Byron and Mr. Briggs

With an introduction by Edward A. Hungerford

Virginia Woolf

ON TUESDAY, November 15, 1921, Virginia Woolf noted in her Diary that she had finished the first draft of her novel, Jacob’s Room, a few days earlier, on November 4. She used the same entry of her Diary to take inventory of what she had written during the past year, and also to do a bit of estimating about when she would have time to begin future projects still in the planning stage. Among these (which included an article on Henry James’s Ghost Stories, her current assignment for the Times Literary Supplement), she makes the following note (The Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Anne Olivier Bell, II, p. 142) about a book to be called Reading:

… & one of these days, if only I could find energy to tackle the Paston letters, I must start Reading: directly I’ve started Reading I shall think of another novel, I daresay.

Nearly all that survives of Reading, a preliminary form of The Common Reader, is contained in the essay now first printed in THE YALE REVIEW, entitled “Byron and Mr. Briggs.” This unfinished essay came to light in the archive of papers which Leonard Woolf left behind at his death in 1969. When the papers were first opened in 1972 for public examination at the University of Sussex, near Brighton, I discerned its parallel relation to The Common Reader but could not decide on its exact chronological relationship. Of course, readers who know Mrs. Woolf’s essays will easily identify the basic concepts of her impressionistic criticism—and particularly her now famous excerpt from Dr. Johnson’s Life of Gray which she placed on the title page and repeated, with one word changed, in the first, brief introductory essay of The Common Reader, published by the Hogarth Press in 1925.

Although “Byron and Mr. Briggs” did not finally get included in The Common Reader, we can trace several intermediate stages of that book through her Diary entries and among the miscellaneous reading notes that survive among her notebooks at Sussex. These make it clear that “Byron and Mr. Briggs” is in all likelihood the earliest form now surviving of that book she called Reading, and (except for scraps and notes) nearly all of Reading that she wrote that corresponded to her original vision of the book of essays. Other surviving notes show that, in this early stage, she thought of a book of about ten chapters which would have incorporated her sketch of the Paston Letters, comments on the Odyssey and Elizabethan writers, a chapter on Shakespeare, and other chapters on literary figures bringing her up to the present time. Internal evidence in this unpublished essay, when compared with comments in the Diary, shows that she probably began writing “Byron and Mr. Briggs” in the spring of 1922.

Later in that year the book Reading began to take another shape. It altered considerably in her mind over the next year to eighteen months, and in fact at least two other quite different tables of contents now survive to indicate how the selection of essays to be included in The Common Reader at last made “Byron and Mr. Briggs” superfluous to the new conception of the book. Nevertheless, the insights, the careful revision, and the precision of her diction remain in this completely unknown typescript and will repay our further investigation. She was to enunciate in an expansive form (the typescript of the original contains 41 pages of text) ideas that she greatly condensed when she prefaced her two-page note to The Common Reader in the 1925 version.

What are these insights? One perception that will be familiar to readers of her essays is that the common reader neither cares for nor heeds the meticulous information about literature which scholars take infinite care to provide.

The definition of the common reader is enormously clarified by her providing examples of how that reader’s mind works upon the personality as well as the poetry of Byron—as well as by her short critical estimate (again by a common reader) of two or three poems of Herrick. The page of Byron criticism in Section 7 of this essay, her racy comment ending “And up fly our caps as he limps off the field in a rage,” has been immediately subjected to careful scrutiny to demonstrate why it is not literary criticism.

“No Byron expert and no scholar could write so carelessly,” she justly observes.

A critic would have disregarded all the personalities and would have fixed upon the aesthetic problems here glimpsed and brushed aside. But it has, in spite of compression, one very marked and for our purposes very important characteristic. The reader has obviously from the first page to the last read with a view to forming a whole.

The guesswork and the reshaping which the common reader must arrange in his mind, so much less exact than the scholar’s, give him a great deal of pleasure—and in the long view decide “all claim to poetical honours.” Or so Dr. Johnson said.

The essay concludes with after-dinner conversation about literature. The literary conversation, a form with which she experimented particularly in the 1920’s, gives us Terence Hewet of The Voyage Out and Mrs. Dalloway as she appeared in that first novel, talking to Rose Shaw and other characters from Jacob’s Room. They are about to go to a party—Mrs. Durrant’s party, not Mrs. Dalloway’s; for in Jacob’s Room (published in 1922) these are the figures who preoccupy Virginia Woolf’s mind. Yet, and this is pure speculation, it is possible that the interweaving of her thoughts about Mrs. Dalloway with the thoughts about Byron, Herrick, Shakespeare, and Mr. Briggs, “spectacle maker of Cornhill,” sparked a thought about parties which in another year or two she could incorporate in Mrs. Dalloway as the novel emerged from the short story “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street.”

A WORD PERHAPS needs to be added about the unfinished state of Virginia Woolf’s hand-corrected typescript. It has usually been possible to determine words or phrases which she intended to cancel or to insert, but many passages must remain doubtful or subject to the choice of editors. Mrs. Woolf always typed the word and but invariably wrote, in her own hand, the ampersand when making corrections. I have kept the ampersands. She followed a very haphazard style in the uses of the apostrophe, more often omitting it than not. I follow as exactly as possible what appears in the text. Obvious misspellings have been silently corrected, except in one or two instances where the error was wide enough from an intended word to raise questions.

Brackets have been used for three kinds of situations: (1) to supply a missing word or punctuation mark implied by the context; (2) to preserve or to restore a deleted word or phrase, when the insertion of handwritten corrections is now doubtful or unreadable; (3) to indicate words probably decipherable, but where the choice is complicated by other parallel insertions and corrections. Those who are bothered by the use of square brackets may thus be reminded that this essay, though extensively revised, is far from what Virginia Woolf would eventually have published. The brackets, ampersands, and haphazard apostrophes can be taken as symbolic of a rough draught—which this version of the essay must remain.

