In fact the most important and distinguishing feature of a novel of this genre is that it transcends the casual and temporal movement of narrative within the framework of fiction. It rather uses the novel to perform the function of a poem. For such a novel it is not a matter of prime importance to reproduce external life truthfully. It discards the method of achieving objectivity through the dramatic and narrative form of the traditional novel, but combines the world in a strongly inward, yet an aesthetically objective norm. Thus its form is neither dramatic nor didactic, but poetic in the limited sense of being lyrical. And, generally speaking, a lyric is a short poem which a single emotion, usually personal, is expressed, although originally it was intended to be sung with the lyre. So it is musical and at the same time subjective, as it is built round a single mood, emotion or impression.
To rigidly define the form of a lyrical novel is rather a baffling task. A lyrical novel is a blend of lyrical poetry and the novel in the usual sense. In it the usual scenery of fiction becomes a texture of imagery. It also shifts the reader’s attention from men and events to a formal design. It has generally a poetic style. But this is not all. Any novel may rise to such great heights of language or present its narrative in imagery.
Mrs. Woolf and Lyrical Novel
Virginia Woolf was in quest of a meditative form through which she could convey simultaneously a picture of life and manners and a corresponding image of mind. In fact her essay ‘Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brown opened the door of the novel to fresh conventions, foreshadowing a lyrical manner for the English novel through the conversion of characters and scenes into symbolic imagery. She sought to convey inner life and she realised that this could be best done in a lyrical manner. Finding that the conventional novel of motives and environment had proved insufficient she has suggested in one of her famous essays that its form should be such that it provides like poetry ‘the outline rather than details, and stands further back from life in order to achieve the symbolic distance of impersonality.’
Ralph Freedman has pointed out that in Virginia Woolf’s search for a form in which the inner and the outer can be combined, she conceived of the moment as a concentration of the manifold elements of life into significant images or scenes. In addition to the literary use the moments also serve the epistornological function of clarifying the implication of consciousness for the artist’s experience of life, a version of the imagination. In fact, for Virginia Woolf the inner and the outer are included in a single whole. The thing is that consciousness combines disparate elements and form; these elements thus combined, the moment moves to associations and memories which expand perceptions into scenes. But when the perceptions are being expanded into scenes, the consciousness always remains aware of the objects which feed its cognition, and realizes that for the time being these things are freed from their time-bound existance. So we find that Mrs. Woolf’s lyrical narrative is based on a design in which various contents of consciousness are juxtaposed. David Daiches has rightly remarked that the method is to ‘distil a significance out of the data discovered by the personal sensibility and by projecting that significance through the minds of others, to maintain an unstable equilibrium between lyrical and narrative art.’ And the unstable equilibrium between the lyrical and narrative art shows how Virginia Woolf brilliantly achieves the telescoping of the poet’s lyrical self and the novelist’s omniscient point of view. For Mrs. Woolf, poetry is a symbolic relationship between the individual self and its range of experience. So we find that the omniscient self of the poet-novelist is crucial to her concept of lyrical novel.
We already know that Virginia Woolf’s aim was to convey inner life, to display life as an aspect and function of the mind. And she realised that the resources of ordinary prose were really inadequate for this purpose. Hence she had to adopt a very peculiar, a very individual style. Hers is a poetic style with poetic rhythms, repetitions and poetic imagery. We find her using vivid symbols and metaphors which carry a complex aura of associations and emotions just to enable her to enhance the expressiveness of the language. Hence her style becomes superbly allusive and suggestive. Rhythms, assonances, cadences and poetic refrains are the distinctive features of her poetic prose. R.L. Chamber’s apt remarks regarding this aspect of her style is worth noting: “This prose that approximates to poetry is not a spurious or hybrid form, but a genuine and legitimate medium of expression in its own right. Virginia Woolf is in a great tradition, which includes the names of Plato and John Donne and Sir Thomas Browne and the translators of the authoriscal version of the Bible. Furthermore it is a fact that by writing a poetic prose, by borrowing from the technique of poetry, while retaining the essential prose rhythms, all these writers exercised a true artistic insight into the possibilities and limitations of their medium. They realised the enormous advantage that was to be had for their purpose in shunning as far as possible that extreme pole of prose. Virginia Woolf realised this better than anyone else who was writing prose in her time.”
“Time Passes” Its Lyricism
The poetical character or the lyric note of Virginia Woolf’s style is fully in evidence in the lyrical nature of Part II entitled, Time Passes in her To The Lighthouse. Jean Guiguet has very nicely dealt with a very beautiful analysis of the lyrical aspect of this chapter. The lyrical character of the “Time Passes” has been compared with the opening of chapter 5 of Orland.
In these two passages Mrs. Woolf treats of her favourite theme, ‘this impersonal thing, the flight of time. ‘She has taken recourse to the same cosmic elements which bring about change-wind, water, light, shade, conceived of as mysterious powers, as an army of goblins attacking objects one by one to corrode them, to transform them, disintegrate them. Whether night in invading the Ramsays’ house or rainy gales assaulting the whole of England, the change of scale is scarcely noticeable, for the proportions of the opposing forces remain the same : man and his world on the one hand, and on the other the elfin army, unseen and immeasurable. The vision is the same in both cases.
