Reviews

E570300C.  Aurora Leigh.

London University Magazine, March 1857, pp. 139–150.

As reprinted in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 24, 294–299.

It would be but faint praise to say that Mrs. Browning was by far the first of English poetesses. The strife between Aurora Leigh and her cousin Romney, as to the capacity of women for writing poetry of the highest order, must certainly have been decided till very recently, at least in our own country, against the fair aspirants to the bay-leaves. Passion is not poetry, nor yet the earnest and vehement expression of passion. The art necessary to true poetry requires rather the suppression, than the expression of passionate emotion. The feeling, indeed, is necessary; it is the fountain from whence the inspiration of poetry is drawn. But the artist soul, to embody the feeling in true intellectual conceptions, and to chisel the conceptions into breathing natural forms, is an additional, and a far rarer gift. In England, certainly, no woman has hitherto possessed these powers to anything like the same extent as Mrs. Browning. Sometimes in one, often in both, the poetesses of our own country have been singularly, or at least fatally, deficient. Endowed with exquisite sensibility to the beautiful and the grand, the tenderest sympathy with suffering, the most burning hatred of oppression; with all, in fact, of that unselfishness and delicacy of feeling which forms the highest glory of their sex, they have wanted, for the most part, that passionless creative power, which moulds these vague feelings into clearly defined intellectual conceptions.

This creative power is the real meaning of the word Imagination, and is emphatically a man’s quality. It is the constructive originating faculty of his nature. It has no more to do with feeling, than with logic, though it may be, and frequently is, united with both. When conjoined with strong and delicate feeling, it produces a “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a “Hamlet,” or an “Othello.” When in union with a practical and speculative mind, it makes the [p. 140→] Napoleon or the Pitt, the Bacon or the Mansfield. Working with a mechanical genius, it evolves the law of universal gravitation, or brings the mighty agency of heat to aid the weakness, and link the destinies of our race. It confines itself to no science, it unites itself with no exclusive range of feelings or of thoughts. It is as much the property of Cuvier and Owen as of Wordsworth and Byron; and was as truly the father of the Atomic theory as of Locksley Hall. It reveals itself in the conception of a Columbus as clearly as in the marble of Canova; in the manœuvre of the general, as much as in the neatly bound octavo of the poet. Paradise Lost, like St. Paul’s cathedral, is as much the result of cold constructive genius—the mere mechanism of thought—as of ardent feeling, and passionate emotions. Cloudy poets, who mistake earnestness for art, and suppose that they write finely because they feel strongly, would, we fear, be not a little scandalized and overwhelmed, if they could by chance perceive how nearly the construction of a poem resembles the construction of a railway engine. The same clear, hard exertion of intellect, which has made Lord Mansfield’s judgments the ever-living models of reasoning and arrangement in law, was necessary to mould into their present portable shape the countless gems of philosophy and wisdom that flash along the lines of Hamlet and King Lear.

Now in this power of imagination, women are for the most part far more deficient than men. They can discover new comets, can paint “Horse-fairs,” can write “Uncle Tom’s Cabins,” and “Aurora Leighs.” But still they are not the inventors of new systems, or the discoverers of new worlds, either in the tracts of mental or physical investigation. The settled district of truth is the home for women; the border-land of truth and falsehood is the field of labour and endurance for men. The one finds more, the other uses more. In a single word, woman is imitative, and man constructive. The rough partition of mental endowments between the sexes, which ascribes to woman the greater sensibility, and to man the stronger judgment, indicates that this superiority of men in the merely constructive department of poetry is fully in accordance with popular theories. In the true artist, the feeling and imagination are more or less united, though seldom, or never, so completely but that the sex of the artist appears unmistakeably through the work. The woman’s will have more of feeling, and less of truthful masterly delineation. The man’s will have more imagination, greater solidity and force of construction, but less delicacy and sensibility of feeling.

