Aurora Leigh, Book One

Table of contents

1. First Book

(1) OF writing many books there is no end; 1
(2) And I who have written much in prose and verse
(3) For others’ uses, will write now for mine,—
(4) Will write my story for my better self
(5) As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
(6) Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
(7) Long after he has ceased to love you, just
(8) To hold together what he was and is.
(9) I, writing thus, am still what men call young; 2
(10) I have not so far left the coasts of life
(11) To travel inland, that I cannot hear
(12) That murmur of the outer Infinite 3
(13) Which unweaned babies smile at in their sleep
(14) When wondered at for smiling; not so far,
(15) But still I catch my mother at her post
(16) Beside the nursery-door, with finger up,
(17) “Hush, hush—here’s too much noise!” while her sweet eyes
(18) Leap forward, taking part against her word
(19) In the child’s riot. Still I sit and feel
(20) My father’s slow hand, when she had left us both,
(21) Stroke out my childish curls across his knee
(22) And hear Assunta’s daily jest (she knew
(23) He liked it better than a better jest).
(24) Inquire how many golden scudi went 4
(25) To make such ringlets. O my father’s hand,
(26) Stroke heavily, heavily the poor hair down,
(27) Draw, press the child’s head closer to thy knee!
(28) I’m still too young, too young, to sit alone
(29) I write. My mother was a Florentine,' 5
(30) Whose rare blue eyes were shut from seeing me
(31) When scarcely I was four years old, my life
(32) A poor spark snatched up from a failing lamp
(33) Which went out therefore. She was weak and frail;
(34) She could not bear the joy of giving life,
(35) The mother’s rapture slew her.6 If her kiss
(36) Had left a longer weight upon my lips
(37) It might have steadied the uneasy breath,
(38) And reconciled and fraternised my soul
(39) With the new order. As it was, indeed,
(40) I felt a mother-want about the world,
(41) And still went seeking, like a bleating lamb
(42) Left out at night in shutting up the fold,—
(43) As restless as a nest-deserted bird
(44) Grown chill through something being away, though what
(45) It knows not. I, Aurora Leigh, was born
(46) To make my father sadder, and myself
(47) Not overjoyous, truly. Women know
(48) The way to rear up children, (to be just)
(49) They know a simple, merry, tender knack
(50) Of tying sashes, fitting baby-shoes,
(51) And stringing pretty words that make no sense,
(52) And kissing full sense into empty words,
(53) Which things are corals to cut life upon, 7
(54) Although such trifles: children learn by such,
(55) Love’s holy earnest in a pretty play
(56) And get not over-early solemnised,
(57) But seeing, as in a rose-bush, Love’s Divine
(58) Which burns and hurts not,8 —not a single bloom,—
(59) Become aware and unafraid of Love.
(60) Such good do mothers. Fathers love as well
(61) —Mine did, I know,—but still with heavier brains, 9
(62) And wills more consciously responsible,
(63) And not as wisely, since less foolishly;
(64) So mothers have God’s licence to be missed.
(65) My father was an austere Englishman,
(66) Who, after a dry life-time spent at home
(67) In college-learning, law, and parish talk,
(68) Was flooded with a passion unaware,
(69) His whole provisioned and complacent past
(70) Drowned out from him that moment. As he stood
(71) In Florence, where he had come to spend a month
(72) And note the secret of Da Vinci’s drains, 10
(73) He musing somewhat absently perhaps
(74) Some English question . . whether men should pay
(75) The unpopular but necessary tax
(76) With left or right hand11 —in the alien sun
(77) In that great square of the Santissima
(78) There drifted past him (scarcely marked enough
(79) To move his comfortable island scorn)
(80) A train of priestly banners,12 cross and psalm,
(81) The white-veiled rose-crowned maidens holding up
(82) Tall tapers, weighty for such wrists, aslant
(83) To the blue luminous tremor of the air,
(84) And letting drop the white wax as they went
(85) To eat the bishop’s wafer at the church;
(86) From which long trail of chanting priests and girls,
(87) A face flashed like a cymbal on his face
(88) And shook with silent clangour brain and heart,
(89) Transfiguring him to music. Thus, even thus,
(90) He too received his sacramental gift
(91) With eucharistic meanings; 13 for he loved.
(92) And thus beloved, she died. I’ve heard it said
(93) That but to see him in the first surprise
(94) Of widower and father, nursing me,
(95) Unmothered little child of four years old,
(96) His large man’s hands afraid to touch my curls,
(97) As if the gold would tarnish,—his grave lips
(98) Contriving such a miserable smile
(99) As if he knew needs must, or I should die,
(100) And yet ’twas hard,—would almost make the stones
(101) Cry out for pity. 14 There’s a verse he set
(102) In Santa Croce 15 to her memory,—
(103) “Weep for an infant too young to weep much
(104) When death removed this mother”—stops the mirth
(105) To-day on women’s faces when they walk
(106) With rosy children hanging on their gowns,
(107) Under the cloister to escape the sun
(108) That scorches in the piazza. After which
(109) He left our Florence and made haste to hide
(110) Himself, his prattling child, and silent grief,
(111) Among the mountains above Pelago;16
(112) Because unmothered babes, he thought, had need
(113) Of mother nature more than others use,
(114) And Pan’s white goats, with udders warm and full
(115) Of mystic contemplations,17 come to feed
(116) Poor milkless lips of orphans like his own—
(117) Such scholar-scraps he talked, I’ve heard from friends,
(118) For even prosaic men who wear grief long
(119) Will get to wear it as a hat aside
(120) With a flower stuck in’t. Father, then, and child,
(121) We lived among the mountains many years,
(122) God’s silence on the outside of the house,
(123) And we who did not speak too loud within,
(124) And old Assunta to make up the fire,
(125) Crossing herself whene’er a sudden flame
(126) Which lightened from the firewood, made alive
(127) That picture of my mother on the wall.
(128) The painter drew it after she was dead,
(129) And when the face was finished, throat and hands,
(130) Her cameriera 18 carried him, in hate
(131) Of the English-fashioned shroud, the last brocade
(132) She dressed in at the Pitti;19 “he should paint
(133) No sadder thing than that,” she swore, “to wrong
(134) Her poor signora.” Therefore very strange
(135) The effect was. I, a little child, would crouch
(136) For hours upon the floor with knees drawn up,
(137) And gaze across them, half in terror, half
(138) In adoration, at the picture there,—
(139) That swan-like supernatural white life
(140) Just sailing upward from the red stiff silk
(141) Which seemed to have no part in it nor power
(142) To keep it from quite breaking out of bounds.
(143) For hours I sate and stared. Assunta’s awe
(144) And my poor father’s melancholy eyes
(145) Still pointed that way. That way went my thoughts
(146) When wandering beyond sight. And as I grew
(147) In years, I mixed, confused, unconsciously,
(148) Whatever I last read or heard or dreamed,
(149) Abhorrent, admirable, beautiful,
(150) Pathetical, or ghastly, or grotesque,
(151) With still that face . . . which did not therefore change,
(152) But kept the mystic level of all forms
(153) Hates, fears, and admirations, was by turns
(154) Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite,20
(155) A dauntless Muse who eyes a dreadful Fate,21
(156) A loving Psyche22 who loses sight of Love,
(157) A still Medusa with mild milky brows
(158) All curdled and all clothed upon with snakes23
(159) Whose slime falls fast as sweat will; or anon
(160) Our Lady of the Passion, stabbed with swords
(161) here the Babe sucked;24 or Lamia25 in her first
(162) Moonlighted pallor, ere she shrunk and blinked
(163) And shuddering wriggled down to the unclean;
(164) Or my own mother, leaving her last smile
(165) In her last kiss upon the baby-mouth
(166) My father pushed down on the bed for that,—
(167) Or my dead mother, without smile or kiss,
(168) Buried at Florence. All which images,
(169) Concentred on the picture, glassed themselves
(170) Before my meditative childhood, as
(171) The incoherencies of change and death
(172) Are represented fully, mixed and merged,
(173) In the smooth fair mystery of perpetual Life.
(174) And while I stared away my childish wits
(175) Upon my mother’s picture, (ah, poor child!)
(176) My father, who through love had suddenly
(177) Thrown off the old conventions, broken loose
(178) From chin-bands of the soul, like Lazarus,26
(179) Yet had no time to learn to talk and walk
(180) Or grow anew familiar with the sun,—
(181) Who had reached to freedom, not to action, lived,
(182) But lived as one entranced, with thoughts, not aims,—
(183) Whom love had unmade from a common man
(184) But not completed to an uncommon man,—
(185) My father taught me what he had learnt the best
(186) Before he died and left me,—grief and love.
(187) And, seeing we had books among the hills,
(188) Strong words of counselling souls confederate
(189) With vocal pines and waters,—out of books
(190) He taught me all the ignorance of men,
(191) And how God laughs in heaven when any man
(192) Says “Here I’m learned; this, I understand;
(193) In that, I am never caught at fault or doubt.”
(194) He sent the schools to school, demonstrating
(195) A fool will pass for such through one mistake,
(196) While a philosopher will pass for such,
(197) Through said mistakes being ventured in the gross
(198) And heaped up to a system.27
(198) I am like,
(199) They tell me, my dear father. Broader brows
(200) Howbeit, upon a slenderer undergrowth
(201) Of delicate features,—paler, near as grave;
(202) But then my mother’s smile breaks up the whole,
(203) And makes it better sometimes than itself.
(204) So, nine full years, our days were hid with God
(205) Among his mountains: I was just thirteen,
(206) Still growing like the plants from unseen roots
(207) In tongue-tied Springs,—and suddenly awoke
(208) To full life and life’s needs and agonies
(209) With an intense, strong, struggling heart beside
(210) A stone-dead father. Life, struck sharp on death,
(211) Makes awful lightning. His last word was, “Love⎯”
(212) “Love, my child, love, love!”—(then he had done with grief)
(213) “Love, my child.” Ere I answered he was gone,
(214) And none was left to love in all the world.
