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Landscapes/Cityscapes Situational Identity in British Literature and Visual Arts (20th-21st Centuries)
Mental landscapes

‘A tear formed, a tear fell’: Virginia Woolf’s Elegiac Landscapes

« A tear formed, a tear fell » : les paysages élégiaques de Virginia Woolf
Marie Laniel


Cet article étudie la manière dont Virginia Woolf se réapproprie certaines des conventions de l’élégie pastorale pour redéfinir les liens entre paysage et affect. Les plus belles élégies pastorales de la langue anglaise résonnent dans son œuvre : « Lycidas » dans la première section de A Room of One’s Own ; « Adonais » dans The Voyage Out et Mrs Dalloway ; « Thyrsis » dans The Waves. Dans To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf s’inspire de certains motifs hérités de l’élégie pastorale pour redéfinir le paysage visuel et sonore comme un milieu traversé par des affects, des états intérieurs changeants, des blocs de sensation impersonnels, influencés par les paysages de l’élégie traditionnelle et inscrits dans l’imagination et la mémoire collectives. Le cycle des saisons, qui scande le passage du temps et le travail du deuil dans l’élégie classique, est représenté dans son œuvre par des micro-variations imperceptibles de l’ombre et de la lumière, des changements graduels infinitésimaux du climat, de la qualité de l’air ou de l’intensité des couleurs, qui font du paysage élégiaque, non pas un cadre pictural figé, mais un milieu, où se joue la conversion de la perte en œuvre d’art.

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  • 1 Theocriti Carmina, ed. Christoph Ziegler, Tübingen: Laupp, 1879 (signed by Leonard Woolf); Theocrit (...)

1In her journal for June 27th 1925, Virginia Woolf wrote about her project for a new book, To the Lighthouse, and her desire to define a new genre that would supersede the novel: ‘I am making up “To the Lighthouse”—the sea is to be heard all through it. I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant “novel”. A new—by Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy?’ (Woolf 1980, 34). Woolf’s experiments with the elegy as a genre have long been studied by critics. In ‘Mrs. Dalloway’s Postwar Elegy: Women, War, and the Art of Mourning’ (2002), Christine Froula has shown how, in Mrs Dalloway, Woolf modernised the pastoral elegy by ‘adapting its poetics to prose fiction and its work of mourning to postwar London’s post-theological cosmos’ (125), thus ‘enter[ing] into colloquy with the [genre] from the Greeks through Shakespeare to Shelley’ (126). Virginia and Leonard Woolf owned several copies of the founding texts of the genre: Theocritus’s Idylls (3rd century BC), Bion’s Lament for Adonis (2nd century BC), Moschus’s Lament for Bion (2nd century BC), Virgil’s Eclogues (1st century BC).1 The most beautiful pastoral elegies in the English language echo throughout her works: ‘Lycidas’ in the first section of A Room of One’s Own; ‘Adonais’ in The Voyage Out and Mrs Dalloway—Shelley’s poem is also one of Jacob Flanders’s favourite reads—; Matthew Arnold’s ‘Thyrsis’ in The Waves. As Woolf indicated in her diary, in To the Lighthouse, she aimed to adapt the generic form of the elegy to devise a new shape for her novel, a shape that would reflect the central loss caused by the First World War.

2The middle section of To the Lighthouse, ‘Time Passes’, written in a densely poetic prose, measuring the irrevocability of loss by the slow passing of time in a landscape marked by absence, reaches back to the origins of the genre. From the earliest works by Theocritus, Bion, Moschus or Virgil, the function of the pastoral elegy is to enable the poet to place his sorrows within a specific landscape and thus achieve a form of consolation:

The pastoral elegy […] proposes no one solution to the questions raised by death but rather a setting in which those questions may be posed, or better, ‘placed’. It offers us a landscape. […] This landscape itself varies from one poet and one subject to the next. But, and this is the important point, it remains a concrete, palpable world, a world in which the elegist can place diffuse, intangible feelings of grief and thereby win his release from suffering. (Lambert xiii)

  • 2 ‘First, with roots in ancient fertility rites, the classical pastoral elegy figures the work of mou (...)

3Based on ancient vegetation rites,2 pastoral elegies offer the mourner the opportunity to ‘place his human sorrows within the universal world of living and dying things in nature’ (xvii), to set the irreversibility of human death within the cycle of death and regeneration in nature.

4In ‘Time Passes’, Woolf situates herself within this tradition—the bucolic subtext is alluded to when, on the first evening, Mr Carmichael reads Virgil—and she draws on some of its conventions, as identified by Peter Sacks in The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (1985): ‘the use of pastoral contextualization’ (although this is open to discussion, since her modern elegy is set in a natural environment marked by seasonal change, the cycle of death and rebirth in nature); ‘the use of repetition and refrains, the reiterated questions’; ‘the outbreak of vengeful anger or cursing’, represented by the turmoil of the elements; ‘the procession of mourners’, embodied by the veiled figure of Spring; a movement from grief, if not to consolation, at least to a form of acceptance (Sacks 2). The word ‘elegy’ is mentioned several times in the first holograph draft of ‘Time Passes’, always in connection with Mrs McNab as an embodiment of resilience and life persistency.3 These occurrences were suppressed—replaced by the word ‘dirge’—in the final version of the novel, which might indicate that Woolf aimed to make her affinities with the genre less explicit.

