Aurora Leigh (excerpts) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
[Book 1] I am like, They tell me, my dear father. Broader brows Howbeit, upon a slenderer undergrowth Of delicate features, -- paler, near as grave ; But then my mother's smile breaks up the whole, And makes it better sometimes than itself. So, nine full years, our days were hid with God Among his mountains : I was just thirteen, Still growing like the plants from unseen roots In tongue-tied Springs, -- and suddenly awoke To full life and life 's needs and agonies, With an intense, strong, struggling heart beside A stone-dead father. Life, struck sharp on death, Makes awful lightning. His last word was, `Love --' `Love, my child, love, love !' -- (then he had done with grief) `Love, my child.' Ere I answered he was gone, And none was left to love in all the world. There, ended childhood. What succeeded next I recollect as, after fevers, men Thread back the passage of delirium, Missing the turn still, baffled by the door ; Smooth endless days, notched here and there with knives ; A weary, wormy darkness, spurr'd i' the flank With flame, that it should eat and end itself Like some tormented scorpion. Then at last I do remember clearly, how there came A stranger with authority, not right, (I thought not) who commanded, caught me up From old Assunta's neck ; how, with a shriek, She let me go, -- while I, with ears too full Of my father's silence, to shriek back a word, In all a child's astonishment at grief Stared at the wharf-edge where she stood and moaned, My poor Assunta, where she stood and moaned ! The white walls, the blue hills, my Italy, Drawn backward from the shuddering steamer-deck, Like one in anger drawing back her skirts Which supplicants catch at. Then the bitter sea Inexorably pushed between us both, And sweeping up the ship with my despair Threw us out as a pasture to the stars. Ten nights and days we voyaged on the deep ; Ten nights and days, without the common face Of any day or night ; the moon and sun Cut off from the green reconciling earth, To starve into a blind ferocity And glare unnatural ; the very sky (Dropping its bell-net down upon the sea As if no human heart should 'scape alive,) Bedraggled with the desolating salt, Until it seemed no more that holy heaven To which my father went. All new and strange The universe turned stranger, for a child. Then, land ! -- then, England ! oh, the frosty cliffs Looked cold upon me. Could I find a home Among those mean red houses through the fog ? And when I heard my father's language first From alien lips which had no kiss for mine I wept aloud, then laughed, then wept, then wept, And some one near me said the child was mad Through much sea-sickness. The train swept us on. Was this my father's England ? the great isle ? The ground seemed cut up from the fellowship Of verdure, field from field, as man from man ; The skies themselves looked low and positive, As almost you could touch them with a hand, And dared to do it they were so far off From God's celestial crystals ; all things blurred And dull and vague. Did Shakspeare and his mates Absorb the light here ? -- not a hill or stone With heart to strike a radiant colour up Or active outline on the indifferent air. I think I see my father's sister stand Upon the hall-step of her country-house To give me welcome. She stood straight and calm, Her somewhat narrow forehead braided tight As if for taming accidental thoughts From possible pulses ; brown hair pricked with grey By frigid use of life, (she was not old Although my father's elder by a year) A nose drawn sharply yet in delicate lines ; A close mild mouth, a little soured about The ends, through speaking unrequited loves Or peradventure niggardly half-truths ; Eyes of no colour, -- once they might have smiled, But never, never have forgot themselves In smiling ; cheeks, in which was yet a rose Of perished summers, like a rose in a book, Kept more for ruth than pleasure, -- if past bloom, Past fading also. She had lived, we'll say, A harmless life, she called a virtuous life, A quiet life, which was not life at all, (But that, she had not lived enough to know) Between the vicar and the country squires, The lord-lieutenant looking down sometimes From the empyrean to assure their souls Against chance-vulgarisms, and, in the abyss The apothecary, looked on once a year To prove their soundness of humility. The poor-club exercised her Christian gifts Of knitting stockings, stitching petticoats, Because we are of one flesh after all And need one flannel (with a proper sense Of difference in the quality) -- and still The book-club, guarded from your modern trick Of shaking dangerous questions from the crease, Preserved her intellectual. She had lived A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage, Accounting that to leap from perch to perch Was act and joy enough for any bird. Dear heaven, how silly are the things that live In thickets, and eat berries ! I, alas, A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage, And she was there to meet me. Very kind. Bring the clean water, give out the fresh seed. She stood upon the steps to welcome me, Calm, in black garb. I clung about her neck, -- Young babes, who catch at every shred of wool To draw the new light closer, catch and cling Less blindly. In my ears, my father's word Hummed ignorantly, as the sea in shells, `Love, love, my child.' She, black there with my grief, Might feel my love -- she was his sister once, I clung to her. A moment, she seemed moved, Kissed me with cold lips, suffered me to cling, And drew me feebly through the hall into The room she sate in. There, with some strange spasm Of pain and passion, she wrung loose my hands Imperiously, and held me at arm's length, And with two grey-steel naked-bladed eyes Searched through my face, -- ay, stabbed it through and through, Through brows and cheeks and chin, as if to find A wicked murderer in my innocent face, If not here, there perhaps. Then, drawing breath, She struggled for her ordinary calm And missed it rather, -- told me not to shrink, As if she had told me not to lie or swear, -- `She loved my father, and would love me too As long as I deserved it.' Very kind.
