Voicing an Epic for the Age in The Prelude and Aurora Leigh.
In order to participate in such a distinguished generic tradition, both poets had to produce a voice adequate to the task, and they did so by addressing a specific reader whose role all other readers could come to occupy. Focusing on the constitutive role of these individual readers, usually identified as Samuel Taylor Coleridge--albeit a fictionalized version--and Romney Leigh, this essay reveals the parallels between Wordsworth's and Barrett Browning's poetic practice; it also evaluates their divergences, as the lyric device of apostrophe upon which Wordsworth relies is developed by Barrett Browning into a more dialogic mode. While Wordsworth takes advantage of masculine privilege to occupy the role of an epic poet with ease, Barrett Browning depicts Aurora's struggle to exercise the authority of a writer who summons a responsive reader and her ultimate progress toward not only recognizing but also celebrating the poet's dependence upon the voices of others. By attending to voice, the "I" that may speak to "you," rather than to the formal constraints of the epic as a genre, I show that Wordsworth and Barrett Browning developed a new form of epic for the nineteenth century by reimagining their poetry's temporal relationship to readers in the present and future.
In aspiring to be an epic poet, Barrett Browning had to confront deeply gendered beliefs--which persisted despite the success of Aurora Leigh--about the nature of literary production. For instance, a complimentary November 1856 review described how readers of the poem listen both to "the voice of [Barrett Browning's] inner life" and to "the voice of an Isaiah ... that voice which speaks like a revelation from heaven, that 'utterance of the gods' which is the attribute of the greatest poets." (3) The intimate and personal voice of the woman is distinguished from the voice that asserts Barrett Browning's status as a great poet, a status dependent upon her role as a mere conduit of unearthly powers. Indeed, much to Barrett Browning's amusement, it was apparently rumored in Florence in 1857 that "'Aurora' was written by the 'spirits'" and its author "disavowed any share in it except the mere mechanical holding of the pen-!!!" (3957). In such accounts, the elevated role of a prophet able to commune with the Muses and other divine beings is transformed into the passive role of a spirit medium capable of automatic writing. The former privilege is reserved for male writers alone.
More serious discussions of Aurora Leigh in the 1850s still betray such gendered bias toward its author. As Marisa Palacios Knox notes, Victorian critics "could neither avoid defining the aesthetic value of Aurora Leigh in gendered terms nor yet decide to which gender its hybrid form belonged." (4) H. F. Chorley of The Athenaeum provides a representative example in claiming that, in such "a poetical romance," we hear
a mingling of ... the voice of the clarion and the lyric cadence of the harp with the cracked school-room spinet ... of eloquent apostrophe and adust [i.e., melancholy] speculation ... Milton's organ is put by Mrs. Browning to play polkas in May-Fair drawing rooms and fitted out by her with its Aesthetic Review stops. (5)
Chorley's patronizing description paradoxically registers the power of Aurora Leigh as a multigeneric and multivocal work through which we can still hear the voices of Barrett Browning's precursors and contemporaries, as well as the characteristic voices produced by different genres. However, Chorley clearly mocks Barrett Browning's epic pretensions with derisive references to decidedly feminine spaces and instruments. She is made responsible for creating a monstrously absurd work through her female appropriation of male literary traditions. Feminist critics have responded to this early reception of Aurora Leigh by characterizing the poem as the "delineation of a female poetic subject and a feminized poetic tradition," a critical commonplace that Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins have revised by arguing that "the gendering of the subject is complicated in Aurora Leigh by its overt juxtaposition of literary genres." (6) We must recognize how the hybridity of both gender and genre persists in the poem, as Barrett Browning deliberately uses the epic form to produce a poetic voice that is recognizably akin to the voices of male predecessors and peers writing in several genres, including novels, romances, and lyrics.
While Barrett Browning conceived of "a sort of novel-poem ... admit ting of high application" as early as 1844, her correspondence indicates that she did not make significant progress on the poem that would become Aurora Leigh until 1853, several years after the posthumous publication of William Wordsworth's The Prelude (1793; 3172). Both avid admirers of the Poet Laureate, Barrett Browning and her husband mention sending and receiving copies of the poem, his "last work ... the legacy," in letters from late 1850 (2887, 2890, 2893). The Prelude offered a prototype for Barrett Browning's planned work, a model of how the epic might accommodate the Bildungsroman--a prose genre that had emerged only at the end of the eighteenth century--as well as the political events of the age. Many modern scholars have commented upon the resemblance between the two works. Critical accounts of The Prelude as an influential precursor text for Aurora Leigh tend to focus on Barrett Browning's change in emphasis from love of nature to love of mankind. This shift has been attributed to differences in both period and genre: for example, Chris R. Vanden Bossche and Laura E. Haigwood claim that "the shift from Wordsworthian pastoral to the sufferings of the urban poor makes Aurora Leigh a characteristic Victorian work." (7) In particular, the rise of the social problem novel influenced Barrett Browning's choice of subject, which she feared I was too similar to that proposed by Charles Dickens for Hard Times (3534).
