Crossing a Sea of Hope: Women, Migration, and Epic in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh

Crossing a Sea of Hope:
Women, Migration, and Epic in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh

“And anyway/I’d never write good poetry because what did/I know about war, death, the gods/and the founding of countries?/But you see, Dad, what I really want to read/and hear is stuff about us, about now,/about Nubians in Londinium, about men/who dress up as women, about extramarital/peccadilloes, about girls getting married to older men and on that note,/in the words of the great god Pliny,/the one too early and the other too late (ahem!)./And I don’t care about the past/and I ain’t writing for posterity—/he also says that I should write for readers/five centuries hence./Well, I’m a thoroughly modern miss/and who knows what life will be like then.”

-Bernardine Evaristo, The Emperor’s Babe 

            Elizabeth Barrett Browning is lauded to this day for her epic poetry, the most famous of which is Aurora Leigh. With its modern female protagonist, cross-continental migration, and vivid imagery, the poem proves more than a simple exercise in copying Homeric tradition. The poem provides commentary relevant to this day about women’s voices and roles in literature, especially in regards to their journeys and searches for home. In her feminist critique of the epic tradition, Barrett Browning centers women in their migration as their own kinds of heroes, immortalizing their identities and their struggles and their searches for home as intrinsic to modern literature. Aurora Leigh’s charting of migration thus serves not only as a way of solidifying Barrett Browning’s position in the western canon, but as a call to action for other women poets to write of their own experiences in distinctly feminine forms, knowing they carry the same significance as the battles and journeys away from home in Homeric epic.

            Aurora Leigh’s protagonist, Aurora Leigh, narrates the poem as a migrant herself, and Barrett Browning uses imagery of water and of the sea in conjunction with Aurora’s migration to connect it with the epic tradition. In Book I of the poem, Aurora recounts how she was born in Florence to a Tuscan mother and an English father. After the deaths of both her parents, Aurora must go to England to live with an aunt, leaving her beloved Italian nurse, Assunta, behind. She remembers the way “the bitter sea/Inexorably pushed between us both” (Barrett Browning, 1.235-236), separating Aurora from Assunta, but also from what she calls “my Italy,” from “the white walls, the blue hills” of her home (1.232). They are so different from her first sighting of England, where “the frosty cliffs/Looked cold upon [her]” (1.251). She has been forced from her home to go to a land where she is something of an alien. Even after living with her aunt for several years, others around her continue referring to her as “the Italian child” (1.495). Thus, Aurora lives permanently marked as an outsider, as an immigrant in England. Later, she yearns for Italy, articulating a possessiveness again for her homeland: “Are you ’ware of me, my hills,/How I burn toward you?” (5.1267-1268) She personifies Italy, wondering whether it can feel her yearning “As sleeping mothers feel the sucking babe/And smile” (5.1270-1271). The equating of Italy with a mother figure might remind the reader of the line earlier in the poem, when Aurora speaks, as a result of the loss of her mother, how she “felt a mother-want about the world” (1.40). Just as she has been orphaned, Aurora’s migration leaves her with a void and a longing for a homeland to which she cannot really return.

The poem’s epic form already recalls the epic tradition, but Barrett Browning also provides opportunities to make direct comparison between Aurora Leigh and epic heroes in more overt allusions in her verse. When Aurora travels to Italy with Marian and her son, they stop one night in Marseilles, Barrett Browning once again using sea imagery as Aurora describes the city:

“With all her ships behind her, and beyond,
The scimitar of ever-shining sea
For right-hand use, bared blue against the sky!” (7.450-452)

She compels one to pause over the lines with the alliteration of both “b” and “s” sounds. A “scimitar,” a sword with a curved blade used historically in Central Asian and Middle Eastern empires, immediately evokes stories of war. And when placed in the same line as the adjective “ever-shining” to describe the sea, the verse here reminds the reader of its historical presence as well as seafaring for the purpose of war. These are precisely the material of epic poems. If that were not enough, Aurora also recounts how that evening, she sits “between the purple heaven/And purple water” (7.453-454), thinking of Italy, noticing the nature around her acting as “ambassador for God” (7.466). Barrett Browning alludes to The Odyssey when Aurora mentions the mountains moving “the way of grand dull Odyssean ghosts” (7.470). The comparison at this moment feels apt. Just like Odysseus, Aurora has been journeying home. Her connection to God through nature, too, can be compared to Poseidon’s anger with Odysseus and his hubris that leads him to prolong Odysseus’s journey back to Ithaca. The comparison allows Barrett Browning to position Aurora as a kind of, or a character existing in response to the, epic hero through her migration. But, Barrett Browning also proves, as a woman in the modern age, Aurora makes for a very different kind of heroine.

