(The "Carrington" referred to below is an invented painter, one of the characters in the novel-in-verse from which this excerpt is taken. Other explanations follow.)
. . . Without the spiritual, observe,
The natural's impossible; – no form,
No motion! Without sensuous, spiritual
Is inappreciable; – no beauty or power!
And in this twofold sphere the twofold man
(And still the artist is intensely a man)
Holds firmly by the natural, to reach
The spiritual beyond it, – fixes still
The type with mortal vision, to pierce through,
With eyes immortal, to the antitype
Some call the ideal, – better called the real,
And certain to be called so presently
When things shall have their names. Look long enough
On any peasant's face here, coarse and lined,
You'll catch Antinous somewhere in that clay,
As perfect-featured as he yearns at Rome
From marble pale with beauty; then persist,
And, if your apprehension's competent,
You'll find some fairer angel at his back,
As much exceeding him, as he the boor,
And pushing him with empyreal disdain
For ever out of sight. Ay, Carrington
Is glad of such a creed! an artist must,
Who paints a tree, a leaf, a common stone,
With just his hand, and finds it suddenly
A-piece with and conterminous with his soul.
Why else do these things move him, leaf or stone?
The bird's not moved, that pecks at a spring-shoot;
Nor yet the horse before a quarry, a-graze:
But man, the two-fold creature, apprehends
The twofold manner, in and outwardly,
And nothing in the world comes single to him,
A mere itself, – cup, column, or candlestick,
All patterns of what shall be in the Mount;
The whole temporal show related royally,
And built up to eterne significance
Through the open arms of God. "There's nothing great
Nor small," has said a poet of our day,
(Whose voice will ring beyond the curfew of eve
And not be thrown out by the matin's bell)
And truly, I reiterate, . . nothing's small!
No lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee,
But finds some coupling with the spinning stars;
No pebble at your foot, but proves a sphere;
No chaffinch, but implies the cherubim;
And, – glancing at my own thin, veinèd wrist, –
In such a little tremour of the blood
The whole strong clamour of a vehement soul
Doth utter itself distinct. Earth's crammed with Heaven
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more, from the first similitude.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from Aurora Leigh, Book VII, ll 773 - 826
I think this excerpt lies near the heart of Barrett Browning's novel in verse, though it captures only one aspect of this strange and fluid epic-length combination of Gothic romance, industrial novel, feminist manifesto, defense of poetry, political paper, travelogue, psychological study, and more. I first read it several years ago, in an edition that combined it with other works by Barrett Browning (I will talk about the specific edition below). It did not really benefit from being read in conjunction with some of her other works. For one thing, she's very passionate, and can be very political, with the inevitable result that she can be at times a bit of a gasbag (I'm referring to some of her other poems, not Aurora Leigh). She was resident in Florence for many years and had a deep love for Italy (she makes Aurora Leigh, her semi-stand-in, half-Italian), and I grew irritated in particular with some verses denouncing Italian men for not making war against the people she thought they ought to make war against. She was an invalid, suffering most of her life from debilitating illnesses, which led also to an addiction to opiates, and as an invalid, as a foreigner, and as a woman she was exempt from taking active part in these battles, so it left a very sour taste in my mouth to read this wealthy woman berating the peasants (that's not a metaphor, they were actual peasants) for not risking their lives and health (and consequently the continued well-being of their families) in battle. Imperialism takes many forms. Oppressive though Italy's foreign rulers may have been, can we admit that there's something at the very least distasteful about requiring foreign men to die for your beliefs in a war you're not fighting? In consequence I ended up feeling a bit put off by her. (In defense of her politically motivated poetry, however, I should point out that her poems also helped promote restrictions on child labor; she also wrote in favor of the abolition of slavery – a principled and altruistic position for her, since much of her family's fortune was linked to slavery and Jamaican plantations. In other words, her political poetry accomplished actual good in the world, as opposed to most "political" poetry, which mostly amounts to sanctimonious posturing in a deserted auditorium.)
With this lingering sourness in mind, I picked up Aurora Leigh several weeks ago (no particular reason, except that it had been a while, and something in the back of my mind kept returning to the book and I wanted to refresh my impressions, and this seems to be my year for re-reading things). I found it compelling, rich, and fascinating.
Like her slightly later compatriot George Eliot, Barrett Browning was exceptionally intellectual and well-educated (by private tutors and on her own, since at the time women were not allowed into the universities). She was able to read the major classical and Biblical languages. It's interesting that both women were raised in very religious households, either Evangelical or Dissenting; even as they moved away from specific doctrines, both remained imbued with a sense of radical Christian egalitarianism and compassion, and with a sense that life is serious and potentially meaningful, and that that is a source of its beauty. These impulses (both intellectual and religious) take very different forms in them, though; with Eliot, you feel a deep and far-seeing wisdom, an abiding sense of empathy that, despite or through the turmoils and struggles of life, leads to the peace that passeth understanding; with Barrett Browning, you feel that she is hurling herself, repeatedly and forcefully, against the impermeable wall of reality, desperate to break through to the vision she is certain must be on the other side.
