Reviews

E570120A. Aurora Leigh.

Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser, 20 January 1857, p. 4.

[This review has not been reprinted in The Brownings’ Correspondence. It was located following the release of the volume in which it would have appeared.]

Reviews and notices are the most absurd of all things, especially when the learned critic gives you a resumé of the poem or novel he is dissecting. At school it is a favourite method to prescribe what are called “abstracts” of the lesson; that is, the pupil is expected to give in very crabbed English the dry bones of the history, or whatever else he has been perusing—so in magazines it is a favourite practice to present you with the skeleton of the last new work that has appeared. Now this is a peculiarly easy business for the literary hack, and in the case of works on science we have no objections; but in the department of belles lettres, where the manner is frequently more to be considered than the matter, we enter a most decided protest. It is unsatisfactory in the last degree; and this for two most cogent reasons. Firstly, such skeleton gives you and can give you no true idea of the works; secondly, it spoils the pleasure of future perusal. It ought always to be taken for granted that those to whom the criticism is addressed have read the work. If they have not, no matter; they will learn more from sympathy than from any direct instruction. Just bethink you how often you meet an acquaintance brimming full of enthusiasm after the perusal of some exquisite poem, or fresh from the contemplation of some magnificent painting. He insists on detailing the facts, unclothed of course of all the circumstances that lend the charm, and he does not half so much interest you as two sympathizing spirits will, much of whose conversation on the subject you do not wholly see the bearings of.

These remarks have been suggested to us by an article in Blackwood on Mrs Browning‘s exquisite poem “Aurora Leigh,” where the critic unconsciously, by the very detailing of the plot of the poem, commits the greatest of all possible literary sins—conveys a false idea of what it is his business to introduce to the public. No one who has read the poem—who has gazed on her pictures of England as if painted by a Gainsborough—on those of Italy as if from the pencil of Turner—who has added Lady Waldemar and Lady Howe, and Aurora and Romney to the number of his acquaintances—above all, who has followed the fortunes of Marian Erle—who has been admitted a spectator to that scene in the attic in Paris—let us recall the lines—

 

’Twas a room

Scarce larger than a grave, and near as bare;

Two stools, a pallet-bed; I saw the room:

A mouse could find no sort of shelter in ’t,

Much less a greater secret; curtainless—

The window fixed you with its torturing eye,

Defying you to take a step apart,

If peradventure you would hide a thing.

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,

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.

 

She leaned above him (drinking him as wine)

In that extremity of love, ’twill pass

For agony or rapture, seeing that love

Includes the whole of nature, rounding it

To love . . . no more—since more can never be

Than just love. Self-forgot, cast out of self,

And drowning in the transport of the sight,

Her whole pale passionate face, mouth, forehead, eyes,

One gaze, she stood! then, slowly as he smiled,

She smiled too, slowly, smiling unaware,

And drawing from his countenance to hers

A fainter red, as if she watched a flame

And stood in it a-glow. “How beautiful,”

Said she.

No one, to resume, who has been carried away by a feeling of the unsurpassed beauty of the whole can feel otherwise than that such a proceeding as that of the reviewer in Maga is high treason to art. ’Tis as if some one were to present you with the skeleton of a dearly loved friend, the flesh stripped off, no reminiscence left of the fresh tint of the cheek, of the deep clear light of the eye, and insist on pointing out that such a scapular was too short, such a thigh–bone too long. You are merely indignant as you recall the form of the living man. But in our wrath we forget our poem.

