitude.
Aurora's experience of her writing, of her poetry, is deeply and intimately tied to her ideas about cultivation, and a central aspect of this is the medium in which it takes place: the earth. As she makes her way through the poem, through her life, her sense of the centrality of the work of cultivation remains, while her rootedness in the cultivating medium of the earth only grows. This becomes especially apparent as the verse-novel moves toward its concluding books, where she and Romney maintain an extended dialogue about work and its role in their lives. Near the conclusion of Book 8, for example, Aurora notes the denigration of women's work in relation to men's: "The honest earnest man must stand and work, / The woman also,--otherwise she drops / At once below the dignity of man, / Accepting serfdom" (8.712-715). Responding in the following book, Romney raises her thoughts:
"Beloved," [he] sang, "we must be here to work; And men who work can only work for men, And, not to work in vain, must comprehend Humanity and so work humanly, And raise men's bodies still by raising souls, As God did first." "But stand upon the earth," I said, "to raise them, this is human too." (9.849-855)
Again above, we see Aurora's connection to the earth; here it parallels her "growing" relation to the lives around her, notably to Marian and, finally, to Romney. Aurora's parallel references to "flower" and "root," to "spiritual" and "natural," to "breath[ing]" and "lov[ing]," to poetry and creation, interweave as the poem nears its conclusion:
Flower from root, And spiritual from natural, grade by grade In all our life. A handful of the earth To make God's image! The despised poor earth, The healthy odorous earth,--I missed with it The divine breath that blows the nostrils out To ineffable inflatus,--ay, the breath Which love is. (9.649-956)
With the closing mention of "love" here, Aurora's creative inspiration is tied to her feelings of love for Romney, particularly as their conflicting ideas about labor approach each other. In the end, Browning seems to suggest, both Romney and critics such as Anne Wallace would do well to acknowledge not only that poetry can serve as the "real 'work' of the world," but that in a very literal sense, poetry is divinely inspired "philanthropy": Aurora's clarion-blast, after all, will "blow all class-walls level as Jericho's" (9.932). Thus, Browning's poem suggests to readers and critics alike that its influence on individual renewal will create "new dynasties of the race of men; / Developed whence, shall grow spontaneously / New churches, new oeconomies, new laws / Admitting freedom, new societies" (9.945-948).
Aurora's fulfilled vision transforms the eroticism of the "quickened blood of roots" in Book 5, to the fully developed "Flower" of Book 9. Likewise, the "despised poor earth," formerly Romney's "dunghills" (2.286) has now become the "healthy odorous earth," an image invoking Aurora's "tulips." (17) Finally, and returning to the text above wherein Romney rehearses his familiar litany of "work," "humanity," and "raising souls" (9.852, 853), I would note in closing that he sings it: "Beloved, [he] sang, we must be here to work" (9.849). Romney, now blinded, is in this sense become a lyricist; through Aurora's inspiration he resembles in this respect a modern day "blind poet," one approaching Aurora's Homer. As such, and in the end, her feminine "erotics of labor" is in more than one sense complemented by Homeric "fire" and cultivated in Virgil's "healthy, odorous earth."
(1) From an autobiographical essay titled, "My Character and Bro's Campared!," written February 1821, in The Brownings' Correspondence, ed. Philip Kelley, Ronald Hudson, and Scott Lewis, 16 vols. to date (Winfield, Kansas: Wedgestone Press, 1984-), 1:358. Their mutuality develops during their study together under Daniel McSwiney, a tutor who had been hired to prepare Bro for his formal schooling (1817-20). Barrett Browning petitions to join her brother and the petition is granted for her, too, to study Greek and Latin. Their other ten siblings are taught by a Madame Gordin, from whom Barrett Browning learns French.
(2) From a letter to Hugh Stuart Boyd written March 3, 1828, in Correspondence, 2:107.
(3) From "On Ancient and Modern Literature" written 1820, in The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ed. Sandra Donaldson, 5 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2010), 5:353.
(4) Kevis Goodman, Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004).
(5) Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 2.47, 2.34-35. Citations here and subsequently are identified in the text by book and line numbers.
(6) Within a few dozen lines, Aurora has upbraided Romney for his comment about her poetry as "mere woman's work": she comments that she had rather "dance / At fairs on tight-rope," "than shift the types / For tolerable verse ... Better far / Pursue a frivolous trade by serious means, / Than a sublime art frivolously" (2.253-254, 255-259).
(7) This dismal view of civilization bears striking similarity to Paul Valery's twentieth-century perspective in "The Crisis of the Mind," a letter-essay published at the conclusion of World War I. Here, too, the image of "dead men's bones" is used as metaphor for the lethargy of a civilization in apparent decline, for example where a "Hamlet of Europe" "broods on the tedium of rehearsing the past and the folly of always trying to innovate": "Every skull he picks up is an illustrious skull. Whose was it? This one was Lionardo.... And that other skull was Leibnitz, who dreamed of universal peace. And this one was Kant ... and Kant begat Hegel, and Hegel begat Marx, and Marx begat" (Paul Valery: An Anthology, ed. Jackson Matthews [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977], p. 100).