In a 2020 article for the Sewanee Review, A.E. Stallings recalls a poetry workshop she has led for refugee women in Greece since 2015. The women originally come from places like Syria and Iraq, but almost all of them have traveled in boats from Turkey to the island of Lesbos in Greece. The significance of the geography of their journeys is not lost on Stallings; these women have crossed the same eastern Aegean featured in Homer’s epics. However, their stories, obviously, are enormously different from Ancient Greek warriors. These women have not traveled to fight a war. They have fled to escape it. Like in Aurora Leigh, the women’s poetry about their migrations heavily features imagery of the sea. The sea is a source of nightmares of the women, toward which so many refugees are driven, but from which so many of them do not return (Stallings 352). Yet they have crossed it, because despite the danger posed by traveling in the “overloaded and unseaworthy boats” (352), the journey is one “that can carry you to your future” (354). The women migrate for hope. Such hope is not unlike Aurora Leigh’s motivations for migration. She goes back to Italy out of hope of inspiration, and perhaps hope of resolving the “mother-want” that plagues her as an orphan and as an immigrant. Together, these women’s poems and Barrett Browning’s epic argue that even when crossing the same geographies as those historically traveled by men, their journeys have very different motivations.

Barrett Browning reinforces the difference between her epic and someone like Homer’s through her form. While poems like The Iliad traditionally contained twelve books, Aurora Leigh only has nine. Olivia Gatti Taylor astutely points out the recurrence of the number nine throughout Barrett Browning’s poem and its connection to the ninth months of gestation women experience when pregnant (Gatti Taylor 153), suggesting a clear connection between women’s experiences and the form in which Barrett Browning writes. In the poem itself, Aurora asks herself, “What form is best for poems?” (Barrett Browning 5.223) “Trust the spirit,” she advises her reader, to influence the form poetry takes. She urges one to look inward: “Inward evermore/To outward—so in life, and so in art/Which still is life” (5.227-229). One’s art or poetry ought to be a reflection of their own life, both in its content and in its outward appearance, or form. Such a mindset allows Aurora Leigh, a poem full of mothers and “mother-want,” to take the form of the distinctly womanly lived experience of motherhood. Thus, in Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning either responds to the epic tradition or updates it to account for women’s lives.

Barrett Browning further breaks from the Homeric epic in her depiction of sexual violence. In The Iliad, as Stallings explains, several female characters appear as the companions of the epic’s male heroes. As it turns out, these “spear-brides” could more accurately be referred to as “sex slaves,” as they are the victims of the massacres of their cities, where heroes like Achilles murder all of the men before snatching up the women and distributing them to be raped (360). Of course, however, the narrative focuses on the men of these stories, rather than fully acknowledging the violence, both sexual and not, to which these women have been subject. Marian in Aurora Leigh acts almost as a direct response to this lack of regard for female victims of sexual violence. When Aurora sees her child and accuses Marian of having been seduced into a child of wedlock, Marian immediately, vehemently corrects her:

“What, ‘seduced’’s your word?
Do wolves seduce a wandering fawn in France?
Do eagles, who have pinched a lamb with claws,
Seduce it into carrion? So with me” (6.766-769).

Marian not only compares herself to young, innocent animals, but compares the man who raped and impregnated her to predators. She repeats the word “seduce” several times, almost as if she is throwing it in Aurora’s face with its stupidity, like when one says a word so many times that it begins to lose its meaning. She emphasizes the violence that has been done to her here, the kind of violence and ruthlessness witnessed when a wild animal kills its prey. And if that were not overt enough, she states it plainly: “man’s violence,/Not man’s seduction, made me what I am” (6.1226-1227). Marian revolutionarily asserts herself as a victim of sexual violence. The verse here is reminiscent of Stallings’s reflections on the writing of Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman from Northern Iraq who was captured by the Islamic State and forced into sexual slavery (365). Both of these women were removed from their homes and sexually assaulted—Marian to France, and Nadia to the Islamic State—and then migrate to escape such threats of violence. Modern poetry and women’s writing feature an almost reversal of the epic tradition. Whereas The Iliad and The Odyssey focuse on the stories of men and the atrocities—the raping and burning and pillaging—they are allowed in war, Aurora Leigh, and modern refugee women’s writing, give voices to the women against whom those atrocities have been committed.