5Although she delves into this literary tradition, Woolf also radically alters the conventions of the genre. After the war, and the death on an unprecedented scale of millions, whose bodies were irretrievably destroyed—‘turned to atoms’ (Woolf 1992, 144), ‘blown up in France’ (145)—, whose very names and identities were obliterated, it is no longer possible to mourn the dead in traditional ways and to conform to the generic expectations of earlier elegies. In ‘“Rats’ Alley”: The Great War, Modernism, and the (Anti) Pastoral Elegy’, Sandra Gilbert analyses the effects of the First World War on elegiac conventions and calls attention to the mutations—even the disintegration—of the genre. The sheer atrocity of modern warfare radically compromised the belief in the consolatory narrative of traditional elegies, the faith in the resurrection of the body or in an afterlife (182). An unbridgeable gulf now separates two generations and two modes of affect, Tennyson’s expression of sorrow in In Memoriam and the new ‘defiant poetics of grief’ (182) conveyed in the ‘monstrous elegies of modernity’ (198):

To be sure, certain of the stylistic mannerisms [Peter] Sacks identifies—‘reiterated questions’, ‘vengeful anger or cursing’, even the vision of ‘a procession of mourners’— do endure in the postwar period’s ‘monsters of elegy’. [Jay] Winter rightly notices the desperation with which the bereaved community struggled to mediate grief through what often appears to be a willed reversion to archaic modalities. But the truly comforting materials out of which, say, ‘Lycidas’ and ‘Adonais’ were constituted—‘pastoral contextualization’, the ‘myth of the vegetation deity’, the ‘movement from grief to consolation’, ‘traditional images of resurrection’—seem to have been exploded in the mud of No Man’s Land. (183-184)

  • 4 The invocation of the name of the dead (anáklisis, literally ‘leaning upon’ the name of the dead) i (...)
  • 5 ‘The word “sentimental” sticks in my gizzard […]. But this theme may be sentimental; father & mothe (...)
  • 6 In ancient classical elegies, ‘shepherds “objectify” their feelings, endow them with a clarity of o (...)

6In To the Lighthouse, more specifically in ‘Time Passes’, Woolf was faced with the challenge of defining this ‘new poetics of grief’, of writing a communal, radically impersonal elegy for the ‘eyeless and featureless’ war dead: ‘Yesterday I finished the first part of To the Lighthouse, and today began the second. I cannot make it out—here is the most difficult abstract piece of writing—I have to give an empty house, no people’s characters, the passage of time, all eyeless and featureless with nothing to cling to’ (April 30th 1926, Woolf 1980, 76). The impossibility of representing or naming the dead,4 of symbolically retrieving their bodies and laying them to rest in a familiar place, led her to radically alter the figuration of loss in the landscape. In order to write an impersonal elegy, free from sentimentality,5 she reached back to the texts initiating the genre, to the fundamental detachment of Greek pastoral elegies,6 but she also radically revised the poetics of pre-war pastoral elegies, a predominantly masculine tradition whose main English representatives are Milton, Shelley, Tennyson and Arnold.

  • 7 ‘[W]e should consider one last set of conventions, involving the use of division between or within (...)

7In ‘Time Passes’, the voice pondering the cruel fact of untimely death in a paradoxically pleasant natural setting is assumed very early on, not by the traditional persona of the elegist, but by ‘little airs’ (Woolf 1992, 138), drafts circulating in the house ‘questioning and wondering’ (138), ‘iterating, and reiterating their questions’ (141). The resort to prosopopoeia allowed Woolf to recreate the ‘divided voice structure’ of traditional elegies (Sacks 35) and to adapt their poetics to prose.7 The pluralisation of voices, unattached to a specific speaker, provides the dialogical structure necessary for the confrontation with loss to take place. In turn plaintive, inquisitive or supportive, the ‘stray airs’ suggest modes of affect usually assumed by the voices admonishing or comforting the mourner: they pass on ‘musingly’; they question ‘gently’; they look ‘wearily’ (138). ‘Ceas[ing] together’, ‘gather[ing] together’, ‘sigh[ing] together’ (139), they convey an impersonal affective response to the experience of loss, which evokes the cathartic structure of collective manifestations of pain, funeral rites and ceremonies.

  • 8 On the representation of the weather in ‘Time Passes’, see Alexandra Harris in Weatherland (2015): (...)
  • 9 In Placing Sorrow (1976), Ellen Lambert writes about Theocritus’s idylls: ‘Men’s feelings are like (...)

8‘Detached from the body of the wind’ (138), these ‘stray airs’, which supplant the voice of the lyrical subject, return us to an impersonal, even elemental, form of enunciation.8 The voices pondering the universal fact of loss seem to emanate from the wind and to be as ancient and universal as the weather.9 In Theocritus’s ‘First Idyll’, the song of the shepherd Thyrsis is ‘sweeter than the music of […] water that is poured from the high face of the rock’ (Theocritus 4). In Virgil’s ‘Fifth Eclogue’, the song of Menalcas, telling the woes of Daphnis, is more delightful than ‘the whisper of the gathering South [wind]’, ‘the wave breaking on the beach’ or ‘the streams that race down amid rocky dells’ (Virgil 19). In ‘Time Passes’, as they set up imperceptible disturbances, microscopic changes, undistinguishable from variations in the weather, the ‘little airs’ embody an elemental circulation of affects, infra-subjective manifestations of pain, whose privileged mode of stylistic evocation is the hypallage. Unattached to a single, individual body, they still perform its organic functions: breathing—they are described as ‘clammy breaths’ (150)—, sighing—‘all sighed together’ (139)—, crying—moving as they do through ‘swollen sea-moistened woodwork’ (138), they become charged with the moisture of collective tears, swelling invisible eyes.

