Virgil, Tolstoy and War in To the Lighthouse


Eugène Delacroix, The Barque of Dante, 1822

by Andre Gerard

The deeper one looks in To the Lighthouse the more one sees. Text follows on text, until the line stretches out, seemingly, to the crack of doom. The more one listens the more one hears. Homer, Shakespeare, Conrad and Forster are just some of the ancestral voices commenting on war. Virgil and Tolstoy, too, are part of the chorus, and before concluding this paper I want to, very briefly, consider these writers, too, to tease out some of their voices and some of their contribution to Virginia’s theme of war.

Virgil, first… Virgil, the writer whose Aeneid is modeled on The Odyssey…Virgil, Dante’s guide in the Inferno…Virgil, the writer Mr. Carmichael is reading at the start of “Time Passes”…Virgil, author of The Georgics and of such seemingly prophetic lines as “Germany heard the clash of armour fill the sky,” and “here the Euphrates, there Germany heaves with war.” Virginia would have read these lines in her copy of J. W. Mackail’s 1915 translation of The Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil. Not that she would have needed Mackail’s translation. She could read Latin, and she was deeply familiar with Virgil and The Georgics. In a 1908 notebook entry, she translated and condensed the concluding seven line epilogue of the fourth and final Georgic as “This is the song I Virgil made, while Caesar was conquering and making laws.” The exclamation “Lovely!” which follows this line presumably expresses Virginia’s thoughts about Virgil’s opposition of poetry and war, and is not a comment on her own skills as a translator.

In an essay which argues that Virginia juxtaposed Virgil with Proust in To the Lighthouse (‘”Time Passes’: Virginia Woolf’s Virgilian passage to the future past masterpieces: A la recherche du temps perdu and To the Lighthouse“), Margaret Tudeau-Clayton convincingly demonstrates the depth of Virginia’s engagement with Virgil and The Georgics. As part of her argument, Tudeau-Clayton draws attention to Virginia’s concise rendering of the epilogue in the fourth Georgic, and she points out how Mr. Carmichael, whose poetry had “an unexpected success” after the war, is a Virgilian figure. She sees the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse and The Georgics as both “using the imagery of war to represent nature’s destructive tendency” and both setting “the permanence of natural elements and cycles against the tendency, in nature as in human history, to degeneration and destruction.”

Tudeau-Clayton does not, however, note the Proteus parallels to which Jean Elliot called attention. More surprisingly, given the attention she pays to the two references to Mr. Carmichael reading Virgil (and to the way in which Mr. Carmichael is foregrounded by being enclosed in the first and final sets of square brackets in “Time Passes”) she fails to notice how the square bracket passage, “[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]”, strongly echoes Mackail’s translation of Eurydice’s lament late in the fourth Georgic:

Lo, again the cruel fates call
me backward, and sleep hides my swimming eyes.
And now goodbye : I pass away wrapped in a great
darkness, and helplessly stretching towards thee
the hands that, alas ! are not thine.

The repeated backward glances in the novel—in chapter 10 of “The Window,” James “looking back over his shoulder as Mildred carried him out”; in Chapter 12, Mrs. Ramsay “looked over her shoulder, at the town”; and in chapter 17, Mrs. Ramsay takes Minta’s arm and leaving the dinner room, giving, as she does so, “one last look at it over her shoulder.”—also strengthen the Orpheus and Eurydice element, even as they bring with them a hint of Hamlet.

If Virginia looks back to The Georgics, it is because her enterprise has so much in common with Virgil’s. Like Virgil, she is trying to redeem a war-torn world. Virgil was writing out of and through the political turmoil and civil wars which culminated in Octavian’s victory and the beginnings of the Augustan Age, and The Georgics has sometimes been seen as an attempt to help restore civil order by encouraging returning soldiers to channel their martial energies into farming. With Virgil’s help, Virginia was writing to find a way past the social damage and disillusionment which were the consequences of World War I. Throughout To the Lighthouse, the Protean and Orphic elements of Virgil’s poem are invoked in a battle against paralysis and despair.

Like The Georgics, To the Lighthouse oscillates between optimism and pessimism. Ostensibly a celebration of rural life and agriculture, The Georgics often uses the language of war to describe nature and farming, and it suggests that war is an inescapable part of nature and the human condition. Similarly, in recording the pastoral pleasures of the Ramsay family, To the Lighthouse shows “strife, divisions, difference of opinion, prejudices twisted into the very fibre of being.” The civil society enjoyed by the Ramsays and their friends carries destructive forces within it, the forces which made WWI inevitable. The role of every citizen, not just the artist and poet, is to resist those forces by trying to see clearly, by trying to achieve perspective, and by advocating vigilance. Not all of Virginia’s purposes are the same as Virgil’s, yet by invoking The Georgics she celebrates the heroic possibilities of civil society, poetry, and art in resisting and fighting against the recurring inevitability of war.

