Reviews

E570100A.  Aurora Leigh.

Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, January 1857, pp. 23–41.

As reprinted in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 23, 336–347.

There is some necessity, we think, at the present time, of applying the rules of criticism to the critics; for it cannot be denied that many who wear the robes of Aristarchus are no more entitled to the style of literary censors, than is the American Lynch to the title of a legitimate judge. Nothing can more forcibly demonstrate the anarchy which prevails in the republic of letters, than the fact that persons of narrow education, limited views, confined sympathies, and inordinate prejudice, take upon themselves, every day, without hesitation, the responsibilities of the reviewer; and under cover of the editorial “we,” pronounce judgment upon the efforts of their superiors. The complaint, no doubt, is an old one, but the evil has been steadily increasing. Formerly critics were scarce, and, in consequence, as well known as mastiffs in a country parish. Their deep bow-wow, even when they were unnecessarily surly, had something in it of power and significance: now, the traveller cannot pass through a village without having a whole pack of curs yelping vociferously at his heels. Powerless to bite, they are numerous enough to annoy; and they seem to consider, perhaps with reason, that incessant barking is an indispensable condition of their existence. Instead of remaining quiet under shelter of the peat-stack or haycock, as well-conditioned animals should do when nobody is attempting to molest them, they dash forward frantically on the advent of each newcomer on the highway, and expend a monstrous deal of unavailing breath before they slink back to their accustomed lurking-places. Possibly, upon more minute acquaintance, some of them may prove to be rather amiable tykes in their way—fellows who attack the passenger more from exuberance of spirits than from malice, and who think that there is something wonderfully clever in the utterance of their canine music. But there are others whose existence is a perpetual snarl—who have snarled from the day they were littered till now; and who will continue to snarl until they are pitched ignominiously into a quarry-hole with a stone of reasonable weight suspended to their necks. Subaqueous snarling we believe to be impossible, else doubtless they would expend their last energies in snarling at the tadpoles.

When a nuisance becomes so universal as this, most people cease to regard it seriously. Men of strong nerves and equable temperament stride along without regarding their clamorous following, though those of weaker nerves are sometimes startled and disturbed. If indeed there was a common feeling in the pack—if a plausible reason could be assigned why some five-and-twenty animals of different breeds should combine in a general yelp—if it could be shown that your hat was of such a texture or so long in use that they all took offence at it, or that your coat was so monstrously bad that they deemed it their duty to protest against it, or that you walked along the road with the air of a ticket-of-leave man or a thimble-rigger, their assault might, in a certain measure, be justified. But they have no common motive. One barks at you because he objects to your hat; another, because your breeches are not to his liking; a third, because he thinks you supercilious; a fourth, because you righteously bestowed a kick upon the carcass of a cousin of his own; a fifth, because you come from a different parish; a sixth, because he considers barking a proof of genius; and a seventh, because from puppydom upwards he has had a tendency towards hereditary hydrophobia. Each has a separate motive for dislike, though the cry be general; and even the possession of good qualities will not protect you from their assault. Where there is envy, a very small matter indeed will serve to elicit hatred. Witness the instance of the Athenian, who asked Aristides to inscribe his own name on the shell of banishment, because he was weary of hearing him denominated “the just.”

To criticism, however stringent, [p. 24→] we do not object, provided the critic deals fairly and honourably with his subject. For many years Maga [i.e., Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine] has been a choice repertory of criticism; but we shall not go the length of saying that her judgments have been infallible. No individual critic that ever lived has been infallible; and in a college of critics there must needs be diversity of opinion. Maga has erred sometimes on the side of overpraise, sometimes, though much more rarely, on the side of undue depreciation; but throughout she has striven to be honest, kindly, and sincere. To be supercilious is not in her nature; though she may at times have dealt rather sharply with impostors, and indulged in a vein of humour, while noticing the efforts of worthy aspirants, which has wounded their self-conceit. But never has she degraded herself by an unworthy attack; still less can it be said that she has allowed extraneous matters to influence her literary verdicts. We swear by the beard of Buchanan, that all of us have tried to hold the balance equally; and if in any instance we have failed, what wonder is it, since popular fable proclaims that, long ago, Astrea has ascended to the heavens?

The first duty of a critic is to form as near an estimate as may be of the measure of power possessed by the author whom he is reviewing. If he neglects this, his performance will be worthless, because, in art, every individual ought to be judged according to the extent of his gifts. It would be a gross error to institute a complaint between the Apollo Belvidere and the Farnese Hercules. The one is the embodiment in marble of godlike grace; the other the incarnation of physical strength. In like manner a poet may have peculiar excellencies of his own, though he is not gifted with the universality of Shakespeare, the majesty of Milton, or the nervous energy of Dryden. To try him by the standard of each or all of these would be manifestly unfair, for he is a worker in another field, and has been differently endowed. There is no analogy between the trades of the embroiderer and the blacksmith. We do not expect a display of power from the one, or delicate workmanship from the other. It is no blame to the performer on the flute that he is not a master of the bassoon.

We must know, or at all events endeavour to ascertain, what especial talent has been vouchsafed to a man, before we can form a just estimate of the use which he has made of it. For talent, though it may be cultivated to an almost indefinite extent, cannot be acquired—it is a gift from the Creator. No man is so universal a genius that he is not debarred by nature from certain pursuits, in which others, perhaps less gifted, can achieve distinction; and it is this diversity of talent which makes the world of art so large. Therefore we reject, as utterly spurious and unprincipled, that school of criticism which, in each branch of art, sets up a model, and judges of all new productions according to their likeness to the idol. Work may be better or worse according to the degree of labour bestowed upon it, but we are not entitled to demand impossibilities from anyone.

All authors, after they have once gained possession of the public ear, are liable for the future to be tried by their own standard. This is, to a certain extent, a disadvantage; for it by no means rarely happens that the first work of an author is also his best, either because his earlier impulses have been stronger than his later ones; because, through flattery, he has been led to suppose that his measure of power is greater than it is in reality; or because he has adopted false theories of art, and so has gone astray. It may be an uncomfortable thing for a poet to shiver under the shade of his own laurels; still there is consolation in knowing that he was the planter of the tree. There is no escape from this kind of criticism, which proceeds upon a strictly natural and correct principle, and is moreover calculated to check that intellectual drowsiness which is often the result of success. No author is the worse for being shaken rather roughly by the shoulder when he exhibits symptoms of somnolence. Nay, though he may be a little peevish at first, he will ultimately, if he is a fellow of any sense, be grateful to his monitor for having roused him from a lethargy which might be fatal to his fame.[p. 25→]

For the application of his gifts, every author is responsible. He may exercise them well and usefully, or he may apply them to ignoble purposes. He may, by the aid of art, exhibit them in the most attractive form, or his execution may be mean and slovenly. In the one case he is deserving of praise; in the other he is liable to censure. Keeping this principle in view, we shall proceed to the consideration of this new volume from the pen of Mrs. Browning,—a lady whose rare genius has already won for her an exalted place among the poets of the age. Endowed with a powerful intellect, she at least has no reason to anticipate the treatment prophesied for her literary heroine, Aurora:—

 

You never can be satisfied with praise

Which men give women when they judge a book

Not as men’s work, but as mere woman’s work,

Expressing the comparative respect

Which means the absolute scorn. “Oh, excellent!

What grace! what facile turns! what fluent sweeps!

What delicate discernment—almost thought!

The book does honour to the sex, we hold.

Among our female authors we make room

For this fair writer, and congratulate

The country that produces in these times

Such women, competent to—spell.”

 

Mrs. Browning takes the field like Britomart or Joan of Arc, and declares that she will not accept courtesy or forbearance from the critics on account of her sex. She challenges a truthful opinion, and that opinion she shall have.

Aurora Leigh is a story of the present time in nine books. When we say a story, it must not be understood in the sense of a continuous narrative or rather poem of action, for a great portion of the work is reflective. Still there is a story which we shall trace for the information of the reader, abstaining in the mean time from comment, and not making more quotations than are necessary for its elucidation. The poem is a monologue, and the opening scene is laid in Tuscany.