Were this all, it could scarcely be doubtful by which sex the poet’s prize would eventually be borne away. It is much easier to enter into the feelings, than to possess oneself of the intellectual qualities of others. If men are not capable of sympathising with the same intensity in some of the stronger emotions, they can feel them quite as strongly as is consistent with the simply intellectual process requisite to throw them into artistic shape. The very keenness of a woman’s feeling would of itself seriously obstruct this mechanical operation, if in other respects it were one for which her nature better fitted her. But there is still another point in which [p. 141→] men have so decided an advantage, that it would be strange, indeed, if, in the higher regions of art, they did not drive all competition out of the field. To them belongs the formation, and by them is possessed the management, of the instrument through which the intellectual conceptions of the poet are given to the world. Of all structures, the one which has had most intellect bestowed upon it is the building up of language. From the cradle to the grave it is almost our only means of communication with the external world. It is as essential to clearness and fulness of thought, as distinct propositions are to the perception of mathematical truth. Confusion of language is confusion of thought; clearness of language is clearness of thought. Every new invention, every new idea, every new discovery, makes a fresh demand upon speech. It must be expressed almost before it can be understood, certainly before it can be communicated; and language is the only instrument through which expression is possible. The construction of thought is, in fact, the construction of language. As, then, men are the thinkers, originators, theorizers, and constructors, so are they the makers of a people’s language. Speech is, in fact, half their study. Accuracy of thought is necessary to their work, and accuracy of speech is necessary to accuracy of thought. Women see it on its easy side; men know it chiefly from its difficulties. Hence men often get a certain embarrassment in the use of language, very different from the easy and flowing utterance of women. But as if to compensate for this conversational disadvantage, they have a far keener sense of the real value and force of expression contained in the language they employ. The crushing power with which a word or phrase can be worked in the hand of a Tacitus or a Gibbon, the short epigram, the overpowering invective, the condensed picture, are all the characteristics of men’s writing, and rarely to be found in the elegant, and in many respects powerful, productions of even the ablest authoresses. Still less is that perfect clearness and transparency of language, which brings out the meaning without allowing the mind to dwell upon the expression, to be traced in the works of our lady writers. Indeed, so rare is this power that many of our greatest authors, both in prose and poetry, are almost entirely deficient in it. Shakspeare, Bacon, Lord Mansfield, and to a great extent Lord Byron, stand pre-eminent in our own country for their possession of this extraordinary power; as Rubens towered above all other painters in the ease and manual dexterity with which he strikes off his most celebrated pictures. Wordsworth, too, in his descriptive pieces, possessed a large measure of the same translucency of language; while Scott, and in our own day Macaulay and Hood, owe to this quality no small portion of the charm which asserts its supremacy over the most critical reader. Milton never fully attained it. The language of the “Paradise Lost,” while in grandeur and vehemence of colour it surpasses all other compositions, scarcely excepting even Martin’s illustrations, labours in vain for that ethereal lightness which lays bare the heart of Macbeth, and the king of Denmark, to the eyes of every beholder. However critics, of the metaphysical school, may profess to despise this [p. 142→] merely mechanical quality, the depraved vulgar will never cease to clamour for it as the one thing needful for a great author. They will as soon be satisfied with a badly-executed picture, because of the hidden grandeur of conception in which it originated, as endure a vaguely-expressed unintelligible poem, because of certain beautiful thoughts said to be enthroned somewhere beneath its language.