Barrett Browning was an infant prodigy of poetry, writing a Homeric epic on the subject of the battle of Marathon before she was a teenager. But as she grew older, and as she argues in Aurora Leigh, she felt that it was a mistake for poetry to stick with, or retreat to, classical and medieval subjects (she published Aurora Leigh around the time Tennyson was writing Idylls of the King): poetry needed to go into the drawing-rooms of the present day, and not only the drawing rooms; part of her novel (and as the novel was gaining in prestige, she did not hesitate to confront and expand it poetically) deals with the impoverished: there is a Dickensian saintly single mother, Miriam, who rebukes Victorian moral hypocrisy by saying, "We wretches cannot tell out all our wrong, / Without offense to decent happy folk. / I know that we must scrupulously hint / With half-words, delicate reserves, the thing / Which no one scruples we should feel in full" (Aurora Leigh, Book VI, ll 1219 - 1223).
In the passage above, Barrett Browning discusses the role of the thoughtful, the observant, and above all the artist, in awakening humanity to the spiritual possibilities inherent in existence. Mankind hovers between the physical and an awareness of the spiritual: this is the "twofold sphere" in which we dwell. Although she feels we are moving ultimately towards the spiritual, she does not deny the physical; it is through the physical that we become aware of the spiritual. But the twofold sphere leads to the "twofold man": the awareness of the divine vision beyond can lead to restlessness and dissatisfaction. There is a running motif of Aurora Leigh feeling discontented with her latest book of poems, no matter how acclaimed it is, or how deeply it has moved others: she is always striving for more. In this context, and in the context of this verse-novel's argument for the value of women's writing, is is curious to read the parenthetical remark "(And still the artist is intensely a man)" – why "a man" instead of "human"? Parentheses contain necessary clarification and amplification, so we can't just ignore it, though perhaps we are simply meant to read man in the sense, less commonly used these days, of human – that is, women as well as men. But this seems a bit too easy. Perhaps she wants to bring in – for the artist is of his or her nature a visionary, and therefore an outsider – that implication of independence and self-reliance and thinking for oneself associated with certain emphatic uses of man (the way we might try to convey some of the same qualities in a woman by saying, "She's a pioneer gal" or "she's a farm-woman-type"). Perhaps there is some exasperation in her phrasing: still, despite humanity's slow movement forward, there is the assumption (one made by some of the characters in this verse-novel, and argued against by Aurora) that the artist must be male.
She calls on the artist, the proxy for humanity, to see intensely and intently, with "eyes immortal" (and therefore godlike, since nothing human is immortal) to pierce through outward appearances towards the vast and expansive spiritual. I think it was Conrad who said that it was the artist's task above all to make you see. But as in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, we must understand that what we see is not reality, but a reflection of the real reality: "to the antitype / Some call the ideal, – better called the real." Antitype is an interesting word here, since it means both the opposite of someone or something else and a symbol for something else. The antitype is both the opposite and the true fulfillment of what we see: "and certain to be called so presently / When things shall have their names." The apocalyptic phrasing hints towards the vision of the New Jerusalem that ends both the Bible and Aurora Leigh; Adam began the world by naming God's creations, and giving things their true names is the sign of a world re-born.
Antinous was the youthful male favorite of the Roman Emperor Hadrian. When the young man died under mysterious circumstances, the disconsolate Emperor deified him, with the result that the "perfect-featured" youth was still a familiar sculptural presence in Barrett Browning's time (and in our own). Look long enough, and intently enough, in the coarse and lined human clay of the Italian peasant's face, and beyond the clay you'll see marble, "pale with beauty"; keep looking, and the marble dissolves to spirit, "some fairer angel," whose glory pushes Antinous as well as peasant out of sight (note the pun here, frequent in Paradise Lost, on empyreal / imperial: Antinous the imperial favorite is pushed aside by the empyreal). Just as Antinous is an example of a beautiful man turned into a god, so the homely peasant (clay) reveals an Antinous (marble) who in turn reveals a glorious angel (spirit).
Then Aurora, our narrator, reverts to the society she's been describing to us: the artist Carrington is mentioned. Why is he so strangely moved at times, finding his soul in his drawing of a leaf or stone (remember that certain decorated manuscripts are said to be illuminated, which can also mean filled with light), when birds or horses, who are more dependent for survival on leaves or stones than we are, are not moved? It is because of the twofold awareness: inner and outer, physical and spiritual. The most mundane physical objects ("cup, column, or candlestick") are "All patterns of what shall be in the Mount." As in the Sermon Jesus delivered on the Mount or the revelations Moses received at Mount Sinai, the Mount is the source of divine presence and revelation; everything finds significance in the final and ever-lasting (eterne is an archaic word for eternal) embrace of God.
