Blog #209: The Lighthouses of Charles Baudelaire and Virginia Woolf

Les Phares

Rubens, fleuve d’oubli, jardin de la paresse,
Oreiller de chair fraîche où l’on ne peut aimer,
Mais où la vie afflue et s’agite sans cesse,
Comme l’air dans le ciel et la mer dans la mer;

Léonard de Vinci, miroir profond et sombre,
Où des anges charmants, avec un doux souris
Tout chargé de mystère, apparaissent à l’ombre
Des glaciers et des pins qui ferment leur pays;

Rembrandt, triste hôpital tout rempli de murmures,
Et d’un grand crucifix décoré seulement,
Où la prière en pleurs s’exhale des ordures,
Et d’un rayon d’hiver traversé brusquement;

Michel-Ange, lieu vague où l’on voit des Hercules
Se mêler à des Christs, et se lever tout droits
Des fantômes puissants qui dans les crépuscules
Déchirent leur suaire en étirant leurs doigts;

Colères de boxeur, impudences de faune,
Toi qui sus ramasser la beauté des goujats,
Grand coeur gonflé d’orgueil, homme débile et jaune,
Puget, mélancolique empereur des forçats;

Watteau, ce carnaval où bien des coeurs illustres,
Comme des papillons, errent en flamboyant,
Décors frais et légers éclairés par des lustres
Qui versent la folie à ce bal tournoyant;

Goya, cauchemar plein de choses inconnues,
De foetus qu’on fait cuire au milieu des sabbats,
De vieilles au miroir et d’enfants toutes nues,
Pour tenter les démons ajustant bien leurs bas;

Delacroix, lac de sang hanté des mauvais anges,
Ombragé par un bois de sapins toujours vert,
Où, sous un ciel chagrin, des fanfares étranges
Passent, comme un soupir étouffé de Weber;

Ces malédictions, ces blasphèmes, ces plaintes,
Ces extases, ces cris, ces pleurs, ces Te Deum,
Sont un écho redit par mille labyrinthes;
C’est pour les coeurs mortels un divin opium!

C’est un cri répété par mille sentinelles,
Un ordre renvoyé par mille porte-voix;
C’est un phare allumé sur mille citadelles,
Un appel de chasseurs perdus dans les grands bois!

Car c’est vraiment, Seigneur, le meilleur témoignage
Que nous puissions donner de notre dignité
Que cet ardent sanglot qui roule d’âge en âge
Et vient mourir au bord de votre éternité!

— Charles Baudelaire

Previous blogs have connected Virginia’s lighthouse to lighthouses owned or described by Stopford Brooke, E. M. Forster, Christina Rosetti, Sir Walter Scott, and Marie Carmichael Stopes, to name only some. Today’s blog adds Baudelaire to Virginia’s list of lighthouse prototype contributors.

Scholars such as Janet Wolff and Lauren Elkin have on occasion referred to Virginia Woolf as a flaneuse or female flaneur. Do Baudelaire’s lighthouses flash somewhere behind Virginia’s? Concrete proof is lacking. In none of her known letters or diaries is Baudelaire mentioned. None of the novels or essays contain overt references to him.

All the same indirect evidence is strong. In the Pullman Washington Woolf Library collection is an 1890 Calmann Levy edition of Les Fleurs du Mal, with an L W inscription. There is also a copy of a translation of René Laforgue’s The Defeat of Baudelaire: A Psycho-analytical Study of the Neuroses of Charles Baudelaire published by the Hogarth Press in 1932. Even if Virginia Woolf read neither of these books, with her omniverous reading habits and her strong interest in French literature she could not not have known about Baudelaire. She would also have encountered direct traces of him in works such as Hope Mirlees’ “Paris” and T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Conversation, too, would likely have led to Baudelaire. Eliot wrote at least two essays about Baudelaire, one in 1991 and the other in 1931, saying, among much else, that “Baudelaire is indeed the greatest exemplar in modern poetry in any language, for his verse and language is the nearest thing to a complete renovation that we have experienced.” Given his admiration for Baudelaire and Virginia’s constant curiosity it is hard to imagine Thomas Stearnes Eliot and Virginia not talking about Baudelaire.

