It's You I Adore: On the Odes of Virginia Woolf.
If I fall on my knees, if I go through the ritual, the ancient antics, it's you, unknown figures, you I adore; ifl open my arms, it's you I embrace, you I draw to me--adorable world! --Woolf, "An Unwritten Novel," 21
Virginia Woolf begins her first typescript draft of Pointz Hall--dated the 2nd of April, 1938--with an address to a lamp. The setting is a summer night. The unnamed narrator, in a single labyrinthine sentence that I will quote here in full, apostrophizes and pays tribute to this nondescript object. As formatted by Mitchell A. Leaska, the square brackets indicate Woolf's deletions and the angle brackets show insertions:
Oh beautiful and bounteous light on the table; oil lamp; ancient and out-of-date oil lamp; upholding as on a tawny tent the falling grey draperies of the dusk; seen across the valley; not a wandering light like the car's; but steady; assurance to the next house over there in the darkness that the [fleet] <ships> have reached harbor after the day's toil; circled by gaitered legs; slippered feet; and dogs couchant; <lamp that> presides over truth; when the active and the urgent slip their vestments and become disapparelled; rid of the five fingers; five toes; money in the pocket; and brooches and watches; when the whole emerges [at top like a many-scaled fish,] all its parts now visible, not evanescent and vanishing and immortality broods; and death disappears; and the moment is for ever; yet sleep has not leathered the eye; nor the body to knock at this door, to observe that fur, that rag, that window, that grating, this, that and the other, surveys the whole unembarrassed by the part; unimpeded; oil lamp, that calls out the colour in the faded, [matches] <unifies> the discordant [in unity; God or Goddess;] accept the praise of those dazzled by daylight; drowned by uproar; oil lamp. (33)
The entirety of this opening is cut in the later typescript draft as well as in the novel's published version, which was printed posthumously as Between the Acts (1941). (1) Remnants, however, of the "Prayer to the Night Bird" that follows a few pages after this address to the lamp, do remain. Here the humble creature--not a glamorous nightingale, associated with poetry and death--flits, a "wise and honest bird; not afraid of saying, snails, shells, pebbles, little bits of parsley; worms; slugs; slime! They have, he chuckles and chatters, still their substance and succulence, even at midnight" (Pointz 34). (2) The bird is addressed directly: "Oh sensible and ironic bird," and is invited, with a Shakespearean ease and swift shift in tone, to "come, and tweak and twitter and free our long ears clutted up with fur," to "tweak us awake this jocund night of early summer and remind us of the [cold] <grass> under our feet; [of our nakedness;] how the sole of the foot and all the skin is bare, and the hairs are still capable of sensation; while our tongues shape the smoke in our brains into talk about herrings and cesspools" (34-35).
As Woolf was beginning what was to be her final work of fiction, she was playing with forms of praise and apostrophe, musically circling this nocturnal moment when the vestments of civilization are dropped, when our bodies return to pure sensation once we put away our clothing, conventions, and individual identities: a moment revisited in the conclusion of the published novel, set as it is in the "heart of darkness" and the "fields of night" (129). Elevating the mundane and "out-of-date" oil lamp and "some anonymous little bird of daylight" to ironically great heights, ceremonially asking the former to "accept the praise of those dazzled by daylight" (while crossing out the appellation of "God or Goddess"), Woolf, I would suggest, composes two brief and essentially ephemeral odes. (3) The ode is a notoriously tricky term to define; in its long history, rivalling that of the epic and hymn, the ode, as G.N. Shuster playfully notes, "can be said to have been all things to all men" (3). (4) I argue that throughout her career Woolf responded to, repurposed, and was in conversation with the classical Pindaric ode in particular, known for its difficulty, swiftness, loftiness, and triadic structure, as well as with other ancient and related forms of praise including the hymn and prayer. (5) Woolf's experiments with the ode--including her seldom discussed, elaborately titled "Ode Written Partly in Prose on seeing the name of Cutbush above a butcher's shop in Penton-ville" (1934)--express, as do most poetic odes, "deep lyrical enthusiasm" that often leaps into "fervor, reflection, and jubilation" (Sinister 22, 10). Ceremonial, yet playful in tone, they can be seen as part of what Jane Goldman describes as the author's broader "experimentations with the poetical," especially with the elegy, which are "bound up with her feminist interventions with the politics of gender, class and empire" (50). In their establishment of a realm of plenitude rather than scarcity, her prose odes can also be read in the light of what Pericles Lewis, in Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel, refers to as Woolf's "re-enchantment of the world," offering "a new form of spirituality independent of the Christian God and appropriate for the twentieth century" (144). They offer "sacramental moment[s]" rooted in what Lewis aptly calls a "sublime of the quotidian," as well as opportunities for communion (Lewis 160, 169), but register, near the close of her career, a shift from celebration to a more troubling and troubled aesthetic.
Woolf's novels have often and rightfully been associated with elegies and the elegiac, with loss and trauma, both personal and historical. The calling of Jacob Flanders's name ("Ja-cob! Ja-cob!"), for instance, echoes throughout Jacob's Room, tinged with an "extraordinary sadness," "[p]ure from all body, pure from all passion, going out into the world, solitary, unanswered, breaking against rocks--so it sounded," until we learn that Jacob has died in the First World War, leaving his room empty (5). (6) Mrs. Dalloway, after contemplating her consoling belief in an afterlife--"somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived"--observes how "This late age of the world's experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears" (9). Scholars have read several of Woolf's works, especially To the Lighthouse and The Waves, as novel-elegies, pushing, as does John B. Vickery in The Prose Elegy, this traditionally poetic genre into the realm of the novelistic. (7) Indeed, as Woolf was "making up" To the Lighthouse, she famously noted that she had "an idea" that she would "invent a new name" for her books "to supplant 'novel.' A new--by Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy?" (D3 34). I will propose that another term Woolf could have suggested is Ode.
In her essay "Poetry, Fiction and the Future" (1927), Woolf asks whether prose can "chant the elegy, or hymn the love, or shriek in terror, or praise the rose, the nightingale, or the beauty of the night?" (82). (8) Her immediate answer, which she goes on to qualify and explain, is no, yet most readers of her work would agree that her novels are superbly adept at chanting the elegy, conveying a powerful sense of loss, melancholy, and ghostliness while grappling with the reality of death. Most readers would likely also concur that her novels are equally adept at hymning love and praising "the rose, the nightingale, or the beauty of the night"; yet this odic or encomiastic strain (two oddly awkward and insufficient terms) within her work and within modernism more generally has for the most part been overlooked, or, if it has been attended to, has not been theorized as such. Perhaps this element is simply taken for granted; without a sense of love or attachment, after all, loss would be meaningless. One of the most beloved lines in Mrs. Dalloway comes right before Clarissa's reflection on her version of an afterlife and on the world's "well of tears"; we are told that, "what she loved was this, here, now, in front of her; the fat lady in the cab" (9). Both the elegy and the ode, loss and praise, appear to be different sides of the same coin; we know that the eulogy, an address to survivors left behind in a world bereft of a loved one, is almost always accompanied by praise. (9) Yet discussions of the elegiac impulse within modernism have far eclipsed those of the odic or encomiastic, to the neglect of these strains in Woolf's body of work. Throughout her career, not just at its end, Woolf gave voice to an adoration of the world--of people, places, and things--that moved parallel to yet also separately from her investment in sorrow and the language of mourning. There are elements of the hymn, the prayer, the rhapsody, and the love letter in her work, from The Voyage Out onwards; moments in her writing that glow with praise, gratitude, wonder, admiration, and exuberance--affects that have often been regarded by scholars of modernism and post-modernism with some degree of suspicion and skepticism, or simply with boredom and disinterest. Given the intense focus on the elegy within modernist studies in particular, it seems at times that to be modern means to be an elegist, wrestling with meaning in the liminal zone between the living and the dead, sending one's voice out into the darkness and imagining the voices that speak back, or else raging against the resounding silence. (10)
The ode, compared to the elegy, can seem like a relic of the past. John Heath-Stubbs, in his concise overview of the ode, published in 1969, asserts that the genre "has been out of key with contemporary tendencies" and "can scarcely be said, either in its Pindaric or its Horatian form, to be any longer a vehicle which contemporary or future poets are likely to employ" (109, 111). Like the medium of sculpture, which was viewed by some in the early twentieth century as a dead form, no longer able to speak to a contemporary population, the ode seems worthy of study but not elastic enough (unlike the elegy) to adapt to the times. (11) Heath-Stubbs sees Gerard Manley Hopkins's The Wreck of the Deutschland (composed in 1875-76) as perhaps "the last truly great" ode, although it is not formally labeled as such, insisting that the "poets of the present century have gone further in experimentation, and for them the traditional genres have largely become meaningless" (108-109). (12) I suggest that the ode, rather than dying out in the early twentieth century, or merely being relegated to "public and academic occasions," instead took other forms, a fact that has not yet been fully explored. A vital reason for this oversight is the persistence of a dominant narrative about modernism that valorizes the irreverent, the transgressive, the nihilistic, and the skeptical, and that is wary of vertical rather than horizontal structures of power. Forms of praise can seem too stiffly conservative and hierarchical, not to mention sentimental, with their emphasis on commemoration or worship coming uncomfortably close to the tainted realms of propaganda on the one hand and advertising on the other. Once an artist humbles himself or herself by expressing veneration for an object and especially for another person, becoming entangled in questions of value and worth, a reader might begin to suspect the motives for such praise. There is, moreover, a general critical suspicion of categories such as the "beautiful" (often celebrated by odists), that views them as outmoded at best or dangerous at worst, with "beautiful objects and aesthetic experiences" potentially "complicit with the forces of oppression" and becoming the means of "ideological obfuscation" (Rothman). In terms of beauty specifically, Elaine Scarry has noted how the political critique directed towards it is composed of two arguments, one of which argues that "beauty, by preoccupying our attention, distracts attention from wrong social arrangements," making us inattentive and indifferent, while the second argument "holds that when we stare at something beautiful, make it an object of sustained regard, our act is destructive to the object," "reifying" it as "the very object that appears to be the subject of admiration" (58). Praise can blind us to a number of wrongs and, for some, can constitute a wrong in itself.