Unsurprisingly, gender has also been said to underlie the differences between The Prelude and Aurora Leigh. Kathleen Blake argues that "[wjhile the male poet, like Wordsworth, builds his work upon a double bonding with those he loves and with nature, the female poet, like Aurora Leigh, thinks of work and love as mutually exclusive alternatives, with either choice threatening to silence her." (8) The critical accounts that emphasize the restrictions experienced by Barrett Browning and her heroine tend to regard Aurora Leigh as unable to trace the arc of The Prelude in full; thus Blake describes the female poet as only able to reach the "halfway mark" (p. 394)- Reversing this trajectory, other scholars praise Barrett Browning for extending Wordsworth's radical agenda; Emily V. Epstein Kobayashi argues that Aurora Leigh "expand[s] the realm of Wordsworth's 'feeling intellect' toward an intersubjective idealism that would reach into the city and fulfill the promise of Wordsworth's revolutionary identification with the common man." (9)
This range of critical assessments indicates the potential for considering The Prelude and Aurora Leigh as parallel attempts to reimagine the epic, attempts that were published only six years apart. Both poets envisage and en- I force the responses of their readers, who are imagined as occupying a range of temporal positions--past, present, and future--by the poet writing of and to the age. The most significant such response is acknowledging the epic status of I the voice produced by each poem. Wordsworth uses apostrophe to place himself in a long tradition of epic poets, asserting his vocation by claiming the masculine authority enjoyed by both his precursors and his desired reader. The Prelude revises the originating trope of the epic--the invocation of the Muse--by relocating the origin and destination of the poet's voice to a human reader rather than a divine influence. In contrast, in the developmental narrative of Aurora Leigh, the eponymous poet-narrator must confront the distinction between the male poet and the female Muse upon which such invocations have long depended. Barrett Browning makes use of this predicament to represent Aurora's invocation of a reader in a context that is more dialogic than strictly apostrophic, acknowledging the circularity of call and response as well as the other voices upon which the poet's voice relies. In what follows, I first discuss the dynamics of address in The Prelude in order to establish the terms of Wordsworth's masculine poetics before examining how Barrett Browning contended with the possibilities and limitations of such a poetics, most notably in demonstrating the dialogic potential of the epic. Rather than deferring to a genealogical account of Aurora Leigh's relationship to Wordsworth's poem, I emphasize Barrett Browning's revisionary process of voicing the epic, a genre whose most recent incarnations only increased her desire to render it in a new form.
The Poem Addressed to Coleridge
The power and singularity of Wordsworth's poetic voice in The Prelude is revealed over the course of the epic to be premised upon its addressee Coleridge's voice, which preexisted the poem and thus formed the ground from which arose the voice we can now hear: that of Wordsworth as he responds to his friend's charge to write. Coleridge is both Wordsworth's guide--M. H. Abrams argues that he functions as Virgil did for Dante--and his Muse, both the source and the bourn of his voice. (10) Coleridge's own voice permeates The Prelude, most obviously in the opening books' repeated allusions to his poem "Frost at Midnight." In the two-part Prelude of 1799, the voice of the Derwent and the voice of "my nurse's song" (I: 3) are almost immediately joined by the voice of Coleridge, as Wordsworth places a reference to "my 'sweet birthplace'" (I: 8) in quotation marks to indicate its status as a borrowing from "Frost at Midnight." The closing lines of the 1799 Prelude feature Wordsworth quoting "Frost at Midnight" again, without indicating he is doing so this time (II: 496-497). Coleridge's poem gives Wordsworth many of the terms and concepts that prove to be so central to The Prelude, from the "owlet's cry" (1. 2) to "that eternal language" (1. 65) to be detected in the natural landscape. (11) Wordsworth's response to this text, his vocative call in reply to the always already animate voice of Coleridge, defines his poetic voice as both resulting from an empirical reader and creating an imaginary one that real readers could later inhabit.
All other readers of The Prelude are continually reminded that they are hearing a voice that was first intended for other, very specific ears. While the "gentle breeze" is greeted with "O welcome friend!" in the opening lines of the 1805 version, the next apostrophe to a companion is to Coleridge with the "Thus far, O friend" that jarringly converts what seemed to be the present of the "glad preamble" into the past. (12) Such apostrophic moments come thick and fast in the poem, usually in the vocative iamb of "O friend." William Waters argues that in poems addressed to contemporaries, "nonaddressed bystanders" are always invited to listen in by virtue of the text's status as a poem. (13) Similarly, Jonathan Culler claims that lyric cannot be conceptualized through John Stuart Mill's famous emphasis on overhearing, as it usually functions through "triangulated address--address to the reader by means of address to something or someone else." (14) While Mill believed that "the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet's utter unconsciousness of a listener," the far-from-solitary poet of The Prelude is not only addressing one particular listener but also, in doing so, betraying an awareness of an audience beyond that addressee." The triangulation of address in The Prelude reveals how Wordsworth's speech directed to Coleridge functions as an invitation to other readers who might also come to inhabit the projected role of addressee.
The Prelude not only imagines readers beyond Coleridge; it also imagines a Coleridge who, even if he did perhaps exist at the height of his and Wordsworth's friendship and collaboration, is only accessible through the medium of the poem and thus takes on a purely textual existence like that enjoyed by the fictional Romney in Aurora Leigh. Coleridge becomes, to borrow Susan Eilenberg's formulation, "an abstract possibility inherent in writing itself'--and this is an inevitable result of Wordsworth's use of address. (16) Waters notes how the primary addressee of a poem cannot exactly coincide with the person addressed, who is often beseeched "to see himself' as the poet does (pp. 25, 33). The Prelude's addresses to Coleridge function like apostrophes to inanimate objects as Culler describes them, working "to will a state of affairs, to attempt to bring it into being" (p. 215). The address is both "a substitute or compensation for a lack" and "an object in an expressive transaction between I and you," especially when Wordsworth uses the poem to pray, hope, and yearn for Coleridge's safety and pleasure in blessings that also work as imperatives (Waters, p. 43, original emphasis). Phrases such as "Speed thee well!" (VI: 256) and "Fare thee well" (II: 479) recur in response to different biographical incidents of departure, whether to London in 1799 or to Malta in 1804. The physical absence, whether actual or anticipated, of the historical Coleridge haunts The Prelude as it continually looks forward to the moment when he will receive the poem, but the Coleridge brought into being through Wordsworth's address is overwhelmingly present.
