E561200A. Aurora Leigh.
The Monthly Review of Literature, Science, and Art, December 1856, pp. 743–754.
As reprinted in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 23, 307–312.
[The article in which this review appears begins with a notice of Gerald Massey’s Craigcrook Castle; this we omit.]
We feel a good deal of reluctance in attempting to criticise a poem like that of Mrs. Browning, so soon after its appearance. Its length alone (nine books, and upwards of ten thousand lines), not to speak of the wealth of thought, and the more than usually interesting character of the fable, would make us desirous to lay it aside until its due proportions presented themselves more clearly to the mind. It is with books as with mountains—to see their relative heights, their lights and shadows, and their true outlines, we ought to stand at a distance. Unfortunately, in the case of books, the necessities of periodical literature admit of no alternative—we must judge at once, or not at all; and even as we write, we are being anticipated by those who have had even less time than ourselves for forming their opinion.
Let us say then—to mention [p. 744→] the simplest feeling with which we closed this book—that we have read it with the greatest interest, and with a very high degree of pleasure. Not, of course, with unmixed pleasure—that cannot be said of any mortal work. Some passages are tedious, some extravagant, some trivial. But there is so much that is open to none of these reproaches—there is so powerful a grasp of lofty themes, expressed for the most part with so much beauty, and pervaded throughout by so noble as well as so refined a spirit, that we feel it an ungracious task to insist exclusively—as some of our contemporaries have done—on these blemishes. We prefer, for our own part, to welcome with thanks an important addition to our store of intellectual gratification. As Mrs. Browning’s heroine herself says:—
“We get no good
By being ungenerous, even to a book,
And calculating profits.... So much help
By so much reading. It is rather when
We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge
Soul forward, headlong into a book’s profound,
Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth;
’Tis then we get the right good from a book.”
Aurora Leigh is the daughter of an Italian mother and an English father, whose somewhat prosaic nature the beauty of his Florentine bride has kindled into higher life, but whom, on her dying in childbirth, she leaves to educate her infant daughter, with a soul only half roused from its natural placid indifference. He is thus tersely sketched:—(the italics are ours.)
“My father, who through love had suddenly
Thrown off the old conventions, broken loose
From chin-bands of the soul, like Lazarus,
Yet had no time to learn to talk and walk,
Or grow anew familiar with the sun,
Who had reached to freedom, not to action,—lived,
But lived as one entranced, with thoughts, not aims—
Whom love had unmade from a common man,
But not completed to an uncommon man,
My father taught me what he had learnt the best
Before he died and left me, grief and love.”
Aurora, on her father’s death, is sent, at thirteen, to England, to live with a maiden aunt—a precise, formal person, looking on her niece with no kindly or sympathetic eye. A character, let us say, not wholly new to fiction; bearing, indeed, a strong family resemblance to Lady Blanche in the Princess, but redeemed from commonplace by the following subtle analysis of her feelings towards her ward:—
“She thought to find my mother in my face,
And questioned it for that. For she, my aunt,
Had loved my father truly, as she could
And hated, with the gall of gentle souls,
My Tuscan mother, who had fooled away
A wise man from wise courses, a good man
From obvious duties, and, depriving her,
His sister, of the household precedence,
Had wronged his tenants, robbed his native land,
And made him mad, alike by life and death,
In love and sorrow. She had pored for years
What sort of woman could be suitable
For her sort of hate, to entertain it with;
And so, her very curiosity
Became hate too, and all the idealism
She ever had in life, was used for hate.” [p. 745→]
The young lady is educated by her aunt on the received plan—drilled into the acquirement of the standard accomplishments and information, but without food or discipline for the heart and imagination, but what she herself provides. She “lives her own life,” drinking in the sights and sounds of nature—the honeysuckle that veils her window; the lime tree whose “innumerable bees” break her morning slumbers; the long lines of distant woodlands, like a blue sea broken here and there by some hill side promontory, shewing on its ridge the sheep cut clear against the sky, or with its russet turned to gold in the beams of the setting sun. Her society is limited, and the only prominent person in it is her cousin, Romney Leigh, the head of the family and master of Leigh Hall, a young and ardent philanthropist, prematurely grave with the anxieties of a social reformer. Her world, into which none enters but herself, is the world of books, and, in particular, of poetry. As we might conjecture, she passes from admiration to emulation, and writes, crudely at first, with a mere echo of the voices whose utterances she aspires to rival. Through the conflict between the ungenial nature of her surroundings and her passionate inward enthusiasm, her health has begun to fail. Poetry, and the struggle to work, restore it—and in this frame of mind and stage of development, she reaches her twentieth year.
