Aurora Leigh, Book Two

Table of contents

1. Second Book

(1) TIMES followed one another. Came a morn
(2) I stood upon the brink of twenty years,
(3) And looked before and after,1 as I stood
(4) Woman and artist,—either incomplete,
(5) Both credulous of completion. There I held
(6) The whole creation in my little cup,
(7) And smiled with thirsty lips before I drank
(8) “Good health to you and me, sweet neighbour mine,
(9) And all these peoples.”
(9) I was glad, that day;
(10) The June was in me, with its multitudes
(11) Of nightingales all singing in the dark,
(12) And rosebuds reddening where the calyx split.
(13) I felt so young, so strong, so sure of God!
(14) So glad, I could not choose be very wise!
(15) And, old at twenty, was inclined to pull
(16) My childhood backward in a childish jest
(17) To see the face of ’t once more, and farewell!
(18) In which fantastic mood I bounded forth
(19) At early morning,—would not wait so long
(20) As even to snatch my bonnet by the strings,
(21) But, brushing a green trail across the lawn
(22) With my gown in the dew, took will and way
(23) Among the acacias of the shrubberies,
(24) To fly my fancies in the open air
(25) And keep my birthday, till my aunt awoke
(26) To stop good dreams. Meanwhile I murmured on
(27) As honeyed bees keep humming to themselves,2
(28) “The worthiest poets have remained uncrowned
(29) Till death has bleached their foreheads to the bone;
(30) And so with me it must be unless I prove
(31) Unworthy of the grand adversity,
(32) And certainly I would not fail so much.
(33) What, therefore, if I crown myself to-day
(34) In sport, not pride, to learn the feel of it,
(35) Before my brows be numb as Dante’s own
(36) To all the tender pricking of such leaves?
(37) Such leaves! what leaves?”
(37) I pulled the branches down
(38) To choose from.
(38) “Not the bay! I choose no bay,
(39) (The fates deny us if we are overbold)
(40) Nor myrtle—which means chiefly love; and love
(41) Is something awful which one dares not touch
(42) So early o’ mornings. This verbena strains
(43) The point of passionate fragrance; and hard by,
(44) This guelder-rose,3 at far too slight a beck
(45) Of the wind, will toss about her flower-apples.
(46) Ah—there’s my choice,—that ivy on the wall,
(47) That headlong ivy! not a leaf will grow
(48) But thinking of a wreath. Large leaves, smooth leaves,
(49) Serrated like my vines, and half as green.
(50) I like such ivy, bold to leap a height
(51) ’Twas strong to climb; as good to grow on graves
(52) As twist about a thyrsus;4 pretty too,
(53) (And that’s not ill) when twisted round a comb.”
(54) Thus speaking to myself, half singing it,
(55) Because some thoughts are fashioned like a bell
(56) To ring with once being touched, I drew a wreath
(57) Drenched, blinding me with dew, across my brow,
(58) And fastening it behind so, turning faced
(59) · · My public!—cousin Romney—with a mouth
(60) Twice graver than his eyes.
(60) I stood there fixed,—
(61) My arms up, like the caryatid,5 sole
(62) Of some abolished temple, helplessly
(63) Persistent in a gesture which derides
(64) A former purpose. Yet my blush was flame,
(65) As if from flax, not stone.
(65) “Aurora Leigh,
(66) The earliest of Auroras!”
(66) Hand stretched out
(67) I clasped, as shipwrecked men will clasp a hand,
(68) Indifferent to the sort of palm. The tide
(69) Had caught me at my pastime, writing down
(70) My foolish name too near upon the sea6
(71) Which drowned me with a blush as foolish. “You,
(72) My cousin!”
(72) The smile died out in his eyes
(73) And dropped upon his lips, a cold dead weight,
(74) For just a moment, “Here’s a book I found!
(75) No name writ on it—poems, by the form;
(76) Some Greek upon the margin,—lady’s Greek
(77) Without the accents.7 Read it? Not a word.
(78) I saw at once the thing had witchcraft in ’t,
(79) Whereof the reading calls up dangerous spirits:
(80) I rather bring it to the witch.”
(80) "My book.
(81) You found it . .”
(81) “In the hollow by the stream
(82) That beech leans down into—of which you said
(83) The Oread in it has a Naiad’s heart
(84) And pines for waters.”
(84) “Thank you.”
(84) “Thanks to you
(85) My cousin! that I have seen you not too much
(86) Witch, scholar, poet, dreamer, and the rest,
(87) To be a woman also.”
(87) With a glance
(88) The smile rose in his eyes again and touched
(89) The ivy on my forehead, light as air.
(90) I answered gravely, “Poets needs must be
(91) Or men or women—more’s the pity.”
(91) “Ah,
(92) But men, and still less women, happily,
(93) Scarce need be poets. Keep to the green wreath,
(94) Since even dreaming of the stone and bronze
(95) Brings headaches, pretty cousin, and defiles
(96) The clean white morning dresses.”
(96) “So you judge!
(97) Because I love the beautiful I must
(98) Love pleasure chiefly, and be overcharged
(99) For ease and whiteness! well, you know the world,
(100) And only miss your cousin, ’tis not much.
(101) But learn this; I would rather take my part
(102) With God’s Dead, who afford to walk in white8
(103) Yet spread His glory, than keep quiet here
(104) And gather up my feet from even a step
(105) For fear to soil my gown in so much dust.
(106) I choose to walk at all risks.—Here, if heads
(107) That hold a rhythmic thought, must ache perforce,
(108) For my part I choose headaches,—and to-day’s
(109) My birthday.”
(109) “Dear Aurora, choose instead
(110) To cure them. You have balsams.”9
(110) “I perceive.
(111) The headache is too noble for my sex.
(112) You think the heartache would sound decenter,
(113) Since that’s the woman’s special, proper ache,
(114) And altogether tolerable, except
(115) To a woman.”
(115) Saying which, I loosed my wreath,
(116) And swinging it beside me as I walked,
(117) Half petulant, half playful, as we walked,
(118) I sent a sidelong look to find his thought,—
(119) As falcon set on falconer’s finger may,
(120) With sidelong head, and startled, braving eye,
(121) Which means, “You’ll see—you’ll see! I’ll soon take flight,
(122) You shall not hinder.” He, as shaking out
(123) His hand and answering “Fly then,” did not speak,
(124) Except by such a gesture. Silently
(125) We paced, until, just coming into sight
(126) Of the house-windows, he abruptly caught
(127) At one end of the swinging wreath, and said
(128) “Aurora!” There I stopped short, breath and all.
(129) “Aurora, let’s be serious, and throw by
(130) This game of head and heart. Life means, be sure,
(131) Both heart and head,—both active, both complete,
(132) And both in earnest. Men and women make
(133) The world, as head and heart make human life.
(134) Work man, work woman, since there’s work to do
(135) In this beleaguered earth, for head and heart,
(136) And thought can never do the work of love:
(137) But work for ends, I mean for uses, not
(138) For such sleek fringes (do you call them ends,
(139) Still less God’s glory?) as we sew ourselves
(140) Upon the velvet of those baldaquins10
(141) Held ’twixt us and the sun. That book of yours,
(142) I have not read a page of; but I toss
(143) A rose up—it falls calyx down, you see!
(144) The chances are that, being a woman, young
(145) And pure, with such a pair of large, calm eyes,
(146) You write as well . . and ill . . upon the whole,
(147) As other women. If as well, what then?
(148) If even a little better, . . still, what then?
(149) We want the Best in art now, or no art.
(150) The time is done for facile settings up
(151) Of minnow gods, nymphs here and tritons there;
(152) The polytheists have gone out in God,
(153) That unity of Bests.11 No best, no God!
(154) And so with art, we say. Give art’s divine,
(155) Direct, indubitable, real as grief,
(156) Or leave us to the grief we grow ourselves
(157) Divine by overcoming with mere hope
(158) And most prosaic patience. You, you are young
(159) As Eve with nature’s daybreak on her face,12
(160) But this same world you are come to, dearest coz,13
(161) Has done with keeping birthdays, saves her wreaths
(162) To hang upon her ruins,—and forgets
(163) To rhyme the cry with which she still beats back
(164) Those savage, hungry dogs that hunt her down
(165) To the empty grave of Christ.14 The world’s hard pressed;
(166) The sweat of labour in the early curse
(167) Has (turning acrid in six thousand years)15
(168) Become the sweat of torture. Who has time,
(169) An hour’s time . . think!—to sit upon a bank
(170) And hear the cymbal tinkle16 in white hands?
(171) When Egypt’s slain, I say, let Miriam sing!—
(172) Before—where’s Moses?”
(172) “Ah, exactly that.
(173) Where’s Moses?—is a Moses to be found?
(174) You’ll seek him vainly in the bulrushes,17
(175) While I in vain touch cymbals. Yet concede,
(176) Such sounding brass has done some actual good
(177) (The application in a woman’s hand,
(178) If that were credible, being scarcely spoilt,)
(179) In colonising beehives.”
(179) “There it is!—
(180) You play beside a death-bed like a child,
(181) Yet measure to yourself a prophet’s place
(182) To teach the living. None of all these things,
(183) Can women understand. You generalise
(184) Oh, nothing,—not even grief! Your quick-breathed hearts,
(185) So sympathetic to the personal pang,
(186) Close on each separate knife-stroke, yielding up
(187) A whole life at each wound, incapable
(188) Of deepening, widening a large lap of life
(189) To hold the world-full woe. The human race
(190) To you means, such a child, or such a man,
(191) You saw one morning waiting in the cold,
(192) Beside that gate, perhaps. You gather up
(193) A few such cases, and when strong sometimes
(194) Will write of factories and of slaves, as if
(195) Your father were a negro, and your son
(196) A spinner in the mills.18 All’s yours and you,
(197) All, coloured with your blood, or otherwise
(198) Just nothing to you. Why, I call you hard
(199) To general suffering. Here’s the world half blind
(200) With intellectual light, half brutalised
(201) With civilisation, having caught the plague
(202) In silks from Tarsus,19 shrieking east and west
(203) Along a thousand railroads, mad with pain
(204) And sin too! . . does one woman of you all
(205) (You who weep easily) grow pale to see
(206) This tiger shake his cage?—does one of you
(207) Stand still from dancing, stop from stringing pearls,
(208) And pine and die because of the great sum
(209) Of universal anguish?—Show me a tear
(210) Wet as Cordelia’s,20 in eyes bright as yours,
(211) Because the world is mad. You cannot count,
(212) That you should weep for this account, not you!
