Aurora Leigh is a poor poet living and working in a tiny ‘garret-room’. Lady Waldemar is a rich widow who has fallen in love with Aurora’s cousin Romney Leigh, and who has climbed the stairs to enlist Aurora’s aid in separating Romney from his protégée Marian Erle.
Lady Waldemar’s dialogue in this scene is a mixture of insincere flattery and barbed compliments. The gist of her speech here is that she finds Aurora to be prettier than she had expected on account of her fame as a writer. Let’s look at the text in detail:
‘Is this,’ she said, ‘the Muse?’
The Muses were the ancient Greek goddesses of poetry, music, and the other arts, and also “by metonymy: a person inspired by a Muse; a poet” (OED). So Lady Waldemar is asking Aurora if she is the poet she has come to visit.
‘No sibyl even,’
I answered, ‘since she fails to guess the cause
Which taxed you with this visit, madam.’
Aurora, in her reply, plays on the double meaning of ‘Muse’ by referencing another group of characters from Greek myth: the sibyls were oracles who prophesied at Delphi and other temples.
She said, ‘I like to be sincere at once;’
We find out fairly soon that this is a lie: Lady Waldemar is insincere and manipulative.
‘Perhaps, if I had found a literal Muse,
The visit might have taxed me.’
This is a back-handed compliment: while saying that she does not find a visit to Aurora taxing, Lady Waldemar implies that she has no interest in poetry, music, or the other arts, that the literal Muses might have tried to inspire in her, and thus no interest in Aurora’s work.
‘As it is,
You wear your blue so chiefly in your eyes,
My fair Aurora’
This is another back-handed compliment. For the barb behind it, we must look a little later in the scene, where she asks rhetorically:
‘Is the blue in eyes
As awful as in stockings, after all’
A “bluestocking” is “a woman devoted to literary, scholarly, or intellectual activities” (OED) but the word carries derogatory connotations, especially of ugliness or unfashionableness. So Lady Waldemar is apparently complimenting Aurora by saying that she wears her blue in her eyes rather than her stockings, but in doing so she manages to convey her lack of respect for Aurora’s work.
‘in a frank good way,
It comforts me entirely for your fame’
The implication is that Lady Waldemar had feared, on the basis of Aurora’s fame as a poet, that she would be ugly, but on meeting her she is comforted by her good looks.
‘As well as for the trouble of my ascent
To this Olympus.’
Building on the mention of Muses and sibyls, Lady Waldemar fancifully likens Aurora’s garret to Mount Olympus, the home of the ancient Greek gods.
There, a silver laugh
Ran rippling through her quickened little breaths
The steep stair somewhat justified.
The use of ‘somewhat’ is a little barb at Lady Waldemar’s age and lack of fitness, but it is in the narration as Aurora is too polite to say it out loud.