An even likelier partner in Baudelaire conversation would have been Roger Fry. For one thing, it was to Fry, on May 27th, 1927, that Virginia wrote:

I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design together. I saw that all sorts of feelings would accrue to this, but I refused to think them out, and trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions—which they have done, one thinking it means one thing another another. I can’t manage Symbolism except in this vague, generalised way. Whether its right or wrong I don’t know, but directly I’m told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me. (L3:385)

Interestingly, Symbolism is capitalized, which may mean that Baudelaire and the Symbolists were on her mind. In the same letter, Virginia told Fry that she had originally intended to dedicate To the Lighthouse to him, but that modesty, awe and reticence had held her back. She had felt To the Lighthouse to be too bad a book to dedicate to someone as great as Fry. He was, however, the one who “more than anyone” had kept her “on the right path, so far as writing goes.” He was, as it were, one of her lighthouses.

In her letter, Virginia was presumably responding to a letter from Roger, but Roger’s letter has not survived. What has survived, however, is Roger’s Transformations, a collection of essays which, like To the Lighthouse, was published in 1927. One of the essays in that collection, an essay titled “Fra Bartolommeo” begins with a reference to Baudelaire’s poem:

Baudelaire compared the great names in art to lighthouses posted along the track of historic time. The simile, as he used it, seizes the imagination and represents a great truth, but it allows of an interpretation which the limits of a sonnet form forbade him to develop. He takes the lights of his beacons as much for granted as the sailor does the lights of real lighthouses. But the lighthouses of art do not burn with so fixed and unvarying a lustre. The light they give is always changing insensibly with each generation, now brighter, now dimmer, and often enough growing bright once more. But we sometimes forget that the lights have to be tended or they grow faint and may expire altogether. For them to burn brightly, they must be fed by the devotion of some few spirits in each generation. If that fails for a long period they go out and become one of those dead, ineffectual names which still linger on, obstructions rather than aids to the historical voyager.

This opening paragraph goes a long way to explaining why Fry would have been so interested in what Virginia meant by her lighthouse. He, almost certainly, have interpreted her lighthouse in Baudelairean terms.

Searching for traces of Baudelaire’s lighthouses inside of Virginia’s has made me realize how often Virginia thought of lighthouses. Not only are there lighthouses in all four of the novels which precede To the Lighthouse, lighthouses are also visible in The Common Reader, in Orlando and even in The Waves. Not surprisingly, these various lighthouses vary considerably in impact and meaning.

In The Voyage Out, the lighthouse reference is brief and fleeting. The narrator reflects on a golden October so peaceful and calm that lovers have no need to murmur “Think of the ships to-night,” or “Thank Heaven, I’m not the man in the lighthouse!” The lighthouse here is presented as a place of danger, rather than as a protective beacon. From a To the Lighthouse perspective the passage is interesting because it implies empathy and concern for the lighthouse keeper, an important and sometimes overlooked element in the later novel.

In Night and Day, there are two lighthouse references, both more substantial than the one in The Voyage Out. The first occurs at the beginning of Chapter III, when the narrator, speculating about heredity and the intellectual brilliance of the Alardyces and the Hilberrys, muses:

They had sailed with Sir John Franklin to the North Pole, and ridden with Havelock to the Relief of Lucknow, and when they were not lighthouses firmly based on rock for the guidance of their generation, they were steady, serviceable candles, illuminating the ordinary chambers of daily life. Whatever profession you looked at, there was a Warburton or an Alardyce, a Millington or a Hilberry somewhere in authority and prominence.

Here the image, despite its ironic stance vis a vis the Hilberrys and the Alardyces, presents lighthouses in a positive light as sources of guidance and illumination.

The second lighthouse reference in Night and Day–much lengthier–is darker and more ambivalent. Late at night, Ralph, having confided his feelings of love for Katharine to Mary, walks the dark, stormy streets of London and has an unsatisfactory encounter with a unhappy, grievance-filled old man. Rather than being able to share his own turbulent feelings, he is forced instead to listen. The end of the encounter is described as follows:

