Home  »  A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895  »  From “Aurora Leigh”

Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908). A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895. 1895.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning 1806–61

From “Aurora Leigh”



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 snatch’d 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 reconcil’d and fraterniz’d 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 solemniz’d,—

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 license to be miss’d.


Or else I sat on in my chamber green,

And liv’d my life, and thought my thoughts, and pray’d

My prayers without the vicar; read my books,

Without considering whether they were fit

To do me good. Mark, there. We get no good

By being ungenerous, even to a book,

And calculating profits … so much help

By so much reading. It is rather when

We gloriously forget ourselves, and plunge

Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s pro-found,

Impassion’d for its beauty and salt of truth—

’T is then we get the right good from a book.


I had found the secret of a garret-room

Pil’d high with cases in my father’s name;

Pil’d high, pack’d large,—where, creeping in and out

Among the giant fossils of my past,

Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs

Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there

At this or that box, pulling through the gap,

In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,

The first book first. And how I felt it beat

Under my pillow, in the morning’s dark,

An hour before the sun would let me read!

My books!

At last, because the time was ripe,

I chanced upon the poets.

As the earth

Plunges in fury, when the internal fires

Have reach’d and prick’d her heart, and, throwing flat

The marts and temples, the triumphal gates

And towers of observation, clears herself

To elemental freedom—thus, my soul,

At poetry’s divine first finger touch,

Let go conventions and sprang up surpris’d,

Convicted of the great eternities

Before the worlds.

What ’s this, Aurora Leigh,

You write so of the poets, and not laugh?

Those virtuous liars, dreamers after dark,

Exaggerators of the sun and moon,

And soothsayers in a tea-cup?

I write so

Of the only truth-tellers, now left to God,—

The only speakers of essential truth,

Oppos’d to relative, comparative,

And temporal truths; the only holders by

His sun-skirts, through conventional gray glooms;

The only teachers who instruct mankind,

From just a shadow on a charnel wall,

To find man’s veritable stature out,

Erect, sublime,—the measure of a man,

And that ’s the measure of an angel, says

The apostle.


And so, like most young poets, in a flush

Of individual life, I pour’d myself

Along the veins of others, and achiev’d

Mere lifeless imitations of live verse,

And made the living answer for the dead,

Profaning nature. “Touch not, do not taste,

Nor handle,”—we ’re too legal, who write young:

We beat the phorminx till we hurt our thumbs,

As if still ignorant of counterpoint;

We call the Muse … “O Muse, benignant Muse!”—

As if we had seen her purple-braided head

With the eyes in it start between the boughs

As often as a stag’s. What make-believe,

With so much earnest! what effete results,

From virile efforts! what cold wire-drawn odes,

From such white heats! bucolics, where the cows

Would scare the writer if they splash’d the mud

In lashing off the flies,—didactics, driven

Against the heels of what the master said;

And counterfeiting epics, shrill with trumps

A babe might blow between two straining cheeks

Of bubbled rose, to make his mother laugh;

And elegiac griefs, and songs of love,

Like cast-off nosegays pick’d up on the road,

The worse for being warm: all these things, writ

On happy mornings, with a morning heart,

That helps for love, is active for resolve,

Weak for art only. Oft, the ancient forms

Will thrill, indeed, in carrying the young blood.

The wine-skins, now and then, a little warp’d,

Will crack even, as the new wine gurgles in.

Spare the old bottles!—spill not the new wine.

By Keats’s soul, the man who never stepp’d

In gradual progress like another man,

But, turning grandly on his central self,

Enspher’d himself in twenty perfect years

And died, not young,—(the life of a long life,

Distill’d to a mere drop, falling like a tear

Upon the world’s cold cheek to make it burn

For ever;) by that strong excepted soul,

I count it strange, and hard to understand,

That nearly all young poets should write old;

That Pope was sexagenarian at sixteen,

And beardless Byron academical,

And so with others. It may be, perhaps,

Such have not settled long and deep enough

In trance, to attain to clairvoyance,—and still

The memory mixes with the vision, spoils,

And works it turbid.

Or perhaps, again

In order to discover the Muse-Sphinx,

The melancholy desert must sweep round,

Behind you, as before.—

For me, I wrote

False poems, like the rest, and thought them true,

Because myself was true in writing them.

I, peradventure, have writ true ones since

With less complacence.


Whoever lives true life, will love true love.

