Blog #162: Informational Post and a little more Shelley in To the Lighthouse

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

Berfrois has now published the second segment of “Names, Texts, and WWI in To the Lighthouse.” To view go to: “Names, Texts and WWI in “To the Lighthouse.”

Another stimulating MLA talk was by Mary Ann Caws. She talked about Virginia’s suggestive use of poetry, the way in which Virginia uses poetry as a common language or dialect. If I understood Mary Ann correctly, she sees Woolf as using poetry in a way that is more than simply allusive. Woolf’s novels, particularly her later ones, are peppered with poetic fragments, sometimes only one or two words of a given poem, and as readers we have to recognize the incompletion and complete it within ourselves. Even if the conscious part of our mind does not recognize the fragment, the unconscious part will be acted upon and our experience of the text will be affected by what is buried within ourselves. Because poetry is much less part of our lives today, this process is much less likely to take place in the modern reader. In Victorian times, however, and in Virginia’s circle, many readers were deeply steeped in poetry, and a common language of poetry was possible. Both Leslie Stephen and Virginia would recite large chunks of poetry to themselves.

Mary Ann Caws talk got me to thinking about the number of times Virginia compares individual words or thoughts to petals expanding in water. I can’t immediately locate such passages, though I think one occurs in To the Lighthouse and several in the essays, but I am going to start hunting for them. As I find them, I’ll add them as addendum to this entry. In the course of her writing life, I think Virginia moved more and more towards this view of language and ideas as fragmentary and expansive. Her writing does become increasing poetic, and there is a strong arc towards the suggestive. Her words and themes flower in the mind. Think of the progression found in moving from To the Lighthouse through The Waves and on to Between the Acts. The books become more and more fragmented and more and more suggestive and indefinite. Not that she abandons structure. Her method is post-Impressionistic rather than Impressionist: shapes and forms count as much as impressions.

And now for the Shelley part. In looking at fragments of poetry in To the Lighthouse, Mary Ann Caws called attention to “flights of small rain” in the “Time Passes” segment, and the way in which that connects to the anonymous “Western Wind” poem. Here is the Arthur Quiller-Couch The Oxford Book of English Verse (1919) version:

O WESTERN wind, when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!

By means of this poem, the “Time Passes” fragment also connects to Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” In my mind, both the anonymous poem and the Shelley poem now expand and flower in conscious ways (prior to Caws they were likely already doing so in ways of which I was not conscious), and they now affect my response to the mood and the themes of “Time Passes.” Other lines, lines such as “a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave,” also connect to Shelley’s Ode, and Virginia’s “dead thoughts” quicken further in my mind.

Ode to the West Wind

O WILD West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being—
Thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes!—O thou
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The wingèd seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill—
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere—
Destroyer and Preserver—hear, O hear!

Thou on whose stream, ‘mid the steep sky’s commotion,
Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,
Angels of rain and lightning! they are spread
On the blue surface of thine airy surge,
Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
Of some fierce Mænad, ev’n from the dim verge
Of the horizon to the zenith’s height—
The locks of the approaching storm. Thou dirge
Of the dying year, to which this closing night
Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
Vaulted with all thy congregated might
Of vapours, from whose solid atmosphere
Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst:—O hear!

Thou who didst waken from his summer-dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
Lull’d by the coil of his crystalline streams,
Beside a pumice isle in Baiæ’s bay,
And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,
All overgrown with azure moss, and flowers
So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers
Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear
And tremble and despoil themselves:—O hear!

If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
The impulse of thy strength, only less free
Than thou, O uncontrollable!—if even
I were as in my boyhood, and could be
The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven,
As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
Scarce seem’d a vision,—I would ne’er have striven
As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
O lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!
A heavy weight of hours has chain’d and bow’d
One too like thee—tameless, and swift, and proud.

Make me thy lyre, ev’n as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies
Will take from both a deep autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe,
Like wither’d leaves, to quicken a new birth;
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

The quickening thoughts even catch future material and bring it back to the past. Another poem which is now part of my To the Lighthouse fabric is “Politics” by Yeats. No matter that Yeats didn’t write this poem until 1938, eleven years after the publication of To the Lighthouse. Yeats was doing something of the same thing that Virginia was doing, and part of the power of his lines comes from incorporating a fragment of “Western Wind.” Virginia would have approved (perhaps there is even some record of her reading this poem when it came out) of both technique and of theme. Virginia saw time as a continuum, and she herself was quick to read older books by the light of newer ones. She expected her readers to work hard and to bring all of their reading and all of their life to her books.


“In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in
political terms” – Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!


A thought for further digging: is part of Shelley’s presence in To the Lighthouse owing to the General Strike? “The Mask of Anarchy” and Shelley’s passionate activism must have resonated for Virginia as the strike unfolded. Did she fear another Peterloo Massacre. I will have to read Kate Flint’s ‘Virginia Woolf and the General Strike’ and similar articles.

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