Blog #129: Charles Elton’s “A Garden Song” and To the Lighthouse brambles.

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“A Garden Song”

Come out and climb the garden-path, Luriana Lurillee
The China-rose is all abloom and buzzing with the yellow bee,
We’ll swing you on the cedar-bough, Luriana Lurillee

I wonder if it seems to you, Luriana Lurillee,
That all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be
Are full of trees and waving leaves, Luriana Lurillee.

How long it seems since you and I, Luriana Lurillee,
Roamed in the forest where our kind had just begun to be
And laughed and chattered in the flowers, Luriana Lurillee.

How long since you and I went out, Luriana Lurillee,
To see the kings go riding by over lawn and daisy-lea
With their palm-sheaves and cedar-leaves, Luriana Lurillee.

Swing, swing on the cedar-bough, Luriana Lurillee,
Till you sleep in a bramble heap or under the gloomy churchyard- tree
And then fly back to swing on a bough, Luriana Lurillee.

by Charles Isaac Elton

I was going to continue with Cowper’s “Castaway”, but for this blog I’ve been ambushed by Charles Elton. Part of what makes this project so exhilarating are the tangential discoveries, the way in which one furrow of thought can accidentally turn up buried treasure, and how that treasure then leads me to plough a completely different field. As said, this blog was going to continue with Cowper. More specifically, it was going to look at how the use of Cowper in the last section of To the Lighthouse compares to Virginia’s use of other poems in To the Lighthouse. Cowper can wait, however—by now, he’s used to it—and right now I want to dart after Elton.

In the process of looking into other poems, and of thinking about how and why Virginia used poetry, I started looking at “Luriana Lurilee,” or, as it is titled in Leonard Woolf’s copy, “A Garden Song.” Previously, when reading “Luriana, Lurilee” fragments in To the Lighthouse, I had always assumed Virginia was quoting a well known poem. It was surprising to learn that the poem wasn’t published until Vita and Harold did so in their 1945 anthology Another World Than This, and that further information about the origins of the poem wasn’t published until Elizabeth Boyd’s Notes and Queries essay in 1963. Even more interesting were 2005 and 2007 Notes and Queries articles by John Shaw. What Boyd and Shaw convincingly demonstrate is that “Luriana Lurilee” was a poem written by a relative unknown, a poem known only to a close circle of friends, and a poem which had been, in part at least, transmitted orally. What I also learned is that the version of the poem as I knew it, the Vita and Harold version, was slightly, yet significantly different from the poem Leonard had copied down in his notebook and on the flyleaf of Aristotelis Ethica Nicomachea.

The most significant difference between Leonard’s versions and the anthology version is the change of “bramble” for “humble.” The anthology version, which is the version known to most people and the version posted on the internet, reads “Till you sleep in a humble heap” whereas the Woolf version reads “Till you sleep in a bramble heap.” For lovers of To the Lighthouse the change is significant because, even though the bramble line isn’t quoted in the novel, the word bramble is used several times in “The lighthouse” section. It is used first in the chapter 3 when Lily is left alone on the lawn after James, Cam and Mr. Ramsay set out on the expedition. In this instance, we’re told that Lily’s sympathy “seemed to be cast back on her, like a bramble sprung across her face.” Later, in chapter 10, the word is used twice more, this time in association with Cam’s thoughts while watching Mr. Ramsay read his book.

He read, she thought, as if he were guiding something, or wheedling a large flock of sheep, or pushing his way up and up a single narrow path; and sometimes he went fast and straight, and broke his way through the bramble, and sometimes it seemed a branch struck at him, a bramble blinded him, but he was not going to let himself be beaten by that; on he went, tossing over page after page. And she went on telling herself a story about escaping from a sinking ship, for she was safe, while he sat there; safe, as she felt herself when she crept in from the garden, and took a book down, and the old gentleman, lowering the paper suddenly, said something very brief over the top of it about the character of Napoleon.