The essay “Byron and Mr. Briggs” is catalogued in Monk’s House Papers, University of Sussex, as Ms. MHP, List B (Literary), No. 11 (d). This is usually listed, as in Quentin Bell’s biography, as MHP/B 11d. The document is 41 pages of typewritten, corrected and rewritten, text.

Edward A. Hungerford

THE SPRING OF 1922 was made memorable to me by the appearance of a novel by E. K. Sanders called the Flame of Youth. On the cover the publishers draw attention to the fact that this was a first novel, and they pledged their faith that it was a good one. And so, drawing up to the fire (for the spring of 1922 was a cold one) what could be easier for a reviewer than to run through the four hundred pages of sufficiently large type between tea and dinner? Almost automatically an impression of the book’s worth would form during this process. And next morning, perhaps with labour, perhaps without, the impression would be floated onto paper and would be found to measure not less than two, and certainly not more than five, of what printers call Long Primer.

But E. K. Sanders (whether man woman or child), put an end to my career as a reviewer. For I found myself at the end of two hours with no impression of the Flame of Youth; with nothing to seal, send off and deliver. Now there are repulsive books in which with spasmodic industry reviewers paste the long columns that once looked solid enough and were built with energy and hope. To these I referred in the belief that I should find there some method for dealing with this first novel, this very promising first novel as the publishers called it; for first novels have come my way for many years, and many publishers have pledged their faith that they were promising.

Hours passed; days went by; and, still reading in the faded book, I sought a method for dealing with the Flame of Youth.


IN ENGLAND at the present moment books are published every day of the week and every week of the year. The stream sometimes dribbles and sometimes gushes. But it is continuous and many waters of all salts and savours go to make it. Indeed the weekly paper which deals most faithfully with modern literature has twenty seven divisions through which it filters the volumes that arrive at the office in a single week. One can say straight off that some of the books have nothing to do with literature. “A Text book of practical chemistry, Janes Fighting Ships.” “Lubricating and Allied Oils.” “The Black problem.” “Websters Royal Red Book.” “Mrs. Wilson’s Cook Book.” “Factory Administration and Cost Accounts.” “Scurvy: Past and Present.”—these have nothing to do with literature. But even as I copy the names I fancy that if on a cold winters evening in a village inn one found Janes Fighting Ships on the window sill and read it through; and though the Oils and the Factory Acts would always remain repulsive under any circumstances short of imprisonment or a sea voyage [of] arctic exploration, The Black Problem and Scurvy: Past and Present would certainly while away an evening and give one happy dreams.

In a country where literature is so rich and so various what wonder if the method of dealing with it is equally elastic? Granted that a poem differs essentially from a text book of physics, there remain whole multitudes of volumes which [stretch the distance between science & poetry] and are neither one thing nor the other. Mr Conrad has written a novel called The Rescue; that is pure literature; The Vicar of Wakefield has been reprinted; pure literature again. But some old Squire has rummaged in the family archives and produced a couple of volumes proving beyond a doubt that none of his race has [done or said or thought anything out of the way] since the reign of William the Conqueror; and what is that? Miss Sylvia Reddish issues her Thoughts at Dusk. The Professors are always writing about Byron and Coleridge. Works of astonishing erudition come from America. Journalists collect their journalism. Women travel in Mesopotamia and meet brigands. And as for biographies, they have become to the upper classes what plumes and black horses are to the lower—a show for the neighbours, something due to the dead. Yes; there is always a reason for writing a book; and often, surprisingly often, there is something of value in it. But what, I ask myself turning the pages of the faded volume, what sort of value have they? and have they a value in common? and if I know what this value is will it help me to decide the value of E. K. Sanders novel—the Flame of Youth?


WE ARE ON THE BRINK of a serious argument; but with a little circumspection, it may be possible to keep on the outskirts. The qualities that a book should contain in the abstract, the qualities that it does contain in the flesh, have been discussed and analysed from the times of Aristotle to the present moment. Aristotle, Dryden, Addison, Johnson, Coleridge, Boileau, Keats, Sainte Beuve, Matthew Arnold, Taine, Anatole France, Remy de Gourmont—to go no further, have all said their say and said it (as one feels in reading them) with a conviction which is only roused in men’s minds, and conveyed to the minds of others, when they have been looking on the truth. That this truth is never the same for two generations, or for two human beings,—let alone for two human beings of genius—is a fact which may be distressing, if you wish to get the matter settled once and for all; but has to be faced. At any rate differences of critical theory and differences of critical judgment are by this time sufficiently notorious. Any parrot can repeat the usual string of blunders. Johnson ridiculed Tristram Shandy. Arnold thought Shelleys letters better than his poetry. Coleridge fell prostrate at the feet of Mr Bowles. The parrot has said enough. Then, any pig can sort the critics into schools. There is the biographic; the psychological; the socio-political; the historical; the aesthetic; the impressionist; the scientific; the analytic. Doubtless there are more; but each can be traced back to some man of genius who was so convinced of the truth of what he saw that he imposed his conviction upon others. But the men who read in this way with an overmastering bias in this that or the other direction, are the critics. Pelt them with volumes taken from each of the twenty seven divisions into which modern literature is divided and they will somehow order them into conformity with a principle arrived at by reading, and reasoning, and the light of individual genius. But the reviewer never penetrates deep enough to lay hold upon a principle. Like a man in a shooting gallery, he sees books move steadily past him. Bang! He lets fly. The rabbit is missed; but he has only just time to reload before taking aim at the pheasant.

Literature both past and present must rest in the hands of the people who continue to read it.