In respect to clearness of language, Mrs. Browning has been as great a sinner as any of the modern poets; if, indeed, she has not surpassed all in the magnitude of her transgressions. Tennyson is often difficult to understand, but then it is because he is speaking of difficult subjects. The still deeps of philosophy into which he descends are scarcely to be laid open, even by his pen, to every chance and careless observer. If he who runs would read, he must take care not to try moral philosophy. When Tennyson comes to speak of common matters, he speaks very much as other men speak. His language is not wrapped round with unnecessary and entangled phrases, but is clear, hard, and luminous as an outline picture. Where any difficulty exists, it is rather from his intense condensation, from the overcharged force of every expression. He seems to have weighed the force of language too well ever to drop an unnecessary word, even by way of explanation. Mrs. Browning’s error has been just the opposite. She explains her language till we do not know what she means. Word-pictures she never gives, but line or ten-line pictures. Except when she wraps up a whole lexicon of meanings in some Greek word, her thought fills up a whole line of more or less harmonious, and more or less intelligible English, which she immediately proceeds to explain and amplify in half a dozen lines more of the same class. Not, indeed, that any word is absolutely barren, or any thought a mere repetition. Each word and line has a distinct, and often a very profound meaning, but a meaning which in no way aids the general sense of the sentence. Want of unity is want of clearness. Too much meaning thrown into the details of a sentence draws away the attention, and at length almost saps the force and purport of the whole. A single sentence is, or should be, a single thought; and, by throwing in half-a-dozen thoughts instead of one, you rather weaken than strengthen the effect. To make the confusion worse, we stumble perpetually over rugged metres and impossible rhymes. The most exquisite feelings, worked out into the most beautiful conceptions, can hardly pierce their way into the popular mind through so dense a medium as this. Rarefication is absolutely necessary, and this rarefication of language has for the first time, and with remarkable success, been attempted in the poem now before us.

Nor is this the only respect in which “Aurora Leigh” stands out as the greatest of all Mrs. Browning’s works. In feeling, in purity of thought, in noble, generous, and womanly sentiment, it would indeed be difficult to say that this poem surpasses what was scarcely surpassable. The tearful beauty which surrounds, and almost enshrines it, is of the same kind as that which lives in all the other works of the same authoress. The Eve of the “Drama of Exile” was the [p. 143→] true mother of the sad, sweet Marian of “Aurora Leigh.” Duty, devotion, sacrifice, in the midst of sin and sorrow, this is the womanly burden of all her song. In “Aurora Leigh” it stands pre-eminent for the beauty with which it is developed; but in all the others it exists quite as much, and is quite as deeply felt, as even in this. To what then is it, besides the greater clearness of the language, that this last poem owes its superiority to all her former productions? We have said that Mrs. Browning possesses more of the creative genius than any poetess that England has yet produced. In her former pieces no small powers of imagination had been already exhibited. The “Drama of Exile” is a standing monument both of its strength and of its weakness. In the main, that piece is an undoubted failure. Exquisite as is the beauty of many parts, it still lives by reason of its parts, not by any success it has attained in embodying the writer’s own feeling of the subject she sought to represent. Yet, though not a success, it was sufficiently powerful to indicate what might be her success in the treatment of a less ambitious theme. What was there indicated, has been here realized. It is a far greater “work of art” than any of her former productions. Though feeling no more strongly than before, she has learned to train her feeling to the mechanical processes necessary to insure its success in producing any lasting artistic effect. Could all our modern poets do the same, it may be we should have less; but certainly we should read more, than we do at present. Why should men study art less in verse than in painting, in sculpture, in architecture, or in music? And why, if they paid the same attention to the rules of art in this that they do in other departments, might we not have Turners and Sir Charles Barrys as well in poetry as in painting, or in architecture? As it is, Tennyson is the only writer of any distinction who has studied poetry as an art. All the others deem themselves at liberty to throw down their first rude imitation of nature, often about as much resembling their model as a Hindoo idol represents a God, and we are asked to praise it, because we are told it is a fine conception. The God may be a fine conception, but we are talking about the idol, which is anything but a fine conception; on the contrary, an ugly, distorted, shapeless monster. What matter does it make to us that Mr. Spoonbill has been labouring under the incubus of a splendid conception, unless Mr. Spoonbill chooses to give us the splendid conception in the shape of a splendid poem?

