Blog #128: Succoured by William Cowper and Virginia Woolf

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

Some succour yet they could afford;
And, such as storms allow,
The cask, the coop, the floated cord,
Delay’d not to bestow.

from “The Castaway” by William Cowper

Time for my small discovery, the Cowper detail overlooked by Lund. In “The Lighthouse” section of To the Lighthouse, Lily several times recalls Mrs. Ramsay writing letters while at the beach. In the first iteration, the memory appears as follows:

They had all gone down to the beach. Mrs. Ramsay sat down and wrote letters by a rock. She wrote and wrote. “Oh,” she said, looking up at something floating in the sea, “is it a lobster pot? Is it an upturned boat?”

The second iteration is lengthier and more complex. Passing Mr. Carmichael—Mr. Carmichael who is sleeping, dreaming, or catching words—Lily remembers the floating object as a “cask bobbing up and down,” and then she remembers Mrs. Ramsay’s words first as “Is it a boat? Is it a cork?” and then as “Is it a boat? Is it a cask?” Later yet, Lily has an even more complicated memory, a memory of Charles Tansley in London, a memory of seeing Tansley in a “half-empty hall, pumping love into that chilly space, and suddenly, there was the old cask or whatever it was bobbing up and down among the waves.”

Lobster pot, upturned boat, cork, or cask, in its imprecision the bobbing object is freighted with a variety of meanings. For one thing, as it repeatedly resurfaces in Lily’s mind it reveals the variability and imprecision and quirkiness of memory. The memory is slightly different in each repetition. At times Lily seems quite clear that the object was a cask, at other times it is “an old cask or whatever.” There is also the question of why this memory and not another? “Ringed round, lit up, visible to the last detail,” the memory is almost like a shipwreck survivor.

Lily’s memory forces the reader to reflect on the nature of memory, on how memory is laid down, and how incidents and feelings connect through memory. Lily remembers the incident different ways and in relationship to different people. While the memory is first presented in relationship to Mr. Carmichael (“‘D’you remember?’ she felt inclined to ask him”) , the connection to a London Charles Tansley signals how it has permeated the fabric of Lily’s mind. This is a memory of an incident which presumably occurred in the time frame of “The Windows” section, yet that incident is only given to us as a product of memory. As such, the memory forces the reader to revisit the past and to reinterpret it.

The memory seems a positive one, one associated with kind and positive feelings toward Mr. Carmichael, Charles Tansley and Mrs. Ramsay, yet it also reminds us of Mrs. Ramsay’s short-sightedness and of Charles Tansley “lean and red and raucous.” As we scrutinize Lily’s memory and her use of it, we lay down freighted memories of our own. More disturbingly, for readers of Cowper’s “The Castaway” the memory connects to “the cask, the coop, the floated cord,” and to death by drowning. The word cask is an invitation to view the memory in dark, Cowperian terms. It is an invitation to consider the survival of the individual versus the survival of the collective. In his pumping of love, for instance, is the London Charles Tansley throwing out life preservers or is he desperately clutching at one? Are Mrs. Ramsay’s letters—the letters of which Lily and Charles sometimes just save a page from the sea—life preservers for Mrs. Ramsay, or for her correspondents, or for both.

Also, the memory calls our interpretations of reality into question. Mrs. Ramsay’s inability to perceive whether the floating object is a cask, a lobster pot, or an upturned boat has disturbing parallels with Wuthering Heights, where Lockwood sees a heap of dead rabbits as “an obscure cushion of something like cats,” with Heart of Darkness, where Marlow mistakes skulls on stakes for round ornamental knobs on the top of fenceposts, and A Passage to India, where Adela Quested confuses “the withered and twisted stump of a toddy-palm” for a snake. Reality is not always what it seems to be, and we often see what we want to see or are primed to see. Such misperception can have troubling and serious consequences.

Luckily, beyond misperceptions—or questionable interpretations of reality—is memory, and the malleability of memory. We are what we remember, and yet memory can be shaped and remoulded. Memory can alter perception and reality. Memory is an art form and a way of shaping one’s life. One memory can be used to re-fashion another, can be used to affect the mind “almost like a work of art.” As Lily tries to capture life by dipping her brush into her paints, she is also dipping into memory. Struggling to make the surface of her painting “feathery and evanescent” while at the same time clamping the fabric beneath “with bolts of iron,” “a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses,” she uses her memory of the day at the beach to re-fashion her more recent memories of Charles Tansley.

I’m in danger of drowning. One association leads to another, and in clasping at casks I’ve gotten far out of my depths. Succour has suckered me. That said, my next blog will continue with Cowper.

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