“We perished, each alone”

Following up on my recent musing about Virginia Woolf, I want to talk this week about a quote within a quote. In Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, Mr. Ramsay, a well-read man obsessed with (especially female) admiration who has lost his wife and two of his four children, is traveling toward a lighthouse that existed before his losses. As he sails with his remaining, mutinous children, he repeats to himself, “‘We perished,’ and then again, ‘each alone.'”

Ramsay is quoting a poem called “The Castaway” by William Cowper, the last verse of which reads:

Hovhannes_Aivazovsky_-_The_Ninth_Wave_-_Google_Art_ProjectNo voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone;
When, snatched from all effectual aid,
We perished, each alone;
But I beneath a rougher sea,
And whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.

Obviously, it’s really unfortunate that our narrator is drowning with no one to save him. The line Mr. Ramsay loves, “We perished, each alone,” at first seems terrifying in its truth. Yet the final lines toss doubt upon the rest of the verse for me. If men are each drowning in the same place from the same event, how can one be suffering more?

As Ramsay repeats the next line to himself, “But I beneath a rougher sea,” he looks back at the house in which he used to happily live, “and so seeing it, he had also seen himself there… Sitting in the boat, he bowed, he crouched himself, acting instantly his part — the part of a desolate man, widowed, bereft; and so called up before him in hosts people sympathising with him.” He then dramatically repeats the last two lines of the poem out loud.

His daughter, hearing him, “started on her seat. It shocked her — it outraged her.” This feeling is not explicitly described nor mentioned again; her thoughts transition to the past, which now seemed “unreal.” I believe Cam is outraged for the same reason I am annoyed by those last two lines. She has lost as much as her father, yet he believes his suffering and his need for sympathy are greater.

These characters must perish, each alone, with their grief and their hardships in life, as do we. Yet wallowing in one’s own misery, constantly demanding sympathy from others without giving empathy in return, is selfish and false. Despite the misery in the phrase “each alone,” there is also a sense of equality. Your struggles are valid, but don’t forget the struggles of those around you, it seems to be saying.

Since we will perish, each alone, why not be kind and sympathetic rather than focusing on the “rougher sea” and “deeper gulfs” you believe to be around you? Why make “unreal” someone’s ability to be happy?

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