Virginia Woolf’s The Moment And Other Essays

In the last three or four years of trawling used book stores, estate sales and library fundraisers, no single find has been more felicitous than a complete set of Virginia Woolf’s essays, in such pristine condition as if they had never been pried open. And yet, in the intervening years, I have done no better than their previous owner, and the books have languished on my shelf, unread and unappreciated. As if in preparation for that greater undertaking, I began this curated edition of her personal essays earlier this month, almost as an afterthought, between larger readings – and yet this little compendium has given me the greatest joy, and therefore the sternest rebuke for my demurral. Of all literary forms, the personal essay offers readers the clearest picture of the author’s spirit, preserving the best of their thoughts and interests, prejudices and convictions, presented to us in so congenial a manner that we might almost believe ourselves in conversation with the author. As generations of readers now know, to spend such intimate time in the company of Virginia Woolf is one of literature’s great delights.

From the volume’s first essay, “The Moment: Summer’s Night,” a many-layered portrait of a summer evening in the English countryside, spent in the company of friends, we are held rapt by Woolf’s perceptions, and her ability to articulate them to us. A series of sensory descriptions – the hum of an airplane, the descending darkness of nightfall, the flight of an owl – give way to a thought, no less a part of the moment even if imperceptible: “If you are young, the future lies upon the present, like a piece of glass, making it tremble and quiver. If you are old, the past lies upon the present, like a thick glass, making it waver, distorting it. All the same, everybody believes that the present is something, seeks out the different elements in this situation in order to compose the truth of it, the whole of it.” Here, in miniature, is the modernist dilemma, the mistrust of the single point of view and of straight-forward narration, and the insistence on subjectivity. The outward facts are “the wider circumference of the moment,” whereas “in the centre is a knot of consciousness.” Can that knot be undone? After describing the various competing emotions and interests present among the nighttime guests, Woolf asks that question in a lyrical flourish:

All this shoots through the moment, makes it quiver with malice and amusement; and the sense of watching and comparing; and the quiver meets the shore, when the owl flies out, and puts a stop to this judging, this overseeing, and with our wings spread, we too fly, take wing, with the owl, over the earth and survey the quietude of what sleeps, folded, slumbering, arm stretching in the vast dark and sucking its thumb too; the amorous and the innocent; and a sigh goes up. Could we not fly too, with broad wings and with softness; and be all one wing; all embracing, all gathering, and these boundaries, these pryings over hedge into hidden compartments of different colours be all swept into one colour by the brush of the wing; and so visit in splendour, augustly, peaks; and there lie exposed, bare, on the spine, high up, to the cold light of the moon rising, and when the moon rises, solitary, behold her, one, eminent, over us?

The owl, taking flight in the night, captures the attentions of the guests, bringing their disparate “quiver” of consciousness to a common point of thought, and provoking Woolf to ask if that commonality is not sustainable, if they too cannot be “all embracing, all gathering,” of common colour and one wing, beholding and beheld as one entity. A consummation devoutly to be wished? But her reply abruptly follows: “Ah, yes, if we could fly, fly, fly…” This entire essay is just six pages long, and yet there is scarcely a paragraph that could not sustain pages of commentary.

Most of this volume, however, is composed of literary criticism, Woolf’s reflections on contemporary and classic writers, and her high-powered perception is no less impressive when it’s targeted at the work of others. Dickens, D.H. Lawrence, Laurence Sterne, William Congreve, Edmund Spenser and Edmund Gosse, Lewis Carroll, and John Gibson Lockhart, a once-eminent critic now best remembered for panning John Keats as a “vulgar cockney poetaster,” all get extended treatment. Her judgments are impeccable, and impeccably communicated to us, such that we can hardly help but agree. Here she is describing Dickens’ craft:

His eye brings in almost too rich a harvest for him to deal with, and gives him an aloofness and a hardness which freeze his sentimentalism and make it seem a concession to the public, a veil thrown over the penetrating glance which left to itself pierced to the bone. With such a power at his command Dickens made his books blaze up, not by tightening the plot or sharpening the wit, but by throwing another handful of people upon the fire.

The justice of this assessment is evident to every reader of Dickens. On D.H. Lawrence: “One never catches Lawrence – this is one of his most remarkable qualities – “arranging.” Words, scenes flow as fast and direct as if he merely traced them with a free rapid hand on sheet after sheet.” But by far the most interesting commentary comes in “The Leaning Tower,” where she contemplates the growing preoccupation with politics among writers of her generation, in contradistinction to, for example, Jane Austen and Walter Scott, who managed to live through the Napoleonic Wars without involving that conflict in their fiction:

This shows that their model, their vision of human life, was not disturbed or agitated or changed by war. Nor were they themselves. It is easy to see why that was so. Wars were then remote; wars were carried on by sailors and soldiers, not by private people. The rumour of battles took a long time to reach England. It was only when the mail coaches clattered along the country roads hung with laurels that the people in villages like Brighton knew that a victory had been won and lit their candles and stuck them in their windows. Compare that with our state today. Today we hear the gunfire in the Channel. We turn on the wireless; we hear an airman telling us how this very afternoon he shot down a raider; his machine caught fire; he plunged into the sea; the light turned green and then black; he rose to the top and was rescued by a trawler. Scott never saw the sailors drowning at Trafalgar; Jane Austen never heard the cannon roar at Waterloo. Neither of them heard Napoleon’s voice as we hear Hitler’s voice as we sit at home of an evening.

She is not merely making a point or pointing out an obvious truth about the nature of 20th century combat. She makes us feel that change, in the roar of the cannon, the drowning of the sailors, and in Hitler’s unavoidable voice.

In Woolf’s essays, we encounter an artist so utterly in command of her craft that we feel ourselves compelled by the current of her thoughts, content to pull up our oars and follow her mind wherever it wills us, beguiled by the beauty of the journey itself.