Blog #197: George Meredith and Virginia Woolf: The Lark Ascending To the Lighthouse

The Lark Ascending

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one,
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet,
Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear
To her beyond the handmaid ear,
Who sits beside our inner springs,
Too often dry for this he brings,
Which seems the very jet of earth
At sight of sun, her music’s mirth,
As up he wings the spiral stair,
A song of light, and pierces air
With fountain ardor, fountain play,
To reach the shining tops of day,
And drink in everything discern’d
An ecstasy to music turn’d,
Impell’d by what his happy bill
Disperses; drinking, showering still,
Unthinking save that he may give
His voice the outlet, there to live
Renew’d in endless notes of glee,
So thirsty of his voice is he,
For all to hear and all to know
That he is joy, awake, aglow,
The tumult of the heart to hear
Through pureness filter’d crystal-clear,
And know the pleasure sprinkled bright
By simple singing of delight,
Shrill, irreflective, unrestrain’d,
Rapt, ringing, on the jet sustain’d
Without a break, without a fall,
Sweet-silvery, sheer lyrical,
Perennial, quavering up the chord
Like myriad dews of sunny sward
That trembling into fulness shine,
And sparkle dropping argentine;
Such wooing as the ear receives
From zephyr caught in choric leaves
Of aspens when their chattering net
Is flush’d to white with shivers wet;
And such the water-spirit’s chime
On mountain heights in morning’s prime,
Too freshly sweet to seem excess,
Too animate to need a stress;
But wider over many heads
The starry voice ascending spreads,
Awakening, as it waxes thin,
The best in us to him akin;
And every face to watch him rais’d,
Puts on the light of children prais’d,
So rich our human pleasure ripes
When sweetness on sincereness pipes,
Though nought be promis’d from the seas,
But only a soft-ruffling breeze
Sweep glittering on a still content,
Serenity in ravishment.

For singing till his heaven fills,
’T is love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes:
The woods and brooks, the sheep and kine
He is, the hills, the human line,
The meadows green, the fallows brown,
The dreams of labor in the town;
He sings the sap, the quicken’d veins;
The wedding song of sun and rains
He is, the dance of children, thanks
Of sowers, shout of primrose-banks,
And eye of violets while they breathe;
All these the circling song will wreathe,
And you shall hear the herb and tree,
The better heart of men shall see,
Shall feel celestially, as long
As you crave nothing save the song.
Was never voice of ours could say
Our inmost in the sweetest way,
Like yonder voice aloft, and link
All hearers in the song they drink:
Our wisdom speaks from failing blood,
Our passion is too full in flood,
We want the key of his wild note
Of truthful in a tuneful throat,
The song seraphically free
Of taint of personality,
So pure that it salutes the suns
The voice of one for millions,
In whom the millions rejoice
For giving their one spirit voice.

Yet men have we, whom we revere,
Now names, and men still housing here,
Whose lives, by many a battle-dint
Defaced, and grinding wheels on flint,
Yield substance, though they sing not, sweet
For song our highest heaven to greet:
Whom heavenly singing gives us new,
Enspheres them brilliant in our blue,
From firmest base to farthest leap,
Because their love of Earth is deep,
And they are warriors in accord
With life to serve and pass reward,
So touching purest and so heard
In the brain’s reflex of yon bird;
Wherefore their soul in me, or mine,
Through self-forgetfulness divine,
In them, that song aloft maintains,
To fill the sky and thrill the plains
With showerings drawn from human stores,
As he to silence nearer soars,
Extends the world at wings and dome,
More spacious making more our home,
Till lost on his aërial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

George Meredith, 1881

Meredith again. In an earlier blog, I connected the opening of To the Lighthouse to Shelley’s “To a Skylark.” Now, with my latest discoveries, Mrs. Ramsay’s “You’ll have to be up with the lark” also gives of Meredith. All is changed–subtly, yet utterly changed, as my reading of the novel shifts to accommodate Meredith’s poem and the ripples it raises.

If anything, the novel becomes even more celebratory, more lyrical than previous internal versions. I feel it more as a triumphant ascent, a singing of the sap and of “the better hearts of men”; a ripening of “human pleasure” and an instilling of “love of earth.” The filter of the poem subtly corrects and counterbalances more sombre or ponderously philosophical readings of the novel. To the Lighthouse contains a lot of darkness, yet ultimately it, too, extends the world and helps the fancy sing. Polyphony. Meredith on top of Shelley reminds me of that.

Of course Meredith’s poem also sounds darker notes, and these too contribute to a revision of To the Lighthouse’s score. The lark links “all hearers in the song they drink,” including those whose lives are defaced “by many a battle-dint” and by “grinding wheels on flint.” Their lives yield substance for the lark’s song, just as countless scientists, poets, philosophers and novels provide the substance out of which Virginia composed To the Lighthouse. And also, as with Woolf’s novel, a major key to the accomplishment is “self-forgetfulness,” an abandonment and rejection of the solipsistic, egoistic “I,” and a steady soaring towards increased silence so as to leave the reader’s fancy free to sing. The Charles Tansley “taint of personality” is left behind. Like Meredith’s lark, Woolf’s lighthouse draws on collective “human stores” and, in so doing, shines as a beacon opposed to the primal darkness and savagery also to be found in man.