9As the manifestation of collective suffering, the drafts circulating in the house convey ambivalent, even contradictory, modes of affect, since they are both mourners and destroyers. They express sorrow but also ascertain decay: they toy with the flap of hanging wall-paper, ‘asking, would it hang much longer, when would it fall?’ (138), they question the persistency of the flowers, the books, the wall-paper: ‘How long would they endure?’ (138). Both ‘allies’ and ‘enemies’ (138), ‘advance guards of great armies’ (140), they embody a central paradox identified by Sandra Gilbert as one of the defining features of postwar elegies: ‘[W]hat gives special anguish to some of the antipastoral elegies that evolved out of World War I is the paradoxical status of the mourner as himself a murderer. Nor were noncombatants exempt from such emotions’ (Gilbert 190). Creeping inside the house, which combines metaphoric features of both the battlefield and the home front, they convey the complexity of collective postwar affects, ‘shock, anguish, grief, remorse’, ‘survivor’s guilt’ (190), the desire to soothe and comfort (they brush the walls ‘smoothly’; they question ‘gently’ [Woolf 1992, 138]), the vengeful impulse to destroy (they ‘nibble’ and slowly wear out the furniture [140, 150]), helplessness in the face of pain (they give off ‘an aimless gust of lamentation’ [138]).

10Imprisoned within the house, they convey affects that fail to find their proper resting place in nature. Compulsive repetition, alliteration, assonance and the use of chiasmus (‘as if they had feather-light fingers and the light persistency of feathers, 138, my emphasis) suggest the circularity of melancholy. In classical elegies, the placing of sorrow within a bucolic landscape is part of the cathartic process of mourning and consolation: the landscape is asked to accommodate human loss (Lambert xxi), to partake in human grief through the device of pathetic fallacy (xxvi), and then to reintegrate human death into a cyclical process of renewal, within nature’s ‘annual cycle of decay and regeneration’ (xxv). In Theocritus’s ‘First Idyll’, Thyrsis and the goatherd sing in a peaceful setting and their songs become attuned with the sound of the elements, air and water: ‘Sweet, meseems, is the whispering sound of yonder pine tree, goatherd, that murmureth by the wells of water; and sweet are thy pipings’ (Theocritus 3). Embedded in Thyrsis’s song, Daphnis’s death also takes place in a peaceful natural setting and his body is eventually absorbed into a stream (10). In later Christian, Romantic and Victorian pastoral elegies, the body of the dead is figuratively, if not literally, laid to rest in his native land, a land associated with pleasant youthful memories. The elegist often symbolically journeys back to the place of his youth, a ‘common locale’ shared with his friend, which is also ‘a version of a lost self’ (Sacks 99): ‘the self-same hill’ of Cambridge in ‘Lycidas’ and In Memoriam, the hills of Oxfordshire in ‘Thyrsis’.

11Thus, in In Memoriam, Tennyson appropriates the ‘classical version of the idyllic spot’ to express his grief in a ‘self-enclosed, protective world’ (Hass 674). In section XI (‘Calm is the morn without a sound’), the voice of the poet and his emotions become poetically attuned with the ‘calm and deep peace’ offered by the elements—the ‘still light’, the ‘wide air’. Section XXI also revives this idyllic tradition, as elements in nature, the ‘grasses of the grave’, where the body of the dead is laid to rest, become a poetical instrument to express sorrow:

I sing to him that rests below,
And, since the grasses round me wave,
I take the grasses of the grave,
And make them pipes whereon to blow. (XXI, l. 1-4)

12In section XXII (‘The path by which we twain did go’), the elegist returns to the place of his youth, a version of ‘Arcady’, blissfully immune from change, until the death of his friend. Although, these pastoral images ‘deteriorate into doubt’ in the middle sections of the poem (Hass 677), sections LXXI (‘Sleep, kinsman thou to death and trance’) and particularly section LXXXVI (‘Sweet after showers, ambrosial air’) provide a return to a pastoral setting combining classical, Christian and Romantic versions of the locus amoenus (Hass 681). In ‘Thyrsis’, Matthew Arnold also revives this idyllic tradition, as the act of mourning takes place in a familiar landscape, the hills of Oxfordshire, which Arnold explicitly associates with Theocritus’s Sicily and Virgil’s Arcadia.

13After the war, the assignation of woe to a specific mourning place is no longer possible, as the pastoral landscape has turned into an ‘antipastoral deathscape’ (Gilbert 185). The location of Woolf’s elegy is therefore no longer an idyllic setting but an empty house and garden, a mere framework for the inscription of loss, marked by slow decay. Through an anamorphotic transformation, the familiar landscape of the pastoral has been dislocated into a theatre of war, a bombed out site, where ‘autumn trees’ look like ‘tattered flags’ (Woolf 1992, 139), a battlefield infested with rats (scuttling ‘in all the attics’, 149), overrun by poppies (150), ‘corruption and rot’ (151) and strewn with corpses; in the house, the body of the sleepers and former inhabitants is never represented as a whole but as scattered parts: ‘a hand’ (137), ‘shut eyes’, ‘loosely clasping fingers’ (138), a face reflected in the looking-glass (141).

