I realize that entire academic careers and volumes of dissertations and articles are dedicated to studying the influences of Vergil on Virginia Woolf. I have not looked at any of the scholarship nor do I wish to. My writing here, I am sure, will not be new or unusual but it is simply my own interaction with the texts of Vergil and Virginia Woolf. (Also, a bit of a warning that I do have a spoiler in my writing about the second part of the books.)
As I made my way through the three parts of To the Lighthouse, Vergil’s lines from Georgics 1.199-203 kept coming to mind. The Roman poet is giving advice about scattering seeds for a successful harvest and concludes with a universal maxim (translation is my own):
sic omnia fatis
in peius ruere ac retro sublapsa referri,
non aliter quam qui aduerso uix flumine lembum
remigiis subigit, si bracchia forte remisit,
atque illum in praeceps prono rapit alveus amni.
Thus all things are fated to quickly hasten towards something
worse and to slide backwards, similar to when a man is hardly
able to steer his boat with his oars against the opposing
stream, and if, by chance, he should remove his arms, then he
and his skiff would be swept away by the swiftly moving river.
Part one of To the Lighthouse, “The Window,” captures a day in the life of the Ramsay family—mother, father, eight children and a few house guests—at their summer rental home in the Hebrides. At the center of the family is Mrs. Ramsay, middle-aged yet still beautiful, whose role as loving mother, wife and hostess is the unifying and joyful force behind their blissful, summer days. It is her care and understanding and warmth that steers her children towards a good and happy life. She reassures her youngest son, James, that he will make his greatly anticipated trip out to the lighthouse on the following day; despite his repeated refusals, she offers their crabby and aloof houseguest, Mr. Carmichael, comforts like newspapers and tobacco; with a simple look she is able to calm her husband whose irrational anger flares up when a guest is taking too long eating his soup at dinner. Mrs. Ramsay shelters the children from their father’s stern presence which wavers between indifference and irritation. The dinner scene sympathetically describes Mrs. Ramsay at the center of it all:
And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her. Again she felt, as a fact without hostility, the sterility of men, for if she did not do it nobody would do it, and so, giving herself the little shake that one gives a watch that has stopped, the old familiar pulse began beating, as the watch begins ticking—one, two, three, one, two, three. And so on and so on, she repeated, listening to it, sheltering and fostering the still feeble pulse as one might guard a weak flame with a newspaper.
It is Mrs. Ramsay’s arms, her effort, that steer the family ship upstream, against the harsh tides of reality. In chapter two, “Time Passes,” the summer house is described as empty, desolate, lonely because the family has not visited it in the ten years since the untimely death of Mrs. Ramsay. The house in ruins, overtaken by nature, foreshadows the lack of joy and unity in the family without their wife and mother:
Only the lighthouse beam entered the rooms for a moment, sent its sudden stare over bed and wall in the darkness of winter, looked with equanimity at the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw. Nothing now withstood them; nothing said no to them. Let the wind blow; let the poppy seed itself and the carnation mate with the cabbage. Let the swallow build in the drawing-room, and the thistle thrust aside the tiles, and the butterfly sun itself on the faded chintz of the arm-chairs. Let the broken glass and china lie out on the lawn and be tangled over with grass and wild berries.
The second chapter is the most poetic—its repetitive lines and sections are akin to songs and melodies—and it includes many Vergilian allusions to the fourth Georgic. The most striking and pathetic of which is the Orpheus and Eurydice image when Mr. Ramsay is “stumbling along a passage one dark morning” and reaches for Mrs. Ramsay but his arms “remained empty” because she died suddenly the night before.
In the final chapter, ten years have passed and the family has decided to visit their summer home but there is a marked change in their mood and interactions with one another. Without Mrs. Ramsay they cannot recapture the joy of the last summer in the house. Mr. Ramsay, whose irritability and tyranny is no longer subdued by his wife, scares his children and makes his guests uncomfortable. He has, mostly definitely, hastened towards something worse in the absence of his wife. He decides to take James and Cam, now teenagers, on a boat trip out to the lighthouse to make up, somehow, for the trip that was never taken ten summers prior. Their tense and miserable journey out to the lighthouse is laden with water and sailing imagery that is, for me, especially reminiscent of the Georgics passage which I translated above:
The sea was more important now than the shore. Waves were all round them, tossing and sinking, with a log wallowing down one wave; a gull riding on another. About here, she thought, dabbling her fingers in the water, a ship had sunk, and she murmured dreamily half asleep, how we perished, each alone.