Therefore it is useless to look in any scrap book of old reviews for a method. You may find a personality, but that is quite a different thing, and (with E. K. Sanders at the back of my mind) I should like to discover what the value of a reviewer is, taking it for granted that he has no method, but only a personality—that he is in short much nearer the ordinary reader, of whom there are multitudes, than the critic of whom, with great luck, there is one in a century.


BUT THE COMMON READER is a person of great importance. Dr Johnson rejoiced “to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours.” In an age without a critic, [and there is none to be found in England at the moment,] literature both past and present must rest in the hands of the people who continue to read it. Milton is alive in the year 1922 and of a certain size and shape only because some thousands of insignificant men and women are holding his page at this moment before their eyes. But when Coleridge was lecturing about Shakespeare, or Dryden was writing about poetry, common opinion had an influence to guide it. You shut your Shakespeare and went to hear Coleridge; you read the preface to [long blank] and your judgment of poetry was shaped accordingly. But to have this effect, an influence must be powerful. Acting first upon the scholars and reviewers it must by them be spread abroad among the multitude. In our time there are scholars by the score and reviewers by the thousand; but there is no critic to point the way.


GENERAL STATEMENTS ARE CONVENIENT and no doubt sometimes they are true. But this one has in it obvious elements of falsehood should you descend from the general to the particular—should you look into the way in which reading is commonly done now, and not imagine how it was done a hundred years ago by old Mr Briggs who drove up from Kensington to hear Coleridge in snowy weather, only to find that Coleridge had forgotten to come.

The truth is that reading is kept up because people like reading. The common reader is formidable and respectable and even has power over great critics and great masterpieces in the long run because he likes reading and will not let even Coleridge do his reading for him. How many thousands I know not, but certainly there are many thousands who never pick up a book on a bookstall for half a minute without getting some kind of shock from it. Expose them to something violent, like King Lear, and the shock entirely obliterates Aristotle, Dryden, Addison, Johnson, Coleridge, Boileau, Diderot, Sainte-Beuve &c &c. The whole hierarchy is powerless to unseat the judgment of an ignorant boy or girl who has read the play to the end. It is all very well, when the impression has spent itself, to take down Coleridge and Coleridge will delight and instruct, but only in the margin of the mind. It is I who have read the play. I hold it in my brain. I am directly in touch with Shakespeare. No third person can explain or alter or even throw much light upon our relationship.

This then is the very heart of the business—it is this which sends the blood coursing through the whole of the old book & the new. It is this which raises libraries and draws up out of the air myriads upon myriad of new books. But it is an unguided passion, voluntary individual & lawless and thus capable of doing enormous harm as a glance at contemporary literature will prove. Take the case of Mr Briggs for example (1795-1859). He was convinced by the eloquent Mr Coleridge that Measure for Measure was the most painful of Shakespeares plays ‘likewise degrading to the character of woman’; but next time he read Measure for Measure he had forgotten what Coleridge said; or his own ideas seemed fresher or his wife bounced into the study & kissed him on the top of the head that very moment. At any rate Coleridges principles, eloquent, profound, and original as they were, applied to old poetry, to poetry in general, and Mr Briggs never once thought of Coleridge when he laid it down a few weeks later that this new book by Mr Keats was trash.


AND BRIGGS’ GRANDCHILDREN? This spectacle maker of Cornhill with his taste for literature and this loathing for Keats left a large number of descendants. Many have gone out into the world and fought and conquered and made money and died rather honourably in obscure Indian villages with nothing but a copy of Dickens and or a little volume of Shakespeare to keep them company. A taste for reading is very hard to kill. At the same time, how are we to say what it amounts to in the flesh? Briggs the Colonel died with his Shakespeare; but never formulated his views upon the poetic drama. Briggs the stockbroker read Darwin; and burnt Swinburne. Mrs Briggs (who was a Grant from Dundee) knew the Waverley novels by heart but she could never abide George Eliot. Between them the different generations must have devoured half the London Library and the whole of Mudies. Silently, voraciously, like a locust or a caterpillar. As for leaving any record of their opinions save by crosses and notes of exclamation in the margin (which staffs of librarians are always engaged in rubbing out) that was, and that is, none of their business. They read then for pleasure; they read now for pleasure; and if you catch them laying down the law in private about Mr Wells’ latest or Mr Joyce’s most outrageous, they do it violently enough; but always with a sort of shrug of the shoulders as if to say “That’s what I think. But who am I?”

It would be difficult to persuade the grandchildren of Briggs who knew Coleridge that Dr Johnson respected them: that they decide all claim to poetical honours: that their views matter so much as to be gone into at some length and made the subject of a book by a distant relation.

Yet that was the conclusion to which my reading of old newspaper articles finally led me. The views of the grandchildren of Briggs matter; and we reviewers are, almost all of us, [descended from the spectacle maker of Cornhill.] The genealogists may dispute this claim; but if one has waited for three weeks to get Byrons letters from the Library, then, according to my definition, one is a grandchild of Briggs.

x x x x x x

Byron was a fine bold boy and wrote far better letters from abroad than his people had a right to expect. He should have stayed an undergraduate for ever, dominating his own group but strictly kept in order by Kinnaird & Hobhouse; also here are women; and he must needs be a man of the world, and learn the trade from that tight lipped hard faced prosaic peeress Lady Melbourne who soon brought out the worst of him,—the dancing master and dandy, so proud of his conquests though so obviously ashamed of his foot. Caroline Lamb, insane but generous, would have made a better wife than the mathematical Miss Milbanke. The big boy who limped off the field in a rage because he had been clean bowled for two or three runs needed what women call ‘managing’. But what woman could give it him? He was dangerous; a treacherous lap dog. In the midst of sentiment down came the sledge hammer of fact. Who could be more unflinching and direct? Indeed one is inclined to wonder why he thought himself a poet. Presumably the fashion of the age dictated, and Byron was impressed by fashions. Yet his description of the Wedderburne affair proves, what his poetry hints, that prose was his medium; satire his genius. He goes to Venice, and is there a single phrase to show that he saw it? Does he even momentarily abstract himself from the Countesses and the Carnivals to think, on the Lido, as Wordsworth thought in rustic Cumberland, how she had held the gorgeous East in fee, and men must mourn when even the showod [sic. shadow?] of what once was great has passed away? No such phrase, with its aloofness, contemplation, and solicitude for the fate of mankind in general is possible from Byron. All is immediate, personal, and of this world. Yet it would be difficult to rank Don Juan much lower than the Prelude or to forget hours spent racing before the wind through Byrons Cantos, when Wordsworths stanzas lay cold, unruffled, shut in and shadowed by the rocks of his own self-centredness.

