Today, I scrambled through my folder looking for secondary readings to blog about--but to my dismay, nothing was really sparking any ideas. Eventually, I came across Mr. Cowper's poem "The Castaway," mercilessly shoved in the back of my folder with a dog-eared corner, a crease along the side, and the doodle of a forlorn-looking bunny in the margins.
"This looks promising!" I thought to myself, and then proceeded to read over the poem a few times to help generate some blogging ideas. I remember reading over the poem in class, I remember taking notes about it, and I remember an extensive conversation regarding domesticated rabbit poetry--but I had forgotten how much I love this poem. And finally, I decided that I want to retrace our class discussion about Mr. Ramsay, specifically how Woolf takes Coooper's poem (written well before her time, in 1799) and applies it to Mr. Ramsay's grief about his own life.
While I agree that Mr. Ramsay is a pretty ridiculous character for the most part, I think Woolf's incorporation of Cowper's poem does more than highlight Mr. Ramsay's melodramatic flair for eighteenth century poetry recitations around his beachouse. I think Woolf is also showing how Mr. Ramsay is a "castaway" within his own family.
It's funny to think of Mr. Ramsay marching around on a sunny beach occasionally barking out lines from tragic poems. How can he possibly relate his comfortable, beach-house-owning life to that of the Light Brigade from Tennyson's poem or the castaway from Cowper's? The idea seemed silly then--but now I'm not as sure. In the third section of To The Lighthouse (aptly entitled, "the Lighthouse") Mr. Ramsay is sitting with Cam and James on the boat, feeling like, "...a desolate man, old, bereft..." (169) murmuring the last two lines of Cowper's poem loud enough for his two children to hear:
But I beneath a rougher sea
Was whelmed in deeper gulfs than he
Of course Mr. Ramsay's situation isn't like that of the perilous castaway from Cowper's poem; but, are his feelings all that different than the one's expressed by Cowper? At this point in the novel, Ramsay has lost his wife and he cannot emotionally connect with his children (in fact, his children kind of hate him). Essentially, he is alone on that boat, in the middle of the water, much like a castaway. He isn't under any mortal peril, but another kind of threat is present. There is the threat of him losing a slow battle against his own life; a life of unfulfilled intellectual aspirations, and a life where he is sinking under the waves of emotional incompetence towards his family. I don't think it's all that ridiculous for him to connect with this poem, because while he is a rather self-absorbed man (taking into account only his own grief throughout most of the novel, and demanding sympathy from everyone else), I think his self-woe is what makes him one the most realistic characters in Woolf's novel. Woolf uses Cowper's poem so that Mr. Ramsay has something to hold steadfastly onto; he doesn't have his wife, his children, or the kind of emotional consolation he needs. He has his knowledge, he has eighteenth century poetry, and he has the memorized lines of Cowper to express his innermost grief.