Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

From Text to Tableau: Ekphrastic Enchantment in Mrs. Dalloway and to the Lighthouse

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

From Text to Tableau: Ekphrastic Enchantment in Mrs. Dalloway and to the Lighthouse

Article excerpt

Words move, music moves Only in time; but that which is only living Can only die. Words, after speech, reach Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern, Can words or music reach The stillness, as a Chinese jar still Moves perpetually in its stillness.

--T. S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton" (V)

For most of us there is only the unattended Moment, the moment in and out of time, The distraction lit, lost in a shaft of sunlight, The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply That it is not heard at all, but you are the music While the music lasts.... The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation. Here the impossible union.

--T. S. Eliot, "The Dry Salvages" (V)

Near the end of her life, Virginia Woolf intensified her search for a newly patterned literary language capable of synaesthetically blurring sensory boundaries and merging the fleeting temporality of music and poetry with the spatial substance of painting and sculpture. In her final novel, Between the Acts (1941), Woolf vividly inscribes the central artistic paradoxes that invigorated and exasperated her career, paradoxes she explores in Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) but comes close to reconciling in the fragmented dramatic representation that "break[s] the rhythm and forget[s] the rhyme" at the close of Between the Acts (187). Early in the novel, Woolf outlines her attempt to create a spatio-temporal continuum through her description of a vase and the dining-room painting of a mythical Diana figure:

   In her yellow robe, leaning, with a pillar to support her, a silver
   arrow in her hand, and a feather in her hair, she led the eye up,
   down, from the curve to the straight, through glades of greenery
   and shades of silver, dun and rose into silence. The room was
   empty.

   Empty, empty, empty; silent, silent, silent. The room was a shell,
   singing of what was before time was; a vase stood in the heart of
   the house, alabaster, smooth, cold, holding the still, distilled
   essence of emptiness, silence. (3637)

Momentarily suspended beyond the succession of historical human activity, the dually valenced "shell" of a room parallels the empty alabaster vase, which sits at the "heart of the house" and prevails over the scene similar to the manner in which Wallace Stevens's jar takes "dominion" over the surrounding landscape. The room paradoxically sings in its stillness, revealing the essential, living presence behind works of art that appear frozen beyond sequential movement. While the painting of the mythical woman with her silver emblem of chastity invites the viewer to step through the frame into a natural world leading into the heart of silence, the alabaster vase spatially surrounds a "distilled" silence, suggesting a living fluidity rather than a frozen density. Merging painting, sculpture, and song in an effort to transcend the confines of space and the slipperiness of time, Woolf reveals that the essence of silence and of artistic representation is not death but a "still movement" of life. Through her potentially paronomastic use of the word "still," Woolf evokes both Keats's Grecian urn, the "still unravish'd bride of quietness," and Eliot's "Chinese jar" that "still moves perpetually in its stillness." She creates a moment of complex ekphrastic suspension that seeks to translate the visual representations of plastic art into a verbal representation. She also attempts to transcend the distinctions between temporal fluidity and spatial substance by blurring and ultimately reversing the visual-to-verbal pattern of earlier literary forms of ekphrasis.

From the musical "composition" of The Voyage Out (1915) to the metadramatic representation of Between the Acts, Woolf sought to mingle various art forms by blurring boundaries and employing a defamiliarizing framing technique, which coalesces into the visionary mediation of thresholds to suspend liminal moments of epiphanic and ekphrastic revelation. …

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