The unhappy voice afflicted Ralph, but it also angered him. And when the elderly man refused to listen and mumbled on, an odd image came to his mind of a lighthouse besieged by the flying bodies of lost birds, who were dashed senseless, by the gale, against the glass. He had a strange sensation that he was both lighthouse and bird; he was steadfast and brilliant; and at the same time he was whirled, with all other things, senseless against the glass. He got up, left his tribute of silver, and pressed on, with the wind against him. The image of the lighthouse and the storm full of birds persisted, taking the place of more definite thoughts, as he walked past the Houses of Parliament and down Grosvenor Road, by the side of the river. In his state of physical fatigue, details merged themselves in the vaster prospect, of which the flying gloom and the intermittent lights of lamp-posts and private houses were the outward token, but he never lost his sense of walking in the direction of Katharine’s house. He took it for granted that something would then happen, and, as he walked on, his mind became more and more full of pleasure and expectancy. Within a certain radius of her house the streets came under the influence of her presence. Each house had an individuality known to Ralph, because of the tremendous individuality of the house in which she lived. For some yards before reaching the Hilberrys’ door he walked in a trance of pleasure, but when he reached it, and pushed the gate of the little garden open, he hesitated. He did not know what to do next. There was no hurry, however, for the outside of the house held pleasure enough to last him some time longer. He crossed the road, and leant against the balustrade of the Embankment, fixing his eyes upon the house.

Lights burnt in the three long windows of the drawing-room. The space of the room behind became, in Ralph’s vision, the center of the dark, flying wilderness of the world; the justification for the welter of confusion surrounding it; the steady light which cast its beams, like those of a lighthouse, with searching composure over the trackless waste. In this little sanctuary were gathered together several different people, but their identity was dissolved in a general glory of something that might, perhaps, be called civilization; at any rate, all dryness, all safety, all that stood up above the surge and preserved a consciousness of its own, was centered in the drawing-room of the Hilberrys. Its purpose was beneficent; and yet so far above his level as to have something austere about it, a light that cast itself out and yet kept itself aloof. Then he began, in his mind, to distinguish different individuals within, consciously refusing as yet to attack the figure of Katharine. His thoughts lingered over Mrs. Hilberry and Cassandra; and then he turned to Rodney and Mr. Hilberry. Physically, he saw them bathed in that steady flow of yellow light which filled the long oblongs of the windows; in their movements they were beautiful; and in their speech he figured a reserve of meaning, unspoken, but understood. At length, after all this half-conscious selection and arrangement, he allowed himself to approach the figure of Katharine herself; and instantly the scene was flooded with excitement. He did not see her in the body; he seemed curiously to see her as a shape of light, the light itself; he seemed, simplified and exhausted as he was, to be like one of those lost birds fascinated by the lighthouse and held to the glass by the splendor of the blaze.

The fascinating thing about this passage is its ambivalence. While the purpose of the lighthouse is beneficent, the lighthouse can also be a source of danger and death. For all their light–because of all their light–here is a dark and disturbing side to lighthouses, a siren side. Lighthouses, physical or metaphoric, can lure you into danger. Mr. Ramsay and the children must wait for safe conditions to make their journey; the shining example of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay and many Victorian luminaries help light the way to WWI.

The Jacob’s Room lighthouse makes two spare and seemingly neutral appearances. There are, however, ominous undertones. It is first glimpsed through the tear filled eyes of Mrs. Flanders:

The entire bay quivered; the lighthouse wobbled; and she had the illusion that the mast of Mr. Connor’s little yacht was bending like a wax candle in the sun. She winked quickly. Accidents were awful things. She winked again. The mast was straight; the waves were regular; the lighthouse was upright; but the blot had spread.

The tears, the reference to an accident, and the way in which the ink blot seems to flow from the lighthouse all help make this first appearance of the lighthouse somewhat equivocal. The unease is further heightened when ” (the shadow of Archer, her eldest son, fell across the notepaper and looked blue on the sand, and she felt chilly—it was the third of September already).” From a To the Lighthouse perspective, this bracketed shadow is doubly interesting. First, the brackets stand as an early example of the unsettling, disjunctive technique which Virginia was to perfect in the “Time Passes” segment of To the Lighthouse. Secondly, Archer’s shadow on the page prefigures Mr. Carmichael’s shadow, that reminder of “the inadequacy of human relationships,” on the page of the book which Mrs. Ramsay is reading to James.

