Brain Pickings

Virginia Woolf Visits Stonehenge

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“The singular & intoxicating charm of Stonehenge … is that no one in the world can tell you anything about it.”

While travel writing dates as far back as Ancient Greece and became popular during the Song Dynasty of medieval China, the travelogue enjoyed particular prominence in 18th-century Western literature, mostly in the form of diaries, and thrives even more vibrantly today, when sharing words and images is easier than ever for a connected generation of global citizens. But one of the genre’s most unsung yet most colorful heroes is none other than Virginia Woolf.

In August of 1903, young Woolf journeyed to visit Stonehenge — the legendary prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England, which archaeologists believe was built sometime between 3000 BC and 2000 BC by a culture that left no written records and which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. From A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library) — which also gave us the beloved writer on imitation and the arts, the glory of the human mind, and the joy of music and dance — comes 21-year-old Woolf’s beautiful account of visiting the mysterious monument:

We came at last — for I must pass here a great deal I pondered in my mind as I went — to the sign post, which points to Stonehenge. Our way had been by the river, & enclosed by downs. We now came out on the top of Salisbury plain, & the downs spread without check for miles round us. I suddenly looked ahead, & saw with the start with which one sees in real life what ones eye has always known in pictures, the famous circle of Stonehenge. Pictures give one no idea of size; & I had imagined something on a much larger scale. I had thought that the stones were scattered at intervals over a great space of the plain — so that when we settled to meet the riders at ‘Stonehenge’ I had privately judged the plan to be far too vague. But really it is a tiny compact little place — the stones might be arranged for instance as they are now — in the stalls of St James Hall — But otherwise the pictures had prepared me fairly truthfully — as to shape & position that is; I had not realised though that the stones have such a look of purpose & arrangement; it is a recognisable temple, even now.

We promptly sat down with our backs to the sight we had come to see, & began to eat sandwiches: half an hour afterwards we were ready to make our inspection.

Stonehenge between 1890 and 1900. (Public domain image via The Library of Congress)

At the time of Woolf’s visit, more than a century before archeologists with the Stonehenge Riverside Project found evidence strongly suggesting that Stonehenge was intended as a burial ground, the origin and purpose of the famed earthworks site remained a mystery that only deepened its allure. Woolf marvels:

The singular & intoxicating charm of Stonehenge to me, & to most I think, is that no one in the world can tell you anything about it. There are these great blocks of stone; & what more? Who piled them there & when, & for what purpose, no one in the world — I like to repeat my boast — can tell.

I felt as though I had run against the stark remains of an age I cannot otherwise conceive; a piece of wreckage washed up from Oblivion. There are theories I know — without end; & we, naturally, made a great many fresh, & indisputable discoveries of our own. The most attractive, & I suppose most likely, is that some forgotten people built here a Temple where they worshipped the sun; there is a rugged pillar someway out side the circle whose peak makes exactly that point on the rim of the earth where the sun rises in the summer solstice. And there is a fallen stone in the middle, longer & larger than the other hewn rocks it lies among which may have been an altar — & the moment the sun rose the Priest of that savage people slaughtered his victim here in honour of the Sun God. We certainly saw the dent of his axe in the stone. Set up the pillars though in some other shape, & we have an entirely fresh picture; but the thing that remains in ones mind, whatever one does, is the stupendous mystery of it all. Man has done nothing to change Salisbury plain since these stones were set here; they have seen sunrise & moonrise over those identical swells & ridges for — I know not how many thousand years.

Aerial view of Stonehenge, WWII. (Public domain photograph via The San Diego Air & Space Museum)

Woolf finds in this fossil of ancient ritual a poignant metaphor for the disconnect between spiritual worship, as it was originally conceived, and the vacant pantomime of Western religion:

I like to think of it; imagine those toiling pagans doing honour to the very sun now in the sky above me, & for some perverse reason I find this a more deeply impressive temple of Religion — block laid to block, & half of them tumbled in ruin so long that the earth almost hides them, than that perfect spire whence prayer & praise is at this very moment ascending.

It is matter for thought surely, if not for irony, that as one stands on the ruins of Stonehenge, one can see the spire of Salisbury Cathedral.

1645 painting of Stonehenge by J. Blaeu

On September 5 that year, Woolf and her companions trekked to Stonehenge a second time. A connoisseur of the finery of words but without high regard for punctuation, she writes in another diary entry:

We have had singular good fortune in our expeditions; & our two visits to Stonehenge have impressed such pictures on my mind as I never wish to be obliterated. . . .

But expedition is a hateful word; I would call it a pilgrimage: because in truth we went in all reverence with a pure desire to enjoy ourselves. A day spent happily in the open air counts, I am sure ‘whatever Gods there may be’ as worship; the air is a Temple in which one is purged of ones sins.

She ends by capturing that “singular & intoxicating charm” in an exquisite vignette:

We walked across to Stonehenge, & sat within the Circle. Our choice of day gave us the whole place to ourselves. The solitary policeman whose strange lot in life is to mount guard over Stonehenge had taken shelter behind one of his charges. The apoplectic sheep, who can imitate a standing motor car which is still palpitating to perfection, were gazing outside the Circle, & as far as we could see, we had not only Stonehenge but the whole ocean of plain entirely to ourselves. One can imagine why this spot was chosen by the Druids — or whoever they were — for their Temple to the Sun. It lies very naked to the sun. It is a kind of alter made of earth, on which the whole world might do sacrifice.

A Passionate Apprentice is an enchanting read in its entirety, a rare glimpse of the celebrated author’s formative years and lesser-known sides. More of Woolf’s gorgeous travel writing is collected in Travels With Virginia Woolf, edited by legendary travel writer Jan Morris.

Complement this with Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the language of film, and how to read a book, then revisit her little-known and lovely children’s books.

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