Aytoun, William Edmondstoune. Review of Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Detached from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, vol. 81, no. 495 (Jan. 1857). Edinburgh: William Blackwood, pp. 23-41. ABL Periodicals Rare. https://www.browningscorrespondence.com/reviews/196/?rsId=254144.
Review of Craigcrook Castle, by Gerald Massey, and Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Detached from The Monthly Review of Literature, Science, and Art, vol. 1, no. 12 (Dec. 1856). London: John Mitchell, pp. 740-754. Periodical Articles Meynell Collection. Browning Guide # A1641.1. https://www.browningscorrespondence.com/reviews/181/?rsId=254144.
1 October [sic, for September 30] 1844, EBB to Cornelius Mathews.
8 December 1856, Robert Bulwer Lytton to EBB.
These letters are contained in The Browning Letters Collection of the Armstrong Browning, Library; scanned copies can be accessed digitally through the following link: https://digitalcollections-baylor.quartexcollections.com/abl-collections/the-browning-letters.
“The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age”: Viewing EBB’s Poetic Aspiration in the Light of Early Reviews of Aurora Leigh and Two Letters
By Zeyi Zhang
When Tennyson was crowned the Poet Laureate in 1850, EBB was a competitive runner-up. Contemporary correspondence and reviews show that this rivalry persists throughout EBB’s poetic career as both she and her readers constantly use Tennyson as a yardstick for her poetry. This post draws attention to one passage in EBB’s epic/verse novel Aurora Leigh (1856) in which the heroine expresses her poetic aspiration to represent “this live, throbbing age” instead of pursuing a trend of medievalism that evokes such legendary heroes as Roland or King Arthur. As the author of both “Morte d’Arthur” (1842) and Idylls of the King, the Poet Laureate noted the successful delivery of this critique. On the 1889 edition of his poetry, he thus annotated “The Epic,” the narrative framework for “Morte d’Arthur” in which the speaker claims that the rest of his Arthurian epic was thrown to fire: “Mrs Browning wanted me to continue this, she has put my answer in Aurora Leigh” (qtd. in Aurora Leigh, 149, note 4).
Besides the Poet Laureate, contemporary readers of Aurora Leigh also noted EBB’s provocative poetic aspiration. When the poem was published in 1856, six out of the fifty-eight reviews on the first edition recorded in The Brownings’ Correspondence database commented upon Aurora’s poetic preference of the present age and contemporary materials over old ones, and the reviews were torn. This post examines the controversy among reviewers along with EBB’s correspondence, in particular one fan letter from Robert Bulwer Lytton, a devoted admirer of the Brownings whose own poems “were widely held to be too imitative of Browning” (Washbrook) and who fervently praised this poetics in the letter, and an earlier letter from EBB in which she already expressed her aspiration along a similar line. I argue that EBB aspired to the representation of the spirit of her own age throughout her career, and this aspiration constitutes a significant part in her poetic dialogue and rivalry with the Poet Laureate.
EBB situates this poetic aspiration in Book V of Aurora Leigh, the center of the nine-book poem. The following passage was often cited in full by the reviewers.
Nay, if there’s room for poets in this world A little overgrown, (I think there is) Their sole work is to represent the age, Their age, not Charlemagne’s,—this live, throbbing age, That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires, And spends more passion, more heroic heat, Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms, Than Roland with his knights, at Roncesvalles. To flinch from modern varnish, coat or flounce, Cry out for togas and the picturesque, Is fatal,—foolish too. King Arthur’s self Was commonplace to Lady Guenever; And Camelot to minstrels seemed as flat, As Regent Street to our poets. Never flinch, But still, unscrupulously epic, catch Upon the burning lava of a 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 ours beating: this is living art, Which thus presents and thus records true life.’ (200-22)
In this passage, Aurora elaborates upon her poetics, stressing that the “sole work” of a poet is to represent their own age that is emphatically distinct from the age of King Arthur and his knights. Accordingly, the subject matters of the poet should come from “this live, throbbing age,” not the distant, legendary past. To further distinguish the present age from the chivalric past, the speaker uses a gendered language, characterizing the age as a mother-figure, “full-veined, heaving, double-breasted,” whose “paps” nourish human beings with life.
Contemporary reviewers were very split upon the poetic ideal described in this passage. Though most reviewers—even the harshest ones–acknowledge the remarkable achievement of the poem in general, they often question the legitimacy of this vision. While the reviewer of The Literary Gazette proclaims that poets should follow EBB’s step and “set their music to the themes which lie round the feet of every one of us, instead of wasting their fire on galvanising the simulacra of the past” (917), The Monthly Review, though praising the poem highly, warns against its imitation, identifying such poetics as “a track which not even the highest genius can always pursue without awkward and ungraceful movements” (749). On the other hand, William Edmondstoune Aytoun, a minor satirical poet, strongly criticizes this poetics, maintaining that the poet’s task is not to “give a faithful picture of his own times;” instead, all the subject matters “must be idealised” (34). He then emphasizes the distinction between poetry and prose, especially fiction, pointing out that some verse paragraphs from the poem are mere prose with line divisions. In addition to the subject matter, the experimental genre of the poem is also problematized.