  • 10 In ‘Lycidas’, nature is deeply affected by the death of the young poet: ‘As killing as the canker t (...)

14The violent dislocation of the site of mourning prevents the conventional movement from grief to consolation from taking place. According to Peter Sacks, the attribution of human feelings to nature through the device of pathetic fallacy, which is central for this cathartic movement to take place, has its roots in ancient vegetation rites. Instead of mourning for seasonal change in nature, which announces his own death, ‘instead of grieving over the inhuman operation of nature or time, a setting and process on which he is unavoidably dependent’ (Sacks 20), the poet makes elements in nature mourn for the death of man, in the shape of a vegetation god or goddess, Adonis, Thammuz or Persephone, thus transferring his own feelings of grief to natural elements. Pathetic fallacy, nature’s lament over the death of man, has ‘a naturalistic basis in the notation of seasonal change’ (21). In Bion’s Lament for Adonis, ‘the rivers bewail the sorrows of Aphrodite’, ‘the wells are weeping Adonis on the mountains’ and the flowers ‘flush red for anguish’ (Bion 173). In Moschus’s Lament for Bion, the poet asks the glades, the woods, the rivers, the groves and flowerbushes to mourn: ‘Wail, let me hear you wail, ye woodland glades, and thou Dorian water; and weep ye rivers, for Bion, the well beloved!’ (Moschus 197). In later English elegies, human death similarly elicits grief in nature, often represented by seasonal variations, from spring to autumn or winter. In Milton’s ‘Lycidas’, Shelley’s ‘Adonais’, or Tennyson’s In Memoriam, natural phenomena, such as the rain falling, the wind blowing, trees and flowers withering, are metaphorically turned into signs of grief: tears or sighs.10

15In ‘Time Passes’, Woolf still asserts the significance of place in the work of mourning but defines new modalities for the inscription of affect within the landscape, reducing it to its most elemental and abstract dimension. In La Pensée-paysage, Michel Collot explains that, contrary to what is usually assumed, modernist writers and painters did not turn away from the landscape as a source of inspiration but produced new experiments in ‘abstract paysagism’ (paysagisme abstrait):

By breaking with supposedly objective mimetic conventions and illusions, modern art has made it possible to express the subjective components of the landscape. If the landscape is no longer represented (figuré), it can be transfigured (transfiguré) or re-figured (refiguré) from the point of view of a creative subject, and/or configured (configuré) in a way that is no longer ‘realistic’, but more openly lyrical or aesthetic. (Collot 63, my translation)

16Freed from the mimetic conventions of the representational mode—the landscape as ‘perspective and horizon’ (Crouch in Berberich and Campbell, 244)—, Woolf’s landscape is redefined as a compound of percepts, to use Gilles Deleuze’s expression in What is Philosophy?, ‘nonhuman landscapes of nature’ (169), perceptions unattached to any perceiving subject, reduced to their most impersonal, hence aesthetic, dimension, such as micro-variations in the intensity of light, the movement of shadows, gradual changes in the weather and the quality of the air, patterns of ‘intensification and dispersal’ (Stewart in Berberich and Campbell, xvi). This abstract landscape of mourning no longer accommodates emotions through pathetic fallacy, but affects, ‘nonhuman becomings of man’ (Deleuze 169), reduced to their most essential quality. Whereas pathetic fallacy is predicated upon a sense of ‘experienced sympathy’ or ‘imaginary identification’ with elements in nature (173), these affects or becomings—the becoming-plant of man or the becoming-man of plants—, do not suppose the transformation of one realm into the other, but ‘something passing from one to the other’, which ‘can be specified only as sensation’ (173). The relation between subject and object, man and nature is no longer a relation of resemblance, but of indiscernibility or reversibility.

  • 11 Similarly, in The Voyage Out, or the opening lines of Jacob’s Room, the perception of the landscape (...)

17In To the Lighthouse, the elegiac landscape depicted by Woolf consists of these abstract blocks of sensations. Tears, marks of grief traditionally attributed to nature through pathetic fallacy, are reconfigured as marks of affect, becomings, intermingling subject and object, feeling and felt. In ‘The Window’, Woolf thus reconfigures the traditional landscape of elegies to create ‘a zone of indiscernibility’ between natural phenomena and human emotions, in order to convey Mrs Ramsay’s sadness: ‘Never did anybody look so sad. Bitter and black, half-way down, in the darkness, in the shaft which ran from the sunlight to the depths, perhaps a tear formed; a tear fell; the waters swayed this way and that, received it, and were at rest’ (Woolf 1992, 33, my emphasis). In this abstract mindscape—represented as a well running from the sunlight to the depths—the falling tear is as much an emanation of an affective landscape as it is the mark of human emotion. It belongs to a zone of ‘extreme contiguity’ between the human psyche and the natural world (Deleuze 173).11 In ‘Time Passes’, the landscape is similarly reconfigured as a poetic medium for the circulation and the metaphoric capture of affects, transitory states of being, abstract blocks of sensation—melancholy, solitude, grief, despair—unattached to any specific subject or consciousness, but related to fragments of the traditional landscape of elegy and tapping into the figurative pools of collective memory: solitude is represented by the image of a pool at evening (Woolf 1992, 141); despair, by the loosening of Mrs Ramsay’s shawl, compared to the fall of a rock ‘rend[ing] itself from the mountain’ and ‘crashing into the valley’ with cosmic magnitude (142); ‘the regressive narcissism involved in melancholia’ (Sacks 17)—the identification between the elegist and the deceased—is conveyed by the light bending to its own image in adoration on the bedroom wall (Woolf 1992, 142), grief, by the tinkling of a glass, like a giant voice shrieking in agony (145).

