Aurora Leigh, Book Five

Table of contents

1. Book Five

(001) AURORA LEIGH, be humble. Shall I hope
(002) To speak my poems in mysterious tune
(003) With man and nature?—with the lava-lymph1
(004) That trickles from successive galaxies
(005) Still drop by drop adown the finger of God2
(006) In still new worlds?—with summer-days in this
(007) That scarce dare breathe they are so beautiful?
(008) With spring’s delicious trouble in the ground,
(009) Tormented by the quickened blood of roots,
(010) And softly pricked by golden crocus-sheaves
(011) In token of the harvest-time of flowers?
(012) With winters and with autumns,—and beyond
(013) With the human heart’s large seasons, when it hopes
(014) And fears, joys, grieves, and loves?—with all that strain
(015) Of sexual passion, which devours the flesh
(016) In a sacrament of souls? with mother’s breasts
(017) Which, round the new-made creatures hanging there,
(018) Throb luminous and harmonious like pure spheres?—
(019) With multitudinous life, and finally
(020) With the great escapings of ecstatic souls,
(021) Who, in a rush of too long prisoned flame,
(022) Their radiant faces upward, burn away
(023) This dark of the body, issuing on a world
(024) Beyond our mortal?—can I speak my verse
(025) So plainly in tune to these things and the rest,
(026) That men shall feel it catch them on the quick,
(027) As having the same warrant over them
(028) To hold and move them if they will or no,
(029) Alike imperious as the primal rhythm
(030) Of that theurgic3nature?—I must fail,
(031) Who fail at the beginning to hold and move
(032) One man,—and he my cousin, and he my friend,
(033) And he born tender, made intelligent,
(034) Inclined to ponder the precipitous sides
(035) Of difficult questions; yet, obtuse to me,
(036) Of me, incurious! likes me very well,
(037) And wishes me a paradise of good,
(038) Good looks, good means, and good digestion,—ay,
(039) But otherwise evades me, puts me off
(040) With kindness, with a tolerant gentleness,—
(041) Too light a book for a grave man’s reading! Go,
(042) Aurora Leigh: be humble.
(042) There it is,
(043) We women are too apt to look to One,4
(044) Which proves a certain impotence in art.
(045) We strain our natures at doing something great,
(046) Far less because it’s something great to do,
(047) Than haply that we, so, commend ourselves
(048) As being not small, and more appreciable
(049) To some one friend. We must have mediators
(050) Betwixt our highest conscience and the judge;
(051) Some sweet saint’s blood must quicken in our palms,5
(052) Or all the life in heaven seems slow and cold:
(053) Good only being perceived as the end of good,
(054) And God alone pleased,—that’s too poor, we think,
(055) And not enough for us by any means.
(056) Ay—Romney, I remember, told me once
(057) We miss the abstract when we comprehend.
(058) We miss it most when we aspire,—and fail.
(059) Yet, so, I will not.—This vile woman’s way
(060) Of trailing garments, shall not trip me up:
(061) I’ll have no traffic with the personal thought
(062) In art’s pure temple. Must I work in vain,
(063) Without the approbation of a man?
(064) It cannot be; it shall not. Fame itself,
(065) That approbation of the general race,
(066) Presents a poor end, (though the arrow speed,
(067) Shot straight with vigorous finger to the white,)6
(068) And the highest fame was never reached except
(069) By what was aimed above it.7 Art for art,
(070) And good for God Himself, the essential Good!
(071) We’ll keep our aims sublime, our eyes erect,
(072) Although our woman-hands should shake and fail;
(073) And if we fail . . But must we?—
(074) Shall I fail?
(074) The Greeks said grandly in their tragic phrase,
(075) “Let no one be called happy till his death.”8
(076) To which I add,—Let no one till his death
(077) Be called unhappy. Measure not the work
(078) Until the day’s out and the labour done,
(079) Then bring your gauges. If the day’s work’s scant,
(080) Why, call it scant; affect no compromise;
(081) And, in that we have nobly striven at least,
(082) Deal with us nobly, women though we be,
(083) And honour us with truth if not with praise.
(084) My ballads prospered;9 but the ballad’s race
(085) Is rapid for a poet who bears weights
(086) Of thought and golden image. He can stand
(087) Like Atlas, in the sonnet,10 —and support
(088) His own heavens pregnant with dynastic stars;
(089) But then he must stand still, nor take a step.
(090) In that descriptive poem called “The Hills,”11
(091) The prospects were too far and indistinct.
(092) ’T is true my critics said, “A fine view, that!”
(093) The public scarcely cared to climb my book
(094) For even the finest, and the public’s right;
(095) A tree’s mere firewood, unless humanised,—
(096) Which well the Greeks knew when they stirred its bark
(097) With close-pressed bosoms of subsiding nymphs,12
(098) And made the forest-rivers garrulous
(099) With babble of gods.13 For us, we are called to mark
(100) A still more intimate humanity
(101) In this inferior nature, or ourselves
(102) Must fall like dead leaves trodden underfoot
(103) By veritable artists. Earth (shut up
(104) By Adam, like a fakir in a box
(105) Left too long buried)14 remained stiff and dry,
(106) A mere dumb corpse, till Christ the Lord came down,
(107) Unlocked the doors, forced open the blank eyes,
(108) And used his kingly chrism15 to straighten out
(109) The leathery tongue turned back into the throat;
(110) Since when, she lives, remembers, palpitates
(111) In every limb, aspires in every breath,
(112) Embraces infinite relations. Now
(113) We want no half-gods, Panomphæan Joves,16
(114) Fauns, Naiads, Tritons, Oreads and the rest,17
(115) To take possession of a senseless world
(116) To unnatural vampire-uses. See the earth,
(117) The body of our body, the green earth,
(118) Indubitably human like this flesh
(119) And these articulated veins through which
(120) Our heart drives blood. There’s not a flower of spring
(121) That dies ere June, but vaunts itself allied
(122) By issue and symbol, by significance
(123) And correspondence, to that spirit-world 18
(124) Outside the limits of our space and time,
(125) Whereto we are bound. Let poets give it voice
(126) With human meanings,—else they miss the thought,
(127) And henceforth step down lower, stand confessed
(128) Instructed poorly for interpreters,
(129) Thrown out by an easy cowslip in the text.
