The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 12. Aurora Leigh
It remains to notice the longest and the most ambitious of her poems—Aurora Leigh, with its eleven thousand lines of blank verse. It was the literary venture on which she staked her fortune; in her dedication of it to Kenyon, she calls it “the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered.” The readers of her time agreed with her; critics were unanimous, and their praise was pitched high; the first edition was exhausted in a fortnight, and a third was required within a few months. Later readers have become much more temperate. It is a novel in iambic decasyllables. The story is a thin thread on which are strung the opinions of the writer on all manner of matters—educational, social, artistic, ethical.
Elizabeth Browning’s gifts were lyrical. She was essentially a subjective poet, in the sense that the events she described and the characters she drew were saturated with her own sympathies. All the characters in Aurora Leigh are entirely subordinate to the heroine, and the heroine, however little Elizabeth Browning intended it, is the unsubstantial shadow of herself. She had no dramatic or narrative genius. The world in which her characters move is always created on the pattern of her own inner life, for she dipped her brush in her own emotions. Her later poems show some improvement in technique, and some of them are enriched by her life in Italy and by the influence of her husband, which was very great: for it is not Pippa Passes only “which counts for something in Aurora Leigh,” nor even Paracelsus, whose faith is paraphrased in hundreds of its lines. But they contain nothing equal to Rhyme of the Duchess May, Cowper’s Grave and The Cry of the Children. If she is remembered permanently, it will be, as a poet, by reason of the expression she gave to a mother’s love in A Child’s Grave at Florence, and, even more securely, by the sublime passion of the love of wife for husband in Sonnets from the Portuguese.