Aurora Leigh

Aurora Leigh

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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'Aurora Leigh' is an eponymous epic novel/poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The poem is written in blank verse and encompasses nine books. Through Book 5, Aurora narrates her past, from her childhood to the age of about 27; in Books 6-9, the narrative has caught up with her, and she reports events in diary form. Elizabeth Barrett Browning styled the poem "a novel in verse", and referred to it as "the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607784913
Publisher: MobileReference
Publication date: 01/01/2010
Series: Mobi Classics
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 352 KB

About the Author

Kerry McSweeney also edited Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus for the World's Classics.

Read an Excerpt

Aurora Leigh

A Poem

By Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 1979 Academy Chicago Publishers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-915864-85-0



    OF writing many books there is no end;
    And I who have written much in prose and verse
    For others' uses, will write now for mine, —
    Will write my story for my better self,
    As when you paint your portrait for a friend,
    Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it
    Long after he has ceased to love you, just
    To hold together what he was and is.

    I, writing thus, am still what men call young;
    I have not so far left the coasts of life
    To travel inland, that I cannot hear
    That murmur of the outer Infinite
    Which unweaned babies smile at in their sleep
    When wondered at for smiling; not so far,
    But still I catch my mother at her post
    Beside the nursery-door, with finger up,
    'Hush, hush — here's too much noise!' while her sweet eyes
    Leap forward, taking part against her word
    In the child's riot. Still I sit and feel
    My father's slow hand, when she had left us both,
    Stroke out my childish curls across his knee;
    And hear Assunta's daily jest (she knew
    He liked it better than a better jest)
    Inquire how many golden scudi went
    To make such ringlets. O my father's hand,
    Stroke the poor hair down, stroke it heavily, —
    Draw, press the child's head closer to thy knee!
    I'm still too young, too young to sit alone.

    I write. My mother was a Florentine,
    Whose rare blue eyes were shut from seeing me
    When scarcely I was four years old; my life,
    A poor spark snatched up from a failing lamp
    Which went out therefore. She was weak and frail;
    She could not bear the joy of giving life —
    The mother's rapture slew her. If her kiss
    Had left a longer weight upon my lips,
    It might have steadied the uneasy breath,
    And reconciled and fraternised my soul
    With the new order. As it was, indeed,
    I felt a mother-want about the world,
    And still went seeking, like a bleating lamb
    Left out at night, in shutting up the fold, —
    As restless as a nest-deserted bird
    Grown chill through something being away, though what
    It knows not. I, Aurora Leigh, was born
    To make my father sadder, and myself
    Not overjoyous, truly. Women know
    The way to rear up children, (to be just,)
    They know a simple, merry, tender knack
    Of tying sashes, fitting baby-shoes,
    And stringing pretty words that make no sense,
    And kissing full sense into empty words;
    Which things are corals to cut life upon,
    Although such trifles: children learn by such,
    Love's holy earnest in a pretty play,
    And get not over-early solemnised, —
    But seeing, as in a rose-bush, Love's Divine,
    Which burns and hurts not, — not a single bloom, —
    Become aware and unafraid of Love.
    Such good do mothers. Fathers love as well
    — Mine did, I know, — but still with heavier brains,
    And wills more consciously responsible,
    And not as wisely, since less foolishly;
    So mothers have God's licence to be missed

    My father was an austere Englishman,
    Who, after a dry life-time spent at home
    In college-learning, law, and parish talk,
    Was flooded with a passion unaware,
    His whole provisioned and complacent past
    Drowned out from him that moment. As he stood
    In Florence, where he had come to spend a month
    And note the secret of Da Vinci's drains,
    He musing somewhat absently perhaps
    Some English question .. whether men should pay
    The unpopular but necessary tax
    With left or right hand — in the alien sun
    In that great square of the Santissima,
    There drifted past him (scarcely marked enough
    To move his comfortable island-scorn,)
    A train of priestly banners, cross and psalm, —
    The white-veiled rose-crowned maidens holding up
    Tall tapers, weighty for such wrists, aslant
    To the blue luminous tremor of the air,
    And letting drop the white wax as they went
    To eat the bishop's wafer at the church;
    From which long trail of chanting priests and girls,
    A face flashed like a cymbal on his face,
    And shook with silent clangour brain and hearty
    Transfiguring him to music. Thus, even thus,
    He too received his sacramental gift
    With eucharistic meanings; for he loved.

