04 January 2009

Goddess in the Park: The Missed Opportunity of Peter Walsh in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway

It is natural to feel alone when suffering from an emotional event. It is difficult to imagine another person experiencing a similar incident. To find comfort a person must realize that he is not alone, and if he listens to others with similar experiences, he will also gain wisdom about his situation. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Peter Walsh is in emotional turmoil as he exits Regent’s Park. The opportunity of comfort and wisdom for Peter Walsh’s emotional suffering is presented through Woolf use of the “mythopoeic image of the tree of life” (Viola 240) and reference to “a lyric on the theme of love and grief” (Low 89) in the scene of the Regent’s Park street singer.

Peter’s emotional turmoil is evident through his constant thoughts of Clarissa as he walks through Regent’s Park. He is “unable to get away from the thought of her” (Woolf 76). One moment he insists that it does not mean he is “in love with her any more […] it was thinking of her, criticizing her” (Woolf 76), and then the next moment Peter asks if it “could it be that he was in love with her then, remembering the misery, the torture, the extraordinary passion of those days” (Woolf 79). He is no longer certain of his feelings. There are other incidents in Regent’s Park that show Clarissa is the focus of Peter’s suffering. Earlier in the morning Peter visited Clarissa and after the meeting he felt “hollowed out, utterly empty within [because] Clarissa refused” him (Woolf 49). When Peter first reaches Regent’s Park, he immediately finds a place to “sit in the shade and smoke” (Woolf 55), and then falls asleep (Woolf 56). Upon waking Peter says “The death of the soul” and “the words [attach] themselves” (Woolf 58) in Peter’s mind to the memory of when Clarissa told him that “this is the end” (Woolf 64) of their relationship. Finally, as Peter leaves Regent’s Park he recollects “bursting into tears” that morning in front of Clarissa. He fears that Clarissa may have “thought him a fool” (Woolf 80). Peter is uncertain of his feelings toward Clarissa, but he also fearful that Clarissa thinks he is weak and a failure. Peter is obviously suffering an emotional crisis.

As Peter exits Regent’s Park he is presented with the opportunity to gain comfort and wisdom about his situation. Initially, it appears that Peter is simply “interrupted” by an unintelligible street singer that sings “ee um fah um so / foo swee to eem oo –” (Woolf 80). It is Woolf’s use of trees imagery, especially those of the roots and trunk, that “point[s] unmistakably to the image of a fertility goddess such as appeared in the ancient myths and was often represented as a tree” (Viola 241) that shows the singer is more than a vagrant. Woolf describes the street singer as a “wind-beaten tree for ever barren of leaves which lets the wind run up and down its branches singing,” (81) and describes her voice as “an ancient spring spouting from the earth” (81). This description of the woman encompasses her entire being from her body to her voice as parts of a tree, including roots, branches, and leaves. In ancient myths “trees are often depicted in the style of a female figure” (Viola 242, as qt. in Encyclopaedia of Symbols).

Another goddess-like quality of the street singer is the eternal life Woolf provides her by using descriptions such as “the voice of no age,” “through all ages,” “love which has lasted a million years,” “infinite ages,” “in some primeval may she had walked,” and “still be there in ten million years” (81-82). Viola explains that J.C. Cooper defines the tree as an eternal element by saying that it “grows into the world of Time, adding rings to manifest its age, and its branches reach the heavens and eternity” (243-244 as qt in Encyclopaedia of Symbols). Viola viewed this definition in agreement with the street singer (244).

In ancient myths the tree goddess is “the personification of all the reproductive energies of nature” (Viola 244, as qt in The Golden Bough). Woolf conveys this aspect of the tree goddess through a metaphor of tree roots and water. Woolf describes the street singer’s song as “bubbling up” and the surrounding grass as “green and flowery” (81). This creates the image of the song as water that fertilizes the grass. Woolf continues by using a metaphor of tree roots to describe the street singer’s mouth: “a mere hole in the earth, muddy too, matted with root fibres and tangled grasses” (81). Woolf returns to the metaphor of water and the fertility of the song: “still the old bubbling burbling song, soaking through the knotted roots of infinite ages, […] streamed away […] fertilizing, leaving a damp stain” (81). Viola states that “the metaphors emphasize the feminine aspect of reproduction and help to build up the mythological image of the cosmic tree, complete from leaves to water-nourished roots” (243).

