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Two Clocks: Aurora Leigh, Poetic Form, and the Politics of Timeliness

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 51, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 63-80 | 10.1353/vp.2013.0003

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Elizabeth Barrett Browning's reception history demonstrates the power and the politics of timeliness. Celebrated in her own age for her poetry's formal innovations and political engagements, by the early twentieth century, Virginia Woolf could easily conclude that "fate had not been kind to Mrs. Browning as a writer," as she noted that Barrett Browning's importance "has become merely historical." Indeed, Barrett Browning's poetry was largely ignored until the 1970s—a time of growing interest in women's writing and feminist theory. As Bina Friewald and, more recently, Simon Avery, demonstrate, rehearsing this reception history tells a much larger historical narrative about what historical circumstances must be in place to engage with women's writing on its own terms as it helps us reflect on our own shifting critical practices. New Criticism ignored Barrett Browning, while feminist criticism—in its many historical iterations—ensured that her writing found its proper place within the literary canon.

If formalism was not always kind to Barrett Browning's poetry, Caroline Levine's recent article, "Strategic Formalism," suggests that we have at last reached a historical moment in which Barrett Browning can be kind to formalism. Arguing for a new formalist method, Levine reads "The Cry of the Children" to demonstrate how the collision between the poem's literary forms—its irony, inversions, metaphors and rhymes—and its engagement with social forms such as gender and the nation creates the poem's political effects. Building on Levine's work, I contend that the collision of literary and social forms in Aurora Leigh contributes to contemporary debates about the politics of timeliness. The novel-poem merges genres with different temporal valences such as the seemingly anachronistic epic and the modern novel in order to combine poetry's transcendent aesthetic with the novel's plodding narrative time. But the novel-poem also reflects on how social forms express themselves temporally as it depicts how women's education delays their development and participates in Victorian debates about the nature of historical time. I contend that these discrepant forms and temporalities refuse a monolithic or uniform understanding of historical time and, in the process, resist political arguments grounded in timeliness.

As Catherine Gallagher reminds us, most understandings of literary form actually "contend against time." While describing how formalism fails to account for length, Gallagher alludes to one of the most powerful complaints lodged against American New Criticism: that it celebrates the timelessness of the literary text at the cost of political and historical readings. However, I argue that Aurora Leigh's discrepant temporalities encourage us to question whether timeliness has its own political problems. As Dipesh Chakrabarty demonstrates, political arguments grounded in claims to timeliness "came to non-European peoples in the nineteenth century as somebody's way of saying 'not yet' to somebody else." He suggests that linear, historical time excludes non-European people from history by representing them as remnants of the past rather than contemporaries. Similarly, Julia Kristeva's essay, "Women's Time" recounts how each successive generation of the women's movement has had to confront its exclusion from linear, historical time as she argues for the creation of a new signifying space that emphasizes individual difference. Like Kristeva, Aurora Leigh demonstrates how linear, historical time often represents women as belated or untimely. In fact, Barrett Browning turns to poetry to create a more inclusive historicism precisely because it combines timeliness with the timeless and even untimely nature of discrete literary forms. In other words, by representing multiple, overlapping timescapes, Aurora Leigh questions the dominance of linear, progressive time.

An attention to Aurora Leigh's varied timescapes has two important implications: first, it highlights how Aurora Leigh's simultaneity—its poetic double vision and apocalyptic imagery that emphasize how poetry embodies historical time even as it transcends it—transforms history's messy, multiple temporalities into a unity that does not obscure difference. Second, it demonstrates how the marriage plot—that "most vulgar" alteration to the Corinne myth that many contemporary feminist theorists struggle with—provides the most explicit rejection of progressive, linear time.Aurora Leigh unsettles the teleological nature of the novelistic genre by representing Romney and Aurora as clashing temporalities...

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