Mrs. Ramsay raised her head and like a person in a light sleep seemed to say that if he wanted her to wake she would, she really would, but otherwise, might she go on sleeping, just a little longer, just a little longer? She was climbing up those branches, this way and that, laying hands on one flower and then another.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
written in her journal in 1903 at the age of 21
“About two hours ago, when I went to bed, I heard what I took to be signs of merry making in the mews. A violin squeaked, there was a noise of loud voices & laughter. It reminded me how once, as a child, I woke at dead of night: it seemed to me - 8 or 9 I suppose really & I heard strange & horrible music as of a midnight barrel organ, & was so frightened that I had to crawl to the cot next mine for sympathy. But I am too old for that kind of blind terror; my critical mind when awake enough to think at all about it, decided that the fiddle squeaking &c. was token of a ball - not in our street - but in Queens Gate - the tall row of houses that makes a background to the mews. The music grew so loud, so rhythmic - as the night drew on & the London roar lessened, that I threw up my window, leant out into the cool air, & saw the illuminations which told surely from what house the music came.
Now I have been listening for an hour. The music stops – I hear the chatter, the light laughter of womens voices – the deeper notes of festive males. I can almost see the couples wandering out from the ball rooms to the balconies which are starred with small lamps. They look straight across the mews to me. The music has begun again – oh dear – the swing & the lilt of that waltz makes me almost feel as though I could jump from my bed & dance to it too. That is the quality which dance music has – no other: it stirs some barbaric instinct – lulled asleep in our sober lives – you forget centuries of civilisation in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room – oblivious of everything save that you must keep swaying with the music – in & out, round & round – in the eddies & swirls of the violins. It is as though some swift current of water swept you along with it. It is magic music. Here the bars run low, passionate, regretful, but always in the same pulse. We dance as though we knew the vanity of dancing. We dance to drown our sorrows – but dance, dance - If you stop you are lost. This one night we will be mad – dance lightly – raise our hearts as the beat strengthens, grows buoyant – careless, defiant. What matters anything so long as ones step is in time – so long as one’s whole body & mind are dancing too - what shall end it?
Then comes in the very height of the rhythm, some strange, solitary sound – that does not belong to the tune – no violin wails with that voice – nor is it the speech of triumphant trumpet – no – it falls not discordantly – but as though dropped from another world & time – the solitary stroke one.
A church is tolling. It says just this single thing – very deliberately, not raising its voice above the music, but nevertheless it stands out pure, quite distinct. The whirling valse has not drowned it, has no power over it. The dance quickend – towards the end – winds up with a flourish – the dancers are left reeling about – gasping, laughing – all pressing to get out into the cool. I hear their voices clamouring again – some one laughs very loud – the voices reach me quite distinct though i cannot hear the words. Well! I am sitting out my dances - & I enjoy it.
Behold, I am tired of the noise & the chatter - I lie back on my pillows – turn out my light; I lie in the cool & look out through my open window. In a moment if I choose, I need think no more of the dancers – I am looking into the awful night sky – It is so thick tonight that not a star shows – The same sky stretches round the world, i think – But the music again! Brave little mortals fiddling & dancing beneath it! Besides lying here I see something that pleases me.
There is a great glass skylight under which I suppose the dancers are drinking champagne & devouring quails. At any rate there is a brilliant light behind it – It is like some transparent yellow globe in night air. And from my bed i see the leaves of a tree outlined against it. I don’t know why it is but this incongruity – the artificial lights, the music – the talk - & then the quiet tree standing out there, is fantastic & attracts me considerably.
