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Virginia Woolf Visits Stonehenge

“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.


Party Like It’s 1903: Virginia Woolf on the Ecstasy of Music and Dance

“Dance music … stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room.”

“Oh, how wonderful! How like the mind it is!” Helen Keller exclaimed in her moving first experience of dance. “Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is,” young Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in a letter to a friend. “Twyla Tharp reconciles me to being a woman … Non-sexist dancing — strong women with their own energy, subjects not objects, playful with men — not afraid of them,” Susan Sontag mused in her diary.

From A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library) — the same wonderfully rich volume that gave us young Virginia Woolf on imitation and the arts and the glory of the human mind — comes a glimpse of a lesser-known side of the seemingly reserved author: Her love of music and dance.

In an essayistic entry from 1903, titled “A Dance at Queen’s Gate” and reproduced here with her original spelling, 21-year-old Virginia writes:

About two hours ago, when I went to bed, I heard what I took to be signs of merry making in the mews. A violin squeaked, there was a noise of loud voices & laughter. It reminded me how once, as a child, I woke at dead of night: it seemed to me — 8 or 9 I suppose really & I heard strange & horrible music as of a midnight barrel organ, & was so frightened that I had to crawl to the cot next mine for sympathy. But I am too old for that kind of blind terror; my critical mind when awake enough to think at all about it, decided that the fiddle squeaking &c. was token of a ball — not in our street — but in Queens Gate — the tall row of houses that makes a background to the mews. The music grew so loud, so rhythmic — as the night drew on & the London roar lessened, that I threw up my window, leant out into the cool air, & saw the illuminations which told surely from what house the music came.

Now I have been listening for an hour. The music stops — I hear the chatter, the light laughter of womens voices — the deeper notes of festive males. I can almost see the couples wandering out from the ball rooms to the balconies which are starred with small lamps. They look straight across the mews to me. The music has begun again — oh dear — the swing & the lilt of that waltz makes me almost feel as though I could jump from my bed & dance to it too. That is the quality which dance music has — no other: it stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room — oblivious of everything save that you must keep swaying with the music — in & out, round & round — in the eddies & swirls of the violins. It is as though some swift current of water swept you along with it. It is magic music. Here the bars run low, passionate, regretful, but always in the same pulse. We dance as though we knew the vanity of dancing. We dance to drown our sorrows — but dance, dance — If you stop you are lost. This one night we will be mad — dance lightly — raise our hearts as the beat strengthens, grows buoyant — careless, defiant. What matters anything so long as ones step is in time — so long as one’s whole body & mind are dancing too — what shall end it?

Dinomania: (n) irresistible urge to dance
Artwork by Polly M. Law from her Word Project. Click image for details.

After a short contemplation of the fabric of the music, noting “the very height of the rhythm, some strange, solitary sound,” Woolf finds herself exhausted and consumed by the dense darkness of the night sky, then returns to the exhilaration of dance — but this time as a melancholy observer, painting an ominous, zombie-like picture of the dancing throng:

The music again! I begin to think someone has wound up this weary waltz & it will go on at intervals all thro‘ the night. Nobody is dancing in time to it now I am sure — or they dance as pale phantoms because so long as the music sounds they must dance — no help for them. Surely the music that seemed to ebb before, has gathered strength — it sounds louder & louder — it swings faster & faster — no one can stop dancing now. They are sucked in by the music. And how weary they look — pale men — fainting women — crumpled silks & trampled flowers. They are no longer masters of the dance — it has taken possession of them. And all joy & life has left it, & is diabolical, a twisting livid serpent, writhing in cold sweat & agony, & crushing the frail dancers in its contortions. What has brought about the change? It is the dawn.

Complement A Passionate Apprentice with the only surviving recording of Woolf’s voice and her timeless meditations on how to read a book, the language of film, the creative benefits of keeping a diary.


Teenage Virginia Woolf on the Human Mind

“Activity of mind … is the only thing that keeps one’s life going.”

The human mind — it is our sole constant companion, there with us for as long as we live, friend and foe in constant contradiction with itself. We spend immeasurable effort on sharpening it, feeding it, and trying to tame it, and yet it seems to have a meta-mind of its own — it misleads us mercilessly to keep us sane and it wanders aimlessly to make us more creative. But what is the mind, really?

From A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library) — the same superb volume that gave us young Virginia Woolf on imitation and the arts — comes her poignant meditation on the mind’s glory.

In May of 1895, after her mother’s death, 13-year-old Virginia suffered a psychoemotional breakdown — her first in a lifelong struggle with mental illness, which eventually claimed her. Very little is known about the two years she spent recuperating. Her journal begins in 1897, just as she is emerging from the quagmire of grief and depression. In one of the very first entries, from early January of that year, Woolf marvels at humanity’s übermind and the ties that bind us together through a lineage of thought — a grounding reminder that all of “our” ideas, as Henry Miller questioned, are the combinatorial product of a long evolutionary chain of thinkers that came before us. Woolf writes:

I think I see for a moment how our minds are threaded together — how any live mind is of the very same stuff as Plato’s & Euripides. It is only a continuation & development of the same thing. It is this common mind that binds the whole world together; & all the world is mind.