(215) There, ended childhood. What succeeded next
(216) I recollect as, after fevers, men
(217) Thread back the passage of delirium,
(218) Missing the turn still, baffled by the door;
(219) Smooth endless days, notched here and there with knives;
(220) A weary, wormy darkness, spurred i’ the flank
(221) With flame, that it should eat and end itself
(222) Like some tormented scorpion.28 Then at last
(223) I do remember clearly, how there came
(225) (I thought not) who commanded, caught me up
(226) From old Assunta’s neck; how, with a shriek,
(227) She let me go,—while I, with ears too full
(228) Of my father’s silence, to shriek back a word,
(229) In all a child’s astonishment at grief
(230) Stared at the wharf-edge where she stood and moaned,
(231) My poor Assunta, where she stood and moaned!
(232) The white walls, the blue hills, my Italy,
(233) Drawn backward from the shuddering steamer-deck,
(234) Like one in anger drawing back her skirts
(235) Which suppliants catch at. Then the bitter sea
(236) Inexorably pushed between us both,
(237) And sweeping up the ship with my despair
(238) Threw us out as a pasture to the stars.
(239) Ten nights and days we voyaged on the deep;
(240) Ten nights and days without the common face
(241) Of any day or night; the moon and sun
(242) Cut off from the green reconciling earth,
(243) To starve into a blind ferocity
(244) And glare unnatural; the very sky
(245) (Dropping its bell-net down upon the sea
(246) As if no human heart should ’scape alive,)
(247) Bedraggled with the desolating salt,
(248) Until it seemed no more that holy heaven
(249) To which my father went. All new and strange;
(250) The universe turned stranger, for a child.
(251) Then, land!—then, England! oh, the frosty cliffs
(252) Looked cold upon me. Could I find a home
(253) Among those mean red houses through the fog?
(254) And when I heard my father’s language first
(255) From alien lips which had no kiss for mine
(256) I wept aloud, then laughed, then wept, then wept,
(257) And some one near me said the child was mad
(258) Through much sea-sickness. The train swept us on.
(259) Was this my father’s England? the great isle?
(260) The ground seemed cut up from the fellowship
(261) Of verdure, field from field, as man from man;
(262) The skies themselves looked low and positive,
(263) As almost you could touch them with a hand,
(264) And dared to do it they were so far off
(265) From God’s celestial crystals;29 all things blurred
(266) And dull and vague. Did Shakespeare and his mates
(267) Absorb the light here?—not a hill or stone
(268) With heart to strike a radiant colour up
(269) Or active outline on the indifferent air.
(270) I think I see my father’s sister stand
(271) Upon the hall-step of her country-house
(272) To give me welcome. She stood straight and calm,
(273) Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight
(274) As if for taming accidental thoughts
(275) From possible pulses; brown hair pricked with gray
(276) By frigid use of life, (she was not old
(277) Although my father’s elder by a year)
(278) A nose drawn sharply, yet in delicate lines;
(279) A close mild mouth, a little soured about
(280) The ends, through speaking unrequited loves
(281) Or peradventure niggardly half-truths;
(282) Eyes of no colour,—once they might have smiled,
(283) But never, never have forgot themselves
(284) In smiling; cheeks, in which was yet a rose
(285) Of perished summers, like a rose in a book,
(286) Kept more for ruth than pleasure,—if past bloom,
(287) Past fading also.
(287) She had lived, we’ll say,
(288) A harmless life, she called a virtuous life,
(289) A quiet life, which was not life at all,
(290) (But that, she had not lived enough to know)
(291) Between the vicar and the county squires,
(292) The lord-lieutenant 30 looking down sometimes
(293) From the empyrean 31 to assure their souls
(294) Against chance-vulgarisms, and, in the abyss
(295) The apothecary,32 looked on once a year
(296) To prove their soundness of humility.
(297) The poor-club exercised her Christian gifts
(298) Of knitting stockings, stitching petticoats,
(299) Because we are of one flesh 33 after all
(300) And need one flannel (with a proper sense
(301) Of difference in the quality)—and still
(302) The book-club, guarded from your modern trick
(303) Of shaking dangerous questions from the crease,
(304) Preserved her intellectual. 34 She had lived
(305) A sort of cage-bird life, 35 born in a cage,
(306) Accounting that to leap from perch to perch
(307) Was act and joy enough for any bird.
(308) Dear heaven, how silly are the things that live
(309) In thickets, and eat berries!
(309) "I, alas,
(310) A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage,
(311) And she was there to meet me. Very kind.
(312) Bring the clean water, give out the fresh seed.
(313) She stood upon the steps to welcome me,
(314) Calm, in black garb. I clung about her neck,—
(315) Young babes, who catch at every shred of wool
(316) To draw the new light closer, catch and cling
(317) Less blindly. In my ears, my father’s word
(318) Hummed ignorantly, as the sea in shells,
(319) “Love, love, my child.” She, black there with my grief,
(320) Might feel my love—she was his sister once,
(321) I clung to her. A moment she seemed moved,
(322) Kissed me with cold lips, suffered me to cling,
(323) And drew me feebly through the hall into
(324) The room she sate in.
(324) There, with some strange spasm
(325) Of pain and passion, she wrung loose my hands
(326) Imperiously, and held me at arm’s length,
(327) And with two grey-steel naked-bladed eyes
(328) Searched through my face,—ay, stabbed it through and through,
(329) Through brows and cheeks and chin, as if to find
(330) A wicked murderer in my innocent face,
(331) If not here, there perhaps. Then, drawing breath,
(332) She struggled for her ordinary calm
(333) And missed it rather,—told me not to shrink,
(334) As if she had told me not to lie or swear,—
(335) “She loved my father and would love me too
(336) As long as I deserved it.” Very kind.
(337) I understood her meaning afterward;
(338) She thought to find my mother in my face,
(339) And questioned it for that. For she, my aunt,
(340) Had loved my father truly, as she could,
(341) And hated, with the gall of gentle souls,
(342) My Tuscan mother who had fooled away
(343) A wise man from wise courses, a good man
(344) From obvious duties, and, depriving her,
(345) His sister, of the household precedence,
(346) Had wronged his tenants, robbed his native land,
(347) And made him mad, alike by life and death,
(348) In love and sorrow. She had pored for years
(349) What sort of woman could be suitable
(350) To her sort of hate, to entertain it with,
(351) And so, her very curiosity
(352) Became hate too, and all the idealism
(353) She ever used in life, was used for hate,
(354) Till hate, so nourished, did exceed at last
(355) The love from which it grew, in strength and heat,
(356) And wrinkled her smooth conscience with a sense
(357) Of disputable virtue (say not, sin)
(358) When Christian doctrine was enforced at church.
(359) And thus my father’s sister was to me
(360) My mother’s hater. From that day, she did
(361) Her duty to me, (I appreciate it
(362) In her own word as spoken to herself)
(363) Her duty, in large measure, well-pressed out,
(364) But measured always.36 She was generous, bland,
(365) More courteous than was tender, gave me still
(366) The first place,—as if fearful that God’s saints
(367) Would look down suddenly and say, “Herein
(368) You missed a point, I think, through lack of love.”
(369) Alas, a mother never is afraid
(370) Of speaking angerly to any child,
(371) Since love, she knows, is justified of love.
(372) And I, I was a good child on the whole,
(373) A meek and manageable child. Why not?
(374) I did not live, to have the faults of life:
(375) There seemed more true life in my father’s grave
(376) Than in all England. Since that threw me off
(377) Who fain would cleave, (his latest will, they say,
(378) Consigned me to his land) I only thought
(379) Of lying quiet there where I was thrown
(380) Like sea-weed on the rocks, and suffering her
(381) To prick me to a pattern with her pin
(382) Fibre from fibre, delicate leaf from leaf,
(383) And dry out from my drowned anatomy
(384) The last sea-salt left in me.
(384) So it was.
(385) I broke the copious curls upon my head
(386) In braids, because she liked smooth-ordered hair.
(387) I left off saying my sweet Tuscan words
(388) Which still at any stirring of the heart
(389) Came up to float across the English phrase
(390) As lilies, (Bene or Che che,)37 because
(391) She liked my father’s child to speak his tongue.
(392) I learnt the collects and the catechism,38
(393) The creeds, from Athanasius back to Nice, 39
(394) The Articles,40 the Tracts against the times,41
(395) (By no means Buonaventure’s ‘Prick of Love,’)42
(396) And various popular synopses of
(397) Inhuman doctrines never taught by John,
(398) Because she liked instructed piety.
(399) I learnt my complement of classic French
(400) (Kept pure of Balzac 43 and neologism)
(401) And German also, since she liked a range
(402) Of liberal education,—tongues, not books.
(403) I learnt a little algebra, a little
(404) Of the mathematics,—brushed with extreme flounce
(405) The circle of the sciences, because
(406) She misliked women who are frivolous.
(407) I learnt the royal genealogies
(408) Of Oviedo,44 the internal laws
(409) Of the Burmese empire,45 —by how many feet
(410) Mount Chimborazo outsoars Teneriffe, 46
(411) What navigable river joins itself
(412) To Lara,47 and what census of the year five
(413) Was taken at Klagenfurt,48 —because she liked
(414) A general insight into useful facts.
(415) I learnt much music,—such as would have been
(416) As quite impossible in Johnson’s day49
(417) As still it might be wished—fine sleights of hand
(418) And unimagined fingering, shuffling off
(419) The hearer’s soul through hurricanes of notes
(420) To a noisy Tophet;50 and I drew . . costumes
(421) From French engravings, nereids neatly draped,
(422) (With smirks of simmering godship)—I washed in
(423) Landscapes from nature (rather say, washed out).
(424) I danced the polka and Cellarius,51
(425) Spun glass, stuffed birds, and modelled flowers in wax,
(426) Because she liked accomplishments in girls.
(427) I read a score of books on womanhood 52
(428) To prove, if women do not think at all,
(429) They may teach thinking, (to a maiden-aunt
(430) Or else the author)—books that boldly assert
(431) Their right of comprehending husband’s talk
(432) When not too deep, and even of answering
(433) With pretty “may it please you,” or “so it is,”—
(434) Their rapid insight and fine aptitude,
(435) Particular worth and general missionariness,
(436) As long as they keep quiet by the fire
(437) And never say “no” when the world says “ay,”
(438) For that is fatal,—their angelic reach
(439) Of virtue, chiefly used to sit and darn,
(440) And fatten household sinners,—their, in brief,
(441) Potential faculty in everything
(442) Of abdicating power in it: she owned
(443) She liked a woman to be womanly,
(444) And English women, she thanked God and sighed,
(445) (Some people always sigh in thanking God)
(446) Were models to the universe. And last
(447) I learnt cross-stitch, because she did not like
(448) To see me wear the night with empty hands
(449) A-doing nothing. So, my shepherdess
(450) Was something after all, (the pastoral saints
(451) Be praised for’t) leaning lovelorn with pink eyes
(452) To match her shoes, when I mistook the silks;
(453) Her head uncrushed by that round weight of hat
(454) So strangely similar to the tortoise-shell
(455) Which slew the tragic poet.53
(455) By the way,
(456) The works of women are symbolical.