The father of Aurora Leigh, an Englishman of fortune and a scholar, fell in love with a young Florentine girl, whom he first saw bearing a taper in a religious procession. They were married; but the wife died shortly after she had given birth to her sole daughter, Aurora. The widower, in a frenzy of grief, withdrew to a cottage among the mountains, and there occupied his time in the education of his child, who soon became a proficient in the classics.

 

The trick of Greek

And Latin he had taught me, as he would

Have taught me wrestling or the game of fives,

If such he had known,—most like a shipwrecked man

Who heaps his single platter with goats’ cheese

And scarlet berries; or like any man

Who loves but one, and so gives all at once,

Because he has it, rather than because

He counts it worthy. Thus my father gave;

And thus, as did the woman formerly

By young Achilles, when they pinned the veil

Across the boy’s audacious front, and swept

With tuneful laughs the silver-fretted rocks.

He wrapt his little daughter in his large

Man’s doublet, careless did it fit or no.

 

This mode of tuition—the same, by the way, which Dominie Sampson proposed for the mental culture of Lucy Bertram—had a strong effect upon the character of Aurora, who throughout the poem discourses in a most learned manner. When she was only thirteen her father died, and she was brought away, most reluctantly, from her pleasant Italy, to dwell in foggy England with a virgin aunt, who is thus described:—

 

I think I see my father’s sister stand

Upon the hall-step of her country-house

To give me welcome. She stood straight and calm,

Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight

As if for taming accidental thoughts

From possible pulses; brown hair pricked with grey

By frigid use of life (she was not old,

Although my father’s elder by a year),

A nose drawn sharply, yet in delicate lines;

A close mild mouth, a little soured about

The ends, through speaking unrequited loves,

Or peradventure niggardly half-truths;

Eyes of no colour,—once they might have smiled,

But never, never have forgot themselves

In smiling; cheeks, in which was yet a rose

Of perished summers, like a rose in a book,

Kept more for ruth than pleasure,—if past bloom,

Past fading also. [p. 26→]

She had lived, we’ll say,

A harmless life, she called a virtuous life,

A quiet life, which was not life at all,

(But that, she had not lived enough to know),

Between the vicar and the county squires,

The lord-lieutenant looking down sometimes

From the empyreal, to assure their souls

Against chance-vulgarisms, and, in the abyss,

The apothecary looked on once a-year,

To prove their soundness of humility.

The poor-club exercised her Christian gifts

Of knitting stockings, stitching petticoats,

Because we are of one flesh after all,

And need one flannel (with a proper sense

Of difference in the quality)—and still

The book-club, guarded from your modern trick

Of shaking dangerous questions from the crease,

Preserved her intellectual. She had lived

A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage,

Accounting that to leap from perch to perch

Was act and joy enough for any bird.

Dear heaven, how silly are the things that live

In thickets, and eat berries!

I, alas,

A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage,

And she was there to meet me. Very kind.

Bring the clean water; give out the fresh seed.

 

This prim old lady was not exactly to Miss Aurora’s mind; indeed, there was not much love lost between them, for Aunt Marjory had been sorely incensed, and with good reason, as will presently appear, at her brother’s marriage with a foreigner, and never thoroughly forgave the daughter. However, she did her duty by her in her own fashion, supplementing her education by giving her instruction in such things as are usually taught to English girls, an intellectual regimen which excited the profoundest disgust in Aurora. However, she had strength enough to stand the trial, though occasionally threatening to die; and her patience was at length rewarded by finding her father’s books in a garret. These she devoured furtively, and lighting upon the poets, at once perceived her vocation.

 

At last, because the time was ripe,

I chanced upon the poets.

As the earth

Plunges in fury, when the internal fires

Have reached and pricked her heart, and, throwing flat

The marts and temples, the triumphal gates

And towers of observation, clears herself

To elemental freedom—thus, my soul,

At poetry’s divine first finger-touch,

Let go conventions and sprang up surprised,

Convicted of the great eternities

Before two worlds.

 

So Aurora began to make verses, and found herself all the better for the exercise. But there were more Leighs in the world than Aurora. She had a cousin, Romney Leigh, the proprietor of Leigh Hall, who, even as a youth, exhibited queer tendencies:—

 

Romney, Romney Leigh.

I have not named my cousin hitherto,

And yet I used him as a sort of friend:

My elder by few years, but cold and shy

And absent—tender, when he thought of it,

Which scarcely was imperative, grave betimes,

As well as early master of Leigh Hall,

Whereof the nightmare, sate upon his youth

Repressing all its seasonable delights,

And agonising with a ghastly sense

Of universal hideous want and wrong

To incriminate possession. When he came

From college to the country, very oft

He crossed the hills on visits to my aunt,

With gifts of blue grapes from the hothouses,

A book in one hand,—mere statistics (if

I chanced to life the cover), count of all

The goats whose beards are sprouting down toward hell,

Against God’s separating judgment-hour.

And she, she almost loved him,—even allowed

That sometimes he should seem to sigh my way;

It made him easier to be pitiful,

And sighing was his gift.

 

This young gentleman, after his own odd fashion, has conceived an attachment for Aurora; nor is he an object of total indifference to her, though her mind is more occupied with versification than with love. The two characters, male and female, are meant to stand in strong contrast to each other. Romney is a Socialist, bent on devoting himself to the regeneration of mankind, and the improvement of the condition of the working classes, by carrying into effect the schemes of Fourier and Owen—the aim of Aurora is, through Art, to raise the aspirations of the people. The man is physical, the woman metaphysical. The one is [p. 27→] for increasing bodily comfort, the other for stimulating the mind. Both are enthusiasts, and both are intolerably dogmatic. Now it so happens that, on the morning of the twentieth anniversary of her birthday, Miss Aurora sallies forth early, with the laudable purpose of crowning herself after the manner of Corinna, and is surprised by Romney in the act of placing an ivy wreath upon her brows. Romney has picked up a volume of her manuscript poems, which he returns, not, however, with any complimentary phrase, but rather sneeringly, and forthwith begins to read her a lecture, in a high puritanical strain, upon the vanity of her pursuits. This, of course, rouses the ire of Aurora, who retorts with great spirit on his materialistic tendencies. In the midst of this discussion he has the bad taste to propose, not so much, as he puts it, through love, but because he wants a helpmate to assist him in the erection of public washing-houses, soup-kitchens, and hospitals; whereupon our high-souled poetess flies off at a tangent:—

 

“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!

Your cause is noble, your ends excellent,

But I, being most unworthy of these and that,

Do otherwise conceive of love. Farewell.”

 

“Farewell, Aurora? you reject me thus?”

He said.

“Why, sir, you are married long ago.

You have a wife already whom you love,

Your social theory. Bless you both, I say.

For my part, I am scarcely meek enough

To be the handmaid of a lawful spouse.

Do I look a Hagar, think you?”

 

Aunt Marjory, when she hears of this refusal, is frantic, and rates Aurora soundly for rejecting a fortune laid at her feet. She explains that by a special clause in the Leigh entail, offspring by a foreign wife were cut off from succession—that no sooner was Aurora born than the next heir, Romney Leigh’s father, proposed that a marriage should be arranged between his son and the child, so that the penalties of disinherison might be avoided—and that Romney, by asking her to marry him, was in fact carrying out that intention. Otherwise Aurora is a beggar, for her aunt has no fortune to leave her. Such suggestions as these, when they occur in romance and poetry, always prove arguments in favour of obstinacy; and Aurora, even though she likes Romney, fixes upon them as insuperable obstacles to the marriage:—

 

Romney now was turned

To a benefactor, to a generous man,

Who had tied himself to marry—me, instead

Of such a woman, with low timorous lids

He lifted with a sudden word one day,

And left, perhaps, for my sake.—Ah, self-tied

By a contract,—male Iphigenia, bound

At a fatal Aulis, for the winds to change,

(But loose him—they’ll not change); he well might seem

A little cold and dominant in love!