(213) You weep for what you know. A red-haired child
(214) Sick in a fever, if you touch him once,
(215) Though but so little as with a finger-tip,
(216) Will set you weeping; but a million sick . .
(217) You could as soon weep for the rule of three 21
(218) Or compound fractions. Therefore, this same world
(219) Uncomprehended by you, must remain
(220) Uninfluenced by you.—Women as you are,
(221) Mere women, personal and passionate,
(222) You give us doating mothers, and perfect wives,
(223) Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
(224) We get no Christ from you,22 —and verily
(225) We shall not get a poet, in my mind.”
(226) “With which conclusion you conclude” . .
(226) “But this:
(227) That you, Aurora, with the large live brow
(228) And steady eyelids, cannot condescend
(229) To play at art, as children play at swords,
(230) To show a pretty spirit, chiefly admired
(231) Because true action is impossible.
(232) You never can be satisfied with praise
(233) Which men give women when they judge a book
(234) Not as mere work but as mere woman’s work,
(235) Expressing the comparative respect
(236) Which means the absolute scorn.23 ‘Oh, excellent!
(237) ‘What grace, what facile turns, what fluent sweeps,
(238) ‘What delicate discernment . . almost thought!
(239) ‘The book does honour to the sex, we hold.
(240) ‘Among our female authors we make room
(241) ‘For this fair writer, and congratulate
(242) ‘The country that produces in these times
(243) ‘Such women, competent to’ . . spell.”
(243) “Stop there,”
(244) I answered, burning through his thread of talk
(245) With a quick flame of emotion,—“You have read
(246) My soul, if not my book, and argue well
(247) I would not condescend . . we will not say
(248) To such a kind of praise, (a worthless end
(249) Is praise of all kinds) but to such a use
(250) Of holy art and golden life. I am young,
(251) And peradventure weak—you tell me so—
(252) Through being a woman. And, for all the rest,
(253) Take thanks for justice. I would rather dance
(254) At fairs on tight-rope,24 till the babies dropped
(255) Their gingerbread for joy,—than shift the types
(256) For tolerable verse, intolerable
(257) To men who act and suffer. Better far
(258) Pursue a frivolous trade by serious means,
(259) Than a sublime art frivolously.”
(259) “You,
(260) Choose nobler work than either, O moist eyes
(261) And hurrying lips and heaving heart! We are young,
(262) Aurora, you and I. The world,—look round,—
(263) The world, we’re come to late, is swollen hard
(264) With perished generations and their sins:
(265) The civiliser’s spade grinds horribly
(266) On dead men’s bones, and cannot turn up soil
(267) That’s otherwise than fetid. All success
(268) Proves partial failure; all advance implies
(269) What’s left behind; all triumph, something crushed
(270) At the chariot-wheels; all government, some wrong:
(271) And rich men make the poor, who curse the rich,
(272) Who agonise together, rich and poor,
(273) Under and over, in the social spasm
(274) And crisis of the ages. Here’s an age
(275) That makes its own vocation! here we have stepped
(276) Across the bounds of time! here’s nought to see,
(277) But just the rich man and just Lazarus,
(278) And both in torments, with a mediate gulph,
(279) Though not a hint of Abraham’s bosom.25 Who
(280) Being man, Aurora, can stand calmly by
(281) And view these things, and never tease his soul
(282) For some great cure? No physic for this grief,
(283) In all the earth and heavens too?”
(283) “You believe
(284) In God, for your part?—ay? that He who makes,
(285) Can make good things from ill things, best from worst,
(286) As men plant tulips upon dunghills when
(287) They wish them finest?”
(287) “True. A death-heat is
(288) The same as life-heat, to be accurate,
(289) And in all nature is no death at all,
(290) As men account of death, so long as God
(291) Stands witnessing for life perpetually,
(292) By being just God. That’s abstract truth, I know,
(293) Philosophy, or sympathy with God:
(294) But I, I sympathise with man, not God,
(295) (I think I was a man for chiefly this)
(296) And when I stand beside a dying bed,
(297) ’T is death to me. Observe,—it had not much
(298) Consoled the race of mastodons to know,
(299) Before they went to fossil,26 that anon
(300) Their place would quicken with the elephant:
(301) They were not elephants but mastodons;
(302) And I, a man, as men are now and not
(303) As men may be hereafter, feel with men
(304) In the agonising present.”
(304) “Is it so,”
(305) I said, “my cousin? is the world so bad,
(306) While I hear nothing of it through the trees?
(307) The world was always evil,—but so bad?”
(308) “So bad, Aurora. Dear, my soul is gray
(309) With poring over the long sum of ill;
(310) So much for vice, so much for discontent,
(311) So much for the necessities of power,
(312) So much for the connivances of fear,
(313) Coherent in statistical despairs
(314) With such a total of distracted life, . .
(315) To see it down in figures on a page,
(316) Plain, silent, clear, as God sees through the earth
(317) The sense of all the graves,—that’s terrible
(318) For one who is not God, and cannot right
(319) The wrong he looks on. May I choose indeed
(320) But vow away my years, my means, my aims,
(321) Among the helpers, if there’s any help
(322) In such a social strait? The common blood
(323) That swings along my veins, is strong enough
(324) To draw me to this duty.”
(324) Then I spoke.
(325) “I have not stood long on the strand of life,
(326) And these salt waters have had scarcely time
(327) To creep so high up as to wet my feet:
(328) I cannot judge these tides—I shall, perhaps.
(329) A woman’s always younger than a man
(330) At equal years, because she is disallowed
(331) Maturing by the outdoor sun and air,
(332) And kept in long-clothes27 past the age to walk.
(333) Ah well, I know you men judge otherwise!
(334) You think a woman ripens as a peach,
(335) In the cheeks, chiefly. Pass it to me now;
(336) I’m young in age, and younger still, I think,
(337) As a woman. But a child may say amen
(338) To a bishop’s prayer and feel the way it goes,
(339) And I, incapable to loose the knot
(340) Of social questions, can approve, applaud
(341) August compassion, christian thoughts that shoot
(342) Beyond the vulgar white of personal aims.28
(343) Accept my reverence.”
(343) There he glowed29 on me
(344) With all his face and eyes. “No other help?”
(345) Said he—“no more than so?”
(345) “What help?” I asked.
(346) “You’d scorn my help,—as Nature’s self, you say,
(347) Has scorned to put her music in my mouth
(348) Because a woman’s. Do you now turn round
(349) And ask for what a woman cannot give?”
(350) “For what she only can, I turn and ask,”
(351) He answered, catching up my hands in his,
(352) And dropping on me from his high-eaved brow
(353) The full weight of his soul,—“I ask for love,
(354) And that, she can; for life in fellowship
(355) Through bitter duties—that, I know she can;
(356) For wifehood—will she?”
(356) “Now,” I said, “may God
(357) Be witness ’twixt us two!” and with the word,
(358) Meseemed I floated into a sudden light
(359) Above his stature,—“am I proved too weak
(360) To stand alone, yet strong enough to bear
(361) Such leaners on my shoulder? poor to think,
(362) Yet rich enough to sympathise with thought?
(363) Incompetent to sing, as blackbirds can,
(364) Yet competent to love, like HIM?”30
(364) I paused;
(365) Perhaps I darkened, as the light-house will
(366) That turns upon the sea. “It’s always so.
(367) Anything does for a wife.”
(367) “Aurora, dear,
(368) And dearly honoured,”—he pressed in at once
(369) With eager utterance,—“you translate me ill.
(370) I do not contradict my thought of you
(371) Which is most reverent, with another thought
(372) Found less so. If your sex is weak for art,
(373) (And I who said so, did but honour you
(374) By using truth in courtship) it is strong
(375) For life and duty. Place your fecund heart
(376) In mine, and let us blossom for the world
(377) That wants love’s colour in the gray of time.
(378) My talk, meanwhile, is arid to you, ay,
(379) Since all my talk can only set you where
(380) You look down coldly on the arena-heaps
(381) Of headless bodies, shapeless, indistinct!
(382) The Judgment-Angel31 scarce would find his way
(383) Through such a heap of generalised distress
(384) To the individual man with lips and eyes,
(385) Much less Aurora. Ah my sweet, come down,
(386) And hand in hand we’ll go where yours shall touch
(387) These victims, one by one! till, one by one,
(388) The formless, nameless trunk of every man
(389) Shall seem to wear a head with hair you know,
(390) And every woman catch your mother’s face
(391) To melt you into passion.”
(391) “I am a girl,”
(392) I answered slowly; “you do well to name
(393) My mother’s face. Though far too early, alas,
(394) God’s hand did interpose ’twixt it and me,
(395) I know so much of love as used to shine
(396) In that face and another. Just so much;
(397) No more indeed at all. I have not seen
(398) So much love since, I pray you pardon me,
(399) As answers even to make a marriage with
(400) In this cold land of England. What you love,
(401) Is not a woman, Romney, but a cause:
(402) You want a helpmate, not a mistress, sir,
(403) A wife to help your ends,—in her no end!
(404) Your cause is noble, your ends excellent,
(405) But I, being most unworthy of these and that,
(406) Do otherwise conceive of love. Farewell.”
(407) “Farewell, Aurora? you reject me thus?”
(408) He said.
(408) “Sir, you were married long ago.
(409) You have a wife already whom you love,
(410) Your social theory. Bless you both, I say.
(411) For my part, I am scarcely meek enough
(412) To be the handmaid of a lawful spouse.
(413) Do I look a Hagar,32 think you?”
(413) “So you jest.”
(414) “Nay, so I speak in earnest,” I replied.
(415) “You treat of marriage too much like, at least,
(416) A chief apostle33: you would bear with you
(417) A wife . . a sister . . shall we speak it out?
(418) A sister of charity.”
