It is well for something to be known.
  The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known
NUMBER 1528. — July 17, 2002
ISSN 0882-3731
Two Women: E.B. Browning & Virginia Woolf

Dear Unknown Friends:

     Here is part four in our serialization of Eli Siegel’s great 1949 lecture Poetry and Women. This section is about two writers: Mr. Siegel comments on passages from Virginia Woolf’s essay on Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

     As he criticizes Virginia Woolf, he is intense; and his intensity arises from tremendous carefulness. In fact, while the author of Orlando and To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway has been praised monumentally, I believe the kindest dealing with her is here — because it is the truest, and because Mr. Siegel understood, and is opposing, the thing in her that made her despise herself. This acclaimed writer did despise herself. She had what the Oxford Companion to English Literature calls "bouts of acute mental disturbance," one of which "led to her drowning herself" at the age of 59.

     Aesthetic Realism explains that what has interfered in the field of art criticism — what makes one judge falsely, as Virginia Woolf does with Mrs. Browning — is the same thing that interferes with life in all its aspects. That interference in us is contempt: "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." Contempt is what makes for every injustice, whether literary, personal, or international. There is nothing more important for civilization than Mr. Siegel’s showing this. And we see, as he speaks here about two writers, the passion about justice that he always had.

     Last week I quoted from an Aesthetic Realism lesson of mine as a means of illustrating his beautiful, deep comprehension of women — of people. I quote from another lesson now, in which Mr. Siegel was showing me that what I needed to go after as a critic of literature was the very same thing I needed to go after as a person looking to be happy. He said:

You have the same problem of criticism and enjoyment in your life as in literature. People have enjoyed a story or poem, and then have had to say, How valid is this? It is necessary that the expressive or organic or creative be at one with the critical. Your hope is to become someone who enjoys your life and at the same time is a good critic of it.
     Criticism and enjoyment are aspects of the big opposites exactitude and pleasure. And Mr. Siegel was teaching me that these opposites fight in people because of a fundamental contempt we have: the feeling, What makes me comfortable, pleased, superior, is what I deem good and right — that is, truth is equivalent to what suits me! This feeling, ever so ordinary, had by people hour after hour, is immeasurably ugly.

     Mr. Siegel said to me: "I would like you to be wisely alarmed about this. There’s a relation between what we enjoy and what is true, and what we hate and what is true. While there is some difference between what is true and what one enjoys, that person is in peril."

The Two Selves We Have

The words I quote next I love with all my heart, for the explanation in them, and for Mr. Siegel’s ringing, kind clarity:
What is the problem you’ve had that’s given you a great deal of pain? There are two mes in everyone, and one is definitely not as good as the other. There is one me that is the ugliest thing in the world, and one me that is the most beautiful thing in the world. These two mes have tormented you, as they have others. Every person has a me, and they should hate that more than anything else in the world, because it’s theirs: a me that says the best thing to do is be inaccurate about the rest of the world.
     "The most beautiful thing in the world," I learned, is the desire in every person to care for reality outside ourselves and be just to it. This desire, to like the world honestly, is the deepest we have. "The ugliest thing," the feeling we take care of ourselves by being inaccurate about what’s not us, has, as Mr. Siegel told me, "occurred in criticism and has made for false judgments, many of them." It also has had people deal with other human beings coldly and viciously, exploit them in economics, drop bombs on them.

The One Bad Judge

Mr. Siegel explained that "a person can use a work of art to love oneself in a spurious fashion." When a critic praises something that doesn’t deserve the praise, it’s because "this work as good would please something in himself." If the critic condemns a work that should be cared for, it’s because "this work as good would threaten something in himself." Mr. Siegel continued: "That which enables one to be a critic of this kind is present in life, and it comes to this: that is good in this world which pleases me .... Self is the one bad judge in the world — nothing else can go wrong: the narrow self that is not interested in the object."

     This explanation makes sense of so much — in both criticism and history. As we’ll see, Mr. Siegel shows that Virginia Woolf felt some notion of herself, of her superiority, was threatened by the possible goodness of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Earlier, English critics felt that if Keats was a good poet, they would have to question what they thought poetry was, they would have to see that they didn’t know enough, were not the supreme arbiters of taste. So Keats was sneered at in the journals, chided, called a "Cockney poet."

