- Gender, Language, and the Politics of Disembodiment in Aurora Leigh
Aurora Leigh is a political poem because it is a physical poem. While feminist critics of the 1970s and 1980s celebrated the work’s vividly embodied imagery, a more recent critical interest in the so-called Spasmodic school of poetry, with its focus on sensations, rhythms, and pulses, has further emphasized the central role of women’s physical experience in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s epic.1 Such analyses magnify Aurora’s desire to craft a poetry that will express her own “full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age.”2 And yet this same emphasis on the body also fuels the poem’s internal dismissal of women’s poetry. In Book II, the central male antagonist, Romney Leigh, points to Aurora’s body as an obstacle to political expression. Catching the young Aurora in the act of crowning herself as a poet, Romney insists that women cannot write about contemporary debates over labor or slavery because they understand everything in terms of their own experience: “All’s yours and you, / All, coloured with your blood, or otherwise / Just nothing to you” (II.196–198). In a powerfully essentializing gesture, Romney invalidates Aurora’s poetry by means of her body. His insult articulates a larger double bind that is at the heart of Aurora Leigh: namely, the tension between the work’s lively interest in political questions and its commitment to representing these questions in an expressive, physical language.
Aurora Leigh’s political poetics, then, turns on the conflict between two kinds of bodies: the larger social body the poet seeks to represent and the distorting presence of her own embodied, feminine sensibility. In what follows, I argue that Aurora Leigh responds to this conflict by claiming disembodiment as a poetic and political strategy. While acknowledging the poem’s insistently physical idiom, I seek to uncover an alternative subtext of images of abstracted, vanishing, and intangible bodies, and to show how this subtext is equally central to Aurora Leigh. Through the associated figures of Aurora and Marian, Barrett Browning’s epic presents us with many examples of the body’s denial and disappearance. These negations offer a revitalized political poetics even as they disassociate women’s language from women’s physical experiences. [End Page 243]
In focusing on Aurora Leigh’s transfigured poetics, I join critics such as Kirstie Blair, Jason Rudy, and Charles LaPorte who underline Barrett Browning’s alertness to language as an art of spiritual transformation. While Blair and Rudy analyze the spiritual underpinnings of Barrett Browning’s relation between poetics and the body, LaPorte has shown how Aurora Leigh “genders prophecy and poetry” in ways reminiscent of related scholarship that foregrounds Aurora’s connections to Victorian sage discourse.3 Like these works, this essay sets out from the premise that Aurora Leigh bases its poetics on a creative attachment to language’s divine potential, one that upholds an incarnational poetics to unite the material and spiritual realms.4 Embodiment and disembodiment in Aurora Leigh dialectically transform each other, at times informing Aurora’s desire for detached contemplation, at other times realizing her eager bodily longing for a Christ to descend and “straighten out / The leathery tongue turned back into the throat” (V.108–109).
However, while these works have convincingly demonstrated the link between the material and the spiritual realms in Barrett Browning’s work, I wish to focus on Aurora Leigh’s extensive engagement with the subject of earthly political sovereignty. I argue that, if the poem understands a principle of incarnation to animate language, so too does it recognize these principles to be associated with a long tradition of political power. This feudal tradition, or “body politic,” underwent shifts in the nineteenth century toward a more inclusive terminology of the “social body” that was said to include the people at large or the lower classes.5 This essay demonstrates how Aurora Leigh understands this social body bear traces of its roots in an autocratic feudal hierarchy, one symbolized in the poem’s representations of the French emperor Napoleon III and of Romney’s phalanstery—a structure whose failure some critics have read as indicative...