Eliot’s Verse Drama and “a Novel in Verse”

In “The Three Voices of Poetry” (1953), T. S. Eliot referred to the love poems that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote for each other and then published, in order to prove his point that “the voice of the poet talking to one person only” was “an illusion” (*). The essay focuses on the three poetic voices as used in Eliot’s plays, which we may connect with EBB’s most ambitious poem, Aurora Leigh (1856).

Eliot looked back on the glorious past of verse drama, but his choice of medium was unconventional in the context of twentieth-century theatre. Aurora Leigh was defined by its author as a “a novel in verse”. We may think of this definition as an oxymoron, but Aurora Leigh is in the tradition of the long narrative poem, while partaking of the Victorian novel’s realism. It deals with “the woman question” and social injustice, but also with a variety of minor issues, such as the state of drama in the mid nineteenth-century.

In Book V, Aurora ridicules the conventions of the stage and dramaturgy of her time: “‘exit’ here / And ‘enter’ there,” “the points of clapping, fixed,” “to prick the galleries to the heart / Precisely at the fourth act,” “culminate / Our four pyramidal acts with one act more” (**). With fascination, she also refers to the ritualistic practices of ancient drama, such as “the sacrificial goat,” “the whirling white / Of choral vestures,” or “the waxen mask” (p. 156). If these are forever lost, dull present-day drama

[…] also peradventure may outgrow
The simulation of the painted scene,
Boards, actors, prompters, gaslight, and costume
And take for a worthier stage the soul itself,
[…] (p. 156)

In the meantime, playwrights will conform to formalities, constrained as they are both by the demands of audiences, and the fear of critics. By contrast, poetry is still guided by the sublime, and poets, unencumbered by external or commercial pressures, need only be true to their art. This is why Aurora is committed to poetry, and will not lower herself to writing for the stage:

I will write no plays;
Because the drama, less sublime in this,
Makes lower appeals, submits more menially,
Adopts the standard of the public taste
To chalk its height on, […] (p. 154)

As we know, Eliot tried to adapt to “the public taste” without making his drama superficial: precisely in “The Three Voices of Poetry,” he alludes to “unfriendly critics” who disparagingly associate him with “Shaftesbury Avenue and Broadway” (p. 818). As indicated above, the golden age of verse drama was Eliot’s referent, but he may have recognised in Aurora Leigh a historically closer and successful attempt to use verse for the portrayal of contemporary life.

(*) “The Three Voices of Poetry,” in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot. A European Society 1943-1957, vol. 7, eds. Iman Javadi and Ronald Schuchard, Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber, 2018, pp. 817-33 (p. 818). All quotes from this edition.

(**) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Oxford UP, 2008, pp. 153, 154. All quotes from this edition.

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