Thursday 25 January 2018


Today, 25th January, is the 136th birthday of Virginia Woolf. It's not something that we celebrate, nor know off by heart, but something that the Google Doodle told us about. We're big fans of Woolf though; So it was with the same sort of feeling of unbridled discovery and excitement that we unearthed, or simply stumbled upon, a rare recording of the author herself speaking. In fact, we learned that it is the only recording of Virginia Woolf.

It was recorded on 29th April, 1937 on BBC Radio, as part of a series called Words Fail Me. Woolf's lecture for this series was called "Craftsmanship", but unfortunately the recording encompasses just under 8 minutes of the whole thing, which is no doubt much longer. But the content of this fragment is intriguing and inspirational without hearing what was said before or how it was concluded. She explores words: where and how they live, how and why we use them; the way we talk to each other, especially with today's climate of endless yet compact online rhetoric, owes much if not almost everything to words and how they are perceived by everybody.

We have uploaded the fragment to SoundCloud. You can listen to that below. Alternatively, or simultaneously, you can enjoy the transcript we painstakingly completed of Virginia Woolf talking, which is located below the SoundCloud embed and includes a couple of annotations for your reading pleasure.

Words, English words, are full of echoes, memories, of associations. They've been out and about, on people's lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing today. They're stored with other meanings, with other memories. And they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past. The splendid word "incarnadine", for example. Who can use that without remembering multitudinous seas? ¹

In the old days, of course, when English was a new language, writers could invent new words and use them. Nowadays it's easy enough to invent new words; they spring to the lips whenever we see a new sight or feel a new sensation. But we cannot use them because the English language is old. You cannot use a brand new word in an old language because of the very obvious yet always mysterious fact that a word is not a single and separate entity: it is part of other words.

Indeed it is not a word until it is part of a sentence. Words belong to each other. Although of course only a great poet knows that the word "incarnadine" belongs to "multitudinous seas". To combine new words with old words is fatal to the constitution of the sentence. In order to use new words properly you would have to invent a whole new language and that, though no doubt we shall come to it, is not at the moment our business. Our business is to see what we can do with the old English language as it is. How can we combine the old words in new orders, so they survive, and so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth? That is the question. And the person who could answer that question would deserve whatever crown of glory the world has to offer.

Think what it would mean if you could teach, or if you could learn the art of writing. Why, every book, every newspaper you pick up, would tell the truth, or it would create beauty. But there is, it would appear, some obstacle in the way, some hindrance to the teaching of words. For, though at this moment, at least a hundred professors are lecturing on the literature of the past, at least a thousand critics are reviewing literature of the present, and hundreds upon hundreds of young men and women are passing examinations in English Literature with the utmost credit.

Still: do we write better, do we read better, than we read and wrote four hundred years ago when we were unlectured, uncriticised, untaught? Is our modern Georgian literature a patch on the Elizabethan? Well, where are we to lay the blame? Not on our professors, not on our reviewers, not on our writers, but on words. It is words that are to blame. They're the wildest, freest, most irresponsible, most unteachable of all things. Of course, you can catch them and sort them and place in them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind!

If you want proof of this, consider how often in moments of emotion, when we most need words, we find them. Yet there is a dictionary, there at our disposal are some half million words, all in alphabetical order. But can we use them? No. Because words do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.

Look once more at the dictionary. There beyond a doubt lie plays more splendid than Antony and Cleopatra, poems lovelier than the "Ode to a Nightingale", novels beside which Pride and Prejudice or David Copperfield are the crude bungling of amateurs. It's only a question of finding the right words and putting them in the right order. We can't do it, because they do not live in dictionaries, they live in the mind.

And how do they live in the mind? Variously and strangely, much as human beings live, ranging hither and thither, falling in love, meeting together. It is true they are much less bound by ceremony and convention than we are. Royal words meet with commoners, English words marry French words, German words, Indian words, Negro words, if they have a fancy. Indeed the less we inquire inquire into the past of our dear mother English, the better it will be for that lady's reputation for she has a-roving, a-roving, fair maid. ²

Thus to lay down any laws for such irreclaimable vagabonds is worse than useless. A few trifling rules of grammar and spelling is all the constraint we can put on them. All we can say about them, as we peer at them over the edge of their deep, dark and only fitfully illuminated cavern in which they live – the mind – all we can say about them is that they seem to like people to think before they use them, and to feel before they use them. But to think and to feel not about them, about something different. They're highly sensitive, easily made self-conscious. They do not like to have their purity or their impurity discussed. If you start a society for pure English, they will show their resentment by starting another for impure English, hence the unnatural violence of much modern speech as a protest against the puritans.

They're highly democratic too. They believe that one word is as good as another. Uneducated words as good as educated words. Uncultivated words as cultivated words. There are no ranks or titles in their society. Nor do they like being lifted on the point of a pen and examined separately. They hang together in sentences, paragraphs, sometimes for whole pages at a time. And they hate being useful. They hate making money. They hate being lectured about in public. In short they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude. For it is their nature to change. Perhaps that is their most striking peculiarity: their need of change.

It is because the truth they try to catch is many sided and they convey it by being many sided, flashing first this way, then that. Thus they mean one thing to one person, another thing to another person. They're unintelligible to one generation, plain as a pikestaff to the next. And it is because of this complexity, this power to mean different things to people, that they survive.

Perhaps the one reason why we have no great poet, novelist or critic writing today is that we refuse to allow words their liberty. We pin them down to one meaning, their useful meaning, the meaning which makes us catch the train, the meaning which makes us pass the examination.

  • ¹ Woolf relating "incarnadine" to "multitudinous seas" is a reference to Shakespeare's Macbeth, specifically this part of Act 2, Scene 2:
    [Knocking within]

    Whence is that knocking?
    How is't with me, when every noise appalls me?
    What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.
    Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
    Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
    The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
    Making the green one red.

    ² This is a reference to a traditional sea shanty "The Maid of Amsterdam" (~1600), which in part goes:
    She placed her hand upon my knee,
    Mark well what I do say!
    She placed her hand upon my knee,
    I said "Young miss, you're rather free."
    I'll go no more a roving with you fair maid!
    It is also said to have inspired Byron's poem "So, we'll go no more a roving".

• Photo at top by George Charles Beresford, 1902 • Photo above by Gisรจle Freund, 1939

No comments:

Post a Comment