Skip to content →

Susan Watson

Yet strong pleasure rises from every sentence: Anne Carson invokes the spirit of Virginia Woolf

Note: This essay is a work of ‘creative criticism’.  It is not intended to be a piece of pure academic writing.  For this reason, I have not included a bibliography and have kept footnotes and references to the minimum, providing them only where they enable to reader to trace actual quotations from texts or to acknowledge instances where I have directly relied on the work of other writers.  Anne Carson herself has adopted a similar approach to scholarly apparatus in the two ‘lyric essays’ that I discuss below.

Anne Carson’s prose poem ‘Appendix to Ordinary Time’ begins with a sharply stated fact and then a realisation.  ‘My mother died the autumn I was writing this.  And Now I have no one, I thought.’[1]

This essay is the final piece in Anne Carson’s collection Men in the Off Hours.  Men in the Off Hours is mostly a series of experiments in hybrid forms in which Carson negotiates the edgelands between the poem and the essay, the creative and the critical.  Some readers have found these experiments unconvincing and problematic.  Reviewers have been particularly critical of Carson’s habit of incorporating direct quotations from other texts into her own poems (‘repackaging of established artistic brands’) and have pointed out that the frequent quotations often overshadow the works of which they form a part.

One of the perils of openly borrowing another writer’s words is that you may accidentally draw attention to the relative mediocrity and emptiness of your own, to the vast gulf between their achievement and yours.  There is a danger, too, that you will be accused of deliberately setting out to baffle the reader or of parading your erudition at the expense of craftsmanship.

But ‘Appendix to Ordinary Time’ is an exception, one of a handful of occasions on which the risk has been worth taking.  As the title suggests, it looks back to the very first piece in the collection: ‘Ordinary Time: Virginia Woolf and Thucydides on War’. When Carson says, ‘My mother died the autumn I was writing this’, she is referring to ‘Ordinary Time’, to which the ‘Appendix’ is ostensibly a companion or an afterthought.  ‘Ordinary Time’ can also be read as a preparation for the ‘Appendix’.

‘Ordinary Time’ juxtaposes two works by two very different writers: Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and Virginia Woolf’s short story ‘The Mark on the Wall’.  Many readers might regard Thucydides and Woolf as an unusual and unexpected combination, but Carson has said: ‘I think of ideas as having shapes and when I sense that two different texts or writers have the same shapes in them, I know I can bring them together’.[2]

Bringing different writers and texts together involves placing them alongside each other, working with the correspondences between them.  Here, Carson’s comparisons between Thucydides’ classical history and Woolf’s experimental narrative give rise to reflections on the nature of time and, in part, how gender can influence the ways in which writers perceive and depict the nature of time.

‘How people tell time is an intimate and local fact about them’, says Carson.[3]  One of the reasons why she likes the History of the Peloponnesian War is that Thucydides begins his narrative by naming seven different ways of telling the time.  And then he tells the war through linear narrative, detailing its causes and events; he puts himself on ‘a high vantage point above such facts, so that we look down as if at a map’.  Woolf does not.

Woolf’s narrator begins ‘The Mark on the Wall’ with a reference to her own current circumstances.  ‘In order to fix a date it is necessary to remember what one saw.’  It is significant that she cannot precisely fix the date.  ‘Perhaps it was the middle of January in the present year.’[4]  ‘She stays in her own time.  She stays right in the middle.’  As the title suggests, one important thing that Woolf’s narrative has in common with that of Thucydides is war: her short story was written during the First World War.

But Woolf’s narrator never mentions the war explicitly, although it is present by implication, in her speculations on retired colonels, tombs and camps, mentions of knights, Troy, male hierarchies and the Table of Precedency.  The War only comes in at the very end, as an interruption.  Someone abruptly cuts off the narrator’s train of thought.  He stands over her, announcing, ‘I’m going out to buy a newspaper.’  He curses the war.  ‘Nothing ever happens.’

‘Ordinary Time’ is not only concerned with time and gender.  It also raises questions about form.  At first it appears to be an academic essay.  The title is in two parts separated by a colon and there are quotations from Thucydides and Aristotle, some of them with references.  But Carson subverts the reader’s expectations on the very first line.  She begins with ‘I like’.  Later in the first paragraph she writes, ‘His archaeology reads like a swirling dust of anecdotes and speech and usual pretexts and true causes’.

