Aurora Leigh's Radical Youth: Derridean Parergon and the Narrative Frame in "A Vision of Poets"
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Aurora Leigh's Radical Youth:
Derridean Parergon and the Narrative Frame in “A Vision of Poets”

With the publication of Aurora Leigh in 1856, Elizabeth Barrett Browning not only offered readers a poetic work that rivaled Wordsworth's The Prelude in innovation of form and content but also identified this work as the pinnacle of her career. In the dedication to her cousin John Kenyon, she describes it as "the most mature of my works, and the one into which my highest convictions upon Life and Art have entered."1 Following her lead, critics since the 1970s have often either discounted her shorter and earlier poetry or considered it merely as a foundation for the greater work to come. Much recent criticism maintains this view of Aurora Leigh as the height of Barrett Browning's career as well as the corresponding view that her earlier work is less "mature." In Steve Dillon's consideration of her tropic use of crying, singing, and breathing, for example, he claims to follow the lead of Linda M. Lewis, Dorothy Mermin, and Marjorie Stone in arguing for an "apprentice to master" story of Barrett Browning's career.2

Published in Poems of 1844, "A Vision of Poets" seems to hold a secure position within this critical narrative of progression because it anticipates Aurora Leigh's concern with the relationship of a female poet to the male poetic lineage. Lewis, while only briefly mentioning "A Vision of Poets," connects it to other poems of 1844 that affirm "the gospel of Suffering and the gospel of Work," representing the second stage of Barrett Browning's religious quest; Aurora Leigh embodies the final stage in which the poet preaches the gospel of "divine love and divine truth" (p. 13). Mermin characterizes Barrett Browning's progression in feminist terms and compares "A Vision of Poets" both to the earlier "A Vision of Fame" and "The Poet's Vow" and to the later works that concern the poetical position of women. Its "conclusions are unstated but obvious," she claims; "women can be poets, and women's lives can be their theme," which prompts us to think of the later novel-poem in which this conclusion becomes explicit (Mermin, pp. 87-88, 115). Stone gives credence [End Page 425] to Harold Bloom's six phases of poetic progress as paradigmatic even as she critiques his patriarchal model, and she places "A Vision of Poets" at the turn to Barrett Browning's "later phases of 'poetic incarnation,'" which culminate in the mastery of Aurora Leigh (pp. 93, 154). Additionally, Helen Cooper asserts that "A Vision of Poets" begins to reconfigure the classical relationship between the male poet and his female muse, an effort that "is consummated in Aurora Leigh."3 Finally, Dillon does not consider "A Vision of Poets," perhaps because its "breath[ing] back" the music of God's blessing works against his argument that breath is a later representation of poetic voice for Barrett Browning, following her early use of the cry and the song.4

Rather than continue the conversation about progression and the full scope of Barrett Browning's work, this study examines one complication of its trajectory. It follows Linda Shires' argument that certain female poets of the nineteenth-century, including Barrett Browning, were critiquing the male tradition and experimenting with form as early as the 1830s.5 "A Vision of Poets" presents a female poet who is more adversarial toward her male predecessors than has been recognized, positioning this poem as itself adversarial within Barrett Browning's oeuvre. While "A Vision of Poets" considers women's potential for poetry in the vein of Aurora Leigh, it does not wage the same battle to open the male tradition to the female poet. In the relationship between these two works, published twelve years apart, the later poem qualifies and tempers the earlier, more radical feminist position, problematizing any critical impulse to identify Barrett Browning's maturation as a steady progression toward feminist self-autonomy. The subversiveness of "A Vision of Poets" stems from its narrative of the death of the male poetic tradition and the survival of the independent female voice; independence is...