Even the past becomes reoriented around the absence of Coleridge in The Prelude, as Wordsworth's mind attempts to fill that void retrospectively through the power of apostrophic address at the time of composition. For example, as he remembers his summer pursuits during college vacations with his sister, Dorothy, and his future wife, Mary Hutchinson, Wordsworth remarks upon Coleridge's absence from their circle: "O friend, we had not seen thee at that time" (VI: 246). But even when both the present and the past are marked by Coleridge's absence, his status as a reader ensures his presence:
And yet a power is on me and a strong Confusion, and I seem to plant thee there. Far art thou wandered now in search of health, And milder breezes--melancholy lot-- But thou art with us, with us in the past, The present, with us in the times to come. (VI: 247-252)
Wordsworth appears unsure of how he conjures up the missing Coleridge in these lines, referring mysteriously to "a power" and "a strong / Confusion." The effects of apostrophe seem crucial here, however, as Wordsworth shifts from describing his invocation of Coleridge ("I seem to plant thee there") to performing it in the poem itself; "Far art thou wandered now" becomes "thou art with us." The repetition of "art" and "thou" reverses the order of these words, as Wordsworth's recognition of a distance to be overcome is followed by the verbal act of summoning Coleridge that erases such distance. Even in such an apparently private moment, Wordsworth self-assuredly inhabits the traditionally masculine role of the bard: with the "power" of Imagination upon him, he is able not only to prophesy Coleridge's return but also to enact it.
The "now" of 1804 describes an empirical absence, and Wordsworth's aside of "melancholy lot" expresses regret for Coleridge's isolation. Such parenthetical comments recur in The Prelude, creating an intimate tone by appearing to reveal a deeper layer of feeling shared in a whispered aside. Here, such a tone draws the reader closer, preparing him for Wordsworth's declaration that "thou art with us" as, in the lyric "now" of apostrophe, Coleridge is taken outside narrative temporality and into an eternal present of enunciation where he can always be with Wordsworth. Coleridge is able to occupy any of the possible times evoked by The Prelude because his status as Wordsworth's primary reader means he is present at every point in the development of Wordsworth's poetic voice, from its early beginnings to its imagined ends. Coleridge is always already there for Wordsworth, prior to the readership of posterity that Wordsworth did ultimately imagine, whether The Prelude was to be published after the completion of The Recluse or--when the larger project became impossible--after Wordsworth's death. Other readers than Coleridge are anticipated, but he is always the one for whom the poem is intended, the one whom subsequent readers can only succeed in emulating through the erasure of a temporal gap.
This erasure takes place through the poem's performance of intimacy, which is realized in the projected responsiveness of a specific addressee whose role is also available to other readers. Wordsworth's intimacy with Coleridge is both asserted and created in The Prelude itself, making it both an informing context and a desired product of the poem. Such intimacy licenses Wordsworth to make otherwise immodest statements about his own powers, knowing as he does that Coleridge holds him in such high regard. Secure in the esteem of another poet, Wordsworth is able to dispel any anxiety about his work being poorly received and instead trust in the male authorial privilege of confidently claiming intellectual parity with those who will read and critique it. At the end of Book VII, for example, Wordsworth parenthetically explains the terms of the relationship that permits him to speak of such things. Describing himself as one "who looks / In steadiness ... with a feeling of the whole" (VII: 710-713) and is thus able to comprehend what appears to others as "blank confusion" (VII: 696), he writes:
....This (if still, As hitherto, with freedom 1 may speak, And the same perfect openness of mind, Not violating any just restraint, As I would hope, of real modesty), This did I feel in that vast receptacle. The Spirit of Nature was upon me here[.] (VII: 730-736)
Referring back to the tone in which he has spoken "hitherto," Wordsworth expresses his hope that such conditions as "perfect openness of mind" may continue, demonstrating through the use of the hypothetical his deference to the reader who is the only one who can continue to permit him such liberties-- even as he ironically asserts these liberties by noting his reliance upon them. Intimacy is always performative in The Prelude, creating the desired context in which a fictionalized "I" can lay claim to poetic authority by speaking to an equally fictionalized "you."
The most striking instance of this in the poem is a brief parenthetical comment that simultaneously functions as an aside to Coleridge and an acknowledgement of other readers, even as it refuses to address them directly. In describing his distress during Britain's war with France, Wordsworth recounts dreams in which he "long orations ... pleaded / Before unjust tribunals, with a voice I Labouring" (X: 376-378). These internal dramatizations of holding himself to account, "in the place / The holiest that I knew of--my own soul" (X: 379-380), are confided to Coleridge: "(I speak bare truth, / As if to thee alone in private talk)" (X: 371-372). Here his performance of intimacy is both enabled and disabled by the poem's status as an address to Coleridge. Even as Wordsworth enacts private talk by turning to Coleridge and thus away from his other potential readers, a gesture made visible by the use of parentheses, his phrase "[a]s if' indicates that such privacy is purely hypothetical and that these other readers are still the audience for any such comments. Readers of The Prelude other than Coleridge are made privy to a performance of an intimate relationship between poet and addressee that, appearing in a poem rather than a letter, is always necessarily public.
Such a performance is also evident in Barrett Browning's treatment of address in Aurora Leigh, an autobiographical work--albeit of a fictional poet-- that again shows that both the source and the bourn of the poet's voice is the voice of another. What distinguishes Aurora Leigh, however, is Barrett Browning's introduction of a third prominent voice in the poem and her examination of how voices can come into conflict through attempts to assert authority. While Wordsworth uses apostrophe to depict a predominantly sympathetic and symbiotic relationship between himself and Coleridge, Barrett Browning uses dialogue to portray the difficult negotiations necessary for developing such a relationship. The atmosphere created by The Prelude's invocation of an exclusive and empowering homosocial bond, and of the masculinized role of the commanding bard, is conducive to Wordsworth's assumption of an epic voice. In contrast, Aurora Leigh dramatizes the female poet's struggle to attain such authority as she confronts the reliance on gendered difference that underlies the epic voice and the readership to which it appeals. Because Aurora speaks to men as a woman and is increasingly reluctant to speak for women, her career offers insight into Barrett Browning's own difficulties in joining the cadre of epic poets. Ironically, Barrett Browning's most effective strategy is to use dialogue to present both the "I" and the "you" of Aurora Leigh as novelistic characters, resisting the feminized sincerity increasingly associated with lyric poetry--despite the masculine prerogative behind Wordsworth's lyric apostrophes--in the Victorian period.