(130) Even so my pastoral failed: it was a book
(131) Of surface-pictures—pretty, cold, and false
(132) With literal transcript,—the worse done, I think,
(133) For being not ill-done: let me set my mark
(134) Against such doings, and do otherwise.
(135) This strikes me.—If the public whom we know 135
(136) Could catch me at such admissions, I should pass
(137) For being right modest. Yet how proud we are,
(138) In daring to look down upon ourselves!
(139) The critics say that epics have died out19
(140) With Agamemnon20 and the goat-nursed gods;21
(141) I’ll not believe it. I could never deem
(142) As Payne Knight22 did, (the mythic mountaineer
(143) Who travelled higher than he was born to live,
(144) And showed sometimes the goitre in his throat
(145) Discoursing of an image seen through fog,)
(146) That Homer’s heroes measured twelve feet high.
(147) They were but men:—his Helen’s hair turned gray
(148) Like any plain Miss Smith’s who wears a front;
(149) And Hector’s23 infant whimpered at a plume
(150) As yours last Friday at a turkey-cock.
(151) All actual heroes are essential men,
(152) And all men possible heroes: every age,
(153) Heroic in proportions, double-faced,
(154) Looks backward and before, expects a morn
(155) And claims an epos.24
(155) Ay, but every age
(156) Appears to souls who live in ’t (ask Carlyle)
(157) Most unheroic.25 Ours, for instance, ours:
(158) The thinkers scout it, and the poets abound
(159) Who scorn to touch it with a finger-tip:
(160) A pewter age,—mixed metal, silver-washed;
(161) An age of scum, spooned off the richer past,
(162) An age of patches for old gaberdines,26
(163) An age of mere transition,27 meaning nought
(164) Except that what succeeds must shame it quite
(165) If God please. That’s wrong thinking, to my mind,
(166) And wrong thoughts make poor poems.
(166) Every age,
(167) Through being beheld too close, is ill-discerned
(168) By those who have not lived past it. We’ll suppose
(169) Mount Athos carved, as Alexander schemed,
(170) To some colossal statue of a man.28
(171) The peasants, gathering brushwood in his ear,
(172) Had guessed as little as the browsing goats
(173) Of form or feature of humanity
(174) Up there,—in fact, had travelled five miles off
(175) Or ere the giant image broke on them,
(176) Full human profile, nose and chin distinct,
(177) Mouth, muttering rhythms of silence up the sky
(178) And fed at evening with the blood of suns;
(179) Grand torso,—hand, that flung perpetually
(180) The largesse of a silver river down
(181) To all the country pastures. ’T is even thus
(182) With times we live in,—evermore too great
(183) To be apprehended near.
(183) But poets should
(184) Exert a double vision; should have eyes
(185) To see near things as comprehensively
(186) As if afar they took their point of sight,
(187) And distant things as intimately deep
(188) As if they touched them. Let us strive for this.
(189) I do distrust the poet who discerns
(190) No character or glory in his times,
(191) And trundles back his soul five hundred years,
(192) Past moat and drawbridge, into a castle-court,29
(193) To sing—oh, not of lizard or of toad
(194) Alive i’ the ditch there,—’t were excusable,
(195) But of some black chief, half knight, half sheep-lifter,
(196) Some beauteous dame, half chattel and half queen,
(197) As dead as must be, for the greater part,
(198) The poems made on their chivalric bones;
(199) And that’s no wonder: death inherits death.
(200) Nay, if there’s room for poets in this world
(201) A little overgrown, (I think there is)
(202) Their sole work is to represent the age,
(203) Their age, not Charlemagne’s30, —this live, throbbing age,
(204) That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
(205) And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
(206) Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,31
(207) Than Roland with his knights at Roncesvalles.32
(208) To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce,
(209) Cry out for togas and the picturesque,
(210) Is fatal,—foolish too. King Arthur’s self
(211) Was commonplace to Lady Guenever;33
(212) And Camelot to minstrels seemed as flat
(210) As Fleet Street34 to our poets.
(213) Never flinch,
(214) But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
(215) Upon the burning lava of a song
(216) The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:35
(217) That, when the next shall come, the men of that
(218) May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
(219) ‘Behold,—behold the paps we all have sucked!
(220) This bosom seems to beat still, or at least
(221) It sets ours beating: this is living art,
(222) Which thus presents and thus records true life.’
(223) What form is best for poems? Let me think
(224) Of forms less, and the external. Trust the spirit,
(225) As sovran nature does, to make the form;
(226) For otherwise we only imprison spirit
(227) And not embody. Inward evermore
(228) To outward,—so in life, and so in art
(229) Which still is life.36
(229) Five acts to make a play.
(230) And why not fifteen? why not ten? or seven?
(231) What matter for the number of the leaves,
(232) Supposing the tree lives and grows? exact
(233) The literal unities of time and place,37
(234) When ’t is the essence of passion to ignore
(235) Both time and place? Absurd. Keep up the fire,
(236) And leave the generous flames to shape themselves.