But, without pursuing Mr. Spoonbill with any further inquiries, (what, indeed, is the good of pursuing any man with inquiries, when his theory is that of spontaneous production?) we will return to Mrs. Browning, who, whatever may have been her faults on this subject, has now set seriously about reforming them. We shall not, indeed, pretend to say that this poem is without failings. In a poem of nine books it is impossible that thought should not sometimes grow flat, and art be perfectly without a flaw. Occasionally she discourses on art, the drama, the epic, and poetry generally, in a way much more satisfactory to herself than to her testy readers. To one who is considering what she shall write herself, as Aurora Leigh is [p. 144→] in these long monologues, the subject, doubtless, possesses sufficient interest. The public rather wishes to know what Aurora Leigh does than what she thinks of doing, especially when Aurora Leigh’s thoughts are of very much the same kind as many other people’s. Reflection is very good to help out a poem, but long-continued soliloquy never has been, and never will be, a favourite form of writing,—at least for the reader. Perhaps men are too selfish to give so patient a sympathy with others’ feelings as to follow them through a whole book; but certain it is that, for some reason or other, they are very loth to do it. Besides these lapses, however, into the unsympathetic world, in which it must be admitted that Mrs. Browning has indulged far less, and far less tediously than most poets of our age, there are other scattered defects in the volume, which we would gladly see removed from any future edition. We doubt, for example, whether many of our readers will derive much profit from learning that something or other—the grammar does not tell us what, and the sense (but we leave that to the reader)—was

 

Coherent in statistical despairs,

With such a total of distracted life.

We are not sure that the spiritual conceptions of our readers will be much elevated, or their insight into the agitation of Miss Leigh’s feelings made sensibly clearer, by learning that the operation of the conflicting passions was

 

__________ as a snow of ghosts

Might beat against the impervious doors of heaven.

Of all the workings of creation, we are not panting to hear “the interior of the interne;” and if ever we wish to know anything about Mr. Romney Leigh, we would avoid him while he

 

______ lives by diagrams,

And crosses out the spontaneities

Of all his individual, personal life

With formal universals.

 

These and other barbarisms might easily be selected to show that Mrs. Browning has not so completely repaired her defects of style as her readers might perhaps desire. The tumult of feeling meant to be described in the second of these extracts would be best painted in itself, without comparison of sensible objects. But if this were impossible, surely a creative mind might have struck out a more truthful conception, or an artist might have lighted upon a more descriptive expression than “a snow of ghosts.”

Take it, however, with all these defects, “Aurora Leigh” is a noble poem. Nor is there anything we like more than the object with which the book seems to have been written, united with the manner in which that object is perpetually rendered subservient to the unity and continuity of the poem. As a general rule, books written with an object are dreadfully stupid. The author keeps the object so steadily in sight, that he cannot find his way to it. The eye is too much riveted on the goal to pay any attention to the path by which it is to be reached: and so we lose the object by losing the way. [p. 145→] This is not the case with Mrs. Browning. She has learnt truly the artist spirit, and instead of giving us a well-intentioned nose, which if it had not happened to be on the face we should never have guessed to be a nose at all, she has forgot her intentions for a moment in real hard chiselling, and has sculptured us the fine turn of the nostril, and the delicate aquiline curve of the profile, with the hand of a skilled workman. We have got the end, instead of the mere intention to get it, and we find it a much more satisfactory kind of possession. Shakspeare has preached a much more effectual sermon upon “the quality of mercy” by his accidental speech of Portia to Shylock, than if he had woven the Merchant of Venice and his friends as a kind of embroidery round a text upon the same subject. Qualities are made for men, and not men for qualities. The artist will seek rather virtues to hang upon his characters, than characters to hang upon his virtues; and to this plan Mrs. Browning has, on the whole, steadily adhered.

