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Featured Poem: Truth, so far, in my book by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Written by Rachael Norris, 16th September 2019

This week's Featured Poem is an extract from Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Truth, so far, in my book, chosen by The Reader's Learning and Quality Coordinator, Lisa Spurgin.

Talk about huge! There’s so much in here to get to grips with.

Straight away, I like the fact that this truth in question is up to a certain point – ‘so far’ – and from the speaker’s own perspective, or as they say rather informally, ‘in my book’. It makes me feel like there’s a bit of a disclaimer: “this is what I think ‘truth’ is, and the way I see it…I can’t explain it all but this is where I’ve got up to so far” is what I imagine them to be saying. Perhaps that’s not quite what it is, but to think that there are different versions of the truth, or that anyone’s understanding of it is incomplete, puts me at ease.

‘The truth which draws through all things upwards’ feels quite spiritual to me – I’m not quite sure what to make of it, but I find it comforting to think that there is a force, a fundamental belief or notion that connects ‘all things’ on some level. What is the ‘twofold world’ – is it the distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’? Or something else, perhaps? There does often seem to be a division between the two, as though loyalties need to be placed on one side or the other, and like most things in life, it would surely make sense for a balance to be struck that considers both equally and, indeed, together. I think that’s what this poem is getting at, or at the very least it’s getting the conversation started.

There are a lot of emotive words – ‘futile’, ‘unreal’, ‘vulgar’ – which suggest that this person has very strong feelings on what they consider the truth of this twofold world to be. A little conversely, it seems to present a very black and white view on matters; that anyone who opposes is not just ‘wrong’ in one sense but ‘in short, at all points’. That feels somewhat severe to me – it feels risky to shut out possibility or other perspectives - but I admire having such firm conviction in your own beliefs.

I feel like any Shared Reading group could spend a long time considering these lines on their own! It’s such a vibrant image and one which helps us understand the earlier parts of the poem, I think. To what extent does it matter that we ‘cut it through the pips’? The ‘perfect round’ brings me back to the previously mentioned ‘perfect cosmos’ – can anything ever be ‘perfect’, especially in relation to the truth? The ending leaves me more than a little dejected, I’m afraid to say, but hopefully there is more than one apple to replace that which has perished, and which might not be divided.

I’ll definitely need a few more readings to figure this one out…

Truth, so far, in my book (from Aurora Leigh)

Truth, so far, in my book; --- the truth which draws
Through all things upwards, --- that a twofold world
Must go to a perfect cosmos. Natural things
And spiritual, --- who separates those two
In art, in morals, or the social drift
Tears up the bond of nature and brings death,
Paints futile pictures, writes unreal verse,
Leads vulgar days, deals ignorantly with men,
Is wrong, in short, at all points. We divide
This apple of life, and cut it through the pips, ---
The perfect round which fitted Venus’ hand
Has perished as utterly as if we are
Both halves.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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