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The Use of Greek Mythology in Aurora Leigh

Updated on June 14, 2014
Daphne escaping Apollo and morphing into a laurel tree.
Daphne escaping Apollo and morphing into a laurel tree. | Source

Aurora Leigh: Greek Mythology

Greek Mythology is used throughout Browning's epic love poem and is used to help enforce her characters' actions. In book 5 Daphne, a Naiad, is mentioned and what I like about this portion that Browning included is that it shows Aurora's character and what she is trying to avoid as a woman. Daphne is mentioned in lines 95-99, "A tree's mere firewood, unless humanized,/ Which well the Greeks knew when they stirred its bark / With close-pressed bosoms of subsiding nymphs, / And made the forest-rivers garrulous / With babble of gods." This passage refers to the story of Daphne, who, fleeing from Apollo, was changed into a laurel tree by her father Peneus ( the river God). She was then adopted by Apollo as his sacred tree. This image of idolizing a woman is something Aurora is trying to avoid in the story. She doesn't want to be put on display and awed over, she wants to be an active participant in her life and make her own decisions and choices. It also says something for her love life she doesn't want a man who is going to idolize her, she wants a man who will treat her as an equal partner and love her for who she is not her beauty.

Another God mentioned is Dionysus/Bacchus, and he is mentioned a lot within this epic love poem. I think his presence in the poem is to remind the readers of the carnal nature of men. In book 5 lines 320-323 describes a Greek choral lyric connected with the worship of Dionysus, "The sacrificial goat, for Bacchus, slain, / His filmed eyes fluttered by the whirling white / Of choral vestures,--troubled in his blood, / While tragic voices that clanged keen as swords." The other mention of Dionysus is mentioned in book 6, but refers back to book 5 lines 319-320: "Dies no more / The sacrificial goat for, Bacchus slain". Bacchus represents the essence of nature and goats are associated with him and were sacrificed in the ritual of the ecstatic Bacchae.

Another God mentioned in many books of Aurora Leigh is Apollo. In this book 5 we see another side of Apollo, acting as the avenging God who strikes down those who offend him with his silver arrow. In lines 414-420: "My Phoebus Apollo, soul within my soul, / Who judges, by the attempted, what's attained, / And with the silver arrow from his height / Has struck down all my works before my face / While I said nothing". Apollo is mentioned again in this book on page 172 lines 943-945: "by Apollo's divine chance, / To throne such feet as yours, my prophetess, / At Delphi. Think, - the god comes down as fierce, As twenty bloodhounds, shakes you, strangles you, / Until the oracular shriek shall ooze in forth!" These lines seem to refer to how Apollo sought to avenge his mother and killed a serpent which guarded the oracle at Delphi, he claimed the oracle his. And the oracle was a sacred navel stone believed to be the center of the world and the mystical connection to the Mother Earth. What's interesting here is the connection to the earth and trying to claim something that can't be claimed. It's as if Aurora is this mother earth image and she is trying to be claimed by these men who see her as an object not a woman.

Another Goddess in the epic love poem is of course Aphordite/Venus herself. The Goddess is seen on page 167 line 765 "Venus Meretrix". Meretrix is from the latin word of prostitute, but Venus was not only associated with love but prostitution as well, and was worshipped by prostitutes because of her association with destroying and creating love. Venus is also seen in book 7 lines 771-773: "The perfect round which fitted Venus' hand / Has perished as utterly as if we ate / Both halves". The story mentioned in this book is one where Aphrodite/Venus was chosen as the most beautiful goddess by the judge Paris (son of Priam, king of Troy). In return she was to protect him and give him a beautiful woman as a wife. This plays into the idea of men putting women on a pedestal in Aurora Leigh, and how Aurora tried her hardest to stay off of their pedestal. She didn't want to become forever idolized for beauty, but for her talent.

Another mythical character mentioned is Pan, we see him on page 176 in lines 1115-1119: "A pagan, kissing for a step of Pan / The wild-goat's hoof-print on the loamy down, / Exceeds our modern thinker who turns back / The strata...granite, limestone, coal, and clay, / Concluding coldly with, 'Here's law! where's God?'". Pan was the nymph son of Hermes, the Greek God of nature, and protector of shepherds, hunters, and herdsmen. Pan's worship was not in temples, but in woodlands and caves. He was depicted as having 2 horns growing out of his forehead, with the upper torso of a man and the ears, legs, and hooves of a goat. He was frequently associated with Dionysus and Aphrodite. He was gifted with powers of music, drama, intoxication, dreams, and prophecy. This plays more towards the rape of Marian Erle and how men are seen as animalistic and beast-like. Pan is also referenced in book 7 lines 937-940: in those lines the footnote says how when Pan pursued a nymph Syrinx, she was turned into a reed in order to escape his attentions, and so Pan made a set of pipes out of reeds and this became a symbolic instrument of his forever. This could possibly be alluding to the way Romney pursued Marian Erle and how she had to transform into someone else, in another place, in order to escape him because she felt he only loved her out of pity.

