Moths that fly by day are not properly to be called moths; they do not excite that pleasant sense of dark autumn nights and ivy-blossom which the commonest yellow-underwing asleep in the shadow of the curtain never fails to rouse in us. They are hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies nor sombre like their own species. Nevertheless the present specimen, with his narrow hay-coloured wings, fringed with a tassel of the same colour, seemed to be content with life. It was a pleasant morning, mid–September, mild, benignant, yet with a keener breath than that of the summer months. The plough was already scoring the field opposite the window, and where the share had been, the earth was pressed flat and gleamed with moisture. Such vigour came rolling in from the fields and the down beyond that it was difficult to keep the eyes strictly turned upon the book. The rooks too were keeping one of their annual festivities; soaring round the tree tops until it looked as if a vast net with thousands of black knots in it had been cast up into the air; which, after a few moments sank slowly down upon the trees until every twig seemed to have a knot at the end of it. Then, suddenly, the net would be thrown into the air again in a wider circle this time, with the utmost clamour and vociferation, as though to be thrown into the air and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a tremendously exciting experience.
The same energy which inspired the rooks, the ploughmen, the horses, and even, it seemed, the lean bare-backed downs, sent the moth fluttering from side to side of his square of the window-pane. One could not help watching him. One was, indeed, conscious of a queer feeling of pity for him. The possibilities of pleasure seemed that morning so enormous and so various that to have only a moth’s part in life, and a day moth’s at that, appeared a hard fate, and his zest in enjoying his meagre opportunities to the full, pathetic. He flew vigorously to one corner of his compartment, and, after waiting there a second, flew across to the other. What remained for him but to fly to a third corner and then to a fourth? That was all he could do, in spite of the size of the downs, the width of the sky, the far-off smoke of houses, and the romantic voice, now and then, of a steamer out at sea. What he could do he did. Watching him, it seemed as if a fibre, very thin but pure, of the enormous energy of the world had been thrust into his frail and diminutive body. As often as he crossed the pane, I could fancy that a thread of vital light became visible. He was little or nothing but life.
Yet, because he was so small, and so simple a form of the energy that was rolling in at the open window and driving its way through so many narrow and intricate corridors in my own brain and in those of other human beings, there was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life. Thus displayed one could not get over the strangeness of it. One is apt to forget all about life, seeing it humped and bossed and garnished and cumbered so that it has to move with the greatest circumspection and dignity. Again, the thought of all that life might have been had he been born in any other shape caused one to view his simple activities with a kind of pity.
After a time, tired by his dancing apparently, he settled on the window ledge in the sun, and, the queer spectacle being at an end, I forgot about him. Then, looking up, my eye was caught by him. He was trying to resume his dancing, but seemed either so stiff or so awkward that he could only flutter to the bottom of the window-pane; and when he tried to fly across it he failed. Being intent on other matters I watched these futile attempts for a time without thinking, unconsciously waiting for him to resume his flight, as one waits for a machine, that has stopped momentarily, to start again without considering the reason of its failure. After perhaps a seventh attempt he slipped from the wooden ledge and fell, fluttering his wings, on to his back on the window sill. The helplessness of his attitude roused me. It flashed upon me that he was in difficulties; he could no longer raise himself; his legs struggled vainly. But, as I stretched out a pencil, meaning to help him to right himself, it came over me that the failure and awkwardness were the approach of death. I laid the pencil down again.
The legs agitated themselves once more. I looked as if for the enemy against which he struggled. I looked out of doors. What had happened there? Presumably it was midday, and work in the fields had stopped. Stillness and quiet had replaced the previous animation. The birds had taken themselves off to feed in the brooks. The horses stood still. Yet the power was there all the same, massed outside indifferent, impersonal, not attending to anything in particular. Somehow it was opposed to the little hay-coloured moth. It was useless to try to do anything. One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death. Nevertheless after a pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again. It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself. One’s sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life. Also, when there was nobody to care or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely. Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead. I lifted the pencil again, useless though I knew it to be. But even as I did so, the unmistakable tokens of death showed themselves. The body relaxed, and instantly grew stiff. The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death. As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder. Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.