AURORA LEIGH, be humble. Shall I hope To speak my poems in mysterious tune With man and nature ? -- with the lava-lymph That trickles from successive galaxies Still drop by drop adown the finger of God In still new worlds ? -- with summer-days in this ? That scarce dare breathe they are so beautiful ?-- With spring's delicious trouble in the ground, Tormented by the quickened blood of roots, And softly pricked by golden crocus-sheaves In token of the harvest-time of flowers ?-- With winters and with autumns, -- and beyond, With the human heart's large seasons, when it hopes And fears, joys, grieves, and loves ? -- with all that strain Of sexual passion, which devours the flesh In a sacrament of souls ? with mother's breasts Which, round the new-made creatures hanging there, Throb luminous and harmonious like pure spheres ? -- With multitudinous life, and finally With the great escapings of ecstatic souls, Who, in a rush of too long prisoned flame, Their radiant faces upward, burn away This dark of the body, issuing on a world, Beyond our mortal ? -- can I speak my verse Sp plainly in tune to these things and the rest, That men shall feel it catch them on the quick, As having the same warrant over them To hold and move them if they will or no, Alike imperious as the primal rhythm Of that theurgic nature ? I must fail, Who fail at the beginning to hold and move One man, -- and he my cousin, and he my friend, And he born tender, made intelligent, Inclined to ponder the precipitous sides Of difficult questions ; yet, obtuse to me, Of me, incurious ! likes me very well, And wishes me a paradise of good, Good looks, good means, and good digestion, -- ay, But otherwise evades me, puts me off With kindness, with a tolerant gentleness, -- Too light a book for a grave man's reading ! Go, Aurora Leigh : be humble. There it is, We women are too apt to look to One, Which proves a certain impotence in art. We strain our natures at doing something great, Far less because it 's something great to do, Than haply that we, so, commend ourselves As being not small, and more appreciable To some one friend. We must have mediators Betwixt our highest conscience and the judge ; Some sweet saint's blood must quicken in our palms Or all the life in heaven seems slow and cold : Good only being perceived as the end of good, And God alone pleased, -- that's too poor, we think, And not enough for us by any means. Ay, Romney, I remember, told me once We miss the abstract when we comprehend. We miss it most when we aspire, -- and fail. Yet, so, I will not. -- This vile woman's way Of trailing garments, shall not trip me up : I 'll have no traffic with the personal thought In art's pure temple. Must I work in vain, Without the approbation of a man ? It cannot be ; it shall not. Fame itself, That approbation of the general race, Presents a poor end, (though the arrow speed, Shot straight with vigorous finger to the white,) And the highest fame was never reached except By what was aimed above it. Art for art, And good for God Himself, the essential Good ! We 'll keep our aims sublime, our eyes erect, Although our woman-hands should shake and fail ; And if we fail .. But must we ? -- Shall I fail ? The Greeks said grandly in their tragic phrase, `Let no one be called happy till his death.' To which I add, -- Let no one till his death Be called unhappy. Measure not the work Until the day 's out and the labour done, Then bring your gauges. If the day's work 's scant, Why, call it scant ; affect no compromise ; And, in that we have nobly striven at least, Deal with us nobly, women though we be. And honour us with truth if not with praise.