More than two years later, Woolf, blissfully dismissive of such existential minutia as apostrophes, revisits the subject of the human mind and its marvelous capacity in an entry from early August of 1899:

Activity of mind, I think, is the only thing that keeps one’s life going, unless one has a larger emotional activity of some other kind. Ones mind thats like a restless steamer paddle urging the ship along, tho’ the wind is fallen & the sea is as still as glass. I must now expound another simile that has been rolling itself round in my mind for many days past. This is that I am a Norseman bound on some long voyage. The ship now is frozen in the drift ice; slowly we are drifting towards home. I have taken with me after anxious thought all the provisions for my mind that are necessary during the voyage. The seals & walruses that I shoot during my excursions on the ice (rummaging in the hold) are the books that I discover here & read. It amuses me to carry on the comparison, tho’ I admit that written down it has something absurd about it. What a force a human being is! There are worse solitudes than drift ice, & yet this eternal throbbing heat & energy of ones mind thaws a pathway thro; & open sea & land shall come in time. Think tho’, what man is midst fields & woods. A solitary creature dependent on winds & tides, & yet somehow suppressing the might of a spark in his brain.

A Passionate Apprentice is absolutely fantastic and revelatory in its entirety. Complement it with Woolf on how to read a book, the language of cinema, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice.

Illustrated portrait of Woolf by Lisa Congdon for our collaborative project, The Reconstructionists.


The Graphic Canon of Literary Comics: From Virginia Woolf to James Joyce, Visual Artists Take on The Classics

Ulysses in six panels, Colette in pen and ink, Yeats in watercolor, and other literary springboards for art.

In 2012, The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2 — Russ Kick’s fantastic compendium of literary art and comics from Lewis Carroll to the Brontë Sisters by way of Darwin — came in as one of the year’s best graphic novels and graphic nonfiction. Now, Kick is back with the final installment in his trilogy: The Graphic Canon, Vol. 3: From Heart of Darkness to Hemingway to Infinite Jest (public library), a magnificent 560-page tome offering artful takes on classics published after 1899 by such beloved authors as Virginia Woolf, Jack Kerouac, James Joyce, Edna St. Vincent Millay, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and T. S. Eliot.

Among the 84 contributing artists are longtime favorites like Matt Kish, whose Moby-Dick illustrations remain indispensable, Molly Crabapple, who illustrated Salvador Dali’s manifesto in a Brain Pickings Artist Series collaboration and visualized the power of introverts, and the great R. Crumb, who brought comics to album covers and memorably illustrated Bukowski. Their remarkable range — from the minimalist to the elaborate, the rugged to the dreamy — infuses these classics with new dimensions of celebratory love and appreciation.

‘The Voyage Out’ by Virginia Woolf, illustrated by Caroline Picard
‘The Voyage Out’ by Virginia Woolf, illustrated by Caroline Picard
‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad, illustrated by Matt Kish
‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad, illustrated by Matt Kish

In the introduction, Kick writes of the project’s ethos, all three volumes of which were edited simultaneously and thus bear the same editorial sensibility:

I asked the artists to stay true to the literary works as far as plot, characters, and text, but visually they had free reign. Any style, any media, any approach. Spare. Dense. Lush. Fragmented. Seamless. Experimental. Old school. Monochrome. Saturated. Pen and ink. Markers. Digital. Silk-screened. Painted. Sequential art. Full-page illustrations. Unusual hybrids of words and images. Images without words. And, in one case, words without images.

‘The Dreaming of the Bones’ by W. B. Yeats, illustrated by Lauren Weinstein
‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Jenny Tondera
‘Colette’ by Cherí, illustrated by Molly Crabapple

At the heart of the project is the recognition that literary classics have always inspired visual art. Kick adds:

The Canon was always meant as an art project, part of the ages-old tradition of visual artists using classic works of literature as their springboard. It was also conceived as a celebration of literature, a way to present dramatic new takes on the greatest stories ever told. It turned into a lot more — a survey of Western literature (with some Asian and indigenous works represented), an encyclopedia of ways to merge images and text, a showcase of some of the best (and often underexposed comics artists and illustrators. And a kicky examination of love, sex, death, violence, revolution, money, drugs, religion, family, (non)conformity, longing, transcendence, and other aspects of the human condition that literature and art have always wrestled with.

‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce, illustrated by David Lasky
‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by D. H. Lawrence, illustrated by Lisa Brown
‘Nausea’ by Jean-Paul Sartre, illustrated by R. Crumb
‘Nausea’ by Jean-Paul Sartre, illustrated by R. Crumb
‘Naked Lunch’ by William S. Burroughs, illustrated by Emelie Ostergren

Given my undying love for Anaïs Nin’s diaries and letters, which have been the subject of several Brain Pickings Artist Series original collaborations, I was particularly delighted to find this contribution by Mardou:

Anaïs Nin’s diaries, illustrated by Mardou

The Graphic Canon, Vol. 3 was preceded by the equally fantastic The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons and The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2: From “Kubla Khan” to the Bronte Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Images courtesy Russ Kick / Seven Stories Press


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