(237) ’T is true the stage requires obsequiousness
(238) To this or that convention; ‘exit’ herev
(239) And ‘enter’ there; the points for clapping, fixed,
(240) Like Jacob’s white-peeled rods before the rams,38
(241) And all the close-curled imagery clipped
(242) In manner of their fleece at shearing-time.
(243) Forget to prick the galleries39 to the heart
(244) Precisely at the fourth act,—culminate
(245) Our five pyramidal acts with one act more,—
(246) We’re lost so: Shakspeare’s ghost could scarcely plead
(247) Against our just damnation. Stand aside;
(248) We’ll muse for comfort that, last century,
(249) On this same tragic stage on which we have failed,
(250) A wigless Hamlet40 would have failed the same.
(251) And whosoever writes good poetry,
(252) Looks just to art. He does not write for you
(253) Or me,—for London or for Edinburgh;41
(254) He will not suffer the best critic known
(255) To step into his sunshine of free thought
(256) And self-absorbed conception and exact
(257) An inch-long swerving of the holy lines.
(258) If virtue done for popularity
(259) Defiles like vice, can art, for praise or hire,
(260) Still keep its splendor and remain pure art?
(261) Eschew such serfdom. What the poet writes,
(262) He writes: mankind accepts it if it suits,
(263) And that’s success: if not, the poem’s passed
(264) From hand to hand, and yet from hand to hand,
(265) Until the unborn snatch it, crying out
(266) In pity on their fathers’ being so dull,
(267) And that’s success too.
(267) I will write no plays;
(268) Because the drama, less sublime in this,
(269) Makes lower appeals, depends more menially,
(270) Adopts the standard of the public taste42
(271) To chalk its height on, wears a dog-chain round
(272) Its regal neck, and learns to carry and fetch
(273) The fashions of the day to please the day,
(274) Fawns close on pit and boxes,43 who clap hands
(275) Commending chiefly its docility
(276) And humour in stage-tricks,—or else indeed
(277) Gets hissed at, howled at, stamped at like a dog,
(278) Or worse, we’ll say. For dogs, unjustly kicked,
(279) Yell, bite at need; but if your dramatist
(280) (Being wronged by some five hundred nobodies
(281) Because their grosser brains most naturally
(282) Misjudge the fineness of his subtle wit)
(283) Shows teeth an almond’s breadth, protests the length
(284) Of a modest phrase,—‘My gentle countrymen,
(285) “There’s something in it haply of your fault,”—
(286) Why then, besides five hundred nobodies,
(287) He’ll have five thousand and five thousand more
(288) Against him,—the whole public,—all the hoofs
(289) Of King Saul’s father’s asses,44 in full drove,
(290) And obviously deserve it. He appealed
(291) To these,—and why say more if they condemn,
(292) Than if they praise him?—Weep, my Æschylus,
(293) But low and far, upon Sicilian shores!
(294) For since ’t was Athens (so I read the myth)
(295) Who gave commission to that fatal weight
(296) The tortoise, cold and hard, to drop on thee
(297) And crush thee,—better cover thy bald head;45
(298) She’ll hear the softest hum of Hyblan bee46
(299) Before thy loudest protestation!
(290) Then
(300) The risk’s still worse upon the modern stage:
(301) I could not, for so little, accept success,
(302) Nor would I risk so much, in ease and calm,
(303) For manifester gains: let those who prize,
(304) Pursue them: I stand off. And yet, forbid,
(305) That any irreverent fancy or conceit
(306) Should litter in the Drama’s throne-room where
(307) The rulers of our art, in whose full veins
(308) Dynastic glories mingle, sit in strength
(309) And do their kingly work,—conceive, command,
(310) And, from the imagination’s crucial heat,
(311) Catch up their men and women all a-flame
(312) For action, all alive and forced to prove
(313) Their life by living out heart, brain, and nerve,
(314) Until mankind makes witness, ‘These be men
(315) As we are,’ and vouchsafes the greeting due
(316) To Imogen and Juliet47 —sweetest kin
(317) On art’s side.
(317) ’T is that, honouring to its worth
(318) The drama, I would fear to keep it down
(319) To the level of the footlights. Dies no more
(320) The sacrificial goat, for Bacchus, slain,48
(321) His filmed eyes fluttered by the whirling white
(322) Of choral vestures,—troubled in his blood,
(323) While tragic voices that clanged keen as swords,
(324) Leapt high together with the altar-flame49
(325) And made the blue air wink. The waxen mask,
(326) Which set the grand still front of Themis’ son50
(327) Upon the puckered visage of a player,—
(328) The buskin,51 which he rose upon and moved,
(329) As some tall ship first conscious of the wind
(330) Sweeps slowly past the piers,—the mouthpiece, where
(331) The mere man’s voice with all its breaths and breaks
(332) Went sheathed in brass, and clashed on even heights
(333) Its phrasèd thunders,—these things are no more,
(334) Which once were. And concluding, which is clear,
(335) The growing drama has outgrown such toys
(336) Of simulated stature, face, and speech,
(337) It also peradventure may outgrow
(338) The simulation of the painted scene,
(339) Boards, actors, prompters, gaslight, and costume,
(340) And take for a worthier stage the soul itself,52
(341) Its shifting fancies and celestial lights,
(342) With all its grand orchestral silences
(343) To keep the pauses of its rhythmic sounds.