September 27, 1942Virginia Woolf's "The Death of the Moth"
By HORACE GREGORY
THE DEATH OF THE MOTH
By Virginia Woolf
By E. M. Forster
n reading Virginia Woolf at her very best - which includes "Mrs. Dallaway," "To The Lighthouse," "The Waves" and certain of her essays in her two Common Readers as well as the present volume - it is necessary to dust off and repolish that tarnished, dented, much abused word that has become a piece of kitchenware in criticism, "genius." It is necessary, I repeat, to say that genius, for better or for worse, means that the writer whose gifts have earned the once-coveted and shining title is the spirit of a particular time and place, a tutelar deity whose radiance sheds an unflickering, beneficent light within temple walls. Mrs. Woolf's gifts, however else we may define them, were of that quality; their resistance was Bloomsbury in London and not too far from the dark and yet Alexandrian outlines of the British museum; the moment which they suffused with pallid and clear illumination on library walls or in guest bedrooms of a country house on holidays or at eight o'clock dinner parties in the city was of the period that we now recall as existing precariously between two major wars. It was that time and place through Mrs. Woolf's spirit moved and to which the spirit brought its singular endowments of sentimentality and grace.
Mrs. Woolf's American publishers have thoughtfully issues Mr. Forster's tributary lecture on Virginia Woolf to accompany the posthumous collection of her essays, "The Death of the Moth," a volume, by the way, which might well have been published as a third series of confidence to her Common Reader. Mr. Forster's tribute, delivered in the Senate House in Cambridge on May 28, 1941, is of a sort that only he could have spoken, for the author of "Abinger's Harvest" and "A Passage to India" is another branch of the same tree which Henry James had planted in London soil and whose roots were the source of nourishment for the gifts of Dorothy Richardson as well as his own and those of Virginia Woolf. His remarks are of more penetrating eloquence than her notations on his novels in the present collection of her essays, but he has, we reflect, the advantage of the last word. As she inquires, somewhat impatiently, of Mr. Forster's work, "What next?" he proceeds calmly to celebrate the pervading charms of her personality, its freedom within the limitations she imposed, its unexpected turns of laughter, its sudden responsiveness - despite its air of seeming guardedly aloof - before an audience of women, its virtues as a "lady" who lived upon her income of five hundred pounds a year, for she could not pretend that her mother turned a mangle, and she herself, unlike Mrs. Giles of Durham, "had never stood at the washtub." Those of us who have read Mrs. Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" would find it difficult, I think, not to recognize the personality that Mr. Forster breathes to life in an hour's lecture, and that same personality resumes its character in an essay on "Middlebrow" which Mrs. Woolf's husband saw fit to include in "The Death of the Moth"; nor does one quarrel with Mr. Forster's carefully, adroitly balanced peroration in which he says "she gave acute pleasure in new ways, she pushed the light of the English language a little farther against darkness."
Whatever Mr. Forster says in his brief talk reflects the sensibility of an elder inhabitant of Virginia Woolf's world as well as one who traveled beyond its sphere, so far we may be assured of his wisdom and his poise, and he has said more within the hour and some thirty-seven small, wide-margined pages than many other solemn-eyed essayist could say in a hundred large sheets of fine, closely printed type. But for my part, I find myself thinking less of Virginia Woolf as a "lady" and as a "woman," than as a daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, the singular person who in her youth was surrounded by gentlemen of late Victorian celebrity; one thinks of Meredith, of Ruskin, of the American Ambassador, James Russell Lowell, of Robert Louis Stevenson, and, of course, Sir Edmund Gosse; one thinks of books lining the walls of a capacious library, and with them the names of writers who reappear in the pages of Mrs. Woolf's novels and essays: Sir Walter Scott, Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Shakespeare, Horace Walpole, Edward Gibbon - but the list would grow tedious and seem inexhaustible. One begins to wonder if, after all, after writing "A Room of One's Own" and "To the Lighthouse," she had made an escape from Sir Leslie's house and the gentlemen who came for tea? She believed she did, and there is written evidence of an exit left behind her, but a door remains open, and still one wonders, if she did escape, how far?