Barrett Browning is a religious poet in the visionary mode of Blake (though the poet she quotes, "There's nothing great nor small," is her husband Robert Browning; hence her loving tribute). In a vivid, ecstatic passage, she explicates the glory behind the mundane and minuscule: the buzzing bee and the spinning star, the pebble and the globe, the small common bird that implies the cherubim. And she achieves her spiritual effect through an appeal to our sensuous awareness of language and sound, particularly alliteration: not just buzzing or humming, but "the lily-muffled hum of a summer-bee" (the mu of muffled is picked up playfully in hum and summer), linked to the spinning stars (whose sibilant s is picked up in sphere in the next line, just as proves picks up the p of pebble earlier in its line); chaffinch leads to cherubim. She ends with her own thin wrist, and the strong clamor of a vehement soul implicit in her sickly circulation. She ends with an evocation of the burning bush in which God was made manifest to Moses, only here it's not just one, but every common bush that is "afire with God," burning without being destroyed by the flames. But only the one who sees (remember, the job of the artist is to make you see, and remember the Biblical warning "None are so blind as those who have eyes and do not see") has the awareness to follow the example of Moses and take off his shoes since he is standing on sacred ground. The rest sit around, eating blackberries, getting the juices smeared on their faces, content with the world of similitude, of resemblances – the husks that surround them. (There is a hint here of the implicit snobbery of the visionary and artist, the contempt for those who do not share their vision – a hint of the quality in some of her political poetry that soured me. Perhaps it's inevitable that idealists end up with some contempt for lumpen, unmoved humanity.)
For many years (in the primitive pre-Internet days) Aurora Leigh was one of the books I was unable to find a copy of. Now you have a choice! There are the usual suspects among literary texts: Penguin Classics, Oxford World's Classics, and Norton Critical Editions. These editions are all annotated, which might be for the best, since this verse-novel is dense with references to the Bible, myth, history, art, and literature: I mean, it will make sense if you just read it as a story, but it enriches the experience the more awareness you have of what else the poet is pulling in. I should point out now that the only one of these editions I have looked at is the Penguin Classics version, edited by John Robert Glorney Bolton and Julia Bolton Holloway, which has the advantage of including a generous selection of her other poems (so if you're looking to get a general sense of her as a poet, this would be the edition to get). The annotations, possibly for reasons of space, tend to be a bit elliptical (for instance, giving just the "chapter and verse" rather than the entire quotation for references to the Bible, Dante, Milton, etc.). I'm OK with this but you can judge your own comfort level. The editors do make some interesting connections that I might have missed just reading through: for instance, though I was aware of the many classical references, it was helpful when they pointed out that many of them involve gender reversals (so that if there is a reference to Achilles, it will be to the story at the very beginning of the Trojan War when his mother Thetis tried to hide him from the Greeks by dressing him as a girl and hiding him in the court of the King of Skyros).
My major complaint about this edition is one I frequently have with annotated editions: maybe we're supposed to be too sophisticated to care about plot, but they give away key information before we are supposed to know it. I'm not just talking about the preface; the annotations to each of the nine books (nine: like the number of months of a human pregnancy) open with a summary of what we are about to read. Why not let us read it first? You can always skip these or return to them at the end, but you don't know to do this unless someone warns you first (which is what I'm doing here). This is particularly problematic in the last few books of the work. There is a crucial piece of information which Aurora, our narrator, does not realize until almost the very end, which means we're not supposed to realize it either. Yet the editors blithely make sure we know. There's supposed to be a shock, and even a bit of humbling, when Aurora realizes this thing, a thing which involves the humbling of one of the male protagonists: this mutual humbling is what allows them both to move past some of their earlier attitudes towards each other and towards a vision (with explicit reference to the end of the Book of Revelations) of worldly and spiritual fulfillment. The mutual humbling – the fact that it's not just the man, but Aurora as well, who needs to realize and learn from his and her limitations – is a very important point, and one that was smudged my first time around, owing to the intrusive synopsis delivering information too early. (I hope this is clear without being too specific; I'm deliberately avoiding recounting the plot).
Another problem frequent to these editions of women writers is that the editors claim that the work is about a woman operating in "a man's world"; in fact, though there are men, occasionally powerful ones, in Aurora Leigh, they are not the principal players, and they too are often thwarted by the world around them (a world which, of course, includes many women). (My favorite example of this reductive sort of reading was an edition of Gaskell's Wives and Daughters that said the book was about women coping with male power; as the title might tell you, and as reading the novel will definitely tell you, that book is very much about power between and among women.) In this story, to a very thorough extent, most of the heroes, victims, and villains, in their varying degrees and kinds, are women. To give an example (again, without giving away too much of the plot) there is a rape that results in an illegitimate child, but though the rapist is vehemently condemned, he is an anonymous, undifferentiated, and passing character; there is much more emphasis on, and much more characterization and discussion of, the women who tried to trick the victim into a life of prostitution and on the flirtatious young housewife who hypocritically fires the young woman when she finds out that her new maid has a child but no husband. This simplification of gender/power issues was another element that helped smudge the ending for me: it's mentioned that the man is humbled into a new life, but it's equally important (yet unmentioned) that Aurora is as well.
If anyone has read the Oxford World's Classics edition or the Norton Critical Edition, I'd be interested in hearing any thoughts on their presentation.