(344) Alas, I still see something to be done,
(345) And what I do, falls short of what I see,
(346) Though I waste myself on doing. Long green days,
(347) Worn bare of grass and sunshine,—long calm nights,
(348) From which the silken sleeps were fretted out,
(349) Be witness for me, with no amateur’s
(350) Irreverent haste and busy idleness
(351) I set myself to art! What then? what’s done?
(352) What’s done, at last?
(352) Behold, at last, a book.
(353) If life-blood’s necessary, which it is,—
(354) (By that blue vein athrob on Mahomet’s brow,53
(355) Each prophet-poet’s book must show man’s blood!)
(356) If life-blood’s fertilising, I wrung mine
(357) On every leaf of this,—unless the drops
(358) Slid heavily on one side and left it dry.
(359) That chances often: many a fervid man
(360) Writes books as cold and flat as grave-yard stones
(361) From which the lichen’s scraped; and if Saint Preux
(362) Had written his own letters, as he might,
(363) We had never wept to think of the little mole
(364) ’Neath Julie’s drooping eyelid. Passion is
(365) But something suffered, after all.
(365) While Art
(366) Sets action on the top of suffering:
(367) The artist’s part is both to be and do,
(368) Transfixing with a special, central power
(369) The flat experience of the common man,
(370) And turning outward, with a sudden wrench,
(371) Half agony, half ecstasy, the thing
(372) He feels the inmost,—never felt the less
(373) Because he sings it. Does a torch less burn
(374) For burning next reflectors of blue steel,
(375) That he should be the colder for his place
(376) ’Twixt two incessant fires,—his personal life’s,
(377) And that intense refraction which burns back
(378) Perpetually against him from the round
(379) Of crystal conscience he was born into
(380) If artist-born? O sorrowful great gift
(381) Conferred on poets, of a twofold life,
(382) When one life has been found enough for pain!
(383) We, staggering ’neath our burden as mere men,
(384) Being called to stand up straight as demi-gods,
(385) Support the intolerable strain and stress
(386) Of the universal, and send clearly up
(387) With voices broken by the human sob,
(388) Our poems to find rhymes among the stars!
(389) But soft,—a ‘poet’ is a word soon said,
(390) A book’s a thing soon written. Nay, indeed,
(391) The more the poet shall be questionable,
(392) The more unquestionably comes his book.
(393) And this of mine—well, granting to myself
(394) Some passion in it,—furrowing up the flats,
(395) Mere passion will not prove a volume worth
(396) Its gall and rags even. Bubbles round a keel
(397) Mean nought, excepting that the vessel moves.
(398) There’s more than passion goes to make a man
(399) Or book, which is a man too.
(399) I am sad.
(400) I wonder if Pygmalion had these doubts
(401) And, feeling the hard marble first relent,
(402) Grow supple to the straining of his arms,
(403) And tingle through its cold to his burning lip,
(404) Supposed his senses mocked, supposed the toil
(405) Of stretching past the known and seen to reach
(406) The archetypal Beauty out of sight,
(407) Had made his heart beat fast enough for two,
(408) And with his own life dazed and blinded him!
(409) Not so; Pygmalion loved,—and whoso loves
(410) Believes the impossible.
(410) But I am sad:
(411) I cannot thoroughly love a work of mine,
(412) Since none seems worthy of my thought and hope
(413) More highly mated. He has shot them down,
(414) My Phœbus Apollo, soul within my soul,
(415) Who judges, by the attempted, what’s attained,
(416) And with the silver arrow from his height
(417) Has struck down all my works before my face
(418) While I said nothing. Is there aught to say?
(419) I called the artist but a greatened man.
(420) He may be childless also, like a man.
(421) I laboured on alone. The wind and dust
(422) And sun of the world beat blistering in my face;
(423) And hope, now for me, now against me, dragged
(424) My spirits onward, as some fallen balloon,
(425) Which, whether caught by blossoming tree or bare,
(426) Is torn alike. I sometimes touched my aim,
(427) Or seemed,—and generous souls cried out, ‘Be strong,
(428) Take courage; now you’re on our level,—now!
(429) The next step saves you!’ I was flushed with praise,
(430) But, pausing just a moment to draw breath,
(431) I could not choose but murmur to myself
(432) ‘Is this all? all that’s done? and all that’s gained?
(433) If this then be success, ’t is dismaller
(434) Than any failure.’
(434) O my God, my God,
(435) O supreme Artist, who as sole return
(436) For all the cosmic wonder of Thy work,
(437) Demandest of us just a word . . a name,
(438) ‘My Father!’ thou hast knowledge, only thou,
(439) How dreary ’t is for women to sit still
(440) On winter nights by solitary fires
(441) And hear the nations praising them far off,
(442) Too far! ay, praising our quick sense of love,
(443) Our very heart of passionate womanhood,
(444) Which could not beat so in the verse without
(445) Being present also in the unkissed lips
(446) And eyes undried because there’s none to ask
(447) The reason they grew moist.
(447) To sit alone
(448) And think for comfort how, that very night,
(449) Affianced lovers, leaning face to face
(450) With sweet half-listenings for each other’s breath,
(451) Are reading haply from a page of ours,
(452) To pause with a thrill (as if their cheeks had touched)
(453) When such a stanza, level to their mood,
(454) Seems floating their own thought out—‘So I feel
(455) For thee,’—‘And I, for thee: this poet knows
(456) What everlasting love is!’—how, that night,
(457) Some father, issuing from the misty roads
(458) Upon the luminous round of lamp and hearth
(459) And happy children, having caught up first
(460) The youngest there until it shrink and shriek
(461) To feel the cold chin prick its dimples through
(462) With winter from the hills, may throw i’ the lap
(463) Of the eldest, (who has learnt to drop her lids
(464) To hide some sweetness newer than last year’s)
(465) Our book and cry, . . ‘Ah you, you care for rhymes;
(466) So here be rhymes to pore on under trees,
(467) When April comes to let you! I’ve been told
(468) They are not idle as so many are,
(469) But set hearts beating pure as well as fast.
