No Art But That Which Has a Use, and What Purpose from a Woman?

No Art But That Which Has a Use, and What Purpose from a Woman?

A Story by Chelsea Schermerhorn

An essay written for my Victorian Literature class.


Utility defined much of the Victorian era’s art, literature, and philosophy. If one of these three lacked a purpose, then there was no purpose in developing them. The case of utility was much the same for women; a woman was only worth what uses she had or how she or her skills could be used. The challenge for the woman poet to live up to that standard of utility in the age primarily stemmed from a woman and poet defending their work and life as purposeful as the narrator exhibits in Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The woman poet had to defend not only her work’s purpose, but her capability and authorization to write a purposeful piece of literature when women were provided with unequal education and generally viewed as unintelligent, as well as develop her own poetic independence and drive toward a new perspective of herself.

            The need for purpose in art is most clearly seen in Romney’s idea that,

“‘…men, and still less women, happily,

 Scarce need be poets. Keep to the green wreath,

 Since even dreaming of the stone and bronze

Brings headaches, pretty cousin, and defiles

The clean white morning dresses.’” (2.92-96)

Romney condemns poetry for its uselessness in only bringing headaches, and that headache defiles the sacred nature of the female. Aurora defends her sex, replying that the headache may be too “noble” (2.110) for her sex, but it is more tolerable than the “decent” (2.111) heartache that women are condemned to suffer from. Aurora also defends the purpose of writing poetry in that to not do so would be useless of her. She else wise would be sitting around without any purpose but that of being a woman, which has less use than poetry in her eyes. She would rather walk in fear of soiling herself than stand still and never take a step (2.101-105).

            Another difficulty faced by the woman poet, especially in Aurora Leigh is the view of the public on the education of women. A woman’s education was not meant to extend very far, and definitely was not meant to be for any other purpose than inside the home. Aurora details  the education which she received from her aunt, and while she learns about an abundance of subjects, the education barely skim the surface of those subjects and does not go deeper into the material than is proper for a young woman. Again, Romney highlights the limits of a woman and her proper station in her poor education:

            “…‘Here’s a book I found!

            No name writ on it�"poems, by the form;

            Some Greek upon the margin,�"lady’s Greek

            Without the accents. Read it? Not a word.

I saw at once the thing had witchcraft in’t,

Whereof the reading calls up dangerous spirits:

I rather bring it to the witch.’”(2.74-80)

Aurora’s education is limited by the view that women are not as intelligent as men by any means, and suffered from an altered curriculum deemed appropriate for her sex. Romney mocks her book because it is an inferior example of literature to what he would read and he does not want to dabble in anything that is not appropriate for his station. The unequal education limits a woman’s scope for writing; she cannot touch upon as many subjects or go into material very deeply because of her education. The exception is when women teach themselves, as Aurora might very well have done. Regardless of whether she instructed herself in the complex forms of Greek, Aurora would not have been given access to any book that surpassed her station to read in public, especially by her aunt who lives very much by propriety.

            An ultimate challenge faced by a woman poet would be living up to the era’s expectations of poetry and developing her own style and theories for poetry that separate her work from the men’s in order to gain social acceptance and continue in her art. Aurora gains a vision of her own by the end of the verse novel, and expresses the role of a poet and the role of a woman as a poet. She, or rather Browning, emphasizes the role of a poet writing about his or her own times rather than drawing on ancient histories which mean naught to the current times (5.189-199). “Their sole work is to represent the age, / Their age, not Charlemagne’s,�"this live, throbbing age” (5.202-203). The woman poet not only represents the current age, but as a woman, gives birth to the next:

            “That, when the next [age] shall come, the men of that

May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say

            ‘Behold,�"behold the paps we all have sucked!

            This bosom seems to beat still, or at least

            It sets ours beating: this is living art,

            Which thus presents and thus records true life.’” (5.217-222)

The woman is a living form of art who ushers in the new age and gives birth to life. The woman poet faces many challenges, especially the woman poet from the Victorian age. Browning rebuts the conventional role of the woman and emphasizes the purposefulness of not only art, but a woman’s art. A woman’s fertility spills over into her art, and brings a rebirth and a new life to the conventions and customs of an age through the very thing that supposedly only brings headaches. Browning’s thoughts on this are genius, and the solutions offered and put into practice by a woman poet would be useful, however, in a patriarchal society, how effective can a hidden meaning be, when no one wants it to be there?

© 2010 Chelsea Schermerhorn

Author's Note

Chelsea Schermerhorn
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. Aurora Leigh. The Norton Anthology of English
Literature. Vol E. 8th Ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York, NY: W.W. Norton
and Company. 2006. 1092-1106. Print.

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Added on February 7, 2010
Last Updated on February 7, 2010


Chelsea Schermerhorn
Chelsea Schermerhorn

Bruceville-Eddy, TX

I like books of all sorts, old and new, I love it when the words of a book draw pictures in my mind, I love movies of all genres except horror, learning about all things, including history, pop cultur.. more..