The heated controversy most likely did not surprise the poet. In fact, despite their diverse positions, the reviewers rightly identified a major theme of EBB’s ambitious poem, for her correspondence shows that the poetess had always aspired to the representation of the spirit of her own age. Shortly after the poem came out, Lytton, the devout admirer of the Brownings who devoured the long work rather quickly despite his recent sickness, wrote to her in praise of it, exclaiming repeatedly that it is “the solitary Epic of this age” and that the poet has “taken the whole Age on [her] shoulders, this age of complicated sorrows, & scattered knowledge;” he even claims that the poem is better than those of Dante and Milton “by just so much as this age is superior to theirs.” Considering the close friendship between Lytton and the Brownings and Lytton’s passionate adoration of them, this special emphasis of his praise on the poem’s representation of “this age” suggests that it could be a major concern of the poet when she was composing the poem or expecting its reviews. At least the huge fan expects EBB to be flattered by this emphasis.
EBB’s earlier correspondence of the poet also suggests a long-term obsession with the spirit of the age and especially the reworking of old legends. In 1844, writing to Cornelius Mathews, her efficient publisher in America, she thus commented on her poem “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship—A Romance of the Age”:
In that poem I had endeavoured to throw conventionalities (turned asbestos for the nonce) into the fire of poetry, to make them glow & glitter as if they were not dull things.
It is noteworthy that in the same letter, the poet also pushed back, quite agitatedly, against those reviewers who called her “a follower of Tennyson.” Though she did not directly reference him in her provocative remark on throwing “conventionalities” into “the fire of poetry,” her reworking of medieval romances in “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” evokes comparison with Tennyson’s own “Morte d’Arthur” published two years earlier. To some extent, the prominence of “this age” in EBB’s poetry is part of her response to the anxiety of influence from both past literary giants and the current poet laureate.
It is understandable that EBB felt the need to react to such anxiety, for critics could not help comparing her poetry with Tennyson’s. Of the fifty-eight reviews on the first edition of Aurora Leigh recorded in The Brownings’ Correspondence, at least fourteenth—almost one fourth–compared the poem with Tennyson’s work. The favorable critics called it “as perfect…as anything in Tennyson” (The Literary Gazette 917) and even urged the poet laureate to “look to his laurels” (Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser 4), while the less friendly ones complained that it was “a little too long” compared with Tennyson’s Princess (The Monthly Review 750) or it wanted the “clearness” of Tennyson whose language “is not wrapped round with unnecessary and entangled phrases” (London University Magazine 142). More specifically, commenting on EBB’s poetic aspiration to the representation of her age, readers still constantly nodded to the Poet Laureate. At the end of his fervent praise of the poem, Lytton, though a huge fan of EBB, did not fail to add the remark that Tennyson was not among those who were crushed by the weight of the age as he was apparently “too far out of the struggle to be jarred by it.” On the other hand, one reviewer saw Tennyson as one of those who relied upon the past to provide a poetic framework, whereas EBB considered it a “higher effort to represent modern ideas in their actual modern dress” (The National Review 254). Despite holding disparate views on EBB’s poetry and poetics, critics agreed on using the Poet Laureate as a yardstick.
Anticipating the inevitable comparison, EBB evokes Tennyson’s Arthurian poems when she claims that “King Arthur’s self / Was commonplace to Lady Guenever” (V. 210-11). Interestingly, EBB was not only nodding to Tennyson’s 1842 “Morte d’Arthur,” but she was also aware that Tennyson was working on what would become Idylls of the King: in an 1852 letter to Mary Russell Mitford, EBB mentioned that Tennyson was working on “a collection of poems” on Arthur, which she expected to be “full of beauty.” However, when the first edition of the Idylls came out in 1859 (with only 5 of the total 12 poems), EBB was quite disappointed. In several letters she repeated called the work “flat & cold” which apparently failed to exude the “heroic heat” she aspired to in her epic. Considering that the composition of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King spanned over thirty years (the final edition with all the idylls was not published until 1885), since the Poet Laureate was acutely aware of EBB’s critique on medievalism, one wonders if he made deliberate effort to represent the spirit of the age when he reworked the Arthurian legends.
Another dimension of EBB’s poetic inspiration that is worth more exploration is the explicitly gendered depiction of the spirit of the age in Book V. Despite the provocative language that compares the spirit of the age to the milk of female breasts, early reviewers who brought up this passage seemed more interested in EBB’s poetic preference of present materials than in the sexualizing language, yet one still wonders if this emphasis on the female sexuality reflects EBB’s understanding of the spirit of her age as well as a conscious move away from the poetics of her male rival. To some extent, EBB’s lifelong poetic aspiration to the representation of the age is a precious fruit of her anxiety of influence.
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. Edited by Margaret Reynolds. Norton, 1996.
—. ”EBB to Mary Russell Mitford.” 4 September 1852. https://www.browningscorrespondence.com/correspondence/3394/?rsId=253289.
David Washbrook, “Lytton, Edward Robert Bulwer-, first earl of Lytton [pseud. Owen Meredith] (1831–1891), viceroy of India and poet.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 03. Oxford University Press. Accessed 15 Apr. 2022, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-17315.
Review of Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Dundee, Perth and Cupar Advertiser, 20 January 1857, p. 4. https://www.browningscorrespondence.com/reviews/4731/?rsId=254908.
Review of Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. London University Magazine, March 1857, pp. 139–150. https://www.browningscorrespondence.com/reviews/4703/?rsId=254912&returnPage=1.
Review of Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Literary Gazette, 22 November 1856, pp. 917–918. https://www.browningscorrespondence.com/reviews/172/?rsId=254881.
Review of Poems and Aurora Leigh, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The National Review, April 1857, pp. 239–267. https://www.browningscorrespondence.com/reviews/226/?rsId=254912.
 See for example 5 October 1859, EBB & RB to William Allingham, https://www.browningscorrespondence.com/correspondence/4900/?rsId=253285, and 17 October 1859, EBB to Eliza Anne Ogilvy, https://www.browningscorrespondence.com/correspondence/4900/?rsId=253285.