From Virgil to Tolstoy and, first, Anna Karenina. Virginia’s mind was much on Anna Karenina while writing To the Lighthouse. She read Tolstoy’s novel somewhere between 1909 and 1911, and she reread it again in 1926, taking notes as she did so (Roberta Rubenstein, Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View). Points of contact abound. Not only does Paul Rayley mention Anna Karenina in “The Window” passage of To the Lighthouse, but many scenes in To the Lighthouse have antecedents in Tolstoy’s novel. Among the parallels are the mothering practices of Dolly and Mrs. Ramsay, the occasional social surliness of Levin and Mr Ramsay, Lily and Mihailov’s painting practices,  the stillborn courtships of Lily and William Bankes and Varenka and Sergei, Levin and the beetle and Lily and the ants, the way in which both Dolly and Mrs. Ramsay take middle-aged pleasure in the attentions of men, including younger men, and the profound and subtle use both Tolstoy and Woolf make of Grimm or Grimm like tales. 

As for war, with Anna Karenina comes all of Tolstoy, including War and Peace and Tolstoy’s pacifism. For Woolf, Tolstoy was “ a genius in the raw,” and in 1940, remembering her first reading of War and Peace, she thought of him as, “more disturbing, more ‘shocking’ more of a thunderclap, even on art, even on literature, than any other writer.”   In “The Russian Point of View” (1925), she wrote, “There remains the greatest of all novelists — for what else can we call the author of War and Peace?” Again, in 1940, she wrote, “War and Peace is the greatest novel in the world; and if I’m not bombed I shall read that and Anna Karenina this winter.” While Anna Karenina is the novel directly alluded to in To the Lighthouse, the one which Paul Rayley struggles to recall, War and Peace is also implicit. In the draft version of To the Lighthouse, instead of Anna Karenina, War and Peace is referenced, as Mrs Ramsay thinks of how “when Charles Tansley said that War &Peace knocked out all the Waverley novels & all Jane Austen, what he meant was Tolstoy would have approved…of me, but not of you (that is, not of people who have servants & table napkins…).” It is also quite possible that Virginia’s original plan (recorded in a July 20th, 1925 diary entry) to have a seven year interval in To the Lighthouse was influenced by the seven year span of War and Peace.

The substitution of Anna Karenina for War and Peace is yet another example of Virginia’s subtlety and indirection. By using another title, direct reference to war is eliminated, even while the reader is made to think of Tolstoy and all of what Tolstoy represents. We have, as Virginia said (even if writing about Turgenev, not Tolstoy) “All the lines rubbed out except the necessary.” Like Turgenev, like Chekhov, Virginia’s policy is to “never explain, never emphasize, let the reader understand for himself.” Indirection and suggestion are in play, and the reader is led to think about war by following the necessary line running from Anna Karenina back to War and Peace and back to all of Tolstoy’s thoughts about war and civilization.

One very important subject of Tolstoy’s thought was the Crimean War, a war often referred to as “the first modern war”1, and one in which Tolstoy served as a junior artillery officer.   Though he missed Balaclava and Inkerman, Tolstoy was present at the siege of Sevastopol, and he wrote about it for the literary journal The Contemporary. Much of what Tolstoy experienced and witnessed paralleled what Robert Graves would undergo at Loos just over sixty years later. His accounts include passages such as the following:

On the earth, torn up by a recent explosion, were lying, here and there, broken
beams, crushed bodies of Russians and French, heavy cast-iron cannon
overturned into the ditch by a terrible force, half buried in the ground and forever
dumb, bomb-shells, balls, splinters of beams, ditches, bomb-proofs, and more
corpses, in blue or in gray overcoats, which seemed to have been shaken by
supreme convulsions . . .


you will witness fearsome sights that will shake you to the roots of your being;
you will see war not as a beautiful, orderly and gleaming formation, with music
and beaten drums, streaming banners and generals on prancing horses, but war
in its authentic expression – as blood, suffering and death.

Like Graves, Tolstoy was profoundly affected by his war experiences, and many of his later ideas about history, warfare, leadership and civil society can be traced back to the Siege and to Sevastopol Sketches. For Virginia, so deeply familiar with both Tolstoy’s life and his writings, thoughts of Tolstoy would have carried with them thoughts of the Crimean War.

Virginia had a deep, abiding interest in the Crimean War, and she refers to it in such works as Jacob’s Room,  Freshwater, A Room of One’s Own, and Between the Acts. Virginia’s intellectual engagement with the Crimean War almost certainly predated her awareness of Tolstoy and his writings. Leslie Stephen’s library (which Virginia inherited on her father’s death) included at least five volumes of Alexander Kinglake’s eight volume The Invasion of the Crimea: Its Origin and an Account of its Progress Down to the Death of Lord Raglan (1863-1867). The young Virginia read widely in her father’s library, and it is likely that she would have at least browsed Kinglake’s book. Years later she made it part of the Pointz Hall library in Between the Acts. Just before Isa reads the Times account of the rape of a young girl by soldiers, she runs her eyes along the books and notes: “The Faerie Queene and Kinglake’s Crimea; Keats and the Kreutzer Sonata.”