(470) ’T is yours, the book; I’ll write your name in it,
(471) That so you may not lose, however lost
(472) In poet’s lore and charming reverie,
(473) The thought of how your father thought of you
(474) In riding from the town.’
(474) To have our books
(475) Appraised by love, associated with love,
(476) While we sit loveless! is it hard, you think?
(477) At least ’t is mournful. Fame, indeed, ’t was said,
(478) Means simply love. It was a man said that:
(479) And then, there’s love and love: the love of all
(480) (To risk in turn a woman’s paradox,)
(481) Is but a small thing to the love of one.
(482) You bid a hungry child be satisfied
(483) With a heritage of many corn-fields: nay,
(484) He says he’s hungry,—he would rather have
(485) That little barley-cake you keep from him
(486) While reckoning up his harvests. So with us;
(487) (Here, Romney, too, we fail to generalise!)
(488) We’re hungry.
(488) Hungry! but it’s pitiful
(489) To wail like unweaned babes and suck our thumbs
(490) Because we’re hungry. Who, in all this world,
(491) (Wherein we are haply set to pray and fast,
(492) And learn what good is by its opposite)
(493) Has never hungered? Woe to him who has found
(494) The meal enough! if Ugolino’s full,
(495) His teeth have crunched some foul unnatural thing:
(496) For here satiety proves penury
(497) More utterly irremediable. And since
(498) We needs must hunger,—better, for man’s love,
(499) Than God’s truth! better, for companions sweet,
(500) Than great convictions! let us bear our weights,
(501) Preferring dreary hearths to desert souls.
(502) Well, well! they say we’re envious, we who rhyme;
(503) But I, because I am a woman perhaps
(504) And so rhyme ill, am ill at envying.
(505) I never envied Graham his breadth of style,
(506) Which gives you, with a random smutch or two,
(507) (Near-sighted critics analyse to smutch)
(508) Such delicate perspectives of full life:
(509) Nor Belmore, for the unity of aim
(510) To which he cuts his cedarn poems, fine
(511) As sketchers do their pencils: nor Mark Gage,
(512) For that caressing colour and trancing tone
(513) Whereby you’re swept away and melted in
(514) The sensual element, which with a back wave
(515) Restores you to the level of pure souls
(516) And leaves you with Plotinus. None of these,
(517) For native gifts or popular applause,
(518) I’ve envied; but for this,—that when by chance
(519) Says some one,—‘There goes Belmore, a great man!
(520) He leaves clean work behind him, and requires
(521) No sweeper up of the chips,’ . . a girl I know,
(522) Who answers nothing, save with her brown eyes,
(523) Smiles unaware as if a guardian saint
(524) Smiled in her:—for this, too,—that Gage comes home
(525) And lays his last book’s prodigal review
(526) Upon his mother’s knee, where, years ago,
(527) He laid his childish spelling-book and learned
(528) To chirp and peck the letters from her mouth,
(529) As young birds must. ‘Well done,’ she murmured then;
(530) She will not say it now more wonderingly:
(531) And yet the last ‘Well done’ will touch him more,
(532) As catching up to-day and yesterday
(533) In a perfect chord of love: and so, Mark Gage,
(534) I envy you your mother!—and you, Graham,
(535) Because you have a wife who loves you so,
(536) She half forgets, at moments, to be proud
(537) Of being Graham’s wife, until a friend observes,
(538) ‘The boy here, has his father’s massive brow,
(539) Done small in wax . . if we push back the curls.’
(540) Who loves me? Dearest father,—mother sweet,—
(541) I speak the names out sometimes by myself,
(542) And make the silence shiver. They sound strange,
(543) As Hindostanee to an Ind-born man
(544) Accustomed many years to English speech;
(545) Or lovely poet-words grown obsolete,
(546) Which will not leave off singing. Up in heaven
(547) I have my father,—with my mother’s face
(548) Beside him in a blotch of heavenly light;
(549) No more for earth’s familiar, household use,
(550) No more. The best verse written by this hand,
(551) Can never reach them where they sit, to seem
(552) Well-done to them. Death quite unfellows us,
(553) Sets dreadful odds betwixt the live and dead,
(554) And makes us part as those at Babel did
(555) Through sudden ignorance of a common tongue.
(556) A living Cæsar would not dare to play
(557) At bowls with such as my dead father is.
(558) And yet this may be less so than appears,
(559) This change and separation. Sparrows five
(560) For just two farthings, and God cares for each.
(561) If God is not too great for little cares,
(562) Is any creature, because gone to God?
(563) I’ve seen some men, veracious, nowise mad,
(564) Who have thought or dreamed, declared and testified,
(565) They heard the Dead a-ticking like a clock
(566) Which strikes the hours of the eternities,
(567) Beside them, with their natural ears,—and known
(568) That human spirits feel the human way
(569) And hate the unreasoning awe which waves them off
(570) From possible communion. It may be.
(571) At least, earth separates as well as heaven.
(572) For instance, I have not seen Romney Leigh
(573) Full eighteen months . . add six, you get two years.
(574) They say he’s very busy with good works,—
(575) Has parted Leigh Hall into almshouses.
(576) He made one day an almshouse of his heart,
(577) Which ever since is loose upon the latch
(578) For those who pull the string.—I never did.
(...) ...
