I’ve been thinking about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel-length poem since I discovered its existence a few days ago.
One quote, particularly, keeps flashing in my head:
Life, struck sharp on death, Makes awful lightning.
I’m still only part of the way through book one, but I keep seeing moments in Aurora Leigh that seem like they will stay with me a long time. Perhaps it’s down to the suddenly violent murders of this past week, in a city I have been to – as opposed to the constant bombings and civilian death in further away climes, in war zones and disputed areas, which have become, sad as it seems, too familiar to be shocked by – but I am brought back to the image, so crisp and clear, and yet ambiguous to me. Is death, here, the solid reality – the iceberg, the floor of the valley – into which life strikes? Or is death like a comet, sparking against the surface of a planet as it flies by?
Whichever it is, the effect – the awful lightning – is the result. Bright, intense, precisely located – the immediate effect not lasting, except for the damage it can leave behind.
I think of this quote also in relation to Kilea, which is in part a novel informed by the differing grief of characters – over death, over irrevocable loss. But perhaps the beauty of the phrasing is that it can be stored and applied to many situations, a quirk of its overlap of specificity (the solid reality of death) and romantic vagueness. Not vagueness perhaps – elusiveness?
I’ve neglected EBB until now. Or it was that I never encountered her name in university, except for ‘How do I love thee…?’, and in randomly reading Flush, a wonderful biography of her pet spaniel by Virginia Woolf. The main criticism of her seems to be that she was a rather pious and worthy woman, not terribly experimental, and therefore somehow less juicy. But her romance, while an ‘invalid’ confined to her bed, with a younger fan, Mr Robert Browning, sounds ripe for a soppy film adaptation – she was disinherited by her father for it, for running off to Italy after the marriage, and probably also because she was a vocal abolitionist, while the Barrett family fortunes had been made in Jamaica. Anyway, the text speaks for itself.
If you are interested but don’t have the time or inclination to go to the public library Aurora Leigh has been put up (among other places) here: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/barrett/aurora/aurora.html