On her twentieth birthday, as she walks at early morning in the garden, it pleases her, in her innocent anticipation of future renown, to crown herself with ivy, “in sport, not pride, to learn the feel of it,” in which occupation she is detected by her cousin Romney. After some playful banter on her literary pursuits, repelled by her with proper feminine indignation, he takes her seriously to task for desiring to embark in a career for which, he urges, the personal and individual tendencies of women wholly unfit them. He argues that true art—the highest thing of all—is impossible to women, and that Aurora is not a woman to be content with less than the highest. All the world is out of joint with social miseries and the evils of civilization; and his own spirit, “grey with poring over the long sum of ill,” feels that to search after the ideal, while we cannot even reconcile the contradictions of the actual, is a mistake in the philosophy of life, and a treason to our common humanity. Aurora approves and applauds, but Romney requires more. Monsieur Josse était orfèvre; he has been pleading for himself, and asks for
… for life in fellowship
Through bitter duties” …
and her co-operation as his wife. He speaks, in fact, to the same purport as the sick lover to Lady Ida, in the latter part of the Princess, but with a more particular and exclusively modern application. She, as may be guessed, rejects him:
“What you love
Is not a woman, Romney, but a cause;
You want a helpmate, not a mistress, sir—
A wife to help your ends … in her no end!
. . . . . . . .
You have a wife already, whom you love,
Your social theory.”
She proceeds in the same strain, as if pleading against the view taken of marriage by the Laureate in the poem to which we have [p. 746→] alluded. Her vocation is not, as Tennyson has it, to be
Yoked in all exercise of noble ends,
to be merely the complement of the other sex. She has a distinct sphere of action, that of the artist. For the world, however much improved in the conditions of material prosperity, is still a failure,
Unless the artist keep up open roads
Betwixt the seen and unseen, bursting through
The best of your conventions with his best,
The speakable, imaginable best,
God bids him speak, to prove what lies beyond
Both speech and imagination.
She argues like Bertram in the author’s own poem of Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,* and like Mr. Ruskin, when he tells us that the world’s happiness is dependent on “working, hoping, thinking, praying; but on iron, glass, steam, and electricity, in no wise.” The work to which her lover wishes to invite her, seems low and common in comparison with the lofty ends to which her ambition points the way; and above all, she both doubts his love for her, and feels that she has none for him. Her aunt, who is wroth with the wrath of a guardian at the rejection of Romney, explains to her that she has thereby disinherited herself, on account of “a clause in the entail, excluding offspring by a foreign wife**,” and that her dismissed lover is her involuntary supplanter. She does not waver, but lives on under the general displeasure, till suddenly her aunt is found dead with a sealed letter, just received, in her hand; this is a deed of gift by Romney to the aunt of a large sum, in order that she may bequeath it to her niece. It is, however, too late. Aurora sees through the generous offer, and tears the deed. She and her cousin part; he to prosecute alone his schemes of philanthropy, she to adventure with slender means on a London literary life. She succeeds—is popular and successful (a person who writes and lives on it must be counted successful), but not great, as she wishes to be; and she feels—though this is rather implied than said—that she would exchange all her fame for a line of real approbation from the cousin who keeps aloof.
*“For we throw out acclamations of self-thanking, self-admiring,
With, at every mile run faster, ‘O the wondrous, wondrous age!’
Little thinking if we work our souls as nobly as our iron,
Or if angels will commend us, at the goal of pilgrimage.”