     For the same reason, every effort to have more justice come to people has been presented as evil by persons with power. The British aristocrats depicted George Washington and his colleagues as vicious traitors, out to hurt their fellow colonists. In the 1840s, abolitionists were presented, by the press of both South and North, as filthy subversives whose aim was to have white ladies of America give birth to mixed-race babies. Then there are unions. Moneyed persons and their friends in government and press portrayed unions as villainous: as trying to delude and stir up workers who would otherwise be grateful for their long hours, meager pay, and miserable working conditions. The American revolutionaries, the abolitionists, the unions were "bad" because, as Mr. Siegel explained, they "threaten[ed] something in [the] self": they were a threat to one’s superiority and contempt, to the ability to use human beings for one’s personal aggrandizement, to the seeing of oneself as ever so much and others as ever so little.

     And I say quietly: Eli Siegel himself endured the anger of many people year after year, including the press, because there has been no bigger threat to conceit and contempt than he and his lifework, Aesthetic Realism. His complete honesty, his vast knowledge, the fact that one needs to learn from Aesthetic Realism about every aspect of thought and life — this is beautiful, to be loved without limit. But it does threaten vitally the sleaziest thing in us — the feeling we have the right to look down on everything — and Mr. Siegel was brutally punished for it.

     He himself was the finest of critics. And I thank him forever for teaching me how honestly to like the world and be a good critic of it and of myself. This is what all women and men thirst to learn, and can learn from Aesthetic Realism. 

Two Women 
By Eli Siegel 

Elizabeth Barrett Browning is not seen truly. I haven’t talked of her at length, and shan’t do it now. But there is a relation between Mrs. Browning and another woman, quite famous, who killed herself in 1941, Virginia Woolf. She is well known. She has been seen as one of the most important contemporary novelists. I think Virginia Woolf was pretty much of a faker. I think every person is to a degree a faker, and should stop it. One of the purposes of Aesthetic Realism is to lessen the amount of fakery in the world, mostly unconscious, very often conscious.

     Virginia Woolf is to me a pretty unhandsome, delicate fraud. And one can see that in an essay of hers on Aurora Leigh, the novel in verse by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Mrs. Woolf felt that she herself was the greatest master of the well-formed sentence, the enchased sentence, the sentence that went beyond Henry James because it didn’t flutter off everywhere. She went after those sentences as other people collect butterflies. And she has many of them. I think she lacks life. I think she needs a little more of the Babe Ruth in her novels — Babe Ruth at his best.

     She didn’t care for poetry. She wrote on poetry, but she didn’t know much about it really. And because she has a way of writing which is definitely sensitive and knowing and can be keen, people have felt she knew something about poetry. Well, she is exempt from such knowledge. Virginia Woolf could say such things! And when prose can have such a mastery of the conditional, such a delicate use of the subjunctive in relation to the wisp of the unknown in a girl’s mind, why should you write verse — what a waste!

     It seems that she was jealous of Mrs. Browning. And in this essay in her 1932 book The Common Reader, she patronizes her. She is quite stupid. She says the only way people know about Mrs. Browning is because there was a play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street. It seems that she wanted to see Mrs. Browning only as a personality whom she could patronize. This essay is really pretty vicious. Both of the ladies are dead, but I wouldn’t mind if Mrs. Woolf heard what I was saying. It is unconscious jealousy. This is an early sentence in her essay:

In short, the only place in the mansion of literature that is assigned her is downstairs in the servants’ quarters, where, in company with Mrs. Hemans, Eliza Cook, Jean Ingelow, Alexander Smith, Edwin Arnold, and Robert Montgomery, she bangs the crockery about and eats vast handfuls of peas on the point of her knife.
      This is quite glittering, but it is mean. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is definitely a better poet than these other people. Mrs. Woolf is just showing how bright she is: Mrs. Browning belongs downstairs with the awkward servants; she "bangs the crockery about .... " How bright!

Was There Scholarship?

