Blog #125: A Few of the Myriad Ways of Connecting Cowper’s “Castaway” to To the Lighthouse

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The Castaway

By William Cowper

Obscurest night involv’d the sky,
Th’ Atlantic billows roar’d,
When such a destin’d wretch as I,
Wash’d headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.

No braver chief could Albion boast
Than he with whom he went,
Nor ever ship left Albion’s coast,
With warmer wishes sent.
He lov’d them both, but both in vain,
Nor him beheld, nor her again.

Not long beneath the whelming brine,
Expert to swim, he lay;
Nor soon he felt his strength decline,
Or courage die away;
But wag’d with death a lasting strife,
Supported by despair of life.

He shouted: nor his friends had fail’d
To check the vessel’s course,
But so the furious blast prevail’d,
That, pitiless perforce,
They left their outcast mate behind,
And scudded still before the wind.

Some succour yet they could afford;
And, such as storms allow,
The cask, the coop, the floated cord,
Delay’d not to bestow.
But he (they knew) nor ship, nor shore,
Whate’er they gave, should visit more.

Nor, cruel as it seem’d, could he
Their haste himself condemn,
Aware that flight, in such a sea,
Alone could rescue them;
Yet bitter felt it still to die
Deserted, and his friends so nigh.

He long survives, who lives an hour
In ocean, self-upheld;
And so long he, with unspent pow’r,
His destiny repell’d;
And ever, as the minutes flew,
Entreated help, or cried—Adieu!

At length, his transient respite past,
His comrades, who before
Had heard his voice in ev’ry blast,
Could catch the sound no more.
For then, by toil subdued, he drank
The stifling wave, and then he sank.

No poet wept him: but the page
Of narrative sincere;
That tells his name, his worth, his age,
Is wet with Anson’s tear.
And tears by bards or heroes shed
Alike immortalize the dead.

I therefore purpose not, or dream,
Descanting on his fate,
To give the melancholy theme
A more enduring date:
But misery still delights to trace
Its semblance in another’s case.

No voice divine the storm allay’d,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatch’d from all effectual aid,
We perish’d, each alone:
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm’d in deeper gulfs than he.

Today my mappings of To the Lighthouse tunnels bring me to Cowper’s “The Castaway.” Since Roger Lund (“‘We Perished, Each Alone’: ‘The Castaway’ and To the Lighthouse,” Journal of Modern Literature XVI:1 (Summer 1989), pp. 75-92) has already explored this particular allusion tunnel in considerable detail, my task is primarily one of resurveying and verification. While this resurveying is not nearly as exciting or pleasurable as making original observations, I think I have noticed one small detail which Lund overlooked. Also, Lund’s explorations are imprecise and distorted enough to give value to my work. Any surveyor worth his chain or laser will tell you that resurveying is essential to good map making.

First, to go over Lund’s original survey. Lund establishes the importance of Cowper to Virginia by pointing out references to Cowper in her letters, diaries, as well as in Jacob’s Room and The Voyage Out. He also does a good job of demonstrating Leslie Stephen’s strong interest in Cowper, interest evidenced by Stephen’s lengthy DNB entry for Cowper, as well as his “Cowper and Rousseau” Cornhill Magazine essay. By stressing Stephen’s interest in Cowper, and by looking at the ways in which Stephen’s temperament was similar to Cowper’s, Lund makes a convincing case for seeing the Cowper reference as a way of deepening Mr. Ramsay’s character and of building a bridge between Mr. Ramsay and Leslie Stephen. Lund’s Stephen-Cowper-Ramsay mapping is convincing, and of value for readers interested in the biographical background of To the Lighthouse.

Lund quite rightly goes on to reflect on Cowperian images of isolation and inundation in the novel. The flaw in Lund’s mapping, however, lies in his exaggerating and overemphasizing the importance of Cowper and “The Castaway.” He talks about the “symbolic centrality” of the Cowper reference, and he even goes so far as to say that Virginia Woolf “looked to Cowper to provide the central poetic leitmotif of the entire novel.” Instead of limiting himself to exploring the allusive possibilities which the Cowper reference provides, Lund deforms his reading of To the Lighthouse. For instance, while he acknowledges the “allusive resonance’” of references to Shakespeare, Tennyson, Scott, the Brothers Grimm, or De Quincey, he minimizes the importance of such references by claiming they are “rather casually introduced.” To his mind, the Cowper reference is not.