**Query, would this be good in law?
One day, in her garret at Kensington, she receives a visit from a fashionable, brilliant woman, Lady Waldemar, who is desperately in love with Romney, and desires Aurora’s assistance in winning him. She has tried in vain, by adopting his pursuits and taking interest in his charities, to kindle in him the passion she feels; he is unconscious or indifferent. Worse than all, in order to unite class with class, and expunge the distinctions of society, he has determined to choose a wife from St. Giles’s, a girl who is, indeed, virtuous, but of the lowest origin and most disreputable connexions. Lady Waldemar hopes that Aurora will prove to Romney that such a marriage will “wrong the people and posterity,” and that having shaken off his low-born fiancée, Marian Erle, he will possibly turn to her splendid self. Aurora repulses her visitor with scorn at the proposed manœuvre, but goes presently to seek out Marian, whom she finds a tender, ingenuous, almost beautiful creature, educated [p. 747→] at haphazard, and “dragged,” not brought up, but pure amid countless pollutions, and feeling for Romney—the benefactor of her and her class—an idolatrous and childlike worship. Aurora having paid her visit, considers she has done enough, and sees Marian no more. The marriage is to be solemnized at St. James’s; to make the symbolism of it the more prominent, all the fashionable world are there, and to meet them, all the opposite extreme of society,
“Half St. Giles in frieze
Was bidden to meet St. James in cloth of gold,
And, after contract at the altar, pass
To eat a marriage feast on Hampstead Heath.”
But instead of the bride comes a letter to say that Marian is gone, and declines her noble suitor. St. Giles is defrauded of its spectacle, and a horrible riot follows. Marian has refused to marry, for fear she should drag down her husband to her own level, and having lost him the respect of his class, fail to satisfy his heart. Conjecture and enquiry, by Romney and Aurora, prove useless: there are suspicious circumstances, throwing discredit on Marian’s motives; the search is abandoned.
Book V. is chiefly taken up with the record of Aurora’s literary struggles and aspirations, which is just such as might be expected from Mrs. Browning—a little mystical, sometimes obscure, but full of sincere and noble thoughts on the true province of art. She, Aurora, has now made connexions, and belongs to the best London society, where, one evening, she hears of the contemplated marriage of Romney and Lady Waldemar. Stung, she hardly knows why, by the announcement, and overworked by her profession, she determines to quit England for a time. At Paris she suddenly meets with Marian nursing a child, seeks her out, and reproaches her with her assumed dereliction from virtue. But Marian, though an unmarried mother, is sinless. Lady Waldemar (the experienced reader of fiction sees what is to follow) has persuaded her that it will be a better return to her benefactor to fly from him, than to marry him. She has provided Marian with funds to go to Australia, and placed her under the care of her maid, who keeps the money, and betrays Marian in a manner at which many of Mrs. Browning’s readers will shudder, but which it is as well they should know is not by any means uncommon in this moral age of ours.
A woman—hear me—let me make it plain,
A woman—not a monster—took me off.
Not seeing by what road, nor by what ship,
Nor toward what place, nor to what end of all.
. . . . . . . .
You understand? no, do not look at me
But understand! The blank, blind, weary way,
Which led—where’er it led—away, at least;
The shifted ship—to Sydney or to France—
The swooning sickness on the dismal sea,
The foreign shore, the shameful house, the night,
The feeble blood, the heavy-headed grief,
No need to bring their damnable drugged cup,
And yet they brought it! Hell’s so prodigal
Of devils’ gifts—hunts liberally in packs—
Will kill no poor small creature of the wilds,
But fifty red wide throats must smoke at it,—
As his at me—when waking up at last
. . . . . . . . [p. 748→]
I told you that I waked up in the grave.
. . . . . . . .
Let pass the rest, then; only leave my oath
Upon this sleeping child—man’s violence,
Not man’s seduction, made me what I am.”
