Saturday, June 27, 2015

presently there broke out a huge windy conflagration

Putting down the Judge I opened one of Virginia Woolf's posthumous essay collections, Death of the Moth, and asked myself a question: why am I pleased by Woolf when she moves from her description of the landscape into a meditation on living energy, when I'm irritated by West when she goes from "little strawberries" into potatoes and then, in Ellen's mind, to the memory of "a potato-field she and her mother had seen one day when they went to Cramond. Thousands and thousands of white flowers running up to a skyline in ruler-drawn lines"?

The answer I came up with was this, and it's virtually the same as the thoughts I had in the last post, but as I've said before, I repeat myself -- Woolf invites the landscape to attack her privacy and disturb her equilibrium while West's description has the opposite effect: it restores equilibrium, it serves the plot, it reasserts themes and brings them back into line. "The skies intervened to patch it up between them, for presently there broke out a huge windy conflagration of a sunset –"

Also: West's lyricisms are like musical interludes: the atmosphere relaxes. We are not asked to do anything. We can listen to the author lilt. "[T]he dark glassy water, which slid over small frequent weirs, the tents of green fire which the sun made of the overarching branches, the patches of moss that grew so symmetrically between the tree-trunks on the steep river-banks above the path that they might have been the dedicatory tablets of rustic altars …"

But Woolf's countryside involves her in contradictions and us as well … it does not solve anything ... it does not exist so that Mrs Yaverland will look picturesque against a spooky cliff ... "when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely" … ruminating like that as I was reading the other essays in Moth I was in the mood to recognise my own ideas when they were formulated by someone else & so I quivered when I saw the writer critique the authored landscapes of her contemporary George Moore, with these words: "nature [...] lifts him up and enhances his mood without destroying it." This is a negative criticism: the writer should allow their mood to be affected by the sight of trees and birds, even ruined, believes Woolf. I don't think it would be outrageous to assume that the Moth essay was written by the light of that thought. A little later I became alert again when I read this phrase in John Ashbery's translation of Rimbaud's Illuminations: "In the wood there is a bird, his song stops you and makes you blush."


  1. perceptive and accurate observations; i've tried black lamb and grey falcon a couple of times but bogged down; woolf has long been one of my favorites but i really haven't known why. your comments help my understanding: the attitude toward scenery of each is evident and revealing. tx.

  2. I've heard Black Lamb described as the best book she ever wrote, but then I've never read anything of hers that lived up to the ways I've seen her praised. "Dazzling, ferocious prose:" etc. So far all I've found in her is shapely, literary prose. I don't know whether I should keep trying in the hope that I'm going to hit the right piece of writing, or if I should decide that she's never going to be dazzling and ferocious for me, and stop.

    Watching Woolf analyse the strengths and weakness of landscape writing was a reminder of just how penetrating she was -- how willing to think around and through a problem, and not just a) give in to lyricism, or, conversely, b) decide that scenery was a sign of sentimental weakness and leave it out.

  3. i've been through "the lighthouse" several times but i can't say i totally understand what she is saying. i guess i enjoy parts of everything i've read by her, but i haven't grasped any overall conception. if that makes any sense. she has what is almost an inside out way of understanding that reveals character and events without being explicit. that appeals.

  4. She has that way of being prim, exact, and infinitely suggestive, at the same time. If she writes, "Betty picked up a cup," then you feel that there has to be something huge around the gesture with the cup. And yet it's still Betty picking up a cup.

  5. exactly. leading the to the ancient "who's the drinker and who's the cup" kind of idea. shades of chuang tzu's butterfly.