This is not an academic essay after all.  It belongs to a different tradition, one that began with Michel de Montaigne, of an essay as an attempt or an exploration which does not necessarily arrive at a firm conclusion. This is a ‘lyric’ essay in two senses: the prose is musical, rhythmic; and it assumes a personal relation with the reader (the writer is the lyric ‘I’).  It ranges through the two works, bringing the shapes of their ideas together; there is no manifest argument or clear narrative structure.

In this it echoes ‘The Mark on the Wall’, which progresses in a similar manner.  Although this is normally categorised as a short story (and Woolf herself thought of it in this way) it bears some resemblance to an essay.  It does not foreground its narrative structure; instead it takes the form of a ‘stream of consciousness’ around the narrator’s observation of a strange mark on the wall as she wonders what it is.

But after the interruption the mark on the wall is no longer a starting place for speculation and digression, something around which to weave stories, something on which to hang these things, or a spot to settle on.  It is a foreign body, an invader from the outside world.  It has been identified.  ‘It was a snail.’

Woolf’s story ends abruptly, but Carson carries on.  ‘Ordinary Time’ ends with a quotation from Woolf, not from ‘The Mark on the Wall’, but from one of her letters, written, as Carson points out, some years later.  This is significant.  Until this point in the essay, although some of the quotations from Thucydides have been separated from the main text, all the quotations from Woolf have been woven into the text itself, incorporated into its prose rhythms.  Not only does she literally give Woolf the last word, but she gives her words extra emphasis by setting the paragraph apart.

Here is the full text of the letter, with Carson’s quotations from it in bold:

One of these days I will write out some phases of my writer’s life; and expound what I now merely say in short – After being ill and suffering every form and variety of nightmare and extravagant intensity of perception – for I used to make up poems, stories, profound and to me inspired phrases all day long as I lay in bed, and thus sketched, I think, all that I now, by the light of reason, try to put into prose, (I thought of the Lighthouse then, and Kew and others, not in substance, but in idea) – after all this, when I came to, I was so tremblingly afraid of my own insanity that I wrote Night and Day mainly to prove to my own satisfaction that I could keep entirely off that dangerous ground.

I wrote it, lying in bed, allowed myself to write only for one half hour a day.  And I made myself copy from plaster casts, partly to tranquilise, partly to learn anatomy.  Bad as the book is, it composed my mind, and I think taught me certain elements of composition which I should not have had the patience to learn had I been in full flush of health always.

These little pieces in Monday or (and) Tuesday were written by way of diversion; they were the treats I allowed myself when I had done my exercise in the conventional style.  I shall never forget the day I wrote The Mark on the Wall – all in a flash, as if flying, after being kept stone breaking for months.  The unwritten Novel was the great discovery, however.

That – again in one second – showed me how I could embody all my deposit of experience in a shape that fitted it – not that I have ever reached that end; but anyhow I saw, branching out of the tunnel I made, when I discovered that method of approach, Jacobs Room, Mrs Dalloway etc – How I trembled with excitement; and then Leonard came in, and I drank my milk, and concealed my excitement, and wrote I suppose another page of that interminable Night and Day (which some say is my best book).[5]

Even though Carson quotes very selectively, her quotation has the weight of the rest of the letter behind it.

In ‘Ordinary Time’ Carson pays tribute to both Thucydides and to Woolf – she begins by liking the way that Thucydides begins – but might she be suggesting, here, a particular and perhaps a personal debt to Woolf?  Carson was an academic classicist before she became a poet.  Woolf had also studied Greek and, like Carson, would have been aware that the Greeks and Romans and the early English writers learned through imitation.

Night and Day, published in 1919, is the most conventional of Woolf’s novels.  (When I first read it as an undergraduate it seemed clear to me that it came from a place of recuperation and that it was also perhaps a novel that one could read in order to recuperate).