In what follows, I propose to catalogue, unabashedly, Woolf's engagements with the ode, as part of a larger study of the encomiastic within British modernism. (13) I contend that for Woolf the ode is inseparable from the quotidian, the ludic, as well as the elegiac. She begins her writing career by democratizing the ode (as does Walt Whitman), and continues to respond to and adapt the Pindaric form, drawing on its mobility and structure while seeking out opportunities for exaltation, reverence, address, and tribute within the realm of prose. More than attempting to "clutch its object," struggling, as in an elegy, to let things go or to gain mastery by wresting meaning from death, Woolf's odes are generously "meant to be spread over the world and become part of the human gain" (TTL 47). (14)
I. Mending and Democratizing Odes in The Voyage Out
I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. --Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, 63
In Woolf's first novel, The Voyage Out, Rachel Vinrace's uncle, Ridley Ambrose, works studiously to "restore" and "mend" the odes of Pindar: the classical Greek "poet, priest, and prophet" whose poems were taken as one of the primary models for English odes (Maddisson 2-3). In their villa in South America--a South America, as E. M. Forster put it, "not found on any map"--there are "many rooms," but in particular "one room... possessed a character of its own because the door was always shut, and no sound of music or laughter issued from it" (172):
Every one in the house was vaguely conscious that something went on behind that door, and without in the least knowing what it was, were influenced in their own thoughts by the knowledge that if they passed it the door would be shut, and if they made a noise Mr. Ambrose inside would be disturbed. Certain acts therefore possessed merit, and others were bad, so that life became more harmonious and less disconnected than it would have been had Mr. Ambrose given up editing Pindar, and taken to a nomad existence, in and out of every room in the house. As it was, every one was conscious that by observing certain rules, such as punctuality and quiet, by cooking well, and performing other small duties, one ode after another was satisfactorily restored, and they themselves shared the continuity of the scholar's life. (170)
This account of what "every one" in the household knows is filtered through Rachel's youthful perspective; her uncle's work, along with her own and her aunt Helen's, are strictly gendered. The women weave their domestic activities around the needs of Mr. Ambrose, feeling that they are playing a (limited) part in the "restoration" of Pindar's odes, which themselves are known for their sense of decorum and order. (In Olympian 1 the poet writes: "it is proper that a man should speak well of the gods; / thus he is less likely to incur blame" ). It is as if the life of the household helps shape these odes as they are translated and pieced together, with one kind of work enabling the other and all forming a harmonious whole. As in To the Lighthouse, the male scholar depends on the sustaining order of the domestic realm to function properly (TTL 37, 65).
Woolf seems to gently mock the reverence that Rachel exhibits towards her uncle's work. Her reverence echoes the encomiastic nature of Pindar's odes, which were composed (those that survived) to "honour the victors in the Greek public games," praising "not only the victor but also his ancestors and his cities" (Heath-Stubbs 3). We see this veneration, for example, in Pindar's Nemean 9, written for Chromius of Aetna, winner of the chariot race: "There is a saying among men, that a noble accomplishment / should not be hidden on the ground in silence; / what is needed is a divine song of heroic verse. / Let us then lift high the deep-voiced lyre / and lift up the pipe, for this very pinnacle of horse-races, / founded by Adrastus for Phoebus by the waters of Asopus. / Mindful of this, I shall celebrate the hero / with honours that bring him renown" (111). Ensconced in his study, Mr. Ambrose is set apart, absorbed in a realm that the females of the household cannot access, sitting "hour after hour among white-leaved books, alone like an idol in an empty church, still except for the passage of his hand from one side of the sheet to another," restoring such odes to their original glory. The narrator's tone seems both genuinely respectful of the work being carried out and also slightly satirical, as we sense that Mr. Ambrose himself is fully aware of his own importance, his work conducted in complete silence "save for an occasional choke, which drove him to extend his pipe a moment in the air" (170). When Rachel enters his room and "hailed him twice, 'Uncle Ridley,' before he paid her any attention," we can see Woolf delicately playing with the form of the ode, deliberately choosing the word "hail," with its sense of formality and hierarchy, to describe Rachel's address (an element of many odes, including Woolf's "Ode Written Partly in Prose," which I discuss below) rather than selecting a more commonplace word such as "called" (170). Rachel's "hail" transposes the ode into the realm of the everyday, gently mocking the ode's formality and leveling out the traditionally hierarchical structure embedded in its reverential expressions of praise.
Helen Ambrose takes the narrator's quiet subversion even further when she teasingly notes how her "husband spends his life digging up manuscripts which nobody wants," "amused by Ridley's expression of startled disapproval" (198). (15) Ridley Ambrose's scholarship may seem incidental to this bildungsroman, focused as it is on Rachel's mental and emotional voyages of discovery as she luxuriates in the newfound possibility of doing "exactly as she liked" (173-74). Yet I would argue that The Voyage Out, as part of its own venture, takes his work, and the Pindaric ode, down from their great heights--shifting them from a secluded, male, sanctified, and exclusive realm to a level defined by the everyday yet transformative experience of love. There is a democratizing impulse at play in the novel that carries through to Woolf's subsequent works. Indeed, she directly takes up Pindar near the end of her career in Three Guineas: according to Woolf's speaker, for "the sons of educated men" to be asking "the daughters to help them to protect culture and liberty" in the year 1938 is akin to the Duke of Devonshire "step[ping] down into the kitchen" to ask the maid peeling potatoes to help him "construe" a "difficult passage in Pindar" (277-78). In both texts, Pindar is a stand-in for an elite realm that excludes women, the less educated, and especially less educated women. The Voyage Out can be seen as performing its own subtle mending of Pindar's odes insofar as it rewrites them on another level. As she does with her complex responses to other male poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Woolf takes Pindar as a point of departure, an object of criticism, and a source of inspiration, as part of her feminist literary intervention. (16)
Rachel, aged twenty-four, gains self-knowledge and self-awareness throughout the novel (until, that is, her untimely death), particularly as she encounters love for the first time. In the same chapter that we learn of her uncle's work on Pindar. we see Rachel out walking along a nearly dried out river bed, viewing the trees on a bank "which Helen had said it was worth the voyage out merely to see" (173). She views the blossoms and is "filled with one of those unreasonable exultations which start generally from an unknown cause, and sweep whole countries and skies into their embrace" (173). Soon after this, she sits outside reading, and her mind drifts to seek out "the origins of her exaltation" (175). Her thoughts dwell on the young men she has met the night before, St. John Hirst and Terence Hewet, feeling "a kind of physical pleasure such as is caused by the contemplation of bright things hanging in the sun. From them all life seemed to radiate; the very words of books were steeped in radiance" (175); Rachel demands to herself, to the world, "What is it to be in love?" (175). Her commonplace yet exhilarating discovery of love is expressed through an odic idiom of exultation, splendor, and radiance. (17) Robert Shafer notes of Pindar that he "drains the Greek vocabulary dry of words for light and bright, shine and shimmer, glitter and glister, ray and radiance, flame and flare and flash, gleam and glow, burn and blaze" (23); this emphasis on light is apparent in the way that the young men seem to Rachel like twin suns, generating radiance as well as an almost abstract pleasure such as one feels regarding bright objects shining in the sunlight. The forms of praise that we find in odes such as those of Pindar are here shifted from a heroic realm to a very prosaic, youthful, and embodied register.
