It's You I Adore: On the Odes of Virginia Woolf

By Shin, Jacqueline | Woolf Studies Annual, Annual 2017 | Go to article overview

It's You I Adore: On the Odes of Virginia Woolf


Shin, Jacqueline, Woolf Studies Annual


If I fall on my knees, if I go through the ritual, the ancient antics, it's you, unknown figures, you I adore; ifl open my arms, it's you I embrace, you I draw to me--adorable world! --Woolf, "An Unwritten Novel," 21 

Virginia Woolf begins her first typescript draft of Pointz Hall--dated the 2nd of April, 1938--with an address to a lamp. The setting is a summer night. The unnamed narrator, in a single labyrinthine sentence that I will quote here in full, apostrophizes and pays tribute to this nondescript object. As formatted by Mitchell A. Leaska, the square brackets indicate Woolf's deletions and the angle brackets show insertions:

Oh beautiful and bounteous light on the table; oil lamp; ancient and out-of-date oil lamp; upholding as on a tawny tent the falling grey draperies of the dusk; seen across the valley; not a wandering light like the car's; but steady; assurance to the next house over there in the darkness that the [fleet]  have reached harbor after the day's toil; circled by gaitered legs; slippered feet; and dogs couchant;  presides over truth; when the active and the urgent slip their vestments and become disapparelled; rid of the five fingers; five toes; money in the pocket; and brooches and watches; when the whole emerges [at top like a many-scaled fish,] all its parts now visible, not evanescent and vanishing and immortality broods; and death disappears; and the moment is for ever; yet sleep has not leathered the eye; nor the body to knock at this door, to observe that fur, that rag, that window, that grating, this, that and the other, surveys the whole unembarrassed by the part; unimpeded; oil lamp, that calls out the colour in the faded, [matches]  the discordant [in unity; God or Goddess;] accept the praise of those dazzled by daylight; drowned by uproar; oil lamp. (33) 

The entirety of this opening is cut in the later typescript draft as well as in the novel's published version, which was printed posthumously as Between the Acts (1941). (1) Remnants, however, of the "Prayer to the Night Bird" that follows a few pages after this address to the lamp, do remain. Here the humble creature--not a glamorous nightingale, associated with poetry and death--flits, a "wise and honest bird; not afraid of saying, snails, shells, pebbles, little bits of parsley; worms; slugs; slime! They have, he chuckles and chatters, still their substance and succulence, even at midnight" (Pointz 34). (2) The bird is addressed directly: "Oh sensible and ironic bird," and is invited, with a Shakespearean ease and swift shift in tone, to "come, and tweak and twitter and free our long ears clutted up with fur," to "tweak us awake this jocund night of early summer and remind us of the [cold] under our feet; [of our nakedness;] how the sole of the foot and all the skin is bare, and the hairs are still capable of sensation; while our tongues shape the smoke in our brains into talk about herrings and cesspools" (34-35).

As Woolf was beginning what was to be her final work of fiction, she was playing with forms of praise and apostrophe, musically circling this nocturnal moment when the vestments of civilization are dropped, when our bodies return to pure sensation once we put away our clothing, conventions, and individual identities: a moment revisited in the conclusion of the published novel, set as it is in the "heart of darkness" and the "fields of night" (129). Elevating the mundane and "out-of-date" oil lamp and "some anonymous little bird of daylight" to ironically great heights, ceremonially asking the former to "accept the praise of those dazzled by daylight" (while crossing out the appellation of "God or Goddess"), Woolf, I would suggest, composes two brief and essentially ephemeral odes. (3) The ode is a notoriously tricky term to define; in its long history, rivalling that of the epic and hymn, the ode, as G.N. Shuster playfully notes, "can be said to have been all things to all men" (3). …

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