from Aurora Leigh

Books, books, books!
I had found the secret of a garret-room
Piled high with cases in my father’s name;
Piled high, packed large, – where, creeping in and out
Among the giant fossils of my past,
Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs
Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there
At this or that box, pulling through the gap,
In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,
The first book first. And how I felt it beat
Under my pillow, in the morning’s dark,
An hour before the sun would let me read!
My books! At last, because the time was ripe,
I chanced upon the poets.
                                         As the earth
Plunges in fury, when the internal fires
Have reached and pricked her heart, and, throwing flat
The marts and temples, the triumphal gates
And towers of observation, clears herself
To elemental freedom – thus, my soul,
At poetry’s divine first finger touch,
Let go conventions and sprang up surprised,
Convicted of the great eternities
Before two worlds.

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

News from the Centre! We are delighted to say that one of our recent ignitionpress pamphlets, Hinge by Alycia Pirmohamed, has been shortlisted for the Michael Marks Poetry Award! The winner from the five pamphlet shortlist will be announced on 14 December, and you can register for the free online event via the Michael Marks website, where you can also find details of the pamphlet and publisher shortlists. You can learn more about Alycia’s pamphlet and buy a copy on our website (scroll down the Pamphlets page).

This week’s choice of poem is a bit of a departure for the Weekly Poem, since we normally feature contemporary writing. However, this excerpt from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s verse novel Aurora Leigh is one of the pieces featured in our latest podcast, in which we meet the poetry anthologist Ana Sampson. Ana recently edited She Will Soar: Bright, Brave Poems about Freedom by Women (Pan Macmillan, 2020) and in the podcast she talks about how she goes about editing anthologies, how she chooses poems, and why it has been particularly important for her to edit two anthologies that include only works by women. You can listen to the podcast on our website and find it via the usual podcast providers – just search for ‘Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre’.

We are delighted to say that this podcast also features a very special guest reader: the internationally-acclaimed actress Romola Garai, who reads this extract, ‘The Sea-Shore’ by Letitia Elizabeth Landon, and ‘Sonnet XXXI’ by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

This extract from Aurora Leigh (1856) is in the public domain. It appears in She Will Soar: Bright, Brave Poems about Freedom by Women (2020), edited by Ana Sampson.

Pan Macmillan writes: ‘With poems from classic, well-loved poets as well as innovative and bold modern voices, She Will Soar is a stunning collection and an essential addition to any bookshelf. From the ancient world right up to the present day, it includes poems on wanderlust, travel, daydreams, flights of fancy, escaping into books, tranquillity, courage, hope and resilience. From frustrated housewives to passionate activists, from servants and suffragettes to some of today’s most gifted writers, here is a bold choir of voices demanding independence and celebrating their hard-won power. Immerse yourself in poems by Carol Ann Duffy, Christina Rossetti, Stevie Smith, Sarah Crossan, Emily Dickinson, Salena Godden, Mary Jean Chan, Charly Cox, Nikita Gill, Fiona Benson, Hollie McNish and Grace Nichols to name but a few.’

Elizabeth Barrett Browning received an excellent education at home from her adoring but overprotective father, and published poetry from her teens onwards. Despite living as an invalid and recluse – perhaps devastated at her brother drowning, perhaps injured in a fall from a horse – her poetry was hugely popular. She attracted fan mail from Robert Browning – then an aspiring poet, six years her junior – and their relationship revived her sufficiently to elope with him to Italy, get married and have a son. Her father never forgave them. A greater celebrity than her husband during their lifetimes, Elizabeth also involved herself in contemporary politics. She was a passionate critic of slavery and child labour, and her epic poem Aurora Leigh was remarkable for its strong heroine and contemporary setting.

Ana Sampson is Deputy Publicity Editor at Quercus Books and a poetry anthologist. By the end of 2021, she will have edited eleven poetry anthologies, including I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud, that came out in 2009 and was the third bestselling poetry title that year; Ten Poems for Breakfast, a pamphlet published by Candlestick Press; Poems to Learn by Heart, published by Michael O’Mara Books in 2013; and – most recently – two anthologies of poems by women, published by Pan Macmillan: She is Fierce: Brave, Bold and Beautiful Poems by Women, which contains 150 poems and came out in 2018, and She Will Soar: Bright, Brave Poems about Freedom by Women, which was published in September this year and includes 130 poems. Ana’s books have sold over 230,000 copies and she makes frequent appearances in the media and at book festivals to talk about poetry and women’s writing. Ana lives with her husband, two young daughters and two middle-aged cats. You can find out more about Ana’s work on her website and follow her on Twitter.