Blog #145: Concluding Cowper in To the Lighthouse

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

To keep an earlier promise, I’m back to Cowper. This time I want to speculate about how and why Virginia opposes “The Castaway” to other poems in To the Lighthouse.

When I was a child, our family used to gather nightly around the Advent wreath. Throughout the first weeks of December we would say an “Our Father,” and we would sing solemn, Advent carols—carols like “Minuit Chretien,” “Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen,” and “Tauet, Himmel, den Gerechten”—until Christmas Eve. Then, and only then, would more cheerful, post nativity carols be allowed. Something similar, even if in reverse, is at work in To the Lighthouse. Virginia is subtly subjecting the reader to a kind of poetic mimesis, with her poetry citations mimicking the public mood either side of the war. The first, pre-World War section of the novel is filled with a wide range of energetic poetry—poetry by Shelley, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Elton, Browne, and, tangentially, Peacock—while the final post-World War section is draped in the crepe darkness of “The Castaway,” a poem which Cowper wrote only a few months before his death in 1800. “The Castaway” is Virginia’s comment on poetry after the war. Prewar light-heartedness and romanticism is no longer possible. Darkness and isolation is now the mood.

In A Room of One’s Own, a work published two years after To the Lighthouse, Virginia muses about a shift in cultural consciousness brought on by the war:

But why, I continued, moving on towards Headingley, have we stopped humming under our breath at luncheon parties? Why has Alfred ceased to sing

She is coming, my dove, my dear.

Why has Christina ceased to respond

My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me?

Shall we lay the blame on the war? When the guns fired in August 1914, did the faces of men and women show so plain in each other’s eyes that romance was killed? Certainly it was a shock (to women in particular with their illusions about education, and so on) to see the faces of our rulers in the light of the shell-fire. So ugly they looked–German,
English, French–so stupid. But lay the blame where one will, on whom one will, the illusion which inspired Tennyson and Christina Rossetti to sing so passionately about the coming of their loves is far rarer now than then.

In To the Lighthouse, “The Castaway” serves to underline that shift in consciousness. The mood of the poem is totally different from the mood of the poems which people used to recite before the war and from the mood of the poems which are referenced in “The Windows” section. Even if “The Castaway” is not a modern, post war poem, it introduces a sober new note in the poetic sensibility of the novel.

Beyond reasons of mood (and thematic and biographical reasons) “The Castaway” is used in “The Lighthouse” section because Virginia wanted the response to the war to stay open ended. In a sense “The Castaway” is a place marker, representative of a poet and a type of poetry now remote enough not to invoke set responses from the average reader. “The Castaway” leaves room for other kinds of poetry to come forward. Had Virginia used poems by some of the younger post war poets, poets such as Graves, Sassoon or Sorley, poets with whom she was not only familiar but had reviewed or published, she would have imposed a fixed reading on the new reality which she wanted to leave fluid.

Using Cowper instead of Sorley, Sassoon, Graves or Owen, also leaves more imaginative room for Mr. Carmichael and his poetry; and, after all, the real new poetic voice in the last section is Mr. Carmichael.

[Mr. Carmichael brought out a volume of poems that spring, which had an unexpected success. The war, people said, had revived their interest in poetry.]

As a friend of Mr. Ramsay, Mr. Carmichael is seemingly part of the old dispensation. Some of his published material was “written forty years ago.” All the same, he is not defined or bound by any age. He is, as Jean Elliott points out in “The Protean Image: The Role of Mr Carmichael in To The Lighthouse“, a protean figure, and in his protean aspect he represents the spirit of poetry, ever changing yet ever constant. Priest-like and chanting, in “The Window” section he pays Mrs. Ramsay homage for her Boeuf en Daube and her social triumph. In “The Lighthouse” section, godlike, “tolerantly and compassionately,” he presides over the sailboat’s landing and the completion of Lily’s painting. Both before the war and after the war, his presence crowns the key occasions, and one can imagine his poetry doing the same.

In all likelihood, Mr. Carmichael’s poetry is the antithesis of Cowper’s. Unlike Cowper he is not solipsistic and self-pitying. Lily, even if she has never read a line of his, thinks of his poetry as “seasoned and mellow” and as “extremely impersonal.” To her, he is a benevolent, “inscrutable old man.” At the same time, however, he is a companion who hears “the things she could not say.” He keeps her company as the sailboat makes its journey towards the lighthouse. He keeps her from being alone as, united in a stretch of imagination, they participate in the safe landing at the lighthouse. Against Cowper’s “We perished, each alone:”, Mr. Carmichael affirms the possibility of communication and communion. Though individuals pass and perish, traces of their efforts, actions and thoughts survive in the ever changing, ever striving flux of collective culture.

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