Elizabeth Barret Browning – Aurora Leigh (1856)

A Verse-Novel that strains to the condition of a modern epic. According to Browning, “The poem I am about will fill a volume when done. It is…written in blank verse, in the autobiographical form; the heroine, an artist woman–not a painter, mind. It is intensely modern, crammed from the times (not the ‘Times’ newspaper) as far as my strength will allow.” The narrative is simple: Aurora Leigh, born in Italy, becomes an orphan at a young age and is shipped back to England to be raised by her conventional aunt, who discourages her artistic endeavors. At the age of 21, her cousin Romney asks her to marry him and also to give up her poetic enterprise in order to fight contemporary social evils. Aurora declines, claiming equal importance for her art. At book 5, the narrative shifts to the theme of writing itself. Aurora eventually hears that Romney has decided to marry the indigent Marian Erle, but she stands him up on the wedding day. Aurora runs into her and hears her violent story, takes her and her child to Italy, where the now blind Romney eventually meets them. In the much more novelistic conclusion, Aurora and Romney marry.

Mixes all genres together, including lyric, epic and novel. Browning is self-conscious about the formlessness of the poem–“I’m writing like a poet, somewhat large” (Henry James would call it “muddy,” Woolf would call it absurd but exhilarating):

What form is best for poems? Let me think
Of forms less, and the external. Trust the spirit…
Inward evermore
To outward–so in life, and so in art
Which still is life. (v.223-228)

The closing bars of the poem are particularly novelistic, as if the novel becomes necessary for the consolidation of the lyric. Can talk about the end as a zone of poetic emergency, to use Agamben’s terms. Coincides with the conventional marriage (similar endings in David Copperfield (1850), Bleak House (1852), North and South (1854)). Do we consider this coda as extra-diagetic? How can we realte this mixing of genres to Bakhtin’s heteroglossia on the one hand, and Lukacs theory of epic on other other? One can at least ay that there is no simple one-to-one relationship between the subject and the world…rather, the soul is amalgamation of many experiences across a diachronic axis:

A palimpsest, a prophet’s holograph
Defiled, erased and covered by a monk’s–
The apocalypse, by a Longus! poring on
Which obscene text, we may discern perhaps
Some fair, fine trace of what was written once,
Some upstroke of an alpha and omega
Expressing the old scripture. (i.826-32)

That which has been overwritten and must be uncovered by more writing is precisely that element of life which the work of art is able to convey, create, or hold. The question this poem asks: how can a poem hold a charge of life? How can it represent without killing (perhaps in this posing an answer to the question of “The Kraken”). We can begin to talk of an ethics of NOT REDUCING. This entails a certain vitalism that detaches LIFE from any particular subject, and redistributes it to all the objects of the outside world. Life is in everything: “Life’s violent flood / Abolished bounds–and, which my neighbor’s field, / Which mine, what mattered?”

                                             Never flinch,
But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon the burning lava song
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
Behold–behold the paps we all have sucked!
This bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets our beating: this is living art,
Which thus presents and thus records true life.’ (v.216-221)

This is manages a convergence of lyric and epic–a brush so close with materiality that we forget we are looking at it…so now brute materiality brushes with infinity in the zone of maximal contact with the present.

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