He had a right to be dogmatical,

This poor, good Romney. Love, to him, was made

A simple law-clause. If I married him,

I would not dare to call my soul my own,

Which so he had bought and paid for: every thought

And every heart-beat down there in the bill,—

Not one found honestly deductible

From any use that pleased him! He might cut

My body into coins to give away

Among the other paupers; change my sons,

While I stood dumb as Griseld, for black babes

Or piteous foundlings; might unquestioned set

My right hand teaching in the Ragged Schools,

My left hand washing in the Public Baths,

What time my angel of the Ideal stretched

Both his to me in vain! I could not claim

The poor right of a mouse in a trap, to squeal,

And take so much as pity, from myself.

 

In short, she will be her own mistress, and work out her own independence. Her aunt dies, leaving Aurora about three hundred pounds. She peremptorily rejects a large sum of money which Romney, with delicate generosity, had attempted to place at her disposal, without allowing her to incur the sense of obligation, and starts for the metropolis:—

 

“I go hence

To London, to the gathering-place of souls,

To live mine straight out, vocally, in books;

Harmoniously for others, if indeed [p. 28→]

A woman’s soul, like man’s, be wide enough

To carry the whole octave (that’s to prove),

Or if I fail, still, purely for myself.”

 

Locating herself at Kensington, she begins her literary career, and achieves distinction. One day she is waited on by a certain Lady Waldemar, who gives her the astounding information that her cousin Romney, whom she had not seen for three years, is on the eve of marriage—

 

To a girl of doubtful life, undoubtful birth.

Starved out in London, till her coarse-grained hands

Are whiter than her morals.

 

This Lady Waldemar is personally in love with Romney Leigh, and comes to ask the aid of Aurora in breaking off the ill-assorted marriage. Aurora, however, having conceived a disgust to her visitor (which is not surprising, seeing that her conversation is so flavoured with allusions to garlic, that even the Lady of Shallot would have recoiled from her whispers), refuses to have any participation in the matter, but resolves immediately to see this girl, Marian Erle, who resides in a garret somewhere in the purlieus of St. Giles. After passing through the abominations of that quarter, and receiving the maledictions of thief and prostitute, the poetess discovers the object of her search, and hears her story. Marian Erle, the selected bride of Romney Leigh, was the daughter of a tramp and squatter on the Malvern Hills, and her education was essentially a hedge one. Her father drank and beat his wife, and the wife in turn beat her child. When Marian arrived at the age of puberty, her unnatural mother was about to sell her as a victim to the lusts of “a squire,” when the girl, in horror, ran away, burst a blood-vessel in her flight, was found senseless on the road by a waggoner, and conveyed to an hospital in a neighbouring town, where Romney Leigh was a visitor. Finding that she was friendless and homeless, he procured her a place in a sowing establishment in London, which she quitted to attend the deathbed of a poor consumptive companion, who had sunk under the pressure of over-work. Here Romney Leigh again appeared, and after the death of her friend, proposed to marry her, fashioning his proposal thus:—

 

“Dear Marian, of one clay God made us all,

And though men push and poke and paddle in’t

(As children play at fashioning dirt-pies),

And call their fancies by the name of facts,

Assuming difference, lordship, privilege,

When all’s plain dirt,—they come back to it at last;

The first grave-digger proves it with a spade,

And pats all even. Need we wait for this,

You, Marian, and I, Romney?”

She, at that,

Looked blindly in his face, as when one looks

Through driving autumn-rains to find the sky.

He went on speaking.

“Marian, I being born

What men call noble, and you, issued from

The noble people,—though the tyrannous sword

Which pierced Christ’s heart, has cleft the world in twain

’Twixt class and class, opposing rich to poor,—

Shall we keep parted? Not so. Let us lean

And strain together rather, each to each,

Compress the red lips of this gaping wound,

As far as two souls can,—ay, lean and league,

I, from my superabundance,—from your want,

You,—joining in a protest ’gainst the wrong

On both sides!”

 

While Marian is telling her story to Aurora, Romney comes in, looks certainly a little surprised at finding his cousin there, but is by no means disconcerted. Naturally enough Aurora supposes that he must be influenced by a very strong passion for the girl whom he is about to make his wife, and congratulates him, with what sincerity we need not inquire, on having made choice of so fair and gentle a creature. Romney, however, utterly denies the soft impeachment, in so far as it implies that his affections were any way engaged. Ordinary men contract marriages from love—he is influenced by a far higher principle. He says:—

 

“You did not, do not, cannot comprehend

My choice, my ends, my motives, nor myself:

No matter now—we’ll let it pass, you say.

I thank you for your generous cousinship [p. 29→]

Which helps this present; I accept for her

Your favourable thoughts. We’re fallen on days,

We two, who are not poets, when to wed

Requires less mutual love than common love,

For two together to bear out at once

Upon the loveless many. Work in pairs,

In galley-couplings or in marriage-rings,

The difference lies in the honour, not the work,—

And such we’re bound to, I and she. But love,

(You poets are benighted in this age;

The hour’s too late for catching even moths,

You’ve gnats instead), love!—love’s fool-paradise

Is out of date, like Adam’s. Set a swan

To swim the Trenton, rather than true love

To float its fabulous plumage safely down

The cataracts of this loud transition-time,

Whose roar, for ever henceforth, in my ears,

Must keep me deaf to music.”

 

In short, the man has not an atom of love for the girl, whom he proposes to wed entirely from motives of general philanthropy! At this Aurora is somewhat disgusted; but, wishing to show kindness to her cousin—perhaps to testify her own indifference, which, however, is rather feigned than real—she suggests that the marriage should take place at her house. But Master Romney will not hear of such an arrangement, as it might weaken the effect of the grand moral lesson which he intends to convey to society:—

 

He answered, “But it is:—I take my wife

Directly from the people,—and she comes,

As Austria’s daughter to imperial France,

Betwixt her eagles, blinking not her race,

From Margaret’s Court, at garret-height, to meet

And wed me at St. James’s, nor put off

Her gown of serge for that. The things we do,

We do: we’ll wear no mask, as if we blushed.”

 

The following sketch of the company assembled to witness the marriage ceremony is too racy and rich to be omitted here. As the union was to be typical of the impending abolition of all class distinctions, Romney determined that it should be celebrated in the presence of high and low, and issued cards accordingly.

 

Well,

A month passed so, and then the notice came;

On such a day the marriage at the church.

I was not backward.

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.

Of course the people came in uncompelled,

Lame, blind, and worse—sick, sorrowful, and worse,

The humours of the peccant social wound

All pressed out, poured out upon Pimlico,

Exasperating the unaccustomed air

With hideous interfusion: you’d suppose

A finished generation, dead of plague,

Swept outward from their graves into the sun,

The moil of death upon them. What a sight!

A holiday of miserable men

Is sadder than a burial-day of kings.

 

They clogged the streets, they oozed into the church

In a dark, slow stream, like blood. To see that sight,

The noble ladies toed up in their pews,

Some pale for fear, a few as red for hate,

Some simply curious, some just insolent,

And some in wondering scorn,—“What next? what next?”

These crushed their delicate rose-lips from the smile

That misbecame them in a holy place,

With broidered hems of perfumed handkerchiefs;

Those passed the salts with confidence of eyes

And simultaneous shiver of moiré silk;

While all the aisles, alive and black with heads,

Crawled slowly toward the altar from the street,

As bruised snakes crawl and hiss out of a hole

With shuddering involutions, swaying slow

From right to left, and then from left to right,

In pants and pauses. What an ugly crest

Of faces rose upon you everywhere

From that crammed mass! you did not usually

See faces like them in the open day:

They hide in cellars, not to make you mad

As Romney Leigh is.—Faces! O my God,

We call those, faces? men’s and women’s—ay,

And children’s;—babies, hanging like a rag

Forgotten on their mother’s neck,—poor mouths,

Wiped clean of mother’s milk by mother’s blow,

Before they are taught her cursing. Faces!—phew,

We’ll call them vices festering to despairs,

Or sorrows petrifying to vices: not [p. 30→]

A finger-touch of God left whole on them;

All ruined, lost—the countenance worn out

As the garments, the will dissolute as the acts,

The passions loose and draggling in the dirt

To trip the foot up at the first free step!—

Those faces! ’twas as if you had stirred up hell

To heave its lowest dreg-fiends uppermost

In fiery swirls of slime,—such strangled fronts.