Woolf attempted to copy the conventional novel of fact in order to learn ‘certain elements of composition’, much as contemporary poets are sometimes advised to practise writing traditional forms such as sonnets and villanelles.  And much as Carson wrote a relatively conventional PhD thesis before exploring other possible forms of writing.

And then she broke free to find a shape that fitted her subject matter; she abandoned ‘this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner’.[6]  Instead, she looked around the room, she recorded a series of almost random impressions and associations, she let her thoughts roam spontaneously.

And Carson responds to this as she translates and paraphrases Thucydides: ‘Someone barred the gate where they had come in, not with a proper door pin but the spike of a javelin: no rules to go by anymore!’  She quotes Woolf: ‘“…like the habit of sitting all together in a room until a certain hour although nobody liked it.  There was a rule for everything.”  Whereas in war – “shot out at the feet of God entirely naked!”’

This suggests that Carson’s reading of Woolf’s work has informed her own creative process by encouraging her to break rules, to experiment with form and to write her own audacious equivalents of sketches such as ‘The Mark of the Wall’ in which she does not need to follow the path of a linear argument, but can allow her thoughts to grow organically and in surprising ways.

‘Appendix to Ordinary Time’ continues the conversation between writers.  This time Carson is not orchestrating a playful and slightly self-conscious dialogue between Woolf and another (male) writer, but looking directly at Woolf and at what she wrote.  The atmosphere is quieter and much more sombre.

The two essays are connected by the concept of Ordinary Time.  Ordinary Time is a liturgical term.  In the Roman Catholic church and the Church of England it refers to periods within the liturgical year other than the two main feasts, Christmas and Easter.

Ordinary Time falls in early spring (from Epiphany until Ash Wednesday) and in late summer and autumn (from Pentecost until Advent).  Ordinary Time is associated with order and regularity and succession.  ‘My mother died the autumn I was writing this.’  In other words, both ‘Ordinary Time’ and the ‘Appendix’ were written during Ordinary Time. Thucydides describes the Peloponnesian War by campaigning seasons, ‘summer by summer and winter by winter’, although the war actually begins in spring.

For Woolf’s narrator in ‘The Mark on the Wall’, wartime is Ordinary Time both literally – the narrator thinks she saw the mark on the wall in the middle of January – and metaphorically: until the end nothing happens other than in the narrator’s thoughts (and the person who interrupts complains angrily that nothing ever happens).  Ordinary Time means regular time, but for both writers, the rules ‘are just starting to slip off the lines.’  In the ‘Appendix’ nothing happens either – the inescapable death and the shock have already happened.

‘Ordinary Time’ is set in early spring, while the ‘Appendix’ takes place in autumn.  ‘Ordinary Time’ considered Woolf’s writing at the beginning of the First World War and at the beginning of her writing life; ‘Appendix to Ordinary Time’ considers Woolf mainly in the last years of her life, at the beginning of the Second World War.  In ‘Ordinary Time’ Carson acknowledges what Woolf has taught her about the process of writing.  In the ‘Appendix’, her reading of Woolf is both scholarly and therapeutic.

And although the ‘Appendix’ also subverts conventional genre boundaries – it is a personal piece that assumes a relation with the reader but which also incorporates literary criticism – this does not seem to be the most interesting or important thing about it.  Carson quotes extensively from Woolf and uses these quotations in such a way that they seem to extend her work beyond its own boundaries.

Like the quotation from Woolf’s letter that concludes ‘Ordinary Time’, these quotations carry the weight of their contexts – the works from which they were taken – behind them, adding to the complexity of Carson’s own words and suggesting, without ever actually explicitly stating, layers of additional meaning. The ‘Appendix’ is Carson’s elegy for her mother.  Traditionally, an elegy evokes the muses.

Woolf’s diaries are piled on Carson’s desk the day after the funeral; this implies that she has been reading them (and possibly also her letters, from which Carson also quotes) during her mother’s last days and in the period immediately after her death.  The quotations are taken from the final volumes of the letters and the diaries and, with one exception, from Woolf’s other writings during the period leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War and the early years of the War – the years immediately preceding her death in March 1941.

Woolf’s life was greatly affected by the onset of the War.  In 1940 the Woolfs’ Bloomsbury home was bombed and they moved permanently to Monks House in Sussex.  Woolf was cut off from London friends and social life and she was also worried about her writing; she feared that novels would be impossible to publish and that she would be faced with having to go back to living by journalism.