(418) “Then, must it be
(419) Indeed farewell? And was I so far wrong
(420) In hope and in illusion, when I took
(421) The woman to be nobler than the man,
(422) Yourself the noblest woman, in the use
(423) And comprehension of what love is,—love,
(424) That generates the likeness of itself
(425) Through all heroic duties? so far wrong,
(426) In saying bluntly, venturing truth on love,
(427) ‘Come, human creature, love and work with me,’—
(428) Instead of, ‘Lady, thou art wondrous fair,
(429) ‘And, where the Graces walk before, the Muse
(430) ‘Will follow at the lighting of their eyes,
(431) ‘And where the Muse walks, lovers need to creep:
(432) ‘Turn round and love me, or I die of love.’”34
(433) With quiet indignation I broke in.
(434) “You misconceive the question like a man,
(435) Who sees a woman as the complement
(436) Of his sex merely.35 You forget too much
(437) That every creature, female as the male,
(438) Stands single in responsible act and thought
(439) As also in birth and death. Whoever says
(440) To a loyal woman, ‘Love and work with me,’
(441) Will get fair answers if the work and love,
(442) Being good themselves, are good for her—the best
(443) She was born for. Women of a softer mood,
(444) Surprised by men when scarcely awake to life,
(445) Will sometimes only hear the first word, love,
(446) And catch up with it any kind of work,
(447) Indifferent, so that dear love go with it.
(448) I do not blame such women, though, for love,
(449) They pick much oakum; 36 earth’s fanatics make
(450) Too frequently heaven’s saints. But me your work
(451) Is not the best for,—nor your love the best,
(452) Nor able to commend the kind of work
(453) For love’s sake merely. Ah, you force me, sir,
(454) To be over-bold in speaking of myself:
(455) I too have my vocation,—work to do,
(456) The heavens and earth have set me since I changed
(457) My father’s face for theirs, and, though your world
(458) Were twice as wretched as you represent,
(459) Most serious work, most necessary work
(460) As any of the economists’. Reform,
(461) Make trade a Christian possibility,
(462) And individual right no general wrong;
(463) Wipe out earth’s furrows of the Thine and Mine,
(464) And leave one green for men to play at bowls,37
(465) With innings for them all! . . what then, indeed,
(466) If mortals are not greater by the head
(467) Than any of their prosperities? what then,
(468) Unless the artist keep up open roads
(469) Betwixt the seen and unseen,—bursting through
(470) The best of your conventions with his best,
(471) The speakable, imaginable best
(472) God bids him speak, to prove what lies beyond
(473) Both speech and imagination? A starved man
(474) Exceeds a fat beast: we’ll not barter, sir,
(475) The beautiful for barley.—And, even so,
(476) I hold you will not compass your poor ends
(477) Of barley-feeding and material ease,
(478) Without a poet’s individualism
(479) To work your universal. It takes a soul,
(480) To move a body: it takes a high-souled man,
(481) To move the masses,38 even to a cleaner stye:
(482) It takes the ideal, to blow a hair’s-breadth off
(483) The dust of the actual.—Ah, your Fouriers failed,39
(484) Because not poets enough to understand
(485) That life develops from within.—For me,
(486) Perhaps I am not worthy, as you say,
(487) Of work like this: perhaps a woman’s soul
(488) Aspires, and not creates: yet we aspire,
(489) And yet I’ll try out your perhapses, sir,
(490) And if I fail . . why, burn me up my straw
(491) Like other false works—I’ll not ask for grace;
(492) Your scorn is better, cousin Romney. I
(493) Who love my art, would never wish it lower
(494) To suit my stature.40 I may love my art.
(495) You’ll grant that even a woman may love art,
(496) Seeing that to waste true love on anything
(497) Is womanly, past question.”
(497) I retain
(498) The very last word which I said that day,
(499) As you the creaking of the door, years past,
(500) Which let upon you such disabling news
(501) You ever after have been graver. He,
(502) His eyes, the motions in his silent mouth,
(503) Were fiery points on which my words were caught,
(504) Transfixed for ever in my memory
(505) For his sake, not their own. And yet I know
(506) I did not love him . . nor he me . . that’s sure . .
(507) And what I said, is unrepented of,
(508) As truth is always. Yet . . a princely man!—
(509) If hard to me, heroic for himself!
(510) He bears down on me through the slanting years,
(511) The stronger for the distance. If he had loved,
(512) Ay, loved me, with that retributive face, . .
(513) I might have been a common woman now
(514) And happier, less known and less left alone,
(515) Perhaps a better woman after all,
(516) With chubby children hanging on my neck
(517) To keep me low and wise. Ah me, the vines
(518) That bear such fruit, are proud to stoop with it.
(519) The palm stands upright in a realm of sand.
(520) And I, who spoke the truth then, stand upright,
(521) Still worthy of having spoken out the truth,
(522) By being content I spoke it though it set
(523) Him there, me here.—O woman’s vile remorse,
(524) To hanker after a mere name, a show,
(525) A supposition, a potential love!
(526) Does every man who names love in our lives,
(527) Become a power for that? is love’s true thing
(528) So much best to us, that what personates love
(529) Is next best? A potential love, forsooth!
(530) I’m not so vile. No, no—he cleaves, I think,
(531) This man, this image,—chiefly for the wrong
(532) And shock he gave my life, in finding me
(533) Precisely where the devil of my youth
(534) Had set me, on those mountain-peaks of hope
(535) All glittering with the dawn-dew,41 all erect
(536) And famished for the noon,—exclaiming, while
(537) I looked for empire and much tribute, “Come,
(538) I have some worthy work for thee below.
(539) Come, sweep my barns and keep my hospitals,
(540) And I will pay thee with a current coin
(541) Which men give women.”
(541) As we spoke, the grass
(542) Was trod in haste beside us, and my aunt,
(543) With smile distorted by the sun,—face, voice
(544) As much at issue with the summer-day
(545) As if you brought a candle out of doors,
(546) Broke in with, “Romney, here!—My child, entreat
(547) Your cousin to the house, and have your talk,
(548) If girls must talk upon their birthdays. Come.”
(549) He answered for me calmly, with pale lips
(550) That seemed to motion for a smile in vain.
(551) “The talk is ended, madam, where we stand.
(552) Your brother’s daughter has dismissed me here;
(553) And all my answer can be better said
(554) Beneath the trees, than wrong by such a word
(555) Your house’s hospitalities. Farewell.”
(556) With that he vanished. I could hear his heel
(557) Ring bluntly in the lane, as down he leapt
(558) The short way from us.—Then a measured speech
(559) Withdrew me. “What means this, Aurora Leigh?
(560) My brother’s daughter has dismissed my guests?”
(561) The lion in me felt the keeper’s voice
(562) Through all its quivering dewlaps; I was quelled
(563) Before her,—meekened 42 to the child she knew:
(564) I prayed her pardon, said, “I had little thought
(565) To give dismissal to a guest of hers,
(566) In letting go a friend of mine who came
(567) To take me into service as a wife,—
(568) No more than that, indeed.”
(568) “No more, no more?
(569) Pray Heaven,” she answered, “that I was not mad.
(570) I could not mean to tell her to her face
(571) That Romney Leigh had asked me for a wife,
(572) And I refused him?”
(572) “Did he ask?” I said;
(573) “I think he rather stooped to take me up
(574) For certain uses which he found to do
(575) For something called a wife. He never asked.”
(576) “What stuff!” she answered; “are they queens, these girls?
(577) They must have mantles, stitched with twenty silks,
(578) Spread out upon the ground, before they’ll step
(579) One footstep for the noblest lover born.”
(580) “But I am born,” I said with firmness, “I,
(581) To walk another way than his, dear aunt.”
(582) “You walk, you walk! A babe at thirteen months
(583) Will walk as well as you,” she cried in haste,
(584) “Without a steadying finger. Why, you child,
(585) God help you, you are groping in the dark,
(586) For all this sunlight. You suppose, perhaps,
(587) That you, sole offspring of an opulent man,
(588) Are rich and free to choose a way to walk?
(589) You think, and it’s a reasonable thought,
(590) That I, beside, being well to do in life,
(591) Will leave my handful in my niece’s hand
(592) When death shall paralyse these fingers? Pray,
(593) Pray, child, albeit I know you love me not,
(594) As if you loved me, that I may not die!
(595) For when I die and leave you, out you go,
(596) (Unless I make room for you in my grave)
(597) Unhoused, unfed, my dear poor brother’s lamb,
(598) (Ah heaven,—that pains!)—without a right to crop
(599) A single blade of grass beneath these trees,
(600) Or cast a lamb’s small shadow on the lawn,
(601) Unfed, unfolded! Ah, my brother, here’s
(602) The fruit you planted in your foreign loves!—
(603) Ay, there’s the fruit he planted! never look
(604) Astonished at me with your mother’s eyes,
(605) For it was they who set you where you are,
(606) An undowered orphan. Child, your father’s choice
(607) Of that said mother, disinherited
(608) His daughter, his and hers. Men do not think
(609) Of sons and daughters, when they fall in love,
(610) So much more than of sisters; otherwise
(611) He would have paused to ponder what he did,
(612) And shrunk before that clause in the entail
(613) Excluding offspring by a foreign wife,43
(614) (The clause set up a hundred years ago
(615) By a Leigh who wedded a French dancing-girl
(616) And had his heart danced over in return);
(617) But this man shrank at nothing, never thought
(618) Of you, Aurora, any more than me—
(619) Your mother must have been a pretty thing,
(620) For all the coarse Italian blacks and browns,
(621) To make a good man, which my brother was,
(622) Unchary of the duties to his house;
(623) But so it fell indeed. Our cousin Vane,
(624) Vane Leigh, the father of this Romney, wrote
(625) Directly on your birth, to Italy,
(626) ‘I ask your baby daughter for my son
(627) ‘In whom the entail now merges by the law.
(628) ‘Betroth her to us out of love,44 instead
(629) ‘Of colder reasons, and she shall not lose
(630) ‘By love or law from henceforth’—so he wrote;
(631) A generous cousin, was my cousin Vane.
(632) Remember how he drew you to his knee
(633) The year you came here, just before he died,
(634) And hollowed out his hands to hold your cheeks,
(565) And wished them redder,—you remember Vane?
(636) And now his son who represents our house
(637) And holds the fiefs and manors in his place,
(638) To whom reverts my pittance when I die,
(639) (Except a few books and a pair of shawls)
(640) The boy is generous like him, and prepared
(641) To carry out his kindest word and thought
(642) To you, Aurora. Yes, a fine young man
(643) Is Romney Leigh; although the sun of youth
(644) Has shone too straight upon his brain, I know,
(645) And fevered him with dreams of doing good
(646) To good-for-nothing people. But a wife
(647) Will put all right, and stroke his temples cool
(648) With healthy touches” . .