But the music again! I am getting tired I confess. I can no longer dance in spirit – nor I fancy do the fiddlers fiddle with that gaiety with which they started. After all they are not inspired Gods, calling men to a more joyous & passionate existence, a dance which shall last through life & into eternity – they are pale, perhaps corpulent men, who fiddle thus every night of the week – fiddle till 3 o’clock every morning, & long for their glass of beer & the last dance on the programme. They fiddle every night, & it is a part of their business to strike up thus – so courageously & freely – to lash their bows across their strings, as though the God himself were in their veins. The waltz drags a little – the pulse wants vigour - & listen – the church tolls again – one – two -
The clock is in no hurry – it can wait its time – no waltzer will out waltz it – But those fiddlers – my thoughts go back to them. There is something grim in the notion; they fiddle every night – the same tunes probably, but only once for the same dancers.They dont believe much in their fiddling & its wonderful properties. It earns them very little in hard cash, I daresay - & yet night after night they sit in their corner, & set couples dancing in mazes all round them. Send hot thoughts coursing through their brains – make men & women dream of love & freedom & love moving in rhythm & waltz music.
But these fiddlers dont believe a word of it. They look out with weary disillusioned eyes – no need to look at their music – they know that by heart, & the dancers too. Still they must stick to it. As long as people will dance, they must play. They are the only people, save a weary dowager with rheumatism in her back – who are really content when the final note of the dance is sounded, & the whole party falls back from the ecstasies of the waltz into more or less commonplace life. I can see them leaning back in their chairs, & hiding their yawns, which they know to be quite out of keeping with Gods & fumbling with their watches.
The music again! I begin to think someone has wound up this weary waltz & it will go on at intervals all thro‘ the night. Nobody is dancing in time to it now I am sure – or they dance as pale phantoms because so long as the music sounds they must dance – no help for them. Surely the music that seemed to ebb before, has gathered strength - it sounds louder & louder – it swings faster & faster – no one can stop dancing now. They are sucked in by the music. And how weary they look – pale men – fainting women – crumpled silks & trampled flowers. They are no longer masters of the dance – it has taken possesion of them. And all joy & life has left it, & is diabolical, a twisting livid serpent, writhing in cold sweat & agony, & crushing the frail dancers in its contortions. What has brought about the change? It is the dawn.
At last I stop writing, & look again at the sky. It is now a quarter to three. I said it was dark & tragic before – now it is more terrible. For the sky is deathly pale – but alive: it is very chaste, & very pure, & the breeze is ice cold, as though it blew off fields the sun has never warmed. The dawn is folding the world in its pure morning kiss of salutation. No lamplight can burn in the radiance of that whiteness – no music can sound in the pause of that awful silence. The Dance is over.“
‘Like’ and ‘like’ and ‘like’ - but what is the thing that lies beneath the semblance of the thing? Now that lightning has gashed the tree and the flowering branch has fallen…let me see the thing. There is a square; there is an oblong. The players take the square and place it upon the oblong. They place it very accurately; they make a perfect dwelling-place.” —The Waves, Virginia Woolf
A letter written by Vita Sackville-West to a friend at the time of Virginia Woolf’s death in 1941. From the book Recollections of Virginia Woolf by her contemporaries, edited by Joan Russell Noble.
I feel sure that you must share my irritation at the labels so persistently tied on to Virginia. Arnold Bennett, I believe, was one of the first culprits: ‚Queen of Bloomsbury‘, ‚Queen of the Highbrows‘, and so on. It is thus in anger that I take a pen to protest against so rigid a pigeon-holing of so fluid a personality. For the term highbrow is not usually applied in any complimentary sense. It is not intended to define a rightly fastidious taste, but rather to suggest a limited, carping attitude of mind; a mutual-admiration society peculiar to a closed set; a languid outlook from which a warmer humanity is excluded. Recently it has given much satisfaction to many worthy people to read about the Eclipse of the Highbrow, whatever that may mean; but certainly the only time I ever thought of Virginia as being eclipsed was when the sun himself shared her darkening, and I saw her standing wraithlike on a Yorkshire moor while the shadow swept onwards towards totality.