(457) We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight,
(458) Producing what? A pair of slippers, sir,
(459) To put on when you’re weary—or a stool
(460) To stumble over and vex you . . “curse that stool!”
(461) Or else at best, a cushion, where you lean
(462) And sleep, and dream of something we are not
(463) But would be for your sake. Alas, alas!
(464) This hurts most, this—that, after all, we are paid
(465) The worth of our work, perhaps.
(465) In looking down
(466) Those years of education (to return)
(467) I wonder if Brinvilliers suffered more
(468) In the water-torture,54 . . flood succeeding flood
(469) To drench the incapable throat and split the veins .
(470) Than I did. Certain of your feebler souls
(471) Go out in such a process; many pine
(472) To a sick, inodorous light; my own endured:
(473) I had relations in the Unseen, and drew
(474) The elemental nutriment and heat
(475) From nature, as earth feels the sun at nights,
(476) Or as a babe sucks surely in the dark.
(477) I kept the life thrust on me, on the outside
(478) Of the inner life with all its ample room
(479) For heart and lungs, for will and intellect,
(480) Inviolable by conventions. God,
(148) thank thee for that grace of thine!
(148) At first
(482) I felt no life which was not patience,—did
(483) The thing she bade me, without heed to a thing
(484) Beyond it, sate in just the chair she placed,
(485) With back against the window, to exclude
(486) The sight of the great lime-tree on the lawn,
(487) Which seemed to have come on purpose from the woods
(488) To bring the house a message,—ay, and walked
(489) Demurely in her carpeted low rooms,
(490) As if I should not, harkening my own steps,
(491) Misdoubt I was alive. I read her books,
(492) Was civil to her cousin, Romney Leigh,
(493) Gave ear to her vicar, tea to her visitors,
(494) And heard them whisper, when I changed a cup,
(495) (I blushed for joy at that)—“The Italian child,
(496) For all her blue eyes and her quiet ways,
(497) Thrives ill in England: she is paler yet
(498) Than when we came the last time; she will die.”
(499) “Will die.” My cousin, Romney Leigh, blushed too,
(500) With sudden anger, and approaching me
(501) Said low between his teeth, “You’re wicked now?
(502) You wish to die and leave the world a-dusk
(503) For others, with your naughty light blown out?”
(504) I looked into his face defyingly;
(505) He might have known that, being what I was,
(506) ’Twas natural to like to get away
(507) As far as dead folk can: and then indeed
(508) Some people make no trouble when they die.
(509) He turned and went abruptly, slammed the door
(510) And shut his dog in.
(510) Romney, Romney Leigh.
(511) I have not named my cousin hitherto,
(512) And yet I used him as a sort of friend;
(513) My elder by few years, but cold and shy
(514) And absent . . tender, when he thought of it,
(515) Which scarcely was imperative, grave betimes,
(516) As well as early master of Leigh Hall,
(517) Whereof the nightmare sate upon his youth
(518) Repressing all its seasonable delights
(519) And agonising with a ghastly sense
(520) Of universal hideous want and wrong
(521) To incriminate possession. When he came
(522) From college to the country, very oft
(523) He crossed the hill on visits to my aunt,
(524) With gifts of blue grapes from the hothouses,
(525) A book in one hand,—mere statistics, (if
(526) I chanced to lift the cover,) count of all
(527) The goats whose beards grow sprouting down toward hell
(528) Against God’s separative judgment-hour.55
(529) And she, she almost loved him,—even allowed
(530) That sometimes he should seem to sigh my way;
(531) It made him easier to be pitiful,
(532) And sighing was his gift. So, undisturbed
(533) At whiles she let him shut my music up
(534) And push my needles down, and lead me out
(535) To see in that south angle of the house
(536) The figs grow black as if by a Tuscan rock,
(537) Or some light pretext. She would turn her head
(538) At other moments, go to fetch a thing,
(539) And leave me breath enough to speak with him,
(540) For his sake; it was simple.
(540) Sometimes too
(541) He would have saved me utterly, it seemed,
(542) He stood and looked so.
(542) Once, he stood so near
(543) He dropped a sudden hand upon my head
(544) Bent down on woman’s work, as soft as rain—
(545) But then I rose and shook it off as fire,
(546) The stranger’s touch that took my father’s place
(547) Yet dared seem soft.
(547) I used him for a friend
(548) Before I ever knew him for a friend.
(549) ’Twas better, ’twas worse also, afterward:
(550) We came so close, we saw our differences
(551) Too intimately. Always Romney Leigh
(552) Was looking for the worms, I for the gods.
(553) A godlike nature his; the gods look down,
(554) Incurious of themselves; and certainly
(555) ’Tis well I should remember, how, those days,
(556) I was a worm too, and he looked on me.
(557) A little by his act perhaps, yet more
(558) By something in me, surely not my will,
(559) I did not die. But slowly, as one in swoon,
(560) To whom life creeps back in the form of death,
(561) With a sense of separation, a blind pain
(562) Of blank obstruction, and a roar i’ the ears
(563) Of visionary chariots which retreat
(564) As earth grows clearer . . slowly, by degrees,
(565) I woke, rose up . . where was I? in the world;
(566) For uses therefore I must count worth while.
(567) I had a little chamber in the house,
(568) As green as any privet-hedge a bird
(569) Might choose to build in, though the nest itself
(570) Could show but dead-brown sticks and straws; the walls
(571) Were green, the carpet was pure green, the straight
(572) Small bed was curtained greenly, and the folds
(573) Hung green about the window which let in
(574) The out-door world with all its greenery.56
(575) You could not push your head out and escape
(576) A dash of dawn-dew from the honeysuckle,
(577) But so you were baptized into the grace
(578) And privilege of seeing. . .
(578) First, the lime,
(579) (I had enough there, of the lime, be sure,—
(580) My morning-dream was often hummed away
(581) By the bees in it;) past the lime, the lawn
(582) Which, after sweeping broadly round the house,
(583) Went trickling through the shrubberies in a stream
(584) Of tender turf, and wore and lost itself
(585) Among the acacias, over which you saw
(586) The irregular line of elms by the deep lane
(587) Which stopped the grounds and dammed the overflow
(588) Of arbutus and laurel. Out of sight
(589) The lane was; sunk so deep, no foreign tramp
(590) Nor drover of wild ponies out of Wales
(591) Could guess if lady’s hall or tenant’s lodge
(592) Dispensed such odours,—though his stick well-crooked
(593) Might reach the lowest trail of blossoming briar
(594) Which dipped upon the wall. Behind the elms,
(595) And through their tops, you saw the folded hills
(596) Striped up and down with hedges, (burly oaks
(597) Projecting from the line to show themselves)
(598) Through which my cousin Romney’s chimneys smoked
(599) As still as when a silent mouth in frost
(600) Breathes, showing where the woodlands hid Leigh Hall;
(601) While, far above, a jut of table-land,
(602) A promontory without water, stretched,
(603) You could not catch it if the days were thick,
(604) Or took it for a cloud; but, otherwise,
(605) The vigorous sun would catch it up at eve
(606) And use it for an anvil till he had filled
(607) The shelves of heaven with burning thunderbolts,
(608) Protesting against night and darkness:—then,
(609) When all his setting trouble was resolved
(610) To a trance of passive glory, you might see
(611) In apparition on the golden sky
(612) (Alas, my Giotto’s57 background!) the sheep run
(613) Along the fine clear outline, small as mice
(614) That run along a witch’s scarlet thread.58
(615) Not a grand nature. Not my chesnut-woods
(616) Of Vallombrosa,59 cleaving by the spurs
(617) To the precipices. Not my headlong leaps
(618) In leaping through the palpitating pines,
(620) Like a white soul tossed out to eternity
(621) With thrills of time upon it. Not indeed
(622) My multitudinous mountains, sitting in
(623) The magic circle, with the mutual touch
(624) Electric, panting from their full deep hearts
(625) Beneath the influent60 heavens, and waiting for
(626) Communion and commission. Italy
(627) Is one thing, England one.
(627) On English ground
(628) You understand the letter,—ere the fall
(629) How Adam lived61 in a garden. All the fields
(630) Are tied up fast with hedges, nosegay-like;
(631) The hills are crumpled plains, the plains parterres,
(632) The trees, round, woolly, ready to be clipped,
(633) And if you seek for any wilderness
(634) You find, at best, a park. A nature tamed
(635) And grown domestic like a barn-door fowl,
(636) Which does not awe you with its claws and beak
(637) Nor tempt you to an eyrie too high up,
(638) But which, in cackling, sets you thinking of
(639) Your eggs to-morrow at breakfast, in the pause
(640) Of finer meditation.
(640) Rather say,
(641) A sweet familiar nature, stealing in
(642) As a dog might, or child, to touch your hand
(643) Or pluck your gown, and humbly mind you so
(644) Of presence and affection, excellent
(645) For inner uses, from the things without.
(646) I could not be unthankful, I who was
(647) Entreated thus and holpen.62 In the room
(648) I speak of, ere the house was well awake,
(649) And also after it was well asleep,
(650) I sate alone, and drew the blessing in
(651) Of all that nature. With a gradual step,
(652) A stir among the leaves, a breath, a ray,
(653) It came in softly, while the angels made
(654) A place for it beside me. The moon came,
(655) And swept my chamber clean of foolish thoughts.
(656) The sun came, saying, “Shall I lift this light
(657) Against the lime-tree, and you will not look?
(658) I make the birds sing—listen! but, for you,
(659) God never hears your voice, excepting when
(660) You lie upon the bed at nights and weep.”