Viola quotes J.C. Cooper to explain the comforting aspect of the tree goddess in ancient myths: “The tree also symbolizes the feminine principle, the nourishing, sheltering, protecting, supporting aspect of the Great Mother” (241, qt as qt in Encyclopaedia of Symbols). Just as Peter was feeling “furious,” “tortured,” and “a whimpering, sniveling old ass” (Woolf 80) he encounters the street singer who by her nature as the tree goddess could provide Peter with comfort for his emotional suffering.

The street singer could also provide Peter with understanding and understanding for his emotional suffering through shared experience. What was initially thought as an incomprehensible song “with an absence of all human meaning” (Woolf 80) is actually a song of mourning a lost love. Woolf uses a poem by Hemann von Gilm (Low 88), which Richard Strauss set to music (Low 89) as the street singer’s song. The poem is called “Allerseelen” which translates to “All Souls’ Day” (Low 89), a holiday where the dead walk the earth. The street singer “implore[s] the Gods to lay by her side a bunch of purple heather” (Woolf 81), and in the poem the first line is “Place at my side the purple glowing heather” (Low 89). The street singer mentions walking with her lover in May four times (Woolf 81-82), and “All Souls’ Day” mentions May in the last line of every stanza, totaling four instances: “as once in May,” in life’s sweet May,” “we’ll dream of May, we’ll dream of May” (Low 89-90). The street singer sings “look in my eyes with thy sweet eyes intently […] give me your hand and let me press it gently […] and if some one should see, what matter they?” (Woolf 82). The second stanza of the poem conveys the same message: “Give me thy hand, and let me press it fondly, / nor heed lest others see nor what they say. / And gaze on me, love, as thou wert wont to fondly” (Low 90). The street singer’s song explains how she lost her love to death and still mourns him. It also shows that she can provide Peter with understanding for his lost love of Clarissa to another man.

Woolf also shows the street singer has more experience than Peter because her love has “lasted a million years” and is still a “love which prevails” (Woolf 81). The additional experience provides wisdom on how things change over time. The street singer knows that with time, though the love still exists, “the passage of ages had blurred the clarity” (Woolf 82) of the memories. Throughout the day it is Peter’s memories that have plagued him. The memories are clear and detailed. When Peter recalls the emotional incident when Clarissa ended her relationship with him, he remarks “how sights fix themselves upon the mind” (Woolf 64). The street singer can provide the wisdom that as time passes the memories no longer have sharp detail, but are “only a looming shape, a shadow shape” (Woolf 82).

Unfortunately, Peter misses his opportunity for both comfort from a nurturing tree goddess and wisdom from and experienced street singer. He only sees the street singer as a ‘poor creature” and not as someone who can help him through his suffering. Peter may not recognize the opportunity of wisdom because he believes “women […] don’t know what passion is” (Woolf 80) and therefore he does not believe that the street singer’s song is true. Peter may have missed the opportunity for comfort simply because he is not observant. Clarissa stated “however beautiful the day might be, and the trees and the grass, and the little girl in pink – Peter never saw a thing of all that” (Woolf 7), meaning that Peter never saw the beauty in things around him. Peter simply may have not noticed the beauty in the tree goddess residing in the street singer, thus missing the opportunity. Peter Walsh leaves Regent’s Park still suffering and still conflicted about his memories and feeling for Clarissa, no wiser and no calmer.

Works Cited
Low, Peter. "Singable Translations of Songs." Perspectives: Studies in Translatology 11.2 (2003): 87-103. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Bierce & Science Library, Akron, OH. 6 June 2008 .

Viola, Andre. "`Buds on the tree of life': A recurrent mythological image in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway." Journal of Modern Literature 20.2 (Winter 1996): 239. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Bierce & Science Library, Akron, OH. 5 June 2008 .

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1990.

Copyright 2008 Jennifer Beaujon

1 comment:

  1. Thanks alot..
    That was very helpfull since i have difficulty in reading this novel.