Writing Her Story for Her Better Self
While Wordsworth fictionalizes the figures and events of his early life in The Prelude, Barrett Browning is swift to note in an 1855 letter to her cousin John Kenyon that she is not her own subject in Aurora Leigh: the work is to be "An autobiography of a poetess--(not me)" (3534). She realizes that there might be a perceived slipperiness between the figure of the poetess and her own figure in the world, but the punctuation emphasizes the gulf that Barrett Browning wishes to underscore. Kenyon is the dedicatee of Aurora Leigh, and Barrett Browning acknowledges him as a model for Aurora's likely addressee, her cousin Romney. However, in contrast to Wordsworth's doubled use of the proper names "Wordsworth" and "Coleridge," Barrett Browning collapses neither her poem's actual and fictional writer nor its actual and fictional reader. The dedication of Aurora Leigh recognizes both similarities and differences between (on the one hand) Aurora's quoted language and feelings, and (on the other hand) those of her creator when writing in her own person:
The words "cousin" and "friend" are constantly recurring in this poem, the last pages of which have been finished under the hospitality of your roof, my own dearest cousin and friend;--cousin and friend, in a sense of less equality and greater disinterestedness than "Romney"'s. (17)
The tragedy for Barrett Browning was that only shortly after she offered Aurora Leigh to the man who had "believed in" and "borne with" her, Kenyon died and went to inhabit a place "where perhaps he no longer sympathizes with pleasure or honor of mine" (3944). Having previously relied on her ideal reader's constant sympathetic presence on earth, if not in immediate proximity, Barrett Browning mourned his loss due to both her book's and her own dependence upon him. Aurora is luckier: her narrative ends with her seeing the new Jerusalem with Romney. What's more, throughout the epic narrative of her own life, she is able to render Romney as a felt presence through textual means.
As the Fifth Book of Aurora Leigh begins, Aurora indicates that Romney is the ideal reader of her literary productions and that her failure to reach him through her verse demonstrates its flaws: "I must fail, / Who fail at the beginning to hold and move / One man,--and he my cousin, and he my friend." (18) Aurora is writing during one of her periods of estrangement from Romney, and it was during another such period that she began the poem she is in the midst of narrating. Her ideal reader is therefore often distinguished by his absence, as was Wordsworth's when Coleridge was in Malta from March 1804 onward, and this absence is identified in the opening lines of Aurora Leigh as a gulf that only artistic means--the poem itself--can overcome. The First Book begins with an allusion to Ecclesiastes:
Of writing many books there is no end; And I who have written much in prose and verse For others' uses, will write now for mine,-- Will write my story for my better self, As when you paint your portrait for a friend, Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it Long after he has ceased to love you, just To hold together what he was and is. (I: 1-8)
As she begins this new work, Aurora declares that she will write her story for her "better self," suggesting that Aurora may be her own desired reader. However, the shift she describes from writing for "others' uses" to writing for her own indicates that it is only her purpose rather than her reception that is now self-centered. In writing for "her better self," Aurora is writing in order to better herself, both artistically and morally. In writing to "her better self," Aurora appeals to another person, and one of the most likely candidates remains her cousin and future husband, Romney. As Eric Griffiths notes, the related term "better half' had long been used to refer to both one's soul and one's spouse by the nineteenth century. (19) The subsequent simile emphasizes the status of Aurora's address to her "better self' as an address to another person because it introduces "a friend" for whom an artwork is created, dwelling upon the way in which he is imagined to receive it. The portrait is concealed and yet observed, presumably on choice occasions; it is viewed by one who is no longer the person for whom it was painted, a friend who is now a stranger; it functions to suture these two different versions of its viewer, the past and the present self. In telling us what she will write, Aurora describes a future of reception as though it has already happened. Such a disjunctive structure is crucial to the plot of the poem, in which Aurora's and Romney's past and present emotions and experiences fail to exist in a blissful present until the very close of the Ninth Book. In order to establish the supportive presence of her reader throughout her development as a poet, Aurora must emulate Wordsworth in recognizing and invoking the power of apostrophe, albeit in a strikingly dialogic context.
Romney may be the reader Aurora must eventually reach, but she must also contest both with his voice and with that of a third person. There is another crucial trajectory in the poem as another possible "better self' for Aurora emerges: the woman who becomes her conscience, Marian Erie. As Angela Leighton argues, Aurora's "quest" is "for two figures," both of "whom she seeks with the lover-like urgency of a poet seeking her muse." (20) Rather than treating Marian as an addressee or reader, however, Aurora learns through their interactions to behave like a reader herself, ultimately calling upon others to heed Marian's voice. Aurora's maturation is thus marked by her ability not to ventriloquize Marian but instead to enable this working-class woman to use Aurora's verse as a channel for her own rhetorical power and political message. In the Third and Fourth Books, the poetic eloquence of Aurora's retelling of Marian's autobiographical tale replaces Marian's less artful expression. Marian is a "dumb creature" (IV: 159), "Nature's general heart confess[ing] itself' (IV: 166), and Aurora must interpret what such a voice offers: "I have rather writ / The thing I understood so, than the thing /I heard so" (IV: 154-156). It is not until Marian's second autobiographical monologue that Aurora lets Marian's own voice assume responsibility for communicating directly with the reader. In the Sixth and Seventh Books, Aurora, rather than usurping Marian's subject position, remains in her own position as the addressed object of Marian's discourse. At this juncture, Aurora behaves like a reader, becoming the "better self' addressed in the opening lines of the poem. Aurora's questions, interruptions, and voiced responses are identified as separate moments of direct speech amid the direct speech of Marian. Earlier in the poem, Aurora speaks for Marian; the Marian who has become a mother under the worst of circumstances, however, speaks for herself. Her heroine's progression toward participating in an equal dialogue enables Barrett Browning to draw attention to the ethics of voicing, in contrast to Wordsworth's primarily aesthetic desire to assert his own poetic voice by compelling his reader's attention through apostrophe.
