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  • Revising Respiration: Mesmerism, Spiritualism, and the Shared Breath of Poetic Voice in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh
  • Kate Nesbit (bio)

In an 1845 letter to Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes of observing Dr. Elliotson’s phreno-magnetism, a branch of mesmerism involving the stimulation of phrenological organs.1 She admits there is something “ghastly and repelling” to her in the thought of “Dr. Elliotson’s great boney fingers seeming to ‘touch the stops’ of a whole soul’s harmonies.”2 Here, EBB employs a musical instrument metaphor—Dr. Elliotson playing on his mesmeric subject—to express her anxieties concerning mesmerism’s ability to limit a person’s autonomy and control. Eleven years later, EBB makes use of almost identical imagery in Aurora Leigh to convey her eponymous poet’s concerns about her poetic autonomy and agency. In the first book of her verse-novel, Aurora mourns the comings and goings of her literary inspiration, as well as her art’s dependence on the “best poets”3 of preceding generations:

    When my joy and pain,My thought and aspiration, like the stopsOf pipe or flute, are absolutely dumbUnless melodious, do you play on meMy pipers,—and if, sooth, you did not blow,Would no sound come?


Here, Aurora’s “pipers”—the (notably patriarchal) poetic canon—take the place of the mesmerist Dr. Elliotson, functioning as the external power that “touches the stops” and blows into the artist-as-instrument, that “inspires” her music. EBB, like so many “best poets” before her, puns on figures of respiration—“aspiration” [End Page 213] and “inspiration”—to interrogate issues of artistic ambition and creative agency.

EBB’s Aurora, however, can rarely breathe easy; her poetic “inspiration” often feels forced, false, or—like Dr. Elliotson’s mesmeric subject—controlled. She wonders, after contemplating the pipers that “play on” her, “Is the music mine” (1.892)? Throughout the epic, EBB depicts Aurora’s breath, as well as her poetry, as not entirely her own—as shared, both unwillingly and willingly, with others. Her figures of respiration are not, then, as previous critics have suggested, a metaphor for flawed, undeveloped poetry—an intermediate utterance in the poet’s development toward ideal, actualized poetic voice.4 Steve Dillon, for example, has suggested that EBB uses breath to convey a poetic utterance more “soulful and attentive” than shrieks or cries but “still below the stars of song” (p. 524). Yet, in Aurora Leigh, breath serves as more than a mere halfway point in Aurora’s poetic vocation. EBB employs respiration—the origin of literal utterance—to depict the complexity, difficulty, and beauty of artistic creation at all stages of a poet’s development. Breath—a force seemingly both interior and exterior, both of and outside the body, both inhaled and expelled—proves suspect the myth that poetry, art, and genius erupt from the interiority of a sole, enlightened subject.

EBB’s breath imagery, then, participates in what Kate Flint has identified as Victorian women poets’ resistance to the singular, patriarchal subjectivity of male authorship. As Flint argues, EBB, like many Victorian poetesses, employed her verses to speak through one or multiple others, to explore identity as “dispersed and diffuse.”5 The development of an ideal poetic voice, then, is not a movement from breath to song. Instead, poetic development in Aurora Leigh moves from breath controlled (by Aurora’s “pipers,” or poetic forefathers) to breath shared—a model of poetic utterance that works in unified collaboration with others.

EBB’s imagery of shared breath and collaborative poetic utterance both builds on and amends figures of breath in the patriarchal canon, the canon of “best poets” that both inspire and control Aurora’s poetry. The verses of the Romantics, some of EBB’s most recent predecessors, are, in M. H. Abrams words, “thoroughly ventilated” with figural respiration.6 The “breath” of creative inspiration—whether taking the form of Shelley’s west wind or the breeze caressing Coleridge’s Eolian harp—crops up so frequently that the metaphor seems ironically uninspired. Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1850)—a text often paired with Aurora Leigh as the other major autobiographical epic published in the 1850s...


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pp. 213-232
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