    And thus beloved, she died. I've heard it said
    That but to see him in the first surprise
    Of widower and father, nursing me,
    Unmothered little child of four years old,
    His large man's hands afraid to touch my curls,
    As if the gold would tarnish, — his grave lips
    Contriving such a miserable smile,
    As if he knew needs must, or I should die,
    And yet 'twas hard, — would almost make the stones
    Cry out for pity. There's a verse he set
    In Santa Croce to her memory,
    'Weep for an infant too young to weep much
    When death removed this mother'— stops the mirth
    To-day, on women's faces when they walk
    With rosy children hanging on their gowns,
    Under the cloister, to escape the sun
    That scorches in the piazza. After which,
    He left our Florence, and made haste to hide
    Himself, his prattling child, and silent grief,
    Among the mountains above Pelago;
    Because unmothered babes, he thought, had need
    Of mother nature more than others use,
    And Pan's white goats, with udders warm and full
    Of mystic contemplations, come to feed
    Poor milkless lips of orphans like his own —
    Such scholar-scraps he talked, I've heard from friends,
    For even prosaic men, who wear grief long,
    Will get to wear it as a hat aside
    With a flower stuck in't. Father, then, and child,
    We lived among the mountains many years,
    God's silence on the outside of the house,
    And we, who did not speak too loud, within;
    And old Assunta to make up the fire,
    Crossing herself whene'er a sudden flame
    Which lightened from the firewood, made alive
    That picture of my mother on the wall.
    The painter drew it after she was dead;
    And when the face was finished, throat and hands,
    Her cameriera carried him, in hate
    Of the English-fashioned shroud, the last brocade
    She dressed in at the Pitti. 'He should paint
    No sadder thing than that,' she swore, 'to wrong
    Her poor signora.' Therefore very strange
    The effect was. I, a little child, would crouch
    For hours upon the floor, with knees drawn up
    And gaze across them, half in terror, half
    In adoration, at the picture there, —
    That swan-like supernatural white life,
    Just sailing upward from the red stiff silk
    Which seemed to have no part in it, nor power
    To keep it from quite breaking out of bounds:
    For hours I sate and stared. Assunta's awe
    And my poor father's melancholy eyes
    Still pointed that way. That way, went my thoughts
    When wandering beyond sight. And as I grew
    In years, I mixed, confused, unconsciously,
    Whatever I last read or heard or dreamed,
    Abhorrent, admirable, beautiful,
    Pathetical, or ghastly, or grotesque,
    With still that face ... which did not therefore change,
    But kept the mystic level of all forms
    And fears and admirations; was by turn;
    Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite, —
    A dauntless Muse who eyes a dreadful Fate,
    A loving Psyche who loses sight of Love,
    A still Medusa, with mild milky brows
    All curdled and all clothed upon with snakes
    Whose slime falls fast as sweat will; or, anon,
    Our Lady of the Passion, stabbed with swords
    Where the Babe sucked; or, Lamia in her first
    Moonlighted pallor, ere she shrunk and blinked,
    And, shuddering, wriggled down to the unclean;
    Or, my own mother, leaving her last smile
    In her last kiss, upon the baby-mouth
    My father pushed down on the bed for that, —
    Or my dead mother, without smile or kiss,
    Buried at Florence. All which images,
    Concentred on the picture, glassed themselves
    Before my meditative childhood, .. as
    The incoherencies of change and death
    Are represented fully, mixed and merged,
    In the smooth fair mystery of perpetual Life.

