In 1856, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (March 6, 1806–June 29, 1861) staggered the world with a sensation best described today as viral: Aurora Leigh — her epic novel in blank verse about a young woman caught in the tension between the life of love and the life of genius, who finds her powerful voice as an artist in a society that seeks to silence it by sublimation to convention. These were dangerous ideas in an era when women could not vote, attend university, or even enter many cultural establishments. Barrett Browning — a key figure in Figuring, from which this piece is adapted — proudly reported that mothers wouldn’t let their daughters read Aurora Leigh, but young women devoured it in secret. It stunned, it shocked, it unsettled the status quo with more than its central claim of women’s intellectual and artistic autonomy, of the right to choose the public sphere and the life of creative work over the domestic sphere and the life of deadening dependence.
Ba — as Elizabeth Barrett was known in childhood — had begun writing poetry before the age of eight, her first known poem protesting compulsory military service. It was in childhood, too, that Ba — the eldest of twelve children — started suffering from the intense spinal headaches and muscle pain that would bedevil her for the remaining four decades of her life, now believed to have been hypokalemic periodic paralysis — a rare disorder that depletes muscles of potassium, effecting extreme weakness and bouts of acute pain. By seventeen, she had published — anonymously — Essay on Mind, and Other Poems, in the preface to which she defined poetry as “the enthusiasm of the understanding,” argued that “thought catches the light reflected from the object of her contemplation,” and divided “the productions of the mind” into two classes: the philosophical and the poetical. Her body of work would rise to the pinnacle of both, rendering her one of the most influential writers of the century. But she was to surmount an uncommon share of adversity before becoming a titan of her time, all the while renouncing the dangerous myth of the suffering artist.
A close succession of tragedies compounded a particularly painful episode of her disease. Just before her thirty-fourth birthday, one of Elizabeth’s brothers died of fever and another — her most beloved sibling — in a sailing accident for which she blamed herself. “That was a very near escape from madness, absolute hopeless madness,” she would later recount. The following year, as her physical symptoms inflicted new heights of anguish, her father took her to London in an invalid carriage. She spent seven years almost continuously bedridden in a darkened upstairs room on Wimpole Street alongside her beloved spaniel Flush, communicating with the outside world only via letters, “as people shut up in dungeons take up with scrawling mottoes on the walls.” Secluded in her sickroom, Barrett counterbalanced her stillness with a ferocious pace of composition that led to her first major literary success and invited the courtship of Robert Browning. “I love your verses with all my heart, Dear Miss Barrett,” Browning — an obscure poet six years her junior — wrote to the stranger whose 1844 poetry collection had enchanted him beyond words. “I love these books with all my heart — and I love you too.”
So began an epistolary courtship — carried out in secret, as Barrett knew her father would condemn the union — that produced some of the most exquisite love letters ever written. Within two years, Barrett and Browning eloped to marry in a small ceremony at a London church around the corner from her sickroom. Her punitively possessive father disinherited her. Poetry became the locus of her self-possession. She began envisioning “a sort of novel-poem… running into the midst of our conventions, and rushing into drawing-rooms… ‘where angels fear to tread’; and so, meeting face to face and without mask the Humanity of the age, and speaking the truth.” She spent the next eleven years conceiving and composing what became Aurora Leigh — the unexampled masterpiece that catapulted her into celebrity, revolutionizing literature and radicalizing society.
The novel-poem’s narrator and protagonist begins life as the daughter of an English father and a Florentine mother, who dies when Aurora is still a small child. When her father also dies, the young Aurora is shipped off to England and raised by a cold, unloving aunt who sees her as a living record of her father’s transgression with a foreigner. As Aurora buries herself in books and gives herself an education, her only companion is her cousin Romney Leigh — a young, idealistic social reformer, who scoffs at Aurora’s aspiration to become a poet, seeing art as too feeble a tool in the campaign of transfiguring the world. Art, he tells her, is inferior to activism, to the hard work of improving life by social reform. At the heart of Aurora’s retort is Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s meta-manifesto for how art both reflects life and raises it, for its power to transform and redeem:
What is art,
But life upon the larger scale, the higher,
When, graduating up in a spiral line
Of still expanding and ascending gyres,
It pushes toward the intense significance
Of all things, hungry for the Infinite?
Art’s life, — and where we live, we suffer and toil.
A quarter century earlier, when Barrett was only twenty-seven, she had translated the Ancient Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound, based on the myth of Prometheus and his defiance of the gods, which brought fire to humanity at the cost of perpetual punishment for the hero — a myth in which she must have seen deep resonance to the work of any revolutionary who defies the status quo to bring about a new world order; an allegory in which she must have intuited both the promise and the peril of breaking convention. She would go on to be a modern Prometheus herself, revolutionizing poetry and making a landmark case for women’s right to autonomy in art and life.
But for all her revolutionary ideas and impact, Barrett Browning understood the intricate relationship between history and revolution — the latter must not be a renunciation of the former, but must instead improve upon it with an informed intelligence. Innovation unmoored from tradition is an infantile innovation — not originality but hubris.
In her preface to Prometheus Bound, she considers the blind spots of the cult of innovation and what we stand to lose when we so readily and reflexively dismiss the past upon which the future must be built. A century before Susan Sontag considered our ambivalent historical conscience and asserted that “existence is no more than the precarious attainment of relevance in an intensely mobile flux of past, present, and future,” Barrett Browning writes:
The present age says… it is, or it would be, and original age… shall dream undreamt of dreams, and glow with an unearthly frenzy. If its dreams be noble dreams, may they be dreamt on; if its frenzy be the evidence of inspiration, “may I,” as Prometheus says, “be mad.” But let the age take heed. — There is one step from dreaming nobly to sleeping inertly; and one, from frenzy to imbecility.
I do not ask, I would not obtain, that our age be severely imitative of any former age. Surely it may think its own thoughts and speak its own words, yet not turn away from those who have thought and spoken well. The contemplation of excellence produces excellence, if not similar, yet parallel.
This obsession with originality, she argues, is misplaced — at the core of all great art, whatever form it may take, are the most elemental truths of existence, which are inherently timeless, for they arise from nature herself:
We do not turn from green hills and waving forests, because we build and inhabit palaces; nor do we turn towards them, that we may model them in painted wax. We make them subjects of contemplation, in order to abstract form them those ideas of beauty, afterwards embodied in our own productions. —
All beauties, whether in nature or art, in physics or morals, in composition or abstract reasoning, are multiplied reflections, visible in different distances under different positions, of one archetypal beauty.
Only by contacting these old elemental manifestations of truth and beauty, she would later assert with Aurora Leigh, can art begin to build the world anew. Across the nine books of the novel-poem, across a multitude of trials, her heroine proves this credo with her life. Art, she concludes in the final scene of redemption, is an instrument of truth and transformation — for the human heart and, through it, for the body of the world:
The world’s old;
But the old world waits the hour to be renewed:
Toward which, new hearts in individual growth
Must quicken, and increase to multitude
In new dynasties of the race of men, —
Developed whence, shall grow spontaneously
New churches, new economies, new laws
Admitting freedom, new societies