Give us a fragment and we will make a whole of it; give us a book and we will judge it for ourselves.

Byron was a novelist—that is to say he came at his conception through his observation of actual life; whereas a poet thinks of life in general, or so intensely of his own in particular as to include the general experience. This he expresses in language exact and enduring. Byron on the other hand writes the perfection of prose. Compare, for example, his letters with the stiff and stilted compositions by Shelley here, unfortunately, placed beside them. Sir Timothy’s conduct is (for the first time) intelligible. To have this prig for one’s son, to listen to his preachings intolerable. But Mary loved him. She can hardly write for fury that a servant girl should slander him, and meeting Mrs Hoppner in the street cut her dead. All this must have seemed rather extreme and a little bourgeois to Byron; whose range was so wide, whose grasp was so vigorous, whose blood was so blue. And so he frittered his life away; and grew very bitter before the end, which was in the grand style, as the death of Ajax was; fate bowling him out before he had made half the runs he should have made. And up fly our caps as he limps off the field in a rage.

x x x x x x

LET US PULL THIS PAGE to pieces observing that it was written quickly, not from notes but from recollection, and is an attempt to give an impression remaining in the mind an hour or two after finishing a book. Some reading is implied, more than could be expected of a working man, or of any but a very exceptional bank clerk. On the other hand, no Byron expert and no scholar could write so carelessly. A critic would have disregarded all the personalities and would have fixed upon the aesthetic problems here glimpsed and brushed aside. But it has, in spite of compression, one very marked and for our purposes very important characteristic. The reader has obviously from the first page to the last read with a view to forming a whole. As each page is turned you can see him hastily rigging up, from reading or experience, something to serve for background; roughly setting the characters in action, deciding, ordering their relations; making a dart at their qualities; hazarding a guess at the character of literature; and shaping the whole little world as it grows in his mind into likeness with some conception which he derives partly from his time (he is pagan, not Christian) partly from private experiences and qualities peculiar to himself. “He”, do we say? But it is obvious from the shape of each sentence, from the tilt [& atmosphere & proportion of the whole] that he is a woman. “But Mary loved him”. The cat is out of the bag, and since no one can put her back again had better be given the run of the house.

But the writer’s sex is not of interest; nor need we dwell upon the peculiarities of temperament which make one person’s reading of Byron’s letters different from another’s. It is the quality that they have in common that is interesting—that the reading of ordinary readers has in common, that is to say, for it is clear that scholars and critics read differently, in a way of their own.


TO MAKE A WHOLE—it is that which we have in common. Our reading is always urged on by the instinct to complete what we read, which is, for some reason, one of the most universal and profound of our instincts. You may see it at work any night among the passengers in a third class railway carriage. Is he related to the woman opposite? No they work in the same office. In love then? No; she wears a wedding ring. Going home then to the same suburb? Ah, yes. “We shall meet on Tuesday”. A bridge party no doubt. . . . “I’m sure it wouId pay to start another hotel there” from which it appears that they belong to a group of people in the habit of going to St Andrews to play golf in the summer.

Everyone plays this familiar game. Everyone feels the desire to add to a single impression the others that go to complete it. Here a mans face catches the attention; instinctively you give him character, relationships, occupation, habits, desires, until some sort of completeness is achieved. There [must be] something disagreeable to the mind in allowing an impression of any force to remain isolated. It must at once [be] made habitable for others; one must, for ones own comfort, have a whole in ones mind: fragments are unendurable. So it is in reading Byron’s letters. There too, in the impression quoted we see the same desire at work to complete, to supply background, relationship, motive, while we are rounding the whole with a running commentary which flings out at the end, “Fate bowled him unfairly. Up fly our caps, as he limps off the field in a rage.”

The book is finished: so too, the train reaches Putney. Our fellow passengers get out, but not before we are fairly easy in our minds about them. They have their lives; they have their place in the scheme.—although we have to admit that our attention was intermittent, that we read a column in the evening newspaper, and that after the woman said “We shall meet on Tuesday” a glaring red theatre shot up on the right; a backstreet in Wandsworth was illuminated; so that the three dots which mark the interruption of this splendour and misery threw some strange significance upon the man’s next remark that it would pay to start a hotel there.

It is hardly necessary to say that such wholes as these are extremely imperfect, & probably highly inaccurate. Very likely there was not a word of truth in our re-construction of the travellers lives. Certainly if we examine the fragment on Byrons letters we shall find slips enough in five hundred words to infuriate a scholar. Byron did not make “two or three runs”; Wordsworth did not live in “rustic Cumberland” when he wrote the sonnet On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic here misquoted; The Prelude is not strictly speaking written in stanzas; and the use of metaphors to convey critical judgments is generally an attempt to conceal under artificial flower vagueness and poverty of thought. That is all true; and to write of facts inaccurately is to impair the validity, even artistic value of the [writing] and no one would be so foolish as not to wish it otherwise. But given our conditions, given our education, it is inevitable; given above all those two instincts which are so deeply implanted in our souls—the instinct to complete; the instinct to judge. Give us a fragment and we will make a whole of it; give us a book and we will judge it for ourselves.


