Aurora Leigh and Other Poems, Paperback Book
4 out of 5 (1 rating)


Aurora Leigh (1856), Elizabeth Barrett Browning's epic novel in blank verse, tells the story of the making of a woman poet, exploring 'the woman question', art and its relation to politics and social oppression.

The texts in this selection are based in the main on the earliest printed versions of the poems.

What Edgar Allan Poe called 'her wild and magnificent genius' is abundantly in evidence.

In addition to Aurora Leigh, this volume contains poetry from the several volumes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's published poetry from 1826 to 1862, including Casa Guidi Windows (1851), Songs for the Ragged Schools of London (1854) and the British Library manuscript text of the 'Sonnets from the Portuguese' (1846) which records her courtship with Robert Browning.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: Poetry by individual poets
  • ISBN: 9780140434125

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning is another of those writers cursed with an interesting biography. We all know of her from countless films and historical novels: the classic Victorian invalid, who left her Wimpole Street sofa only to elope to Florence with Robert Browning. But most of us would be hard put to name anything she actually wrote, other than the sonnet that starts "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways!". (I came up with three other poems, one of which turned out to be by Christina Rossetti...)This Penguin Classics collection makes it clear how few concessions EBB makes to modern readers. Most of her earlier poems are dense in classical and theological allusions; her later work is very tied up in political causes of the time (slavery, child-labour, the Italian Risorgimento). Mostly stuff you read in order to write essays about it, and even then it's slim pickings, because her formidable display of classical learning and fondness for "masculine" subject-matter make her hard to slot into traditional feminist notions about nineteenth-century culture. There are a few lyrics in this collection that allow even philistine modern readers to get a glimpse of how good a poet EBB was, however. "Wine of Cyprus" is an affectionate and funny tribute to the classicist H.S. Boyd, her tutor and mentor for many years. The beautiful, complex "Caterina to Camoëns" is something very special indeed: the speaker is the poet's dying lover, who mocks a trite image he has used; at the same time her passion for him surges out in all directions from her tightly-structured stanzas. "Lady Geraldine's Courtship" is a modern-dress romp that looks at first sight with its long lines and double-rhymes like a Tennyson pastiche, but turns out to be something quite different. According to one of her letters, it was dashed off in a couple of days when the printers complained that volume 1 of her 1844 <i>Poems</i> would be too short: sometimes that's the way the best poems get written! The passing reference to Browning in this poem was the trigger for Browning to write his first letter to EBB, the start of their famous epistolary courtship. Undoubtedly the best-loved work in this collection are the "Sonnets from the Portuguese", written as a private, personal commentary on her courtship with Browning. They are probably the second-greatest sequence of love sonnets in English: simple and direct in language, enormously complex and sophisticated in emotional content. Publishing them as though they were translations was an attempt to disguise their autobiographical nature: there is of course nothing Portuguese about them. The editor's suggestion to read the sonnets side-by-side with the Barrett-Browning letters is a good one: a lot of images and ideas from the letters come back in a more sophisticated, condensed form in the sonnets, and it's fascinating to watch the creative process at work.Which leaves <i>Aurora Leigh</i>, of course. The positive response to "Geraldine" gave EBB the idea of a more substantial work with a contemporary setting: it's often discussed in the letters with Browning, but the project didn't come to anything until about ten years later. What she came up with is not so much an epic poem as a verse novel. Despite her formidable intellectual reputation, EBB was a huge, unapologetic fan of romantic novels, especially of French writers like George Sand and Mme de Staël. The verse-novel form allowed her to combine her own poetic gifts with the big narrative structures typical of romance fiction, although she does keep to a fairly tight structure with only four or five main characters. There are ideas about social and gender roles, the double-standard, women's education, and so on, but the central idea is an exploration of the relationship between creative art and political action: the book seems to be arguing that we can only change the world for the better if we bring both these strands together, moderated by human love and the love of Christ.The result is a sort of literary grand opera: gloriously overwrought in every sense — except for the blank verse itself, which is always light and delicate. The plot is a sucession of melodramatic clichés (up to and including an ending inadvertently lifted from the Brontës). The characters, except for Aurora herself, are idealised and implausible: the depiction of Marian Erle, the noble and dignified "wronged woman" from the underclass, is a reminder that EBB had probably never spoken to a working-class person who wasn't a member of her own domestic staff. The book is over the top even by the standards of an era where everything was over the top, but in an odd way, as Virginia Woolf pointed out, it's so absurd that it actually becomes compulsively absorbing. You have to connect with it the way you connect with Wagner or Verdi. If you can suspend disbelief for long enough, something clicks and you're in there, just absorbing the language at a purely emotional level. There are plenty of allusions to literature, contemporary politics, theology, and all the rest, but they don't intrude themselves the way they do in some of EBB's rather Miltonic early works: if you want to track the references down, Penguin have provided some pedantic notes, but there's no need to look at them, really. With the minor limitation that you probably won't be able to listen to music whilst reading it, it's no more threatening to the modern reader than any other Victorian novel, and at 300 pages it's a good deal shorter than most.