(661) Then, something moved me. Then, I wakened up
(662) More slowly than I verily write now,
(663) But wholly, at last, I wakened, opened wide
(664) The window and my soul, and let the airs
(665) And out-door sights sweep gradual gospels in,
(666) Regenerating what I was. O Life,
(667) How oft we throw it off and think,—“Enough,
(668) Enough of life in so much!—here’s a cause
(669) For rupture;—herein we must break with Life,
(670) Or be ourselves unworthy; here we are wronged
(671) Maimed, spoiled for aspiration: farewell, Life!”
(672) And so, as froward63 babes, we hide our eyes
(673) And think all ended.—Then, Life calls to us
(674) In some transformed, apocalyptic 64 voice,
(675) Above us, or below us, or around:
(676) Perhaps we name it Nature’s voice, or Love’s,
(677) Tricking ourselves, because we are more ashamed
(678) To own our compensations than our griefs:
(679) Still, Life’s voice!—still, we make our peace with Life.
(680) And I, so young then, was not sullen. Soon
(681) I used to get up early, just to sit
(682) And watch the morning quicken in the gray,
(683) And hear the silence open like a flower
(684) Leaf after leaf,—and stroke with listless hand
(685) The woodbine through the window, till at last
(686) I came to do it with a sort of love,
(687) At foolish unaware: whereat I smiled,—
(688) A melancholy smile, to catch myself
(689) Smiling for joy.
(689) Capacity for joy
(690) Admits temptation. It seemed, next, worth while
(691) To dodge the sharp sword set against my life;
(692) To slip down stairs through all the sleepy house,
(693) As mute as any dream there, and escape
(694) As a soul from the body, out of doors,
(695) Glide through the shrubberies, drop into the lane,
(696) And wander on the hills an hour or two,
(697) Then back again before the house should stir.
(698) Or else I sate on in my chamber green,
(699) And lived my life, and thought my thoughts, and prayed
(700) My prayers without the vicar; read my books,
(701) Without considering whether they were fit
(702) To do me good. Mark, there. We get no good
(703) By being ungenerous, even to a book,
(704) And calculating profits,—so much help
(705) By so much reading. It is rather when
(706) We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge
(707) Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound,
(708) Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth—
(709) ’Tis then we get the right good from a book.
(710) I read much. What my father taught before
(711) From many a volume, Love re-emphasised
(712) Upon the self-same pages: Theophrast65
(713) Grew tender with the memory of his eyes,
(714) And Ælian66 made mine wet. The trick of Greek and
(715) And Latin,67 he had taught me, as he would
(716) Have taught me wrestling or the game of fives68
(717) If such he had known,—most like a shipwrecked man
(718) Who heaps his single platter with goats’ cheese
(719) And scarlet berries; or like any man
(720) Who loves but one, and so gives all at once,
(721) Because he has it rather than because
(722) He counts it worthy. Thus, my father gave;
(723) And thus, as did the women formerly
(724) By young Achilles, when they pinned a veil
(725) Across the boy’s audacious front,69 and swept
(726) With tuneful laughs the silver-fretted rocks,
(727) He wrapt his little daughter in his large
(728) Man’s doublet, careless did it fit or no.
(729) But, after I had read for memory,
(730) I read for hope. The path my father’s foot
(731) Had trod me out, (which suddenly broke off
(732) What time he dropped the wallet of the flesh
(733) And passed) alone I carried on, and set
(734) My child-heart ’gainst the thorny underwood,
(735) To reach the grassy shelter of the trees.
(736) Ah babe i’ the wood, without a brother-babe!
(737) My own self-pity, like the red-breast bird,
(738) Flies back to cover all that past with leaves.70
(739) Sublimest danger, over which none weeps
(740) When any young wayfaring soul goes forth
(741) Alone, unconscious of the perilous road,
(742) The day-sun dazzling in his limpid eyes,
(743) To thrust his own way, he an alien, through
(744) The world of books! Ah, you!—you think it fine,
(745) You clap hands—“A fair day!”—you cheer him on,
(746) As if the worst, could happen, were to rest
(747) Too long beside a fountain. Yet, behold,
(748) Behold!—the world of books is still the world,
(749) And worldlings in it are less merciful
(750) And more puissant.71 For the wicked there
(751) Are winged like angels; every knife that strikes
(752) Is edged from elemental fire to assail
(753) A spiritual life; the beautiful seems right
(754) By force of beauty, and the feeble wrong
(755) Because of weakness; power is justified
(756) Though armed against Saint Michael;72 many a crown
(757) Covers bald foreheads.73 In the book-world, true,
(758) There’s no lack, neither, of God’s saints and kings,
(759) That shake the ashes of the grave aside
(760) From their calm locks and undiscomfited
(761) Look stedfast truths against Time’s changing mask.
(762) True, many a prophet teaches in the roads;
(763) True, many a seer pulls down the flaming heavens
(764) Upon his own head in strong martyrdom
(765) In order to light men a moment’s space.
(766) But stay!—who judges?—who distinguishes
(767) ’Twixt Saul and Nahash74 justly, at first sight,
(768) And leaves king Saul precisely at the sin,
(769) To serve king David? who discerns at once
(770) The sound of the trumpets, when the trumpets blow
(771) For Alaric as well as Charlemagne? 75
(772) Who judges wizards, and can tell true seers
(773) From conjurors? the child, there? Would you leave
(774) That child to wander in a battle-field
(775) And push his innocent smile against the guns;
(776) Or even in the catacombs,—his torch
(777) Grown ragged in the fluttering air, and all
(778) The dark a-mutter round him? not a child.
(779) I read books bad and good—some bad and good
(780) At once; (good aims not always make good books:
(781) Well-tempered spades turn up ill-smelling soils
(782) In digging vineyards even) books that prove
(783) God’s being so definitely, that man’s doubt
(784) Grows self-defined the other side the line,
(785) Made atheist by suggestion; moral books,
(786) Exasperating to license; genial books,
(787) Discounting from the human dignity;
(788) And merry books, which set you weeping when
(789) The sun shines,—ay, and melancholy books,
(790) Which make you laugh that any one should weep
(791) In this disjointed life for one wrong more.
(792) The world of books is still the world, I write,
(793) And both worlds have God’s providence, thank God,
(794) To keep and hearten: with some struggle, indeed,
(795) Among the breakers, some hard swimming through
(796) The deeps—I lost breath in my soul sometimes
(797) And cried, “God save me if there’s any God,”76
(798) But, even so, God saved me; and, being dashed
(799) From error on to error, every turn
(800) Still brought me nearer to the central truth. 77
(801) I thought so. All this anguish in the thick
(802) Of men’s opinions . . press and counterpress,
(803) Now up, now down, now underfoot, and now
(804) Emergent . . all the best of it, perhaps,
(805) But throws you back upon a noble trust
(806) And use of your own instinct,—merely proves
(807) Pure reason stronger than bare inference
(808) At strongest. Try it,—fix against heaven’s wall
(809) The scaling-ladders of school logic—mount
(810) Step by step!—sight goes faster; that still ray
(811) Which strikes out from you, how, you cannot tell,
(812) And why, you know not, (did you eliminate,
(813) That such as you indeed should analyse?)
(814) Goes straight and fast as light, and high as God.
(815) The cygnet finds the water, but the man
(816) Is born in ignorance of his element
(817) And feels out blind at first, disorganised
(818) By sin i’ the blood,78 —his spirit-insight dulled
(819) And crossed by his sensations. Presently
(820) He feels it quicken in the dark sometimes,
(821) When, mark, be reverent, be obedient,
(822) For such dumb motions of imperfect life
(823) Are oracles of vital Deity
(824) Attesting the Hereafter. Let who says
(825) “The soul’s a clean white paper,” rather say,
(826) A palimpsest,79 a prophet’s holograph
(827) Defiled, erased and covered by a monk’s,—
(828) The apocalypse, by a Longus!80 poring on
(829) Which obscene text, we may discern perhaps
(830) Some fair, fine trace of what was written once,
(831) Some upstroke of an alpha and omega81
(832) Expressing the old scripture.
(832) Books, books, books!
(833) I had found the secret of a garret-room
(834) Piled high with cases in my father’s name,82
(835) Piled high, packed large,—where, creeping in and out
(836) Among the giant fossils of my past,
(837) Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs
(838) Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there
(839) At this or that box, pulling through the gap,
(840) In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,
(841) The first book first. And how I felt it beat
(842) Under my pillow, in the morning’s dark,
(843) An hour before the sun would let me read!
(844) My books! At last because the time was ripe,
(845) I chanced upon the poets.
(845) As the earth
(846) Plunges in fury, when the internal fires
(847) Have reached and pricked her heart, and, throwing flat
(848) The marts and temples, the triumphal gates
(849) And towers of observation, clears herself
(850) To elemental freedom—thus, my soul,
(851) At poetry’s divine first finger-touch,
(852) Let go conventions and sprang up surprised,
(853) Convicted of the great eternities
(854) Before two worlds.
(854) What’s this, Aurora Leigh,
(855) You write so of the poets, and not laugh?
(856) Those virtuous liars, dreamers after dark,
(857) Exaggerators of the sun and moon,
(858) And soothsayers in a tea-cup?
(858) I write so
(859) Of the only truth-tellers now left to God,
(860) The only speakers of essential truth,
(861) Opposed to relative, comparative,
(862) And temporal truths; the only holders by
(863) His sun-skirts, through conventional gray glooms;
(864) The only teachers who instruct mankind
(865) From just a shadow on a charnel-wall
(866) To find man’s veritable stature out
(867) Erect, sublime,—the measure of a man,
(868) And that’s the measure of an angel, says
(869) The apostle.83 Ay, and while your common men
(870) Lay telegraphs,84 gauge railroads, reign, reap, dine,
(871) And dust the flaunty carpets of the world
(872) For kings to walk on or our president,
(873) The poet suddenly will catch them up
(874) With his voice like a thunder,85 —“This is soul,
(875) This is life, this word is being said in heaven,
(876) Here’s God down on us! what are you about?”
(877) How all those workers start amid their work,
(878) Look round, look up, and feel, a moment’s space,
(879) That carpet-dusting, though a pretty trade,
(880) Is not the imperative labour after all.
(881) My own best poets, am I one with you,
(882) That thus I love you,—or but one through love?