THUS THEN in some such terms as these perhaps the common reader may be defined; but who shall say anything about his partner in the enterprise—this vast, bewildering, uncharted, perpetually increasing and changing volume of literature? Twenty seven divisions, we say, have been driven through the mass; but what if they are not water tight? if biography leaks through into history and history into fiction, and criticism is stained with the juice of them all? In what sense can we talk, even lazily over the fire, of making a whole? To make a whole even of one man, Lord Byron, must we not have read some three hundred volumes, and a good many papers still waiting to be published?

[The Ms. contains a page of inserted material, perhaps intended to be placed here, on a separate sheet with five lines of typing. The number “11” is pencilled in at the top. There was no number 10 subheading in the papers as now preserved.]


[AND WHAT DO YOU MAKE of the Byron-Leigh controversy?” said old MaCallum Briggs settling down for a gossip with his cousin.

“That he had a child by his grandmother” replied Cherry, very inaccurately, but rather to the point.]

For happily nature provides means by which our minds very rapidly and perhaps unconsciously take what suits their constitutions and reject the rest. One mind will grasp fifty volumes about Byron; another only one or part of one. But both will have their views; and each will seem true, according to the illusion which nature allows, to the beholder. Nor is it simply an illusion. When Johnson talked of the common sense of readers, no doubt he meant that the faculty of knowing what to use, what to neglect, is well developed among us, and can be trusted in the long run to wear down even the enormous deposits which have heaped themselves over a man like Byron, so that the average judgment of him will be correct and will be formed by reading only a few books out of a very large number.

This may be so; but we have still to face a problem which cannot be shirked by anyone who reads even a few books about Byron. Even in the hasty impression of his letters already quoted above the writer had to face it, or at least to give an agonized and terrified glance in its direction. “What am I to make of Byron’s poetry? And where am I to place it? Is it in my whole, or somehow outside it?”

Emotion comes only after hard unemotional exercise of the brain.

To have reached out for and read all that comes to hand about Byron, to have enjoyed to the full the fun of making him up, of imagining how he spoke, of getting at him through Leigh Hunt, and at Leigh Hunt through his diary, and at Moore through Mrs Moore, and at Mrs Moore through Mrs Lynn Linton who will bring in Landor and Bath and Shelley and so back again to Byron, of racing on the scent with Lord Lovelace, and again, Mr Edgcumbe until the lustres and pilasters of the Georgian world seem vivid enough, and the square of St Marks has sharp shadows upon its pavement, and the woods of Ravenna scents and darknessess—all this is nothing but a random game, like that we play in railway carriages with people who leave us at Putney. It is making up a whole; but only such a whole as we could live in ourselves, and imagine as the living place of others. It is a game; a game too perpetually interrupted by life; yet in the middle will come more vividly and startlingly perhaps for the exercise, a sense of something very real outside, of something flung by Byron or another into the outer air, where it exists, independently of the man who made it, apart from the garrulous little society which rattles and bangs on its way with so many greetings and farewells, of people getting in and people getting [out] to some quite unimaginable end. What is this thing which [people make, which hundreds of years ago they made, which keeps along side of us, outside the carriage window,] and draws our eyes to it with an irresistible fascination?

A book or two. There are not many, and in every library they stand apart, poems, plays, novels, a little philosophy, perhaps a few histories, not much affected by their neighbours, unchanged by the triumphs of science, and never superseded by any new discovery in the art of writing. Few as they are, any one can possess them; and perhaps it was Sir John Lubbock who demonstrated that you can buy the whole of English literature, the richest in the world, for two pound ten and store it in a packing case which has contained a months supply of groceries for a family of eight. By such devices men of good will attempt again and again to persuade us that literature is as easy to read as it is beneficial in its effects. But let us try. Let us take a very short poem and see what sort of processes it stirs up in the mind of a common reader.

x x x x x x
Western wind, when will thou blow
               The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
 And I in my bed again!

That is passionate; direct; a cry to apply to everything. Western wind, when will thou blow—how wistfully it begins, with a sort of weary delaying compared with the direct attack of the concluding lines—the alliteration of course helping[.] The “small rain” is exquisite—the fine rain that comes on the western wind, blowing white sheets over the orchards. Some sailor wrote it, far away looking towards England. “Christ if my love were in my arms and I in my bed again!” I must return to the poem itself; not connecting it with rain, sailor, or any experience in particular. I cannot except by constantly repeating the poem as a whole, keep in touch with the emotion. I am tempted directly I begin to analyze to get far away from what I feel. After reading it several times I cease to get any emotion. But later I shall think involuntarily of “the small rain”; for it describes rain that I have seen but never thought of calling small. But if I say the poem through these details are merged in a whole; in the direct shock of emotion which I receive, and cannot explain to myself or communicate to others.

x x x x x x x


THAT IS NOT VERY SATISFACTORY as an analysis. It amounts to little more than saying, “The poem impressed me. I cannot say why. Perhaps with this, that, or the other. [It gave me a shock of emotion,”—& ‘emotion’ is vague.]

Yet there again with the poem, as with Byrons letters, the mind is trying to make a whole. In the first place it is trying to lay bare and sharpen its perceptions. It is trying to stop itself from thinking irrelevantly. It is trying to refer its impressions as closely as possible to the poem itself. It is trying to grasp the poets conception entire. According to conditions and to education it is trying to grade this ‘shock of emotion’ by comparing it with emotions received from other poems [or by other means.] Finally it is trying to use the materials thus extracted and tested to make some sort of world which suits its constitution. But in what way does a reader attempt to make a world out of pure literature?