But though the object of a book may eat away the execution, and end by committing suicide and eating away itself, still it forms no mean part of the difficulty and responsibility of the author’s position. This difficulty and responsibility Mrs. Browning need not fear boldly to face. We grievously lament when our poetess puts on her riding habit, to canter old Pegasus through the cloud-lands of new philosophies. We deeply deplore when she takes up her parable and seeks, with prophetic earnestness, to fire the people with a new language. But we ardently sympathise and eagerly follow her, when, casting aside the wretched prudery which seeks to shun evil by shutting one’s eyes to its existence, and burying one’s head in the sand, she boldly ventures into an entirely new region of woman’s inquiry—opens out the miseries, the crimes, and the follies of society—and touches, though more with negative than with positive aim, upon the several remedies by which these vices in our social system may be mitigated or removed. It is a false refinement, it is a cowardly delicacy, which shrinks from looking in the face the giant wrongs and vices of the time, merely for the sake of saving a blush, or avoiding a heart-ache. If pollution and wretchedness exist, are we any the purer for resolutely denying it? We should be the purer for helping to purify it; but this, our virtue (!) forbids us to do. We are too pure to purify others, for we scorn to bring our purity into contact with any impurity, and without this we can do nothing at all. Certain it is, that burying one’s head in the sand has hitherto generally been found a very dangerous kind of defence; and, on the whole, it scarcely seem likely to be a safe one for the future. Yet there are doubtless great difficulties in stepping, however slightly, beyond the straitest limits of reserve in speaking upon subjects of this nature. “I know,” says Marian Erle, in the sad strange story of her own life and ruin, which forms one of the greatest beauties of “Aurora Leigh,”—

 

I know that we must scrupulously hint

With half words, delicate reserves, the thing

Which no one scrupled we should feel in full.

Well, there are undoubtedly difficulties to be encountered. Care of [p. 146→] the most scrupulous nature must be used in stepping on so dangerous a ground. But humanity and justice alike demand, that for all the difficulties that must be encountered, and for all the care that may be required, the ground, however dangerous, must be trodden. And Mrs. Browning, with a courage no less worthy of admiration than the other qualities she has displayed in the management of her design, has dared to take the first step. No subject could be more repulsive to the sensibility of a woman’s nature than the wretched fate of those girls who are entrapped daily from our own shores, to be dragged and drugged down to ruin and infamy in the polluted houses of a foreign land. Yet this fate, the mode, the consummation, our authoress has brought before the eyes of all her readers—not only without any such grossness as might shock the sensitive, but with such delicacy and feeling as to bring purity out of pollution, and to make virtue triumphant in the act of shame.

We shall not murder the story of Marian Erle by attempting to give an outline of it in our own words. We have it, the most exquisite figure in the whole group, woven into the story of Aurora Leigh, from her childhood upwards, till she passes away.

 

This babe would steal from off the mother’s chair,

And, creeping through the golden walls of gorse,

Would fine some keyhole toward the secrecy

Of Heaven’s high blue, and nestling down, peer out—

Oh, not to catch the angels at their games,

She had never heard of angels!—but to gaze,

She knew not why, to see she knew not what,

A hungering outward from the barren earth

For something like a joy. She liked, she said,

To dazzle black her sight against the sky,

For then it seem’d some grand, blind love came down

And groped her out, and clasped her with a kiss.

 

Her father was a tramping drunken artizan. Some one sent her to school, where she tells us of her friend Rose, the bright, happy girl, whose laughter rang like music in Marian’s sorrow.

 

And Rose’s pelting glee, as frank as rain

On cherry-blossoms, brighten’d Marian too,

To see another merry whom she loved.

 

Poor Rose’s fate is shortly, yet how touchingly, indicated in a few lines of Marian’s story.

 

‘Poor Rose,’ said she,

‘I heard her laugh last night in Oxford-street.

I’d pour out half my blood to stop that laugh,—

Poor Rose, poor Rose!’ said Marian.