(1211) At least I am a poet in being poor,
(1212) Thank God. I wonder if the manuscript
(1213) Of my long poem, if ’t were sold outright,
(1214) Would fetch enough to buy me shoes to go
(1215) A-foot, (thrown in, the necessary patch
(1216) For the other side the Alps)? It cannot be.
(1217) I fear that I must sell this residue
(1218) Of my father’s books, although the Elzevirs
(1219) Have fly-leaves over-written by his hand
(1220) In faded notes as thick and fine and brown
(1221) As cobwebs on a tawny monument
(1222) Of the old Greeks—conferenda hæc cum his—
(1223) Corruptè citat—lege potiùs,
(1224) And so on, in the scholar’s regal way
(1225) Of giving judgment on the parts of speech,
(1226) As if he sate on all twelve thrones up-piled,
(1227) Arraigning Israel. Ay, but books and notes
(1228) Must go together. And this Proclus too,
(1229) In these dear quaint contracted Grecian types,
(1230) Fantastically crumpled like his thoughts
(1231) Which would not seem too plain; you go round twice
(1232) For one step forward, then you take it back
(1233) Because you’re somewhat giddy; there’s the rule
(1234) For Proclus. Ah, I stained this middle leaf
(1235) With pressing in ’t my Florence iris-bell,
(1236) Long stalk and all: my father chided me
(1237) For that stain of blue blood,—I recollect
(1238) The peevish turn his voice took,—‘Silly girls,
(1239) Who plant their flowers in our philosophy
(1240) To make it fine, and only spoil the book!
(1241) No more of it, Aurora.’ Yes—no more!
(1242) Ah, blame of love, that’s sweeter than all praise
(1243) Of those who love not! ’t is so lost to me,
(1244) I cannot, in such beggared life, afford
(1245) To lose my Proclus,—not for Florence even.
(1246) The kissing Judas, Wolf, shall go instead,
(1247) Who builds us such a royal book as this
(1248) To honour a chief-poet, folio-built,
(1249) And writes above, ‘The house of Nobody!’
(1250) Who floats in cream, as rich as any sucked
(1251) From Juno’s breasts, the broad Homeric lines,
(1252) And, while with their spondaic prodigious mouths
(1253) They lap the lucent margins as babe-gods,
(1254) Proclaims them bastards. Wolf’s an atheist;
(1255) And if the Iliad fell out, as he says,
(1256) By mere fortuitous concourse of old songs,
(1257) Conclude as much too for the universe.
(1258) That Wolf, those Platos: sweep the upper shelves
(1259) As clean as this, and so I am almost rich,
(1260) Which means, not forced to think of being poor
(1261) In sight of ends. To-morrow: no delay.
(1262) I’ll wait in Paris till good Carrington
(1263) Dispose of such and, having chaffered for
(1264) My book’s price with the publisher, direct
(1265) All proceeds to me. Just a line to ask
(1266) His help.
(1266) And now I come, my Italy,
(1267) My own hills! Are you ’ware of me, my hills,
(1268) How I burn toward you? do you feel to-night
(1269) The urgency and yearning of my soul,
(1270) As sleeping mothers feel the sucking babe
(1271) And smile?—Nay, not so much as when in heat
(1272) Vain lightnings catch at your inviolate tops
(1273) And tremble while ye are stedfast. Still ye go
(1274) Your own determined, calm, indifferent way
(1275) Toward sunrise, shade by shade, and light by light,
(1276) Of all the grand progression nought left out,
(1277) As if God verily made you for yourselves
(1278) And would not interrupt your life with ours.

2. Note on the text

..... ...

3. Explanatory Notes

lava-lymphEBB’s metaphorical coinage; lymph here probably in the poetic sense of a stream of water (see OED, definition 1a), although the more common sense of a colorless bodily fluid may also be invoked.
finger of God a phrase possibly invoking Michelangelo’s image of God in the act of creating Adam in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
theurgic involving the operation of a divine or supernatural agency.
We women are too apt to look to One cf. Aurora’s debate with Romney regarding this common Victorian view of gender difference in Book 2, ll.186-304.
We must have mediators / ... blood must quicken in our palms: an echo of Romeo and Juliet Juliet I.v.97-8, “For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch, / And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.”
Shot straight with vigorous finger to the white: the white, i.e., the bull’s-eye; cf. RB’s use of this image (“ the arrow head in white”) to praise EBB’s invocation of European “king-poets” in “A Vision of Poets” (1844), see BC 11:15, cited Reynolds, Aurora Leigh Norton, p. 142.
the highest fame was never reached except / By what was aimed above it a philosophy expressed by the Victorian art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) in “On The Nature of Gothic Architecture” in The Stones of Venice (1851-53), who believed that “no great man ever stops working till he has reached his point of failure”; cf. RB’s the comparable philosophy in “Andrea del Sarto” (1855), ll. 97-98.
“Let no one be called happy till his death.” Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, the last lines (1528-30). See also Euripides,Andromache , 100-101.
My ballads prospered a parallel with EBB’s own career; ballads such as “The Romaunt of Margret,” “The Poet’s Vow” (both 1836), “The Romaunt of the Page” (pub. 1838, dated 1839) and “Rhyme of the Duchess May” (1844) won her both critical praise and popular attention (see the “Introduction,” EBB Broadview, pp. 19-24, and the headnotes to these and other ballads in WEBB, vol. 1). The most modern of these in subject matter, “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship: A Romance of the Age” (1844), was the prototype of Aurora Leigh. Though it is a hybrid work, written the form of a framed dramatic epistle, EBB and many Victorians categorized it as a ballad (see “Critical Introduction,” WEBB, vol. 3 pp. ix-x).