Far enough, one says at first, to discover a singular melody for her own prose, and Mr. Leonard Woolf, in editing this latest of her posthumous volumes, remarks upon her care in rewriting and revising the merest reviews sent off to the London Times Literary Supplement and The New Statesman. That melody, one may trust, was her great concern, and it sounded as she rehearsed and played it with the noise and chiming of many little bells.
Sometimes the bells rang sharply and clearly, striking their notes of nearly absolute finality in the newly published pieces on Horace Walpole, Sara Coleridge and "Street Haunting," but on occasion - and it is usually an occasion when the subject of the piece happens to be a romantic poet, Coleridge, or Shelley, or a Shakespearean play - the little bells ring so persistently that they seem to cover something left unsaid. Are these the moments when the escape from Sir Leslie's threshold was incomplete? When the open door behind her made it imperative that she remember Coleridge and Shelley? And because she must remember, therefore the bells chimes insistently, over and over with not too much to say?
Whether or not these questions can be answered with the directness that one might desire, it is plain enough that with a few exceptions Mrs. Woolf is at her happiest as she recaptures a moment of the eighteenth century viewed always in the light of her own day. As one reads her interpretations of Walpole and Cole, of "The Historian and 'The Gibbon,'" her escape seems certain; and in "Street Haunting: A London Adventure" her spirit resumes its character of genius. We are certain also that she in the generation between wars revived the so-called "familiar essay" which began its life in the formal prose of Addison, reappeared, or rather culminated one period of its existence in Charles Lamb's "Elia" and then breathed fitfully until Max Beerbohm arrived in London. It is that heritage which one rediscovers in "The Death of the Moth," and it seems natural, even in a literary sense, for Mrs. Woolf to have selected the eighteenth century as one point of origin, a birthplace, perhaps, of her identity. The sensibility which she expressed to the admiration of her contemporaries had its likeness in the Age of Sensibility itself.
In her essays she was a mistress of what often has been called an "outmoded" form, and if one admits that the familiar essay was among the vehicles of her genius, one need not concern one's self too deeply over the question of her ability in literary criticism. She was not, I believe, vastly disturbed by problems of the intellect, and because she was not one may find one of the several reasons for her lack of ease in the presence of Coleridge. She exerted an influence in literary matters because her artistry embraced the arts of persuasion and of charm. It is only when her criticism appears to be incidental to the portrait of a literary figure that it becomes convincing to the eye, and when the portrait is lacking, and when the criticism takes the form of a set argument, the illumination fades, the walls of the library are blank and we hear only the ringing of her small bells.
It may seem strange that her essays on Henry James, George Moore and E. M. Forster are less good than the others, and that her "Letter to a Young Poet" offers no more than what Polonius would say. The question of her escape from what was once Sir Leslie Stephen's threshold and the distance between it and her room in Bloomsbury returns in a slightly different guise. She seems to be reminded, half-unwillingly, of her duties to the many books piled high against the wall, of her obligation to the names of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, Byron, of upholding among her contemporaries, both young and old, judgment that weights the page with lists of names. The names, we admit, are familiars of discourse on literary subjects, but as she uses them to stress the failures of contemporary literature, they remain mere counters of discussion. In these papers one feels that she is not the fortunate genius who writes with such brilliancy of Coleridge's daughter, Sara - and the question is: Has her genius found itself again because it was spoken in the voices of two daughters of famous men, one the daughter of a poet and philosopher, the other the daughter of a knighted literary critic?
In closing this third volume of Virginia Woolf's addresses to her Common Reader one is impelled to say that no reading of her best work can be called complete without a knowledge of it, without the delight of hearing her genius speak again. And in her essay that recreates the magic of walking city streets at evening, "street haunting" as she calls it, written in 1930, one finds a premonition of her own death, and her true epitaph:
"The sights we see and the sounds we hear now how none of the quality of the past; nor have we any share in the serenity of the person who, six months ago, stood precisely where we stand now. His is the happiness of death; ours is the insecurity of life. He has no future; the future is even now invading our peace. It is only when we look at the past and take from it the element of uncertainty that we can enjoy perfect peace."
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