(883) Does all this smell of thyme about my feet
(884) Conclude my visit to your holy hill86
(885) In personal presence, or but testify
(886) The rustling of your vesture through my dreams
(887) With influent odours? When my joy and pain,
(888) My thought and aspiration, like the stops
(889) Of pipe or flute, are absolutely dumb
(890) Unless melodious, do you play on me
(881) My pipers,—and if, sooth, you did not blow,
(892) Would no sound come? or is the music mine,
(893) As a man’s voice or breath is called his own,
(894) Inbreathed by the Life-breather? There’s a doubt
(895) For cloudy seasons!
(895) But the sun was high
(896) When first I felt my pulses set themselves
(897) For concord; when the rhythmic turbulence
(898) Of blood and brain swept outward upon words,
(899) As wind upon the alders, blanching them
(900) By turning up their under-natures till
(901) They trembled in dilation. O delight
(902) And triumph of the poet, who would say
(903) A man’s mere “yes,” a woman’s common “no,”
(904) A little human hope of that or this,
(905) And says the word so that it burns you through
(906) With a special revelation, shakes the heart
(907) Of all the men and women in the world,
(908) As if one came back from the dead and spoke,
(909) With eyes too happy, a familiar thing
(910) Become divine i’ the utterance! while for him
(911) The poet, speaker, he expands with joy;
(912) The palpitating angel in his flesh
(913) Thrills inly with consenting fellowship
(914) To those innumerous spirits who sun themselves
(915) Outside of time.
(915) O life, O poetry,
(916) —Which means life in life! cognisant of life
(917) Beyond this blood-beat, passionate for truth
(918) Beyond these senses!—poetry, my life,
(919) My eagle, with both grappling feet still hot
(920) From Zeus’s thunder, who hast ravished me
(921) Away from all the shepherds, sheep, and dogs,
(922) And set me in the Olympian roar and round
(923) Of luminous faces for a cup-bearer,87
(924) To keep the mouths of all the godheads moist
(925) For everlasting laughters,88 —I myself
(926) Half drunk across the beaker with their eyes!
(927) How those gods look! ,
(927) Enough so, Ganymede,
(928) We shall not bear above a round or two.
(929) We drop the golden cup at Heré’s89 foot
(930) And swoon back to the earth,—and find ourselves
(931) Face-down among the pine-cones, cold with dew,
(932) While the dogs bark, and many a shepherd scoffs,
(933) “What’s come now to the youth?” Such ups and downs
(934) Have poets.
(934) Am I such indeed? The name
(935) Is royal, and to sign it like a queen,
(936) Is what I dare not,—though some royal blood
(937) Would seem to tingle in me now and then,
(938) With sense of power and ache,—with imposthumes90
(939) And manias usual to the race. Howbeit
(940) I dare not: ’tis too easy to go mad
(941) And ape a Bourbon in a crown of straws;91
(942) The thing’s too common.
(942) Many fervent souls
(943) Strike rhyme on rhyme, who would strike steel on steel
(944) If steel had offered, in a restless heat
(945) Of doing something. Many tender souls
(946) Have strung their losses on a rhyming thread,
(947) As children, cowslips:—the more pains they take,
(948) The work more withers. Young men, ay, and maids,
(949) Too often sow their wild oats in tame verse,
(950) Before they sit down under their own vine92
(951) And live for use. Alas, near all the birds
(952) Will sing at dawn,—and yet we do not take
(953) The chaffering swallow for the holy lark.
(954) In those days, though, I never analysed,
(955) Not even myself. Analysis comes late.
(956) You catch a sight of Nature, earliest,
(957) In full front sun-face, and your eyelids wink
(958) And drop before the wonder of’t; you miss
(959) The form, through seeing the light. I lived, those days,
(960) And wrote because I lived—unlicensed else;
(961) My heart beat in my brain. Life’s violent flood
(962) Abolished bounds,—and, which my neighbour’s field,
(963) Which mine, what mattered? it is thus in youth!
(964) We play at leap-frog over the god Term;93
(965) The love within us and the love without
(966) Are mixed, confounded; if we are loved or love,
(967) We scarce distinguish: thus, with other power;
(968) Being acted on and acting seem the same:
(969) In that first onrush of life’s chariot-wheels,
(970) We know not if the forests move or we.
(971) And so, like most young poets, in a flush
(972) Of individual life I poured myself
(973) Along the veins of others, and achieved
(974) Mere lifeless imitations of live verse,
(975) And made the living answer for the dead,
(976) Profaning nature. “Touch not, do not taste,
(977) Nor handle,”94 —we’re too legal, who write young:
(978) We beat the phorminx95 till we hurt our thumbs,
(979) As if still ignorant of counterpoint;
(980) We call the Muse,—“O Muse, benignant Muse,”—
(981) As if we had seen her purple-braided head,96
(982) With the eyes in it, start between the boughs
(983) As often as a stag’s. What make-believe,
(984) With so much earnest! what effete results
(985) From virile efforts! what cold wire-drawn97 odes,
(986) From such white heats!—bucolics,98 where the cows
(987) Would scare the writer if they splashed the mud
(988) In lashing off the flies,—didactics, driven
(989) Against the heels of what the master said;
(990) And counterfeiting epics, shrill with trumps
(991) A babe might blow between two straining cheeks
(992) Of bubbled rose, to make his mother laugh;
(993) And elegiac griefs, and songs of love,
(994) Like cast-off nosegays picked up on the road,
(995) The worse for being warm: all these things, writ
(996) On happy mornings, with a morning heart,
(997) That leaps for love, is active for resolve,
(998) Weak for art only. Oft, the ancient forms
(999) Will thrill, indeed, in carrying the young blood.
(1000) The wine-skins, now and then, a little warped,
(1001) Will crack even, as the new wine gurgles in.
(1002) Spare the old bottles!—spill not the new wine.99
(1003) By Keats’s soul, the man who never stepped
(1004) In gradual progress like another man,
(1005) But, turning grandly on his central self,
(1006) Ensphered himself in twenty perfect years100
(1007) And died, not young, (the life of a long life
(1008) Distilled to a mere drop, falling like a tear
(1009) Upon the world’s cold cheek to make it burn
(1010) For ever;) by that strong excepted soul,
(1011) I count it strange and hard to understand
(1012) That nearly all young poets should write old,
(1013) That Pope was sexagenary at sixteen,101
(1014) And beardless Byron academical,102
(1015) And so with others. It may be perhaps
(1016) Such have not settled long and deep enough
(1017) In trance, to attain to clairvoyance,—and still
(1018) The memory mixes with the vision, spoils,
(1019) And works it turbid.
(1019) Or perhaps, again,
(1020) In order to discover the Muse-Sphinx,
(1021) The melancholy desert must sweep round,
(1022) Behind you as before.—
(1022) For me, I wrote
(1023) False poems, like the rest,103 and thought them true
(1024) Because myself was true in writing them.
(1025) I peradventure have writ true ones since
(1026) With less complacence.
(1026) But I could not hide
(1027) My quickening inner life from those at watch.
(1028) They saw a light at a window now and then,
(1029) They had not set there: who had set it there?
(1030) My father’s sister started when she caught
(1031) My soul agaze in my eyes. She could not say
(1032) I had no business with a sort of soul,
(1033) But plainly she objected,—and demurred
(1034) That souls were dangerous things to carry straight
(1035) Through all the spilt saltpetre of the world.
(1036) She said sometimes, “Aurora, have you done
(1037) Your task this morning? have you read that book?
(1038) And are you ready for the crochet here?”—
(1039) As if she said, “I know there’s something wrong;
(1040) I know I have not ground you down enough
(1041) To flatten and bake you to a wholesome crust
(1042) For household uses and proprieties,
(0143) Before the rain has got into my barn
(1044) And set the grains a-sprouting. What, you’re green
(1045) With out-door impudence? you almost grow?”
(1046) To which I answered, “Would she hear my task,
(1047) And verify my abstract of the book?
(1048) Or should I sit down to the crochet work?
(1049) Was such her pleasure?” Then I sate and teased
(1050) The patient needle till it spilt the thread,
(1051) Which oozed off from it in meandering lace
(1052) From hour to hour. I was not, therefore, sad;
(1053) My soul was singing at a work apart
(1054) Behind the wall of sense, as safe from harm
(1055) As sings the lark when sucked up out of sight
(1056) In vortices of glory and blue air.104
(1057) And so, through forced work and spontaneous work,
(1058) The inner life informed the outer life,105
(1059) Reduced the irregular blood to a settled rhythm,
(1060) Made cool the forehead with fresh-sprinkling dreams,
(1061) And, rounding to the spheric soul the thin,
(1062) Pined body, struck a colour up the cheeks
(1063) Though somewhat faint. I clenched my brows across
(1064) My blue eyes greatening in the looking-glass,
(1065) And said, “We’ll live, Aurora! we’ll be strong.
(1066) The dogs are on us—but we will not die.”
(1067) Whoever lives true life, will love true love.
(1068) I learnt to love that England. Very oft,
(1069) Before the day was born, or otherwise
(1070) Through secret windings of the afternoons,
(1071) I threw my hunters off and plunged myself
(1072) Among the deep hills, as a hunted stag106
(1073) Will take the waters, shivering with the fear
(1074) And passion of the course. And when at last
(1075) Escaped, so many a green slope built on slope
(1076) Betwixt me and the enemy’s house behind,
(1077) I dared to rest, or wander, in a rest
(1078) Made sweeter for the step upon the grass,
(1079) And view the ground’s most gentle dimplement,107
(1080) (As if God’s finger touched but did not press
(1081) In making England) such an up and down
(1082) Of verdure,—nothing too much up or down,
(1083) A ripple of land; such little hills, the sky
(1084) Can stoop to tenderly and the wheatfields climb;
(1085) Such nooks of valleys lined with orchises, 108
(1086) Fed full of noises by invisible streams;
(1087) And open pastures where you scarcely tell
(1088) White daisies from white dew,—at intervals
(1089) The mythic oaks and elm-trees standing out
(1090) Self-poised upon their prodigy of shade,—
(1091) I thought my father’s land was worthy too
(1092) Of being my Shakespeare’s.
(1092) Very oft alone,
(1093) Unlicensed; not unfrequently with leave
(1094) To walk the third with Romney and his friend
(1095) The rising painter, Vincent Carrington,
(1096) Whom men judge hardly as bee-bonnetted,
(1097) Because he holds that, paint a body well,
(1098) You paint a soul by implication,109like
(1099) The grand first Master.110 Pleasant walks! for if
(1100) He said, “When I was last in Italy,”
(1101) It sounded as an instrument that’s played
(1102) Too far off for the tune—and yet it’s fine
(1103) To listen.
