On this day in 1931 Virginia Woolf’s The Waves was published. She was just forty-nine, and she would live and write for another decade, but this was the last of her major works, a series of six books over nine years that would change the face of modern fiction. A journal entry from eight months earlier, written on the morning that she finished the last chapter, shows that Woolf had some sense of her latest accomplishment:
Here in the few minutes that remain, I must record, heaven be praised, the end of The Waves. I wrote the words O Death fifteen minutes ago, having reeled across the last ten pages with some moments of such intensity and intoxication that I seemed only to stumble after my own voice, or almost, after some sort of speaker (as when I was mad). I was almost afraid, remembering the voices that used to fly ahead. Anyhow, it is done; and I have been sitting these 15 minutes in a state of glory, and calm…. How physical the sense of triumph and relief is!… I have netted the fin in the waste of water which appeared to me over the marshes out of my window at Rodmell when I was coming to an end of To the Lighthouse.
In his biography, nephew Quentin Bell writes, “If, as many critics assert, The Waves was Virginia’s masterpiece, then that [journal moment] may be accounted the culminating point in her career as an artist.” After Woolf’s suicide in 1941, Leonard spread her ashes in the garden of their Rodmell, Sussex home, and chose lines (italicized below) from the ending of The Waves for the commemorative plaque which remains there today:
“And in me too the wave rises. It swells; it arches its back. I am aware once more of a new desire, something rising beneath me like the proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls him back. What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man’s, like Percival’s, when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!”
The waves broke on the shore.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.