No, the wielders of rough judgment like Arnold Bennet and the readers of the correspondence in The Times would be better advised to differentiate between highbrow and highbrow. It is the fake highbrow who has given the bad name to the genuine. I need hardly remark to you that Virginia was genuine all through. Any suggestion of pose (a crude and ill-considered word to throw at anybody, anyway) becomes ludicrous in association with a person so very much all of a piece. It was not even necessary to know her intimately to realize that she could not be otherwise than she was. One needed only to receive a postcard arranging or confirming an appointment to see that here was a mind with a twist of its one; always some quip or some unexpected phrase. I dare say you may remember the publication, many years ago, of a book called Bromide Book. It is out of print and out of memory now, but it should be revived (perhaps as a Penguin or as one of the new Guild Books) as a salutary corrective for all those people who accept their opinions at second hand. The classification lay between Bromides and Sulphides: the dull bodies and the live wires. One applied the test to one’s acquaintances and friends, and found that they responded to the test as readily as an electric battery responds to the touch of positive or negative. There was no half-way house. Virginia, even on the briefest postcard, was sulphidic. She was always herself; never anybody else at second hand.
Margot Oxford (herself a Sulphide) made one pertinent remark in the note which she contributed to The Times. ‚What was curious about Virginia,‘ she wrote, ´was that her handwriting countenance, and conversation were inseparably the same; equally sensitive and equally distinguished.‘ That is very true; and distinguished is, of course, one of the adjectives which can hardly be kept out of any comment. A little crowd of them comes trooping along: distinguished, fastidious – they all belong to the same family. There was a unity about her whole personality which instantly proposed such definitions. It is not going too far to suggest that her very name seemed made for her: Virginia Woolf. She could not have been better called, and was fortunate both as a baby at the font and in her marriage. Tenuousness and purity were in her baptismal name, and a hint of the fang in the other.
But it is not on these aspects of our uncommon friend that I intended to dwell. They could all be amplified by any intelligent reader. What I wished to recall to you who knew her, and to indicate if possible for those who knew of her only as a public character, was the enormous sense of fun she had (her own brand, certainly, as everything about her was her own brand), and the rollicking enjoyment she got out of easy things.
I don’t know whether you will agree with this. Perhaps you will condemn this interpretation as shallow and will reply that for you she remains veiled in the slight romantic haze which surrounds a nature deepened by thoughtfulness and melancholy. It would be a falsity to deny this element in anyone who wrote the books she wrote, and you may go further and tell me that your impression is increased by the recollection of the hours one spent with her sitting in the half-light she loved, when her moving hands became shadowy and the teasing note left her voice and her features became visible only when she bent forward to poke the fire. Twilight and firelight were her own illumination; I will give you that. But at least you will agree that mental excitement was always the keynote. In the adventures of the mind she was a tireless treasure-seeker, whether she turned out the contents of her own imagination as an Elizabethan lumber-chest or corkscrewed into the recesses of one’s own disposition. (What a knack she had for doing that! A common criticism of her novels was that she ‚could not portray human beings‘, and indeed she could also weave fabulous tapestries out of her peculiar vision of her friends, but at the same time I always thought her genius led her by short cuts to some essential point which everybody else has missed. She did not walk there: she sprang.)
If you will concede that mental excitement was a keynote of her life, with all its implications and in all its forms, simple and complicated, so far removed from the popular conception of the languid destructive highbrow, you will agree also that she lived permanently like a poet on the plane where he finds himself enabled to produce poetry. And all-too-rare and infrequent state of mind, as any poet will tell you. But Virginia seemed able to sustain it in daily life. Technically speaking, she chose prose as her medium, not poetry, but that, surely, was by chance; a novel such as The Waves is pure poetry save for the fact that it happens to be written in prose. (Sir thomas Browne figures here, I think, for she had a greath dash of the seventeenth century in her.) Moreover, as she probably told you often, the idea of writing poetry did tempt her; the idea of combining poetry and fiction always allured her; and a careful reader may discover a buried versification of an unorthodox sort in at least one of her published works.