Such obdurate jaws were thrown up constantly,

To twit you with your race, corrupt your blood,

And grind to devilish colours all your dreams

Henceforth,—though, haply, you should drop asleep

By clink of silver waters, in a muse

On Raffael’s mild Madonna of the Bird.

 

So there they wait—that strangely assorted company—the denizens of St. Giles thronging on the inhabitants of St. James—both parties curious to behold the marriage which is to inaugurate the future revolution and fusion of society. Romney Leigh appears to do the honours; but time rolls on, and still the bride comes not. The fashionables stare and talk gossip; the vulgar murmur, and desire a smoke—until a rumour to the effect that something is amiss, pervades the throng.

 

A murmur and a movement drew around;

A naked whisper touched us. Something wrong!

What’s wrong? The black crowd, as an overstrained

Cord, quivered in vibrations, and I saw—

Was that his face I saw?—his—Romney Leigh’s—

Which tossed a sudden horror like a sponge

Into all eyes,—while himself stood white upon

The topmost altar-stair, and tried to speak,

And failed, and lifted higher above his head

A letter,—as a man who drowns and gasps.

 

“My brothers, bear with me! I am very weak.

I meant but only good. Perhaps I meant

Too proudly,—and God snatched the circumstance,

And changed it therefore. There’s no marriage—none.

She leaves me,—she departs,—she disappears,—

I lose her. Yet I never forced her ‘ay,’

To have her ‘no’ so cast into my teeth,

In manner of an accusation, thus.

My friends, you are all dismissed. Go, eat and drink

According to the programme,—and farewell!”

 

At this St. Giles’ rises in insurrection, cursing Romney as a seducer, and accusing him of having made away with the girl. There is a superb row, with threats of violence and arson, until the police enter and clear the church.

Beyond an enigmatical letter of leave-taking, which gives no explanation of her avoiding the marriage ceremony, we hear nothing of Marian for a long time. Romney retires to Leigh Hall, which he has turned into a “phalanstery,” by which term, we presume, is meant an Owenite community. Miss Aurora continues her devotion to the muses, and becomes more notable day by day; but a horrid suspicion crosses her that Lady Waldemar has found the weak side of her wealthy cousin. For, at a conversazione at the house of a certain Lord Howe she learns that the fair and intriguing Waldemar is commonly considered as Romney’s pet disciple—nay, that she is considered as his bride intended. In the words of Mrs. Browning, which we give without the metrical divisions,—

 

“You may find her name on all his missions and commissions, schools, asylums, hospitals. He has had her down with other ladies, whom her starry lead persuaded from other spheres, to his country-place in Shropshire, in the famed phalanstery at Leigh Hall, christianised from Fourier’s own, in which he has planted out his sapling stocks of knowledge into social bursaries; and there, they say, she has tarried half a week, and milked the cows, and churned, and pressed the curd, and said ‘my sister’ to the lowest drab of all the assembled castaways. Such girls! Ay, sided with them at the washing-tub.”

 

Lady Waldemar, in a very spiteful speech, confirms this impression; and Miss Aurora, who all this time has had a secret hankering for her cousin, determines to square her balances with her publisher, and to depart for Italy.

In Paris she encounters Marian, and finds her a mother. The explanation is, that Lady Waldemar had tampered with the girl; and by representing to her that her marriage with Romney would be his social ruin, induced her to take flight on [p. 31→] the day preceding that which had been arranged for the nuptials. The place of her future destiny was Australia, but her ladyship had confided her to the charge of an unprincipled soubrette, who, whether or not by design of her mistress, took Marian over to France, conveyed her to an infamous house, and sold her, while under the influence of drugs, to violation. On awakening to a sense of her situation and wrongs, the unfortunate girl became mad, and was allowed to make her escape, underwent various adventures and vicissitudes, and finally brought into the world a male child, in whom her whole existence was wrapt up, and for whom alone she lived, when she was recognised and challenged by Aurora in the streets of Paris. The sequel may be easily imagined. Miss Leigh, convinced of Marian’s innocence, insists that she, with her child, shall accompany her to Florence; and there are some letters and cross purposes, into which, for the mere sake of the story, it is not necessary to enter. In fine, Aurora, in the full belief that Lady Waldemar, to whom she has sent a most insulting letter, is now the wife of her cousin, becomes melancholy and heart-sick, and time drags wearily on, until one night, watching the stars from her terrace, she is startled by the sudden apparition of Romney by her side. Gentler than in his early youth, and far more humble, Romney first pays homage to her genius, and then confesses that his social schemes have proved an utter failure.

 

“My vain phalanstery dissolved itself;

My men and women of disordered lives,

I brought in orderly to dine and sleep,

Broke up those waxen masks I made them wear,

With fierce contortions of the natural face;

And cursed me for my tyrannous constraint

In forcing crooked creatures to live straight;

And set the country hounds upon my back

To bite and tear me for my wicked deed

Of trying to do good without the church

Or even the squires, Aurora. Do you mind

Your ancient neighbours? The great book-club teems

With ‘sketches,’ ‘summaries,’ and ‘last tracts’ but twelve,

On socialistic troublers of close bonds

Betwixt the generous rich and grateful poor.

The vicar preached from ‘Revelations’ (till

The doctor woke) and found me with ‘the frogs’

On three successive Sundays; ay, and stopped

To weep a little (for he’s getting old)

That such perdition should o’ertake a man

Of such fair acres,—in the parish, too!

He printed his discourses ‘by request;’

And if your book shall sell as his did, then

Your verses are less good than I suppose.

The women of the neighbourhood subscribed,

And sent me a copy bound in scarlet silk,

Tooled edges, blazoned with the arms of Leigh:

I own that touched me.”

“What, the pretty ones?

Poor Romney!”

“Otherwise the effect was small.

I had my windows broken once or twice

By liberal peasants, naturally incensed

At such a vexer of Arcadian peace,

Who would not let men call their wives their own

To kick like Britons,—and made obstacles

When things went smoothly as a baby drugged,

Toward freedom and starvation; bringing down

The wicked London tavern-thieves and drabs,

To affront the blessed hill-side drabs and thieves

With mended morals, quotha,—fine new lives!—

My windows paid for’t. I was shot at, once,

By an active poacher who had hit a hare

From the other barrel, tired of springeing game

So long upon my acres, undisturbed,

And restless for the country’s virtue (yet

He missed me)—ay, and pelted very oft

In riding through the village. ‘There he goes,

Who’d drive away our Christian gentlefolks,

To catch us undefended in the trap

He baits with poisonous cheese, and lock us up

In that pernicious prison of Leigh Hall

With all his murderers! Give another name,

And say Leigh Hell, and burn it with fire.

And so they did, at last, Aurora.”

 

The worst of it was, that the garrotters, ticket-of-leave men, and street-walkers, with whom he had filled his house, thought the proceeding rare fun, and joined in the incendiarism; and Will Erle, Marian’s father, “tramp and poacher,” whom he had attempted to reclaim, struck Romney on the head with a burning brand as he was leaving the house, inflicting an injury which brought him nearly to the verge of the grave. In the course of conversation Romney unde- [p. 32→] ceives Aurora as to his connection with Lady Waldemar, but declares that he considers himself bound, notwithstanding her misfortune, to wed Marian, and to adopt her child. Marian, who has overheard this, comes forward, and after a passionate scene of great beauty, rejects the offer. Here we cannot resist a quotation.