This ethical emphasis in Aurora Leigh foregrounds Barrett Browning's resistance to nineteenth-century assumptions about the duties and abilities of men and women, as Aurora refuses to be relegated to either the schoolroom or the drawing room. Wordsworth's solipsism reflects bardic male privilege and confidence; however, it also signals a feminized privacy and self-absorption that contrasts with Aurora's socially conscious verse. Barrett Browning depicts a beleaguered female writer struggling to claim vocal authority within her own poem without silencing others, but she ultimately invests Aurora with masculine-coded moral authority in the public sphere. Indeed, Coventry Patmore described Aurora Leigh as "of the modern didactic species" with a "considerable ... polemic element," indicating that the poem was perceived as confronting the social problems of its day. (21) Barrett Browning's epic for the age requires Aurora's encounter with Marian to be transformative, as the patronizing philanthropy of the middle-class woman is discarded in favor of sororal equality. Aurora's submission to the new force of the fallen Marian's testimony reveals her willingness to assume the role of the reformer described by Romney at the beginning of their careers: "While you ask of men / Your audience, I may get their leave perhaps / For hungry orphans to say audibly / 'We're hungry, see'" (II: 1205-1208). In dismissing Aurora's early efforts, Romney even alludes to two of Barrett Browning's most famous poetic contributions to reform causes, describing how Aurora "Will write of factories and of slaves, as if / Your father were a negro, and your son / A spinner in the mills. All's yours and you,--/ ... or otherwise / Just nothing to you" (II: 194-198). This accusation implies that Aurora is guilty of ventriloquism, claiming to speak on behalf of others while actually voicing only what she can imaginatively assume as her own experiences. As Jackson and Prins argue, Romney's "charge" echoes a wider cultural assumption about the ways in which female sentimental poets relied upon "poetic personifications" of suffering "with which they themselves" could become "personally identified" (p. 524). Romney associates Aurora with this version of female poetic practice, contrasting Aurora's desire for her own voice to be heard with his attempts to make others listen to the voices of those actually suffering, which "need ... no mediate poet, lute or voice, / To make [them] vocal" (II: 1203-1205). However, by the conclusion of Aurora Leigh, Aurora cannot be found guilty of thus silencing others because her verse offers a public platform not only for her own narrative but also for that of the unrepresented, a platform created by the hybrid generic practice that allows her to balance apostrophe and dialogue.
The trajectory by which Marian's voice emerges from Aurora's poem marks the progress of Aurora Leigh toward heteroglossia, which Mikhail Bakhtin has established as the defining attribute of the novel, distinguishing it from the epic and other poetic genres. Bakhtin argues that novels require speaking persons, and speaking persons are far more overtly present in Barrett Browning's poem than in Wordsworth's. (22) Apart from the author, the most significant figure in The Prelude is Coleridge, but both his voice and his presence are created through Wordsworth's use of apostrophe, which is primarily intended to assert Wordsworth's own voice. In contrast, Aurora overcomes her poetic propensity toward vocal "unity" and "monologic steadfastness" over the course of her relationship with Marian, ultimately allowing the latter's "alien" voice to sound independently of Aurora's authorial voice and its homogenizing tendencies (Bakhtin, pp. 286-287). Unlike Wordsworth's, Aurora's blank verse is never meant to succeed in "eliminating] those language characterizations and speech mannerisms (potential narrator-personalities) glimmering behind the words and forms," as even the final merging of Romney's and Aurora's voices challenges Bakhtin's claim that the "singularity" evident in poetic style necessarily depends upon "intentional individuality" (pp. 298, 286). Instead, Barrett Browning reveals the ways in which poetry, and specifically epic poetry, should build upon the fluidity of boundaries between voices, including between speakers and addressees--a fluidity upon which the novel has long depended (Bakhtin, p. 69). Marjorie Stone and Natasha Moore both argue that Aurora Leigh's novelistic attributes enable Barrett Browning to take a more ironic attitude toward its epic characteristics. (23) The resources of heteroglossia also provide Barrett Browning with critical distance from her epic precedents. In her revisionary adaptation of The Prelude's construction of an epic voice through address, Barrett Browning exposes the inadequacy of Wordsworth's monologic approach to composition. While the heteroglossia of Aurora Leigh may appear to be a consequence solely of its novelistic tendencies, Barrett Browning is keen to explore "the precise degree of distancing" within a system of voices as part and parcel of her heroine's development as an epic poet (Bakhtin, p. 416). Heteroglossia proves crucial for both the form and the plot of Aurora Leigh, as Aurora cannot complete her epic poem without recognizing the power of voices--both Marian's and Romney's--that encroach upon her own.
Indeed, despite Aurora's original reluctance to admit the influence of Romney's voice, Barrett Browning enables the reader to hear it constantly. After Aurora refuses his marriage proposal, she writes that she "retain[s] / The very last word which [she] said, that day" (II: 496-497)--but it appears that Romney's words are also retained. For example, he makes a mocking reference to love poetry when defending his decision to speak "bluntly" instead of addressing Aurora as a "Lady ... wondrous fair" or invoking the Graces and Muses when he proposes (II: 425-431). Romney's parody of poetic commonplaces calls into question the efficacy of any such means by which Aurora might later convince him of her devotion, and she doubts herself in these terms throughout the poem. One instance of such doubt occurs during the account of her conversation with Romney after her aunt's death, as Aurora dismisses one of her own similes: "why, so, indeed / I'm writing like a poet, somewhat large / In the type of the image" (II: 1167-1169). However, she then subtly defends this tendency to exaggerate by associating her passion with the memory of Romney's pained expression: "But then I'm thinking how his eyes looked" (II: 1171). Such internalized interchanges occur elsewhere in Aurora Leigh, when Aurora imagines a critical and sarcastic interlocutor to whom she must excuse her poetic pretensions. In the First Book, this is presented explicitly through dialogue, as different attitudes are assigned to different verse paragraphs. Writing of "poetry's divine first finger-touch" (I: 851), Aurora brings herself up short:
What's this, Aurora Leigh, You write so of the poets and not laugh? I write so Of the only truth-tellers, now left to God[.] (I: 854-859)
When Aurora questions the value of her commitment to poets and poetry, her internal voice of doubt has a clear source in Romney. In the lines quoted above, Aurora's ability to assert her vocation is then strengthened by the need to respond to such doubts. It would be tempting to describe in absolute terms the latter voice that speaks of "the only truth-tellers" as Aurora's true voice, but the trajectory of the poem involves the recognition of Aurora's vocal dependence on her addressee as much as the recognition of others' vocal independence. Barrett Browning ironically asserts Aurora's potential as a powerful and socially engaged truth-teller by depicting her feminized modesty and self-deprecation, an attitude that contrasts with Wordsworth's masculinized assumption of a sympathetic rather than antagonistic counterpart in the reader who lends his voice in service of the poet's own.