Bramble and garden in this passage may both be vestiges of the poem Virginia knew as “A Garden Song”, previously unperceived ghostly presences.

Glimpsing those presences leads me to think more deeply about how Virginia uses the poem to lightly shape our thoughts and responses. For instance, the repeated reference to the changing leaf shape of the lighthouse island in the “Lighthouse” section gains in meaning when connected to “the changing leaves” of “Luriana Lurilee.” (As Elizabeth Boyd noted, Virginia changed “waving leaves” to “changing leaves,” “palm-sheaves” to “palm leaves,” and “cedar-leaves” to “cedar sheaves” in her version of the poem, perhaps deliberately, perhaps because of aural transmission.) The poem has faded from sight, has disappeared in this section, yet its influence lingers. Consciousness of its hidden presence has me again rethinking and reinventing To the Lighthouse, has me thinking of how Virginia has put me in the position of James as we watch him “search among the infinite series of impressions which time had laid down, leaf upon leaf, fold upon fold softly, incessantly upon his brain.” The description of James is both a description of how time, history and culture operate upon our consciousness, and a description of how To the Lighthouse operates upon the reader. It is yet another of the many self-referential passages in the novel.

But to go back to thinking about why Virginia worked Elton’s poem into her novel. The personal and anachronistic elements of the poem are significant. While Leonard and Virginia valued this poem highly (as also did close friends such as Lytton and Philippa Strachey, and possibly Sidney Saxon-Turner), this is not a poem which would have been known to Lesley Stephen and his household when summering in St. Ives. This is a poem which, as a poem orally passed on from Leonard to Virginia, celebrates Virginia’s relationship with Leonard. It is a poem of communion with him.

Much as the poem’s emphasis on trees and flowers, on mutability and mortality justifies its inclusion, I’m most staggered by what that inclusion says about Virginia’s confidence in her literary taste. Though this poem was little known outside her private circle, she had no qualms about putting it on an even footing with poems by Shakespeare, Tennyson, and Cowper. Indeed, it could be argued that she gives the Elton poem pride of place, since it is the poem which she uses to seal and celebrate the triumph of Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner party.

Inclusion of “A Garden Song” also affirms the value of ordinary, uncelebrated poetry. No matter how humble, poetry offers transcendence. Also, part of “A Garden Song”’s value is that is by Anon, even if in this instance Anon is not a woman. As poet, Charles Elton was unknown to almost all, and surely Virginia was attracted by the thought that the poem would be anonymous to most people. By making the poem part of her novel, Virginia incorporates, gives flesh to some of her ideas about the importance of cultural collectivity. “A Garden Song”’s presence in To the Lighthouse expands on ideas expressed in her novels (remember, for instance, Orlando comments about the obscure and “men who have just missed fame”) and in essays such as “The Lives of the Obscure,” “Street Haunting: A London Adventure,” and “Anon.” Charles Elton’s poem is included as one “of those innumerable influences that are to tug, to distort, to thwart; as also they are to stimulate and draw out.”

One last, quick thought. Elton’s poem is connected to Clevedon Court, and Virginia had a deep interest in stately houses and their role in the creation of culture and literature. In connecting Clevedon Court to To the Lighthouse, “A Garden Song” also reminds us that the Ramsay summer home is a stately house in miniature.

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  1. [...] Blog has much information about Virginia Woolf, and in Blog #129: Charles Elton’s “A Garden Song” and to the Lighthouse Brambles explores the use of the poem in To the [...]

  2. Anton Gill says:

    Very helpful indeed – I’m in the process of reading an unannotated copy of TTL and guessed that this obscure poem (I hadn’t heard of it hitherto) had some personal connotation. Now I know more!

  3. I am presently reading and loving every word in ‘To the Lighthouse’ and so found your well researched article most interesting. It is a very lovely poem.

  4. Mary says:

    I enjoyed your article very much. I’m reading To the Lighthouse for the first time and was struck by the poem. I love the image of them standing up and reciting at the end of the dinner party. Thank you for your insight.

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