Ironically, in minimizing the importance of other references, Lund blinds himself to further interpretive possibilities raised by the Cowper poem. It would, for instance, be interesting to contrast Virginia’s handling of “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in “The Window” section to her handling of “The Castaway” in the “Lighthouse” section. Lund argues, with some plausibility, that “The Castaway” serves to show the isolation of the different characters, but it can easily argued that “The Charge” also highlights Mr. Ramsay’s isolation.

More radically, it could also be argued that both poems—but particularly “The Castaway—help to connect rather than isolate the characters. Lilly and Mr. Bankes, not to mention Mrs. Ramsay, see Mr. Ramsay through his recitation. The repeated refrain of “someone had blundered” reveals Mr. Ramsay’s romantic fantasies and his moods. Harmony between Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay is restored when Mrs. Ramsay hears her husband repeat the phrase and realizes he is trying it out on a new mood. Similarly, in the final section of the novel, the Cowper phrase “we perished each alone” gives Lilly, James, Cam and the reader an understanding of Mr. Ramsay’s Walter Mitty states of mind. More than that, the phrase invades the consciousness of both James and Cam, so that the three of them in the boat—James, Cam and Mr. Ramsay—are joined in a shared fantasy of sinking each alone. The poem unites them in their solitude. They become “caught up in one of those habitual currents in which after a certain time experience forms in the mind, so that one repeats words without being aware any longer who originally spoke them.”

I keep shaking my head in awe and disbelief. Virginia packed so much into her prose. The more I read, the more I think, and the more I see. The marvel of it is that she does such a subtle job of playing me on her line. The prose doesn’t collapse into chaos. Virginia’s control is such that the myriad details subtly play off each other to form a simplified transcendent whole in our minds.

I still have a lot more to say about “The Castaway,” and what it is doing in To the Lighthouse, but I think I’ll leave those thoughts, along with the detail Lund overlooked, for a further blog or two. Right now, I want to close by bookending two passages from To the Lighthouse. Both are self-referential passages of a sort, passages which can be read as Virginia commenting on her own novel and on how it should be read. The passages help to reveal the skill with which Virginia generates “habitual currents” and so appeals to the associative powers of the mind. I, too, have been “caught up in one of those habitual currents.” In the preceding paragraph, thoughts of Cowley led me to use the word “myriad.” In turn, my use of the word led me to think about Virginia’s use of it, and a “control f” search of the novel produced two uses, one from the “Window” section, and the other from “The Lighthouse” section. Here are the passages, along with a rightly famous passage from “Modern Fiction.” Enjoy:

Mrs. Ramsay at the dinner table in “ The Window” section–

What did it all mean? To this day she had no notion. A square root? What was that? Her sons knew. She leant on them; on cubes and square roots; that was what they were talking about now; on Voltaire and Madame de Stael; on the character of Napoleon; on the French system of land tenure; on Lord Rosebery; on Creevey’s Memoirs: she let it uphold her and sustain her, this admirable fabric of the masculine intelligence, which ran up and down, crossed this way and that, like iron girders spanning the swaying fabric, upholding the world, so that she could trust herself to it utterly, even shut her eyes, or flicker them for a moment, as a child staring up from its pillow winks at the myriad layers of the leaves of a tree. Then she woke up. It was still being fabricated. William Bankes was praising the Waverly novels.

Cam lying in the boat in “The Lighthouse” section–

She gazed at the immense expanse of the sea. The island had grown so small that it scarcely looked like a leaf any longer. It looked like the top of a rock which some wave bigger than the rest would cover. Yet in its frailty were all those paths, those terraces, those bedrooms—all those innumerable things. But as, just before sleep, things simplify themselves so that only one of all the myriad details has power to assert itself, so, she felt, looking drowsily at the island, all those paths and terraces and bedrooms were fading and disappearing, and nothing was left but a pale blue censer swinging rhythmically this way and that across her mind. It was a hanging garden; it was a valley, full of birds, and flowers, and antelopes . . . She was falling asleep.

Passage from “Modern Fiction,” (1919)—

The mind, exposed to the ordinary course of life, receives upon its surface a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms, composing in their sum what we might venture to call life itself; and to figure further as the semi-transparent envelope, or luminous halo, surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

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