This novel in blank verse tells the life story of a fictional woman poet. Born in Italy of an Italian mother and an English father, Aurora, whose name means "the dawn," is an orphan by the age of thirteen. She goes to England to be cared for and educated by her father's sister. This aunt is a narrow, convention-bound woman who imposes on Aurora an education intended to prepare her to be an ordinary middle-class wife. The girl studies religion, languages, a little math and science, and some music and art. Feeling like a caged bird, Aurora keeps her inner life while outwardly conforming to this training to be a humble wife, a "cushion." She decides to become a poet. Her aunt's cousin, Romney Leigh, proposes marriage to her. He is dedicated to social service and wishes Aurora to help him in his political career, but she rejects him in favor of her own vocation as a poet. Romney then decides to marry a lower-class woman, Marian Earle, but she is discouraged from the marriage by an aristocratic lady, a rival for Romney's love. Sent away to France, Marian is trapped and raped, as a result she becomes pregnant. She and her child are later rescued by Aurora. The three set up a home together in Italy, where Romney later appears. He had been blinded by an accident and has become somewhat softened by experience. Meanwhile, Aurora has learned the value of love from living with Marian and her child. She marries Romney in a new spirit of modest self-effacement. While not giving up poetry, she will write in service to the ideas of her husband.
Thus Barrett Browning closes with a compromise between the artist's drive for self-expression and the Victorian wife's role of submissive service.
Prostitution is the social evil the poem cares most to cure, and Aurora asserts that if art teaches men to reverence the body they will cease to "Make offal of their daughters for its use" (7:866).
The Mother Age -- taken from Tennyson's "Locksley Hall" (5: 214-20)
Mariam's experience in the brothel drives her temporarily mad.
Her clarion blast will "blow all class-walls level as Jericho's" (9:932)
Renewal in individual hearts will create "new dynasties or the race of men; / Developed whence, shall grow spontaneously / New churches, new economies, new laws / Admitting freedom, new societies" (9: 945-48)
Poem ends with a vision of the New Jerusalem "Beyond the circle of the conscious hills" (9: 954)
Barrett Browning herself inclined to allegorizing the story--explained to a friend who protested on Romney's behalf that "He had to be blinded, observe, to be made to see; just as Marian had to be dragged through the utmost debasement of circumstances to arrive at the sentiment of personal dignity. I am sorry, but indeed it seemed necessary."
Lady Waldemar--refers to prostitutes as women "we could not name / Because we're decent" (3:551-52). Mariam knows she cannot speak plainly about being drugged and raped: "We must scrupulously hint / With half-words, delicate reserves, the thing / Which no one scrupled we should feel in full" (6:1222-24)
Browning's poem has often been praised for its exposition of a paradoxical theory of success and failure, but it has other qualities as well. Its slow-paced, enervated blank verse, its setting of a quiet evening in autumn, its comparative lack of the movement and noise that we expect in Browning's energetic verse create a unity of impression that is unobtrusive yet effective.
Begin the Begin