More than alliterative play is at work in the Pointz Hall library selection, and Isa’s list can be used to deepen understanding of what the Crimean War meant to Virginia. Indirection and subtle association are again key. While The Faerie Queene, Keats and Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata can easily and plausibly be linked to the theme of rape, Kinglake’s Crimea initially seems out of place. There is, however, another thematic reason for the reference to Kinglake’s book, and that reason lies in the writings of Leslie Stephen. In 1865, Leslie Stephen published a lengthy, exuberant pamphlet which examined the reporting of the American Civil War by the Times. In The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen (1906), a book to which the twenty-five year old Virginia contributed an essay about her father, Frederick Maitland devotes over a page to this pamphlet, calling it “a broadside into the Times,” “a volley of a hundred pages, well-directed and heavily shotted.”   Maitland also implies that this pamphlet helped to launch Stephen’s literary career and that it played a part in consolidating his growing friendship with James Russell Lowell, American poet, first editor of The Atlantic, and, eventually, Virginia’s “dear Godpapa.”

Brash and boisterous, The “Times” on the American War: A Historical Study (1865) argues that “the Times had made a gigantic blunder from end to end as to the causes, progress, and consequences of the war” and was “guilty of a public crime.” To make this argument, Stephen starts his pamphlet by appealing at length to Kinglake’s authority. His whole pamphlet is built upon Kinglake’s ideas about the rise of modern journalism and the way in which the Times became a force for war, and a near-omnipotent instrument by means of which “many an Englishman was saved the labour of further examining his political conscience, and dispensed from the necessity of having to work his own way to a conclusion.”5   The opening sentence of the The “Times” on the American War reads, “In discussing the causes of the Crimean War, Mr. Kinglake gives a prominent place to the agency of the Times.” Indirection and subtle association. With Kinglake’s Crimea also come Leslie Stephen’s ideas about Kinglake, and an explanation for the relevance of Isa’s noting Kinglake’s Crimea moments before her eyes fall upon the rape item in the Times. War, male violence and the Times are closely knit together.

With Between the Acts as guide, one can look back and make a plausible case that Kinglake’s and Leslie Stephen’s respective attacks on the Times also influenced Virginia’s thinking in To the Lighthouse. Although, it might be argued that to move from Tolstoy to Woolf to Kinglake to Stephen is to “overrun our signals,” and that to read To the Lighthouse in light of Between the Acts is anachronistic, such a reading is consistent with Virginia’s aims and methods, and the rewards far outweigh the risks. For instance, to see Tolstoy, the Crimean War, Kinglake and Leslie Stephen interconnected in Virginia’s mind is to understand that, in To the Lighthouse, Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” does much more than help delineate Mr. Ramsay’s pre and post war personalities. “Someone had blundered” has useful ambiguities, yet other lines could also have provided appropriate counterpoint to Cowper’s “We perished, each alone.” Other, more jingoistic Victorian or Edwardian poems could have done just as well to mark and mock Mr. Ramsay’s heroic fantasies or to evoke memories of Leslie Stephen’s habit of reciting poetry out loud. Part of what makes Tennyson’s poem particularly valuable for To the Lighthouse are its Crimean associations, and Virginia was almost certainly aware that Tennyson wrote “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in response to William Howard Russell’s November 14th, 1854, Times piece.

One last Tolstoy related comment. The more one reads Virginia, the more one sees intertextuality. The books she read and the books and essays she wrote are all part of an ongoing, deeply felt discussion.   With Tolstoy comes Virginia’s qualified endorsement for some of the methods I used in the preceding explorations. In “How Should One Read a Book?”, a Yale Review essay (October 1926) which grew out of a lecture6 Virginia gave to a group of Hayes Court schoolgirls on Jan 30th, 1926, Virginia wrote:

When we want to decide a particular case, we can best help ourselves, not by
reading criticism,  but by realizing our own impression as acutely as possible and
referring this to the judgments which we have gradually formulated in the past.
There they hang in the wardrobe of our mind—the shapes of the books we have
read, as we hung them up and put them away when we had done with  them.
If we have just read “Clarissa Harlowe,” for example, let us see how it shows up
against the shape of “Anna Karenina.” At once the outlines of the two books are
cut out against each other as a house with its chimneys bristling and its gables
sloping is cut out against a harvest moon. At once Richardson’s qualities—his
verbosity, his obliqueness—are contrasted with Tolstoi’s brevity and directness.
And what is the reason of this difference in their approach? And how does our
emotion at different crises of the two books compare? And what must we attribute
to the eighteenth century, and what to Russia and the translator? But the
questions which suggest themselves are innumerable. They  ramify infinitely, and
many of them are apparently irrelevant. Yet it is by asking them and pursuing the
answers as far as we can go that we arrive at our standard of values, and decide
in the end that the book we have just read is of this kind or of that, has merit in
that degree or in this.