(648) I broke in at that.
(649) I could not lift my heavy heart to breathe
(650) Till then, but then I raised it, and it fell
(651) In broken words like these—“No need to wait.
(652) The dream of doing good to . . me, at least,
(653) Is ended, without waiting for a wife
(654) To cool the fever for him. We’ve escaped
(655) That danger,—thank Heaven for it.”
(655) “You,” she cried,
(656) “Have got a fever. What, I talk and talk
(657) An hour long to you,—I instruct you how
(658) You cannot eat or drink or stand or sit
(659) Or even die, like any decent wretch
(660) In all this unroofed and unfurnished world,
(661) Without your cousin,—and you, still maintain
(662) There’s room ’twixt him and you, for flirting fans
(663) And running knots in eyebrows? You must have
(664) A pattern lover sighing on his knee?
(665) You do not count enough, a noble heart
(666) (Above book-patterns) which this very morn
(667) Unclosed itself in two dear fathers’ names
(668) To embrace your orphaned life? fie, fie! But stay,
(669) I write a word, and counteract this sin.”
(670) She would have turned to leave me, but I clung.
(671) “O sweet my father’s sister, hear my word
(672) Before you write yours. Cousin Vane did well,
(673) And cousin Romney well,—and I well too,
(674) In casting back with all my strength and will
(675) The good they meant me. O my God, my God!
(676) God meant me good, too, when he hindered me
(677) From saying ‘yes’ this morning. If you write
(678) A word, it shall be ‘no.’ I say no, no!
(679) I tie up ‘no’ upon His altar-horns, 45
(680) Quite out of reach of perjury! At least
(681) My soul is not a pauper; I can live
(682) At least my soul’s life, without alms from men;
(683) And if it must be in heaven instead of earth,
(684) Let heaven look to it,—I am not afraid.”
(685) She seized my hands with both hers, strained them fast,
(686) And drew her probing and unscrupulous eyes
(687) Right through me, body and heart. “Yet, foolish Sweet,
(688) You love this man. I’ve watched you when he came,
(689) And when he went, and when we’ve talked of him:
(690) I am not old for nothing; I can tell
(691) The weather-signs of love: you love this man.”
(692) Girls blush sometimes because they are alive,
(693) Half wishing they were dead to save the shame.
(694) The sudden blush devours them, neck and brow;
(695) They have drawn too near the fire of life, like gnats,
(696) And flare up bodily, wings and all. What then?
(697) Who’s sorry for a gnat . . or girl?
(697) I blushed.
(698) I feel the brand upon my forehead now
(699) Strike hot, sear deep, as guiltless men may feel
(700) The felon’s iron,46 say, and scorn the mark
(701) Of what they are not. Most illogical
(702) Irrational nature of our womanhood,
(703) That blushes one way, feels another way,
(704) And prays, perhaps, another! After all,
(705) We cannot be the equal of the male
(706) Who rules his blood a little.
(706) For although
(707) I blushed indeed, as if I loved the man,
(708) And her incisive smile, accrediting
(709) That treason of false witness in my blush,
(710) Did bow me downward like a swathe of grass
(711) Below its level that struck me,—I attest
(712) The conscious skies and all their daily suns,
(713) I think I loved him not,—nor then, nor since,
(714) Nor ever. Do we love the schoolmaster,
(715) Being busy in the woods? much less, being poor,
(716) The overseer of the parish?47 Do we keep
(717) Our love to pay our debts with?
(717) White and cold
(718) I grew next moment. As my blood recoiled
(719) From that imputed ignominy, I made
(720) My heart great with it. Then, at last, I spoke,
(721) Spoke veritable words but passionate,
(722) Too passionate perhaps . . ground up with sobs
(723) To shapeless endings. She let fall my hands
(724) And took her smile off, in sedate disgust,
(725) As peradventure she had touched a snake,—
(726) A dead snake, mind!—and turning round, replied,
(727) “We’ll leave Italian manners, if you please.
(728) I think you had an English father, child,
(729) And ought to find it possible to speak
(730) A quiet ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ like English girls,
(731) Without convulsions. In another month
(732) We’ll take another answer—no, or yes.”
(733) With that, she left me in the garden-walk.
(734) I had a father! yes, but long ago—
(735) How long it seemed that moment. Oh, how far,
(736) How far and safe, God, dost thou keep thy saints
(737) When once gone from us! We may call against
(738) The lighted windows of thy fair June-heaven
(739) Where all the souls are happy,—and not one,
(740) Not even my father, look from work or play
(741) To ask, “Who is it that cries after us,
(742) Below there, in the dusk?” Yet formerly
(743) He turned his face upon me quick enough,
(4) If I said “father.” Now I might cry loud;
(745) The little lark reached higher with his song
(746) Than I with crying. Oh, alone, alone,—
(747) Not troubling any in heaven, nor any on earth,
(748) I stood there in the garden, and looked up
(749) The deaf blue sky that brings the roses out
(750) On such June mornings.
(750) You who keep account
(751) Of crisis and transition in this life,
(752) Set down the first time Nature says plain “no”
(753) To some “yes” in you, and walks over you
(754) In gorgeous sweeps of scorn. We all begin
(755) By singing with the birds, and running fast
(756) With June-days, hand in hand: but once, for all,
(757) The birds must sing against us, and the sun
(758) Strike down upon us like a friend’s sword caught
(759) By an enemy to slay us, while we read
(760) The dear name on the blade which bites at us!—
(761) That’s bitter and convincing: after that,
(762) We seldom doubt that something in the large
(763) Smooth order of creation, though no more
(764) Than haply a man’s footstep, has gone wrong.
(765) Some tears fell down my cheeks, and then I smiled,
(766) As those smile who have no face in the world
(767) To smile back to them. I had lost a friend
(768) In Romney Leigh; the thing was sure—a friend,
(769) Who had looked at me most gently now and then,
(770) And spoken of my favourite books, “our books,”
(771) With such a voice! Well, voice and look were now
(772) More utterly shut out from me I felt,
(773) Than even my father’s. Romney now was turned
(774) To a benefactor, to a generous man,
(775) Who had tied himself to marry . . me, instead
(776) Of such a woman, with low timorous lids
(777) He lifted with a sudden word one day,
(778) And left, perhaps, for my sake.—Ah, self-tied
(779) By a contract, male Iphigenia bound
(780) At a fatal Aulis for the winds to change,48
(781) (But loose him, they’ll not change), he well might seem
(782) A little cold and dominant in love!
(783) He had a right to be dogmatical,
(784) This poor, good Romney. Love, to him, was made
(785) A simple law-clause. If I married him,
(786) I should not dare to call my soul my own
(787) Which so he had bought and paid for: every thought
(788) And every heart-beat down there in the bill;
(789) Not one found honestly deductible
(790) From any use that pleased him! He might cut
(791) My body into coins to give away
(792) Among his other paupers;49 change my sons,
(793) While I stood dumb as Griseld,50 for black babes
(794) Or piteous foundlings; might unquestioned set
(795) My right hand teaching in the Ragged Schools,51
(796) My left hand washing in the Public Baths,52
(797) What time my angel of the Ideal stretched
(798) Both his to me in vain. I could not claim
(799) The poor right of a mouse in a trap, to squeal,
(800) And take so much as pity from myself.
(801) Farewell, good Romney! if I loved you even,
(802) I could but ill afford to let you be
(803) So generous to me. Farewell, friend, since friend
(804) Betwixt us two, forsooth, must be a word
(805) So heavily overladen. And, since help
(806) Must come to me from those who love me not,
(807) Farewell, all helpers—I must help myself,
(808) And am alone from henceforth.—Then I stooped
(809) And lifted the soiled garland from the earth,
(810) And set it on my head as bitterly
(811) As when the Spanish monarch crowned the bones
(812) Of his dead love.53 So be it. I preserve
(813) That crown still,—in the drawer there!54 ’t was the first.
(814) The rest are like it;—those Olympian crowns,
(815) We run for, till we lose sight of the sun
(816) In the dust of the racing chariots!
(816) After that,
(817) Before the evening fell, I had a note,
(818) Which ran,—“Aurora, sweet Chaldean, you read
(819) My meaning backward like your eastern books,55
(820) While I am from the west, dear. Read me now
(821) A little plainer. Did you hate me quite
(822) But yesterday? I loved you for my part;
(823) I love you. If I spoke untenderly
(824) This morning, my beloved, pardon it;
(825) And comprehend me that I loved you so
(826) I set you on the level of my soul,
(827) And overwashed you with the bitter brine
(828) Of some habitual thoughts. Henceforth, my flower,
(829) Be planted out of reach of any such,
(830) And lean the side you please, with all your leaves!
(831) Write woman’s verses and dream woman’s dreams;
(832) But let me feel your perfume in my home
(833) To make my sabbath after working-days.
(834) Bloom out your youth beside me,—be my wife.”
(835) I wrote in answer—“We Chaldeans discern
(836) Still farther than we read. I know your heart,
(837) And shut it like the holy book it is,
(838) Reserved for mild-eyed saints to pore upon
(839) Betwixt their prayers at vespers. Well, you’re right,
(840) I did not surely hate you yesterday;
(841) And yet I do not love you enough to-day
(842) To wed you, cousin Romney. Take this word,
(843) And let it stop you as a generous man
(844) From speaking farther. You may tease, indeed,
(845) And blow about my feelings, or my leaves,
(846) And here’s my aunt will help you with east winds
(847) And break a stalk, perhaps, tormenting me;
(848) But certain flowers grow near as deep as trees,
(849) And, cousin, you’ll not move my root, not you,
(850) With all your confluent storms. Then let me grow
(851) Within my wayside hedge, and pass your way!
(852) This flower has never as much to say to you
(853) As the antique tomb which said to travellers, ‘Pause,’
(854) ‘Siste, viator.’”56 Ending thus, I signed.