Perhaps we try to make a world out of literature in this way. Given the four lines of poetry quoted above, the reader says straight off “This is passionate and direct”; for that is the sensation which they rouse in him. And now instinctively he says “But having felt passion I want to feel the opposite”. He turns the page and reads, shall we say, Chaucers Ballade de Bon Conseyl.

Flee fro the prees, and dwelle with sothfastnesse;
Suffyce unto thy thyng though hit be smal,

and two different sensations, one direct and passionate, the other stern and solemn are placed together and form a nucleus out there in the void. They form a nucleus to which other sensations [can return and attach themselves;] and this process once begun goes on indefinitely. Consider the zigzagging of natural [reading done?] in youth. From tragedy we turn to comedy, from the subtle and strange to the simple and direct. Now we must read Chaucer; now Rousseau; now the songs of Campion now Wuthering Heights. One principle guides us in making our course and that is that the emotion roused in us by each play poem or story must be so strong that it has the power first to absorb us and then to send us, by a natural reaction, in search of a different sensation—of a sensation which appears to complete the one originally felt. By these means we become masters of a vast body of emotion, which increases according to our capacity to feel, and grows more intense as we become better fitted to define it.

But if this were true—that we build up in books an image of our own emotions immensely enlarged and intensified—to read the classics would be an emotional orgy, requiring no more effort than a shop girl makes who dreams as she listens to the band in Hyde Park of making love by moonlight at Margate: it would give no deeper satisfaction than that. We cannot speak the whole truth by any means. For in the first place reading a great book is always an effort, often a disappointment, and sometimes a drudgery. In the second, it is an exaggeration to say (as we have said) that we get emotion from every book we read. From the great writers we get sometimes no emotion at all. Emotion comes only after hard unemotional exercise of the brain. Nor when we get it does it refer to ourselves. “It, i.e. the emotion, seems to apply to everything” says the commentator quoted above. That is one cause for effort. It is a greater effort to feel for all lovers and for all partings than to feel for your own or a friends. It is a greater effort to visualise country in general, and wind in general, than some particular orchard under the blow of the southwest breeze. Yet it is these general emotions and these nameless winds that prevail in Homer Virgil Dante and Shakespeare. The great writers require that we shall cease to be so-and-so, [but] shall retain only the truth of our emotions, which we have in common with others—the stubborn truth which persists through all the insincerities of daily life and provides us with something of universal validity by which to test the love of Othello; the rage of Lear; the scorn of Hamlet; the humanity of Falstaff. But to concentrate & collect in this way is very exhausting.

“These details,[”] says the commentator, who had only four lines to consider, “are merged in a whole.” And here we reach the final difficulty; which has shut in the faces of so many adventurers and sent them back again to reviews and music halls and evening papers, to lives and letters and autobiographies; to talk about the thing and not the thing itself.


THERE IS SOMEONE in the corner of the railway carriage, let us suppose, who has occupied himself with reading the newspaper, looking out of the window, and guessing from scraps of talk at the lives of his fellow passengers. Suddenly, this random jumble and confusion of colour and sound becomes fixed, as if a circle were put round it, and a finger pointed at it and a voice said “Thats it—that.”

The writer (for we are trying to imagine the process in a writer’s mind) receives a shock; he sees that this is complete and somehow significant; and this completeness and significance can most properly be expressed in words. For the rest of the journey he does not read nor listen to the talk. First he must get the impression more and more precise; then he must consider how to express in words exactly what there is in his mind.

But directly we write we find that we are putting ourselves under the dominion of a law. The law of writing rules even last nights vision of a Wandsworth street. Here are the shaped sentences; the ancient words, the words that tempt us (as everything tempts us, and we must know temptation & conquer it) from the strict outline of our conception. Yet it is to this that we must remain faithful; as the supreme felicities—Shakespeares daffodils, the faery casements of Keats, are faithful, in spite of their sudden and astonishing beauty, to the design. Thus it is not enough to rest in the enjoyment of some astonishing moment. One must gather in beauty, subtlety, the various changes of sound and yet must subdue it, as the poet subdued [them], to some larger design, to art itself; for that perhaps is the circle round the whole.

So it seems that the emotions of poetry are not our private emotions, and that they are brought into conformity with some abstract principle which appears to have no more to do with emotion than law has to do with the old cab horse on the rank outside the law courts.

At any rate, when the writer in the railway carriage began to shape his story he neither read nor listened to the talk of the other passengers. He seemed withdrawn in abstraction from the rest.

Must we then withdraw in abstraction from the rest if we are to follow this irresistible fascination of reading poetry, or can we honestly say that we make a world of literature and that this world is inseparable from the world of the hearth rug and of the pavement—the life as full, the control as drastic? The railway carriage will serve our purpose.


IT IS BORING to have to spend so much time in getting from place to place. Still we have been to the play; we are on our way home; we are in transition from one incident to the next and protected by the continuity of our personal affairs from the naked facts of the third class railway carriage full of people. True, we guess at them; we fling a thought round them; we try to rope them in, & extend our [view]; but on entering the house we find at once that life has accumulated; the post has been; we tell our adventures; and are at the centre of our own existences. It is humdrum, exacting, exciting and pleasant also—this sense of the pressure of the past, of the necessity of the future, and of the moment alive with all the colours of the past twelve hours. Already as we go up stairs the next day is half shaped and lies in our minds with all the bloom on it of a thing which has not yet happened.

But twelve hours have so stirred us; brewed in us so many ideas and emotions[;] the aimlessness of travelling has so afflicted us, the pressure upon us is so great that we long for some finality, something stated. So we read.

In this little urn is laid
Prudence Baldwin, once my maid;
From whose happy spark here let
Spring the purple violet.