He can stand / Like Atlas, in the sonnet: an echo of ll. 60-63 in Keats’ ‘To Charles Cowden Clarke’ (1817), although there the Atlas metaphor is associated with the ode; see Reynolds, Aurora Leigh Norton, p.144.
“The Hills” EBB may have had in mind the descriptions of the the Malvern Hills, visible from her Hope End childhood home near Ledbury in Herefordshire, described in her own poem, “The Lost Bower” (1844).
stirred its bark / With close-pressed bosoms of subsiding nymphs: the nymph Daphne, fleeing from Apollo’s amorous pursuit, was changed into a laurel tree. Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.548-52.
A tree’s mere firewood, unless humanised,— / Which well the Greeks knew cf. Ruskin’s parallel view of the Greek response to Nature in his chapter “Of Classical Landscape” (Modern Painters 3, 1856), noted by Reynolds, Aurora Leigh, Norton, p. 145).
like a fakir in a box / Left too long buried a Hindu devotee or ascetic. Reynolds cites an account by J. M. Honigberger in Thirty-Five Years in the East (London, 1852) of a Hindu religious ascetic named Haridas exhumed in the manner described in the following lines and revived by drawing the tongue back into its natural position (Aurora Leigh Norton, p. 100).
chrism oil mingled with balm consecrated for use in certain sacraments in the Eastern and Western Churches, here applied in a figurative sense.
We want no half-gods, Panomphæan Joves: Panomphæus, meaning “the author of all signs and omens” is a surname of Jove (or Zeus). In “The Dead Pan” (1844, see WEBB, vol. 2), EBB portrays such Greek “half-gods” abolished by Christian salvation.
Fauns, Naiads, Tritons, Oreads and the rest fauns: minor rural gods, part man, part goat, often associated with the god Pan; naiads: nymphs thought to inhabit rivers and springs as spirits; tritons: minor sea deities, often portrayed as part man, part fish; oreads: mountain nymphs.
correspondence, to that spirit worldaccording to Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), the Swedish philosopher, scientist and mystic who had earlier influenced Willliam Blake, every natural object symbolizes or corresponds to some spiritual fact or principle which is its archetype or prototype (a concept also found in Neo-Platonism and Transcendentalism). On Swedenborg’s influence on the philosophy of Aurora Leigh, see WEBB, vol. 3, p. xv, and p. 292, n.11).
The critics say the epics have died out a common critical view in the mid-nineteenth century, despite continuing experimentation with epic forms. See Herbert F. Tucker’s Epic: Britian’s Heroic Muse, 1790-1910. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
Agamemnon King of Mycenae and a leader of the Greek forces in the Trojan war; his murder by his wife Clytemnestra is the subject of the Agamemnon (458 BC) by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus (525-456 BC); on EBB’s views of Aeschylus as the greatest Greek poet and her unpublished monodrama on Aeschylus, see the note to Book 1, l. 455.
the goat-nursed gods: Zeus, chief of the Greek gods, was nursed by the goat Amalthea.
Payne Knight: Richard Payne Knight (1750-1824), classical scholar, connoisseur, member of parliament and trustee of the British Museum. EBB’s hostility to him stemmed in part from what she saw as his inferior translations (including removal of hundreds of lines from the Iliad and the Odyssey). See WEBB, vol. 3, p. 292, n. 15).
Hector’s infant whimpered at a plume: for the description of the infant of Hector, the hero of the Trojans, crying and shunning his father in helmet and armor, see the Iliad 6:466-70; the passage is included (ll. 84-88) in EBB’s 1845 translation, “Paraphrases on Homer: Hector and Andromache” (pub. 1862, WEBB, Vol. 4, pp. 144-47)
epos an epic poem.
but every age / Appears to souls who live in’t (ask Carlyle) / Most unheroic: an idea frequently expressed by Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841) and shared by RB as well as EBB (see BC 12:335).
gaberdines garments of coarse material worn by beggars.
An age of mere transition a phrase used by the philosopher, economist, and later Member of Parliament, John Stuart Mill (1806-73) in an essay entitled ‘The Spirit of the Age’ (The Examiner, January-May 1831). For RB’s comments on the term to EBB in 1846, see (BC 12:335).
Mount Athos carved, as Alexander schemed, / To some colossal statue of a man: Alexander the Great (356-23 BC) , King of Macedon, who conquered the known world. Plutarch in his Lives recounts that Alexander declined the proposal by the artist Stasicrates to transform Mount Athos into a large statue of the king.
I do distrust the poet who discerns / No character or glory in his times /And trundles back his soul five hundred years a satire of the fashion for all things medieval in the 1840s and ‘50s, reflected in literature, the visual arts, architecture (the Gothic revival) and the staging of medieval tournaments. Although Tennyson noted the parallels between the debate between past and present subjects for poetry in Aurora Leigh and his poem “The Epic” (1842), EBB was critical of Tennyson’s own medievalism in works such as The Princess (1847). See WEBB, vol. 3, p. 293, n. 23.
Charlemagne: see note to Book 1, line 771.
more passion, more heroic heat, / Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms phrasing that echoes EBB’s description to RB in an 1845 letter of the “novel-poem” she one day hoped to write on the model of “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” (1844), “running into the midst of our conventions, and rushing into drawingrooms’ (BC 10:102),
Roland with his knights at Roncesvalles The subject of the epic poem of medieval France, La Chanson de Roland (c. 1140-70).
King Arthur’s self / Was commonplace to Lady Guenever he legendary king of early Britain and his wife Guenevere, subject matter treated in Tennyson’s ‘Morte d’Arthur’ (1842) and Idylls of the King, the first four books of which appeared in 1859.
