Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Half-Poets" and "Whole Democrats": The Politics of Poetic Aggregation in Aurora Leigh

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

"Half-Poets" and "Whole Democrats": The Politics of Poetic Aggregation in Aurora Leigh

Article excerpt

In a climactic discussion from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's verse novel Aurora Leigh, Romney Leigh, Aurora's cousin, acknowledges that the English "talk by aggregates, / And think by systems, and, being used to face / Our evils in statistics, are inclined / to cap them with unreal remedies / Drawn out in haste on the other side of the slate" (8.801-805). (1) Although Romney had earlier criticized Aurora for failing to "generalise" (2.183), by book 8, he has learned his lesson: thinking of people as general groups is a failing proposition. Here he uses the term "aggregation" to mean the troubling political absorption of individuals into masses and recommends instead that "each individual man / Remains an Adam to the general race" (8.854-855). Romney's understanding of aggregation is initially that of the emerging social sciences he studies and practices. (2) Later, however, he reimagines the nation instead as a "loud sum" of many individual "silent units" and as the collective "expression of single men's lives":

                  "Genuine government
   Is but the expression of a nation, good
   Or less good,--even as all society,
   Howe'er unequal, monstrous, crazed and cursed,
   Is but the expression of single men's lives,
   The loud sum of the silent units. What,
   We'd change the aggregate and yet retain
   Each separate figure? whom do we cheat by that?
   Now, not even Romney." (8.873-881)

If dangerous aggregates flatten and homogenize, by the end of the poem, Romney offers a productive, alternative kind of aggregation: the model of loose collections.

Mathematicians likewise distinguish between these two models of aggregation: collection and fusion. Since the late nineteenth century, theories of collection have predominated in mathematics. While experiencing popularity in the early half of the twentieth century among mathematicians, fusion was rapidly overturned as a logical model. Michael Potter confirms that "the collection-theoretic way of thinking is so entrenched among mathematicians that it is easy for them to forget how natural it is to think of a line, say, as the sum of its points rather than as a collection of them." (3) I am not attempting to establish that Barrett Browning was "doing" math or that she was even familiar with contemporary mathematical thought, although we do know that she had some awareness of developments in statistics. (4) Instead, I claim that she understands how important counting and massing are to the politics of nationhood, social class, and gender and that she uses poetry to interrogate their assumptions and implications.

Like mathematicians, Barrett Browning recognizes aggregative collections as "metaphysically problematic entities" but problematic in a productive and challenging fashion (Potter, p. 22). The poet's visionary plan for Aurora Leigh was that even the social commentary would offer "an amount of spiritual truth," grounded in her formal "experiment" with "modern effects." (5) She wrote in a 4 October 1856 letter to Arabella Barrett, "The intention of the poem everywhere is to raise the spiritual above the natural; this is carried out in everything" (Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, p. 334; emphasis in original). Although the poem's aggregations are akin to those of mathematical aggregation as collection, Barrett Browning's aggregates formally exploit poetry's inherent ability to quantify in ways that retain plurality and categories without flattening, smoothing, or fusing. In Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning refuses a model of absorption that produces uniform wholes because this would homogenize heterogeneous elements into a single category, which can then become the basis on which incorrect or even dangerous social responses are made; absorption risks silencing individual voices, the poet suggests, by transforming them into a single, fused voice. (6)

The absorptive potential of social aggregation was precisely what Barrett Browning found most troubling about French socialism. …

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