(855) The next week passed in silence, so the next,
(856) And several after: Romney did not come
(857) Nor my aunt chide me. I lived on and on,
(858) As if my heart were kept beneath a glass,
(859) And everybody stood, all eyes and ears,
(860) To see and hear it tick. I could not sit,
(861) Nor walk, nor take a book, nor lay it down,
(862) Nor sew on steadily, nor drop a stitch,
(863) And a sigh with it, but I felt her looks
(864) Still cleaving to me, like the sucking asp
(865) To Cleopatra’s breast,57 persistently
(866) Through the intermittent pantings. Being observed,
(867) When observation is not sympathy,
(868) Is just being tortured. If she said a word,
(869) A “thank you,” or an “if it please you, dear,”
(870) She meant a commination,58 or, at best,
(871) An exorcism against the devildom 59
(872) Which plainly held me. So with all the house.
(873) Susannah could not stand and twist my hair,
(874) Without such glancing at the looking-glass
(875) To see my face there, that she missed the plait.
(876) And John,—I never sent my plate for soup,
(877) Or did not send it, but the foolish John
(878) Resolved the problem, ’twixt his napkined thumbs,
(879) Of what was signified by taking soup
(880) Or choosing mackerel. Neighbours who dropped in
(881) On morning visits, feeling a joint wrong,
(882) Smiled admonition, sate uneasily,
(883) And talked with measured, emphasised reserve,
(884) Of parish news, like doctors to the sick,
(885) When not called in,—as if, with leave to speak,
(886) They might say something. Nay, the very dog
(887) Would watch me from his sun-patch on the floor,
(888) In alternation with the large black fly
(889) Not yet in reach of snapping. So I lived.
(890) A Roman died so; smeared with honey, teased
(891) By insects, stared to torture by the noon:60
(892) And many patient souls ’neath English roofs
(893) Have died like Romans. I, in looking back,
(894) Wish only, now, I had borne the plague of all
(895) With meeker spirits than were rife at Rome.
(896) For, on the sixth week, the dead sea broke up,
(897) Dashed suddenly through beneath the heel of Him
(898) Who stands upon the sea and earth and swears
(899) Time shall be nevermore.61 The clock struck nine
(900) That morning too,—no lark was out of tune,
(901) The hidden farms among the hills breathed straight
(902) Their smoke toward heaven, the lime-tree scarcely stirred
(903) Beneath the blue weight of the cloudless sky,
(904) Though still the July air came floating through
(905) The woodbine at my window, in and out,
(906) With touches of the out-door country-news
(907) For a bending forehead. There I sate, and wished
(908) That morning-truce of God would last till eve,
(909) Or longer. “Sleep,” I thought, “late sleepers,—sleep,
(910) And spare me yet the burden of your eyes.”
(911) Then, suddenly, a single ghastly shriek
(912) Tore upward from the bottom of the house.
(913) Like one who wakens in a grave and shrieks,
(914) The still house seemed to shriek itself alive,
(915) And shudder through its passages and stairs
(916) With slam of doors and clash of bells.—I sprang,
(917) I stood up in the middle of the room,
(918) And there confronted at my chamber-door,
(919) A white face,—shivering, ineffectual lips.
(920) “Come, come,” they tried to utter, and I went:
(921) As if a ghost had drawn me at the point
(922) Of a fiery finger through the uneven dark,
(923) I went with reeling footsteps down the stair,
(924) Nor asked a question.
(923) There she sate, my aunt,—
(925) Bolt upright in the chair beside her bed,
(926) Whose pillow had no dint! she had used no bed
(927) For that night’s sleeping, yet slept well. My God,
(928) The dumb derision of that grey, peaked face
(929) Concluded something grave against the sun,
(930) Which filled the chamber with its July burst
(931) When Susan drew the curtains ignorant
(932) Of who sate open-eyed behind her. There
(933) She sate . . it sate . . we said “she” yesterday . .
(934) And held a letter with unbroken seal
(935) As Susan gave it to her hand last night:
(936) All night she had held it. If its news referred
(937) To duchies or to dunghills, not an inch
(938) She’d budge, ’t was obvious, for such worthless odds:
(939) Nor, though the stars were suns and overburned
(940) Their spheric limitations, swallowing up
(941) Like wax the azure spaces, could they force
(942) Those open eyes to wink once. What last sight
(943) Had left them blank and flat so,—drawing out
(944) The faculty of vision from the roots,
(945) As nothing more, worth seeing, remained behind?
(946) Were those the eyes that watched me, worried me?
(947) That dogged me up and down the hours and days,
(498) A beaten, breathless, miserable soul?
(949) And did I pray, a half-hour back, but so,
(950) To escape the burden of those eyes . . those eyes?
(951) “Sleep late” I said?—
(951) Why now, indeed, they sleep.
(952) God answers sharp and sudden on some prayers,
(953) And thrusts the thing we have prayed for in our face,
(954) A gauntlet with a gift in ’t. Every wish
(955) Is like a prayer, with God.
(955) I had my wish,
(956) To read and meditate the thing I would,
(957) To fashion all my life upon my thought,
(958) And marry or not marry. Henceforth none
(959) Could disapprove me, vex me, hamper me.
(960) Full ground-room, in this desert newly made,
(961) For Babylon or Balbec,62 —when the breath,
(962) Now choked with sand, returns for building towns.
(963) The heir came over on the funeral day,
(964) And we two cousins met before the dead,
(965) With two pale faces. Was it death or life
(966) That moved us? When the will was read and done,
(967) The official guests and witnesses withdrawn,
(968) We rose up in a silence almost hard,
(969) And looked at one another. Then I said,
(970) “Farewell, my cousin.”
(970) But he touched, just touched
(971) My hatstrings tied for going, (at the door
(972) The carriage stood to take me) and said low,
(973) His voice a little unsteady through his smile,
(974) “Siste, viator.”
(974) “Is there time,” I asked,
(975) “In these last days of railroads, to stop short
(976) Like Cæsar’s chariot (weighing half a ton)
(977) On the Appian road for morals?”63
(977) “There is time,”
(978) He answered grave, “for necessary words,
(979) Inclusive, trust me, of no epitaph
(980) On man or act, my cousin. We have read
(981) A will, which gives you all the personal goods
(982) And funded monies64 of your aunt.”
(982) “I thank
(983) Her memory for it. With three hundred pounds
(984) We buy in England even, clear standing-room
(985) To stand and work in. Only two hours since,
(986) I fancied I was poor.”
(986) “And, cousin, still
(987) You’re richer than you fancy. The will says,
(988) Three hundred pounds, and any other sum
(989) Of which the said testatrix dies possessed.
(990) I say she died possessed of other sums.”
(991) “Dear Romney, need we chronicle the pence?
(992) I’m richer than I thought—that’s evident.
(993) Enough so.”
(993) “Listen rather. You’ve to do
(994) With business and a cousin,” he resumed,
(995) “And both, I fear, need patience. Here’s the fact.
(996) The other sum (there is another sum,
(997) Unspecified in any will which dates
(998) After possession, yet bequeathed as much
(999) And clearly as those said three hundred pounds)
(1000) Is thirty thousand. You will have it paid
(1001) When? . . where? My duty troubles you with words.”
(1002) He struck the iron when the bar was hot;
(1003) No wonder if my eyes sent out some sparks.
(1004) “Pause there! I thank you. You are delicate
(1005) In glosing65 gifts;—but I, who share your blood,
(1006) Am rather made for giving, like yourself,
(1007) Than taking, like your pensioners. Farewell.”
(1008) He stopped me with a gesture of calm pride.
(1009) “A Leigh,” he said, “gives largesse and gives love,
(1010) But gloses never: if a Leigh could glose,
(1011) He would not do it, moreover, to a Leigh,
(1012) With blood trained up along nine centuries
(1013) To hound and hate a lie from eyes like yours.
(1014) And now we’ll make the rest as clear; your aunt
(1015) Possessed these monies.”
(1015) “You will make it clear,
(1016) My cousin, as the honour of us both,
(1017) Or one of us speaks vainly! that’s not I.
(1018) My aunt possessed this sum,—inherited
(1019) From whom, and when? bring documents, prove dates.”
(1020) “Why now indeed you throw your bonnet off
(1021) As if you had time left for a logarithm!
(1022) The faith’s the want. Dear cousin, give me faith,
(1023) And you shall walk this road with silken shoes,
(1024) As clean as any lady of our house
(1025) Supposed the proudest. Oh, I comprehend
(1026) The whole position from your point of sight.
(1027) I oust you from your father’s halls and lands
(1028) And make you poor by getting rich—that’s law;
(1029) Considering which, in common circumstance,
(1030) You would not scruple to accept from me
(1031) Some compensation, some sufficiency
(1032) Of income—that were justice; but, alas,
(1033) I love you,—that’s mere nature; you reject
(1034) My love,—that’s nature also; and at once,
(1035) You cannot, from a suitor disallowed,
(1036) A hand thrown back as mine is, into yours
(1037) Receive a doit,66 a farthing,—not for the world!
(1038) That’s woman’s etiquette, and obviously
(1039) Exceeds the claim of nature, law, and right,
(1040) Unanswerable to all. I grant, you see,
(1041) The case as you conceive it,—leave you room
(1042) To sweep your ample skirts of womanhood,
(1043) While, standing humbly squeezed against the wall,
(1044) I own myself excluded from being just,
(1045) Restrained from paying indubitable debts,
(1046) Because denied from giving you my soul.
(1047) That’s my misfortune!—I submit to it
(1048) As if, in some more reasonable age,
(1049) ’T would not be less inevitable. Enough.
(1050) You’ll trust me, cousin, as a gentleman,
(1051) To keep your honour, as you count it, pure,
(1052) Your scruples (just as if I thought them wise)
(1053) Safe and inviolate from gifts of mine.”
(1054) I answered mild but earnest. “I believe
(1055) In no one’s honour which another keeps,
(1056) Nor man’s nor woman’s. As I keep, myself,
(1057) My truth and my religion, I depute
(1058) No father, though I had one this side death,
(1059) Nor brother, though I had twenty, much less you,
(1060) Though twice my cousin, and once Romney Leigh,
(1061) To keep my honour pure. You face, to-day,
(1062) A man who wants instruction, mark me, not
(1063) A woman who wants protection. As to a man,
(1064) Show manhood, speak out plainly, be precise
(1065) With facts and dates. My aunt inherited
(1066) This sum, you say—”
(1066) “I said she died possessed
(1067) Of this, dear cousin.”
(1067) “Not by heritage.