During the last year of her life it seemed possible that Hitler would invade Britain; the Woolfs made plans to commit suicide if this happened.  In the meantime Woolf was completing Roger Fry, her only conventional biography (which she found difficult and draining), then Between the Acts, which turned out to be her final novel, (and which was published posthumously).  She was also planning an unconventional book that would tell the story of English literature; she wanted to ‘invent a new critical method – something swifter and lighter and more colloquial and yet intense:

more to the point and less composed; more fluid and following the flight than my (Common Reader) essays.  The old problem: how to keep the flight of the mind, yet be exact.’[7]  This was also to have been ‘a poet prose book’.[8] All these works – Woolf’s late works – are commemorations of something either lost or apparently threatened.

(And, re-reading the Diaries, I am struck by how much death and mourning is in them, over those last few years: Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, even James Joyce, not a friend of Woolf’s, but her exact contemporary, dead less than a couple of months before she herself would die.  When she heard of Joyce’s death, Woolf recalled her first reading of the manuscript of Ulysses and how she had shown it to Katherine Mansfield, another now dead writer who had been both friend and rival.[9])

And nobody who knows the facts of Woolf’s own life and cares about what she wrote can read the final volume of her diaries or the final volume of her letters without being conscious of the shadow of what we know and she could not have known: her approaching end.  The loss seeps backwards from that final entry dated 24 March 1941, four days before she died, which Carson quotes: ‘L is doing the rhododendrons’.

Our knowledge of the end of the story places a dark filter over the narrative that comes before.  That other diary entry dated 27 June 1940: ‘I can’t conceive that there will be a 27th June 1941.’  And certain letters now read in a very much more ominous way than Woolf must have intended or than their recipients would have read them at the time.  ‘I suppose your orchard is beginning to dapple as it did the day I came there.  One of the sights I shall see on my death bed.’[10]  And: ‘so much water has flowed under the bridge that I feel at sea and so conclude’.[11]  The Diaries again: ‘we live without a future.

That’s what’s queer: with our noses pressed to a closed door.’[12] Immediately after the opening sentences (‘And Now I have no one, I thought’) Carson quotes from the diaries: ‘“Exposed on a high ledge in full light,” says Virginia Woolf on one of her tingling days (March 1, 1937)’.  Only the one sentence is quoted.  Woolf’s diary goes on to describe a depressive state.  ‘Very lonely.  [   ]  I have no protection.

And this anxiety & nothingness surround me with a vacuum.’  Loneliness comes in again later, further down the page, when Carson quotes from the Letters.  ‘How vanished everyone is’ is taken from a letter to Stephen Spender dated 7 March 1940.  As Carson suggests, this is a recurrent theme of Woolf’s letters during 1940 and 1941, although she only uses these actual words once.  Several letters refer to separation and particularly to the difficulties of writing in isolation, for example ‘It’s odd to feel one’s writing in a vacuum – no one will read it.

I feel the audience has gone.  Still, so oddly is one made, I find I must spin my brain even in a vacuum.’[13]  Woolf’s diary also describes isolation in a time that is ordinary in the sense of monotonous, of nothing happening, of the normal markers slipping off the lines.

No echo comes back.  I have no surroundings.  I have so little sense of a public that I forget about Roger coming or not coming out.  Those familiar circumvolutions – those standards – which have for so many years given back an echo and so thickened my identity are all wide and wild as the desert now.  I mean, there is no ‘autumn’ no winter.[14]

‘They led her, after all, to the River Ouse’, says Carson, of the diaries, looking forward again to the end, to L doing the rhododendrons.  ‘Why are these pages comforting?’  She remembers that Woolf said that writing, forming shocks into words and order was “the strongest pleasure known to me”.  These words are taken, not from the diaries, but from ‘A Sketch of the Past’, an experimental memoir that Woolf wrote in 1939 and 1940, partly as relaxation from her more conventional biography of Roger Fry.