    And while I stared away my childish wits
    Upon my mother's picture, (ah, poor child!)
    My father, who through love had suddenly
    Thrown off the old conventions, broken loose
    From chin-bands of the soul, like Lazarus,
    Yet had no time to learn to talk and walk
    Or grow anew familiar with the sun, —
    Who had reached to freedom, not to action, lived,
    But lived as one entranced, with thoughts, not aims, —
    Whom love had unmade from a common man
    But not completed to an uncommon man, —
    My father taught me what he had learnt the best
    Before he died and left me, — grief and love.
    And, seeing we had books among the hills,
    Strong words of counselling souls, confederate
    With vocal pines and waters, — out of books
    He taught me all the ignorance of men,
    And how God laughs in heaven when any man
    Says, 'Here I'm learned; this, I understand;
    In that, I am never caught at fault or doubt.'
    He sent the schools to school, demonstrating
    A fool will pass for such through one mistake,
    While a philosopher will pass for such,
    Through said mistakes being ventured in the gross
    And heaped up to a system.
    I am like,
    They tell me, my dear father. Broader brows
    Howbeit, upon a slenderer undergrowth
    Of delicate features, — paler, near as grave;
    But then my mother's smile breaks up the whole,
    And makes it better sometimes than itself.

    So, nine full years, our days were hid with God
    Among his mountains. I was just thirteen,
    Still growing like the plants from unseen roots
    In tongue-tied Springs, — and suddenly awoke
    To full life and its needs and agonies,
    With an intense, strong, struggling heart beside
    A stone-dead father. Life, struck sharp on death,
    Makes awful lightning. His last word was, 'Love —'
    'Love, my child, love, love!' — (then he had done with grief)
    'Love, my child.' Ere I answered he was gone,
    And none was left to love in all the world.

    There, ended childhood: what succeeded next
    I recollect as, after fevers, men
    Thread back the passage of delirium,
    Missing the turn still, baffled by the door;
    Smooth endless days, notched here and there with knives;
    A weary, wormy darkness, spurred i' the flank
    With flame, that it should eat and end itself
    Like some tormented scorpion. Then, at last,
    I do remember clearly, how there came
    A stranger with authority, not right,
    (I thought not) who commanded, caught me up
    From old Assunta's neck; how, with a shriek,
    She let me go, — while I, with ears too full
    Of my father's silence, to shriek back a word,
    In all a child's astonishment at grief
    Stared at the wharfage where she stood and moaned,
    My poor Assunta, where she stood and moaned!
    The white walls, the blue hills, my Italy,
    Drawn backward from the shuddering steamer-deck,
    Like one in anger drawing back her skirts
    Which suppliants catch at. Then the bitter sea
    Inexorably pushed between us both,
    And sweeping up the ship with my despair
    Threw us out as a pasture to the stars.
    Ten nights and days we voyaged on the deep;
    Ten nights and days, without the common face
    Of any day or night; the moon and sun
    Cut off from the green reconciling earth,
    To starve into a blind ferocity
    And glare unnatural; the very sky
    (Dropping its bell-net down upon the sea
    As if no human heart should 'scape alive,)
    Bedraggled with the desolating salt,
    Until it seemed no more than holy heaven
    To which my father went. All new, and strange —
    The universe turned stranger, for a child.

    Then, land! — then, England! oh, the frosty cliffs
    Looked cold upon me. Could I find a home
    Among those mean red houses through the fog?
    And when I heard my father's language first
    From alien lips which had no kiss for mine,
    I wept aloud, then laughed, then wept, then wept, —
    And some one near me said the child was mad
    Through much sea-sickness. The train swept us on.
    Was this my father's England? the great isle?
    The ground seemed cut up from the fellowship
    Of verdure, field from field, as man from man;
    The skies themselves looked low and positive,
    As almost you could touch them with a hand,
    And dared to do it, they were so far off
    From God's celestial crystals; all things, blurred
    And dull and vague. Did Shakspeare and his mates
    Absorb the light here? — not a hill or stone
    With heart to strike a radiant colour up
    Or active outline on the indifferent air!

