Blog #148: Virgil’s The Georgics in Virginia’s To the Lighthouse (2 of 3)

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In ‘”Time Passes’: Virginia Woolf’s Virgilian passage to the future past masterpieces: A la recherche du temps perdu and To the Lighthouse“, Margaret Tudeau-Clayton convincingly demonstrates the depth of Virginia’s engagement with Virgil and The Georgics. As part of her argument, Tudeau-Clayton draws attention to Virginia’s concise rendering of the epilogue in the fourth Georgic, and she points out how Mr. Carmichael, whose poetry had “an unexpected success” after the war, is a Virgilian figure. She sees the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse and The Georgics as both “using the imagery of war to represent nature’s destructive tendency” and both setting “the permanence of natural elements and cycles against the tendency, in nature as in human history, to degeneration and destruction.”

Tudeau-Clayton does not, however, note the Proteus parallels to which Jean Elliot called attention. More surprisingly, given the attention she pays to the two references to Mr. Carmichael reading Virgil (and to the way in which Mr. Carmichael is foregrounded by being enclosed in the first and final sets of square brackets in “Time Passes”) she fails to notice how the square bracket passage, “[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]”, strongly echoes Mackail’s translation of Eurydice’s lament late in the fourth Georgic:

“Lo, again the cruel fates call
me backward, and sleep hides my swimming eyes.
And now goodbye : I pass away wrapped in a great
darkness, and helplessly stretching towards thee
the hands that, alas ! are not thine.”

Tudeau-Clayton also overlooks the repeated backward glances in the novel—in chapter 10 of “The Window,” James “looking back over his shoulder as Mildred carried him out”; in Chapter 12, Mrs. Ramsay “looked over her shoulder, at the town”; and in chapter 17, Mrs. Ramsay takes Minta’s arm and leaving the dinner room, giving, as she does so, “one last look at it over her shoulder.”—which also strengthen the Orpheus and Eurydice element, even as they bring with them a hint of Hamlet.

If Virginia looks back to The Georgics, it is because her enterprise has so much in common with Virgil’s. Like Virgil, she is trying to redeem a war torn world. Virgil was writing out of and through the political turmoil and civil wars which culminated in Octavian’s victory and the beginnings of the Augustan Age, and The Georgics has sometimes seen as an attempt to help restore civil order by encouraging returning soldiers to channel their martial energies into farming. With Virgil’s help, Virginia was writing to find a way past the social damage and disillusionment which were the consequences of World War I. The Protean and Orphic elements of Virgil’s poem are invoked in a battle against paralysis and despair. Like The Georgics, To the Lighthouse oscillates between optimism and pessimism. Ostensibly a celebration of rural life and agriculture, The Georgics often uses the language of war to describe nature and farming, and it suggests that war is an inescapable part of nature and the human condition. Similarly, in recording the pastoral pleasures of the Ramsay family, To the Lighthouse shows “strife, divisions, difference of opinion, prejudices twisted into the very fibre of being.” Like all societies, the civil society enjoyed by the Ramsays and their friends carried destructive forces within it, the forces which made WWI inevitable. The role of the artist and poet is to wage war on those forces by trying to see clearly, by trying to achieve perspective, and by advocating vigilance. Not all of Virginia’s purposes are the same as Virgil’s, yet by invoking The Georgics she celebrates the heroic possibilities of poetry and art in resisting and fighting against the recurring inevitability of war.

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