This essay explores a peculiarly Victorian solution to what was perceived, in the middle of the nineteenth century, as a peculiarly Victorian problem: the fragmentation and miscellaneousness of the modern world. Seeking to apprehend the multiplicity and chaos of contemporary social, intellectual, political, and economic life, and to furnish it with a coherence that was threatened by encroaching religious uncertainty, Victorian poets turned to the resources of genre as a means of accommodating the heterogeneity of the age. In particular, by devising ways of fusing the conventions of the traditional epic with those of the newly ascendant novel, poets hoped to appropriate for the novelistic complexity of modern, everyday life the dignifying and totalizing tendencies of the epic. The essay reevaluates the generic hybridity of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856) as an attempt to unite two distinct kinds of length—the microscopic, cumulative detail of the novel and the big-picture sweep of the epic—in order to capture the miscellaneousness of the age and, at the same time, to restore order and meaning to the disjointed experience of modernity.
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