This evolved into a kind of diary.  Woolf wanted to make her notes include the present, ‘at least enough of the present to serve as platform to stand upon….What I write today I should not write in a year’s time.’[15]  Carson remarks that Woolf was reflecting on the death of her father when she wrote ‘the strongest pleasure known to me’ and ‘A Sketch of the Past’ does reflect in detail not only on the deaths of both her parents, her half-sister, and her brother, but on their lives – Woolf’s own memories from her childhood and youth and her imagined recreations of what she cannot remember – but this actual line is taken from a passage in which Woolf is describing what she means by ‘moments of being’: ‘when something happened so violently that I have remembered it all my life’. (Carson’s quotation is in bold).

I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances (my italics); and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together.

Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. [16] Carson also translates her ‘shocks’ into ordered words.  She explains them to herself by describing and exploring something perhaps unexpected that Woolf’s physical diaries and other writings in manuscript have given her: an image.

As Carson has read Woolf’s diaries through to the end, four days before she died, she would therefore have seen that on 26 January 1940 Woolf included material from her draft of the final chapter of Roger Fry, to be entitled ‘Transformations’ (the title of Fry’s final book).  In the complete, five-volume edition of the Diaries (edited by Anne Olivier Bell), the text reproduces the crossings out and the marginal notes, which in appearance are similar to the two extracts from Woolf’s manuscripts that Carson quotes in the ‘Appendix’.

Woolf wrote her drafts in longhand before typing them up; her drafts include a lot of what Carson calls ‘crossouts’.  She would score through an attempt at a sentence or a phrase before trying again, sometimes several times, leaving crossed out and broken words and phrases behind; as Carson suggests, these can still be read.

And Woolf frequently made marginal notes in her diaries, sometimes as a kind of aside, the equivalent of a footnote, or sometimes a comment or addition or clarification when she returned and re-read an entry some time later.  This is a revision that still allows the original to stand and be visible through it; something very similar to crossing out a line very lightly so that it can still be read.  Even in Leonard Woolf’s selected 1953 version, A Writer’s Diary, there are many instances of this.  On 30 June 1927 Woolf adds a side paragraph to her account of watching the total solar eclipse, making another attempt to describe the return of colour as the sun emerged from the shadow of the moon.

And on 28 November 1928 she marks what would have been her father’s birthday (the much quoted passage, remarking that he ‘could have been 96, like other people one has known’) by making a marginal note of dates that confirmed the sum: 1928 and 1832.

A diary narrates the immediate past and exists in the present, but, as Woolf says in ‘A Sketch of the Past’, ‘What I write today I should not write in a year’s time’.  To Carson, as a classical scholar, a text may be a physical body of clay, or papyrus, or cloth, perhaps damaged by fire or water or by deterioration over time.  Like a body, it has a life.  Even when a text exists as paper or vellum and ink, the manuscript shows the process of its composition and its evolution through successive drafts as words are added, deleted, replaced.

It may survive only as literal fragments, like the poems of Sappho, or as citations in other classical texts.  The dead and the stories of their lives continue to exist in pieces, in their letters, their diaries, their photographs and their possessions.

Carson reproduces a fragment of Woolf’s writing from the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, written in February 1941.  It describes a narrator’s mental state. It is strange that the sun shd be shining and the birds singing.

For here,

it is coal black: here in the little cave in which I sit.


She did not sufficiently.  She had no grasp of

This fragment, which evokes depression, darkness and physical and emotional isolation existing alongside sunshine and birdsong was one of the last things that Virginia Woolf wrote before her death.[17]  The final line, crossed out, can be read as a representation of failure – a failure of the subject to understand her situation or a failure of writing: an attempt, another attempt, abandoned.  And it can be read as a representation of death: ‘by a simple stroke – all is lost, yet still there.’

‘Death lines every moment of ordinary time.’  Earlier in the ‘Appendix’ Carson uses repeated questions to represent this state of being lost and still not there.

Did she think of me – somewhere, in some city, in lamplight, bending over books, or rising to put on my coat and go out?  Did I pause, switch off the desklamp and stand, gazing out at the dusk, think I might call her.  Not calling.  Calling. Too late now.