The connection between odes and love--in To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe notes how "from the dawn of time odes have been sung to love" (103)--is made more explicit in the novel, again lightly and teasingly, in the sanctified space of a church. (18) The narrator dips into the mind of Susan Warrington, who feels peaceful and calm in this setting: "Her emotions rose calmly and evenly, approving of herself and of life at the same time" (226). Even the priest's reading of a psalm, which calls out desperately to "Break their teeth, O God, in their mouths; smite the jaw-bones of the lions, O Lord," does not shake her serene mood. Her mind is "really occupied with praise of her own nature and praise of God--that is of the solemn and satisfactory order of the world" (227). This stable, serene realm of the encomiastic echoes that of the scholarly space in which Ridley Ambrose mends his odes by Pindar; there is an element of self-praise and self-satisfaction mingled with praise of another. At the back of the chapel, Mrs. Flushing sits with Hirst and Hewet, "in a very different frame of mind" (229) from Susan Warrington. Hewet is preoccupied with thoughts of Rachel, "almost painfully disturbed by his thoughts as she was by hers" (230). Meanwhile, Hirst is reading from a "thin pale-blue volume," which Mrs. Flushing inquires about, surprised at seeing on one side of the page a Greek poem and on the other its translation:
"What's that?" she whispered inquisitively. "Sappho," he replied. "The one Swinburne did--the best thing that's ever been written." Mrs. Flushing could not resist such an opportunity. She gulped down the Ode to Aphrodite during the Litany, keeping herself with difficulty from asking when Sappho lived, and what else she wrote worth reading, and contriving to come in punctually at the end with "the forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection of the body, and the life everlastin'. Amen." (230)
Hirst is most likely reading Charles Algernon Swinburne's "Anactoria" (1866), which many readers agree is "pornographic" as well as sadomasochistic in its depiction of homosexual love between women (Cook 77). (19) Like the psalm that the priest earlier read out, Sappho's address to a deity also calls for help and a kind of vengeful retribution. Sappho, spurned by the woman she hotly desires, sees Aphrodite (called Love in Swinburne's version) in a vision, "as burning flame from crown to feet, / Imperishable, upon her storied seat" (11. 67-68). The goddess asks Sappho who wrongs her and promises:
"Even she that flies shall follow for thy sake, And she shall give thee gifts that would not take, Shall kiss that would not kiss thee" (yea, kiss me) "When thou wouldst not" [...] (11. 81-84)
In this sly reference and brief moment of illicit reading, Woolf is further overturning the ode as a genre that is set apart in a male, elite, and scholarly realm that women need to tiptoe on the outskirts of. She gives Sappho her due as another classical ode-writer who has influenced the history of the form as much as Pindar, Horace, or Alcaeus. Swinburne's version of Sappho's ode is sensual and full of pained desire, shocking to read in a quiet colonial church where women like Susan Warrington feel safe in the "solemn and satisfactory order of the world" and where the priest reads from a psalm that asks about righteousness and the "mischief" of the "ungodly" (Psalm 58:1). Mrs. Flushing (again, we see Woolf being tongue-in-cheek here in the choice of name) cannot resist temptation; we can imagine her flushing as she "gulps" the erotic ode, addressed to a female deity, needing to hold back her torrent of questions, then managing to cover over her excitement by reciting the end of the Litany along with the rest of the congregation, ending with a pious "Amen." In The Voyage Out, the odic is brought (as Sappho brings it) to the level of the body; to shared readings, to the shouting of nonsense words as one is filled with the confused pain and excitement of love. It is transposed to the realm of prose, and becomes illicit and alive rather than sanctified and remote.
In referencing Swinburne's translation of Sappho, Woolf may also have been alluding to his poem " Sapphics," with which she must have been familiar. This poem, according to Joyce Zonana, subverts rather than simply translates the "Ode to Aphrodite" (41). Whereas in the original, as we saw, "Sappho had appealed for the aid of an Olympian Goddess, Aphrodite, imploring her to descend from heaven to Lesbos," in Swinburne's work "the Goddess is on earth, pleading with the poet to look at and listen to her" (Zonana 41). In this "inverted" text, Swinburne composes his own ode to Sappho as the "tenth Muse" who strikes the other (divine) muses silent with the power of her songs--songs that "move the heart of the shaken heaven, / Songs that break the heart of the earth with pity, / Hearing, to hear them" (11. 78-80). In so doing, as Zonana argues, he "radically redefines the nature of poetic inspiration," offering a "steady celebration of humanity" over divinity (39). Swinburne's Sappho turns away from Love and the divine in "Sapphics," and in this repudiation finds the inspiration for powerful songs. As we shall see in "An Unwritten Novel," Woolf takes to heart, in a more playful register, this celebration of the aesthetic over the romantic, turning from the realm of love to the dazzling play of the mind.
II. A Mobile Aesthetic: "An Unwritten Novel"
All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him. --Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Pied Beauty"
"Glory be to God for dappled things," begins Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Pied Beauty," a poem of praise that celebrates the irregular and variegated aspects of the beauty of the world. Woolf never offers praise to a Christian god, yet expresses a similar adoration of the world in "An Unwritten Novel" (1921). "An Unwritten Novel," according to Hermione Lee, "gave [Woolf] an idea of further possibilities" after completing her second novel, Night and Day. Writing to her friend Ethel Smyth ten years after its composition, Woolf notes how "The Unwritten Novel was the great discovery," which:
in one second showed me how I could embody all my deposit of experience in a shape that fitted it--not that I have ever reached that end; but anyhow I saw it, branching out of the tunnel I made, when I discovered that method of approach, Jacobs Room, Mrs. Dalloway etc--How I trembled with excitement; and then Leonard came in, and I drank my milk, and concealed my excitement, and wrote I suppose another page of that interminable Night and Day (which some say is my best book). (qtd. Lee 370-71)
Here, Woolf seems akin to Mrs. Flushing, excited by her discovery of Sappho, yet falling in line and concealing her excitement by seeming to engage with another text. Woolf's almost accidental discovery of a particular aesthetic approach branches out, as she puts it, into her more experimental writing as she finds a means of embodying her experience in a style and shape of her own. One element of what she discovered or brought to the fore is a merging of the odic register with the ludic and quotidian, the celebratory and ceremonial with the playful and the everyday. Her prose ode continues the work of The Voyage Out in mending and democratizing the ode; it equates the odic with movement and motion, using a lightness of touch that does not grasp at its subject or object, and that praises in particular the swift agility of the writer's mind. (20)
The conclusion of "An Unwritten Novel" is the epigraph to my article, and clearly indicates a feeling of adoration, with the narrator of this short story (which seems also part essay) imagining falling on her knees and going through the "ancient antics" of veneration and praise in response to what she sees. What she sees is a woman who had been sitting across from her on the train, whose circumstances and life she had vividly conjured, disembarking and meeting a young man with whom she walks away. Upon first noticing her in the carriage, the narrator had been struck by the woman's misery; after some brief conversation, she feels (like a detective) that she has read this stranger's "message, deciphered her secret, reading it beneath her gaze" (11). Putting together the clues, she imagines Minnie Marsh, as she names her, as a spinster visiting her condescending and belittling sister-in-law. She envisions an awkward dinner with Millie's niece and nephew, but skips over it, "Skip, skip, till we reach the landing on the upper floor." As if she were skimming the pages of a book (one written by a "materialist" Edwardian) or had invented the "fast forward" button before such technology existed, she skips through the scenes, until she comes to Minnie alone in the guest room:
Three o'clock on a December afternoon; the rain drizzling; one light low in the skylight of a drapery emporium; another high in a servant's bedroom--this one goes out. That gives her nothing to look at. A moment's blankness--then, what are you thinking? (Let me peep across at her opposite; she's asleep or pretending it; so what would she think about sitting at the window at three o'clock in the afternoon? Health, money, hills, her God?) Yes, sitting on the very edge of the chair looking over the roofs of Eastbourne, Minnie Marsh prays to God. That's all very well; and she may rub the pane too, as though to see God better; but what God does she see? Who's the God of Minnie Marsh, the God of the back streets of Eastbourne, the God of three o'clock in the afternoon? (12)
Moving nimbly between the train carriage and this conjured scene of thought and prayer, Woolf gets closer to what she elsewhere calls "Life itself," or to the elusive figure of "Mrs. Brown" ("Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" 388). She discovers a playful, net-like narrative mobility that had been absent from The Voyage Out as well as Night and Day, but that would be present in various forms in her later works.