18By substituting strange becomings to the more conventional device of pathetic fallacy, Woolf subverts the process of consolation at the heart of traditional elegies. Peter Sacks has shown that the humanisation of the landscape is necessary for a process of regeneration to take place: ‘Why should [man] represent nature by a human form unless he wants in this instance not only to mourn his own image but also to identify that image with nature’s powers of regeneration? The trope is designed not so much to humanize nature, although this is partly the case, as to naturalize man’ (Sacks 20). In pastoral elegies, the body of the dead shepherd or poet, who is ‘made one with nature’ (‘Adonais’, l.370), is reintegrated into a cycle of renewal, leading to resurrection in Christian elegies. This process is often represented by his metamorphosis into a flower, a device Peter Sacks calls ‘flower-troping’, a substitutive sign, associated with the consoling powers of rhetoric and poetry, which allows the elegist to reinstate death into the realm of language. In Bion’s Lament for Adonis, the drops of blood shed by the young man turn into red roses, while the tears shed by Aphrodite turn into anemones, or windflowers, from the Greek word anemos: ‘A tear the Paphian [Aphrodite] sheds for each blood-drop of Adonis, and tears and blood on the earth are turned to flowers. The blood brings forth the rose, the tears, the wind-flower’ (Bion 174). In Moschus’s Lament for Bion, grief felt by nature is physically inscribed on the petals of hyacinths, purple flowers created by Apollo from the blood of his dead lover, Hyacinthus, whose petals are stained by Apollo’s tears and inscribed with the letters AI, a cry of woe: ‘Now redden ye roses in your sorrow, and now wax red ye wind-flowers, now thou hyacinth, whisper the letters on thee graven, and add a deeper ai ai to thy petals; he is dead, the beautiful singer’ (Moschus 197). In Milton’s ‘Lycidas’, the banks of the river Cam—the setting of the poet’s friendship with Edward King—are ‘like to that sanguine flower inscribed with woe’ (l.106). In Shelley’s poem, ‘the leprous corpse [of Adonais] touched by this spirit tender [the spirit of Spring]’ ‘exhales itself in flowers of gentle breath’ (l.172-173). In In Memoriam, the elegist draws comfort from the fact that the body of his friend will be assimilated into his native land as a violet, like the Greek youth Attis in Ovid’s Fasti:

’Tis well; ’tis something; we may stand
Where he in English earth is laid,
And from his ashes may be made
The violet of his native land. (XVIII, l. 1-4)

19Like Shelley’s Adonais, the body of the dead becomes ‘some diffusive power’, which can be felt ‘in star and flower’ (CXXX, l.6-7). At the end of the poem, this vernal process of transformation is associated with the cathartic movement of consolation converting grief into creation, as spring ‘wakens’ in the poet’s breast and his regret ‘becomes an April violet’, which ‘buds and blossoms like the rest’ (CXV, l.18-20). Similarly, in ‘Thyrsis’, anemones blooming in the woods of Oxfordshire testify to the symbolical resurrection of the ‘scholar-gipsy’:

Woods with anemones in flower till May,
Know him a wanderer still; then why not me? (l. 199-200)

  • 12 ‘Plutôt qu’une trace, la fleur devient l’œil éteint du monstre-cadavre, regard brillant, coloré et (...)

20In ‘Time Passes’, human death is not peacefully naturalised within the cycle of seasons, and the dead do not resurrect or rise from the land, but a monstrous form of regeneration still takes place, linked with the inhuman life force at work in nature. Traditional figures, associated with vegetation rites and seasonal change in pastoral elegies, are present in ‘Times Passes’. The veiled figure of Spring, ‘bare and bright like a virgin fierce in her chastity’, walking with ‘her cloak about her’, with ‘veiled eyes’ and an averted head, ‘[taking] upon her a knowledge of the sorrows of mankind’ (Woolf 1992, 143-144), is reminiscent of the figure of Persephone, abducted by Death and taken to the Underworld. In ‘Time Passes’, the body of ‘lovely Adonis’ (Bion 171) has been replaced by an anonymous, abstract shape, hollowed out and inhuman, ‘the shape of loveliness itself, a form from which life had parted’ (Woolf 1992, 141), and the blood of the war dead—among whom Andrew Ramsay—, reminiscent of Adonis’s purple blood, is represented as ‘a purplish stain upon the bland surface of the sea as if something had boiled and bled, invisibly, beneath’ (Woolf 1992, 146), a collective wound, unattached to any individual body, emanating from the landscape. In spring, the garden urns are filled with ‘wind-blown plants’ (147), reminiscent of the windflowers issuing from the tears of Aphrodite, but these flowers do not bring any consolation: they are sown by the wind casually, they are ‘gay as ever’ and indifferent to human misery (147). ‘Violets and daffodils’, associated with the cult of the dead in classical literature, are introduced abruptly; they are unadorned, stripped of the rhetorical attributes that they often have in traditional elegies. The corpses of the war dead are not peacefully assimilated into the landscape, to be ‘made one with nature’, but they are converted into monstrous flowers, endowed with the dead eyes of cadavers, ‘flowers standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and so terrible’ (147).12

