I just finished Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1856), a novel in blank verse about the struggles, romantic and professional, of a lady poet. Do I want to write abou it? I'm not sure. I was inspired to read it by this post of Rohan Maitzen's, in which she describes how wild the book can be. It's a frustrating book, alternately brilliant, then weird, then as dull as its blank verse peers. Like The Prelude, like Paradise Lost, it was an easy book for me to not pick up. Browning's blank verse was both compressed and prolix, giving the text a density that was sometimes hard to penetrate.
So it was not an easy book to read, at least in places, and is so thickly meaningful that it is not an easy book to understand. Let me go the heart of the problem. The scene is, let's see, the poet Aurora Leigh has fled her romantic troubles. She is in Florence, depressed, not writing (her last book is a surprise hit), not doing anything:
I did not write, nor read, nor even think,
But sate absorbed amid the quickening glooms,
Most like some passive broken lump of salt
Dropt in by chance to a bowl of œnomel
To spoil the drink a little and lose itself,
Dissolving slowly, slowly until lost. (7,1306-11)
This is, top to bottom, superb blank verse, with one little lump of salt right in the middle. This reader was stopped dead by "œnomel." Those more skilled in languages, Meine Frau, for example, will be able to use the roots (œno = wine, mel = honey) to discover the honeyed wine concealed within the word. I had to go to the Norton Critical Edition's footnote ("used as a beverage by the ancient Greeks (OED)"). Reading Aurora Leigh was a hiccupy experience for me, a bumpy ride. EBB, as the footnotes call her, turns out to have the same vice as her husband, RB: they are both obscure without knowing it.
Aurora Leigh is worth the struggle, the up-and-down, text-to-note eyestrain. I'm now convinced it is an Essential Victorian Book, like Carlyle's Past and Present, to which it often refers. But it takes work:
Alas, the best of books
Is but a word in Art, which soon grows cramped,
Stiff, dubious-statured with the weight of years,
And drops an accent or digamma down
Some cranny of unfathomable time,
Beyond the critic's reaching. (7.884-9)
Look, she did it again! I'll leave "digamma" to the curious Googler. And I'll write about the wedding scene tomorrow. The wedding scene is fantastic.