The questions call up and sketch out something that contains two distinct possibilities: events that did not, or may not have taken place and yet, by being called up, form a narrative that does exist in the same way that the dead are still present while not being present.  The prose rhythms echo the central image of crossing out, vanishing but remaining, being two things at once, for example, ‘Not calling.  Calling.’  ‘Death hides right inside every shining sentence we grasped and had no grasp of.’

Carson imagines her mother alone in her house, looking out at cold lawns and high bleak grass, or walking from room to room, in silence and growing darkness. This mental picture is echoed and reinforced by the fragment of Woolf’s very late writing quoted a few lines later, the coal black cave and insufficiency and failure – perhaps not just a failure to complete it, but a failure to understand what is required.

‘Too late now.’  Of Isaiah Berlin: ‘He did not knock; she died before.’  The essay takes place in ‘ordinary time’, in autumn, when ‘the clocks have been changed, night comes earlier’.  Like the descriptions of events that both did and did not take place, this phrase has a double meaning: the clocks have been put back an hour to mark the end of Daylight Saving Time, but also time itself and the marking of time have been distorted.  The dead float free from ordinary time and its regular sequences; they are no longer anchored within one instant or one age.

‘He comes back now more as a contemporary’, Woolf wrote in her diary, on the day that her father would have been 96.  ‘I must read him some day.  I wonder if I can feel again, I hear his voice, I know this by heart?[18]  In ‘A Sketch of the Past’ she imagines her elder brother Thoby as he might have been, had he lived:

Mr Justice Stephen he would be today; with several books to his credit; one or two on law; some essays exposing humbugs; perhaps a book on birds, with drawings by himself. […] He would have been more of a character than a success, I suppose, had he been put on.[19]

Carson ends the ‘Appendix’ with two epitaphs for her mother.  The first is another fragment quotation from Woolf: an extract from page 19 of the Fitzwilliam Manuscript of Women and Fiction.  It is a draft of what eventually became A Room of One’s Own.  This is the passage in which it eventually appeared.  (Carson’s quotations are in bold). In a sort of jealousy, I suppose, for our own age, silly and absurd though these comparisons are, I went on to wonder if honestly one could name two living poets now as great as Tennyson and Christina Rossetti were then.

Obviously it is impossible, I thought, looking into those foaming waters, to compare them. The very reason why that poetry excites one to such abandonment, such rapture, is that it celebrates some feeling that one used to have (at luncheon parties before the war perhaps), so that one responds easily, familiarly, without troubling to check the feeling, or to compare it with any that one has now. But the living poets express a feeling that is actually being made and torn out of us at the moment.[20]

Like the preceding fragment, this appears in the ‘Appendix’ as a crossout.  Only the words ‘such abandonment, such rapture’ are not crossed out; they appear separately on the left-hand side as a marginal note, in italics.  The final line reads: ‘compare the living with the dead make any comparison compare them.’ An attempt, another attempt, a conclusion.  This is the one quotation used by Carson that does not come from something that Woolf wrote at the very end of her life; instead it is taken from the beginnings of the book (the first draft, the first chapter) that would arguably become Woolf’s greatest legacy, the book that would ensure that she continues to be read and commemorated long after her death.

Woolf looks back to her parents’ age, the Victorian age, to the poets that they read and that she read, while her narrator looks into foaming waters that are alive and spilling beyond their bounds.  And there is another echo of Carson’s own situation: living poets tearing feelings out of themselves into poetry.  Although what is happening here does not seem to be violent or tearing, but still and rather numb, like someone contemplating a tombstone.

‘Appendix to Ordinary Time’ ends with a photograph of Carson with her mother.  In the preceding paragraph, Carson has spoken about searching out and cherishing photographs of her mother taken in happier times.  Beneath this are Margaret Carson’s name and dates and a further epitaph in Latin: eclipsis est pro dolore.  Two different critics have provided ‘free’ translations of this epitaph. It (she) is crossed out

in the face of                sorrow[21]

because of                            pain


on behalf of

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines eclipse as: ‘Interception of the light of a luminous body by intervention of another body between it and the eye or between the luminous body and what illuminates it; deprivation of light; loss of brilliance or splendour of birds, periodical obscuration of lighthouse light (my italics).  Fail to appear, be eclipsed.’