Woolf dips into this woman's consciousness and tries out different possibilities for her life, attempting to fit the pieces together. Her willingness to play with a wealth of options and not settle on any one truth runs counter to the demands of realist fiction. "A parting, was it, twenty years ago? Vows broken?" "No--more like this": perhaps one night Minnie was tempted by a shop display, losing track of time. She rushed home only to find "[neighbors--the doctor--baby brother--the kettle--scalded--hospital--dead--or only the shock of it, the blame? Ah, but the detail matters nothing!" The truth is elusive and inconsequential; the beauty is in the elusiveness, the speculation, the play. Woolf's narrator describes people as being like butterflies or moths (a familiar metaphor for Woolf, of course) perched on flowers: when a writer grasps the stem of the flower, "the butterfly's off--the moth that hangs in the evening over the yellow flower--move, raise your hand, off, high, away." She apostrophizes:
Hang still, then, quiver, life, soul, spirit, whatever you are of Minnie Marsh--I, too, on my flower--the hawk over the down--alone, or what were the worth of life? To rise; hang still in the evening, in the midday; hang still over the down. The flicker of a hand--off, up! then poised again. Alone, unseen; seeing all so still down there, all so lovely. (15)
This breathtaking, odic passage is later echoed in a passage from Between the Acts that I will discuss below, as well as one in Jacob's Room, where the narrator insists that although Jacob cannot really be known or his character fully grasped, "something is always impelling one to hum vibrating, like the hawk moth, at the mouth of the cavern of mystery, endowing Jacob Flanders with all sorts of qualities he had not at all" (97). Much of what Jacob says is "unintelligible" or "mostly a matter of guess work," yet "over him we hang vibrating" (98). In both Jacob's Room and "An Unwritten Novel," the narrative presence hovers, hangs still, and rises, with complete freedom of movement, not really interested in pinning down what she sees. The essay is a virtuosic exercise that revels in the ease and power of the artist who is able to conjure a life and several possible lives from what is presented to her: a woman whose identity and life she will never know the truth of.
The centrality of a Keatsian negative capability within Woolf's aesthetic has long been recognized: we can see it strikingly at play in the essay (which seems also part short story) "Street Haunting: A London Adventure" (1930), in the speaker's delight that "[i]nto each of these lives one could penetrate a little way, far enough to give oneself the illusion that one is not tethered to a single mind, but can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others. One could become a washerwoman, a publican, a street singer" (35). (21) "An Unwritten Novel" in particular also celebrates failure. Once the narrator realizes that her version of "Minnie's" life is inaccurate--she discovers that the woman has a son and is thus no spinster dependent on a cruel sister-in-law--rather than expressing disappointment or devastation, the narrator is first "confounded" and then experiences exaltation. She feels, "Well, my world's done for! What do I stand on? What do I know?... Who am I? Life's bare as bone." As she takes a final look at the two figures, never to see them again, she is filled with wonder, which "floods [her] anew":
Mother and son. Who are you? Why do you walk down the street? Where to-night will you sleep, and then, to-morrow? Oh, how it whirls and surges--floats me afresh! I start after them.... Wherever I go, mysterious figures, I see you, turning the corner, mothers and sons; you, you, you. I hasten, I follow.
The mystery of the unknown, rather than calling for mastery, is instead celebrated in a kind of hymn that revels in not knowing and not needing to know. It is "you, you, you" that the speaker sees, apostrophizes, and mentally follows. The classical ode, as well as later odes, explore the unique individuality of that which they praise; here, as elsewhere, Woolf instead seems to sweep her arms open with a net to pull towards her the entire world, only to let it all flow through the mesh. This gesture is essential to her odic impulse, and is fully realized in To the Lighthouse.
III. (Ode) To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Ramsay
Could loving, as people called it, make her and Mrs. Ramsay one? for it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge, she had thought, leaning her head on Mrs. Ramsay's knee. --To the Lighthouse, 51
To the Lighthouse, while certainly a prose elegy for Woolf's parents and for an entire lost generation of young men, can also, like Shelley's "To a Skylark," or Keats's "To Autumn," be read as an ode to the lighthouse--and to Mrs. Ramsay, who is connected with it--representing the height of the odic impulse in Woolf's works. (22) Mirroring the three-part structure of the Pindaric ode (returning in a more formal sense to Pindar as opposed to her subversive play in The Voyage Out), which paralleled the movements of the classical chorus, moving as it did "in a dance rhythm to the left," chanting "the strophe; moving to the right, the antistrophe; then, standing still, the epode" (Abrams and Harpham 262), Woolf's novel tacks back and forth and then stands, focused throughout on an adoration of Mrs. Ramsay. The fluid movement of "An Unwritten Novel" and "Street Haunting," which unpredictably dip in and out, is here structured far more rigidly. The novel's triadic structure, like that of Pindar's odes, offers a "peculiar majesty and stateliness" that prevents monotony as well as sentimentality (Shafer 28). I argue that the powerful love towards Mrs. Ramsay expressed by various characters in the novel, particularly in its first section, not only gives force to Woolf's elegiac impulse in the second, but also enables her to make such economic and experimental use of parentheses in the "Time Passes" segment. Exploring the encomiastic impulses in this novel, and reading the work as (in part) a prose ode, allows us to trace the yearning behind the odic for Woolf more generally: that is, the desire for an intimacy that is not grasping, but instead specific and impersonal, unique and diffused. If the elegy, as Gillian Beer and others have noted, is essentially about learning "how to let go"--about "let[ting] go of the past, formally transferring it into language, laying ghosts and confining them to a text and giving them its freedom"--the ode offers another form of non-attachment that is rooted in praise, offering a compensation of its own (Beer 31).
At the heart of the novel is the "archetypal mother, Mrs. Ramsay," who, as Maria DiBattista describes her, is "the primary focus of all feeling in the prewar idyll of 'The Window,' an iconic figure of idealized desire whose 'royalty of form' derives not from the authority commanded by her moral being, but from the power of her extraordinary beauty" (75). The unpopular and generally despised Charles Tansley, who takes a walk with Mrs. Ramsay, is at one point struck by this beauty, realizing that "she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen." He feels, "for the first time in his life," an enormous pride walking alongside her. Others are unexpectedly moved by her as well; Lily Briscoe, the painter, and William Bankes, the scientist, both also outsiders to the family group, share a mutual regard for her. We see her powerful effect on others in Lily's observations and reflections (Lily, who wonders if she might be in love with Mrs. Ramsay). While painting and discussing Mrs. Ramsay with Mr. Bankes, Lily notices his "rapture," which is equivalent, she feels, "to the loves of dozens of young men":
That people should love like this, that Mr. Bankes should feel this for Mrs. Ramsay (she glanced at him musing) was helpful, was exalting. She wiped one brush after another upon a piece of old rag, menially, on purpose. She took shelter from the reverence which covered all women; she felt herself praised. (48)
Lily's response to her friend's feelings for Mrs. Ramsay encapsulates the odic element within this novel. Bankes's adoration is not a desire to in any way possess Mrs. Ramsay, to make her his own, or to tie her identity to his. Instead, his feelings are more like a source of light that radiates outwards, offering shelter and praising not just one woman but all women. It is a "heavenly gift," and of its bounty the whole world can share; it is love "distilled and filtered," love such as a poet feels for their phrases or a scientist for their problems. Again, there is reverence without hierarchy, and plenitude rather than lack. Lily's focus on rapture and benediction offers her a sense of solace and ease from the "perplexity of life"; however, this does not last, and her revelation is soon followed by a feeling of horror at the inadequacy of her own work. Adoration turns to disgust, then reflection. Anger turns to elation, then relief. First one way, then another, then a pause. We see this three-part movement in Lily's musings on Mr. Bankes himself, as she offers tribute while disavowing personal praise: first all of her feelings pour forth "in a ponderous avalanche" ("That was one sensation"); then she addresses him silently and with reverence; then she simultaneously thinks of his faults. Her silent address to him is a kind of ode: "I respect you... in every atom; you are not vain; you are entirely impersonal; you are finer than Mr. Ramsay; you are the finest human being that I know; you have neither wife nor child (without any sexual feeling, she longed to cherish that loneliness), you live for science...; praise would be an insult to you; generous, pure-hearted, heroic man!" (24). Through such moments of tacking, as of a sailboat or a chorus, the novel zig zags its way closer and closer to the lighthouse.