Fleet Street: the London centre of newspaper publishing.
[C]atch /Upon the burning lava of a song / The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age a combination of metaphors that one mid-Victorian reviewer (William Roscoe) in the conservative National Review (April 1857) found “almost savage,” exclaiming, “Burning lava and a woman’s breast! and concentrated in the latter the fullest ideas of life. It is absolute pain to read it. No man could have written it” (p. 245). Another (the Chartist poet and essayist Gerald Massey), however, commended the evocation of “the lava mould of that beautiful bosom found … amongst the ruins of Pompeii” in these and the following lines (North British Review, 36 (May 1862), pp. 517-18).
inward evermore / To outward, -- so in life, and so in art / Which still is life a philosophy central to Aurora Leigh, as a March 1855 letter makes clear: EBB 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, and Book 1, l. 1058.). In relation to art, Aurora’s philosophy that the inner “spirit” of each work should “make the form” coincides with Romantic theories of form; cf., especially, the distinction between “organic” and “mechanic” form advanced by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) in his “Lectures on Shakespeare” (wr.1812).
unities of time and place: principles of Aristotelian dramatic composition adopted and expanded by French classical dramatists; unity of time – the action of a play should occur at one time (i.e. one day) and unity of place – and in one place.
Like Jacob’s white-peeled rods before the rams: see Genesis 30:25-43, concerning the dispute between Jacob and his uncle and father-in-law Laban (the father of Leah and Rachael). Laban promises Jacob the “spotted and speckled” (verse 32) cattle, sheep and goats in his herds in return for Jacob’s services. When Laban reneges on his promise, Jacob lays parti-colored stakes from trees (some white and peeled, some green) before the flocks to make them conceive more parti-coloured animals through the power of suggestion.
prick the galleries to the heart pierce to the heart or affect the audience in the cheaper balcony seats; figuratively, the less refined or educated audience.
a wigless Hamlet: i.e., a Hamlet without the powdered wig worn in eighteenth-century productions, when Shakespeare was performed in contemporary dress; in the early 19th century, the actor Charles Kemble (1775-1854) introduced historic costuming.
for London or for Edinburgh: principal sites of publication for major periodicals such as, in London, The Athenæum, The Westminster Review, and The Quarterly Review, and in Edinburgh, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, The Edinburgh Review and The North British Review.
write no plays ... adopts the standards of the public taste cf. EBB’s comments to RB on 17 and 27 February 1845 concerning the “great mill of the ‘rank, popular’ playhouse’” and the “vulgariz[ing]” nature of “the modern theatre” (BC 10: 79, 101); see also the note to line 340, below.
pit and boxesthe pit or floor of the theatre (the cheapest area) and the private boxes, reserved by the wealthier classes.
King Saul’s father’s asses see 1 Samuel 9:20, “And as for thine asses that were lost three days ago, set not thy mind on them; for they are found.”
Weep, my Æschylus, / ... thy bald head see the note to Book 1, ll. 454-5, on this allusion to the Greek poet’s death in Sicily, the subject of EBB’s unpublished “[Aeschylus Monodrama]”, long misattributed to RB [hot link to earlier note].
Hyblan bee Hybla, a mountain in Sicily famed for its honey; see, e.g., Virgil’s Eclogues 1:54.
Imogen and Juliet Imogen from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Juliet from Romeo and Juliet. On EBB’s high regard for the Elizabethan dramatists and especially Shakespeare (as opposed to contemporary Victorian theatre), see her survey of English poetry, “The Book of the Poets,” WEBB, vol. 4, pp. 461-4.
The sacrificial goat, for Bacchus, slainanimal sacrifice associated with sacred rites for the Greek god Dionysius (Roman name Bacchus), from which the Greek drama arose. See the notes to ll. 319-20 in Aurora Leigh Norton and WEBB, vol. 1.
alter-flame the flame from the thymele, the altar of Dionysus in the centre of the orchestra in the ancient Greek theatre.
waxen mask, / Which set the grand still front of Themis’ son the mask worn by actors in Greek drama, here portraying the grand front (a poetical term for forehead) of Prometheus, sometimes referred to as “Themis’ son” (i.e., son of the Titan goddess Themis) in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound; see EBB’s second translation of the play (1850) in WEBB, vol. 1, ll. 19, 251-3.
buskin The high thick-soled boot (cothurnus) worn by the actors in ancient Athenian tragedy; frequently contrasted with the “sock” or low shoe worn by comedians.
take for a worthier stage the soul itself cf. dramatic poems in WEBB, vol. 1, by EBB such as “The Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus” (1838), “Bertha in the Lane” (1844) and “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” (pub. 1847, dated 1848), as well as RB’s much cited comments in a 1863 dedication prefacing his poem Sordello (1840) that his emphasis lay on “incidents in development of a soul.” See also EBB’s letters to RB of 17 and 27 February 1845, expressing her skepticism of “modern theatre,” praising his “dramatic impersonations” (i.e., dramatic monologues), and encouraging him to exercise his “great dramatic power” more in a “less definite mould” , i.e., dramatic poetry as opposed to stage plays (BC 10: 79, 101-2).
that blue vein athrob on Mahomet’s brow the vein on Mohammed's brow described as throbbing when he experienced anger in On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History (1841) by Thomas Carlyle and other sources; see the note to l. 354 in Aurora Leigh Norton and WEBB, vol. 3. Cf. RB’s “Blue as a vein o’er the Madonna’s breast” (l. 44, “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church” (1845).

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