21Even though they are looking up, towards heaven, these ‘eyeless’ flowers can only ‘behold’ the absence of transcendance. They stand there but do not stand for anything. However, precisely because they are pure indifferent witnesses to horror and subvert the rhetorics of pathetic fallacy, they achieve the impersonality and universality of an affect, and they succeed in encapsulating the quintessence of loss, the aesthetic shape of terror, pure and simple. As such, they are reminiscent of Van Gogh’s flowers as interpreted by Gilles Deleuze in What is Philosophy?: ‘Van Gogh’s sunflowers are becomings, like Dürer’s thistles or Bonnard’s mimosas. Redon entitled a lithograph “There was perhaps a first vision attempted in the flower”. The flower sees—pure and simple terror […] A floral history of painting is like the endlessly and continuously resumed creation of the percepts and affects of flowers’ (175). These ‘eyeless’ flowers embody the relentless ‘fertility’ and ‘insensibility’ of nature (Woolf 1992, 150), its strangeness and radical indifference to human death. However, the monstrous hybridization between life and death, the production of life from death, which they represent, also ensures a form of regeneration.

22By depicting the inhuman process of regeneration at work in nature, Woolf actually returns to the origins of the elegiac genre and to the objectivity of pre-Christian pastoral elegies. In Theocritus’s ‘First Idyll’, the dying Daphnis cannot accept the fact that nature is indifferent to his death. His final invocation is that nature should be upset by his death: ‘Now violets bear, ye brambles, ye thorns bear violets; and let fair narcissus bloom on the boughs of juniper! Let all things with all be confounded—from pines let men gather pears, for Daphnis is dying! Let the stag drag down the hounds, and let owls from the hills contend in song with the nightingales!’ (Theocritus 10). Outraged that his own death will not stop the course of time, Daphnis asks for an unnatural hybridization between species, between violets and brambles, the narcissus and the juniper, the owl and the nightingale. However, as shown by Ellen Lambert, ‘the reversals Daphnis invites [also] promise renewed fertility’. Despite his death, life will reassert itself in new ways: ‘Brambles and thorns will bring forth violets; the narcissus [will] bloom on the juniper bush and even the pine will bear fruit. […] In Daphnis’s command to turn the world upside-down, we feel two things: the pathos of the plea […]; and the persistence of the life-energy which, despite fate, converts even death into an affirmation of freedom and vitality’ (Lambert 18).

  • 13 On Theocritean echoes in ‘Time Passes’, see Goldman and Stevenson, 183, note 24.

23In ‘Time Passes’, the war brings about a similar disruption of the natural order of things and generates monstrous growths, as poppies sow themselves among dahlias in the garden, as giant artichokes grow among roses. Here, Woolf explicitly quotes from the Theocritean subtext13 but transposes the words of the dying shepherd, as the feminine, domestic, downtrodden and grotesque figure of Mrs McNab becomes the repository of this ancient wisdom and a substitute for the persona of the elegist:

What power could now prevent the fertility, the insensibility of nature? Mrs McNab’s dream of a lady, of a child, of a plate of milk soup? […] It was beyond the strength of one woman, she said. […] 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 the china lie out on the lawn and be tangled over with grass and wild berries. (Woolf 1992, 150-151)

24The unnatural coupling of flowers and plants in Theocritus’s idyll has been transposed to the war context: the lyrical verb to ‘bear’, from Andrew Lang’s translation, has been replaced by more prosaic verbs (‘seed’ or ‘mate’); the violet and the beautiful narcissus of classical elegies have been replaced by the poppy, the carnation (from the latin caro, evoking the flesh of dead soldiers), or the unglamorous cabbage; ‘the broken glass and the china lying out on the lawn and tangled over with grass and wild berries’ evoke corpses lying on the battlefield. In the words of Mrs McNab, we hear an impersonal voice echoing through the ages and conveying a form of ancient wisdom and resilience in the face of chaos, a capacity to weather the storm: ‘Let the wind blow’. Paradoxically, the relentlessness of nature in the face of human death is also necessary for a process of renewal to take place and for a form of acceptance to be achieved. In ‘Time Passes’, the wind carrying the seeds of plants, the swallows announcing the return of spring, the butterflies, the thistle forcing its way through the tiles embody the life-force and persistence of nature and partake of this process of renewal.

