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Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)

Aurora Leigh

(excerpt)


Book I
...
          198                                                       I am like,
          199They tell me, my dear father. Broader brows
          200Howbeit, upon a slenderer undergrowth
          201Of delicate features, -- paler, near as grave ;
          202But then my mother's smile breaks up the whole,
          203And makes it better sometimes than itself.
          204So, nine full years, our days were hid with God
          205Among his mountains : I was just thirteen,
          206Still growing like the plants from unseen roots
          207In tongue-tied Springs, -- and suddenly awoke
          208To full life and life 's needs and agonies,
          209With an intense, strong, struggling heart beside
          210A stone-dead father. Life, struck sharp on death,
          211Makes awful lightning. His last word was, `Love --'
          212`Love, my child, love, love !' -- (then he had done with grief)
          213`Love, my child.' Ere I answered he was gone,
          214And none was left to love in all the world.
          215There, ended childhood. What succeeded next
          216I recollect as, after fevers, men
          217Thread back the passage of delirium,
          218Missing the turn still, baffled by the door ;
          219Smooth endless days, notched here and there with knives ;
          220A weary, wormy darkness, spurr'd i' the flank
          221With flame, that it should eat and end itself
          222Like some tormented scorpion. Then at last
          223I do remember clearly, how there came
          224A stranger with authority, not right,
          225(I thought not) who commanded, caught me up
          226From old Assunta's neck ; how, with a shriek,
          227She let me go, -- while I, with ears too full
          228Of my father's silence, to shriek back a word,
          229In all a child's astonishment at grief
          230Stared at the wharf-edge where she stood and moaned,
          231My poor Assunta, where she stood and moaned !
          232The white walls, the blue hills, my Italy,
          233Drawn backward from the shuddering steamer-deck,
          234Like one in anger drawing back her skirts
          235Which supplicants catch at. Then the bitter sea
          236Inexorably pushed between us both,
          237And sweeping up the ship with my despair
          238Threw us out as a pasture to the stars.
          239Ten nights and days we voyaged on the deep ;
          240Ten nights and days, without the common face
          241Of any day or night ; the moon and sun
          242Cut off from the green reconciling earth,
          243To starve into a blind ferocity
          244And glare unnatural ; the very sky
          245(Dropping its bell-net down upon the sea
          246As if no human heart should 'scape alive,)
          247Bedraggled with the desolating salt,
          248Until it seemed no more that holy heaven
          249To which my father went. All new and strange
          250The universe turned stranger, for a child.
          251Then, land ! -- then, England ! oh, the frosty cliffs
          252Looked cold upon me. Could I find a home
          253Among those mean red houses through the fog ?
          254And when I heard my father's language first
          255From alien lips which had no kiss for mine
          256I wept aloud, then laughed, then wept, then wept,
          257And some one near me said the child was mad
          258Through much sea-sickness. The train swept us on.
          259Was this my father's England ? the great isle ?
          260The ground seemed cut up from the fellowship
          261Of verdure, field from field, as man from man ;
          262The skies themselves looked low and positive,
          263As almost you could touch them with a hand,
          264And dared to do it they were so far off
          265From God's celestial crystals ; all things blurred
          266And dull and vague. Did Shakspeare and his mates
          267Absorb the light here ? -- not a hill or stone
          268With heart to strike a radiant colour up
          269Or active outline on the indifferent air.
          270I think I see my father's sister stand
          271Upon the hall-step of her country-house
          272To give me welcome. She stood straight and calm,
          273Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight
          274As if for taming accidental thoughts
          275From possible pulses ; brown hair pricked with grey
          276By frigid use of life, (she was not old
          277Although my father's elder by a year)
          278A nose drawn sharply yet in delicate lines ;
          279A close mild mouth, a little soured about
          280The ends, through speaking unrequited loves
          281Or peradventure niggardly half-truths ;
          282Eyes of no colour, -- once they might have smiled,
          283But never, never have forgot themselves
          284In smiling ; cheeks, in which was yet a rose
          285Of perished summers, like a rose in a book,
          286Kept more for ruth than pleasure, -- if past bloom,
          287Past fading also.
          287                                       She had lived, we'll say,
          288A harmless life, she called a virtuous life,
          289A quiet life, which was not life at all,
          290(But that, she had not lived enough to know)
          291Between the vicar and the country squires,
          292The lord-lieutenant looking down sometimes
          293From the empyrean to assure their souls
          294Against chance-vulgarisms, and, in the abyss
          295The apothecary, looked on once a year
          296To prove their soundness of humility.
          297The poor-club exercised her Christian gifts
          298Of knitting stockings, stitching petticoats,
          299Because we are of one flesh after all
          300And need one flannel (with a proper sense
          301Of difference in the quality) -- and still
          302The book-club, guarded from your modern trick
          303Of shaking dangerous questions from the crease,
          304Preserved her intellectual. She had lived
          305A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage,
          306Accounting that to leap from perch to perch
          307Was act and joy enough for any bird.
          308Dear heaven, how silly are the things that live
          309In thickets, and eat berries !
          309                                              I, alas,
          310A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage,
          311And she was there to meet me. Very kind.
          312Bring the clean water, give out the fresh seed.
          313She stood upon the steps to welcome me,
          314Calm, in black garb. I clung about her neck, --
          315Young babes, who catch at every shred of wool
          316To draw the new light closer, catch and cling
          317Less blindly. In my ears, my father's word
          318Hummed ignorantly, as the sea in shells,
          319`Love, love, my child.' She, black there with my grief,
          320Might feel my love -- she was his sister once,
          321I clung to her. A moment, she seemed moved,
          322Kissed me with cold lips, suffered me to cling,
          323And drew me feebly through the hall into
          324The room she sate in.
          324                                        There, with some strange spasm
          325Of pain and passion, she wrung loose my hands
          326Imperiously, and held me at arm's length,
          327And with two grey-steel naked-bladed eyes
          328Searched through my face, -- ay, stabbed it through and through,
          329Through brows and cheeks and chin, as if to find
          330A wicked murderer in my innocent face,
          331If not here, there perhaps. Then, drawing breath,
          332She struggled for her ordinary calm
          333And missed it rather, -- told me not to shrink,
          334As if she had told me not to lie or swear, --
          335`She loved my father, and would love me too
          336As long as I deserved it.' Very kind.
....