Aurora determines to provide for Marian and her child, but is in doubt whether to disclose the story to Romney, who is by this time probably married to Lady Waldemar. She settles the question by sending the account to a friend in England, with instructions to convey it to him, if there is time to break off the marriage. She receives no answer, and starts for Italy, with her two protegées, and lives on the hill of Bellosguardo, overlooking Florence. She hears from another correspondent tidings which seem to imply, yet still leave doubt of, Lady Waldemar’s marriage with Romney. Disquieted by this idea, she is found one evening, as she watches the sunset, by Romney himself. The disclosure that he is not married, as she fears, is postponed by a long conversation, in which Romney acts the part of the Princess, in Tennyson’s poem—confesses the “faultful past,” admits that all his schemes for the regeneration of humanity have been an utter failure, and adopts the creed with which Marian herself had started ten years before, that nothing can be done to improve mankind by methods which only touch the outer crust of evil, and leave undeveloped the kernel of the soul. He brings with him a letter from Lady Waldemar, who has finally given up all hope of his love, and tells Aurora that he has come to Florence to repair Marian’s wrongs—incurred, in some sort, through him—by making her his wife. Marian is present, and overhearing the latter part of the conversation, expresses her fervent gratitude that she is still thought worthy of the love of a being like Romney Leigh, but has discovered that in spite of this, she cannot love him—that she never loved him—only worshipped him. And she feels that she could not bear to expose her child to the possibility of slight, or of her having other offspring. Lastly she has discovered, what will also be no secret to the reader, that Aurora now returns Romney’s affection, and that she would thus be doing a double injury. How Aurora, whose pride has even now held off, is brought to consent to make herself and her lover happy, we should not have thought of disclosing, but that the plot of the poem has been divulged by other reviewers. So we may say that the failure of Romney’s philanthropic schemes has been consummated by the conflagration of his family seat (which he had turned into a species of almshouse), and that Marian’s father, whom he had tried to reclaim, had taken the opportunity in the confusion to deal him a blow which has destroyed his eyesight. Aurora pities, and having already loved, consents. She, too, has found her creed a failure.
“Art is much, but love is more;
Art symbolizes heaven, but love is God,
And makes heaven.”
As he has placed his aim too low, and sought to satisfy immortal spirits by mere external goods, she has placed hers too [p. 749→] high, and starved the soul of its natural nutriment, the indulgence of human affection. Both have changed places: he has, as Tennyson would say, “gained in sweetness and in moral height,” she has imbibed a portion of his creed, and sees that her true sphere is the actual as well as the ideal, and that mere isolation, however lofty, can never afford her nature its adequate development. With these ideas, expressed eloquently and at length, and with the prospect of their fulfilment in wedded life, the book closes.
Probably the first reflection that will occur to a reader of the work, or of our analysis of it, is, that it contains more of a “story” than is usual in poems. This is the case—the poem is open to the reproach, if it be one, of being a novel in verse. There are scenes which, however well expressed, seem hardly to belong to the domain of poetry at all; and disquisitions, which carry us out, in the opposite direction, to the realm of philosophy. Thus Mrs. Browning’s production may be said to overlap fiction on one side, and metaphysics on the other. We must not, however, be understood as warning off either our severely masculine readers, by mentioning the former characteristic, nor our feminine ones, by alluding to the other. The poetess has followed Goethe’s advice, and given something to suit all tastes; by such variety only shewing how difficult it is at the present day to keep up the old landmarks of literature, or prevent the overpowering influence of ideas and theories from permeating both the trivialities of drawing-room life, and the deep realities of human passion. That such a confusion and mixture of topics is, in many respects, a true picture of modern life, few, we imagine, will deny. We have always thought that to be popular at the present day, a poet must neglect most of the well-worn tracks in which distinction has been won, and condescend to embody in verse much which has hitherto been deemed fit material for prose alone. We believe that much of Tennyson’s great popularity is owing to his having caught and reflected the spirit of modern life, and to his having shewn, that while engaged with the high themes of passion or philosophy, he can, as it were, “count the figures on an Indian chest,” and shew himself alive to all the details which come home to every one’s experience. Such a writer causes the reader to feel that the man who is addressing him does not dwell in a solitary eyrie, apart from his fellows, but mingles in the crowd of pleasure or business, and has as keen an appreciation of the “actual” as if no vision of the “ideal” had ever disturbed his sublime repose.
Some such notions as these have probably presided over the composition of this poem. In criticising it, or any other, we ought not, we think, to judge according to our preconceived views of what a poem should be; to demand, for instance, as one critic has already done, that blank verse shall be confined to the drama(!) but to see what the authoress has proposed to herself, to discover whether she is consistent with her purpose, and has in any degree attained her aim. The following passage, in which Aurora describes her own views on modern poetry, describes [p. 750→] so completely the character of Mrs. Browning’s poem, that we shall hardly be wrong in taking it as a sort of prologue, expressing the scope and species of her work:—
“Nay, if there’s room for poets in the world
A little overgrown (I think there is),
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne’s,—this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirror and its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights at Roncesvalles.
To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce,
Cry out for togas and the picturesque,
Is fatal,—foolish too. King Arthur’s self
Was commonplace to Lady Guenever;
And Camelot to minstrels seemed as flat
As Regent Street to poets.”
We have already intimated what is the design of Mrs. Browning’s poem, viewed as a doctrine or philosophy of life. As a description of what is, of the actual life which is going on at the present day, it is the counterpart of Mr. Kingsley’s Yeast, being a record of the experiences through which a gifted woman has to pass in order to arrive at that view of life and its needs and obligations in which she ultimately rests. That Mrs. Browning has fulfilled her own ideal as expressed in the above extract, none of her readers will, we think, refuse to concede: whether that ideal is a legitimate one—whether her subjects, however popular at present, are proper material for Art, is another question. We are inclined to think that she has stretched the domain of poetry to its very farthest limits; and we shall be sorry if any of her imitators should venture to follow in a track which not even the highest genius can always pursue without awkward and ungraceful movements, and the adoption of a costume often more serviceable than elegant. Such imitators—should they arise—will resemble that wizard’s servant, who in ordering his master’s broomstick to fetch water for domestic purposes, forgot the spell which could dismiss as well as summon the familiar, and was drowned by the overzeal with which his orders were executed. The “household talk and phrases of the hearth,” and, we may add, phrases of the market-place and ball-room, will not do in every one’s hands; and the sense of incongruousness—verging sometimes on want of taste—which sometimes strikes us in Mrs. Browning, is calculated to attract just those persons whose poetical predilections need, on the contrary, the severest and most classical discipline.
At the same time, the chief end, at all events the sine qua non, of poetry, is to please; and we have already said that this poem has pleased us. We have derived more enjoyment from the perusal of it than from any similar work since the appearance of Tennyson’s Princess, a poem of which it frequently reminds us, and which it is well worth while to read over again along with Mrs. Browning’s, treating as they do of the same theme, and occasionally coinciding remarkably in expression. The comparison with the Laureate’s poem suggests to us, however, that Aurora Leigh is a little too long; that, though it is difficult to fasten [p. 751→] upon many passages which we should wish absolutely to destroy, yet that the whole work would undoubtedly have been improved by compression. Mrs. Browning cannot say “brevis esse laboro, obscurus (or obscura) fio,” for when her meaning is misty, it is generally from superabundance of illustration—dark with excess of light. Not that her illustrations are generally otherwise than good, but we lose the thread of the argument among them, and miss those qualities of order and self control which (though this is often lost sight of) ensure more than any other merits the reperusal of a poem. A writer who says all that can be said on a subject, ceases to be suggestive, and misses that opportunity of successful flattery which is afforded by the hint of a truth which the reader is left to develope for himself. The Lost Bower, an early poem of Mrs. Browning, loses much through this defect, and becomes almost tedious, because the writer will not remember that there is such a thing as over elaboration. As a similar instance in the book before us, we may mention the discussion of the drama in Book V.; and as an example of a rash use of simile, take the one there occurring:—
’Tis true, the stage requires obsequiousness
To this or that convention: “exit” here
And “enter” there; the points for clapping, fixed
Like Jacob’s white-peeled rods before the rams,
And all the close-curled imagery clipped
In manner of their fleece at shearing-time.
The comparison is obscure, and not elegant. It is also, we think, inaccurate, as Mrs. Browning will see if she will refer to the original account, or to the Merchant of Venice, Act I., Sc. 3., where Shylock alludes to it. The following is an instance of simile pushed to an unreasonable limit (Lady Waldemar is speaking):—
“That is said
Austerely, like a youthful prophetess,
Who knits her brows across her pretty eyes,
To keep them back from following the grey flight
Of doves between the temple columns.”
