Virginia Woolf on Shakespeare

From the Diaries, April 13th, 1930:

I read Shakespeare directly I have finished writing.  When my mind is agape and red-hot.  Then it is astonishing.  I never yet knew how amazing his stretch and speed and word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace and outrace my own, seeming to start equal and then I see him draw ahead and do things I could not in my wildest tumult and utmost press of mind imagine.  Even the less known plays are written at a speed that is quicker than anybody else’s quickest; and the words drop so fast one can’t pick them up.  Look at this.  “Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d.”  (That is a pure accident.  I happen to light on it.)  Evidently the pliancy of his mind was so complete that he could furbish out any train of thought; and, relaxing, let fall a shower of such unregarded flowers.  Why then should anyone else attempt to write?  This is not “writing” at all.  Indeed, I could say that Shakespeare surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what I meant.

By the way, she notes that Keynes’s favorite novel of hers was The Years, which he preferred over the harder to understand The Waves.


I confess I do not see what is so special in "Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d."

Your mind needs to be agape and red-hot.

How much agape and red-hot?

That is not clear.

Obviously, more.

Just add "under the sheets" at the end to spice it up.

I think the point Woolf was making is not that “Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d" is so special in itself, but that Shakespeare could take practically any tossed off thought and render it poetic. She says she picked that phrase at random by simply glancing at the page. Turns of phrase she might save for the best parts of her books he generated so easily as to put them in asides or commonplace conversations in his plays.


Compare “Upon a gather’d lily almost wither’d" with "On a picked lily that's beginning to wither."

You see the point.

Here's the context:

"Look, Marcus! ah, son Lucius, look on her!
When I did name her brothers, then fresh tears
Stood on her cheeks, as doth the honey-dew
Upon a gather'd lily almost wither'd."

Off-topic: I've just learned that Mrs. Zsa Zsa Gabor is still alive. It is less momentous than learning that "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead", but still...

Unfortunately, Arnold became bacon long ago.

Oh, I was unware of it.

Arnold, from Green Acres? That was Eva Gabor, her sister.

Shakespeare would have made a brilliant internet troll.

This is pretty much how I feel about Led Zeppelin.

Obviously I'm being a little facetious but I was always amazed at how they seemed to just effortlessly pump out gold.

Yeah, I'd go along with that.

Same with the Beatles.

Antonio Salieri: [reflecting upon a Mozart score] Astounding! It was actually, it was beyond belief. But they showed no corrections of any kind. Not one. He had simply written down music already finished in his head! Page after page of it as if he were just taking dictation. And music, finished as no music is ever finished. Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall. It was clear to me that sound I had heard in the Archbishop's palace had been no accident. Here again was the very voice of God! I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink-strokes at an absolute beauty.
[he drops the pages]

Constanze Mozart: Is it not good?

Antonio Salieri: It is miraculous!

Why the gratuitous "harder to understand"? Why note?

Keynes (J.M. the economist who wrote what TC calls the Finnegans Wake-like General Theory, not Geoffrey the Blake scholar) is not being insulted here - accept the premise that Woolf in her less ambitious efforts would succeed better than in her more ambitious efforts at attracting the admiration of someone - even someone who was rich and leisure-gifted and intellectually "uber"- sophisticated - but who had less time for literature than her(someone like the busy Keynes) - then turn around, and compare it to how Shakespeare was almost idolatrously viewed by someone -Virginia W. - with figuratively all the time in the world - in her (Virginia W's) own words, her best moments - to read Shakespeare. Then think about Shakespeare himself; picture what he would objectively think of in the way that V. Woolf objectively thought of him - maybe, having nodded off in some dreary midwinter London room having just been reading Isaiah 64 or Hosea or Sappho or Horace , he then had a wonderful dream of being a much better writer than he was, the way the Walter Mittys of the world, on a more next-door-neighbor-type-of-scale, might dream of writing the next Gone With the Wind. As Poirot used to say to Hastings, picture yourself that. You can name and discuss as many higher-and-higher-V geniuses as you want, able to charm greater percentages of readers as their talents are increased or even multiplied, but eventually you reach the end of the ladder and it is not the words that are important, it is not the words, it is not the words it's what the words are about, and the readers are no longer readers but are men and women and here and there, for all I know, a genetically enhanced monkey or two or more. Why notes on JMK and VW? describing not bars on some generally sadly forgotten (but not by me, old buddy) performing monkey's cage but steps on a ladder, more humble for now than Jacob's, but somewhere in that ballpark.

Maybe the staff writers don't need that raise after all.

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