 

“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? What! a happier child

Than mine, my best,—who laughed so loud to-night

He could not sleep for pastime? Nay, I sware

By life and love, that, if I lived like some,

And loved like—some—ay, loved you, Romney Leigh,

As some love (eyes that have wept so much, see clear),

I’ve room for no more children in my arms;

My kisses are all melted on one mouth;

I would not push my darling to a stool

To dandle babies. Here’s a hand, shall keep

For ever clean without a marriage-ring,

To tend my boy, until he cease to need

One steadying finger of it, and desert

(Not miss) his mother’s lap, to sit with men.

And when I miss him (not he me) I’ll come

And say, ‘Now give me some of Romney’s work,

To help our outcast orphans of the world,

And comfort grief with grief.’ For you, meantime,

Most noble Romney, wed a noble wife,

And open on each other your great souls,—

I need not farther bless you. If I dared

But strain and touch her in her upper sphere,

And say, ‘Come down to Romney—pay my debt!’

I should be joyful with the stream of joy

Sent through me. But the moon is in my face—

I dare not,—though I guess the name he loves;

I’m learned with my studies of old days,

Remembering how he crush’d his under-lip

When some one came and spoke, or did not come:

Aurora, I could touch her with my hand,

And fly, because I dare not.”

She was gone.

 

And so Marian departs. But now comes an awful disclosure—Romney is blind. The blow struck by the poacher had destroyed the visual nerves; and for that unfortunate Lord of Leigh, the glory of the sun, moon, and stars, was but a remembrance. So Aurora, who had always loved him, even though she would not allow it to herself—and whom he had never ceased to love amidst his perverted dreams of duty—gives her whole woman’s heart to the helpless; and the poem closes with the interchange of vows and aspirations.

Such is the story, which no admirer of Mrs. Browning’s genius ought in prudence to defend. In our opinion it is fantastic, unnatural, exaggerated; and all the worse, because it professes to be a tale of our own times. No one who understands of how much value probability is to a tale, can read the foregoing sketch, or indeed peruse the poem, without a painful feeling that Mrs. Browning has been perpetrating, in essentials, an extravaganza or caricature, instead of giving to the public a real lifelike picture; for who can accept, as truthful representation, Romney’s proposal of marriage to an ignorant uneducated girl whom he does not love; or that scene in the church, which is absolutely of Rabelaisian conception? We must not be seduced by beauty and power of execution from entering our protest against this radical error, which appears more glaring as we pass from the story to the next point, which is the delineation of character. Aurora Leigh is not an attractive character. After making the most liberal allowance for pride, and fanaticism for art, and inflexible independence, she is incongruous and contradictory both in her sentiments and in her actions. She is not a genuine woman; one half [p. 33→] of her heart seems bounding with the beat of humanity, while the other half is ossified. What we miss in her is instinctiveness, which is the greatest charm of women. No doubt she displays it now and then, and sometimes very conspicuously, but it is not made the general attribute of her nature; and in her dealings with Romney Leigh, instinct disappears altogether. For we hold it absolutely impossible that a woman, gifted as she is represented to be, would have countenanced a kinsman, whom she respected only, in the desperate folly of wedding an uneducated girl from the lowest grade of society, whom he did not love, simply for the sake of a theory; thereby making himself a public laughingstock, without the least chance of advancing the progress of his own preposterous opinions. There is nothing heroic in this; there is nothing reconcilable with duty. The part which Aurora takes in the transaction, degrades rather than raises her in our eyes; nor is she otherwise thoroughly amiable; for, with all deference to Mrs. Browning, and with ideas of our own perhaps more chivalric than are commonly promulgated, we must maintain that woman was created to be dependent on the man, and not in the primary sense his lady and his mistress. The extreme independence of Aurora detracts from the feminine charm, and mars the interest which we otherwise might have felt in so intellectual a heroine. In fact, she is made to resemble too closely some of the female portraits of George Sand, which never were to our liking. In Romney we fail to take any kind of interest. Though honourable and generous, he is such a very decided noodle that we grudge him his prominence in the poem, do not feel much sympathy for his misfortunes, and cannot help wondering that Aurora should have entertained one spark of affection for so deplorable a milksop. Excess of enthusiasm we can allow; and folly, affecting to talk the words of wisdom, meets us at every turning: but Romney is a walking hyperbole. The character of Marian is very beautifully drawn and well sustained, but her thoughts and language are not those of a girl reared in the midst of sordid poverty, vice, and ignorance. This is an error in art which we are sure Mrs. Browning, upon mature consideration, will acknowledge; and it might easily have been avoided by the simple expedient of making Marian’s origin and antecedents a few shades more respectable, which still would have left enough disparity between her and Romney to produce the effect which Mrs. Browning desires. Lady Waldemar is a disgusting character. Mrs. Browning intended her to appear as despicable; but it was not therefore necessary to make her talk coarse and revolting. As an example let us cite the following passage:—

 

“Of a truth, Miss Leigh,

I have not, without struggle, come to this.

I took a master in the German tongue,

I gamed a little, went to Paris twice;

But, after all, this love!—you eat of love,

And do as vile a thing as if you eat

Of garlic—which, whatever else you eat,

Tastes uniformly acrid, till your peach

Reminds you of your onion. Am I coarse?

Well, love’s coarse, nature’s coarse—ah, there’s the rub!

We fair fine ladies, who park out our lives

From common sheep-paths, cannot help the crows

From flying over,—we’re as natural still

As Blowsalinda. Drape us perfectly

In Lyons velvet,—we are not, for that,

Lay-figures, look you! we have hearts within,

Warm, live, improvident, indecent hearts,

As ready for distracted ends and acts

As any distressed sempstress of them all

That Romney groans and toils for. We catch love

And other fevers, in the vulgar way.

Love will not be outwitted by our wit,

Not outrun by our equipages:—mine

Persisted, spite of efforts. All my cards

Turned up but Romney Leigh; my German stopped

At germane Wertherism; my Paris rounds

Returned me from the Champs Elysées just

A ghost, and sighing like Dido’s. I came home

Uncured,—convicted rather to myself

Of being in love—in love! That’s coarse you’ll say.

I’m talking garlic.

 

In this there is neither truth, power, nor humour. The offence against taste is so rank that it cannot easily be forgiven.

In poetry passages such as that which we have quoted are intolerable, because by juxtaposition with others exquisite in themselves, they impair our capacity for enjoyment. [p. 34→] Anything very hideous or revolting taints the air around it, and produces a sensation of loathing, from which we do not immediately recover. Hence poets, even when their situations are of the most tragic nature—even when they are dealing with subjects questionable in morality—do, for the most part, sedulously avoid anything like coarseness of expression, and frame their language so as to convey the general idea without presenting special images which are calculated to disgust. Indeed, whilst reading this poem, which abounds in references to art, we have been impressed with a doubt whether, with all her genius, accomplishment, and experience, Mrs. Browning has ever thought seriously of the principles upon which art is founded. For genius, as we all know, or ought to know, is not of itself sufficient for the construction of a great poem. Artists, like architects, must work by rule—not slavishly indeed, but ever keeping in mind that there are certain principles which experience has tested and approved, and that to deviate from these is literally to court defeat. Not that we should implicitly receive the doctrines laid down by critics, scholiasts, or commentators, or pin our faith to the formula of Longinus; but we should regard the works of the great masters, both ancient and modern, as profitable for instruction as well as for delight, and be cautious how we innovate. We may consider it almost as a certainty that every leading principle of art has been weighed and sifted by our predecessors; and that most of the theories, which are paraded as discoveries, were deliberately examined by them, and rejected because they were false or impracticable. In the fifth book of this poem there is a dissertation upon poetry, in which Mrs. Browning very plainly indicates her opinion that the chief aim of a poet should be to illustrate the age in which he lives.

 

But poets should

Exert a double vision; should have eyes

To see near things as comprehensively

As if afar they took their point of sight,

And distant things, as intimately deep,

As if they touched them. Let us strive for this.