 

Is it credible, in this refined age, that Marian should really have acknowledged the existence of a being in this condition? But she was only a tramp’s daughter, after all! Doubtless, if born a fine lady, her politeness would have taught her to avoid so delicate a subject! Well, to pass over the rest, her sale to a man by her mother, her frantic flight, her safety, her devotion to a sister-sempstress dying of consumption, her meeting with Romney Leigh, their projected mar- [p. 147→] riage, and the visit of Aurora to her lodgings in a garret, when she smiled upon her, and

 

The eyes smiled too,

But’t was as if remembering they had wept,

And knowing they should, some day, weep again.

 

We may go on to her betrayal, her ensnaring over to France, her ruin, and her waking up to her own shame and destruction.

 

I was mad,—

How many weeks, I know not,—many weeks.

I think they let me go, when I was mad,

They fear’d my eyes, and loosed me, as boys might

A mad dog which they had tortured. Up and down

I went by road and village, over tracts

Of open foreign country, large and strange,

Crossed everywhere by long thin poplar lines,

Like fingers of some ghastly skeleton hand

Through sunlight and through moonlight evermore

Push’d out from hell itself to pluck me back,

And resolute to get me, slow and sure;

While every road-side Christ upon his cross

Hung reddening through his gory wounds at me.

* * * *

And so I lived: the weeks pass’d on,—I lived.

’Twas living my old tramp life o’er again,

But this time in a dream, and hunted round

By some prodigious dream—fear at my back

Which ended, yet; my brain cleared presently,

And there I sat, one evening, by the road.

I, Marian Erle, myself, alone, undone,

Facing a sunset low upon the flats,

As if it were the finish of all time,

The great red stone upon my sepulchre,

Which angels were too weak to roll away.

 

There are few descriptions of the feeling during madness which surpass in beauty of conception or simple force of language this story of the pale, lost Marian. But the soft, delicate loveliness with which the poetess has enshrouded the character of this girl, can be learned only by a study of the book. It is not all who, after these sufferings and wrongs heaped on her head, would live on with calm trust in our nature, still capable of inspiring and of feeling love—nor all who yet could say,

 

There are nettles everywhere.

But smooth green grasses are more common still,

The blue of heaven is larger than the cloud.

 

Her baby was born—

 

‘And so I lived for him and so he lives,

And so I know, by this time, God lives too.’

She smiled beyond the sun, and ended so.

 

We wish we could quote more, for, of all Mrs. Browning’s creations, Marian Erle is by far the sweetest and most perfect. Though, so to speak, an accident in the story, she is one of those happy accidents which give more delight than the regular incidents; as in wondering over a mountain region, some lonely glen, deep buried in [p. 148→] the heart of hills, has often sent a wilder thrill of pleasure through the soul than the more celebrated landscape of which you were in search. The last scene in which Marian appears face to face with her former lover is, perhaps, the most beautiful passage in the whole book, and will fairly challenge comparison with any poetry of our own times. It is too long to give in full, and we find it difficult, from its own unity, to make more than one or two most inadequate extracts.

 

Then at first,

I knew that Marian Erle was beautiful,

She stood there, still and pallid as a saint,

Dilated, like a saint in ecstasy,

As if the floating moonshine interposed

Betwixt her foot and the earth, and raised her up

To float upon it.

 

The beauty of these latter lines will be more fully appreciated by one who has in his eye, as we half suspect the poetess had in writing them, Raphael’s “Virgin and Child,” in the gallery at Dresden, or Murillo’s celebrated painting of the “Immaculate Conception.” The death she had undergone on the night of her betrayal, the fatal gap between the life before and after that time, are thus finely drawn:—

 

But for me

Once kill’d,—this ghost of Marian loves no more,

No one—except the child!—no more at all.

I told your cousin, Sir, that I was dead;

And now she thinks I’ll get up from my grave,

And wear my chin-cloth for a wedding veil,

And glide along the church-yard like a bride,

While all the dead keep whispering through the withes,

‘You would be better in your place with us.’

 

This series of extracts we have made because it seemed more manageable than any other, with the smallest unity in it. Disjointed passages equally fine, and indeed, in may respects finer than most we have quoted, might easily be collected in masses from almost every book of the poem.

