Lyric Note in To the Lighthouse

Lyric Note in To the Lighthouse

Lyrics To the Lighthouse

A lyric is the expression of personal emotion. It is subjective: it has emotional intensity: it is musical and is built round a single mood, emotion or impression. Such are the characteristics of a typical lyric, and these are also the characteristic features of Virginia Woolf’s novels.

Virginia Woolf was not the originator of the stream of consciousness novel, but the credit of poetizing and musicalising the novel of subjectivity must go to her. Virginia Woolf’s novels are the novels of a born poet. They are prose-lyrics. As Joan Bennett emphatically says,

“Often the form and substance of Mrs. Woolf’s novels resemble the form and substance of lyric poetry more closely than they do those of prose fiction.”

Lyrical Character

As Jean Guiguet points out To the Lighthouse has a definite, well marked lyric element, and this lyric element is seen to best advantage in Mrs. Woolf’s poetic-prose, in her use of poetic images and symbols and in the second part of the novel “Time Passes”. The lyrical character of Time Passes is well brought out by comparison with the opening Chapter of Orlando. In these two passages the author treats of her favourite theme, “this impersonal thing…….the flight of time”. She has recourse to the same cosmic elements which bring about change: water, wind, light, shade, conceived of as mysterious powers, as an army of goblins attacking objects one by one to corrode them, transform them, disintegrate them. Whether night is invading the Ramsay’s house or rainy gales assaulting the whole of England, the change of scale is scarcely noticeable, for the proportions of the opposing forces remain the same: man and his world, on the one hand, and on the other, the elfin army, unseen and immeasurable. The vision is the same in both cases.

Lyricism is essentially personal or subjective. Nevertheless, the presence of an “I”, of an individual consciousness as the seat of such feelings, is perhaps only an accidental element in lyricism, a literary convention and all things considered, a superficial characteristic. The “I” more often than not has no distinct features and is only the vehicle for the emotion-love, anguish, nostalgia, aspiration which is the real substance of the poem. That Virginia Woolf did away with this vehicle is not surprising: it follows logically from her principles.

Facing the cosmos, thinking about it and enduring it, we have only the anonymous human beings: “we”, “one”, “whoever,” the indefinite subject of an infinitive verb. This abstraction is unimportant characteristic of Virginia Woolly lyricism. It attempts to render directly, without passing through the intermediary of any individual experience, the relations between man and the universe. These are thus reduced to their most elementary form. The theme of traditional lyricism, nature, love and death are convenient labels for those fundamental complexities of which each poet creates his characteristic variant or blend.

Change and Permanence

The two questions which obsessed Virginia Woolf and provided the material for her lyric outbursts, are time and personal identity. They are complementary, to such an extent that one cannot be contemplated without the other. Nonetheless one may be dominant, while the other merely provides the accompaniment. It should be said to Virginia Woolf credit that she has succeeded in answering these questions. She apprehends time in the form of the changes it brings about, just as an artist is recognized through his creation. The opening of section 3 and 9 of Part II are particularly significant in this connection-

“But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen they darken.”

There is not a verb here, either standing alone or modified by an adverb, which fails to indicate some alteration; yet at the same time, under the change of aspect of colour, of texture, we feel the enduring nature of night, of the house of the wave of the breeze, the saucepan or the shawl. This seems to be a description, although distended by time and undermined by mutability: but that which is described and describable, that which is seen, is only a means of expressing the indescribable, the invisible, that is contained within it. Surely this is precisely that abstract-concrete reality so necessary to Virginia Woolf These images and sensations, merging together in the synthesis of an inner landscape, over and above their plastic value, have a lyrical quality which makes them linger long in the mind.

– (Jean Guiguet)

Words: Poetic and Musical

It has been explained that words in the two passages have a double aspect night, the wave, the grain of salt, the wind, the toad, rust these are agents of decay and destruction, the forces of time warring against the forces of life the bird, the leaf, the house, the shawl. And so such passages expand into abstraction without a break, imperceptibly; the words, ruin, corruption, oblivion, insensibility of nature, which occur later are associated with so many images and sensations that they take on fresh life, an almost physical content. Meditation is superimposed on the thing seen, and it does not obliterate it, rather recalls it constantly. A few lines indeed, can give no idea of the richness and artistry of these pages, in which word invoke and answer one another from one paragraph to the next, while awakening distant echoes from the book’s furthest horizons. Their music moreover, adds to their incantatory power and perfects their poetic character.


The prose-style of Mrs. Woolf is the style of a born poet. It is a poetic style with poetic rhythms, repetitions and poetic imagery. She had to convey inner states, the atmosphere of the mind, and this is something difficult to communicate with the resources of ordinary prose. It is in order to increase the expressiveness of the language that the novelist uses vivid metaphors and symbols which carry a complex aura of associations and emotions. Her metaphors are poetic, and they stay in the mind for long, “The images which her metaphors evoke are often more vivid and startling than the metaphors of normal prose.”

Then again like the diction of poetry, her style is highly allusive and suggestive. Her words suggest much more than they actually connote. Significant words and phrases are repeated, and such repetitions are very close to the refrain of a song. This trick of echoing’ sounds and significant words, carries assonance, perilously close to rhyme. Poetic refrains, rhymes, assonances, rhythms and cadences; all contribute to the music of her works, and are the distinctive features of Mrs. Woolf’s style. As R.L. Chambers puts it.

“What Mrs. Woolf does is to borrow the technique of poetry to enlarge the possibilities of expression in prose, of one and the same time to make clear meaning and drive home its emotional implications.”

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