I do distrust the poet who discerns

No character or glory in his times,

And trundles back his soul five hundred years,

Past moat and drawbridge, into a castle-court,

Oh not to sing of lizards or of toads

Alive i’ the ditch there!—’twere excusable;

But of some black chief, half knight, half sheep-lifter,

Some beauteous dame, half chattel and half queen;

As dead as must be for the greater part,

The poems made on their chivalric bones.

And that’s no wonder: death inherits death.

 

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 mirrors of 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.

 

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 have all 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.”

 

This, in our apprehension, would lead to a total sacrifice of the ideal. It is not the province of the poet to depict things as they are, but so to refine and purify as to purge out the grosser matter; and this he cannot do if he attempts to give a faithful picture of his own times. For in order to be faithful, he must necessarily include much which is abhorrent to art, and revolting to the taste, for which no exactness of delineation will be accepted as a proper excuse. All poetical characters, all poetical situations must be idealised. The language is not that of common life, which belongs essentially to the domain of prose. Therein lies the dis- [p. 35→] tinction between a novel and a poem. In the first, we expect that the language employed by the characters shall be strictly natural, not excluding even imperfections, and that their sentiments shall not be too elevated or extravagant for the occasion. In the second, we expect idealisation—language more refined, more adorned, and more forcible than that which is ordinarily employed; and sentiments purer and loftier than find utterance in our daily speech. Whilst dealing with a remote subject the poet can easily effect this, but not so when he brings forward characters of his own age. We have been told that both the late John Kemble and his sister Mrs. Siddons had become so accustomed to the flow of blank verse that they carried the trick of it into private life, and used sorely to try the risible faculties of the company by demanding beef or beer in tragic tones and rhythm. That which would have sounded magnificently on the stage was ludicrous at a modern table. Mrs. Browning has evidently felt the difficulty, but she cannot conquer it. In this poem she has wilfully alternated passages of sorry prose with bursts of splendid poetry; and her prose is all the worse because she has been compelled to dislocate its joints in order to make it read like blank verse. Let us again revert to the experiment of exhibiting one or two of these passages printed in the usual form:—

 

“We are sad to-night. I saw—(goodnight, Sir Blaise! ah Smith—he has slipped away) I saw you across the room, and stayed, Miss Leigh, to keep a crowd of lion-hunters off, with faces toward your jungle. There were three; a spacious lady five feet ten, and fat, who has the devil in her (and there’s room) for walking to and fro upon the earth from Chippewa to China; she requires your autograph upon a tinted leaf ’twixt Queen Pomare’s and Emperor Soulouque’s; pray give it; she has energies, though fat; for me, I’d rather see a rick on fire than such a woman angry. Then a youth fresh from the backwoods, green as the underboughs, asks modestly, Miss Leigh, to kiss your shoe, and adds, he has an epic in twelve parts, which when you’ve read, you’ll do it for his boot,—all which I saved you, and absorb next week both manuscript and man.”

 

Is that poetry? Assuredly not. Is it prose? If so, it is as poor and faulty a specimen as ever was presented to our notice. It would not pass muster even in a third-rate novel, where sense is an element of minor consideration, and style is habitually disregarded. Here is an extract from an epistle by Lady Waldemar:—

 

“Parted. Face no more, voice no more, love no more! wiped wholly out like some ill scholar’s scrawl from heart and slate—ay, spit on, and so wiped out utterly by some coarse scholar. I have been too coarse, too human. Have we business in our rank with blood in the veins? I will have henceforth none; not even to keep the colour at my lip. A rose is pink and pretty without blood,—why not a woman? When we’ve played in vain the game, to adore,—who have resources still, and can play on at leisure, being adored: here’s Smith already swearing at my feet that I’m the typic She. Away with Smith!—Smith smacks of Leigh, and henceforth, I’ll admit no Socialist within three crinolines, to live and have his being. But for you, though insolent your letter and absurd, and though I hate you frankly, take my Smith! For when you have seen this famous marriage tied, a most unspotted Earl to a noble Leigh (his love astray on one he should not love), howbeit you should not want his love, beware, you’ll want some comfort. So I leave you Smith; take Smith!”

 

What a rare specimen of a rhythmical fashionable letter! Still more singular is the effect when the mob becomes articulate:—

 

“Then spoke a man, “Now look to it, coves, that all the beef and drink be not filched from us like the other fun; for beer’s spilt easier than a woman is. This gentry is not honest with the poor; they bring us up to trick us.” “Go it, Jim,” a woman screamed back. “I’m a tender soul; I never banged a child at two years old, and drew blood from him, but I sobbed for it next moment—and I’ve had a plague of seven. I’m tender: I’ve no stomach even for beef, until I know about the girl that’s lost—that’s killed, mayhap. I did misdoubt, at first, the fine lord meant no good by her or us. He maybe got the upper hand of her by holding up a wedding-ring, and then . . a choking finger on her throat last night, and just a clever take to keep us still, as she is, poor lost innocent!” [p. 36→]

 

Reading such passages as these—so flat, distorted, and unworthy—shall we not exclaim with Mrs. Browning herself,

 

Weep, my Æschylus,

But low and far, upon Sicilian shores?

 

It is not the part of critics to strain their vision so as to detect spots on the disc of the sun; but it is their duty to mark the appearance of even a partial eclipse. It is far easier, as it is more pleasant, to praise than to condemn; but praise, injudiciously or indiscriminately bestowed, cannot be commended, since it leads to the perpetuation of error. In dealing with the works of authors of high name and established repute, it is of the utmost importance that the judgment should be clear and calm; for we know by experience that the aberrations or eccentricities of a distinguished artist are immediately copied by a crew of imitators, who, unable to vie with their original in beauties, can at least rival him in his faults. We doubt not that, before a year is over, many poems on the model of Aurora Leigh will be written and published; and that conversations in the pot-house, casino, and even worse places, will be reduced to blank verse, and exhibited as specimens of high art. To dignify the mean, is not the province of poetry—let us rather say that there are atmospheres so tainted that in them poetry cannot live. Its course is in the empyrean or in the fresh wholesome air, but if it attempts to descend to pits and charnel-vaults, it is stifled by the noxious exhalations. We by no means confound the humble with the mean. The most sanctified affections, the purest thoughts, the holiest aspirations, are as likely to be found in the cottage as in the castle. Wherever there is a flower, however lowly, beauty may be seen; the prayer of a monarch is not more heeded in heaven than the supplication of an outcast; the cry of a mother is as plaintive from the dungeon as though it sounded from the halls of a palace. This very poem which we are reviewing affords a remarkable illustration of the æsthetical point which we are anxious to enforce. We have already said that the character of Marian Erle is beautifully drawn and well sustained, and yet it is the humblest of them all. But in depicting her, Mrs. Browning has abstained from all meanness. If she errs at all, it is by making the girl appear more refined in thought and expression than is justified by her previous history, but that is an error on the safe side, and one which may be readily excused. Marian, little better than a pariah-girl, does undoubtedly attract our sympathies more than the polished and high-minded Aurora, the daughter of a noble race—not certainly as the bride of Romney, but as the mother of a hapless child. There, indeed, Mrs. Browning has achieved a triumph; for never yet—no, not in her “Cry of the Children,” one of the most pathetic and tear-stirring poems in the English language—has she written anything comparable to the passages which refer to Marian and her babe. Take for example this description:—

 

I saw the whole room, I and Marian there

Alone.

Alone? She threw her bonnet off,

Then sighing as ’twere sighing the last time,

Approached the bed, and drew a shawl away:

You could not peel a fruit you fear to bruise

More calmly and more carefully than so,—

Nor would you find within, a rosier flushed

Pomegranate—

There he lay, upon his back,

The yearling creature, warm and moist with life

To the bottom of his dimples,—to the ends

Of the lovely tumbled curls about his face;

For since he had been covered over-much

To keep him from the light-glare, both his cheeks

Were hot and scarlet as the first live rose

The shepherd’s heart-blood ebbed away into,

The faster for his love. And love was here

As instant! in the pretty baby-mouth,

Shut close as if for dreaming that it sucked;

The little naked feet drawn up the way

Of nestled birdlings; everything so soft

And tender,—to the little holdfast hands,

Which, closing on a finger into sleep,

Had kept the mould of’t.