One of the attendant delights of tunneling To the Lighthouse is breaking into passages possibly unintended by or even unknown to Virginia. “The Lark Ascending” tunnel is a powerful example of this. Most people today, if they know of “The Lark Ascending,” know of it through Vaughan Williams’ symphonic piece with the same name. First produced in Shirehampton in 1920 , on June 14, 1921, it was premiered in London by the British Symphony Orchestra under a still young Adrian Boult, and over the years it won an ever larger audience, until, in the second half of the 20th century, it became what it is today, one of the most, if not the most, popular pieces of classical music in Britain.

The composition history of “The Lark Ascending” is most interesting. Supposedly, Vaughan Williams was working on the piece when World War 1 started and, though 41 at the time, he put it and much of his music aside to take on an active part in the war effort. After first enlisting in the Special Constabulary of the Metropolitan Police Service, he then became a Wagon Orderly with the Royal Army Medical Corps with whom he served as an ambulance driver in France and Greece. In 1917 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. At the end of the war, he became director of music for the British First Army, a position which he filled until he was demobilized early in 1919. It was only on his return to civilian life that Vaughan Williams completed his “Romance for Violin and Orchestra.” In 1926 the piece was published by Oxford University Press under the title of “The Lark Ascending,” and the score was prefaced with the following 12 lines from Meredith’s poem:

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In cherrup, whistle, slur and shake. …..
For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes. …..
‘Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

Intriguingly, Virginia was related to Vaughan Williams through her cousin Adeline Fisher, who became Vaughan Williams’ first wife. Hermione Lee records that Adeline was also the closest friend of Stella Duckworth, Virginia’s half-sister and, briefly, surrogate mother. On June 10th, 1897, the fifteen year old Virginia records the excitement attendant on the engagement of Adeline and Ralph, an engagement happening just two months after the marriage of Stella and Jack Hills; and then on June 17th, along with further details, she writes “Poor Ralph is a calf—according to her–& also, I am afraid, to us—-However they are very much in love, & there is a chance that he has genius.” Ralph and Adeline were married on October 9th, 1897, at all Saints Church in Hove, and, while Virginia did not attend, her only diary entry for the 4th of October to the 15th of October is dated October 10th, and consists of the words: “Adeline and Ralph are being married as I write.” Almost certainly, both the gap in Virginia’s diary and her failure to be at Adeline and Ralph’s marriage can be attributed to the tragedy of Stella’s death on July 19th. Also, just as Prue’s sudden death in To the Lighthouse recalls the death of Stella, possibly, just possibly, Ralph and Adeline’s courtship and marriage fused with Stella and Jack’s to plant seeds for Virginia’s treatment of Minta and Paul.

Virginia was also connected to Vaughan Williams through friends. Gwen Raverat, for example. As a Darwin, Gwen was a first cousin of Ralph. Not only that, in 1930 and 1931 Gwen and Ralph worked together to help produce the ballet “Job: A Masque for Dancing,” with Ralph writing the music and Gwen producing the set designs. While there is no mention of Vaughan Williams in the many letters between the Raverats and Virginia, very likely they would have spoken of him.

Whether or not Virginia ever talked or gossiped about Vaughan Williams with friends, she had a strong interest in Ralph’s music. On July 4th, 1897, she records hearing and enjoying a concert of Ralph’s music at St Barnabas Church , South Lambeth, where Ralph was organist. On March 9th 1905 Virginia went to the Aeolian Hall, “a beautiful new Music Hall on Bond Street” to hear Plunkett Greene singing Ralph’s songs. Again on March 13th, 1905, she mentions hearing Vaughan Williams’ music at the home of the Freshfield family. Though her letters and diaries do not specifically record attending other concerts featuring Vaughan Williams’ music, she and Leonard probably did attend such concerts, especially between 1926 and 1929, when Leonard was music critic for the Nation and the Athenaeum. Also in 1925 and 1926, Leonard and Virginia were active subscribing members of the National Gramophonic Society and, according to Emma Sutton (Virginia Woolf and Classical Music: Politics, Aesthetics, Form, 2013) this society did release recordings of works by Vaughan Williams.

Virginia did not attend the London premier of “The Lark Ascending” (after going to a concert on June 10th, 1921, she suffered a severe bout of ill health and spent 60 days enduring “all the horrors of the dark cupboard of illness”), but given her interest in Vaughan Williams, and her knowledge of his music, it is possible that if To the Lighthouse does indeed reference Meredith’s poem, the reference also encompasses Vaughan Williams’ piece. Whatever Virginia knew or intended, my To the Lighthouse–and yours, too–now includes Meredith’s “The Lark Ascending,” compounded with Vaughan Williams’ and, accordingly, it also brings with it thoughts of Vaughan Williams’ WW1 experience. Intended or unintended, I find such thoughts enriching, and I am also pleased to know a little bit more about WW1 and about Vaughan Williams.


Note to self: Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, Patience and access to more journals and archives…particularly the Nation and Athenaeum, National Gramophonic Society records, and Leonard Woolf’s diaries at the University of Sussex.

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List of Patremoirs

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