(1068) Thank you: we’re getting to the facts at last.
(1069) Perhaps she played at commerce with a ship
(1070) Which came in heavy with Australian gold?67
(1071) Or touched a lottery with her finger-end,
(1072) Which tumbled on a sudden into her lap
(1073) Some old Rhine tower68 or principality?
(1074) Perhaps she had to do with a marine
(1075) Sub-transatlantic railroad, which pre-pays
(1076) As well as pre-supposes? or perhaps
(1077) Some stale ancestral debt was after-paid
(1078) By a hundred years, and took her by surprise?—
(1079) You shake your head my cousin; I guess ill.”
(1080) “You need not guess, Aurora, nor deride;
(1081) The truth is not afraid of hurting you.
(1082) You’ll find no cause, in all your scruples, why
(1083) Your aunt should cavil at a deed of gift
(1084) ’Twixt her and me.”
(1084) “I thought so—ah! a gift.”
(1085) “You naturally thought so,” he resumed.
(1086) “A very natural gift.”
(1086) “A gift, a gift!
(1087) Her individual life being stranded high
(1088) Above all want, approaching opulence,
(1089) Too haughty was she to accept a gift
(1090) Without some ultimate aim: ah, ah, I see,—
(1091) A gift intended plainly for her heirs,
(1092) And so accepted . . if accepted . . ah,
(1093) Indeed that might be; I am snared perhaps
(1094) Just so. But, cousin, shall I pardon you,
(1095) If thus you have caught me with a cruel springe?”
(1096) He answered gently, “Need you tremble and pant
(1097) Like a netted lioness? is ’t my fault, mine,
(1098) That you’re a grand wild creature of the woods
(1099) And hate the stall built for you? Any way,
(1100) Though triply netted, need you glare at me?
(1101) I do not hold the cords of such a net;
(1102) You’re free from me, Aurora!”
(1102) “Now may God
(1103) Deliver me from this strait! This gift of yours
(1104) Was tendered . . when? accepted . . when?” I asked.
(1105) “A month . . a fortnight since? Six weeks ago
(1106) It was not tendered; by a word she dropped
(1107) I know it was not tendered nor received.
(1108) When was it? bring your dates.”
(1108) “What matters when?
(1109) A half-hour ere she died, or a half-year,
(1110) Secured the gift, maintains the heritage
(1111) Inviolable with law. As easy pluck
(1112) The golden stars from heaven’s embroidered stole
(1113) To pin them on the gray side of this earth,
(1114) As make you poor again, thank God.”
(1114) “Not poor
(1115) Nor clean again from henceforth, you thank God?
(1116) Well, sir—I ask you—I insist at need,—
(1117) Vouchsafe the special date, the special date.”
(1118) “The day before her death-day,” he replied,
(1119) “The gift was in her hands. We’ll find that deed,
(1120) And certify that date to you.”
(1120) As one
(1121) Who has climbed a mountain-height and carried up
(1122) His own heart climbing, panting in his throat
(1123) With the toil of the ascent, takes breath at last,
(1124) Looks back in triumph—so I stood and looked.
(1125) “Dear cousin Romney, we have reached the top
(1126) Of this steep question, and may rest, I think.
(1127) But first,—I pray you pardon, that the shock
(1128) And surge of natural feeling and event
(1129) Had made me oblivious of acquainting you
(1130) That this, this letter, (unread, mark, still sealed)
(1131) Was found enfolded in the poor dead hand:
(1132) That spirit of hers had gone beyond the address,
(1133) Which could not find her though you wrote it clear,—
(1134) I know your writing, Romney,—recognise
(1135) The open-hearted A, the liberal sweep
(1136) Of the G. Now listen,—let us understand:
(1137) You will not find that famous deed of gift,
(1138) Unless you find it in the letter here,
(1139) Which, not being mine, I give you back.—Refuse
(1140) To take the letter? well then—you and I,
(1141) As writer and as heiress, open it
(1142) Together, by your leave.—Exactly so:
(1143) The words in which the noble offering’s made
(1144) Are nobler still, my cousin; and, I own,
(1145) The proudest and most delicate heart alive,
(1146) Distracted from the measure of the gift
(1147) By such a grace in giving, might accept
(1148) Your largesse without thinking any more
(1149) Of the burthen of it, than King Solomon
(1150) Considered, when he wore his holy ring
(1151) Charáctered over with the ineffable spell,69
(1152) How many carats of fine gold made up
(1153) Its money-value: so, Leigh gives to Leigh!
(1154) Or rather, might have given, observe,—for that’s
(1155) The point we come to. Here’s a proof of gift,
(1156) But here’s no proof, sir, of acceptancy,
(1157) But rather, disproof. Death’s black dust, being blown,
(1158) Infiltrated through every secret fold
(1159) Of this sealed letter by a puff of fate,
(1160) Dried up for ever the fresh-written ink,
(1161) Annulled the gift, disutilised the grace,
(1162) And left these fragments.”
(1162) As I spoke, I tore
(1163) The paper up and down, and down and up
(1164) And crosswise, till it fluttered from my hands,
(1165) As forest-leaves, stripped suddenly and rapt
(1166) By a whirlwind on Valdarno,70 drop again,
(1167) Drop slow, and strew the melancholy ground
(1168) Before the amazèd hills . . . why, so, indeed,
(1169) I’m writing like a poet,71 somewhat large
(1170) In the type of the image, and exaggerate
(1) A small thing with a great thing, topping it:—
(2) But then I’m thinking how his eyes looked, his,
(3) With what despondent and surprised reproach!
(4) I think the tears were in them as he looked;
(5) I think the manly mouth just trembled. Then
(1176) He broke the silence.
(1176) “I may ask, perhaps,
(7) Although no stranger . . only Romney Leigh,
(8) Which means still less . . than Vincent Carrington,
(9) Your plans in going hence, and where you go.
(1180) This cannot be a secret.”
(1180) “All my life
(1181) Is open to you, cousin. I go hence
(1182) To London, to the gathering-place of souls,
(1183) To live mine straight out, vocally, in books;
(1184) Harmoniously for others, if indeed
(1185) A woman’s soul, like man’s, be wide enough
(1186) To carry the whole octave (that’s to prove)
(1187) Or, if I fail, still purely for myself.
(1188) Pray God be with me, Romney.”
(1188) “Ah, poor child,
(1189) Who fight against the mother’s ’tiring72 hand,
(1190) And choose the headsman’s! May God change his world
(1) For your sake, sweet, and make it mild as heaven,
(1192) And juster than I have found you.”
(1192) But I paused.
(1193) “And you, my cousin?”—
(1193) “I,” he said,—“you ask?
(1194) You care to ask? Well, girls have curious minds
(1195) And fain would know the end of everything,
(1196) Of cousins therefore with the rest. For me,
(1197) Aurora, I’ve my work; you know my work;
(1198) And, having missed this year some personal hope,
(1199) I must beware the rather that I miss
(1200) No reasonable duty. While you sing
(1201) Your happy pastorals of the meads and trees,
(1202) Bethink you that I go to impress and prove
(1203) On stifled brains and deafened ears, stunned deaf,
(1204) Crushed dull with grief, that nature sings itself,
(1205) And needs no mediate poet, lute or voice,
(1206) To make it vocal. While you ask of men
(1207) Your audience, I may get their leave perhaps
(1208) For hungry orphans to say audibly
(1209) ‘We’re hungry, see,’—for beaten and bullied wives
(1210) To hold their unweaned babies up in sight,
(1211) Whom orphanage would better, and for all
(1212) To speak and claim their portion . . by no means
(1213) Of the soil, . . but of the sweat in tilling it;
(1214) Since this is now-a-days turned privilege,
(1215) To have only God’s curse73 on us, and not man’s.
(1216) Such work I have for doing, elbow-deep
(1217) In social problems,—as you tie your rhymes,
(1218) To draw my uses to cohere with needs
(1219) And bring the uneven world back to its round,
(1220) Or, failing so much, fill up, bridge at least
(1221) To smoother issues some abysmal cracks
(1222) And feuds of earth, intestine heats have made
(1223) To keep men separate,—using sorry shifts
(1224) Of hospitals, almshouses, infant schools,
(1225) And other practical stuff of partial good
(1226) You lovers of the beautiful and whole
(1227) Despise by system.”
(1227) I despise? The scorn
(1228) Is yours, my cousin. Poets become such
(1229) Through scorning nothing. You decry them for
(1230) The good of beauty sung and taught by them,
(1231) While they respect your practical partial good
(1232) As being a part of beauty’s self. Adieu!
(1233) When God helps all the workers for his world,
(1234) The singers shall have help of Him, not last.”
(1235) He smiled as men smile when they will not speak
(1236) Because of something bitter in the thought;
(1237) And still I feel his melancholy eyes
(1238) Look judgment on me. It is seven years since:74
(1239) I know not if ’t was pity or ’t was scorn
(1240) Has made them so far-reaching: judge it ye
(1241) Who have had to do with pity more than love
(1242) And scorn than hatred. I am used, since then,
(1243) To other ways, from equal men. But so,
(1244) Even so, we let go hands, my cousin and I,
(1245) And in between us, rushed the torrent-world
(1246) To blanch our faces like divided rocks,
(1247) And bar for ever mutual sight and touch
(1248) Except through swirl of spray and all that roar.

2. Explanatory Notes

looked before and after an echo of P. B. Shelley, whom EBB described in 1831 as “sitting near the gods” (Diary 138), in “To a Sky-Lark” (1820): “We look before and after, / And pine for what is not /… / Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought” (ll. 86-90). Like Janus, the two-headed classical god of thresholds and boundaries memorialized in the word January, Aurora surveys her past and future. As Reynolds observes, “This image of ‘double vision,’ looking back to analyze and forward to new experiment and experience” becomes an important motif in the poem (AL Norton, p. 39 n1; see AL 1.4-8; 5.183-88; and books 8 and 9 passim).