An eclipse is a natural event, but it can also be a frightening one.  The shadow of the moon obscures the sun so that the world goes dark, ordinary time is changed, day becomes, momentarily, night.  The natural clocks are changed.  It could be described as a kind of astronomical crossout, but unlike a crossout, nothing, no life or colour, can be perceived through the intervention of the other body while it lasts.

Virginia Woolf witnessed the total solar eclipse in June 1927, having travelled to Yorkshire for that purpose.  She described it at length in her diary and later in an essay, ‘The Sun and the Fish’.[22] There is another implicit allusion to Woolf and her work here.  Crossouts – and eclipses – are like death at a single stroke.  In To the Lighthouse Mrs Ramsay notices the ‘two quick strokes and one steady stroke’ of the Lighthouse, just after it has been lit and later, looks out to meet the stroke of the Lighthouse, ‘the long steady stroke, the last of the three, which was her stroke’.[23]

(‘Calling.  Not calling.’  Like a light switched on and off.)  To the Lighthouse is Woolf’s own elegy for her dead parents; she recalls its genesis and composition in ‘A Sketch of the Past’, in a passage with which Carson (and most Woolf scholars) would be familiar. It is perfectly true that she obsessed me, in spite of the fact that she died when I was thirteen, until I was forty four.

Then one day walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse; in a great, apparently involuntary, rush.  One thing burst into another.  Blowing bubbles out of a pipe gives the feeling of the rapid crowd of ideas and scenes which blew out of my mind, so that my lips seemed syllabling of their own accord as I walked.  What blew the bubbles?  Why then?  I have no notion.  But I wrote the book very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother.  I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.  [24]

The photograph is a reminder of her mother and (presumably) Carson herself, as a young child, at a point in time, in ‘happier times’.  And if the final Latin phrase eclipsis est pro dolore does intentionally contain a veiled allusion to the way in which Woolf eventually transformed her mourning and travelled beyond it, an obsession with crossouts ‘may be a stage of grieving that will pass’.  (There may yet be a return to ‘better times’, or ‘happier times’.)

When I first read ‘Appendix to Ordinary Time’, some years ago, I read it as something that could stand alone.  It was clear to me that the result amounted to more than simply repackaging another writer’s work or showing off a body of knowledge.  It was authentic.  It was affecting.  Yet the process of looking up and reading around and sometimes beyond the quotations has undoubtedly added more depth and complexity to the work as it stands, and perhaps made it even more moving.

But the question still hangs in the air: to what extent is this a valid reading?  And can any writer legitimately expect – or hope – that their readers, or some of them, might follow the clues, the trail, might have enough knowledge and time and resources of their own to successfully do this?  The process of looking up and reading around – it has achieved something, but what?  Carson is paying tribute, looking for consolation, interrogating Woolf’s texts – although ‘interrogating’ seems to be too forceful a word.

Woolf’s words, the thousands of words not quoted, still reverberate backwards into Carson’s work – though again, reverberation feels too forceful a term.  Further on in ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Woolf remembers her adolescence in her father’s house, playing the ‘Victorian game of manners’.

When I read my own Literary Supplement articles, I lay the blame for their suavity, their politeness, their sidelong approach, to my tea-table training.  I see myself, not reviewing a book, but handing plates of buns to shy young men and asking them: do they take cream and sugar?  On the other hand, the surface manner allows one, as I have found, to slip in things that would be inaudible if one marched straight up and spoke out loud.[25]

Carson must have read this, too.  There is a connection with Carson’s fascination with fragments:

There is the space where a thought would be, but which you can’t get hold of.  I love that space. It’s the reason I like to deal with fragments.  Because no matter what the thought would be if it were fully worked out, it wouldn’t be as good as the suggestion of a thought that the space gives you.  Nothing fully worked out could be so arresting, so spooky.[26]

(For Carson, strong pleasure rises from every sentence of Woolf’s diaries because they transform shocks into order.  I think that there may be another reason, connected with this, but somewhere further on.  It occurs to me that all Carson’s quotations from Woolf are from writing that is in some way provisional.  The Diaries and ‘A Sketch of the Past’ were forms of recreation, not intended for an immediate audience; the two manuscript fragments were from work in progress; one of them was never completed.