Book V
              1AURORA LEIGH, be humble. Shall I hope
              2To speak my poems in mysterious tune
              3With man and nature ? -- with the lava-lymph
              4That trickles from successive galaxies
              5Still drop by drop adown the finger of God
              6In still new worlds ? -- with summer-days in this ?
              7That scarce dare breathe they are so beautiful ?--
              8With spring's delicious trouble in the ground,
              9Tormented by the quickened blood of roots,
            10And softly pricked by golden crocus-sheaves
            11In token of the harvest-time of flowers ?--
            12With winters and with autumns, -- and beyond,
            13With the human heart's large seasons, when it hopes
            14And fears, joys, grieves, and loves ? -- with all that strain
            15Of sexual passion, which devours the flesh
            16In a sacrament of souls ? with mother's breasts
            17Which, round the new-made creatures hanging there,
            18Throb luminous and harmonious like pure spheres ? --
            19With multitudinous life, and finally
            20With the great escapings of ecstatic souls,
            21Who, in a rush of too long prisoned flame,
            22Their radiant faces upward, burn away
            23This dark of the body, issuing on a world,
            24Beyond our mortal ? -- can I speak my verse
            25So plainly in tune to these things and the rest,
            26That men shall feel it catch them on the quick,
            27As having the same warrant over them
            28To hold and move them if they will or no,
            29Alike imperious as the primal rhythm
            30Of that theurgic nature ? I must fail,
            31Who fail at the beginning to hold and move
            32One man, -- and he my cousin, and he my friend,
            33And he born tender, made intelligent,
            34Inclined to ponder the precipitous sides
            35Of difficult questions ; yet, obtuse to me,
            36Of me, incurious ! likes me very well,
            37And wishes me a paradise of good,
            38Good looks, good means, and good digestion, -- ay,
            39But otherwise evades me, puts me off
            40With kindness, with a tolerant gentleness, --
            41Too light a book for a grave man's reading ! Go,
            42Aurora Leigh : be humble.
            42                                                There it is,
            43We women are too apt to look to One,
            44Which proves a certain impotence in art.
            45We strain our natures at doing something great,
            46Far less because it 's something great to do,
            47Than haply that we, so, commend ourselves
            48As being not small, and more appreciable
            49To some one friend. We must have mediators
            50Betwixt our highest conscience and the judge ;
            51Some sweet saint's blood must quicken in our palms
            52Or all the life in heaven seems slow and cold :
            53Good only being perceived as the end of good,
            54And God alone pleased, -- that's too poor, we think,
            55And not enough for us by any means.
            56Ay, Romney, I remember, told me once
            57We miss the abstract when we comprehend.
            58We miss it most when we aspire, -- and fail.
            59Yet, so, I will not. -- This vile woman's way
            60Of trailing garments, shall not trip me up :
            61I 'll have no traffic with the personal thought
            62In art's pure temple. Must I work in vain,
            63Without the approbation of a man ?
            64It cannot be ; it shall not. Fame itself,
            65That approbation of the general race,
            66Presents a poor end, (though the arrow speed,
            67Shot straight with vigorous finger to the white,)
            68And the highest fame was never reached except
            69By what was aimed above it. Art for art,
            70And good for God Himself, the essential Good !
            71We 'll keep our aims sublime, our eyes erect,
            72Although our woman-hands should shake and fail ;
            73And if we fail .. But must we ? --
            73                                                  Shall I fail ?
            74The Greeks said grandly in their tragic phrase,
            75`Let no one be called happy till his death.'
            76To which I add, -- Let no one till his death
            77Be called unhappy. Measure not the work
            78Until the day 's out and the labour done,
            79Then bring your gauges. If the day's work 's scant,
            80Why, call it scant ; affect no compromise ;
            81And, in that we have nobly striven at least,
            82Deal with us nobly, women though we be.
            83And honour us with truth if not with praise.


Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Aurora Leigh. 1859. 19th-cent. STC: 5.1.316. mfe DA 533 N55
First publication date: 1859
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition:
Recent editing: 2:2002/1/10

Composition date: 1852 - 1859
Form: blank verse


Other poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning