When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
A meditation on immortality, the poem captures the tumultuous state of Mr. Ramsay’s mind and his anxiety about whether he and his work will be remembered by future generations. Here, Mr. Ramsay emerges as an uncompromising but terribly insecure intellectual. He knows the world almost exclusively through words, so he tries to express and mediate his sadness with the lines by Tennyson. He yearns for the “glory” and the “wild charge” of which the poem speaks in the form of brilliant contributions to philosophy. Although he acknowledges a more profound truth—that in the end no immortality exists, and even a stone will outlast a figure as influential as -William Shakespeare—Mr. Ramsay cannot help but indulge his need to be comforted, to have others assure him of his place in the world and its importance. The posture he assumes as he approaches his wife in Chapter VII is one that he returns to often. Again and again, he displays a relentless desire for sympathy and understanding from her.
Mr. Ramsay is not alone in his need for his wife’s affections. Through Mrs. Ramsay, Woolf suggests that Mr. Ramsay’s traits belong to all men. Charles Tansley exhibits similar behavior in the opening chapters. He navigates the world according to what he has studied and read, and lashes out with “the fatal sterility of the male” for fear that his contributions will be deemed lacking. Mrs. Ramsay believes such daunted and insecure behavior to be inevitable, given the importance of men’s concerns and work. She sees men as well as women forced into roles that prescribe their behavior. In her extended sympathy for her husband and in her attempts at matchmaking, Mrs. Ramsay recognizes and observes these roles while trying to make it less painful for the people in her life to have to play them. This question of gender roles, which occupies much space in the coming chapters, is played out most fully in the relationship between Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe. Mrs. Ramsay’s maternal and wifely devotion represents the kind of traditional lifestyle to which Lily Briscoe refuses to conform.
Mr. Ramsay, who is obsessed with understanding and advancing the process of human thought, reveals the novel’s concern with knowledge. To the Lighthouse asks how humanity acquires knowledge and questions the scope and validity of that knowledge. The fact that Mr. Ramsay, who is decidedly one of the eminent philosophers of his day, doubts the solidity of his own thoughts suggests that a purely rational, universally agreed-upon worldview is an impossibility. Indeed, one of the effects of Woolf’s narrative method is to suggest that objective reality does not exist. The ever-shifting viewpoints that she employs construct a world in which reality is merely a collection of subjectively determined truths.