But it is, perhaps, better that we should content ourselves with one or two interspersed in a very short sketch of the design the authoress seems to have had in view. Contrary to the usual method of arrangement, the book seems mainly directed, not to showing the evils which need to be redressed, but to discussing and tracing the defects of two of the remedies by which minds of opposite tendencies seek to redress them. The crime and misery are taken for granted, or but incidentally introduced, as in the history of Marian Erle. The remedies, on the contrary, are fully discussed, and each seems to spring, as a kind of necessity, from the mind and character of its author. Aurora Leigh is the votary of art, and, like all passionate natures, thinks that she is making art religious, while she is only making a religion of art. In it she finds the cure for all social evils. Man cannot be dealt with in the mass. All true reform must spring from touching the heart of the individual, and art is the grand means by which the appeal to the individual must be made. Romney, on the contrary, her cousin and her lover, has little faith in art, none in [p. 149→] the individual. Generous in his impulses, devoted in his philanthropy, impatient of the unrealized profits of single and individual exertion, he seeks to drive men in the mass into happiness and virtue; he relies upon institutions and unions, not as slowly working means of rooting up evil and implanting good, but as agencies powerful enough at once to crush the habits and vices of tedious years’ formation, to turn back the flood-tide of evil by a single effort and command, to change the nature and disposition, nay, to reverse the very order of thought and feeling in the heart of the whole mass of the people. Hence the strife of the two systems, or rather of the two natures in which each originated.

 

I hold you will not compass your poor ends

Of barley feeding and material ease,

Without a poet’s individualism

To work your universal.

 

Such is the judgment of the enthusiastic young poetess upon the generalizing schemes of her cousin. Both live to change. Romney, after all his efforts, finds the world but little better than when he began. He discovers that he is no Colossus to overstride the deep wide gap which severs class from class. Aurora finds, too, that mere art is nothing, save as a means used and consecrated by a higher purpose.

 

Many fervent souls

Strike rhyme on rhyme, who would strike steel on steel

If steel had offer’d, in a restless heat

Of doing something.

 

Nor are these, if ever they grow to be artists at all, the only kind of artists who do little to teach or to advance the world. Aurora Leigh had become an artist, and yet had failed. Listen to her own confession:—

 

But I who saw the human nature brood,

At both sides, comprehending, too, the souls,

And all the high necessities of Art,

Betray’d the thing I saw, and wrong’d my own life

For which I pleaded. Passion’d to exalt

The artist’s instinct in me at the cost

Of putting down the woman’s,—I forgot

No perfect artist is developed here

From any imperfect woman.

 

After all concessions, confessions, retractations, and admissions, however, we must express our opinion, that Mrs. Browning, in her own artist zeal, raises the artist’s level in the social scale to a somewhat undue height. It is with no wish of depreciating art, that we must doubt whether there are not many other means, nay, many even among those generalizing institutions on which she looks with such poetic aversion, that rank as fellow-workers with the highest and noblest artists in the great task of social progress. We fear that we must incur the censure of cold-heartedness and narrowness of view, by expressing a faith in the use of pamphlets, “general reports,” and even statistical tables. To ignore the individual, to expect too much from the general, to hope for victory in a single [p. 150→] campaign, or look for universal results from limited and partial means, is, doubtless, an error into which many a warm-hearted man has fallen, and of which he has at length learnt, perhaps bitterly, to repent the folly. But that generalized and combined efforts are therefore useless, is a deduction equally unsafe and unphilosophical. From this error we think Mrs. Browning has not altogether escaped. She has shot beyond her mark, and so far as she as exceeded it, the book, we think, can hardly be considered a success. But over the much wider space within her mark, we must regard it, in spite of its defects, as one of the greatest poems of our own times. And to those of our readers who have not yet seen it, we can confidently recommend an attentive and earnest perusal.

Reviewed:

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

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