While we stood there dumb,—

For oh, that it should take such innocence

To prove just guilt, I thought, and stood there dumb;

The light upon his eyelids pricked them wide, [p. 37→]

And staring out at us with all their blue,

As half perplexed between the angelhood

He had been away to visit in his sleep,

And our most mortal presence,—gradually

He saw his mother’s face, accepting it

In change for heaven itself, with such a smile

As might have well been learnt there,—never moved,

But smiled on, in a drowse of ecstasy,

So, happy (half with her and half with heaven)

He could not have the trouble to be stirred,

But smiled and lay there. Like a rose, I said:

As red and still indeed as any rose,

That blows in all the silence of its leaves,

Content, in blowing, to fulfil its life.

 

Now contrast that with the stuff, which we have put into the form of prose, and then tell us, good reader, if we are not justified in feeling annoyed, and even incensed, that a lady capable of producing so exquisite a picture, should condescend to fashion into verse what is essentially mean, gross, and puerile? We must have no evasions here, for this is an important question of art. We may be told that Shakespeare, in his highest tragedies, has introduced the comic element; and his example, so distinguished as almost to amount to an unimpeachable authority, may be cited in defence of Mrs. Browning. But, on examination, we shall find that there is no analogy. In the first place, whenever Shakespeare descends to low comedy, he makes his characters discourse in prose, thereby marking broadly the elevation of sentiment and dignity which belongs to verse, and he does so even when low comedy is excluded. When Hamlet is familiar, as with the players, Polonius, the gravediggers, or Osric, he speaks in prose; and the rhythmical periods are reserved for the higher and more impassioned situations. So in Othello, in the scenes between Iago, Cassio, and Roderigo. So in Julius Cæsar (in which, being a classical play, the temptation lay towards stateliness), whenever the citizens or the cynical Casca are introduced; and in Henry V., in the night-scene before Agincourt, there is even a more remarkable instance of this. It was evidently the view of Shakespeare that verse is the proper vehicle for poetry alone: he would not dignify ignoble thoughts or common sentiments by admitting them to that lofty chariot. Mrs. Browning follows the march of modern improvement. She makes no distinction between her first and her third class passengers, but rattles them along at the same speed upon her rhythmical railway.

There is no instance of a poem of considerable length which is free from faults and blemishes; and whatever may be said to the contrary, the detection of existing faults is the real business of the critic. He either is, or is supposed to be, the holder of the touchstone, by means of which true metal is distinguished from that which is base, and he is bound in duty to declare the result of his investigation. In the present instance, while dealing with Aurora Leigh, we have been at some pains to arrive at the metal. Our task has been rather that of an Australian or Californian gold-seeker, who puts into his cradle or his pan a spadeful of doubtful material. From the first shaking there emerges mud—from the second, pebbles—but, after clearance, the pure gold is found at the bottom, and in no inconsiderable quantities.

If we have not been able conscientiously to praise the story, either as regards conception or execution, no such restriction is laid upon us while dealing with isolated passages. Mrs. Browning possesses in a very high degree the faculty of description, presenting us often with the most brilliantly coloured pictures. In this respect, if we may be allowed to institute such a comparison, she resembles Turner, being sometimes even extravagant in the vividness of her tints. By this we mean that she has a decided tendency, not only to multiply, but to intensify images, and occasionally carries this so far as to bewilder the reader. The following sketch of London is drawn in her most florid manner:—

 

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 [p. 38→]

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. Your city poets see such things,

Not despicable. Mountains of the south,

When drunk and mad with elemental wines,

They rend the seamless mist and stand up bare,

Make fewer singers, haply. No one sings,

Descending Sinai: on Parnassus mount,

You take a mule to climb, and not a muse,

Except in fable and figure: forests chant

Their anthems to themselves, and leave you dumb.

But sit in London, at the day’s decline,

And view the city perish in the mist,

Like Pharaoh’s armaments in the deep Red Sea,—

The chariots, horsemen, footmen, all the host,

Sucked down and choked to silence—then, surprised

By a sudden sense of vision and of tune,

You feel as conquerors though you did not fight,

And you and Israel’s other singing girls,

Ay, Miriam with them, sing the song you choose.

 

There can be no doubt as to the power which is here exhibited, but in our opinion the passage is over-wrought. There is a prodigality of illustration which mars the general effect by creating confusion. In marked contrast to it is our next extract. Aurora, returning to Italy, is watching on deck for the first glimpse of her native land.

 

That night we spent between the purple heaven

And purple water: I think Marian slept;

But I, as a dog a-watch for his master’s foot,

Who cannot sleep or eat before he hears,

I sate upon the deck and watched all night,

And listened through the stars for Italy.

. . . . .

 

I felt the wind soft from the land of souls;

The old miraculous mountains heaved in sight,

One straining past another along the shore,

The way of grand dull Odyssean ghosts

Athirst to drink the cool blue wine of seas

And stare on voyagers. Peak pushing peak

They stood: I watched beyond that Tyrian belt

Of intense sea betwixt them and the ship,

Down all their sides the misty olive-woods

Dissolving in the weak congenial moon,

And still disclosing some brown convent-tower

That seems as if it grew from some brown rock,—

Or many a little lighted village, dropt

Like a fallen star, upon so high a point,

You wonder what can keep it in its place

From sliding headlong with the waterfalls

Which drop and powder all the myrtle-groves

With spray of silver. Thus my Italy

Was stealing on us. Genoa broke with day;

The Doria’s long pale palace striking out,

From green hills in advance of the white town.

A marble finger dominant to ships,

Seen glimmering through the uncertain grey of dawn.

 

That is poetry—splendid, magnificent poetry—without intermixture of conceits or far-fetched images. Our younger poets, who, as a class, aspire to dazzle rather than to please, might derive a very useful lesson from the study of these extracts. The first is undoubtedly gorgeous, but it is so overlaid with ornament that it leaves no distinct impression on the mind; the second is a perfect picture, which once seen can never be forgotten. To these we are tempted to add a third, descriptive of Florence:—

 

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,

Intense as angels’ garments blanched with God,

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 vine) until it was caught and torn

On that abrupt black line of cypresses

Which signed the way to Florence. Beautiful

The city lay along the ample vale,

Cathedral, tower and palace, piazza and street;

The river trailing like a silver cord [p. 39→]

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.

 

The reader will find in the volume itself descriptions almost as vivid and charming as the above of English scenery; for Mrs. Browning, when her palette is not overcharged with carmine, can paint such things as perfectly as Morland, Gainsborough, or Constable. Witness the few following lines, which we cannot deny ourselves the pleasure of extracting:—

 

I flattered all the beauteous country round,

As poets use . . the skies, the clouds, the fields,

The happy violets hiding from the roads

The primroses run down to, carrying gold—

The tangled hedgerows, where the cows push out

Impatient horns and tolerant churning mouths,

’Twixt dripping ash-boughs,—hedgerows all alive

With birds and gnats and large white butterflies,

Which look as if the May-flower had caught life

And palpitated forth upon the wind,—

Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist,

Farms, granges, doubled up among the hills,

And cattle grazing in the watered vales,

And cottage-chimneys smoking from the woods,

And cottage-gardens smelling everywhere,

Confused with smell of orchards. “See,” I said,

“And see! is God not with us on the earth?

And shall we put Him down by aught we do?

Who says there’s nothing for the poor and vile

Save poverty and wickedness? behold!”

And ankle-deep in English grass I leaped,

And clapped my hands, and called all very fair.