(8) Kurt Heinzelman, "Roman Georgic in the Georgian Age: A Theory of Romantic Genre," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 33, no. 2 (1991): 186.
(9) In her "Least 'Angelical' Poem in the Language," Lana Dailey explores contemporary implications of Aurora's and women's economic inequalities, citing her quest for "artistic integrity and financial independence" and the extent to which she confronts the dominant ideology in her dual roles "as worker and wife" ("'The Least "Angelical" Poem in the Language': Political Economy, Gender, and the Heritage of Aurora Leigh,'" VP 44, no. 4(2006): 530, 531).
(10) Dorothy Mermin, Elizabeth Barret t Browning: The Origins of a New Poetry (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 184-185.
(11) Anne Wallace, "'Nor in Fading Silks Compose': Sewing, Walking, and Poetic Labor in Aurora Leigh," English Literary History 64, no. 1 (1997): 223-256.
(12) Her reference to material forms of women's labor such as Marian's sewing, a material labor practiced by "almost all" Victorian women, of "all classes" both paid and unpaid, leads Wallace into secondary sources detailing a number of her interests associated with cultural concerns around Victorian women: working-class women's lives, the body, ideas around sexual respectability, the material conditions of the impoverished needlewoman in Victorian England, nineteenth century domestic and economic thought, and the "domestic education" of Victorian women (Wallace, pp. 232, 224, 253n25, 254n38). This material awareness, she observes, adds a new dimension to our reading of Browning's verse-novel and, in particular, the socio-cultural context in which it was written.
(13) Angela Leighton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 147, 151-152.
(14) Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), p. 300. Engaging Foucault, Tilottama Rajan reminds us that "Foucault describes modernity in terms of depths and interiors, density and enigma, as harboring an 'inner side' to its 'visibility.' Most important, he identifies modernity with the emergence of literature ... as a language turned toward this 'inner side'" (Tilottama Rajan, "'The Prose of the World': Romanticism, the Nineteenth Century, and the Reorganization of Knowledge," Modern Language Quarterly: A Journal of Literary History 67, no. 4 : 502). I am extending the point here to suggest that Wallace's study of Aurora Leigh serves as a paradigmatic example of what Tilottoma Rajan has identified in her discussion as the tendency of Victorian Studies toward "assimilation] to the culturalist paradigm" (p. 490). Rajan characterizes the "culturalist paradigm," or "cultural studies complex," as working against the spirit of Foucault's modernity, particularly where it makes an "imperative" of "think[ing] human beings not in terms of ontological or psychological concerns ... but as social or, more precisely, economic entities" (p. 486). Consequently, she suggests that a "casualty" of the nineteenth century "amalgamation" toward cultural studies is thus "poetry, [or] at least Victorian poetry" (p. 495). And this loss of the importance of Victorian poetry and what it has to offer, we learn, brings into relief "what poetry once represented," which "includes both its earlier sense as imaginative writing and the capacity for difficult, often ontological or epistemological thought" (p. 496).
Rajan's insights go a long way toward explaining Wallace's self-diagnosed "ideological impasse": Wallace's argument deadlocks as a direct consequence of her cultural studies influenced impulse to reduce characters to economic entities and to forego thoughtful attention to the aesthetic and imaginative dimensions of the text.
(15) Readings such as Helen Cooper's Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist suggest that much more of the poem (than Wallace's select Books 1-4) is at stake in an informed reading of it: not only are Books 1-4 reflected in Books 6-9, but the thematically "pivotal" sequence comes in Book 5 (too late to address Wallace's represented interests). By Cooper's account, the final four Books of the poem are key to the narrative overall as stages in both Aurora's "integration" of her identities as woman and poet and in her "transformation" from being the "object of Romney's gaze to being subject of her own vision" (Helen Cooper, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Woman and Artist [Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1988], pp. 145, 155).
(16) Again, the "kingly chrism" employed in Aurora's metaphor of discovery and reawakening invokes stunningly erotic imagery, but also can be seen to work as a mediator to Romney's Virgilian vision of the process of the "civiliser's spade grindfing] horribly / On dead men's bones." Moreover, recall that Romney's vision is ultimately backward-looking, toward "what's left behind" (2.269), whereas Aurora's is resolutely forward--toward "relations" with the "infinite" (5.112).
(17) Joyce Zonana uses this reference to the "healthy odorous earth" in characterizing Aurora as an "immanent, embodied, earthly woman" ("The Embodied Muse: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh and Feminist Poetics," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 8, no. 2 : 244). As evidence for this insight, she cites Browning's poetic references to the "rhythm of blood," to "mothers' breasts" (p. 252) and Browning's more general attention to the female body, and to the "prodigious rain," which she relates to "other 'rains'" in Books 1 and 4. Where Zonana quotes, but does not explicate, the language in question, I use it to explore Aurora's formulation of her "earthy poetics," particularly (as we have seen) at the opening of Book 5. This image, I suggest, returns us to the preeminent role of the georgic in establishing Aurora's aesthetic and her own, larger sense of history.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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