Then she says Mrs. Browning was not a scholar, and is Mrs. Woolf stupid on this point! She says the only reason Mrs. Browning read Greek literature was that she couldn’t get out of the house. Now, very often when ladies in the 1830s and ’40s couldn’t get out of the house they would read novels, or they would take up crocheting. They wouldn’t go reading Greek dramas in the original Greek as Elizabeth Barrett did. I say Mrs. Woolf was jealous. I’m sure she doesn’t know Greek. She is no scholar. But Mrs. Browning happens to have been a scholar. She wrote a short history of the English poets called The Book of the Poets, which really was well-informed and had structure. Mrs. Woolf, I think, wanting to see herself as the most sensitive lady who ever wrote, whether prose or verse, has to be mean.

     These are some of her sentences: "A lyrical, a scholarly, a fastidious mind might have used seclusion and solitude to perfect its powers." But Mrs. Browning, she says, didn’t: "She was no scholar."

     At a very early age Mrs. Browning translated the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus. She didn’t learn Greek only because she couldn’t get out of the house, as Mrs. Woolf says next. She could have read circulating library novels, or studied shellfish.

     "Books were to her not an end in themselves but a substitute for living. She raced through folios because she was forbidden to scamper on the grass." There is nothing else to do but race through folios when you can’t scamper on the grass!

     "She wrestled with Aeschylus and Plato because it was out of the question that she should argue about politics with live men and women." It so happens that quite early Mrs. Browning wrote a poem called "The Cry of the Children," about child labor. She wrote other poems that had a political meaning.

     "She loved to sit in a café and watch people passing .... The past and its ruins ... interested her much less than ... the politics of Napoleon." Mrs. Browning doesn’t have a chance. If she is in solitude, she is bad. If she watches people, she is bad. If she is interested in the politics of Napoleon, she is bad.

     Mrs. Woolf, as I said, felt that persons shouldn’t write poetry. She didn’t understand poetry and therefore she was rather amazed at the idea of a whole novel being written in verse. Aurora Leigh, published in 1856, happens to be the one successful novel in verse by anyone. It is unusual; it is powerful stuff. But Mrs. Woolf says you can’t tell a story, really, in verse. How can you have dialogue; how can you deal with the ordinary things? — which are good questions, but the way she presents them shows she didn’t want to see.

     "What will the poet do with dialogue? ... Poetry when it tries to follow the words on people’s lips is terribly impeded." However, there has been poetry in plays, and Theocritus wrote poetry in dialogue.

Condescension and Praise

Then we have Mrs. Woolf taking it all back. She contradicts herself. I don’t believe Mrs. Woolf read the whole of Aurora Leigh. She talks about reading one book and how headlong it was. But she is definitely jealous. After saying how bad it is to choose verse for a novel — because that was her field, the novel, and other women shouldn’t deal with the novel and particularly get poetry into it—she goes on:
And indeed if we compare the prose novel and the novel-poem the triumphs are by no means all to the credit of prose .... We may suspect that Elizabeth Barrett was inspired by a flash of true genius when she rushed into the drawing-room and said that here, where we live and work, is the true place for the poet.
Still, there is condescension. Why in the world can’t she say plainly that Elizabeth Barrett was an artist? But it wouldn’t be right for her to say that a person in the Victorian age and a woman preceding Virginia Woolf could be an artist.
Aurora Leigh remains, with all its imperfections, a book that still lives .... [Mrs. Browning’s] bad taste, her tortured ingenuity, her floundering, scrambling, and confused impetuosity have space to spend themselves here without inflicting a deadly wound, while her ardour and abundance, her brilliant descriptive powers, her shrewd and caustic humour, infect us with her own enthusiasm. We laugh, we protest, we complain — it is absurd, it is impossible, we cannot tolerate this exaggeration a moment longer — but, nevertheless, we read to the end enthralled.
     This essay, then, is written in two moods. One is the scolding of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, condescension, and the other is an unknowing tremendous praise that Mrs. Woolf cannot affirm. No wonder she got to feel so miserable she wanted to kill herself — with this conceit and also this desire at times to see things!
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