It's interesting that in this epic love poem the Goddesses described have to change into something else in order to escape the men pursuing them and Marian Erle also transforms, but Aurora Leigh stays strong to who she is and her nature she doesn't run or try to hide what she is to escape she stands up and fights.

Adonis is another mythical character seen within the poem, in book 6 lines 566-574: "There he lay upon his back, / The yearling creature, warm and moist with life / To the bottom of his dimples, - to the ends / Of the lovely tumbled curls about his face; / For since he had been covered over-much / To keep him from the light-glare, both his cheeks / Were hot and scarlet as the first live rose / The shepherd's heart-blood ebbed away into / The faster for his love". The shepherd Adonis, beloved by Aphrodite, was wounded in the thigh by a boar and though the goddess flew to his aid she was unable to save him. As he lay dying, the drops of his blood turned into roses and Aphordite's tears into anemones. This could be alluding to how Romney keeps trying to save Marian Erle she she was scared from being raped. He is unable to save her or change what was done to her so this could be symbolizing that. What's interesting about this Adonis story is a woman is the hero and tries to save the man she loves instead of the man always so auick to rescue a damsel in distress.

Aphrodite coming to Adonis' aid but being too late to save him.
Aphrodite coming to Adonis' aid but being too late to save him. | Source

Two love stories involving the Greek Gods are also in this epic love poem and both involve J-ove (Zeus). The first is between Jove and Danaes and this is seen on page 232 of book 7 in lines 584-587, but these lines refer back to book 3 lines 121-135: "I had thrown them there to keep them safe from Jove, / They would so naughtily find out their way / To both the heads of both my Danaes / Where just it made me mad to look at them". In book 3 we learn that Danae was the daughter of Acrisius of Argos. An oracle foretold that she would kill her father. In order to prevent the prophecy, Acrisius imprisoned his daughter. She was visited by Zeus in the form of a shower of golden rain, she conceived Perseus, and the prophecy of the oracle was eventually realized. "A tiptoe Danae, overbold and hot, / Both arms a-flame to meet her wishing Jove / Halfway, and burn him faster down; the face / And breasts upturned and straining, the loose locks / All glowing with the anticipated gold. / Or here's another on the self-same theme. / She lies here - flat upon her prison-floor, / The long hair swathed about her heel / Like wet sea-weed. You dimly see her through / The glittering haze of that prodigious rain, / Half blotted out of nature by a love / As heavy as fate". This shows Jove and Danae as lovers and re-tells her story. Jove seduced Danae and thus impregnated her.

The next love story is between Jove and Io. There are two different stories that are mentioned in Aurora Leigh referring to Io and Jove, one being that Jove transformed her into a heifer and condemned her to wander through the world, goaded by a gnat or gadfly. The second being that he transformed her into a heifer in order to hide her from his jealous wife, Hera, who discovered the true identity of the animal and sent a fury to pursue her. Hera was known to punish many of Zeus' lovers in horrific ways. One instance can be seen on page 238-239 in lines 828-850. The mention of this could mean that our fate is in the hands of the Gods and they can do what they will with us, and all we can do is sit back and watch.

Jove's relationship with Danae could be Romney's relationship with Marian Erle, in that he has to go search for her because she was 'locked away' by Lady Waldemar. However, once Romney finds her it's too late because his chance with her has come and gone and she doesn't want him; and truthfully I don't believe she ever did want him because he always seemed to pity her and she wasn't looking for pity. Jove's relationship with Io could be Romney and Aurora's relationship in that she is the one Lady Waldemar should have been jealous of; Aurora was the true threat to Lady Waldemar marrying Romney not Marian Erle. The conflicting stories about Io could mirror how up and down Romney and Aurora's relationship has been. The first story of Io and Jove shows Jove to be punishing Io, and the second he is protecting her. In a way Romney begins by punishing Aurora with money and condescending words, and he changes by the end and only wants to protect Aurora and finally sees her for the woman she really is, instead of holding her on this pedestal for observation.


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