But this letter to you was not intended to turn into a critical essay on her works or her future intentions. It was intended to be a personal letter from one friend to another, Yet there is one thing I cannot refrain from asking you: Did the analogy between Virginia and Coleridge ever strike you? Did it ever occur to you that Virginia, translated into another century, might have written Kubla Khan, the Ancient Mariner, and the Biographia Literaria? She and Coleridge both seem to me to combine the unusually mixed indgredients of genius and intellect, the wild, fantastic intuitive genius on the one hand, and the cold, reasoning intellect on the other. One difference between them was that Coleridge depended largely on the stimulation of opium for the exercise of his poetical genius. Virginia depended only on the stimulation which her own mind supplied. She was very temperate in her outward life. She liked wine, but drank it seldom; she liked it chiefly for its romantic quality, for its colour held up to the light; and for the heightening she so infrequently allowed it to give to her sensibilities.
She used to come and stay with me in an old cottage where the beams were already on the slant. I would give her a glass of Spanish wine the colour of red amber, and she would pretend that the beams went even more crooked after she had drunk it. It fitted in with her imagination to see things aslant rather than dully straight.
This was getting her away from her own background, the background of London and what is called Bloomsbury; from the background, even, of Monks House and the life that really fed her roots. So, finally, I come round to the Virginia I wanted to write to you about, the Virginia with whome I went alone to France.
She loved travelling. She was as excited as a schoolgirl on arriving in Paris. We went out after dinner and found a bookseller’s shop open, and she perched on a stool and talked to the old bookseller about Proust. Next day we went south to Burgundy. There she forgot all about Proust in the simple enjoyment of the things we found. Afair in a French village, roundabouts, shooting galleries, lions and gipsies giving a performance together, stalls with things to buy; all was sheer fun. We bought knives and green corduroy coats with buttons representing hares, pheasants, partridges. They were said to be gamekeepers‘ coats, but Virginia preferred to think that they were poachers‘. The poacher would naturally be deared to her mind than the keeper.
Then we went on from the village to the little towns, Avallon, Auxerre, and found the cathedral with its stained glass or the curiosity shop with its junk, and she dicovered something in both. I never knew which she preferred, I think they each satisfied some demand in her mind, the kaleidoscopic beauty of the stained glass with its night-blues and yellows and reds, and the muddle of the junk ship where one might find a dressing-table or a ‚Semaine Sainte‘ exquisitely leather-bound with the arms of Philippe d’Orléands for a few francs.
Then we wen to Vézelay and stayed there. You know all about Vézelay: Pater wrote about it. He is too wordy, as usual, too elaborately wordy; but when he calls Vézelay ‚this iron place‘, and describes its church as a ‚long massive chest there, heavy above you‘, he comes somewhere near to a true picture. In this iron place we stayed, hanging above the vineyards and the valley of the cure. Virginia liked sitting among the vines or going for walks among the unfamiliar French lanes, but what I remember most vividly is one night when a super thunderstorm brok over Vélazey and we sat in darknes while the flashes interminttently lit up her face. She was, I think, a little frightened, and perhaps that drove her to speak, with a deeper seriousness than I had ever heard her use before, of immortaility and personal survival after death.
One note I will add to show once more how human she was. Her French wasn’t good, although she could read it easily and had walked round and round Tavistock Square, practising alound the conversation she was learning by gramophone records. In France with me she had refused to utter a word, and the only phrase I ever heard came to my ears when it wasn’t meant to. It was on the boat as we put out from Dieppe to Newhaven. Rather apprehensively she had apporached a sailor: ‚Est ce que la mer est brusque?‘
Well… I seem to have put very little into this letter, probably because there was too much to say. But if I have corrected any misapprehensions (not in your mind, for I am certain they did not exist there), I shall feel rewarded.
“Sitting on the floor with her arms round Mrs Ramsay’s knees, close as she could get, smiling to think that Mrs Ramsay would never know the reason of that pressure, she imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public. What art was there, known to love or cunning, by which one pressed through into those secret chambers? What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored? Could the body achieve, or the mind, subtly mingling in the intricate passages of the brain? or the heart? 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, Virginia Woolf