And apace the dust is laid. [That] has been said, finished. [“]The happy spark, the purple violet.” It revives the mind as if it had been given something definite after churning among vaguenesses. So delightful is it to feel accurately like this that we go on

      Though clock
To tell how night draws hence, I’ve none,
       A cock
I have to sing how day draws on:
       I have a maid, my Prew, by good luck sent,
              To save
       That little, Fates me gave or lent:
               A hen
I keep, which, creeking day by day,
       Tells when
She goes her long white egg to lay,

and again,

Here a solemn fast we keep,
While all beauty lies asleep
Husht be all things; (no noise here)
But the toning of a tear:
Or a sigh of such as bring
Cowslips for her covering.

No doubt Herrick wrote more perfect poems; and no doubt to read thus, somnambulistically, dwelling, like a man feeling in the dark, upon the purple violet, the long white egg, the toning of a tear, the cowslips for her covering, is not reading, but only striking notes one after another and letting each one sound. Still since the sounds are pure, echoes return to us. We are in the world which has been made by reading passionately, fiercely, according to the needs of the moment. We can turn hither and thither, putting our hands in the dark upon the familiar landmarks, referring to Horace perhaps for he too brought out the beauty of actual things; to Marvell—it matters not very much to whom we refer. For we know already that the literature has its relation to our day. The point is that we are stepping among words which generalise our emotions and without even indirectly glancing at them, gently take them up into their proper places and set them down in the light of a profound and comprehensive gaze. And above and beyond this (though no doubt it forms the most exquisite part of the pleasure) is the indefinable fascination inseparable from art itself.


BUT LIFE DOES NOT YIELD so gently to literature in the day time. Civilisation in the twentieth century has lavished upon us the means of giving scope to all those desires—for music, for pictures, for air and the country, for talk and friendship and solitude which are our natural endowment. The telephone rings; the train starts. Appliances are in existence for projecting us into the heart of London, where the grain sacks are dumped onto the decks of steamers, or for lifting us into the fashionable pavement of Bond Street, or for shutting thick doors and reducing the multitudinous [city] life to four fiddlers on a platform, or for allowing us to draw in the pageantry of Hyde Park on a summers day, or for depositing us an hour or two later by some green pool where the gulls are dipping, and the sea anemones bow from side to side as the wave streams over them—the catalogue is endless. And if, besides running over the things one can see and do, we conceive how inclination draws us into contact with people, into liking and repulsion, intimacy and separation, then it may well seem as we come in hot with the effort and exhilaration of life, that books are moon like, and literature but the hobby of elderly men. But as a matter of fact what is it that happens?

Here is a little party of ordinary people, sitting round the dinner table, & talking about Byron. “We must remember how much of Byron’s fame must be attributed to the effect he had upon women” said Terence Hewet, who was descended on the mothers side, from Briggs of Cornhill. And Rose Shaw said that she could understand even now that Byron was an extremely fascinating man. She could imagine how he did it too—his vitality, his cloak, and then the desire to redeem him—every woman would think that it was left for her to do that. Mrs Dalloway confessed to a passion for Donne on the strength of his portrait chiefly “and some of the poems if you read them aloud—alas! My husband never has time to read aloud to me now—are extraordinarily moving,” to which Mr Pepper politely bowed assent.

“Every woman is in love with Keats” continued Clarissa Dalloway, only to draw from Julia Hedge the unexpected assertion that no young woman of spirit could have been expected to tolerate for an instant his conventional ways with women.

There is a silence in life, a perpetual deposit of experience for which action provides no proper outlet and our own words no fit expression.

This is trivial gossip. But let us wait a minute. They went into Hewets sitting room, overlooking the river, and after admiring the lights on the water, they began, at least Hewet and Rose began, pulling out books which were much in need of a duster. He would fetch a duster, Hewet said, “for you will wear such lovely clothes” and Rose perceiving that this rather melancholy man, whose taste she so much respected, did not despise her for choosing that particular shade of hydrangea coloured silk, confessed that she disliked Tristram Shandy. But why? She thought that Sterne was insincere. She thought that Thomas Hardy was sincere. She thought that Mr W. E. Norris was sincere.

“Wait” she said holding up her finger, and it came out (but we need not follow the process) that she liked a sort of matter of fact directness in literature and did not want authors, at any rate novelists, to be telling you all about it. “If you know what I mean.” But what did she mean? Standing at the bookcase Hewet wondered—took down Lifes Little Ironies—opened it—observed that it was a copy of the first edition—wondered whether Rose could be trusted not to stand the coffee pot on it—decided that it was worth risking—wondered what on earth this popinjay delightful popinjay—meant by sincerity—and so, via Natasha presumably, landed upon War and Peace.

“War and Peace” he said aloud, “that is the most sincere book in the world.”

Clarissa Dalloway heard the statement and smiled, thinking it a little too serious for life, [smiled & said it was time to go to Mrs Durrant’s party,] though she had an Englishwomans respect for literature. “Come” she said to Rose. And they went. Julia went. Mr Pepper and Hewet remained alone.

seem to help each other out.] Rose Shaw and Hewet are using literature partly in order to make them understand each other. What does she mean by “sincerity”? She will read Lifes Little Ironies and he perhaps will dip into Tristram Shandy. From this point they will go on building up side by side, he this chimney, she that, a world in literature which will become (if she turns out a born reader as she may) a great deal subtler than the world of Mrs Durrants evening parties and the Houses of Parliament, and yet closely attached to it, and very interesting as a comment upon their adventures there that very evening. Rose will say to Timmy Durrant “Do you know a man called Hewet? He seems to read a great deal” and she will think as she sips her ice, what she meant by sincerity.

At last, at last, old Pepper had gone. He was an old friend. He had mellowed. But still he could sit on till midnight speculating upon the possible success of the Mount Everest expedition while Hewet was jarred all through because Mrs Dalloway had taken Rose Shaw to the Durrants party. Yet he pressed Pepper to stay; he helped him on with his overcoat. But directly he was alone. . . . It is not necessary to imagine the turmoil in his mind. He sat up reading Shakespeare.