The Lyricism is Impersonal
In Time Passes the lyricism is essentially personal or subjective, hence doubts have been expressed if the lyrical quality of this chapter in this novel is genuinely lyrical. So Jean Guiguet has discussed this point in great detail. There is no character, no individual consciousness, no voice uttering the poetic words. There is only a scene taking place independent of any spectators, life pursuing its course independent of any living being. Is this depersonalization not antagonistic to the very essence of lyricism? If by lyricism we mean the expression of exalted feelings, as in Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Immortality Ode or Epipsychidion, it rather becomes difficult to accept ‘Time Passes’ as a lyric. Nevertheless the presence of an ‘I’ of an individual consciousness as the seat of such feelings, is perhaps only an accidental element in lyricism, a literary convention and all things considered, a superficial characteristic. In the poems above mentioned, we are scarcely concerned with the ‘I’, which has no distinct features and is only the transparent support for the emotion—love, anguish, nostalgia, aspiration —which is the real substance of the poem. That Virginia Woolf did away with this support is not surprising; it follows logically from her principles.
Abstraction in this Lyricism
Evidently there is a degree of abstraction in this lyricism. Facing the cosmos, thinking about it and enduring it, we have only the anonymous human beings ‘we’, ‘one’, whoever’, the indefinite subject of an infinitive verb. This degree of abstraction appears to be a characteristic of one aspect of Virginia Woolf’s lyricism. Without passing through the intermediary of any individual experience it attempts to render directly the relations between the man and the universe. These are thus reduced to their most elementary form. The themes of traditional lyricism, nature, love and death are convenient labels for those fundamental complexities of which each poet creates his characteristic variant or blend. They are, in fact, so many questions without intelligible answer, whose mystery the artist tries to prove obliquely by means of a whole system of transpositions, whose evocative value and whose load of symbolism are destined to act on the sensibility and intelligence of the reader, so as to convey to him the inexpressible reality. And the two questions that absorbed Virginia Woolf and provided the matter for her lyric outbursts are the same as those which she asked and tried to answer under all the forms with which her art experimented in turn: time and—personal identity. They are complementary to such an extent that one cannot be contemplated without the other.
Abstraction made Concrete and Perceptible
It is really creditable for Virginia Woolf to succeed in giving body and substance to what abstract thought had devitalized. She apprehends time in the form of the changes it brings about, just as an artist is recognised through his creation. But change is also an abstraction to make it concrete and perceptible to the sense, it is necessary to expand the present until it contains the past too, and to insert, between the two limits, mobility, or rather mutation, which includes permanence within change. And Jean Guiguet has pointed out that the opening of sections 3 and 9 of part I is quite significant in this connection.
“But what after all is one night? A short space, especially when the darkness dims so soon, and so soon a bird sings, a cock crows, or a faint green quickens, like a turning leaf, in the hollow of the wave. Night, however, succeeds night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken.”
“The house was left, the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sandhill to fill with dry salt grams now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs nibbling, the clammy breaths fumbling seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed. Toads had nosed their way Idly aimlessly, the swaying shall swung to and fro.”
There is not a verb here, either standing alone or modified by an adverb, which fails to indicate some alteration: yet at the same time, under the change of aspect, of colour, of texture, we feel the enduring nature of night, of the house, of the wave, of the breeze, the saucepan or the shawl. This seems to be a description, although distended by time and undermined by mutability; but that which is describable, that which is seen, is only a means of expressing the indescribable, the invisible, that is contained within it. Surely this is described and precisely that abstract-concrete reality so necessary to Virginia Woolf. These images and sensations, merging together in the synthesis of an inner landscape over and above all their plastic value, have a lyrical quality or symbolic power which makes them linger in the mind.
Words with Double Aspect
It has also been explained that all the words in the two passages have a double aspect, night, the wave, the grain of salt, the wind, the toad, rust—these are agents of decay and destruction, the forces of time warning against the forces of life: the bird, the leaf, the house, the shawl…And so such passages expand into abstraction without a break, imperceptibly: the words, ruin, corruption, oblivion, insensibility of nature, which occur later are associated with so many images and sensations that they take on fresh life, an almost physical content. Meditation is superimposed on things seen, and it does not obliterate it, rather recalls it constantly. A few lines indeed can give no idea of the richness and artistry of these pages, in which words invoke and answer one another from one paragraph to the next, while awakening distant echoes from the book’s truest horizons. Their music moreover, adds to their incantatory power and perfects their poeti character.
Virginia Woolf undoubtedly chose prose for her medium of expression, but her prose is a poetic-prose, ‘prose that approximates to poetry’. In spite of her great achievements she is, in fact, not the originator of ‘the stream of consciousness’ novel in England. Dorothy Richardson precedes her as the Path-finder. But she fully deserves the credit for poetising and musicalising the novel of subjectivity. Allusions and images, rhythm, refrain and metaphors all these combine to make Virginia Woolf’s style poetic. The great novels of Virginia Woolf not only reveal the stream of consciousness of their characters but flow like a stream themselves soothing our soul with its musical murmur.