I learn’d to love that England. Very oft,

Before the day was born, or otherwise

Through secret windings of the afternoons,

I threw my hunters off and plunged myself

Among the deep hills, as a hunted stag

Will take the waters, shivering with the fear

And passion of the course. And when, at last

Escap’d,—so many a green slope built on slope

Betwixt me and the enemy’s house behind,

I dar’d to rest, or wander,—like a rest

Made sweeter for the step upon the grass,—

And view the ground’s most gentle dimplement,

(As if God’s finger touch’d but did not press

In making England!) such an up and down

Of verdure,—nothing too much up or down,

A ripple of land; such little hills, the sky

Can stoop to tenderly and the wheatfields climb;

Such nooks of valleys, lin’d with orchises,

Fed full of noises by invisible streams;

And open pastures, where you scarcely tell

White daisies from white dew,—at intervals

The mythic oaks and elm-trees standing out

Self-pois’d upon their prodigy of shade,—

I thought my father’s land was worthy too

Of being my Shakespear’s.…

…Breaking into voluble ecstacy,

I flatter’d all the beauteous country round,

As poets use … the skies, the clouds, the fields,

The happy violets hiding from the roads

The primroses run down to, carrying gold,—

The tangled hedgerows, where the cows push out

Impatient horns and tolerant churning mouths

’Twixt dripping ash-boughs,—hedgerows all alive

With birds and gnats and large white butterflies

Which look as if the May-flower had sought life

And palpitated forth upon the wind,—

Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist,

Farms, granges, doubled up among the hills,

And cattle grazing in the water’d vales,

And cottage-chimneys smoking from the woods,

And cottage-gardens smelling everywhere,

Confus’d with smell of orchards. “See,” I said,

“And see! is God not with us on the earth?

And shall we put Him down by aught we do?

Who says there ’s nothing for the poor and vile

Save poverty and wickedness? behold!”

And ankle-deep in English grass I leap’d,

And clapp’d my hands, and call’d all very fair.


O MY God, my God,

O supreme Artist, who as sole return

For all the cosmic wonder of Thy work,

Demandest of us just a word … a name,

“My Father!”—thou hast knowledge, only thou,

How dreary ’t is for women to sit still

On winter nights by solitary fires,

And hear the nations praising them far off,

Too far! ay, praising our quick sense of love,

Our very heart of passionate womanhood,

Which could not beat so in the verse without

Being present also in the unkiss’d lips,

And eyes undried because there ’s none to ask

The reason they grew moist.

To sit alone,

And think, for comfort, how, that very night,

Affianced lovers, leaning face to face

With sweet half-listenings for each other’s breath,

Are reading haply from some page of ours,

To pause with a thrill, as if their cheeks had touch’d,

When such a stanza, level to their mood,

Seems floating their own thoughts out—“So I feel

For thee,”—“And I, for thee: this poet knows

What everlasting love is!”—how, that night

A father issuing from the misty roads

Upon the luminous round of lamp and hearth

And happy children, having caught up first

The youngest there until it shrunk and shriek’d

To feel the cold chin prick its dimple through

With winter from the hills, may throw i’ the lap

Of the eldest (who has learn’d to drop her lids

To hide some sweetness newer than last year’s)

Our book and cry, … “Ah you, you care for rhymes;

So here be rhymes to pore on under trees,

When April comes to let you! I ’ve been told

They are not idle as so many are,

But set hearts beating pure as well as fast:

It ’s yours, the book; I ’ll write your name in it,—

That so you may not lose, however lost

In poet’s lore and charming reverie,

The thought of how your father thought of you

In riding from the town.”

To have our books

Apprais’d by love, associated with love,

While we sit loveless! is it hard, you think?

At least ’t is mournful. Fame, indeed, ’t was said,

Means simply love. It was a man said that.

And then there ’s love and love: the love of all

(To risk, in turn, a woman’s paradox,)

Is but a small thing to the love of one.

You bid a hungry child be satisfied

With a heritage of many corn-fields: nay,

He says he ’s hungry,—he would rather have

That little barley-cake you keep from him

While reckoning up his harvests. So with us.


But oh, the night! oh, bitter-sweet! oh, sweet!

O dark, O moon and stars, O ecstasy

Of darkness! O great mystery of love,—

In which absorb’d, loss, anguish, treason’s self

Enlarges rapture,—as a pebble dropp’d

In some full wine-cup, over-brims the wine!

While we two sate together, lean’d that night

So close, my very garments crept and thrill’d

With strange electric life; and both my cheeks

Grew red, then pale, with touches from my hair

In which his breath was; while the golden moon

Was hung before our faces as the badge

Of some sublime inherited despair,

Since ever to be seen by only one,—

A voice said, low and rapid as a sigh,

Yet breaking, I felt conscious, from a smile,—

“Thank God, who made me blind, to make me see!

Shine on, Aurora, dearest light of souls,

Which rul’st for evermore both day and night!

I am happy.”

I flung closer to his breast,

As sword that, after battle, flings to sheathe;

And, in that hurtle of united souls,

The mystic motions, which in common moods

Are shut beyond our sense, broke in on us,

And, as we sate, we felt the old earth spin,

And all the starry turbulence of worlds

Swing round us in their audient circles, till

If that same golden moon were overhead

Or if beneath our feet, we did not know.