Mrs Barrett Browning first came under public notice by the publication of two volumes of poems in 1844, which passed into a second edition in 1853. In 1851 she had given to the world a little poem, entitled “Casa Guidis Windows,” containing her impressions of events in Tuscany, of which she had been a witness. Shewing great power as her former works did, they certainly did not prepare us to expect such a poem as “Aurora Leigh.” A work of such sustained vigour has not appeared in England since Byron‘s “Childe Harold.’ Its power of description, its breadth of humour, its energy, its pathos, are unsurpassed. Let Tennyson look to his laurels, for if Mrs Browning as much excel herself in her next performance as he fell short in “Maud,’ they must fall from his brow to be placed on that of a woman. We have no wish to enter yet on any discussion of the appropriate nature of the plot, for we are too fresh from enjoyment to judge dispassionately. Does any lover, save perhaps Goethe, after leaving his mistress proceed to analyse her features? Enough that we cannot think the Blackwood point of view the right one. To induce our readers to peruse the work we shall subjoin a few extracts, warning them that they can convey but a very imperfect idea of the beauty with which the whole is replete. Take this picture of Aurora’s aunt—

 

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 gray

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.

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!

How fine the following English landscape—

 

First, the lime,

(I had enough there, of the lime, be sure,—

My morning-dream was often hummed away

By the bees in it;) past the lime, the lawn,

Which, after sweeping broadly round the house,

Went trickling through the shrubberies in a stream

Of tender turf, and wore and lost itself

Among the acacias, over which, you saw

The irregular line of elms by the deep lane

Which stopped the grounds and dammed the overflow

Of arbutus and laurel. Out of sight

The lane was; sunk so deep, no foreign tramp

Nor drover of wild ponies out of Wales

Could guess if lady’s hall or tenant’s lodge

Dispensed such odours,—though his stick well-crooked

Might reach the lowest trail of blossoming briar

Which dipped upon the wall. Behind the elms,

And through their tops, you saw the folded hills

Striped up and down with hedges (burly oaks

Projecting from the lines to show themselves)

Through which my cousin Romney’s chimneys smoked

As still as when a silent mouth in frost

Breathes—showing where the woodlands hid Leigh Hall;

While, far above, a jut of table-land,

A promontory without water, stretched,—

You could not catch it if the days were thick,

Or took it for a cloud; but, otherwise

The vigorous sun would catch it up at eve

And use it for an anvil till he had filled

The shelves of heaven with burning thunderbolts,

And proved he not rest so early:—then,

When all his setting trouble was resolved

To a trance of passive glory, you might see

In apparition on the golden sky

(Alas, my Giotto’s background!) the sheep run

Along the fine clear outline, small as mice

That run along a witch’s scarlet thread.

Not a grand nature. Not my chestnut-woods

Of Vallombrosa, cleaving by the spurs

To the precipices. Not my headlong leaps

Of waters, that cry out for joy or fear

In leaping through the palpitating pines,

Like a white soul tossed out to eternity

With thrills of time upon it. Not indeed

My multitudinous mountains, sitting in

The magic circle, with the mutual touch

Electric, panting from their full deep hearts

Beneath the influent heavens, and waiting for

Communion and commission. Italy

Is one thing, England one.

On English ground

You understand the letter... ere the fall,

How Adam lived in a garden. All the fields

Are tied up fast with hedges, nose–gay like;

The hills are crumpled plains,—the plains, parterres,—

The trees, round, woolly, ready to be clipped;

And if you seek for any wilderness

You find, at best, a park. A nature tamed

And grown domestic like a barn-door fowl,

Which does not awe you with its claws and beak,

Nor tempt you to an eyrie too high up,

But which, in cackling, sets you thinking of

Your eggs to-morrow at breakfast, in the pause

Of finer meditation.

Rather say,

A sweet familiar nature, stealing in

As a dog might, or child, to touch your hand

Or pluck your gown, and humbly mind you so

Of presence and affection, excellent

For inner uses, from the things without.

 

We might go on and cull such exquisite beauties as—

 

And large white butterflies

Which look as if the May-flower had caught life

And palpitated forth upon the wind.

 

The poem is full of such. After the sample we have given we doubt not it is unnecessary. Besides we would not wrench the gems from their place on the robe, for the vulgar pleasure of shewing them off. They look best when seen on the living form they are meant to adorn.

In a future notice we may enter into a farther and more dispassionate consideration of the abstract questions on art the poem raises. We shall also return upon Mrs Browning’s former productions.

Reviewed:

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

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