If Mrs. Browning aims at dramatic truth, she must surely be aware that no human being, even when on a visit to an authoress, ever talked in this way. And that she cannot only aim at, but attain dramatic truth, many passages of her poem shew. To have done, however, with fault-finding;—Let us say that in this respect of dramatic power she shews a quality which always betokens genius, wherever it is met with—that of throwing herself so completely into a speaker’s supposed position, that she makes it as strong as it is capable of being made, and argues for the time with convincing rhetoric. In Shakspeare, we are always of the opinion of the last speaker; Alexandre Dumas has something of the same gift; and we recognize it, as we have said, in Mrs. Browning. Her characters are not mere creatures of straw, set up to contradict a favourite theory, and be duly demolished, but have really something to say for themselves. They shew that their creator is no closet philosopher, but that she has mixed with the world, and is aware that the compendious views [p. 752→] and neat solutions which wind up theological novels and “electro-Platonic” dialogues, are just mere husks and bran, with which no living soul can be fed.
The style of Aurora Leigh, though occasionally exhibiting the perversities which Mrs. Browning never seems able wholly to get rid of, is—considering the great length of this poem—much more even than we should have expected, and makes us fancy that the strange inversions, quaint rhymes, and forced metaphors which deform some of the best of her minor lyrics, were rather owing to a mistaken theory than to inability to write better. When we say of this poem that its sins are not those of jejuneness and meagreness, but of over-abundance and indiscriminate luxuriance, we think we say much in its favour. After making all deductions on the score of bad taste, triviality, and pursuance of arid subjects beyond the limits of poetry, enough remains to delight every reader who is willing to accept general merit in excuse of occasional delinquencies. We may find high thoughts, vigorous and subtle argument, wit, passion, and felicitous images, the whole devoted to the embodying of a central idea which is true, valuable, and eminently applicable to the age in which we live. We shall justify our praise by a few extracts:—
an english landscape.
“Such an up and down
Of verdure—nothing too much up or down;
A ripple of land; such little hills, the sky
Can stoop to tenderly, and the wheatfields climb;
Such nooks of valleys, lined with orchises
Fed full of noises by invisible streams;
And open pastures where you scarcely tell
White daisies from white dew; at intervals
The mythic oaks and elm trees standing out
Self-poised upon their prodigy of shade:
I thought my father’s land was worthy, too,
Of being my Shakespeare’s.”
an italian city.
“I found a house at Florence, on the hill
Of Bellosguardo. ’Tis a tower that keeps
A post of double observation o’er
The valley of Arno (holding as a hand
The outspread city), straight toward Fiesole
And Mount Morello, and the setting sun;
The Vallombrosan mountains to the right,
Which sunrise fills as full as crystal cups,
Wine-filled, and red to the brim because it’s red.
No sun could die, nor yet be born, unseen
By dwellers at my villa; morn and eve
Were magnified before us in the pure
Illimitable space and pause of sky,
Less blue than radiant. From the outer wall
Of the garden, dropped the mystic floating grey
Of olive-trees, with interruptions green
From maize and red vine, until ’twas caught and torn
On the abrupt black line of cypresses,
Which signed the way to Florence. Beautiful
The city lay along the purple vale—
Cathedral, tower and palace, piazza and street,
The river trailing like a silver cord
Through all, and curling loosely, both before
And after, over the whole stretch of land
Sown whitely, up and down its opposite slopes
With farms and villas.” [p. 753→]
The purple and transparent shadows slow
Had filled up the whole valley to the brim,
And flooded all the city, which you saw
As some drowned city in some enchanted sea,
Cut off from nature.”
“So, happy and unafraid of solitude,
I worked the short days out, and watched the sun
On lurid morns or monstrous afternoons
Like some Druidic idol’s fiery brass,
With fixed unflickering outline of dead heat,
In which the blood of wretches pent inside
Seemed oozing forth to incarnadine the air,
Push out through fog with his dilated disk,
And startle the slant roofs and chimney-pots
With splashes of fierce colour. Or I saw
Fog only, the great tawny weltering fog
Involve the passive city—strangle it
Alive, and draw it off into the void,
Spires, bridges, streets, and squares, as if a sponge
Had wiped out London; or as noon and night
Had clapped together, and utterly struck out
The intermediate time, undoing themselves
In the act.”