Aurora's absorption of Romney's far more critical voice into her range of expression occurs in real time at the close of the Fourth Book. Romney is quoted as taking his leave of Aurora one day after the failed wedding with the patronizing "Dear, be happy. Sing your songs, / If that's your way!" (IV: 1201-1202). Aurora believes that this farewell reveals Romney's view of her as "some intruding, interrupting fly" (IV: 1216), so she apes his dismissal with the same inflection: "'Sing,' says he, 'and teaze me still, / If that's your way, poor insect.' That's your way!" (IV: 1220-1221). The echo of "that's your way!" takes Romney's words out of quotation marks and into Aurora's own incredulous tone. Even as she remarks upon her and her work's irrelevance to Romney, Aurora's insecurities take the form of her cousin's criticisms.
Throughout Romney's many absences, Aurora uses both imagination and memory to invoke his presence through his voice. For instance, while Marian is reporting Lady Waldemar's account of Romney's love for her in free indirect discourse, the Aurora who later records this momentarily interrupts to reflect upon the experiences of the Aurora who heard it:
Did I laugh or curse? I think I sate there silent, hearing all, Ay, hearing double,--Marian's tale, at once, And Romney's marriage vow, 'I'll keep to thee,' Which means that woman-serpent ... (VI: 1095-1101)
After the description of meeting Marian and hearing her tale ends, Aurora again reflects on how Romney's voice came to her while she was listening to Marian's:
It is strange, To-day while Marian told her story, like To absorb most listeners, how I listened chief To a voice not hers, nor yet that enemy's, Not God's in wrath,... but one that mixed with mine Long years ago, among the garden-trees, And said to me, to me too, "Be my wife, Aurora!" (VII: 174-181; original ellipsis and emphasis)
The climax of this reflection is Aurora's own address to Romney as she apostrophizes him with the words "O Romney, O my Romney, O my friend!" (VII: 194). Such an invocation recalls the similar effects achieved by Wordsworth as he calls to Coleridge in The Prelude. However, what distinguishes Barrett Browning's passage is that Aurora's apostrophe to Romney is structured as a response to his own earlier act of address--the recalled imperative "Be my wife"--and thus has a dialogic function. In the present, Aurora imagines that Romney makes his marriage vow to Lady Waldemar; in the past, that "raff" was "me," as Aurora was the first of the three women to whom she believes Romney has proposed. Aurora describes the way Romney's voice "mixed" with hers "Long years ago," articulating the means by which his was established as the voice to which her inner ear most easily turns. Romney's voice is always first for Aurora: it is the voice that speaks to her and to which she listens. Aurora's voice, too, is always intended first for Romney and only afterward for others, as her envisioning of "a witness by" after her direct address to Romney indicates (VII: 197). Fearing that Romney's voice is now turned to another woman and thus that she herself is no longer the object of his address, Aurora--suffering from women's enforced passivity in courtship and strategically recalibrating masculine bardic authority--relies upon dialogized apostrophe to invoke Romney's presence and response.
William Waters's theorization of poetic address, which I used to analyze the role of the simultaneously absent and present Coleridge in The Prelude, applies equally to Aurora's address to Romney at this point in Aurora Leigh. Waters writes that a "lyric addressing the absent and unhearing is ... the converse of a letter," making contact with the addressee "in the moment of composition" rather than at a later time when the letter could be received and read (p. 48). Aurora cannot write a letter to Romney, fearing that it would be presented as a "pretty tale" by Lady Waldemar (VII: 157), but she can write her poem instead, expressing her regret that she did not respond to Romney's earliest call to her and make "a nobler poem for the world / Than all I have failed in" (VII: 187). Aurora hears the voice of Romney, despite his physical absence, "To-day"; in the eternal now of the poem, she throws her voice out to him.
