From Aurora Leigh:

Until at last, as one, whose heart being sad
On hearing lovely music, suddenly
Dissolves in weeping, I brake out in tears
Before her . . asked her counsel . . 'had I erred
'In being too happy? would she set me straight?
'For she, being wise and good and born above
'The flats I had never climbed from, could perceive
'If such as I, might grow upon the hills;
'And whether such poor herb sufficed to grow,
'For Romney Leigh to break his fast upon't,–
'Or would he pine on such, or haply starve?'
She wrapt me in her generous arms at once,
And let me dream a moment how it feels
To have a real mother, like some girls:
But when I looked, her face was younger . . ay,
Youth's too bright not to be a little hard,
And beauty keeps itself still uppermost,
That's true!–Though Lady Waldemar was kind,
She hurt me, hurt, as if the morning-sun
Should smite us on the eyelids when we sleep,
And wake us up with headache.

As I understand it, "A young person is too intelligent, and thus is a little cruel". But what is the meaning of the next line, "and beauty keeps itself still uppermost"?

1 Answer 1


The key to this passage is the emotional situation of the characters. The speaker is Marian Erle, a poor young woman who loves philanthropist Romney Leigh. She has been visited by Lady Waldemar, a rich widow who also loves Romney, and who has taken up charity work in order to get closer to Romney, and to try to separate Marian from him.

Lady Waldemar’s strategy is to dissimulate kindness and gain Marian’s trust, in order to persuade her that marrying Romney would be bad for him, since she knows that Marian wants only what’s best for Romney, and so can be persuaded to virtuously give him up. So in the quoted passage Lady Waldemar tries to assume a motherly role, something for which she knows that Marian longs, since her own mother was abusive:

                                  At which she turned,
(The worm), and beat her baby in revenge
For her own broken heart.

However, the situation is false, because Lady Waldemar is not in fact a mother-figure to Marian, but rather a jealous rival, and Marian painfully realises this when she looks at Lady Waldemar’s face and sees its youth and beauty.

So I think the intended meaning of ‘bright’ is not ‘intelligent’, but rather:

Of persons: ‘Resplendent with charms’ (Johnson); beautiful, fair. [OED]

and “beauty keeps itself still uppermost” means that for Lady Waldemar, keeping herself beautiful is still the most important thing, since she hopes by means of her beauty to gain her object. This is an instance of hypallage: it’s not beauty itself, but rather Lady Waldemar who does the keeping.

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