Written in Blood: The Art of Mothering Epic in the Poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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At age thirteen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning composed her first "epic" poem, "The Battle of Marathon," inspired by her hope to become the female Homer. (1) Later in her life, however, she rejected the limitations of an epic inspired by the past. In Barrett Browning's 1856 verse novel, Aurora Leigh, the protagonist--a woman poet, like the author herself--defines the true vocation of the creators of epic: they must "represent .../ Their age ... this live, throbbing age." (2) Aurora Leigh, an innovative kunstlerroman significantly longer than Milton's Paradise Lost, was indeed hailed as a "present-day epic" by Barrett Browning's contemporary, Coventry Patmore. (3) The work continues to receive considerable critical attention, much of which now focuses on its use of images which allow "female experiences that are usually silenced" to "speak loudly." (4) In fact, Dorothy Mermin argues that "all the women" in the text "are conceived primarily as mothers," with the exception of "Aurora herself" (p. 190). However, Barrett Browning maintains that the "heavens and the earth" grant the same "vocation" to both mother and poet: namely, to carry out the "most necessary work" of developing the human soul (AL, 2.455,460). Thus, Aurora does, in fact, become a mother by means of her literary creations. Yet in 1861, Barrett Browning seemingly questioned this link between the maternal and the poetic in her 100-line lyric, "Mother and Poet," which depicts the tragic fate of a woman who successfully blended her maternity and her artistry. Based on the historical figure of Laura Savio, an Italian patriot, Barrett Browning's speaker raises two heroic sons only to sacrifice them both to the nationalistic ideals she nourished within them. This lyric poem--briefly glossed by critics as a "moving tribute," (5) an indictment of patriarchy, (6) or a re-thinking by Barrett Browning of her own political involvement (Mermin, p. 238)--actually completes the metaphor of the poet as mother introduced in Aurora Leigh. Indeed, it provides support for Aurora Leigh's "argument" that "writing a poem" is an "epic action" which may lead, "like an epic hero's, to the creation of a new social order" (Mermin, p. 183). A comparison of the conception, formation, and promulgation of a poem/child in both works and an exploration of the ways in which both poems concretize critical theories later formulated by the French feminist Julia Kristeva will show that "Mother and Poet" offers significant insights into the struggles of all poets whose "book, which is a man too," must be written in "man's blood" (AL, 5.398, 356): like the mothering of a physical child, the creation of a poetic Other releases a form of life and energy which can be shaped but not controlled--and which must ultimately be sacrificed. Thus, the child/text becomes a type of Christ, a messianic force which both subordinates and elevates the maternal poet as the agent of a loving apocalypse.

While earlier epics like the Aeneid and Paradise Lost have twelve books, Aurora Leigh was conceived as a nine-book epic; thus, the very structure of the work reveals its gestational nature. According to Sandra Donaldson, Barrett Browning's own experience at age forty-three of "giving birth and nurturing a child" greatly influenced her poetry "for the better," deepening her "sensitivity." (7) Similarly, when Aurora's book comes to term, she envisions herself as a complete poet/mother, integrating her own femininity with the masculinity of her betrothed, Romney. Barbara Gelpi asserts that when Aurora confesses her love for Romney, her "alter ego," she finally possesses "the united spirit of a creative woman ... trustful of her power." (8) The symbolic number nine recurs within this context of artistic growth in book 3, when Aurora receives nine letters with "red seals," the ninth of which contains not only news of Romney, but a description of two sketches of Danae being violated by Jove in a "glittering haze" of "prodigious" golden "rain"; in one, Danae runs "a-flame to meet" her visitor, and in the second, she "lies . …