When Peter walks near Regent’s Park Tube station in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, an old woman sings an ancient song about love that has prevailed even after her lover’s death (81). She is oblivious to everyone around her, singing “without direction, vigour, beginning or end” (80). The narrator explains that, in the song, the woman sings about the continuity of life, and she reflects on the time when her lover had been with her in the month of May. Peter compares her voice to a “rusty pump,” but Rezia, who is also walking in the area and hears the woman’s song, feels for her and empathizes with her song, feeling that she herself will be able to go on with her days (81, 82).
The song that the old woman sings is Strauss’ “Allerseelen,” or “All’s Soul’s Day.” The song is originally in German, which probably inspired the “ee um fah um so” sounds that Woolf provides in the narrative (80, 81, 82). The song is composed of three stanzas, all ending with the line “Wie einst im Mai,” which translates to “like once in May.” One particular version, sung by Kathleen Battle, allows the reader to understand why the song is relevant to this section of the novel. The song starts out slow and whimsical, but reaches a pivotal point of desperation and determination when Battle sings, “Wie einst im Mai.” This line is rife with nostalgia, a perfect mesh with Peter’s longing for the days when he and Clarissa were in love. It also fits with Rezia wishing for a return to the days when Septimus was not shell-shocked. As the song moves along, however, Battle’s voice becomes more joyous and reflective, and her “Wie einst im Mai” lines grow softer than the first one. This is lost on Peter; of course, the old woman’s song might not have sounded as crisp as Battle’s. Nevertheless, it seems to have had a different effect on Rezia, who finds hope in the amateur rendition of “Allerseelen.”
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, 1925.