I murmured on / As honeyed bees keep humming to themselves cf. Tennyson’s “murmuring of innumerable bees” in The Princess (1847), 7.207. The line appears in a poem read by the eponymous Princess, who like Aurora aspires to gender equality and rejects cultural stereotypes of femininity, shortly before she resists a marriage proposal from the Prince. On the connections between AL and The Princess, see M. Stone, “Genre Subversion and Gender Inversion: The Princess and Aurora Leigh,” VP 25 (1987), pp. 101-27; and B. Taylor, “‘School-Miss Alfred’ and ‘Materfamilias’: Female Sexuality and Poetic Voice in The Princess and Aurora Leigh,” Gender and Discourse in Victorian Literature and Art, ed. Antony Harrison and Beverly Taylor (DeKalb: Northern Illinois UP, 1992), pp. 5-29.
verbena … guelder-rose Modestly eschewing the bay crown, Aurora considers other plants with familiar associations in the Victorian “language of flowers”: myrtle—love; verbena—enchantment. The guelder-rose, the shrub viburnum opulus (also called “cranberry tree” and “snowball tree”) which bears globular clusters of white flowers, was variously associated with good news, childish naivete, and age. Ever green ivy, associated by the Victorians with friendship and fidelity in friendship (see Beverly Seaton,The Language of Flowers: A History [Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1995]), had been used to crown the victor in early competitions in Greek tragedy. EBB reported that the ivy sent her in 1843 by John Kenyon for her window box at Wimpole Street “is fit for Bacchus, or the Isthmian Games. I shall live in a bower at last” (BC 7:242, also 138).
thyrsus a staff tipped with a pine cone and entwined with ivy, traditionally carried by the mythical Dionysus and his followers. See BC 7:138, and Ovid,Metamorphoses 4.7.
caryatid in classical architecture, especially common in Greek temples, a column sculpted in the shape of a woman, often with her arms upraised to support the roof.
writing down / My foolish name too near upon the sea cf. the epitaph John Keats (1795-1821) penned for himself: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Aurora’s twentieth birthday here associates her with Keats; in Book I, she says that Keats had “[e]nsphered himself in twenty perfect years” (l. 1006) but left a legacy of brilliant poetry. 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).
lady’s Greek/ Without the accents Romney implies the intellectual capacities of women are too limited to master classical Greek accents. Writing in 1827 to H.S. Boyd, whom she regarded as a mentor in Greek studies, EBB observed that some scholars questioned the authenticity of the accents and that her friend, classicist Sir Uvedale Price, feared they would create confusion (BC 2:101-2). EBB herself, like male contemporaries including Boyd, P. B. Shelley, Thomas Love Peacock, and Robert Browning, routinely wrote Greek without accents (see Alicia Falk, “Lady’s Greek without the Accents: Aurora Leigh and Authority,” SBHC 19 [1991], p. 91). As EBB emphasized, in studying Greek she never intended to “become a critical scholar”; her intent was “to enjoy that divine poetical literature” (BC 2:56). See Isobel Hurst,Victorian Women Writers and the Classics: The Feminine of Homer (Oxford UP, 2006), pp. 107-8.
God’s Dead, who afford to walk in white see Revelation 3.4: “Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy.”
balsams ointments derived from aromatic plant resins, used to soothe pain and heal wounds.
baldaquins fabric canopies, especially those carried in church processions or placed over an altar or throne. In referring to needlework, Romney both calls to mind Aurora’s scornful ineptitude for this conventional women’s work (see 1.446-65) and anticipates the poem’s introduction of impoverished seamstresses (Book 3) to contrast women’s capacity for hard labor with stereotypes of feminine delicacy. The reference to “fringes” as “ends” (doubly suggesting objectives as well as decorative edging for a piece of fabric) may recall the mindless and essentially useless needlework—including “many yards of fringe”--that fills Lady Bertram’s time in Jane Austen’sMansfield Park (1814; chapter 19 [Penguin, 1981], p. 195). EBB described Austen’s novels as graceful “‘Dutch painting’ … from middle life in England” and ranked Mansfield Park with Persuasion as “her two best works” (BC 7:214).
The polytheists have gone out in God, / That unity of Bests. Romney here echoes a view expressed in EBB’s “The Dead Pan” (1844, WEBB, vol. 2) that as Christ and the Christian God have replaced the old gods of Antiquity—including lesser “minnow gods” associated with the ocean such as Nereids and Triton and his descendants—contemporary poetry should address the present rather than the past. On EBB’s turn to contemporary subject matter , see EBB Broadview pp. 22-4.
Eve with nature’s daybreak on her face cf. Genesis 2-3. EBB’s lyrical drama “A Drama of Exile” (1844) focuses on the “peculiar anguish of Eve” after the expulsion from Eden (BC 8.117) and explores her association with various aspects of Nature, on her first day in the world beyond paradise. See EBB Broadview, pp. [xxxx] andWEBB , vol. 1.
coz an older idiomatic form of cousin.
To rhyme the cry with which she still beats back / Those savage, hungry dogs that hunt her down / To the empty grave of Christ Romney’s imagery resonates with EBB’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” (pub. 1847, dated 1848), a monologue spoken by a fugitive female slave. See EBB Broadview, pp. [xxxx] and WEBB, vol. 1. In biblical accounts (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20), Christ’s followers discovered his tomb empty three days after he was placed there.
six thousand years Interpreters of the Bible often reckoned the age of the earth to be nearly 6,000 years, basing their calculations on 2 Peter 3.8 (“one day is with the Lord as a thousand years”).
cymbal tinkle 1 Corinthians 13.1: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass [see l. 176 below], or a tinkling cymbal.”
When Egypt’s slain, I say, let Miriam sing! …. in the bulrushes For the story of Moses, who was discovered by the Egyptian Pharoah’s daughter in a basket floating among bulrushes and grew up to lead the Israelites from bondage into freedom, see the book of Exodus. Romney’s sense in the first sentence here is that it will be time for the woman prophet to sing only after the male leader has achieved victory, as in Exodus 15.20: after the pursuing Egyptian army drowned in the closing waters of the Red Sea, then “Miriam the prophetess … took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances” to celebrate the Israelites’ escape.
Will write of factories and of slaves, as if / Your father were a negro, and your son / A spinner in the mills Romney’s details evoke EBB’s poem “The Cry of the Children” (1843), protesting child labor in factories, and her anti-slavery monologue “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” (pub. 1847, dated 1848), works EBB deliberately juxtaposed in her collected Poems (1850, 1853, 1856). Reynolds notes that Romney’s identifying Aurora through her father and son “makes the female poet only the passive recorder of man’s active experience” (AL Norton pp. 44-5). Ironically, Romney here echoes the formulation in Sarah Ellis’s popular 1838 conduct bookWomen of England: Their Social Duties and Domestic Habits that woman is a “relational creature” ([London, 1838], pp. 149-50) who has value only because of her relationships to others (especially fathers, husbands, and sons). See Book 1, ll. 427-42 for Aurora’s derision of such conduct books.
Tarsus city in southern Turkey situated at a centuries’ old intersection of land and sea trade routes.
Show me a tear … as Cordelia’s See Shakespeare’s King Lear IV.vii.71.
rule of three an ancient mathematical law of proportion by which one calculates a fourth, unknown number based on three known numbers: for example, if 3 is to 9 as 2 is to x, what is x? The phrase “rule of three” became a trope in the 19th century for basic math; see, for example, Abraham Lincoln’s 1859 autobiography: “Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher to the Rule of Three.”
We get no Christ from you cf. part VI of Florence Nightingale’s Cassandra (wr. 1852, privately pub. 1860) for a woman writer’s adumbration of the possibility of a female Christ; and cp. Tennyson’s view of “the man-woman” in Christ, who united strength and tenderness (Hallam Tennyson,Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir [London: Macmillan, 1897], 1.326.
the comparative respect / Which means the absolute scornRomney’s account of the critical reception of women’s poetry describes attitudes frequently expressed in reviews of EBB’s early work. Cf. Charlotte Brontë’s explanation that she and her sisters in 1846 published their poetry under masculine-sounding pseudonyms because “without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’--we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice, we had noticed how critics sometimes use for their chastisement the weapon of personality, and for their reward, a flattery, which is not true praise” (“Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell,” 1850 reprint ofWuthering Heights andAgnes Grey, ed. Charlotte Brontë).
Reynolds points out that Thomas Carlyle, in an 1847 letter to RB, cited tight-rope dancing as a “frivolous trade” to contrast with “sublime art” ( AL Norton p. 46n4; see BC 14:237).
just the rich man and just Lazarus, / And both in torments, with a mediate gulph,/ Though not a hint of Abraham’s bosom Luke 16.19-31 recounts the story of the rich man who prospers in this life and the beggar Lazarus who suffers here. After death the two are separated by a great gulf: Lazarus, comforted in Abraham’s bosom, resides with God, whereas the rich man suffers in Hell’s fire.
Consoled the race of mastodons to know, / Before they went to fossil Although Charles Darwin did not publish On the Origin of Species Species until 1859, his evolutionary theories were widely known earlier and had been anticipated by Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33). Cf. Tennyson’s 1842 poem “The Epic”: “For nature brings not back the Mastodon” (l. 36).
long-clothes referring to the long dresses typically worn by both male and female babies, but also punning on the long dresses worn by women (Reynolds, AL Norton 48).
white of personal aims referring to the white bull’s eye of a target. Cf. RB’s 1845 description of EBB’s perfect evocation of Shelley in “A Vision of Poets”: “one twang of the bow—and the arrowhead in the white—Shelley’s ‘white ideal all statue-blind’ is—perfect” (BC 11:15).
glowed gazed with glowing eyes; the OED cites EBB’s coinage.
HIM Christ.
Judgment-Angel See Revelation 20.4: “And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and the word of God.”
Hagar See Genesis 16. As the handmaid of Abraham’s wife Sarah, Hagar is used by the couple to bear Abraham a son.
chief apostle St. Paul, author of a passage (1 Corinthians 9.5) traditionally interpreted to mean that women could be recruited into celibate marriages to serve the missionary project: “Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles.” As Reynolds observes (AL Norton, p. 51n5), Romney’s proposal resembles St. John Rivers’s proposal to Jane Eyre, though EBB in December 1856 took pains to explain how her own work differed from Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre (LEBB 2:245-46).