(1103) Ofter we walked only two
(1104) If cousin Romney pleased to walk with me.
(1105) We read, or talked, or quarrelled, as it chanced.
(1106) We were not lovers, nor even friends well-matched:
(1107) Say rather, scholars upon different tracks,
(1108) And thinkers disagreed, he, overfull
(1109) Of what is, and I, haply, overbold
(1110) For what might be.
(1110) But then the thrushes sang,
(1111) And shook my pulses and the elms’ new leaves;
(1112) At which I turned, and held my finger up,
(1113) And bade him mark that, howsoe’er the world
(1114) Went ill, as he related, certainly
(1115) The thrushes still sang in it. At the word
(1116) His brow would soften,—and he bore with me
(1117) In melancholy patience, not unkind,
(1118) While breaking into voluble ecstasy
(1119) I flattered all the beauteous country round,
(1120) As poets use . . the skies, the clouds, the fields,
(1121) The happy violets hiding from the roads
(1122) The primroses run down to, carrying gold;
(1123) The tangled hedgerows, where the cows push out
(1124) Impatient horns and tolerant churning mouths
(1125) ’Twixt dripping ash-boughs,—hedgerows all alive
(1126) With birds and gnats and large white butterflies
(1127) Which look as if the May-flower had caught life
(1128) And palpitated forth upon the wind;
(1129) Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist,
(1130) Farms, granges, doubled up among the hills;
(1131) And cattle grazing in the watered vales,
(1132) And cottage-chimneys smoking from the woods,
(1133) And cottage-gardens smelling everywhere,
(1134) Confused with smell of orchards. “See,” I said,
(1135) “And see! is God not with us on the earth?
(1136) And shall we put Him down by aught we do?
(1137) Who says there’s nothing for the poor and vile
(1138) Save poverty and wickedness? behold!”
(1139) And ankle-deep in English grass I leaped
(1140) And clapped my hands, and called all very fair.
(1141) In the beginning when God called all good,111
(1142) Even then was evil near us, it is writ;
(1143) But we indeed who call things good and fair,
(1144) The evil is upon us while we speak;
(1145) Deliver us from evil,112 let us pray.

2. Note on the text


3. Explanatory Notes

OF writing many books there is no end see Ecclesiastes 12:12, “of making many books there is no end.”
still what men call young Book II, depicting Aurora turning twenty (l.2), reveals that she is writing retrospectively at age 27 in Books I and II (“it is seven years since,” she remarks at the close of Book II, l. 1238). Books III to V alternate between past and present, while Books VI to IX of Aurora Leigh are written in the present, as journal entries.
I have not so far left the coasts ... for smiling ll. 10-14 echo Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (1807), which EBB described in 1842 as a “high favorite” with her (BC 6:212).
Scudi: gold Italian coin in denominations of 2.5, 5 and 10 scudi.
Florentine a native of Florence, the location of the Browning’s principal residence (Casa Guidi) in Italy after their marriage. It is open to tourists today at specified times [link to photo].
The mother’s rapture slew her EBB’s own experience of childbirth involved four miscarriages (see LTA 1:70n2), two before the birth of the Brownings’ son Robert Wiedeman Barrett Browning (nicknamed “Pen”) on 9 March 1849, and two after, the fourth one in the summer of 1850 nearly fatal (she was packed “in ice for three days” to control the bleeding,” and could not walk normally for “six weeks” BC 16:240).
corals to cut life upon toys made of polished coral, used for infants’ teething
in a rose-bush, Love’s Divine / Which burns and hurts not alluding to the burning bush of Exodus 3:2.
Fathers love as well / … but still with heavier brains alluding to the belief of many Victorian physicians, psychologists and educators that women’s brains were smaller in size than men’s, making them ill-equipped for intellectual endeavours: e.g., in 1887 G. G. Romanes referred to “the missing five ounces” of the female brain (Mental Differences between Men and Women, repr. in The Education Papers: Women’s Quest for Equality in Britain, 1850-1912, ed. D. Spender (London, 1987), pp. 10-31). EBB challenged the stereotype in describing the French novelist in “To George Sand: A Desire” as a “large-brained woman and large-hearted man” (1844), and was herself seen by mid-Victorian reviewers as combining masculine with feminine characteristics. See, e.g., the comment in The United States Magazine, and Democratic Review that her Poems (1844) united feminine feeling with “masculine loftiness and power of intellect” (July 1844; BC 9:319), and Reviews, Casa Guidi Windows (1851) [link to these Reviews]
Da Vinci’s drains the Renaissance artist (1452-1519) was also an inventor, mathematician and engineer, who in Milan, shortly after the plague of 1484-5, created a plan for an Ideal City to address sanitation problems.
With left or right hand cf. Matthew 6:3.
A train of priestly banners on 8 September a procession traditionally is held in Florence to celebrate the nativity of the Virgin Mary. In AL Norton, Reynolds notes the parallel with RB’s description of a Servite procession in “Up at a Villa – Down in the City” (1855), esp. lines 59-62.
eucharistic meanings alluding to the ceremony of the Eucharist, the sacrament earlier mentioned in l. 85, in which the wafer and wine symbolize the body and blood of Christ; on EBB’s complex use of eucharistic metaphors in Aurora Leigh and the debates surrounding the sacrament in the mid-19th-century, see “Criticism on Aurora Leigh: An Overview” [link to essay], especially the references in n. 42 to criticism by L. Lewis, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, pp. 14, 150-70, 194-211, C. Scheinberg, pp. 85-105, and M. LaMonaca, pp. 126-50.
make the stones / Cry out for pity see Luke 19:40.
Santa Croce The largest Franciscan church in the world, known as the Westminster Abbey of Florence, is the burial place of many illustrious Italians, such as Michelangelo and Galileo.
Pelago a village east of Florence between the Apennines and Pratomagno, on the route to Vallombrosa, which the Brownings visited in 1847 (see l. 616, below).
Pan’s white goats … mystic contemplations Pan, the classical god of woods, fields, and fertile herds, with a human form to the waist, but the legs, ears, and horns of a goat, sometimes figures in EBB’s poetry as a god associated with Nature or Art, as in much Romantic poetry. In “A Musical Instrument” (1860), Pan’s association with the artistic expression conveyed by his pan pipes is emphasized, along with the implicit violence embodied in his rape of the nymph Syrinx [link to visual image of Pan –illustration for “A Musical Instrument”]. In “The Dead Pan” (1844), however (see WEBB, vol. 2, pp. ****), EBB invokes the literal meaning of Pan’s name “all” and portrays Pan not as “his individual goat-godship,” but as a symbol of the entire pantheon of classical deities, explaining that the Pan she meant in that poem is “not your Pan of the rural districts and flocks and herds” (BC 7:70, 36).
cameriera a waiting woman or maid.
Pitti The official residence of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany in the 19th century, the Pitti Palace stands diagonally across the street from Casa Guidi, the Brownings’ home in Florence.
Sprite archaic term for spirit.
A dauntless Muse who eyes a dreadful Fate the nine Muses of classical mythology preside over the arts; of the three Fates – Clotho (“the spinner”), Lachesis (“the measurer”), and Atropos (“she who cannot be avoided”), Atropos is the most dreadful, as the Fate who cuts the thread of life.
A loving Psyche who loses sight of Love the mortal woman Pysche, loved by Cupid or “Love” at night, the son of Venus, loses him when she uses a light to try to see her beloved; the story is told in Lucius Apuleius’s Metamorphoses (2nd c. AD), 4:28-35.
A still Medusa ...snakes the most notorious of the three Gorgon sisters, Medusa was transformed into a snake-haired monster whose glance turned men to stone; she was slain by Perseus (see Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 4:790-803).
Our Lady of the Passion ... where the Babe sucked the Virgin Mary stabbed with seven swords symbolizing her sorrows as prophesied by Simeon (Luke 2:33-5), an icon especially important to the Servite order associated with the Florentine church of Santissima Annunziata (see l. 77n. above).
Lamia Keats’s “Lamia” (1820) is the most famous among literary treatments of Lamia, the snake-woman. On EBB’s interest in Keats, see the headnote and notes to “A Vision of Poets” (1844), WEBB, 1:179-223.
chin-bands of the soul, like Lazarus See John 11:44 for the story of Lazarus raised from the grave; “chin-bands” -- bands of cloth passing under the chin used with corpses as part of the shroud or winding cloth. EBB had considered Lazarus as the subject for a possible poem as early as 1840 (BC 4:292); RB draws on the story in “An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician” (1855).
heaped up to a system EBB’s working notes for Aurora Leigh indicate that one of the philosophical oppositions the work was designed to treat is “System against instinct” (see AL Norton, p. 349).
that it should eat and end itself / Like some tormented scorpion alluding to the popular fallacy that the scorpion stings itself to death.
God’s celestial crystals in the Ptolemaic system, picturing the earth at the centre of the cosmos, the ninth crystalline sphere lies beyond the seven planetary spheres and the fixed stars; cf. Milton’s reference to the “crystálline sphere” (Paradise Lost 3:482).
the vicar and the county squires, / The lord-lieutenantfigures of authority in middle-class provincial English life; the lord-lieutenant was officially governor of a county, though with largely ceremonial functions.
empyrean the highest heaven, the abode of God and the angels.
apothecary dispensers of drugs, at the lower end of the middle-class social scale.
we are of one flesh See Ephesians 5:29-30.
Preserved her intellectual cf. Byron’s satire of “Bluestocking” women, a term applied pejoratively to women with intellectual aspirations in Don Juan (1819-24), Canto 1, XXII. On the importance of Don Juan as one of the texts EBB engages with in Aurora Leigh, see the “Critical Introduction,” Vol. 3, WEBB, pp. x-xi.