Woolf used her diaries, in part, to explore and work out her thoughts about writing.  Because there was no audience she was free to write as if she was flying rapidly and unselfconsciously along, breaking out of the tunnel, discovering the real thing behind appearances, groping for the words and phrases hidden behind the shadow.  Perhaps the relative authenticity of this kind of writing, the sense of pain and joy, is what soaks back and is absorbed and gives strong pleasure to a reader.)

There are the echoes, the subtle connections, over and above, perhaps even further back, behind padded screens, never actually stated, perhaps even further back than either of them intended, yet their words have left barely perceptible traces.  And the process of reading around the quotations continues.  In A Room of One’s Own, for example, Woolf’s narrator moves away from the foaming waters and her reflection that she cannot compare the living with the dead.  She walks on and into the gardens at Fernham, the women’s’ college.  It is October.

She is in ordinary time.  It is twilight.  The leaves are yellow and falling.  And then the times change. It was the time between the lights when colours undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in window-panes like the beat of an excitable heart; when for some reason the beauty of the world revealed and yet so soon to perish, […] has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.

The gardens of Fernham lay before me in the spring twilight, wild and open, and in the long grass, sprinkled and carelessly flung were daffodils and bluebells.[27] Such abandonment, such rapture.


[1] Anne Carson, Men in the Off Hours (London: Cape Poetry, 2000).  ‘Appendix to Ordinary Time’ appears on pages 165-166.

[2] Will Aitken, ‘Interview with Anne Carson: The Art of Poetry No 88’, The Paris Review, No 171, Fall 2004: 207.

[3] Carson, Men in the Off Hours.  ‘Ordinary Time: Virginia Woolf and Thucydides on War’ can be found on pages 3-8.

[4] The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, ed. Susan Dick (London: Hogarth Press, 1985), 77.

[5] Letter to Ethel Smyth, dated 16 October 1930.

[6] Diary, 28 November 1928.

[7] Diary, 22 June 1940.

[8] Diary, 29 March 1940.

[9] Diary, 15 January 1941.

[10] Letter to Vita Sackville-West, dated 4 March 1941.

[11] Letter to T.S. Eliot, dated 8 March 1941.

[12] Diary, 26 January 1941.

[13] Letter to Ethel Smyth, dated 11 September 1940.

[14] Diary 27 June 1940.

[15] Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being ed. Jeanne Schulkind, 2nd edn (London: Hogarth Press, 1985), 87.

[16] Woolf, Moments of Being, 85.  Carson gives the reference as page 81.

[17] Hermione Lee identifies this as a fragment called ‘Winter’s night’.  See Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (London: Chatto and Windus, 1996), 755.

[18] Diary, 28 November 1928.

[19] Woolf, Moments of Being, 143.

[20] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (London: Hogarth Press, 1929), 22.  This passage was identified by Richard Greenfield in his essay ‘‘Parts of Time Fall on Her’: Anne Carson’s Men in the Off Hours’, in Wilkinson, Joshua Marie, ed., Anne Carson: Ecstatic Lyre, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015), 95.

[21] Richard Greenfield, in Wilkinson, ed. 99, citing Sophie Mayer, ‘Picture Theory: On Photographic Intimacy in Nicole Brossard and Anne Carson’, Studies in Canadian Literature 33.1 (2008).

[22] Anne Carson, ‘Totality: The Colour of Eclipse’ in Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), 147-153.  Carson discusses both Woolf’s diary account and her essay.

[23] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (London: Hogarth Press, 1927), 100.

[24] Woolf, Moments of Being, 92-93.

[25] Woolf, Moments of Being, p.152.

[26] Aitken, ‘Interview with Anne Carson’, 214.

[27] Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 25.


Susan Watson read English at Cambridge and has recently completed a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. She has written a collection of poems and lyric essays that respond to and pursue a dialogue with the work of other writers, particularly D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. The critical component of her research was a study of the work of the poet Anne Carson, who also writes about other writers.  During her time at Goldsmiths, she presented both creative writing and critical work at GLITS and was a GLITS organiser in 2016.