    I think I see my father's sister stand
    Upon the hall-step of her country-house
    To give me welcome. She stood straight and calm,
    Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight
    As if for taming accidental thoughts
    From possible pulses; brown hair pricked with grey
    By frigid use of life, (she was not old,
    Although my father's elder by a year)
    A nose drawn sharply, yet in delicate lines;
    A close mild mouth, a little soured about
    The ends, through speaking unrequited loves,
    Or peradventure niggardly half-truths;
    Eyes of no colour, — once they might have smile I,
    But never, never have forgot themselves
    In smiling; cheeks in which was yet a rose
    Of perished summers, like a rose in a book,
    Kept more for ruth than pleasure, — if past bloom,
    Past fading also.
    She had lived we'll say,
    A harmless life, she called a virtuous life,
    A quiet life, which was not life at all,
    (But that, she had not lived enough to know)
    Between the vicar and the county squires,
    The lord-lieutenant looking down sometimes
    From the empyreal, to assure their souls
    Against chance vulgarisms, and, in the abyss,
    The apothecary looked on once a year,
    To prove their soundness of humility.
    The poor-club exercised her Christian gifts
    Of knitting stockings, stitching petticoats,
    Because we are of one flesh after all
    And need one flannel, (with a proper sense
    Of difference in the quality) — and still
    The book-club guarded from your modern trick
    Of shaking dangerous questions from the crease,
    Preserved her intellectual. She had lived
    A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage,
    Accounting that to leap from perch to perch
    Was act and joy enough for any bird.
    Dear heaven, how silly are the things that live
    In thickets, and eat berries!
    I, alas,
    A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage,
    And she was there to meet me. Very kind,
    Bring the clean water; give out the fresh seed.
    She stood upon the steps to welcome me,
    Calm, in black garb. I clung about her neck, —
    Young babes, who catch at every shred of wool
    To draw the new light closer, catch and cling
    Less blindly. In my ears, my father's word
    Hummed ignorantly, as the sea in shells,
    'Love, love, my child,' She, black there with my grief,
    Might feel my love — she was his sister once —
    I clung to her. A moment, she seemed moved.
    Kissed me with cold lips, suffered me to cling,
    And drew me feebly through the hall, into
    The room she sate in.
    There, with some strange spasm
    Of pain and passion, she wrung loose my hands
    Imperiously, and held me at arm's length,
    And with two grey-steel naked-bladed eyes
    Searched through my face, — ay, stabbed it through and through,
    Through brows and cheeks and chin, as if to find
    A wicked murderer in my innocent face,
    If not here, there perhaps. Then, drawing breath,
    She struggled for her ordinary calm,
    And missed it rather, — told me not to shrink,
    As if she had told me not to lie or swear, —
    'She loved my father, and would love me too
    As long as I deserved it.' Very kind.

    I understood her meaning afterward;
    She thought to find my mother in my face,
    And questioned it for that. For she, my aunt,
    Had loved my father truly, as she could,
    And hated, with the gall of gentle souls,
    My Tuscan mother, who had fooled away
    A wise man from wise courses, a good man
    From obvious duties, and, depriving her,
    His sister, of the household precedence,
    Had wronged his tenants, robbed his native land,
    And made him mad, alike by life and death,
    In love and sorrow. She had pored for years
    What sort of woman could be suitable
    To her sort of hate, to entertain it with;
    And so, her very curiosity
    Became hate too, and all the idealism
    She ever used in life, was used for hate,
    Till hate, so nourished, did exceed at last
    The love from which it grew, in strength and heat,
    And wrinkled her smooth conscience with a sense
    Of disputable virtue (say not, sin)
    When Christian doctrine was enforced at church.


Excerpted from Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Copyright © 1979 Academy Chicago Publishers. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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