Does poetry have a place in novels? Far from wandering lonely as a cloud, poetry is a great connector, especially among those who have memorised poems. Its concentration works well to make reference to complex shared ideas. Novelists use poetry to heighten a moment, to say something about the characters and to point up a moment in the novel. They use it as they might imagery or flashback. It takes skill. Here are three examples.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
I imagine that the Stephens household quoted poetry with their early morning muffins and throughout the day, and that the Bloomsbury Group prided itself on its knowledge of modern poetry.
Mrs Ramsay is reading to James, her youngest child, who is disappointed that they will not be going to the lighthouse. She reads the story of the Fisherman and his Wife.
‘And when he came to the sea, it was quite dark grey, and the water heaved up from below, and smelt putrid. Then he went and stood by it and said,
“Flounder, flounder, in the sea,
Come, I pray thee, here to me;
For my wife, good Isabil,
Wills not as I’d have her will.”
“Well, what does she want then?”said the Flounder.’ (65-66)
With this snippet of verse from a children’s story Mrs Ramsay’s resistance to her overbearing husband is revealed. Mr Ramsay has declared the trip to the lighthouse will not take place. It has been established that he is prone to quote a single line from Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade
Someone had blundered.
The line sets up resonances of war and campaigns commanded by blunderers. The poem is about the massacre of British troops in the Crimea war, mistakenly sent into the Valley of Death. Mr Ramsay appears to be at war with everything, including the elements and ready to blunder on himself unaware of the currents beneath the surface within his family. War will appear again, scything through the family in the passage called Time Passes.
Selecting these two points in the novel I see that flounder and blunder chime.
Later that evening the family and guests are seated at supper. Virginia Woolf writes the scene through Mrs Ramsay’s eyes.
Her husband spoke. He was repeating something, and she knew it was poetry from the rhythm and the ring of exaltation and melancholy in his voice:
Come out and climb the garden path,
The China rose is all abloom and buzzing with the yellow bee.
The words (she was looking at the window) sounded as if they were floating like flowers on water out there, shut off from them all, as if no one had said them, but they had come into existence of themselves.
And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be
Are full of trees and changing leaves.
She did not know what they meant, but, like music, the words seemed to be spoken by her own voice, outside herself, saying quite easily and naturally what had been in her mind the whole evening while she had said different things. She knew without looking round that everyone at the table was listening to the voice saying:
I wonder if it seems to you
with the same sort of relief and pleasure that she had as if this were, at last the natural thing to say, this were their own voice speaking.
But the voice stopped. She looked round. She made herself get up. Augustus Carmichael had risen and, holding his table napkin so that it looked like a long white robe he stood chanting:
To see the King go riding by
Over lawn and daisy lea
With their palm leaves and cedar
and as she passed him he turned slightly towards her repeating the last words
and bowed to her as if he did her homage. (127-8)
This is beautiful passage. Virginia Woolf wants us to hear the lines being quoted, hear ‘the rhythm and the ring of exaltation and melancholy’. The repetition of Luriana Lurilee adds to the intensity.
I notice her observation about the effects of poetry read aloud, how the words ‘were floating like flowers on water out there, shut off from them all’. And how she was responding to the poem as if the words were hers. And when Augustus Carmichael takes over the recitation she reminds us of the pleasures of sharing poetry when it is read aloud.
Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons
Perhaps like me you thought that this poem, called A Garden Song, was well known at the time when Virginia Woolf wrote To the Lighthouse. The novel was published in 1927 but the complete poem was not published until 1945, when it was included in an anthology by Vita Sackville West and Harold Nicholson. It was a poem known within the Bloomsbury group it seems.
A Garden Song (Luriana Lurilee) is by Charles Isaac Elton. You can find the complete text here. You can also finds lines from William Browne, William Cowper and William Shakespeare in To the Lighthouse.
Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
This is a beautiful American story about two couples who were friends for decades. The men are both connected to writing, one in the University the other in publishing. Larry Morgan narrates, and he is professor of English Literature and a novelist and frequently quotes lines of poetry. At the start of the novel five lines by Robert Frost appear, the source of the novel’s title.
I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There
And what I would not part with I have kept.
As with Virginia Woolf one gets the impression that poetry for Wallace Stegner and his circle was always present. On page 7 we get four lines of Swinburne, followed by Easter Hymn by AE Housman (p42-3). And poetry appears every now and again throughout the novel, along with money problems, tenure issues, marriage, children, arguments, disability, illness, holidays and the rest of life: WB Yeats, Bliss Carman, and several quotations I don’t recognise. Poetry is as everyday as friendship.
I was introduced to this novel by the enthusiasm with which BookSnob referred to it on her blog.
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
Mrs Palfrey is also revealed to have poetry as part of her life. Struggling to keep up her spirits she is going for a short walk.
Must keep going, she thought, as she so often thought. Every day for years she had memorised a few lines of poetry to train her mind against threatening forgetfulness. She now determined to train her limbs against similar uselessness.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste out powers.
Her lips moved gently as she tried to remember her lines for the day. By tomorrow she would have forgotten them. Only the poetry she had learned by heart as a girl remained.
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
She was stuck after the third line. That was the way it went with her these days. (108)
Unlike the first two novels I have considered where poetry connects people, Mrs Palfrey’s failing memory intensifies her separation from the world as she ages.
The poem is by Wordsworth. The first line is the title and the full text can be found here. The unrecovered fourth line is: We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! It is a poem about being out of kilter with the world. A nice touch by Elizabeth Taylor.
A recommended novel – about a poet
The Great Lover by Jill Dawson, published in 2009 by Sceptre about Rupert Brook and his Cambridge days.
Andre’s Blog has much information about Virginia Woolf, and in Blog #129: Charles Elton’s “A Garden Song” and to the Lighthouse Brambles explores the use of the poem in To the Lighthouse.
Here is my review of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor And a post about her ageing here.
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