A sort of cage-bird life cf. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) on women, “[c] onfined, then, in cages like the feathered race” (ch. 4). On the importance of bird metaphors in texts by 19th-c women writers, see Ellen Moers, Literary Women (1976), pp. 243-51. On EBB’s attention to Mary Wollstonecraft, see her early poem ‘Fragment of an “Essay on Woman”’ (EBB Broadview, pp. 49-52; WEBB, vol. 5, pp. 416-9) and BC 1:132, 5:282, 6:42.
duty ... measured always See Luke 6:38: “with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.”
sweet Tuscan words … As lilies, (Bene or Che che Bene – Well or Good, implying approval; Che che – here possibly meaning What, what [?], an interrogation implying the questioning of something when repeated, although che has several meanings and like Bene, is one of the most common words in the Tuscan dialect. Spoken in the city Florence and in the Italian state of Tuscany, where Aurora spent her childhood, this dialect is the closest Italian dialect to modern standard spoken Italian, becoming the official national language of Italian culture after Italian unification in the 1860s, thanks to the prestige of literary masterpieces in Tuscan by Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Francesco Petrarca, and Niccolò Macchiavelli. The comparison of Aurora’s Tuscan words floating across “the English phrase / As lilies” may allude to the lily as the symbol of Florence. Thanks to Federica Belluccini for assistance with this annotation.
collects and the catechism collects: short prayers in the Christian liturgy, such as the Morning and Evening prayer in the Anglican service; the catechism: an elementary treatise of Christian doctrine in the form of question and answer, meant for children and other learners or issued as an authoritative exposition of a Church’s teaching.
The creeds, from Athanasius back to Nice the Athanasian, the Apostles’ and the Nicene creeds formulate the basic principles of Christian faith. The Council of Nice (Nicea) affirmed the divinity of Jesus Christ in AD 325. The Athanasian creed (c. AD 500), asserts belief in the Trinity (three gods in one substance). In 1854 EBB said of the Athanasian creed, “the Athanasian way of stating opinions, between a scholastic paradox and a curse, is particularly distasteful to me” (LEBB 2:156).
The Articles the thirty-nine articles, established in 1563 during the Reformation, that define the doctrine of the Church of England and are incorporated into the Book of Common Prayer.
the Tracts against the times Tracts for the Times (1833-41) published by members of the Oxford or Tractarian Movement opposed secularization of the Anglican Church, arguing for the restoration of liturgical practices associated with its Catholic roots. The movement’s leaders included John Henry Newman(1801-90), who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845; John Keble (1792-1866); and Edward Pusey (1800-1882). In 1843, EBB found the controversial “Tracts” disappointing “even in the degree of intellectual power displayed in them” (BC 8:107).
Buonaventure’s “Prick of Love”: No longer believed to be by Saint Bonaventure (1221-74), Stimulus Divini Amoris (1542) is a devotional work including meditations on the Passion of Christ and prayers and a treatise on the spiritual life.
Balzac Kept pure of Balzac and neologism: EBB was an avid reader of novels by Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) as well as George Sand (1804-76) and other French authors considered too risqué for respectable English women to read. M. Reynolds notes that in 1844, G. H. Lewes objected to the incorrectness of Balzac’s “neologisms,” whereas EBB, in contrast, admired the “new metals” of Balzac’s language (cited AL Ohio, p. 593).
Oviedo: Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes (1478-1557), a Spanish historian who wrote a minutely detailed account of the principal persons of Spain, not published until 1880, but described in an 1838 publication as “a mass of gossip … of very little value” (see AL Ohio, p. 593).
the internal laws / Of the Burmese Empire English interest in Burma was aroused by the Anglo-Burmese wars of 1824-26 and 1852.
Mount Chimborazo outsoars Teneriffe Mount Chimborazo in the Andes of Ecuador is 20,565 feet; Mount Teide in Tenerife, Canary Islands, is 12,198 feet.
Lara: unidentified and possibly fictitious.
Klagenfurt: a town in southern Austria, named in historic records for the first time in the twelfth century.
music ... quite impossible in Johnson’s day the famous author and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709-84) was reported to have commented after hearing a celebrated performer go through a very difficult composition, “I would it had been impossible” (cited AL Norton, p. 18).
noisy Tophet an area associated with human sacrifice and Moloch worship mentioned in the Old Testament (see II Kings 23:10, Isaiah 30:33 and Jeremiah 7:31-2); in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1:404) it is described as symbolical of Hell.
I danced the polka and Cellarius dances that were highly popular in the 1840s, the former introduced to England by the French dancing-master Henri Cellarius, the latter a waltz-mazurka named after him. RB wrote to EBB on 15 April 1845, “I heard of you [...] between a Polka and a Cellarius the other evening” (BC 10:165).
I read a score of books on womanhood among the many conduct books for women published in the 1830s and 1840s, EBB probably had most in mind works by Sarah Stickney Ellis such as The Women of England, their Social Duties and Domestic Habits (1839); The Daughters of England, their Position in Society, Character and Responsibilities (1842); The Wives of England, their Relative Duties, Domestic Influence, and Social Obligations (1843); and The Mothers of England, their Influence and Responsibility (1843). EBB observed that “the race of Mrs. Ellis’s disciples run the risk of being model-women of the most abominable virtue” (cited AL Norton, p. 18).
the tortoise-shell / Which slew the tragic poet the fifth-century BC dramatic poet Æschylus, reported to have died when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald head, mistaking it for a stone, fulfilling a prophecy that his death would come from a falling house or blow from heaven. EBB’s manuscript poem “[Aeschylus’ Monodrama]” (c. 1845), for decades misattributed to her husband RB on the basis of a fair copy in his hand and described as one of the best dramatic monologues he left unpublished, portrays the aged tragic poet’s meditating just before his death sitting in exile on the plains of Sicily, seeking to avert the prophecy. See EBB Broadview, pp. 179-86, and WEBB, vol. 5, pp. ***. EBB regarded Aeschylus (c.525-456 BC) as the “sublimest of the sublime Greeks;” she also defended him as “the obscurest poet in the world, .. with the exception of ... we will say .. Mr Browning!” (BC 6:148). She published two different translations of his Prometheus Bound, in her 1833 and 1850 collections (see WEBB, vol. 1, pp. 119-71 and vol. 4, pp. 189-220).
if Brinvilliers suffered more / In the water-torture if Brinvilliers suffered more / In the water-torture Marie Marguerite d’Aubray, marquise de Brinvilliers (1630-76), accused of poisoning several family members, underwent simulated drowning, a form of torture akin to waterboarding, prior to her beheading. It was described in Mme de Sévigné’s Letters (1726), which EBB read in 1818, and became the subject of a play “The Marchioness of Brinvilliers” written for performance at the Victoria Theatre on 2 February 1846 as well as The Marchioness of Brinvilliers, the Poisoner of the Seventeeth Century, A Romance of Old Paris (1846) by Albert Smith (see AL Ohio, p. 595, WEBB, vol. 3, p. ***, and BC 1:66, 12:128).
The goats .../ Against God’s separative judgment-hoursee Matthew 25:32-3.
The outdoor world with all its greenerythese and the preceding lines evoke the lush landscape surrounding the Barrett family home at Hope End Estate near Ledbury in Herefordshire, where EBB’s family lived from c. November 1809, when she was 3, until 1832, in a mansion built by her father in a fashionable Turkish design with minarets; although the house is now gone, some of the minarets survive [link to image—permission from Mike Lewis obtained]
golden sky / (Alas, my Giotto’s background!) Giotto di Bondone, Italian painter and architect of the early Renaissance (1276-1336), alluding to the gold backgrounds in Italian paintings of the period; EBB’s earlier allusions to Giotto and other Italian painters in Casa Guidi Windows (1851) reflect her reading of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550/1568) by Giorgio Vasari (1511-74), the work that inspired dramatic monologues by RB in Men and Women (1855), such as “Old Pictures in Florence,” “Fra Lippo Lippi” and “Andrea del Sarto.”
small as mice / That run along a witch’s scarlet thread Reynolds cites German folklore in which “witches are said to make mice by taking a piece of cloth, shaping it into the form of a mouse, and saying, ‘Run along and come back’;” she also notes a possible allusion, through the scarlet thread, to the story of the harlot Rahab of Jericho in Joshua 2 who protects the men who spy for Joshua; see Joshua 2:18, 21 and Aurora Leigh Ohio, p. 596.
Chesnut-woods / Of Vallombrosa: chesnut an alternative spelling of chestnut; the Brownings travelled to a Benedictine monastery at Vallombrosa in July 1847, a site evocatively described by John Milton in Paradise Lost, 1:200-4. EBB and her maid, as women, were not allowed to enter its precincts: a point that she indignantly described in her letters to her sister Arabella (see LTA 1:110-16).
Influent exercising celestial or astral influence, a term used metaphorically here that is associated with an archaic astrological sense of the noun influence to signify the flowing or streaming from the stars or heavens of an etherial fluid acting upon the character and destiny of humanity and affecting sublunary things generally. See the OED, definition 2, under influence, and definition 2 of influent, which cites this usage of the word in Aurora Leigh.
the letter, --ere the fall / How Adam lived allusions to 2 Corinthians 3:6 (“The letter killeth”) and Genesis, ch. 2.
holpen helped.
froward disposed to go counter to what is demanded or what is reasonable, the opposite of toward (OED, definition 1).
Apocalyptic alluding to the Apocalypse described in the Book of Revelation, also called “the Apocalypse of John the Divine,” a biblical book that figures prominently in the conclusion to Aurora Leigh in Book IX.
Theophrast the Greek philosopher Theophrastus of Eresus (c.371- 287 BC); EBB alludes to his Ethical Characters in her 1831-2 Diary.
Ælian Claudius Ælianus (c. AD 175-c. 235), Roman rhetorician and author of On the Characteristics of Animals and Varia Historia (Various History), collections of anecdotes and stories.
The trick of Greek / And Latin knowledge not usually taught to girls in this period; EBB herself initially learned Greek and Latin from the tutor hired for her brother Edward. On EBB’s classical scholarship and the education of women in the classical tradition in the nineteenth century, see the headnotes to her 1850 translation of Prometheus Bound and to “Wine of Cyprus,” both in WEBB, vol. 1, and studies by A. Falk, Y. Prins, J. Wallace, C. Drummond, and I. Hurst in the Selected Bibliography [link].
the game of fives a game resembling handball.
as did the women formerly / By young Achilles, when they pinned a veil/ Across the boy’s audacious front in an unsuccessful effort to avert the prophesied death of her son Achilles at Troy, by preventing his recruitment into the war, Thetis disguised him as a girl and hid him among the women in King Lycomedes’ court in Scyros.
babe i’ the wood ... with leaves the story of two children who, becoming lost in the woods, died there and were covered by robins with leaves appears in Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), the collection that contributed to the Romantic ballad revival and influenced popular ballads by EBB such as “The Romaunt of the Page” (pub. 1838, dated 1839) and “Rhyme of the Duchess May” (1844). See the headnotes to these poems in WEBB [url], vol. 3.
puissant powerful, now an archaic or literary usage.