 

Nor is the great genius of Mrs. Browning less conspicuous in other portions of the poem which relate to the natural affections. Once and again, whilst perusing this volume, have we experienced a sensation of regret that one so admirably gifted should have wasted much of her power upon what are, after all, mere artistic experiments, when by adhering throughout to natural sentiment and natural expression, she might have produced a work so noble as to leave no room for cavilling or reproach. The tendency to experiment, which is simply a token of a morbid craving for originality, has been the bane of many poets. Their first victory being won, they think it incumbent on them to shift their campaigning-ground, and alter their strategy, forgetful that the method which has brought them success, and which they intuitively adopted because it was most suited to their powers, is precisely that most likely to insure them a future triumph. For ourselves, we are free to confess that we have not much faith in new theories of art; we are rather inclined to class them in the same category with schemes for the regeneration of society. Mrs. Browning, beyond all modern poets, has no need of resorting to fantasias for the sake of attracting an audience. For whenever she deserts her theories, and touches a natural chord, we acknowledge her as a mistress of song. In proof of which we cite the description of Marian Erle, the outcast girl, when waking from her trance in the hospital:—

 

She stirred;—the place seemed new and strange as death.

The white strait bed, with others strait and white,

Like graves dug side by side at measured lengths,

And quiet people walking in and out,

With wonderful low voices and soft steps,

And apparitional equal care for each,

Astonished her with order, silence, law:

And when a gentle hand held out a cup,

She took it, as you do at sacrament,

Half awed, half melted,—not being used, indeed,

To so much love as makes the form of love

And courtesy of manners. Delicate drinks

And rare white bread, to which some dying eyes

Were turned in observation. O my God,

How sick we must be ere we make men just!

I think it frets the saints in heaven to see

How many desolate creatures on the earth

Have learnt the simple dues of fellowship

And social comfort, in a hospital,

As Marian did. She lay there stunned, half tranced,

And wished, at intervals of growing sense,

She might be sicker yet, if sickness made

The world so marvellous kind, the air so hushed,

And all her wake-time quiet as a sleep;

For now she understood (as such things were) [p. 40→]

How sickness ended very oft in heaven,

Among the unspoken raptures. Yet more sick,

And surelier happy. Then she dropped her lids,

And, folding up her hands as flowers at night,

Would lose no moment of the blessed time.

 

One more quotation, and we have done with extracts. We have thought it our duty to point out what seemed to us egregious faults; but not, on that account, are we blind to the many beauties of the poem. We envy the imagination that can conceive a sweeter picture than this:—

 

Marian’s good,

Gentle and loving,—lets me hold the child,

Or drags him up the hills to find me flowers,

And fill those vases, ere I’m quite awake,—

The grandiose red tulips, which grow wild,

Or else my purple lilies, Dante blew

To a larger bubble with his prophet-breath;

Or one of those tall flowing reeds which stand

In Arno like a sheaf of sceptres, left

By some remote dynasty of dead gods,

To suck the stream for ages and get green,

And blossom wheresoe’er a hand divine

Had warmed the place with ichor. Such I’ve found

At early morning, laid across my bed,

And woke up pelted with a childish laugh

Which even Marian’s low precipitous “hush”

Had vainly interposed to put away,—

While I, with shut eyes, smile and motion for

The dewy kiss that’s very sure to come

From mouth and cheeks, the whole child’s face at once

Dissolved on mine,—as if a nosegay burst

Its string with the weight of roses overblown,

And dropt upon me. Surely I should be glad.

The little creature almost loves me now,

And calls my name .. “Alola,” stripping off

The rs like thorns, to make it smooth enough

To take between his dainty, milk-fed lips,

God love him!

 

It has been well remarked that the chief defect of modern British poems consists in the carelessness of their construction. Plot, arrangement, and even probability, are regarded as things of minor moment; and the whole attention of the artist is lavished upon expression. This, if we are to judge from antecedents, is a symptom of literary decadence. The same tendency is observable in the later literature of Greece and Rome; nay, it may be remarked within a narrower sphere—as, for example, in the writings of Euripides—the last of the great Hellenic triumvirate. Æschylus excelled in energy and masculine strength; Sophocles in his development of the passions; Euripides in expression—but, with Euripides, Athenian tragedy declined. It is ever an evil sign when mere talk is considered by a nation as something preferable to action, for it shows that sound and pretension are becoming more esteemed than sense and deliberate purpose. We might, upon this text, say something the reverse of complimentary to a large body of politicians; but we refrain from mingling the political with the poetical element. It is however, impossible to deny the fact that, by many, brilliant writing, or writing which seems brilliant, is esteemed as of the highest kind, without regard to congruity or design. This is a grievous error, which cannot be exposed too broadly; and to it we trace the almost total extinction, in our own day, of the British drama. Our great dramatists, with Shakespeare at their head, succeeded in gaining the attention of the public by the interest of their plots, far more than by the felicity of their diction; and until that truth is again recognised and acted on, we need not expect a resuscitation of the drama. Also be it remembered, that a plot—that is, a theme—well-considered, developed, and divided, must, to make it effective, be adequately and naturally expressed. Adequate expression is no more than the proper language of emotion; and emotion must be tracable to some evident and intelligible cause. All this is disregarded by our “new poets,” as they love to style themselves, who come upon their imaginary stage, tearing their hair, proclaiming their inward wretchedness, and spouting sorry metaphysics in still sorrier verse, for no imaginable reason whatever. One of them has the curse of genius upon him, and seems to think that delirium is the normal state of the human mind. Another rails at Providence because he has not been placed in a situation which he supposes commensurate to [p. 41→] his merits. A third, when he sets his characters in motion, pulls the strings so violently as to make them leap like fantoccini. A fourth is a mere crowder, and spins merciless rigmaroles about the “heart of the coming age.” Now with the exception of the crowder, each of these men has some intellect and power; but they do not know how to apply it. They think that the public will be content to receive their crude thoughts as genuine notes of issue from the Bank of Genius, if so be that they are dressed up in a gaudy, glittering, and hyperbolical form; and they ransack, not only earth and sea, but heaven itself for ornaments. All this while they forget that there is no meaning in their talk; that people who are desirous to hear a story, do not call the minstrel in for the purpose of listening to his disappointed aspirations, or the bleatings of his individual woes, but because they require of him, as a professed member of the greatest craft since the prophets disappeared, a tale of energy or emotion that shall stir the heart, or open one of the many fountains of our common sympathy.

We could wish—though wishes avail not for the past—that Mrs. Browning had selected a more natural and intelligible theme which would have given full scope for the display of her extraordinary powers; and we trust that she will yet reconsider her opinion as to the abstract fitness for poetical use of a subject illustrative of the times in which we live. It may be that there is no difficulty which genius cannot conquer; at the same time, we cannot commend the wisdom of those who go out of their way on purpose to search for difficulties. It is curious to observe that poets in all ages have shrunk from the task of chronicling contemporaneous deeds. These are first confined to the tutelage of the muse of history; nor is it until time has done its consecrating office, that poetry ventures to approach them. The bards of old touched their harps, not for the glorification of their compatriots, but in memory of the deeds of their ancestors. No one supposes that the time has yet arrived when the Peninsular War or the sea-victories of Britain can be taken up as proper epical themes, though Nelson and Wellington have both entered into the famous mansions of the dead. This universal repugnance to the adoption of immediate subjects for poetical treatment, seems to us a very strong argument against its propriety; and certainly Mrs. Browning has not succeeded, by practice, in establishing her theory. There is sound truth in the observation that no man ever yet was a hero in the eyes of his valet, and the remark is equally just if we extend it from individuals to the masses. We select our demigods from the dead, not from the living. We cannot allow fancy to be trammelled in its work by perpetual reference to realities.

Still, with all its faults, this is a remarkable poem; strong in energy, rich in thought, abundant in beauty; and it more than sustains that high reputation which, by her previous efforts, Mrs. Browning has so honourably won.

[William Edmonstoune Aytoun]

Reviewed:

Aurora Leigh (EBB), London: Chapman & Hall, 1857.

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