Stallings, at one point in her article, when comparing the refugee women in her workshop to the women in Homer’s epics, describes what she calls “the epic present,” or the geography of epic still in use today as routes for migration (378). It is similar to the call-to-action Barrett Browning articulates in Aurora Leigh. “The critics say that epics have died out” (5.139), but Aurora disagrees. The trouble comes from not understanding the interaction between age and epic: “Every age/Appears to souls who live in’t (ask Carlyle)/Most unheroic” (5.155-157). Epic seems worthy of epic only because it is so far in the past. When it comes to writing a modern epic, all one need write is about regular people. After all, even Homer’s heroes, “They were but men—his Helen’s hair turned gray/Like any plain Miss Smith’s who wears a front” (5.247-148). Even the most beautiful woman of Troy was a regular woman who aged and died. Thus, in writing a modern epic, one must write of the modern age, no matter how ordinary it may seem. And as Aurora has said, if art is meant to reflect one’s own life, and when lives have changed so much, form, too, is subject to change. And part of that change should be the proliferation and popularization of the woman poet. Stallings gives an example of how Briseïs’s mourning Patroculus in The Iliad gives permission for the women around her to mourn, too, but “for their own cares” (373). In the same vein, Aurora Leigh, in making an epic of one woman’s journey, gives rise to other women poets, and pushes epic, and literature at large, to evolve. One day, Barrett Browning is sure, the western canon will be full of other thoroughly modern misses.


This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations.

Sophie García


Works Cited

Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. Aurora Leigh. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. Originally published in London and New York in 1856.

Evaristo, Bernardine. The Emperor’s Babe. London: Penguin Books, 2001.

Gatti Taylor, Olivia. “Written in Blood: The Art of Mothering Epic in the Poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.” Victorian Poetry 44 (2006): 153-164.

Stallings, A.E. “The Lyre of Eëtion: Lyric, Epic, War and Migration in the Eastern Aegean.” Sewanee Review 128 (Spring 2020): 349-379.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Life in Images

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Biography

There are perhaps three spheres most important to understanding Elizabeth Barrett Browning as a person and as a literary figure: her education, her romance with Robert Browning, and her illness. She was born to Edward Barrett Moulton-Barrett and Mary Graham-Clarke in County Durham on March 6, 1806. She was the first of twelve children. Her immersion in classics began with learning Greek and Latin in 1817. When she was fourteen, her father privately published her epic poem The Battle of Marathon. Her first serious illness struck when she was fifteen, in 1821. Still, she continued studying Greek classics and writing poetry. Her family moved to London in 1835.

In 1845, she began a passionate correspondence with Robert Browning. They were secretly married in St Marylebone Church in 1846. They then moved to Italy, settling in Florence for the rest of their lives with occasional visits to London and Paris. Barrett Browning’s poor health continued, and she suffered several miscarriages. Her son, Pen, was born in 1849. In 1853, she began writing Aurora Leigh, which was then finished and published in 1856. After more bouts of illness, several more poems, and four editions of Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning died on June 29 in 1861 and was buried in the English Cemetery in Florence. Her Last Poems was published posthumously in 1862.

Revulsion Toward the Human in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway

“Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language—Antony and Cleopatra—had shriveled utterly. How Shakespeare loathed humanity—the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidity of the mouth and the belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of the words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair. Dante the same. Aeschylus (translated) the same. There Rezia sat at the table trimming hats. She trimmed hats for Mrs. Filmer’s friends; she trimmed hats by the hour. She looked pale, mysterious, like a lily, drowned, under water, he thought.

“‘The English are so serious,’ she would say, putting her arms round Septimus, her cheek against his.

“Love between man and woman was repulsive to Shakespeare. The business of copulation was filth to him before the end. But, Rezia said, she must have children. They had been married five years.”

Mrs. Dalloway, 88-89

Woolf begins this passage with Septimus’s post-war reflection on Shakespeare. The passage takes place after Septimus’s return from the war with Rezia. The painting of Septimus’s earlier “intoxication” with Shakespeare’s language as “boy’s business” illustrates more than just the ending of a fascination or interest. The alliteration in “boy’s business” brings attention to it, gives it a name that sounds almost silly, that can be dismissed or condescended when read aloud. The use of the word “intoxication,” meanwhile, evokes a certain kind of sensuality. At this point, years after the war, the sensuality has “shriveled utterly.” Woolf’s language subtly tells her reader that while Septimus assures himself that he has matured or been enlightened—he has moved on from his “boy’s business”—what has really occurred is an absolute loss of sensation. Septimus points it out himself earlier on when he says he cannot feel anything. But it has seeped into his reading of plays that once intoxicated him, so the reader cannot necessarily trust Septimus’s readings.