25Although she rejects the ‘redemptive narrative of the pastoral elegy’ (Gilbert 182), Woolf still reasserts the performative function of the elegy as a genre, the process through which the conversion of loss into artistic creation can be effected. According to Peter Sacks, for the work of mourning to take place, the elegist must necessarily perform a ‘substitutive turn or act of troping’ from the object of his or her affection to the poetic sign of him or her, through a process of ‘figurative or aesthetic compensation’ (Sacks 5). Mourning ‘requires a withdrawal of affection from the lost object and a subsequent reattachment of affection to some substitute for that object’ (6). A necessary step in the process of mourning involves the figuration of loss, the representation ‘not of the object itself’, but of ‘the object as lost’ (6), through ‘the harshly perceived necessity of linguistic mediation’ (8): ‘The dead, like the forbidden object of primary desire, must be separated from the poet, partly by a veil of words’ (9). Peter Sacks thus calls attention to the ‘significant frequency with which the elegy has employed crucial images of weaving, of creating a fabric in the place of a void’—veils, shrouds or mantles—in order to represent both loss and the process of aesthetic compensation through which loss is made bearable (18). Examples include ‘the mantle black’ thrown ‘through heaven’ by ‘the frosty Night’ in Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender (‘Januarye’), converted into a more positive image of renewal by Milton, when, at the end of ‘Lycidas’, the shepherd rises and twitches ‘his mantle blue’, before moving on ‘to fresh woods, and pastures new’ (l. 192-193). In ‘Adonais’, the ‘dark mantle’ (l. 308) thrown athwart the brow of the mourner is lifted, when, at the end of the poem, the ‘Air/Which like a mourning veil [his] scarf hadst thrown / O’er the abandoned Earth, now leave[s] it bare’ (l. 366-368). In section XXII of In Memoriam, the shadow of Death, ‘feared of man’, spreads ‘his mantle dark and cold’ over the body of the dead friend and wraps him ‘formless in the fold’ (l. 12-15). In ‘Thyrsis’, the night ‘[i]n ever-nearing circle weaves her shade’ and ‘draw[s] her veil soft across the day’, blurring the poet’s vision of his youth (l. 131-133).

26In ‘Time Passes’, Woolf revives these images to effect the conversion of loss into artistic creation. In the empty house, ‘week after week’, ‘a swaying mantle of silence’ weaves into itself ‘the falling cries of birds, ships hooting, the drone and hum of the fields, a dog’s bark, a man’s shout,’ and ‘[folds] them round the house in silence’ (Woolf 1992, 141-142). This ‘mantle’ or ‘veil of silence’ (142), representing the ‘object as lost’ and taking many shapes—‘shrouded jugs and sheeted chairs’ (141), the veiled figure of Spring (144), a web woven by flies in the sunny rooms (144), Mrs Ramsay’s shawl, hiding a skull—is slowly converted into ‘a veil of words’. In the very last sections of ‘Time Passes’, the little airs, sighing and questioning, imprisoned in the house, are finally set free, marking a liberation of affects, reminiscent of the liberation of Ariel at the end of The Tempest. An impersonal voice, the song of the elements, is heard, carrying words of acceptance; a ‘half-heard melody’ arises, made of everyday, almost imperceptible sounds—‘the hum of an insect, the tremor of cut grass’—, yet ‘mysteriously related’ together. It is ‘the voice of the beauty of the world’ (154). It is the same elemental song as in the opening section of ‘Time Passes’—the sound of the wind or the waves breaking on the shore—, but it now softly murmurs soothing words of acquiescence to the sleepers, Lily Briscoe and Mr Carmichael, who have returned to the house: ‘why not accept this, be content with this, acquiesce and resign?’ (155). Slowly, ‘the mantle of silence’ is lifted as ‘folds of blackness’ disperse, until the sleepers awake and ‘the sun [breaks] the veil on their eyes’ (155). This poetic soundscape, weaving into itself ‘the sigh of all the seas breaking in measure’ and the ‘thin voices’ of birds (155), contributes to mending the torn fabric of language and enables the work of mourning to be accomplished, thus returning this modern elegy to its fundamental function.

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Arnold, Matthew, ‘Thyrsis’ (1866), The Poems of Matthew Arnold, ed. Miriam Allott, London: Longman, 1979, 537-550.

Bate, Jonathan, ‘Arcadia and Armageddon: Three English Novelists and the First World War’, Études anglaises 39.2 (1986): 150-162.

Berberich, Christine, Neil Campbell and Robert Hudson, eds., Affective Landscapes in Literature, Art and Everyday Life, London: Ashgate, 2015.

Clausson, Nils, ‘Pastoral Elegy into Romantic Lyric: Generic Transformation in Matthew Arnold’s “Thyrsis”’, Victorian Poetry 48.2 (2010): 173-194.

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Gilbert, Sandra M., ‘“Rats’ Alley”: The Great War, Modernism, and the (Anti) Pastoral Elegy’, New Literary History 30.1 (Winter 1999): 179-201.

Goldman, Jane and Randall Stevenson, ‘“But what? Elegy?”: Modernist Reading and the Death of Mrs. Ramsay’, The Yearbook of English Studies 26 (1996): 173-186.

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Shelley, Percy Bysshe, ‘Adonais’ (1821), Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon B. Powers, New York: Norton, 1977, 388-406.

Spenser, Edmund, ‘Januarye’, The Shepheardes Calender (1579), The Yale Edition of the Shorter Poems of Edmund Spenser, New Haven: Yale UP, 1989, 27-35.