Saint Michael the greatest of God’s archangels in Judeo-Christian theology, Michael, the protector of Israel (Daniel 10:13), leads the angels in the war against Satan in heaven (see Revelation 12:7).
many a crown / Covers bald foreheads alluding to the report that Julia Caesar wore a laurel wreath to hide his baldness (see Aurora Leigh Norton, p. 27). The passage echoes the republican views EBB earlier expresses in a footnote in “To Flush My Dog” (1844): “The Flushes have their laurels as well as the Cæsars,—the chief difference (at least the very head and front of it) consisting, perhaps, in the bald head of the latter under the crown.” For EBB’s sketch of her spaniel Flush, see [link to image reprod in BC 5:238].
who distinguishes /‘Twixt Saul and Nahash justly, at first sight / And leaves king Saul precisely at the sin, / To serve king David asked by the people of Jabesh-gilead to appoint a king, Samuel reluctantly appointed Saul, but the people offered to serve Nahash the Ammonite who besieged their city (see 1 Samuel, chs. 11, 12) :11-15 and 12:12-20. Saul was subsequently rejected by the Lord after disobeying the commandment to slay Agag, the king of the Amalekites (see 1 Samuel, ch. 15); the “the long war between the house of Saul and the house of David” resulted in David being made king (see 2 Samuel, 3:1, 5:5).
Alaric as well as Charlemagne Alaric (c. AD 370-410), king of the Visigoths who led the sack of Rome, representing barbarism, and Charlemagne (747-814), King of the Franks, crowned emperor in 800 and considered the prototype of a Christian king.
“God save me if there’s any God” Aurora’s development here reflects EBB’s own youthful skepticism, which she found reflected in a passage from William King’s Political and Literary Anecdotes of His Own Times (1818) concerning “the prayer of a common soldier just before the battle of Blenheim, ‘O God, if there be a God, save my soul, if I have a soul!’” p. 8 (BC 11:320 and note 8).
the central truth cf. the Pope’s reference to “the central truth” in RB’s The Ring and the Book (1868-9), Book X, l. 1634.
sin I’ the blood alluding to the concept of original sin, inherited from the fall of humanity, a subject which EBB treats with particular attention to Eve’s experience in “A Drama of Exile” (1844). See WEBB, vol. 1. pp. 3-73.
A palimpsest, a prophet’s holograph / Defiled, erased and covered by a monk’s palimpsest: a manuscript, parchment or other writing surface on which the original text has been effaced or partially erased, and then overwritten by another, a common practice in the Middle Ages and earlier; holograph: a letter or document in the author’s own handwriting.
The apocalypse, by a Longus! for the Apocalypse, see note to “apocalyptic,” line 674, above; Longus, a Greek writer of romances (c. 300 or 400), is noted for his erotic pastoral Daphnis and Chloe.
alpha and omega the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet signify the beginning and the end; the phrase “Alpha and Omega” recurs in the Book of Revelation (see 1:8 and 11, 21:6, 22:13).
Books, books, books! … in my father’s name cf. the parallel discovery by the protagonist in Chapter [?] of David Copperfield (1849-50), which the Brownings regarded as Dickens’ “masterpiece” up to that point in his career (BC 16:238).
The only teachers who instruct mankind ... the measure of a man, / And that’s the measure of an angel, says / The apostle see Revelation 21:17, “And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel.” A friend of the Brownings in Rome, American artist William Page, derived his theory of the proportions of the human body from this passage and RB commented that he “put” the idea in “Cleon” (1855) and EBB put it in Aurora Leigh; see the note to this line in WEBB, vol. 3, Aurora Leigh Norton and Aurora Leigh Ohio.
Lay telegraphs altered from “Build pyramids” by EBB, an instance of her emphasizing the poem’s allusions to contemporary events and settings in her revisions to the text. Her earlier highly popular ballad “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” (1844), subtitled “A Romance of the Age” and identified by the poet as the work which first led her to conceive of writing a work such as Aurora Leigh, includes one of the first references to telegraphs in English poetry. For a complete list of textual variants in Aurora Leigh see WEBB [url]. For “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” see EBB Broadview [url], pp. 118-37, esp. l. 11.
The poet … With his voice like a thunder ] an attribute EBB associated especially with her favorite Greek poet Aeschylus (see the note to l. 455 above), whom she described with the “thundering” voice of the “gods” (BC 8:259); see also Revelation 4:5, 6:1, 10:4 for examples of the association of thunder with prophetic revelation.
your holy hill Mount Parnassus, home of the Muses and sacred to the god of poetry, Apollo.
My eagle ... who hast ravished me … for a cup-bearer Aurora compares herself to the shepherd-boy Ganymede, whom Zeus in the form of an eagle seized and carried up to Olympus (see Virgil’s Aeneid, 5:254-7).
everlasting laughters an attribute Homer accords to the Olympian gods; see Iliad, 1:599, and Odyssey, 8:326.
Heré wife of Zeus and queen of the gods (the Roman Juno).
Impostumes abscesses or swellings; used figuratively to refer to moral corruption.
ape a Bourbon in a crown of straws the senior line of the Bourbon kings in France ended in the July Revolution of 1830 with the overthrow of Charles X (1757-1836); Henri Charles Ferdinand (1820-83), comte de Chambord, continued to claim the Bourbon throne in exile.
sit down under their own vine Micah 4:4; see also 1 Kings 4:25.
93 .
the god Term the Roman god of boundaries whose image, often a bust, was used to mark property lines. Cf. the parallel reference to the “god Terminus” in EBB’s unpublished “[Aeschylus’ Soliloquy],” l. 10 (see the note to l. 455 above).
“Touch not, do not taste, / Nor handle” Colossians 2:21. Cf. EBB’s declaration in a letter to her friend, H. S. Boyd in 1845, “To the ‘Touch not, taste not, handle not’ of the strict religionists, I feel inclined to cry ‘Touch, taste handle – ALL THINGS ARE PURE”’ (BC 10:105).
phorminx an ancient Greek stringed musical instrument resembling the lyre and the cithara.
purple-braided head] an epithet used by the Greek poet Pindar; see “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” number 19, “As purply black, as erst to Pindar’s eyes, / The dim purpureal tresses gloomed athwart / The nine white Muse-brows” (ll. 5-7).
wire-drawn drawn out to a great length or with subtle ingenuity; elaborately subtle, ingenious or refined (OED) .
bucolics poems dealing with rustic or pastoral life.
Spare the old bottles!–spill not the new wine see Matthew 9:17 and Luke 5:37-8.
By Keats’s soul ... twenty perfect years cf. EBB’s similar comment in an 1844 letter regarding “that wonderful genius KEATS, who rising as a grand exception from among the vulgar herd of juvenile versifiers, was an individual man from the beginning, and spoke with his own voice” (BC 9:81). She corresponded with the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786-1846) concerning Keats and pays tribute to him in “A Vision of Poets” (1844), among other works (see WEBB, Vol. 1, p. 197, ll. 407-11).
Pope was a sexagenary at sixteen alluding to the Pastorals of Alexander Pope (1688-1744), composed, according to the poet’s Letters (1735), when he was sixteen, though not published until 1709 (in Poetical Miscellanies. The Sixth Part). As a girl, EBB thought very highly of Pope, especially his translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, which she first read at age seven (see BC 1:348, 350). These inspired her love of Homer, reflected in the Homeric epic The Battle of Marathon, written between 1817 and 1819, and privately printed at her father’s expense in 1820, shortly before her 14th birthday. See WEBB, vol. 4, pp. 7-67.
And beardless Byron academical Byron described his elegy “On the Death of a Young Lady, Cousin to the Author, and Very Dear to Him,” composed when he was fourteen and privately printed in 1806, as “a very dull one,” (cited Aurora Leigh Norton, p. 34). EBB’s passion for Byron in her youth is reflected in works such as The Battle of Marathon (see the note to l. 1013, above), “Stanzas on the Death of Lord Byron” (1824), and “An Essay on Mind” (1826). See WEBB, Vol. 4, pp. 138-40 and 85, l. 36.
For me, I wrote / False poems, like the rest, and thought them true Aurora’s views reflect EBB’s views of own her earlier poetry, which includes one of the largest bodies of juvenilia produced by any English writer, much of it published for the first time in 2010 in WEBB, vol. 5. She regarded her philosophical poem “An Essay on Mind” (1826) as her first work to show “traces of an individual thinking and feeling—the bird pecks through the shell in it” (BC 7:354).
My soul was singing... In vortices of glory and blue air cf. Wordsworth’s “To a Skylark” (1827), admired by EBB (see BC 6:75), as well as Percy Shelley’s ode “To a Sky-Lark” (1820).
The inner life informed the outer life] a philosophy central to Aurora Leigh, as a March 1855 letter makes clear: she described the work as “opposing the practical and the ideal lifes, [sic] and showing how the practical and real (so called) is but the external evolution of the ideal and spiritual—that it is from inner to outer, . . whether in life, morals, or art–“ (see “Critical Introduction, WEBB, vol. 3, p. xiv).
as a hunted stag cf. Wordsworth’s “like a roe / I bounded o’er the mountains,” ll. 68-9 in “Tintern Abbey" (1798).
dimplement: dimpling (the only 2 uses of this word cited by the OED are by EBB).
orchises orchids.
Because he holds that, paint a body well, / You paint a soul by implication cf. RB’s dramatic monologue, “Fra Lippo Lippi” (1855), lines 205, 208 and 212-14.
the grand first Master] God; cf. EBB’s description of God as “the chief Poet” in l. 895 of “A Vision of Poets” (1844) and “the best Poet” in line 248 of “The Dead Pan” (1844), as well as RB’s Paracelsus (1835), Part 2, l. 648: “God is the perfect poet, / Who in his person acts his own creations.”
In the beginning ... Even then was evil near us, it is writ Genesis 1:31 and 2:17.
Deliver us from evil Matthew 6:13.

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Date: 2015-10-15. This page is copyrighted by the EBB Archive