Thus, when he remarks how “Shakespeare loathed humanity,” really it is Septimus who loathes humanity. Woolf piles up imagery for the reader to understand the depths to which Septimus can no longer feel, employing repetition of “the” to generate almost her own kind of assault on the reader’s senses. Septimus loathes “the putting on of clothes” because he can no longer feel the joy of nice fabric or the decorative properties of clothing; he loathes “the getting of children” because he no longer feels sexual excitement; he bemoans “the sordidity of the mouth and belly!” He takes no pleasure in the taste of food, and feels a disgust in the human body. The word “sordidity” employs repetition of sounds in itself, so the reader might understand that Septimus’s loss of feeling, the “shriveling,” is not so much the result of an extended lack of feeling, but the constant assault that has been placed on his senses while in the war.

Woolf repeats the word “trimming” three times when describing Septimus’s observations of Rezia. The effect is almost chant-like, or like a nursery rhyme, and reveals the way Septimus finds her actions silly, especially when compared to these great truths he believes to have uncovered, from none other than classic writers. Then he compares her to a “lily, drowned, under water.” This might be an allusion to Shakespeare, where Woolf Rezia equates Rezia to Ophelia from Hamlet. Hamlet, concerned with great issues of his father’s death and proper succession, rejects Ophelia. Septimus is thus like Hamlet; burdened with these great truths, or his own beliefs that the world’s “great signal” is of loathing, hatred, despair, Septimus rejects Rezia and avoids giving her children.

Woolf’s prose turns matter-of-fact as Septimus recounts an act of physical love from Rezia: how she puts her arms around him, “her cheek against his.” There is no sensation here, no stirring of emotion either positive or negative. One can practically see the coldness with which he responds, how he stiffens, utterly not at ease, as Rezia reaches out to him. Then the prose turns even colder, the sentences even shorter and straight to the point. “Love between man and woman was repulsive to Shakespeare. The business of copulation was filth to him before the end.” Shakespeare wrote comedies whose endings were marked with marriage. This is not Shakespeare’s opinion; it is Septimus’s. After all, the reader already knows Septimus regards the human body with disgust. How could he ever endure sex?

We’ve discussed at length in class the novel’s historical context as taking place after World War I, leading to discussions of shellshock and mental health in regard to Septimus. I think Woolf illustrates a really interesting understanding of trauma here, however, perhaps even ahead of her time. Today we understand that a characteristic of trauma and PTSD is the constant assault on a person’s nervous system, often triggered through sound or other sensory experiences that remind the victim of the traumatic event. Woolf’s prose, in its constant repetitions and almost bombarding Septimus with sensory experiences, might be trying to replicate the same feeling. In this way, the passage illustrates the ways in which literature can bring to life a phenomenon that might not yet be clinically understood.

Another intriguing historical context is of the novel as a post-pandemic work. Septimus’s aversion to touch, though primarily a symptom of his PTSD, feels incredibly fitting as a response to influenza. It is comparable to the social distancing we undertake in the COVID-19 era, and the near constant anxiety people feel when confronted with contact with another person’s body. The complete revulsion he feels toward the human body seems to have more to do with his general hatred of human existence; however, it would not be farfetched to think of it too as a disgust toward a physical being that carries disease.

Rezia’s character raises the question of women’s history here. I wonder whether she had different rights in England as an Italian immigrant, but either way, women’s suffrage was established in England following World War I. Septimus married her because she was the youngest of the sisters, because she was the “gayest,” perhaps because he thought her silly and unable to challenge him. I wonder whether we are meant to think of her assertion at the passage’s end—that “she must have children”—as a result of this era of women’s expanded liberty. Or is it more of a supplication?

Then, there is the literary context. We now know Woolf as an important voice in the British literary canon, but her inclusion of authors such as Shakespeare, Dante, and Aeschylus illustrates for her reader both what is regarded as a literary canon at the time, and how deeply she deviates from it. Aeschylus comes from Ancient Greece, Dante from the medieval era, and Shakespeare from Elizabethan England. They all wrote in verse and are regarded as important figures, whether in classics or medieval literature. Woolf’s writing, in its plunging into characters’ consciousness and unconventionally structured prose, is revolutionary against this literary backdrop.

A Walk Down Cheapside

On Cheapside, a street running through the City of London, tall, ornate, brick and brownstone buildings from after the Great Fire line either side of the road. There are signs outside of them for their businesses: a library, a stay and shirt manufacturer, a jeweller. There are lots of side streets with homes and businesses of their own, and the tall, brick buildings run in every direction. There are so many storefronts, and the buildings are full of windows out of which business owners fly advertisements for their goods. They remind the street of their vegetarian meals, teas for sale, and more. There are people, so many people, from all over, walking in and out of the different businesses, jumping into carriages, speeding in a rush toward their offices. The men wear bowler hats, the women dresses, and their modern daughters, shirtwaists and skirts.