Virginia’s audacity and radicalism are staggering, if Clarissa and Anna Karenina were indeed the examples used in the original talk. Imagine encouraging schoolgirls to measure a story of rape and coercion against a story in which society drives a woman to suicide for the heinous crime of being openly unfaithful.

The reference to Anna Karenina was dropped from the 2nd Common Reader version of “How to Read a Book?”, but in “The Love of Reading” (1931), an abridged version of the Yale Review essay, Virginia preserved most of the original passage, and added the following:

Thus by degrees, by asking questions and answering them, we find that we have
decided that the book we have just read is of this kind or that, has this degree of
merit or that, takes its station at this point or at that in the literature as a whole.
And if we are good readers we thus judge not only the classics and the
masterpieces of the dead, but we pay the living writers the compliment of
comparing them as they should be compared with the pattern of the great books of
the past.

The two essays, as well as so much of her writing in the “Twenties” and “Thirties,” show the great value she set on comparative reading and on writing in a tradition. Measuring books against each other, and asking questions, even seemingly irrelevant ones, is how we arrive at our standard of values. Again and again in her diaries, essays and novels, Virginia expresses the idea that literature and, indeed, all of culture is an evolving collaborative enterprise which should constantly be calibrated against the standards of the past. To the Lighthouse is both an invitation and a demonstration of such calibration.

“The Horror! The Horror!” Evident in this essay is the exhilaration and pleasure I find in reading To the Lighthouse and in thinking about Virginia. Much less visible is the horror and anguish and depression I feel in seeing the connections between Virginia’s world and my own at a time when war seems more visible than ever. In conducting this intertextual exploration of the theme of war in To the Lighthouse, I feel myself kin to the Duchess of Richmond hosting her ball on the eve of Waterloo, or to Mrs. Ramsay presiding over her banquet with WW I in the offing.   While I researched and wrote, newspapers feasted on the fighting between Hamas and the Israeli army. Over two thousand civilians, more than one third of them children, were killed, and many Gaza neighbourhoods flattened. In Africa, Muslim and nationalist militia push Libya deeper into chaos, and Boko Haram atrocities multiply in Nigeria. And in Iraq, Isis actions and atrocities capture headlines. In Syria, the civil war, now relatively unreported, continues. Two thousand years after Virgil, the Euphrates still heaves with war. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union has annexed the Crimea, and the conflict sputtering in the Ukraine generates new horrors, including the shooting down of Malaysian airliner MH-17, and a deadly rocket strike on a refugee convoy near Luhansk. Also, as I write this, the newspapers are full of stories about World War I, stories which celebrate and glorify even while they memorialize and warn.

“The Horror. The Horror.” There are mornings when, unable to stop myself from reading, I am almost paralyzed by the thrill of horrific, newspaper live-reporting threads. Even when I control my voyeuristic impulses, there are moments when I am disgusted at myself for the pleasure I find in seeing the disturbing connections between Virginia’s world and my own. I long for the innocence of the torturer’s horse, or even for indifference of the ploughman. Yet, innocence and indifference are not solutions.

As I ponder To the Lighthouse , I envy Virginia’s strength, courage, and optimism, her ability to see war as part of the human condition without giving in to despair and nihilism. Her work is proof that to recognize and acknowledge war as part of the human condition does not mean acquiescence. Her heroism in To the Lighthouse consists of seeing and showing “the sadness at the back of life” without being overwhelmed by it. I envy her ability to look at the horror without succumbing to fear. Her triumph lies in restraint and in indirection and in suggestion.   Her triumph lies in perspective. She is able to look “directly and largely rather than minutely and aslant.” She does not attempt to mitigate.

Aware of “standing in the shadow,” “yet alive to every tremor and gleam of existence,” Virginia makes us complicit in the act of civilization. Her vision makes demands upon our own, affects our own, and in so doing it challenges us to see through and beyond the horror of war. Visions can still be had, and civil societies can still be built. Reading To the Lighthouse, reading Virginia, helps us to “arrive at our standard of values,” and those values, in turn, give us the courage and optimism to keep painting, to keep giving balls, to keep hosting banquets, and to keep writing essays such as this one. “This is the song I Virgil made, while Caesar was conquering and making laws.”

About the Author:

Andre Gerard is the founder of Patremoir Press and the editor of Fathers: a Literary Anthology.