The lighthouse reappears again as Mrs. Flanders starts to drag the children away from the beach:

The wind was rising. The waves showed that uneasiness, like something alive, restive, expecting the whip, of waves before a storm. The fishing-boats were leaning to the water’s brim. A pale yellow light shot across the purple sea; and shut. The lighthouse was lit. “Come along,” said Betty Flanders. The sun blazed in their faces and gilded the great blackberries trembling out from the hedge which Archer tried to strip as they passed.

This passage, too, would not be tonally out of place in To the Lighthouse. The sea description seems to anticipate those connected to the Fisherman and his Wife. There is something ominous and troubling in the description of the waves as something alive, restive, uneasy. The sense of foreboding is augmented by the passage’s following upon the description of Jacob’s old sheep’s skull. You don’t have to be a zoologist to see Jacob’s lamb skull as a precursor of the To the Lighthouse ram’s skull which forms a bone of contention between Cam and Andrew.

In Mrs Dalloway there is only one lighthouse image, and that is a slightly gothic one, associated with Clarissa’s Aunt Helena Parry:

She was dead now. He had heard of her, from Clarissa, losing the sight of one eye. It seemed so fitting—one of nature’s masterpieces–that old Miss Parry should turn to glass. She would die like some bird in a frost gripping her perch. She belonged to a different age, but being so entire, so complete, would always stand up on the horizon, stone-white, eminent, like a lighthouse marking some past stage on this adventurous, long, long voyage, this interminable (he felt for a copper to buy a paper and read about Surrey and Yorkshire–he had held out that copper millions of times. Surrey was all out once more.)—this interminable life.

Though Peter thinks of Aunt Helena as dead, she is still very much alive and late in the novel, glass eye and all, will talk to Peter about her book on the orchids of Burma. Her life really does appear to be interminable, and this curious pseudo-resurrection as a still living published author makes her earlier association with a lighthouse all the more playful and whimsical. When I reach back and bring Aunt Helena’s lighthouse aspect forward into the future of To the Lighthouse, whimsy and playfulness linger, along with a strong dose of irony. Very possibly Virginia was thinking about Aunt Helena when she had James think of the old ladies. Aunt Helena is no Mrs. Beckwith, and her glassy, eminent ghost flashes sharply against James’s crystallizing masculine certainties.

After Aunt Helena, the next lighthouse image to appear in Virginia’s writings occurs in her 1923 Nation & Athenaeum essay, “Laetitia Pilkington,” an essay which, very slightly revised, was later bundled up with “Taylors and Edgeworths” and “Miss Ormerod” to make up “The Lives of the Obscure” tryptich in The Common Reader (1925). The Common Reader passage reads as follows:

But memories of great men are no infallible specific. They fall upon the race of life like beams from a lighthouse. They flash, they shock, they reveal, they vanish. To remember Swift was of little avail to Laetitia when the troubles of life came thick about her.

Again, as in Mrs. Dalloway, lighthouses are associated with people, though here rather than someone like the relatively obscure Aunt Helena the people referred to are eminent ones. Interestingly, too, the passage goes on to make the point that lighthouses do not necessarily offer protection against the hardships and difficulties of life. Laetitia’s memories of her friend and patron the great Dean Swift do not save her from a squalid end.

Lighthouses appear in two more books written after To the Lighthouse: Orlando and The Waves. In Orlando, there is the following lighthouse passage:

Rather it resembles the lighthouse in its working, which sends one ray and then no more for a time; save that genius is much more capricious in its manifestations and may flash six or seven beams in quick succession (as Mr Pope did that night) and then lapse into darkness for a year or for ever. To steer by its beams is therefore impossible, and when the dark spell is on them men of genius are, it is said, much like other people.

Again, lighthouse are associate with eminent men, and again the intermittent light given off by those eminent men offers no lasting protection against danger.

Finally, in The Waves there is the following passage:

I will plant a lighthouse here, a head of Sweet Alice. And I will now rock the brown basin from side to side so that my ships may ride the waves. Some will founder. Some will dash themselves against the cliffs. One sails alone. That is my ship.

Here lighthouses no longer link to genius of to great men. Rather the emphasis is on survival. Rhoda’s thoughts link lighthouse to Sweet Alice or Alyssum, a seaside plant renowned for its hardiness, and, given that it was once thought to cure rabies, perhaps for its sanity.

Baudelaire or not, even if Virginia” meant nothing by The Lighthouse” lighthouses meant many things to her.

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

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