Lady, thou art wondrous fair,/… I die of love’ Romney sarcastically evokes the formulaic, hyperbolic celebrations of the beloved familiar from courtly love poetry.
woman as the complement / Of his sex merely The passage likely responds to the Prince’s proposal in Tennyson’s The Princess: “‘either sex alone / Is half itself, and in true marriage lies /Nor equal, nor unequal: each fulfils / Defect in each’” (7.283-86). EBB found Tennyson’s poem disappointing and regretted his “implied under-estimate of women” (BC 15:55, 85, 321; 14.310).
pick much oakum Prisoners and inmates of workhouses were often made to untwist and “pick” fiber from old hemp ropes; the resulting material was used to caulk the seams of wooden ships.
play at bowls play a game using balls; the phrase applied to a variety of games, from bowling on a green or (in the drawing room) a carpet or in a bowling alley. The phrase could also apply to playing billiards.
it takes a high-souled man, / To move the masses EBB here echoes Thomas Carlyle’s ideas, especially those of On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1840). Reynolds (AL Norton, p. 52n9) cites EBB’s 1850 criticism of social movements not spurred by inspired individuals: “in every advancement of the world hitherto, the individual has led the masses…. Now, in these new theories [Christian socialism, Fourierism], the individual is ground down into the multitude--and society must be ‘moving all together if it moves at all’--restricting the very possibility of progress by the use of the lights of genius. Genius isalways individual” (BC 16:229).
Fouriers failed The French social reformer Charles Fourier (1772-1837) founded a socio-economic system (Fourierism) advocating that people share labor and its proceeds in communal associations called “phalanxes,” “phalanges,” or “phalansteries.” In 1850 EBB vigorously criticized Fourier’s ideas: “I love liberty so intensely that I hate Socialism. I hold it to be the most desecrating and dishonoring to Humanity, of all creeds. I would rather (for me) live under the absolutism of Nicolas of Russia, than in a Fourier-machine, with my individuality sucked out of me by a social air-pump” (BC 16:138; see also 228-29). See also the later satiric comments on Romney Leigh’s “phalanstery … christianised from Fourier’s own” (5.771-94) and Aurora’s view of why Fourierism failed, quoted by Romney: “‘your Fouriers failed, / ‘Because not poets enough to understand / ‘That life develops from within’” (8.434-36).
I / Who love my art, would never wish it lower / To suit my stature cf. EBB’s 1845 comment to critic H.F. Chorley: “And though I in turn … may be turned out of ‘Arcadia’, and told that I am not a poet, .. still, I should be content, I hope, that the divineness of poetry be proved in my humanness, rather than lowered to my uses” (BC 10:14), cited by Reynolds (AL Norton, p. 53n3).
All glittering with the dawn-dew an image evoking Aurora’s namesake, the Greek goddess of the dawn; cf. Psalm 110.3: “thou hast the dew of thy youth,” noted by Reynolds (AL Norton, p. 54n5).
meekened made meek.
the entail / Excluding offspring by a foreign wife Wills sometimes entailed (or limited the transfer of) property only to male descendants; the special terms of the Leigh family estate accentuate the extent to which Aurora is excluded from the English power structure by both her sex and her hybrid nationality.
Wrote / Directly on your birth,… / ‘Betroth her to us out of love’ cp. the similar situation in Tennyson’s Maud (1855), 19.4. EBB read his poem and also heard Tennyson read it aloud in 1855, but she had already composed much of her poem by then; see the “Critical Introduction,” WEBB, vol. 3, p. xii.
altar-horns projections on the corners of the altar in a Jewish temple. Reynolds (AL Norton , p. 57n1) identifies two functions of these horns: sacrifices are bound to them (Exodus 38.1-2 and Psalm 118.27), and individuals fleeing officers of the law grasp them to claim sanctuary in the temple (1 Kings 1.50-51, 2.28).
I feel the brand … The felon’s iron alluding to the practice in the Middle Ages and Renaissance of branding criminals.
overseer of the parish A man feared for his (easily abused) power, the parish overseer administered the Poor Laws, distributing the funds collected through the poor rate and apprenticing children to labor.
Iphigenia bound / At a fatal Aulis for the winds to change To secure favourable winds that would enable the Greek fleet, becalmed at Aulis, to proceed to besiege Troy, King Agamemnon was directed by a prophet to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to appease the goddess Artemis. In some versions of the myth he did so; in other versions, she was magically replaced by a stag just before Agamemnon struck and was taken to Tauri to be Artemis’s priestess. See references in Ovid’s Metamorphoses 12.27-34, Vergil’s Aeneid 2, and Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. EBB read two Greek dramas about Iphigenia in November-December 1831, Euripides’s fifth-century BC Iphigenia at Aulis and Iphigenia at Tauris (Diary 143,182, 188, 191, 193).
cut / My body into coins to give away Reynolds (AL Norton, p. 60n5) suggests an allusion to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar 4.3.72-73: “By heaven, I had rather coin my heart, / And drop my blood for drachmas.”
dumb as Griseld “The Clerk’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (begun c. 1387) tells the story of patient Griselda, who suffers silently when her husband Walter, among other severe tests of her obedience and humility, removes her children and persuades her they are dead. Originally the tenth tale of the Tenth Day in Boccaccio’s Decameron (c. 1353), the story was later treated in a comedy by Thomas Dekker, Patient Grissil (1603).
Ragged Schools charitable schools for the poor that offered religious instruction and elementary education. The Ragged Schools Union was founded in 1844 and had over eighty affiliated schools by the later 1840s (LTA 1:110n24). EBB’s sisterArabella was very active in the Ragged Schools of London, serving as a teacher and administrator, and eventually founding a school (see LTA 1:110n24). In 1854 she asked EBB and RB to provide poems to sell at a fundraising bazaar for the schools: EBB wrote “A Song for the Ragged Schools of London” [link to this website’s annotated Poems] and RB sent “The Twins,” EBB remarking that “The Ragged School cause is one of those unquestionable causes, which every man with a sense of justice in him and every woman with a throb of pity in her … must give their sympathy and good wishes” (EBB-AB 2:69).
Public Baths The first public baths in London opened in 1847, in Whitechapel; one opened in Liverpool in 1842.
Spanish monarch crowned the bones / Of his dead love When the Portuguese (not Spanish) prince who would become Pedro I (1320-67) secretly married Inez de Castro, his father the king had her killed. After ascending to the throne himself, Pedro had his beloved exhumed in 1361 and honoured as the queen of Portugal. Luiz de Camoes’ Os Lusiadas (1572) relates their story (canto 3, stanzas 118-35). On EBB’s familiarity with Camoes, see the headnotes to “Catarina to Camoens” and “Sonnets from the Portuguese” in EBB Broadview. Felicia Hemans and Mary Russell Mitford also wrote versions of the story.
I preserve / That crown still,—in the drawer there! At a séance in Ealing, England, on 23 July 1855, a wreath of flowers was placed on EBB’s head, ostensibly by spirit hands. She saved it as a “memorial of the séance” until RB, sceptical of spiritualist claims, eventually took it from EBB’s “dressing glass” and threw it out the window into the street (EBB’s letter to Anna Jameson, 9 January 1857, quoted in Florentine Friends, p. 80n9). The “Olympian crowns” mentioned in the following lines recall the practice in the athletic games held at Olympia, every four years from the eighth century BC to the fourth century AD, of crowning victors with a wreaths of wild olive.
sweet Chaldean, you read / My meaning backward like your eastern books The Babylonian dynasty called Chaldean (fl. sixth century BC) was renowned for astrology and occult knowledge (see Daniel 1.4, 2.2-4). Aramaic or Syriac script is written from the right to the left.
‘Siste, viator.’ Latin “pause, traveller,” inscribed on tombstones as a reminder of mortality.
the sucking asp / To Cleopatra’s breast The Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII (69-30 BC) is said to have killed herself with a poisonous asp after the suicide of her lover Mark Antony following their defeat by the Romans at the Battle of Actium. See Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra 5.2.309-11.
commination a threat of divine punishment or vengeance. In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer the “Commination Service” read at the start of Lent proclaims God’s judgment against sinners.
devildom the dominion, rule, or sway of the devil; the OED cites EBB’s usage.
A Roman died so; smeared with honey, teased / By insects, stared to torture by the noon See Boccaccio’s Decameron, Second Day, ninth tale; and Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale 4.3.816-25.
the dead sea broke up, / … beneath the heel of Him / Who stands upon the sea and earth and swears / Time shall be nevermore See Revelation 10.5-6.
Babylon or Balbec biblical cities noted for advanced civilization.
stop short / Like Cæsar’s chariot (weighing half a ton) / On the Appian road for morals? The specific allusion here is unclear.
funded monies investments in government funds that regularly paid a fixed interest. EBB had such investments, which with her shares in the cargo ship the David Lyon supplied most of the Brownings’ income early in their marriage; see BC 13:235.
glosing glossing, or explaining away.
doit a small Dutch coin worth about half an English farthing--very little.
Australian gold Gold was discovered in New South Wales in February 1851; the first shipments of Australian gold arrived in England in April 1852, spurring emigration to the colony. As S. Donaldson points out in WEBB, vol. 3, p. 279n49, EBB’s former collaborator R. H. Horne emigrated to Australia and remained there for seventeen years.
Or touched a lottery with her finger-end, / Which tumbled on a sudden into her lap / Some old Rhine tower In 1846 RB described such a “continental” lottery to EBB: “An estate on the Rhine, for instance, is to be disposed of, and the holder of the lucky ticket will find himself suddenly owner of a mediæval castle” (BC 12:75). This is among several echoes of the 1845-6 courtship correspondence in AL, first noted by Elvan Kintner in The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Barrett and Robert Browning, 1845-1846, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969).
King Solomon / … when he wore his holy ring / Charáctered over with the ineffable spell Rabbinic writings speak of a ring or seal bearing God’s name and given to Solomon by the archangel. With this ring Solomon commanded authority over animals, demons, and spirits. See Reynolds, AL Norton, p. 70n1, and Donaldson, WEBB, vol. 3, p. 279n51.
Valdarno the valley of the Arno River, which flows through Florence near the Brownings’ longtime home Casa Guidi.
I’m writing like a poet writing like Milton, whose description of Satan in Paradise Lost she here echoes: Satan “lay intrans’t / Thick as Autumnal Leaves that strow the Books / In Vallombrosa…” (Book1, ll.283-330).
’tiring attiring, dressing.
God’s curse the curse pronounced on Adam and Eve when God expelled them from Eden; see Genesis 3.14-19.
seven years since Aurora is writing seven years after the opening scene of her 20th birthday.

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