The painting that Lily works on throughout the first section of the novel and that she completes in the novel's final lines transforms Mrs. Ramsay and her youngest son, James, into the shape of a purple triangle, and is a "tribute," if, "as she vaguely supposed, a picture must be a tribute" (52-53). While discussing the painting with her, Bankes expresses his fascination with the notion that one could depict a mother and child--"objects of universal veneration, and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty"--and reduce them to "a purple shadow without irreverence" (52). If realism in representation entails grasping a subject in an attempt to pin it down on the canvas or page, Lily's abstract rendering of her subjects allows her, as an artist, to escape that grasp. Mrs. Ramsay sees herself, too, as "a wedge of darkness," "[l]osing personality," able to live many lives, finding rest, not as herself, but as this other shape (63). The abstraction of a simple geometric form (such as the cylinder of a lighthouse or the triangle of its beam or the shape of "two blocks joined by a corridor," as Woolf envisioned her novel [TTL: Holograph 44]), offers a means of escaping the entanglements of the particular. (23) In addition to the wedge of darkness, Mrs. Ramsay identifies herself with one of the beams of light emanating from the lighthouse. As she sits and thinks, she looks out "to meet that stroke of the Lighthouse, the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke, for watching them in this mood always at this hour one could not help attaching oneself to one thing especially of the things one saw; and this thing, the long steady stroke, was her stroke" (63). Her stroke is, significantly, the "last of three," reflecting the novel's triadic structure.
The narrator observes how Mrs. Ramsay "praised herself in praising the light, without vanity, for she was stern, she was searching, she was beautiful like that light" (63). Then there is a predictable shift in tone, a tacking in a different direction, and Mrs. Ramsay looks at the light, now with "some irony in her interrogation":
...the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much her, yet so little her, which had her at its beck and call (she woke in the night and saw it bent across their bed, stroking the floor), but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotised, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough! (64-65)
With this labyrinthine, breathless sentence, which builds, on a wave of conjunctions, to a climax of plenitude, Woolf offers a sense of repletion, which then shifts to stand on a platform of stability. At dinner, Mrs. Ramsay thinks of how "there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out... in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures" (105). This thing that endures provides an enormous force of love and emotion in the novel, which, because of its zig zagging, avoids the sentimental while conveying deep sentiment. The odic as a force unites, rather than setting the living against the dead, separating the bereft from the departed. As adapted by Woolf, the ode's gift is the intimacy of impersonality. As Mrs. Ramsay makes her way to bed, she feels "that community of feeling with other people which emotion gives as if the walls of partition had become so thin that practically (the feeling was one of relief and happiness) it was all one stream, and chairs, tables, maps, were hers, were theirs, it did not matter whose, and Paul and Minta would carry it on when she was dead" (113-14). This is a moment of communion between the living and between the living and the dead, that is elevated to an almost religious level. According to Lewis, "[w] hile Mrs. Ramsay rejects what she evidently sees as the ideological consolations offered by religion, she does contemplate a different sort of quasi-religious ecstasy" in such moments of reflection and vision (163); in the "disenchanted world of To the Lighthouse," the "hoped for re-enchantment takes the
form of communion that only intense privacy can achieve" (169). I would add that the means of accessing such intense feelings in this novel is by way of the ode.
When, in "Time Passes," we learn in a brief parenthetical that Mrs. Ramsay has died ("[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]" (128)), the force of this death is all the greater because of the plenitude of the odic in the previous section. In the contrast, or tacking, from the richness of love and adoration in "The Window" to the crushing inadequacy of language that comes with death, the odic merges into the elegiac. The novel's previous willingness to not grasp at or try to possess those around us, its insistence upon the impersonality of love, is set against Mr. Ramsay's empty arms, reaching blindly for his wife who is no longer there. One impulse does not negate the other, but rather both balance out the other, and in the third segment, the stand, or epode, of "The Lighthouse," there is a turn to both. The parenthetical account of Mr. Ramsay's grief and Mrs. Ramsay's death is able to be so powerfully concise and seemingly incidental because we as readers have also been swept up in adoration for Mrs. Ramsay, and can thus read between the spaces of the words the vast sense of loss and the terror and fragility of life that Mrs. Ramsay (like Mrs. Dalloway) had always felt. There is no need to say more; there is no more that can be said without irreverence. Prue Ramsay, we are also informed in a parenthetical aside, has died in childbirth, when all "had promised so well" (132); Andrew Ramsay, "whose death, mercifully, was instantaneous" (133), was blown up in the war, along with twenty or thirty other young men (and, we know, millions of others). There is a mercy in brevity, as earlier we saw an exhilaration in stretching a sentence to its utmost limits.
In "The Lighthouse" section, as Lily and others return to the summer house after several years have passed and face the reality of Mrs. Ramsay's absence, Lily remembers Mrs. Ramsay "bringing them together; Mrs. Ramsay saying, 'Life stand still here'; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent)--this was of the nature of a revelation":
In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said. "Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!" she repeated. She owed it all to her. (161)
Like the regular beam of the lighthouse, counted out in threes, or the reliable structure itself, Mrs. Ramsay provides a sense of protective stability, an impersonal shape that can be filled with and emptied of meaning. James, who finally arrives at the lighthouse with his father and sister at the end of the novel, sees it as "stark and straight," "glaring white and black, and one could see the waves breaking in white splinters like smashed glass upon the rocks" (203). The "window" of Section I has broken to pieces; yet James also acknowledges that his previous vision of the lighthouse as "silvery, misty-looking" with a "yellow eye, that opened suddenly, and softly in the evening," is also true. "For nothing is simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too" (186). If To the Lighthouse can be read, as I am proposing, as a prose ode as well as an elegy, it is one that encompasses and brings together twin visions of love and loss, offering twin consolations. The novel is an attempt to let go (we know that Woolf felt a sense of release after composing the novel, as if laying the ghosts of her parents to rest [MOB 81]), yet it also suggests the possibility of not grasping in the first place, of celebrating impersonality. It envisions loss as leading to despair but also, if Mrs. Ramsay is indeed a triangle, or like the triangular beam of light from the lighthouse, she is also part of an "eternal passing and flowing" that does not know death. Woolf is able to adapt the structure of the Pindaric ode to convey a rich emotional and psychological complexity. Her novel Orlando, published a year after To the Lighthouse, is another form of tribute, a "love letter" to Vita Sackville-West that also challenges the limits of a life. I will now turn to two of Woolf's later works, both of which might prompt us to ask Mr. Oliver's question from Between the Acts: "Had it--he was ignorant of musical terms--gone into the minor key?" (72).
IV. Going into the Minor Key: "Ode Written Partly in Prose" and Between the Acts
We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what's going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise. --Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 11
Woolf's "Ode Written Partly in Prose" and Between the Acts are written in a tone and style remarkably different from To the Lighthouse. After completing her first draft of The Pargiters in 1934, which, after much revision and struggle, would become The Years, Woolf wrote her "strange prose Ode," as Hermione Lee calls it (647). Lee briefly mentions this ode in her magisterial biography of Woolf, suggesting that it was composed during a dark time in the author's life and in response to Wyndham Lewis's critique of her and the Bloomsbury set as feebly "peeping" at the world from a position of safety. As a rebuttal to Lewis, Woolf (according to Lee) imagines "the whole life of a London butcher from a sign glimpsed in the street, but recognized in some despair the limitations of her view" (647). I would like to suggest that we might also read this work in the context of Woolf's other odes, and in relation to the encomiastic impulse in her works. This is the only text of hers that Woolf directly labels as an ode, yet in some ways it is, I would argue, one of the least odic of her works; it foregrounds the mismatch between lyric elevation and prosaic mundanity as well as the potential violence of imagining the lives of others, particularly those of a lower class. Within this work we can trace the beginnings of a larger, late modernist, shift away from what Marina MacKay calls the "optimistic liberal humanism of Virginia Woolf in the 1920s" (and early 1930s), towards the darker, more nightmarish visions of authors including Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus ("Going Nowhere" 1610). What was once celebratory and jubilant--a modernism that was "expansive," full of "expressive possibility, of mobility and liberation" (1602)--becomes more diminished, yet I would maintain in no way defeated.
By forcing the encomiastic into the shape of a poem that is also part prose (the genre that has traditionally "taken all the dirty work on to her own shoulders; has answered letters, paid bills, written articles, made speeches, served the needs of businessmen, shopkeepers, lawyers, soldiers, peasants" [Woolf, "Poetry" 79]), Woolf creates a disjunctive text that leaves no room for sentimentality and very little for sentiment. She explores the push and pull between poetry and prose, as she goes on to do in her draft of Pointz Hall and Between the Acts, hinting that what might be needed to express the encomiastic in the future is something more like a rhapsody, sudden and violent. Her "Ode" returns to "An Unwritten Novel" as well as "Street Haunting," celebrating as they do the play of the mind and the wealth of available narrative possibilities, and in a sense underscoring what she had been doing so far in her career: placing the modernist ode firmly in the realm of prose. However, in this work and in her final novel, dissonance overcomes any expression of exuberance or exaltation, and the tenuousness of one's hold on life, while still a cause for celebration, also potentially stirs up a sense of discomfort.