Thus, notwithstanding their gendered differences and their divergent interest in reciprocal dialogue, Wordsworth and Barrett Browning both use apostrophe to place their primary readers in the past, present, and future of their poems. In doing so, they invoke a new form of epic in which the responses of an anticipated readership of posterity are modeled by Coleridge and Romney. By summoning their fictionalized addressees into being, both The Prelude and Aurora Leigh create a broader community of readers. The Prelude requires such a future readership to confirm the necessity of its account of the growth of a poet's mind, because it is only in the final book that the "object" of the poem is achieved--that is, the "time" is reached at which Wordsworth's "powers" and "knowledge" are "confirmed" and he is "capable / Of building up a work that should endure" (XIII: 275-278). Wordsworth composes the prospective narrative of his assumption of an epic voice from a retrospective vantage point. Similarly, Aurora describes the epic poet as able to apprehend the present as others traditionally apprehend the past, arguing in the Fifth Book that a poet with "double vision" (V: 183) would be capable of writing an epic that represents "this live, throbbing age" (V: 202). This poetic perspective anticipates that of future readers, for whom the period of which Aurora writes will be the past, albeit experienced as the present through the illusion of immediacy created by Barrett Browning's verse. Aurora looks to the future and implores her fellow poets to
Never flinch, But still, unscrupulously epic, catch Upon the burning lava of a song The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age: That, when the next shall come, the men of that May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say "Behold,--behold the paps we all have sucked! That bosom seems to beat still, or at least It sets ours beating. This is living art, Which thus presents, and thus records true life." (V: 213-221)
The Victorian age and poetry itself are dynamic, depicted as "heaving" and "burning," and respectively characterized by the life-giving flow of breast milk and the preserving flow of lava. The "Age" is personified as a female body that once nurtured "men": male readers are revealed to be indebted to feminine vitality, and Barrett Browning's epic is able to mediate these gendered roles, providing an often-modest woman with masculinized authority in order to lend such vitality an enduring form. Poets are asked to "catch" the age so that future citizens will be able to "touch the impress" of it. As Charles LaPorte notes, Aurora Leigh "proleptically inscribes] the terms of its own reception"--and Aurora's description suggests that, along with similar works, the poem currently in progress will function like the molten rock of Mount Vesuvius, conserving the otherwise destroyed past. (24) She argues that it is "living art" that "presents" and "records true life": the life it presents "seems" still in motion because it evokes a similar motion in readers. The declaration of such readers is quoted in the present tense, using the deictics "this" and "thus," and so sounds like a judgment upon Aurora Leigh as it is being written. These readers, whose hearts throb in time with the versified image of a beating bosom, are Aurora's successors rather than her contemporaries.
The form of epic that Aurora describes is thus defined by its desired effect upon its readers. Susan Stewart names the threat of poetry as its potential to transfer the poet's experience of being a vessel for the Muse to its readers, who will then in their turn become possessed. (25) This threat--that poetry may haunt us, colonizing or taking over our voices--is foregrounded by the epic convention of invoking the Muse. Aurora is able to claim the artistic authority she seeks by wielding such power, even as she submits to it herself. Her triumph as a poet is when Romney sees "something separate ... / Beyond" Aurora in her verse (VIII: 606-607). He tells her: "You have shown me truths ... not yours, indeed, / But set within my reach by means of you: / Presented by your voice and verse" (VIII: 608-612). Aurora's voice reveals what is not Aurora's, what comes from beyond her, but it is unmistakably her voice that compels Romney as a reader. However, his blindness means that he is unable to encounter her book as a material and visual medium for Aurora's voice. Instead, another woman--the dastardly Lady Waldemar--reads the book out loud to Romney, and her embodied voice becomes a conduit for Aurora's poetic voice by means of meter and rhyme.
The Lamia-like Lady Waldemar describes her voice as compelled to follow the motion of Aurora's verse rather than its own volition: "My voice, empaled upon rhyme's golden hooks, / Not once would writhe, nor quiver, nor revolt" (IX: 53-54). Aurora portrays in not-too-dissimilar terms her experience of her own voice as an instrument of others, specifically other poets, in the First Book of Aurora Leigh. Alluding to Hamlet's suspicion that he is being manipulated by his friends, Aurora compares her "joy and pain ... thought and aspiration" to "the stops / Of pipe and flute" able to be played upon (I: 887-889), asking her "own best poets" (I: 881):
... if, sooth, you did not blow, Would no sound come? or is the music mine, As a man's voice or breath is called his own, Inbreathed by the Life-breather? (I: 891-895)
Aurora questions the nature of inspiration, literalizing it via the inhalation of others' words and the exhalation of her own in a cycle that continues when she becomes an inspiring prophet-poet herself. The apotheosis of this cycle is when Aurora is able to assume the traditionally masculine privilege of using a woman to animate or mediate her epic verse, a privilege exemplified by John Milton's invocation of the "Heav'nly Muse" and her "aid" to spur his "adventurous Song" in the opening of Paradise Lost, and by Wordsworth's use of his wife and sister as amanuenses. (26) Aurora's position as both active source and passive channel of her own and others' voices in Aurora Leigh reveals Barrett Browning's desire both to expose and to renegotiate the gendered dynamics of such roles. Lady Waldemars embodied vocalizing of the material text reanimates Aurora's voice despite the many forms of distance between the poet and her reader at this juncture of the narrative. Barrett Browning's own voice reaches her readers through an additional layer of irony, as the fictionalized persona of Aurora enables her both to revise and to emulate Wordsworth in producing an epic that creates its own author and reader.
The Prelude and Aurora Leigh both anticipate a future readership that will confirm the desirability of tracing the growth of a poet's mind. Wordsworth's and Barrett Browning's epics also confront the present, however, in their intimate portrayal of a specific contemporary addressee. Their epics are not only of the age but also for the age, as represented by Wordsworth's and Aurora's strongest critics and greatest friends, the figures of Coleridge and Romney. The irony is that Wordsworth's Romantic epic was received by the same Victorian audience to which Barrett Browning addressed herself in Aurora Leigh, only reaching beyond its coterie circulation long after Coleridge's death and a few months after Wordsworth's. The publication of The Prelude in 1850 offered Barrett Browning another model for the verse Kunstlerroman that she was already committed to writing. The Prelude's epic aspirations provided a standard for Barrett Browning's masterpiece; though she attempted to produce a poem that would not be exactly like any other, she conceived of her work in the same terms as that of the great Romantic writers of modern epic. While scholars such as Linda Peterson have placed Aurora Leigh in a tradition of women's autobiographical writing, aligning it with the work of (for instance) Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Barrett Browning herself emphasized her debt to male authors, describing her proposed work in 1844 as "a Don Juan, without the mockery & impurity" (1797). (27) As she succeeded the previous generation of poets, Barrett Browning found herself imitating their tactic of appealing to a public not yet in existence by appealing to a representative member of the present public. (28) Her heroine discovers this strategy for herself on her twentieth birthday: crowning herself as Laureate in private as a sign of her early commitment to and proposed achievement in poetry, Aurora finds that she cannot contemplate the reception of posterity without accounting for that of her "public!--cousin Romney," who comes upon her suddenly (II: 59).