ANYONE WHO IS LEFT ALONE in a tumultuous frame of mind is quite likely to sit up reading Shakespeare. One must make the plunge. It is an effort [; but] in ten minutes or so the personal cobwebs are blown clean away. The vigour of the language is too overwhelming to be [missed]. Read one of the less familiar plays—[Troilus and Cressida] for instance—every ounce of energy is used up in realising the perpetual succession of images which coin even the thinnest pencilled thoughts on the borderlands of our consciousness into robust highly coloured bodies. Merely to throw ourselves this way and that with the emotions of the different speakers gives the illusion of violent physical exercise. To seize the first phrases of each character as it shoots out ready primed with the qualities of the speaker and makes its meaning requires the utmost agility of imagination. The vitality, the intensity, the compression and pressure of every page keep one on the stretch almost to the exclusion of comment, and as for saying that this is ‘ornament’ or that ‘structure’ such phrases if we remember them float like feathers on the [blast of a storm at sea]. Yet, suddenly, between the acts, the figure of Byron appears, how tawdry, insincere and theatrical! What an expansion of feeling we have undergone!

The large Achilles, on his pressed bed lolling,
From his deep chest laughs out a loud applause

[There is a magnificence in this world.] These are the great men who have caught us up into their own world. And later as the weaving of character and incident thickens not only are we engaged in the perpetual thrust and parry of mood, but more loftily have risen to be spectators; at the same time that we are actors, and are aware of the inevitable catastrophe; aware, not at this point of ‘art’ or a ‘circle round the whole’ but of something in fate which opposes itself inexorably to human desires. And then—the inevitable catastrophe does not happen. What is the failure in construction here? and the ornament—is that perhaps excessive? or somehow unrelated to the conception? But in spite of the conflict between good and bad and the apparent triumph of cynicism, do we feel so strongly [that] Shakespeare was on the side of . . . virtue?

There are a thousand questions arising from Troilus and Cressida in which we may become absorbed. But the main fact is plain enough. We have spent two or three hours with our faculties at full tilt. We have exercised our intellect, our sympathy, our scorn, our cynicism. The exercise has been continuous without interruption and always at high pitch. It is much more intense [than] the ceremony and interruption of the dinner table. It is capable of laying sleep the miserable agitations which beset men left alone to think about some Rose Shaw who has gone to a party. But it is the natural culmination of the days work, and Troilus and Cressida which is a difficult & puzzling play, yet draws the sting of the ordinary mans misery, and sweats out of him something impure.

Thus roughly we mark down a few of the emotions which have the most obvious relation to life. But it is clear that the greater part of what we feel when we read Shakespeare is incommunicable. So perhaps is the greater part of what we feel when we go for a country walk. There is a silence in life, a perpetual deposit of experience for which action provides no proper outlet and our own words no fit expression. And is this to be found in books—this most intimate life which is lived in solitude, and so alters the commonest sights of the country side that butterflies on the teasle compose in one pair of eyes a whole chapter of life and for another remain nothing but butterflies on the teasle? Indeed it is strange how often Shakespeare penetrates here; how often he will take some germ of emotion that we scarcely realised and show it in full flower elsewhere; how much indeed, that would die unexpressed [and unshared and] thus not fully felt in the privacy of our minds becomes bolder, more rational, and infinitely more profound in poetry.

But the constant use of the words feeling and emotion, of fascinations that are irresistible and yet indefinable, may give a handle to the moralist to object that there is no lesson in all this language, & nothing in pure literature that imposes restraint and teaches a man or woman to be good. There are people who go to chapel instead.


BUT EVEN HEWET WROTE ‘None’ when he was asked to state his religion on the Census paper. [The silence of life was certainly not expressed for him in Westminster Abbey, or in Westminster Cathedral. Nevertheless he did not show it when he was bored by an old friend.] He had some code of manners, some order and restraint in daily life, which he had come by—But how, in these days of science, opportunity and freedom do we come by codes, even of manners?

It would be unbecoming in a common reader to dogmatise [; may we not] suppose that anyone who likes poetry perceives [that there] is a strictness in poets minds; that they are orderly not lax; that the discipline which is needed to create a poem is needed to understand it; and this independent of any teaching which it may please us to elicit? What is the lesson of Troilus and Cressida? Heaven knows. But “fate opposes itself inexorably to human desires, and Shakespeare is on the side of virtue”—something like that remains with us, vague if we write it down, very powerful as we make it out—[and carry it with us.]

And now Mr Pepper is gone; and here is poor Terence Hewet half in love with Rose Shaw. Whole volumes have been written about Shakespeare’s view of love; but one still retains the impression that in his eyes love was important, not trivial. And so on with the rest of the days work; death and suffering; humiliation love and desire. And so different worlds merge into each other and to be for ever enlarging our spheres, with whatever materials come to hand, so as to live more fully and completely, to find what restraint and discipline are needed for this purpose; this, however differently it is done, seems to be the natural instinct of ordinary people. As for having Shakespeare without a hearthrug, or a hearth rug without Shakespeare, one is as unthinkable as the other.

In the end, then, though we have found no method, the fact seems to emerge that the writers of England and the readers of England are necessary to one another. They cannot live apart. They must be for ever engaged in intercourse. It is a law of our being and the proof of our descent from Briggs of Cornhill that we should somehow, anyhow, using the critics, scholars, the Lives and letters, gossip and journalism, fact and fiction, anything that comes handy, make out for ourselves what sort of book the Flame of Youth is by E. K. Sanders which is to be published on March 26th, 1922, price seven and sixpence. The publishers say it will be “the talk of the season”. It is high time to begin the review.

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) was an English novelist and essayist, known especially for Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, and A Room of One’s Own.
Originally published:
March 1, 1979


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