The typescript of Woolf's "Ode" is dated the 28th of October, 1934 (less than four years before she composed the opening of Pointz Hall), and begins with an address: "Oh Cutbush, little John, standing glum between / your father and mother, the day they decided what / to make of you, should you be florist or butcher... / Shall John be florist or butcher?" (11.1-5, 10) [Figure. 1]. Although the ode's title notes that it is written "partly in prose," and while Lee calls it a "prose Ode," the entire text of the typescript is lineated, although with very little rhyme or meter to speak of. (24) The work thus appears to be a poem, yet has no other strong markers of the poetic, and is instead enmeshed in the prosaic realm of the quotidian. The speaker pays attention--an attention that seems unique within the realm of the poetic (or part-prose) ode--to the "cold meat, / shrouded in white nets borne on men's shoulders; / meat from the Argentines; from haired and red pelted / hogs and bullocks" (11. 58-61). With a kind of anthropological precision, the speaker alsonotes the "stark and frozen corpses that shall lie like / mummies in the ice house till the Sunday fire revives / them and they dripjuice into the big plate to / revive church goers" (11. 64-67). Woolf is forcing together the elevated style of the classical ode with the realities of working class life, drawing out the "pied beauty" of the everyday while revealing at the same time a detached distaste for her subjects that almost verges on repugnance. The encomiastic impulse within her work--and perhaps, she is suggesting, within modernist works more broadly--seems to find its proper expression in prose, not poetry. Woolf's "Ode" begins to register a faltering of the odic register even as it continues the author's playful experiments and repurposing of the classical form.
After introducing us to John Cutbush as a child whose life will be determined by his parents, Woolf describes, "Coming down the asphalt path, / with her velvet beret on her head, saucily / askew," a young woman named "Louie, betweenmaid to Mrs. Mump and the Rectory, infant still innocent still; but / avid for love; sixteen years old; glancing / saucily; past the pond where the dogs bark; and the / ducks quack" (11. 11-18). Woolf's description here is reminiscent of Jane Austen's juvenilia, and as Louie comes down the street, eager for love, we see the predictable story that will unfold. Girl meets boy. Boy (John Cutbush of Pentonville) talks of swimming and Lord Byron. The pair cuddle, kiss, and press together; they lie on the grass of Primrose Hill. John of Pentonville dreams of swimming and Byron, but then sets aside these dreams when he opens his own shop. What follows is a choppy shift in register and tone that Woolf employs throughout Between the Acts:
John Cutbush stands at the door of his shop. He stands at the door of his shop. Still he stands at the door of his shop. But time has run its wheels over him. (11. 103-107)
Caught in a cycle of Gertrude Stein-like repetitions, time passes (as it does in To the Lighthouse), and suddenly John has aged, run over by the wheels of time, his face "red; his eyes bleared" (l. 110). He has competition from a butcher's across the street, and "Louie in the room behind the shop is broad / thighed, sullen eyed; and the little boy died; / and the girl is a worry, always after the boys" (11. 118-20). In this rhyming singsong, of "thighed," "eyed" and "died," the slant rhyme of "Louie" and "worry," the difficulties of working class lives seem handled too lightly for comfort. It is when rhyme is used explicitly that the mismatch between the poetic form and the work's content seems most apparent; one can imagine the older Louie as Mrs. Dempster in Mrs. Dalloway, the tired woman who reflects that "really, what with eating, drinking, and mating, the bad days and the good, life had been no mere matter of roses," and who plaintively asks for "Pity" for this loss of roses (27). Yet this working class woman, whose life we briefly glimpse in the novel, has a dignity denied to Louie, as though the traditionally elevated ode shuts out this possibility in the comic mismatch between subject and form.
Like "Street Haunting," this ode "deviate[s] into those footpaths" in "the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men," yet does so without a strong sense of "delight and wonder" (35). In Pentonville and Islington, we are told, there are flares lit "over barrows"; "meat blazes"; the "lumps are tossed and wrapped"; "[b]ags bulge on / women's arms" (11. 89-94). The children "gaze up at the flares and the / coarse light and the red and white faces burn them / selves for ever on the pure eyeballs" (11. 95-97). There is something both celebratory and discomfiting in these details (the lumps, bulges, coarse light, and eyeballs), as though the speaker is both fascinated and repulsed by what she sees. (25) After describing how life has been difficult for John and Louie, the speaker again shifts tone to note:
These are semblances of human faces seen in passing translated from a foreign language. And the language already makes up new words. For next door there are urns and slabs of marble in an undertaker's window; next door are musical instruments next a home for cats and dogs; and then the Convent and there on that eminence stands sublime the tower of the Prison.... (11. 124-131)
Echoing the conclusion of "An Unwritten Novel," this passage seems to celebrate, with a stately ceremony, a sense of plenitude and wealth, yet is written in a far less exuberant and almost a fatigued key. The speaker notes how the "flower of life ever shakes free from the / bud," and how we "give thanks to the armies / and navies and flying men and actresses / who provide our nightly entertainment" (11. 143-47). When we hold the pages of the newspaper, we little:
think of the wealth we can gather between the palms of two hands; how little we can grasp how little we can interpret and read aright the name John Cutbush but only as we pass his shop on Saturday night, cry out Hail Cutbush, of Pentonville, I salute thee; passing. (11. 148-54)
It is the elusive and the speculative that Woolf salutes and hails here, passing; it is her power as a writer to conjure a life and a world from a shop sign randomly passed on the street that she celebrates. There is again an appreciation for a kind of dappled beauty and a willingness to not grasp at the subjects whose lives one is imagining. Yet there is also a more melancholy (if not wholly despairing) acknowledgment of what might get left out in sweeping one's net over the city, a more subdued sense of the violence of the "wheels of time," of the grinding realities of life and lust and loss. Woolf seems conscious of the more uncomfortable politics of the odic impulse employed so exuberantly elsewhere in her works--to question and ironize the belief that any individual, especially of the lower classes, could provide a wealth of imaginative opportunities for an author, who is free to dip into a life and speculate about it and then easily move on, hastening, following, "you, you, you." The imagined John Cutbush and his wife Louie can be ceremonially elevated by Woolf's speaker (as she later elevates an oil lamp and a daylight bird), yet do not share the same opportunities to become untethered from their lives and identities.
Woolf's later excision of her two brief prose odes from all but the first typescript draft of Pointz Hall suggests a further embrace of and turn away from the classical ode. Like the "ancient and out-of-date oil lamp" celebrated in the first of these odes, it seems from the erasure of both addresses from the text that the ode itself might now be both "ancient and out-of-date," no longer an ideal conduit for lyric exaltation, address, or tribute. However, to first find entry into the world of this country house, Woolf approached by way of praise and playful gravitas. In the odes themselves, she does not use line breaks, yet her semi-colons seem to serve a similar function. She returns again to the quotidian, to the sense of the irregular and incongruous, keeping away from the frozen realm of beauty. The lamp, like the beams from a lighthouse, offers security and stability while civilized life drops its vestments; the daylight bird chuckles about life rather than singing of death. These lines are replaced in the published version with: "It was a summer's night and they were talking, in the big room with the windows open to the garden, about the cesspool. The county council had promised to bring water to the village, but they hadn't" (BTA 5).
John Whittier-Ferguson astutely argues that the revisions to this novel, "when read in the order of their composition, reveal a text in the process of forgetting itself: a novel that grows more elliptical, less discursive, less explanatory with each revision; a novel in which conversations unravel and characters become more opaque as Woolf reworks them" (301-302). The process of "unwriting" that one can track in these drafts points to "an audience's failures to recall fully or with adequate understanding its culture's foundational texts." We see evidence of a kind of "cultural amnesia," a forgetting of the English literary tradition (303-305). (26) As references to writers such as Chaucer and to generations of readers who take up his books in the Pointz Hall library are cut from later iterations of the novel, this tradition "falls silent," and what is underscored in the final work is the sense that "To be modern is to forget, to be forgotten" (308, 309). Woolf's eventual deletion of her discursive and lofty odes can thus be read as part of a larger process of forgetting that exposes the shallowness of the modern moment. (27) Rather than continuity, what we get in Between the Acts is a clash between different tones, registers, modes, voices, and styles that becomes the very fabric of the novel, and particularly of the pageant within it.