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1 Theocriti Carmina, ed. Christoph Ziegler, Tübingen: Laupp, 1879 (signed by Leonard Woolf); Theocritus, Bion and Moschus, Rendered into English Prose, trans. Andrew Lang, London: Macmillan, Golden Treasury Series, 1896 (signed by Leonard Woolf); P. Vergili Maronis Bucolica et Georgica in usum scholarum, ed. Otto Ribbeck, Leipzig: Teubner, 1904 (annotations by Virginia Woolf); The Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil, trans. J. W. Mackail, London: Longmans, Green, Longmans’ Pocket Library, 1915. All quotations from Theocritus, Bion and Moschus come from the 1896 edition (Andrew Lang’s translation). All quotations from Virgil come from the 1915 edition (J. W. Mackail’s translation).

2 ‘First, with roots in ancient fertility rites, the classical pastoral elegy figures the work of mourning through ceremonies surrounding the death and rebirth of a vegetation god such as Adonis, and its dialectical movement toward consolation (always necessarily symbolic) recalls the funeral games and contests through which a community of mourners negotiates its inheritance from dead father-figures or paternal deities’ (Froula 126).

3 (last accessed May 11th 2018).

4 The invocation of the name of the dead (anáklisis, literally ‘leaning upon’ the name of the dead) is a stylistic convention of pastoral elegies (Sacks 25).

5 ‘The word “sentimental” sticks in my gizzard […]. But this theme may be sentimental; father & mother & child in the garden; the death; the sail to the lighthouse. I think, though, that when I begin it I shall enrich it in all sorts of ways; thicken it; give it branches & roots which I do not perceive now. It might contain all characters boiled down; & childhood; & then this impersonal thing, which I’m dared to do by my friends, the flight of time, & the consequent break of unity in my design’ (July 20th 1925, Woolf 1980, 36).

6 In ancient classical elegies, ‘shepherds “objectify” their feelings, endow them with a clarity of outline, the palpability and essential impersonality of objects’ and experience their sensations with ‘a certain detachment’ (Lambert 5).

7 ‘[W]e should consider one last set of conventions, involving the use of division between or within mourning voices. […] As early as Theocritus’s ‘First Idyl’, the griever is addressed by voices urging him to temper his sorrow and to rejoin the community of the living, and the tradition is continued with variations through almost all the major elegies’ (Sacks 35-36).

8 On the representation of the weather in ‘Time Passes’, see Alexandra Harris in Weatherland (2015): ‘The unregarding character of the wind and the sky both disturbs and delights Woolf. […] The vacated central section of To the Lighthouse is left in the hands of these beautiful and heartless forces. Woolf fixes her gaze steadily on the Ramsays’ empty house as the darkness pours down, the nights fill with “wind and destruction”, the “stray airs bluster in”. Far away a young woman dies in childbirth and a young man dies at war, but the weather goes on regardless. The winds offer no answers’ (350).

9 In Placing Sorrow (1976), Ellen Lambert writes about Theocritus’s idylls: ‘Men’s feelings are like the weather: they fluctuate. […] [Man] cannot alter his feelings any more than he can change the weather or the course of fate herself. But if he cannot control that fluctuation, he can yield himself to the eternal ebb and flow’ (xvii).

10 In ‘Lycidas’, nature is deeply affected by the death of the young poet: ‘As killing as the canker to the rose, / Or taint-worm to the weanling herds that graze, / Or frost to flowers, that their gay wardrobe wear, / When first the white-thorn blows; / Such, Lycidas, thy loss to shepherd’s ear’ (l.45-49). In ‘Adonais’, the hyacinth and the narcissus wither after his death: ‘wan they stand and sere / Amid the faint companions of their youth, / With dew all turned to tears; odour, to sighing ruth’ (l.142-144).

11 Similarly, in The Voyage Out, or the opening lines of Jacob’s Room, the perception of the landscape is shaped by ‘the tremulous medium of a great welling tear’ (Woolf 2001, 4-5), tears shed by Helen Ambrose and Betty Flanders as an affective response to absence or loss.

12 ‘Plutôt qu’une trace, la fleur devient l’œil éteint du monstre-cadavre, regard brillant, coloré et sans vie à la fois’ (Lanone 145).

13 On Theocritean echoes in ‘Time Passes’, see Goldman and Stevenson, 183, note 24.

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Marie Laniel, « ‘A tear formed, a tear fell’: Virginia Woolf’s Elegiac Landscapes »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 30 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Marie Laniel

Marie Laniel is Senior Lecturer at the Université de Picardie–Jules Verne. Her research focuses on Victorian subtexts in the works of E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. She is currently preparing a book on this topic to be published by Presses Universitaires de Rennes. She is the author of articles on Virginia Woolf and Thomas Carlyle (‘Revisiting a Great Man’s House: Virginia Woolf’s Carlylean Pilgrimages’), Alfred Tennyson (‘“The name escapes me”: Virginia Woolf’s Dislocation of Patrilineal Memory in A Room of One’s Own’), John Ruskin (‘“Reading the Two Things at the Same Time”: Victorian Modernism in To the Lighthouse’), Matthew Arnold (‘Virginia Woolf, lectrice de Matthew Arnold: la fortune littéraire du “scholar-gipsy” dans les essais et la fiction’) and Leslie Stephen (‘Généalogies de l’essai: de Leslie Stephen à Virginia Woolf’). She is co-editor of L’Atelier ( and of Polysèmes, a journal of intertextual and intermedial studies (

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