The Prelude and Aurora Leigh reveal the centrality of address in the nineteenth-century epic, which reimagined its public through an intimate intermediary. Both Wordsworth and Barrett Browning depict the epic poet as indebted to the voice of his or her reader. As the opening of Aurora Leigh makes explicit, the epic poet requires a "better self' and is only able to produce a voice adequate to his or her ambitions by turning to a superior interlocutor. This reader stands in for both the contemporary and the future readers of The Prelude and Aurora Leigh, as their authors compose narratives of self-development that necessarily remain open-ended. Wordsworth draws on the lyric device of apostrophe in order to reveal that the poet's voice is always constituted through an appeal to the reader. This understanding of voice is especially liberating for Barrett Browning, who adapts it to imagine the epic poet as both addressing and addressed, inspiring and inspired. Neither Barrett Browning nor her critics could wholly disregard the gendered nature of the epic; however, via Aurora's use of a dialogic mode to claim poetic authority by exploiting stereotypes of feminine modesty, Barrett Browning subverts the patriarchal assumptions that surround her chosen genre. Aurora Leigh does not reveal an exclusively female epic or epic poet. It does not function as a mere complement to Wordsworth's project. Instead, it absorbs and expands upon its male-authored precedents, as Barrett Browning aspires to make the epic universal, able to address present and future readers of both genders. The hybridity and openness of the epic as a genre made such an aspiration possible, while its prestige and canonicity made this goal radically transformative.
I am grateful to Margaret Higonnet, Thomas Recchio, Charles Mahoney, and the coeditors of the special issue for their guidance and feedback. This article is dedicated to the memory of Eric Griffiths.
(1) The Brownings' Correspondence, ed. Philip Kelley et al. (Winfield, Kans.: Wedgestone Press, 2017), 3924- All further references to the correspondence will be to this online edition and will be cited parenthetically by letter number.
(2) Herbert Tucker, Epic: Britain's Heroic M use, 1790-1910 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), p. 29.
(3) Review of Aurora Leigh, The Literary Gazette (1856): 917. The Brownings' Correspondence, E561122B.
(4) Marisa Palacios Knox, "Masculine Identification and Marital Dissolution in Aurora Leigh," Victorian Poetry 52, no. 2 (2014): 277.
(5) Review of Aurora Leigh, The Athenaeum (1856). Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), p. 406.
(6) Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins, "Lyrical Studies," Victorian Literature and Culture 27, no. 2 (1999): 524.
(7) Chris R. Vanden Bossche and Laura E. Haigwood, "Revising the Prelude: Aurora Leigh as Laureate," Studies in Browning and His Circle 22 (1999): 34.
(8) Kathleen Blake, "Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wordsworth: The Romantic Poet as a Woman," Victorian Poetry 24, no. 4 (1986): 397.
(9) Emily V. Epstein Kobayashi, "Feeling Intellect in Aurora Leigh and The Prelude," SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 51, no. 4 (2011): 826.
(10) M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1971), p. 135.
(11) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "Frost at Midnight," Coleridge's Poetry and Prose, ed. Nicholas Hal mi, Paul Magnuson, and Raimonda Modiano (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), pp. 120-123. All references to the poem are cited by line number.
(12) William Wordsworth, The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850, ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), 1:1, 5; VII: 4. All further references are to the 1805 version of the poem in this edition, unless otherwise indicated.
(13) William Waters, Poetry's Touch: On Lyric Address (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 2003), p. 20.
(14) Jonathan Culler, Theory of the Lyric (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 2015), p. 186.
(15) John Stuart Mill, "What Is Poetry?," Essays on Poetry, ed. F. Parvin Sharpless (Columbia: Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1976), p. 12.
(16) Susan Eilenberg, Strange Power of Speech: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Literary Possession (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), p. xii.
(17) Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds, p. 4.
(18) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh and Other Poems, ed. John Robert Glorney Bolton and Julia Bolton Holloway (London: Penguin, 1995), V: 30-32. All further references will be parenthetical citations from this edition, unless otherwise indicated.
(19) Eric Griffiths, The Printed Voice of Victorian Poetry (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989), p. 173.
(20) Angela Leighton, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986), p. 118 (emphasis added). I differ from Leighton in identifying the male figure in this pair as Romney rather than Aurora's father.
(21) Review of Aurora Leigh, North British Review (1857). Aurora Leigh, ed. Margaret Reynolds, p. 424.
(22) M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981), p. 332.
(23) Marjorie Stone, "Genre Subversion and Gender Inversion: 'The Princess' and 'Aurora Leigh,'" Victorian Poetry 25, no. 2 (1987): 120; and Natasha Moore, "Epic and Novel: The Encyclopedic Impulse in Victorian Poetry," Nineteenth-Century Literature 68, no. 3 (2014): 408.
(24) Charles LaPorte, "Aurora Leigh, A Life-Drama, and Victorian Poetic Autobiography," SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 53, no. 4 (2013): 832-833.
(25) Susan Stewart, Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2002), pp. 113-116. Stewart identifies the ways in which poems can be "haunted by the structure of a preexisting work" (p. 132)--through, for example, what she terms "metrical haunting" (p. 138)--and the ways in which the legacy of many now-dead speakers is "what lies slumbering forever ready in all words" (Whitman, "Vocalism," qtd. on p. 143).
(26) John Milton, Paradise Lost (London: S. Simmons, 1678), I: 6-13.
(27) Linda H. Peterson, Traditions of Victorian Women's Autobiography: The Poetics and Politics of Life Writing (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1999), p. 110.
(28) Lord Byron's "Dedication" to Don Juan, for instance, asks his contemporaries to "recollect a poet nothing loses / In giving to his brethren their full meed / Of merit, and complaint of present days / Is not the certain path to future praise." Lord Byron, Don Juan, ed. T. G. Steffan, E. Steffan and W. W. Pratt (London: Penguin, 2004).
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|Title Annotation:||poems by William Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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