Darkness in the Celestial Lighthouse: Virginia Woolf’s Arresting 1927 Account of a Total Solar Eclipse
“We had seen the world dead. This was within the power of nature.”
By Maria Popova
Two weeks after my fifteenth birthday, an otherworldly wave of darkness intercepted the sweltering August afternoon and plunged it into a surreal cool — the first total solar eclipse to sweep across Bulgaria since I was a small child. An hour earlier, the Moon’s shadow had swallowed the sun in southwest England for the first time since June 29, 1927.
On June 29, 1927, seven weeks after the publication of To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) was smoking a cigar on a train carriage, traveling with her husband, her beloved teenage nephews, her great love turned lifelong friend Vita Sackville-West, and Vita’s husband. Woolf recorded what she saw and felt in vivid detail, with her uncommon gift for magnifying the smallest details of life into revelations about the largest questions of what it means to be human.
Wedged in time between astronomer Maria Mitchell’s pioneering essay describing the 1869 total solar eclipse and Annie Dillard’s classic 1979 recollection of totality, Woolf’s account crowns the canon of eclipse literature with its exquisite limning of the world both exterior and interior in the midst of this celestial otherworldliness. It was later included in A Writer’s Diary (public library) — the indispensable posthumous volume that gave us Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the consolations of growing older, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, and what makes love last.
Writing a generation after Mabel Loomis Todd penned the world’s first popular book on the science and splendor of eclipses, Woolf begins at the beginning of the strangeness:
Before it got dark we kept looking at the sky; soft fleecy… Then we had another doze…; then here was a level crossing, at which were drawn up a long line of motor omnibuses and motors, all burning pale yellow lights. It was getting grey — still a fleecy mottled sky… All the fields were auburn with June grasses and red tasselled plants none coloured as yet, all pale. Pale and grey too were the little uncompromising Yorkshire farms. As we passed one, the farmer and his wife and sister came out, all tightly and tidily dressed in black, as if they were going to church. At another ugly square farm, two women were looking out of the upper windows. These had white blinds drawn down half across them. We were a train of 3 vast cars, one stopping to let the others go on; all very low and powerful; taking immensely steep hills… We got out and found ourselves very high, on a moor, boggy, heathery, with butts for grouse shooting. There were grass tracks here and there and people had already taken up positions. So we joined them, walking out to what seemed the highest point looking over Richmond. One light burned down there. Vales and moors stretched, slope after slope, round us. It was like the Haworth country. But over Richmond, where the sun was rising, was a soft grey cloud. We could see by a gold spot where the sun was. But it was early yet. We had to wait, stamping to keep warm… There were thin places in the clouds and some complete holes. The question was whether the sun would show through a cloud or through one of these hollow places when the time came. We began to get anxious. We saw rays coming through the bottom of the clouds. Then, for a moment, we saw the sun, sweeping — it seemed to be sailing at a great pace and clear in a gap; we had out our smoked glasses; we saw it crescent, burning red; next moment it had sailed fast into the cloud again; only the red streamers came from it; then only a golden haze, such as one has often seen. The moments were passing. We thought we were cheated; we looked at the sheep; they showed no fear; the setters were racing round; everyone was standing in long lines, rather dignified, looking out. I thought how we were like very old people, in the birth of the world — druids on Stonehenge; (this idea came more vividly in the first pale light though). At the back of us were great blue spaces in the cloud. These were still blue. But now the colour was going out. The clouds were turning pale; a reddish black colour. Down in the valley it was an extraordinary scrumble of red and black; there was the one light burning; all was cloud down there, and very beautiful, so delicately tinted. Nothing could be seen through the cloud. The 24 seconds were passing. Then one looked back again at the blue; and rapidly, very very quickly, all the colours faded; it became darker and darker as at the beginning of a violent storm; the light sank and sank; we kept saying this is the shadow; and we thought now it is over — this is the shadow; when suddenly the light went out.
In a sentiment Annie Dillard would echo half a century later in recounting how “the sun was going, and the world was wrong,” Woolf speaks to that profound, disquieting wrongness in which an eclipse washes our ordinary expectations of the world, our elemental givens of sensorial and perceptual reality:
We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead. That was the astonishing moment; and the next when as if a ball had rebounded the cloud took colour on itself again, only a sparky ethereal colour and so the light came back. I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down and suddenly raised up when the colours came. They came back astonishingly lightly and quickly and beautifully in the valley and over the hills — at first with a miraculous glittering and ethereality, later normally almost, but with a great sense of relief. It was like recovery. We had been much worse than we had expected. We had seen the world dead. This was within the power of nature.
In consonance with Rachel Carson’s assertion that “there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Woolf reflects on how such displays of nature’s might arrest us into an acute awareness of our fragile, complex humanity:
One felt very livid. Then — it was over till 1999. What remained was the sense of the comfort which we get used to, of plenty of light, and colour. This for some time seemed a definitely welcome thing. Yet when it became established all over the country, one rather missed the sense of its being a relief and a respite, which one had had when it came back after the darkness. How can I express the darkness? It was a sudden plunge, when one did not expect it; being at the mercy of the sky; our own nobility; the druids; Stonehenge; and the racing red dogs; all that was in one’s mind.
A Writer’s Diary is replete with Woolf’s stunning insight into phenomena across the full spectrum of existence. Complement this particular portion with Maria Mitchell’s guide to how to watch a solar eclipse, then revisit Woolf on the nature of memory and the existential value of illusion.
Published May 9, 2018