After Miss LaTrobe's choppy historical pageant, which begins with Queen Elizabeth and ends in the present day--a summer's afternoon on the brink of the Second World War--the playwright deems the performance a failure. But then her thoughts are interrupted:
Then suddenly the starlings attacked the tree behind which she had hidden. In one flock they pelted it like so many winged stones. The whole tree hummed with the whizz they made, as if each bird plucked a wire. A whizz, a buzz rose from the bird-buzzing, bird-vibrant, bird-blackened tree. The tree became a rhapsody, a quivering cacophony, a whizz and vibrant rapture, branches, leaves, birds syllabling discordantly life, life, life, without measure, without stop devouring the tree. Then up! Then off! (124)
We can see an echoing here of the passage discussed above from "An Unwritten Novel," describing individuals as moths or butterflies, flying up, then off at the slightest movement of the hand. Yet this passage is also electric with sound and motion as the tree hums with whizzing birds, pelting it, creating a "vibrant rapture," "syllabling discordantly, life, life, life, without measure." This discordant speech encapsulates a different odic register from what we have seen in Woolf's previous works, one rooted in the kind of disjunctions of her "Ode" to Cutbush while also moving beyond it. The violence of the rhapsody, which "devour[s] the tree" and then ends, marking the change from day to night, civilized society to a more primal state without individual identity, also signals a new beginning. After this rhapsody, La Trobe sits in the dimness of a pub, raises a glass to her lips, and listens: "Words of one syllable sank down into the mud. She drowsed; she nodded. The mud became fertile. Words rose above the intolerably laden dumb oxen ploughing through the mud. Words without meaning--wonderful words" (125). Between the Acts fleetingly offers and envisions a different register for the encomiastic, one that celebrates the discordant and the dissonant, the clash of poetry and prose, and that relishes in its minor key. We are given a fragmented reality from which a new "play" might be written:
Then down beneath a force was born in opposition; then another. On different levels they diverged. On different levels ourselves went forward; flower gathering some on the surface; others descending to wrestle with the meaning; but all comprehending; all enlisted. The whole population of the mind's immeasurable profundity came flocking; from the unprotected, the unskinned; and dawn rose; and azure; from chaos and cacophony measure; but not the melody of surface sound alone controlled it; but also the warring battle-plumed warriors straining asunder: To part? No. Compelled from the ends of the horizon; recalled from the edge of appalling crevasses; they crashed; solved; united. (112)
This passage seems to have a remnant within it of the original opening to Pointz Hall, with the lamp unifying "the discordant [in unity; God or Goddess]." The elation and high spirits of Woolf's earlier odes here somehow plays like a tune "with its feet always on the same spot," becoming "sugared, insipid," boring "a hole with its perpetual invocation to perpetual adoration" (72). What Woolf leaves us with in her final novel is something sublime and potentially dangerous: a brief rhapsody that sings achingly in the moment, without past or future.
Although Whittier-Ferguson does not explicitly suggest that Woolf's revisions to the novel can be linked to the pressing realities of the Second World War, we might deduce this given the fact that the first major revisions to the draft occurred after the start of the war. Between the composition of the early and later typescript drafts, Woolf recorded in her diary, "This war has begun in cold blood. One merely feels that the killing machine has to be set in action.... It seems entirely meaningless--a perfunctory slaughter, like taking a jar in one hand, a hammer in another. Why must this be smashed? Nobody knows. This feeling is different from any before" (D5 235). In his biography of his aunt, Quentin Bell cites a passage from the last volume of Leonard Woolf's autobiography, exemplifying as it does "the image that stared Leonard and Virginia in the face in July 1940"--the "quality of the enemy who now had victory almost within his grasp and who, having achieved it, would be released from all restraints" (216). Woolf and others had long anticipated the outbreak of another war, yet perhaps in response to its actual devastations and threats, and the absurdity of what MacKay deems this war's "sheer secondness" (Modernism 5), Woolf could only imagine a form of praise that merged violence with renewal, a merging that is suggested in the final lines of the novel, with its references to enmity and love, fighting and embracing, "from which another life might be born" (129).
The odes of Virginia Woolf, composed throughout her career, are experiments with a classical form that can productively be read alongside her elegies. They express reverence while overturning traditional hierarchies of gender and class; celebrate artistry without insisting upon mastery; and express an adoration for all that remains elusive, unknowable, and irrecoverable in any attempt to grasp at life and meaning. Ultimately, Woolf's work shifts registers and gestures towards further experiments with the encomiastic and with forms of praise that lay, for Woolf at least, beyond the ends of the horizon. Yet her work is a testament to the power of prose to not only chant the elegy but to also hymn the love and beauty that makes loss meaningful.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my deep gratitude to Maria DiBattista, who commented on a previous draft of this essay, and who has fostered my adoration of Woolf for years with her marvelous teaching and writing. The idea for this article first developed in a seminar on the ode led by Susan Stewart, and 1 am thankfulfor her inspiration and guidance. My sincere thanks goes as well to the anonymous readers who offered such insightful feedback on the essay. Lawrence Lipking kindly sent me the collection of Woolf books belonging to his late wife, Joanna Lipking: I am grateful for their generosity, and for the chance to make use of books so lovingly and well read.
Abrams, M.H., and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. "Ode." A Glossary of Literary Terms, Eleventh Edition. Cengage Learning, 2015, pp. 262-63.
Beer, Gillian. "Hume, Stephen, and Elegy in To the Lighthouse." Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground, U of Michigan P, 1996, pp. 29-47.
Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. Quality Paperback Book Club, 1972, 1992.
Caughie, Pamela. Virginia Woolf & Postmodernism: Literature in Quest & Question of Itself. U of Illinois P, 1991.
Cavitch, Max. The American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman. U of Minnesota P, 1984.
Cook, David A. "The Content and Meaning of Swinburne's 'Anactoria.'" Victorian Poetry, vol. 9, no. 1/2, 1971, pp. 77-93.
DiBattista, Maria. "Virginia Woolf's Winter's Tale." Virginia Woolf's Major Novels: The Fables of Anon, Yale UP, 1980, pp. 64-110.
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2013.
Forster, E. M. "The Novels of Virginia Woolf." Virginia Woolf: The Critical Heritage, edited by Robin Majumdar and Allen McLaurin, Routledge, 1975, pp. 171-176.
Froula, Christine. "Mrs. Dalloway's Postwar Elegy: Women, War, and the Art of Mourning." Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Avant-garde: War, Civilization, Modernity, Columbia UP, 2005, pp. 87-128.
Fry, Paul H. The Poet's Calling in the English Ode. Yale UP, 1980.
Fuss, Diana. Dying Modern: A Meditation on Elegy. Duke UP, 2013.
Gay, Ross. A Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. U of Pittsburgh P, 2015.
Goldman, Jane. "From Mrs. Dalloway to The Waves: New elegy and lyric experimentalism." The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, Second edition, edited by Susan Sellers, Cambridge UP, 2010, pp. 49-69.
Heath-Stubbs, John. The Ode. Oxford UP, 1969.
Hopkins, Gerard Manley. "Pied Beauty." Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/44399.
Hussey, Mark. Preface. Virginia Woolf. Between the Acts, annotated with an introduction by Melba Cuddy-Keane. Harcourt, Inc., 2005.
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Knox-Shaw. "To the Lighthouse: The Novel as Elegy." English Studies in Africa, vol. 29, no. 1, 1986, pp. 31-52.
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Maddisson, Carol. Apollo and the Nine: A History of the Ode. Johns Hopkins UP, 1960
Martini, Arturo, "Sculpture Dead Language." The Modern Sculpture Reader, edited by Jon Wood, David Hulks, Alex Potts, Henry Moore Foundation, 2007, pp. 165-179.
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Oxner, Alex. "Characterizing Absence: Virginia Woolf's New Elegy in Jacob's Room." The Explicator, vol. 72, no.3, 2014, pp. 210-214.
Penner, Erin Kay. "The Order of a Smashed Window-Pane: Novel Elegy in Woolf's The Waves." Twentieth-Century Literature, vol. 61, no. 1, 2015, pp. 63-91.
Pindar. The Complete Odes. Edited by Stephen Instone, translated by Anthony Verity, Oxford UP, 2007.
Ramazani, Jahan. Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney. U of Chicago P, 1994.
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Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton UP, 2001.
Shafer, Robert. The English Ode to 1660: An Essay in Literary History. Haskell House, 1966.
Shuster, G.N. The English Ode from Milton to Keats. Columbia UP, 1940.
Smythe, Karen. "Virginia Woolf's Elegiac Enterprise." NOVEL, vol. 26, no. 1, 1992, pp. 64-79.
Stevenson, Randall, and Jane Goldman. "'But what? Elegy?': Modernist Reading and the Death of Mrs. Ramsay." The Yearbook of English Studies, vol. 26, 1996, pp. 173-186.
Swinburne, Charles Algernon. Poems and Ballads & Atlanta in Calydon. Edited by Kenneth Haynes, Penguin, 2000.
--. "Sapphics." Poetry Foundation <https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and- poets/poems/detail/45302>
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(1) As Mark Hussey notes in his preface to Between the Acts, the novel was never finished. Woolf "began to write her last novel, Between the Acts, in the spring of 1938, but by early 1941 was dissatisfied with it. Before completing her final revisions, Woolf ended her own life, walking into the River Ouse on the morning of March 28, 1941" (xvii).