Here is a good comparison for juvenile imitative verses:—
“Elegiac griefs, and songs of love
Like cast-off nosegays picked up on the road,
The worse for being warm.”
Of people who talk commonplace, to keep off a disagreeable subject:—
“And yet to pause
Were surelier mortal: we tore greedily up
All silence, all the innocent breathing points,
As if, like pale conspirators in haste,
We tore up papers, where our signatures
Imperilled us to an ugly shame or death.”
We take at random some other thoughts happily expressed:
“I worked with patience, which means almost power.”
“God answers sharp and sudden on some prayers,
And thrusts the thing we prayed for in our face—
A gauntlet with a gift in’t.”
“I could not hide
My quickening inner life from those at watch.
They saw a light at a window, now and then,
They had not set there. Who had set it there?”
“You never can be satisfied with praise
Which men give women, when they judge a book
Not as mere work, but as mere woman’s work;
Expressing the comparative respect,
Which means the absolute scorn.”
“I might have been . . .
Perhaps a better woman after all,
With chubby children hanging on my neck,
To keep me low and wise. Ah me, the vines
That bear such fruit, are proud to stoop with it.
The palm stands upright in a realm of sand.”
“Indeed, he builds his goodness up
So high, it topples down to the other side,
And makes a sort of badness.”
In the following lines, Lady Waldemar is describing her attempts to fascinate the social Reformer:—
“For me, I’ve done,
What women may (we’re somewhat limited,
We modest women), but I’ve done my best . . .
. . . . . . . . [p. 754→]
I . . . learnt by heart
His speeches in the Commons and elsewhere
Upon the social question: heaped reports
Of wicked women and penitentiaries,
And gave my name to swell subscription lists,
Towards keeping up the sun at nights in heaven,
And other possible ends. All things I did,
Except the impossible ...... such as wearing gowns
Provided by the Ten Hours’ Movement! there
I stopped—we must stop somewhere.”
The strongest of Marian’s reasons for her ultimate refusal of Romney is given in the following lines, some of the truest and tenderest in the book—lines which no man could have written, and scarcely any woman who had not been a mother:—
“… I have not so much life that I should love
… Except the child. Ah, God! I could not bear
To see my darling on a good man’s knees,
And know by such a look, or such a sigh,
Or such a silence, that he thought sometimes,
‘This child was fathered by some cursed wretch’ ....
For, Romney, angels are less tender-wise
Than God and mothers: even you would think
What we think never. He is ours, the child;
And we would sooner vex a soul in Heaven,
By coupling with it the dead body’s thought
It left behind it in a last month’s grave,
Than, in my child, see other than … my child.
We only never call him fatherless
Who has God and his mother. O, my babe,
My pretty, pretty blossom, an ill wind
Once blew upon my breast! Can any think
I’d have another—one called happier,
A fathered child, with father’s love and race,
That’s worn as bold and open as a smile,
To vex my darling when he’s asked his name
And has no answer?”
The passionate adoration of Marian for this child—the standing witness of her involuntary shame and degradation—the memorial of an hour in which, as she says, “God seemed abolished,” is a feeling which the male sex is utterly incapable of comprehending. A man fancies that such a position would be like that of a conquered city, which sees with impotent rage the enemy’s flag predominating on its citadel, a perpetual insult and indelible reproach. We are not without the means of comparison between male and female notions of this “situation.” In the novel of Perversion, which we lately noticed, a lady, who has become the wife of a man subsequently proved a bigamist and general villain, is described as committing suicide expressly on this ground, viz., that she is about to become a mother by him. Such, we repeat, is the view that a man would naturally take; but it is, we see, a wrong one; and we can only say, Cuique in suâ arte credendum. There are many other passages of equal beauty and truth, which our readers, we hope, will find for themselves. The book is one to be read once for the story, and to be lingered over more than once to revolve its arguments, meditate its truths, and savour with full perception its numerous beauties. We anticipate for it a warm reception, and hope that it is not the last great work we are to receive from the same hand.
Aurora Leigh (EBB), London: Chapman & Hall, 1857.