‘Measure to yourself a prophet’s place’: Biblical Heroines, Jewish Difference, and Victorian Women’s Poetry

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Published in: Women’s Poetry late Romantic to late Victorian, Gender and Genre 1830-1900, 1999.


In Book II of Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning has her male protagonist, Romney Leigh, voice a number of Victorian stereotypes about women poets. Because it was assumed that women could not ‘understand’ philosophical, theoretical or abstract ideas, and because women were seen as creatures of their own emotional responses, women were rarely granted the cultural authority to speak prophetically, to voice their own experience as an authoritative mode ‘to teach the living’. Defined as essentially non-prophetic in their very existence, women were thus excluded from being the dominant figure for the poet in the period. For in order to be a poet/prophet, a speaker must be understood as moving between two realms, the earthly, individual realm and the universal, divine realm; likewise, he must be able to move between two rhetorical realms, private devotional utterance and public persuasive utterance. In Victorian England, those realms tended to be gender specific, coded female and male respectively. And while many male poets constructed their lyric identities by balancing those two rhetorical modes, Romney’s speech in Book II of Aurora Leigh re-creates the scorn and censure women poets faced when they dared to ‘measure [themselves] to a prophet’s place’ in Victorian England.