(2) The published version reads: "A bird chuckled outside. 'A nightingale?' asked Mrs. Haines. No, nightingales didn't come so far north. It was a daylight bird, chuckling over the substance and succulence of the day, over worms, snails, grit, even in sleep" (5).
(3) I call them ephemeral in the sense that they only survive in this draft form, not in the novel as published.
(4) Several other scholars note the vagueness of the term "ode" and the difficulty of defining it. See for instance Carol Maddisson's Apollo and the Nine: A History of the Ode, Paul H. Fry's The Poet's Calling in the English Ode, John Heath-Stubbs's The Ode, and Robert Shafer's The English Ode to 1660: An Essay in Literary History. Shafer notes that the best odes generally have a "majestical and ceremonious air, a largeness not merely quantitative, which suggests to their readers something formal and public in nature" (3).
(5) Shafer contends that Pindar merges "lyric enthusiasm" with "the restraining limits of a difficult and complicated verse form" (28): "Thus it is difficult to see how any poet of any age could attain Pindaric qualities without adopting a rapid and compressed style, predominantly allusive in character; without in consequence achieving the constant variety and brevity essential to lyrical fervour; and without the use of certain devices, almost wholly emotional in their effect, such as Pindar's recurrent words" (27).
(6) Hermione Lee suggests that the death of Virginia's brother Thoby in 1906 "intensified her sense of life as a threatened narrow strip between 'two great grindstones,' 'something of extreme reality.' The novels she would now write would almost all be elegiac" (223).
(7) See, for instance, essays by Gillian Beer, Maria DiBattista, Christine Froula, David Kennedy, Peter Knox-Shaw, Sean Latham, Alex Oxner, Erin Kay Penner, Karen Smythe, Randall Stevenson and Jane Goldman, John B. Vickery, and Alex Zwerdling.
(8) Goldman offers a perceptive discussion of this essay in "From Mrs. Dalloway to The Waves."
(9) Max Cavitch argues that the "Elegy is a way of dealing with being left behind and thus often yields resentment and ideological violence along with consolation and beauty" (32). See also Jahan Ramazani, Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney, and Diana Fuss, Dying Modern: A Meditation on Elegy.
(10) Ramazani notes that the elegy, "Among the oldest and richest of poetic genres," "survives the twentieth century's challenge to inherited forms. Indeed, the poetry of mourning for the dead assumes in the modern period an extraordinary diversity and range, incorporating anger and skepticism, more conflict and anxiety than ever before" (1).
(11) Arturo Martini, in "Sculpture Dead Language," described sculpture as an outmoded form: "Poetry, music, architecture, like ancient languages, have been translated into new idioms, by clinging to life. Only sculpture has remained immobile across the centuries, a courtly language, the language of the liturgy, a symbolic writing, incapable of making its mark on daily acts" (176).
(12) It seems odd to categorize Hopkins's poem as an ode when it commemorates the death of five nuns, yet Heath-Stubbs's brief discussion focuses on the poem's praise of God, as "giver of breath and bread; / World's strand, sway of the sea; / Lord of the living and dead," who "has bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh, / And after it almost unmade... / Over again I feel thy finger and find thee" (qtd. 108). Heath-Stubbs's account of the ode of course only goes up to 1969, yet his assumption is that the ode as a relevant form has been long dead. There has been a contemporary revival of odes, but for the most part the form has not found the same popularity or been granted the same weight as the elegy throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century.
(13) I am alluding here to the title of Ross Gay's celebrated collection of poems, A Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburg P, 2015). My work-in-progress, Encomium: Forms of Praise in British Modernism, includes a chapter on "The Charm of Virginia Woolf's Face," which takes up Orlando along with other love letters and portraits. I also explore E. M. Forster's parodic "Anniversary Ode," the genre of "city symphonies," rhapsodies, and other twentieth-century forms of the encomiastic.
(14) "It was love, she thought... love that never attempted to clutch its object; but, like the love which mathematicians bear their symbols, or poets their phrases, was meant to be spread over the world and become part of the human gain."
(15) Verity notes the reverence with which Pindar was viewed by other odists. Horace wrote that "Whoever strives to rival Pindar, Iulus, is relying on wings joined with wax by the skill of Daedalus and is destined to give his name to the glassy sea" (Pindar xx); in the eighteenth century, Thomas Gray writes a Pindaric ode that acknowledges "that Pindar is inimitable" (xxi). Pindar's odes "provided, and continue to provide, an aesthetic and intellectual challenge" (xxi).
(16) James Holt McGavran, Jr. notes that "References to Shelley abound in Woolf's fiction, and from the start she involves them in confrontations between the comic and the lyric, politics--both national and sexual--and the arts, realism and idealism, life and death" (58). Shelley's influence on Woolf is "made even more complex" due to "her strong consciousness of herself as a woman writer and of Shelley as a man who, on the one hand, 'fought for reason and freedom in private life' but who, on the other, continually used and victimized women in his life" (64).
(17) This idiom is vividly apparent in Olympian 1, which famously begins: "Water is best, / while gold gleams like blazing fire in the night, / brightest amid a rich man's wealth; / but, my heart, if it is of games that you wish to sing, / look no further than the sun: as there is no star / that shines with more warmth by day from a clear sky, / so we can speak of no greater contest than Olympia" (Pindar 3).
(18) Lewis points out the fact that "the works of several maj or modern novelists include scenes in which lone wanderers--usually male, often with touristic inclinations--visit churches and brood over the question of just what sort of power remains when, in Larkin's words, even disbelief no longer motivates their view of religion" (5). Earlier we saw Ridley Ambrose compared to "an idol in an empty church"; here, the church is a space for the erotic and illicit, where "the erotic encounter has quasi-spiritual value as a type of communion, a sign of the 'truth about this vast mass we call the world'" (159).
(19) Lewis notes that Woolf recalls this ode in To the Lighthouse and elsewhere, and that her "sublime erotic moments resemble Sappho's in their interpersonal emphasis, in their illustration of the way that love transcends the boundaries of the self and that this transcendence closely resembles self-destruction." Other elements also "suggest continuities from Sappho's sublime to Woolf's" (158, 163).
(20) Pindar, as I noted above, is often celebrated for the swiftness and mobility of his odes. Horace famously described Pindar's poetry as "Like a stream running down from a mountain, a stream which the rains have swollen over its familiar banks"; "Pindar boils and rushes without measure with unrestrained voice" (qtd. Pindar xxi)
(21) Maria DiBattista, in Virginia Woolf's Major Novels, notes how Woolf saw her own writing as a "species of mediumship" (in Woolf's words). DiBattista discerningly describes how the "mimetic power and imaginative authority of Woolf's narrative presence derives from her negative capability in penetrating, becoming, and ordering the human and inhuman reality she contemplates. Hers is a species of mediumship descending from Keats's formulations concerning the chameleon poet who has no identity," part of an inheritance that goes back to "the memory of Shakespeare" (14-15).
(22) As Gillian Beer notes: "All Virginia Woolf's novels brood on death, and death, indeed, is essential to their organization as well as their meaning. Death was her special knowledge: her mother, her sister Stella, and her brother Thoby had all died prematurely. But death was also the special knowledge of her entire generation, through the obliterative experience of the First World War" (31).
(23) Woolf's sketch of the shape of her novel is accessible at www.Woolfonline.com or in the Harcourt annotated edition of the novel, in addition to the Holograph edited by Susan Dick.
(24) While my claim that the text is lineated can be contested given the appearance of other typescripts of Woolf's works, this claim seems corroborated by the fact that Susan Dick chose to retain the line divisions in publishing this text--the only one in CSF to have such lineation.
(25) This unsettling attention to corporeality can be seen in the description of Mrs. Haines in Between the Acts: "Mrs. Haines, the wife of the gentleman farmer, a goosefaced woman with eyes protruding as if they saw something to gobble in the gutter" (3).
(26) Pamela Caughie also discusses "An Unwritten Novel" as a text that is being literally unwritten (92-93).
(27) As Whittier-Ferguson notes, Woolf was "re-moulding" English literary tradition before she conceived of Reading at Random (later titled Turning the Page). According to Brenda Silver, "...Woolf's diary records side by side with the progress of Pointz Hall... a steady stream of reading for the book she now described as threading a necklace through English life and literature. Much of her reading was linked to her plan to begin her history as she had begun the pageant in her novel--with the early forms of English literature and society, and with the anonymous men and women who created them" (357). We see English literature become fragmented in Between the Acts while it is taken up more directly and fully in her last, uncompleted, critical works, "Anon" and "The Reader." In all of these texts, a classical literary heritage is excised, or banished, to a remote past.
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|Publication:||Woolf Studies Annual|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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