This is a modern street. Lamp posts stand at each corner, and the intersections teem with carts and cabs and other carriages. They crowd together at the roundabouts and make Cheapside the notoriously busy street that it is. The sidewalk is wide enough for four people to walk in a row, though the area is too busy for that. The streets are also wide, and people walk there, too, deftly avoiding traffic. But the air is heavy, almost stifling, and not very clear. Smoke pours out from the chimneys and in cold weather or heavy rain, make for an oppressive atmosphere. There are so many horses, and dogs running freely through the street; the smell of their waste is inescapable. It is, after all, the busiest thoroughfare in London.

The most important sound on Cheapside is the bells. St Mary-le-Bow Church was built on one end of the street; all proper Cockneys are born within hearing range of her bells. At the other end of the street are the Mansion House and the Bank of England and its buildings. There is not much respite to be found here, no greenery and no quiet, but no one comes to Cheapside looking for either of those things.

The City of London: A Decreasing Population Reveals the District’s Emergence as a Major Business Center

The City of London stands out as one of the most interesting districts when it comes to population precisely because it experiences almost the opposite effect as all other districts of the metropolitan area. While a district like Poplar saw a 1890% increase in its population between 1801 and 1890 (from 8,278 persons to 156,510 persons), the City of London saw its population fall over the course of the 19th century to a little more than a third of its original number of persons. While the district started out with 99,663 residents in the 1801-1810 period, it ended with only 37,218 in 1881-1890. The dramatic decrease, given its pointed divergence in the population activities of the city’s other districts, deserves a closer look.

Between 1801 and 1860, the City of London saw only nominal changes in its population; the number of persons stood consistently above 90,000, with a near-return to its original numbers during the 1851-1860 period. Each decade following this period, however, experienced severe decreases to the population. First, between 1861 and 1870, the population dropped by about 14%, and the population density underwent a similar drop. Then, that percent more than doubled in 1871-1880, with a 34% decrease in the City of London population. This was followed by another 34% decrease in the population in 1881-1890.

What might have caused such dramatic decreases in the City of London’s population, decade after decade? It seems these changes can most quickly be understood when placed in the context of the increasing populations in the expanding city’s outer districts; the population moved out of central London and into its suburbs. A large reason for this was possibly the burgeoning opportunities for work at the docks being built further along the Thames (i.e. in Poplar), but another important consideration was the fact that the City of London was becoming a major financial center. Important landmarks within the district already included the Royal Exchange, the Bank of England, and the East India House. The area was thus becoming less residential and more conducive to business, and less hospitable especially to the lower classes who could now travel outside the city’s center to find work.

East India House
The Bank, Bank Buildings, Royal Exchange & Cornhill


Many a Mission: The Establishment of Institutions in Poplar As a Result of an Increase in Dockworkers

In the metropolitan work district of Poplar, at the start of the 19th century, there were no institutions. The long, narrow district on London’s east side appears to have been lightly populated between the years of 1801 and 1810, with only 8,278 persons, and thus might not have placed great demand upon the city for infrastructure and institutions. Over the course of the 19th century, however, Poplar’s population seems to have grown and evolved, and the institutions grew with it.

The West India Import Dock, from The Queen’s London: a pictorial and descriptive record

What might be most interesting about the majority of Poplar’s institutions is their focus. While the district saw an increase in workhouses and hospitals and the addition of a lunatic asylum between the years of 1801 and 1890, the most pressing issue for the area was the increase in dockworkers and sailors. The Thames marks Poplar’s southern border, and within that particular stretch of the river sits the Isle of the Dogs, now known as “the Island.” This peninsula was significant because it housed both the East India and West India docks, the sites at which imports from the West Indies and the British East Indian Company entered the city for trade.

The institutions added to the area of Poplar reflect the growth of this trade and of the population of dockworkers. Between 1851 and 1860, the Poplar Hospital For Accidents appeared on Lodore Street. The hospital was founded originally to serve only the East and West India dockworkers, suggesting that there were large numbers of dockworkers, and large enough numbers of them receiving injuries, that the city had to build a hospital to serve them exclusively. Other institutions that arose as a result of the docks were the two Missions to Seamen founded in 1881; one was in St Luke’s Church on Stratford Street, and the other was in Poplar Church on the corner of East India Dock Road and Chrisp Street.

The two workhouses added to Poplar—the first, the Bow Road Workhouse on the border of Poplar and Mile End Town Vestry, and the second, the St Leonards Street Workhouse—suggest an influx of working class and poor migrants entering the district starting in the middle of the century, likely corresponding with the rise in activity at the docks.