Aurora Leigh

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Preview: Issue 1 of 46


Of writing many books there is no end; And I who have written much in prose and verse For others' uses, will write now for mine,- Will write my story for my better self, As when you paint your portrait for a friend, Who keeps it in a drawer and looks at it Long after he has ceased to love you, just To hold together what he was and is.

I, writing thus, am still what men call young; I have not so far left the coasts of life To travel inland, that I cannot hear That murmur of the outer Infinite Which unweaned babies smile at in their sleep When wondered at for smiling; not so far, But still I catch my mother at her post Beside the nursery-door, with finger up, 'Hush, hush-here's too much noise!' while her sweet eyes Leap forward, taking part against her word In the child's riot. Still I sit and feel My father's slow hand, when she had left us both, Stroke out my childish curls across his knee; And hear Assunta's daily jest (she knew He liked it better than a better jest) Inquire how many golden scudi went To make such ringlets. O my father's hand, Stroke the poor hair down, stroke it heavily,- Draw, press the child's head closer to thy knee! I'm still too young, too young to sit alone.

I write. My mother was a Florentine, Whose rare blue eyes were shut from seeing me When scarcely I was four years old; my life, A poor spark snatched up from a failing lamp Which went out therefore. She was weak and frail; She could not bear the joy of giving life- The mother's rapture slew her. If her kiss Had left a longer weight upon my lips, It might have steadied the uneasy breath, And reconciled and fraternised my soul With the new order. As it was, indeed, I felt a mother-want about the world, And still went seeking, like a bleating lamb Left out at night, in shutting up the fold,- As restless as a nest-deserted bird Grown chill through something being away, though what It knows not. I, Aurora Leigh, was born To make my father sadder, and myself Not overjoyous, truly. Women know The way to rear up children, (to be just,) They know a simple, merry, tender knack Of tying sashes, fitting baby-shoes, And stringing pretty words that make no sense, And kissing full sense into empty words; Which things are corals to cut life upon, Although such trifles: children learn by such, Love's holy earnest in a pretty play, And get not over-early solemnised,- But seeing, as in a rose-bush, Love's Divine, Which burns and hurts not,-not a single bloom,- Become aware and unafraid of Love. Such good do mothers. Fathers love as well -Mine did, I know,-but still with heavier brains, And wills more consciously responsible, And not as wisely, since less foolishly; So mothers have God's licence to be missed.

My father was an austere Englishman, Who, after a dry life-time spent at home In college-learning, law, and parish talk, Was flooded with a passion unaware, His whole provisioned and complacent past Drowned out from him that moment. As he stood In Florence, where he had come to spend a month And note the secret of Da Vinci's drains, He musing somewhat absently perhaps Some English question . . whether men should pay The unpopular but necessary tax With left or right hand-in the alien sun In that great square of the Santissima, There drifted past him (scarcely marked enough To move his comfortable island-scorn,) A train of priestly banners, cross and psalm,- The white-veiled rose-crowned maidens holding up Tall tapers, weighty for such wrists, aslant To the blue luminous tremor of the air, And letting drop the white wax as they went To eat the bishop's wafer at the church; From which long trail of chanting priests and girls, A face flashed like a cymbal on his face, And shook with silent clangour brain and heart, Transfiguring him to music. Thus, even thus, He too received his sacramental gift With eucharistic meanings; for he loved.

And thus beloved, she died. I've heard it said That but to see him in the first surprise Of widower and father, nursing me, Unmothered little child of four years old, His large man's hands afraid to touch my curls, As if the gold would tarnish,-his grave lips Contriving such a miserable smile, As if he knew needs must, or I should die, And yet 'twas hard,-would almost make the stones Cry out for pity. There's a verse he set In Santa Croce to her memory, 'Weep for an infant too young to weep much When death removed this mother'-stops the mirth To-day, on women's faces when they walk With rosy children hanging on their gowns, Under the cloister, to escape the sun That scorches in the piazza. After which, He left our Florence, and made haste to hide Himself, his prattling child, and silent grief, Among the mountains above Pelago; Because unmothered babes, he thought, had need Of mother nature more than others use, And Pan's white goats, with udders warm and full Of mystic contemplations, come to feed Poor milkless lips of orphans like his own- Such scholar-scraps he talked, I've heard from friends, For even prosaic men, who wear grief long, Will get to wear it as a hat aside With a flower stuck in't. Father, then, and child, We lived among the mountains many years, God's silence on the outside of the house, And we, who did not speak too loud, within; And old Assunta to make up the fire, Crossing herself whene'er a sudden flame Which lightened from the firewood, made alive That picture of my mother on the wall. The painter drew it after she was dead; And when the face was finished, throat and hands, Her cameriera carried him, in hate Of the English-fashioned shroud, the last brocade She dressed in at the Pitti. 'He should paint No sadder thing than that,' she swore, 'to wrong Her poor signora.' Therefore, very strange The effect was. I, a little child, would crouch For hours upon the floor, with knees drawn up And gaze across them, half in terror, half In adoration, at the picture there,- That swan-like supernatural white life, Just sailing upward from the red stiff silk

Which seemed to have no part in it, nor power To keep it from quite breaking out of bounds: For hours I sate and stared. Asssunta's awe And my poor father's melancholy eyes Still pointed that way. That way, went my thoughts When wandering beyond sight. And as I grew In years, I mixed, confused, unconsciously, Whatever I last read or heard or dreamed, Abhorrent, admirable, beautiful, Pathetical, or ghastly, or grotesque, With still that face . . . which did not therefore change, But kept the mystic level of all forms And fears and admirations; was by turn Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite,- A dauntless Muse who eyes a dreadful Fate, A loving Psyche who loses sight of Love, A still Medusa, with mild milky brows All curdled and all clothed upon with snakes Whose slime falls fast as sweat will; or, anon, Our Lady of the Passion, stabbed with swords Where the Babe sucked; or, Lamia in her first Moonlighted pallor, ere she shrunk and blinked, And, shuddering, wriggled down to the unclean; Or, my own mother, leaving her last smile In her last kiss, upon the baby-mouth My father pushed down on the bed for that,- Or, my dead mother, without smile or kiss, Buried at Florence. All which images, Concentred on the picture, glassed themselves Before my meditative childhood, . . as The incoherencies of change and death Are represented fully, mixed and merged, In the smooth fair mystery of perpetual Life.

And while I stared away my childish wits Upon my mother's picture, (ah, poor child!) My father, who through love had suddenly Thrown off the old conventions, broken loose From chin-bands of the soul, like Lazarus, Yet had no time to learn to talk and walk Or grow anew familiar with the sun,- Who had reached to freedom, not to action, lived, But lived as one entranced, with thoughts, not aims,- Whom love had unmade from a common man But not completed to an uncommon man,- My father taught me what he had learnt the best Before he died and left me,-grief and love. And, seeing we had books among the hills, Strong words of counselling souls, confederate With vocal pines and waters,-out of books He taught me all the ignorance of men, And how God laughs in heaven when any man Says, 'Here I'm learned; this, I understand; In that, I am never caught at fault or doubt.' He sent the schools to school, demonstrating A fool will pass for such through one mistake, While a philosopher will pass for such, Through said mistakes being ventured in the gross And heaped up to a system. I am like, They tell me, my dear father. Broader brows Howbeit, upon a slenderer undergrowth Of delicate features,-paler, near as grave; But then my mother's smile breaks up the whole, And makes it better sometimes than itself.

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