Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1856
Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is part novel, part poem and part manifesto on the magnificence of ordinary human lives. Browning chose to tell the story of a female poet in the form of a blank verse epic poem, a medium usually reserved for stories of gods and heroes. Why? Let’s let EBB explain it in her own words:
So much to love in that stanza. First of all, yes, please do write me a poem about the toad in the moat over which passed King Arthur. Toad poem please. Secondly, “half chattel and half queen.” I do love the fantasy genre, but EBB has a point. Medieval times were not more glorious, they were rife with human rights violations and dung. What EBB really wanted was for poets to write about the lives of contemporary people. She wanted them to see beauty in the struggles, the failures and the triumphs of the people around them.
To that end, she wrote a poem about Aurora Leigh and her cousin Romney Leigh and formatted it like a Greek epic. Like Greek heroes, Aurora and Romney are flawed, they take on great tasks, they struggle; succeed; experience hubris; fall, and marry people who are a bit too closely related. Browning presents the struggle to become a happy, productive, moral human being as a heroic act. Which it is. Don’t you think?
Her verse is lovely, dense with meaning, poignant and insightful. I am so glad I started this reading project, because without it Aurora Leigh would have remained on my “I should really read that someday” list until I died. And then I would never have paused to think about the toad in the medieval ditch. I love that toad and I love Elizabeth Barret Browning for adding it to my imagination.
I could write forever about Aurora Leigh. In fact, I have rewritten this post three times, because it is quite difficult to put my sentiments about this book into words. Instead of rambling on, I give you these lines, they are the first lines of the poem. You can see for yourself how gripping her metaphors are.
So good. I can’t stand it.
You might like Aurora Leigh if:
- you can handle blank verse epics such as The Odyssey and Paradise Lost.
- you love Jane Eyre. There are a lot of parallels in the story, which I assume were meant as an homage.
- you are interested in the plight of early women authors.
You might not like Aurora Leigh if:
- you’re more into fantasy than realism.
- you don’t want to read 325 pages of unrhymed iambic pentameter.
Final thoughts: My thoughts on Aurora Leigh will never actually be final. I will pick it up again and again. It’s one of those rare and wonderful books that transcends mere entertainment and becomes a friend to the reader. I think I have more annotations per page for this text than any other I have read for this project. It stimulates my thoughts. I love it. Also, I hang out with Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband, Robert Browning, a few times a week in my imagination. Party with the Brownings.