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Here is the past and all its inhabitants miraculously sealed as in a magic tank; all we have to do is to look and to listen and to look and soon the little figures—for they are rather under life size—will begin to move and to speak, and as they move we shall arrange them in all sorts of patterns of which they were ignorant, for they thought when they were alive that they could go where they liked; and as they speak we shall read into their sayings all kinds of meanings which never struck them, for they believed when they were alive that they said straight off whatever came into their heads. But once you are in a biography all is different. Source

What is meant by the "for" clause here? We arrange them in all sorts of patterns they were ignorant of because they thought they could go anywhere they liked? But it doesn't make any sense? I know overall it means we presume to know all kinds of things about the past and add interpretations of all kinds but it's far from reality. You will know it if you put yourself in a biography.

But it doesn't make sense here.

PS Is this "is" not supposed to be "are"?

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  • For can mean because when being used as a conjunction. Here is the past is correct, why do you think otherwise? – Damkerng T. Dec 20 '13 at 14:29
  • Good point! I overlooked that. One of my grammar books says "In an informal style, here's, there's and where's are common with plural nouns." – Damkerng T. Dec 20 '13 at 14:37
  • "the past and all its inhabitants": the past is the subject (and thus singular); and all its inhabitants is really more of a subordinate, explanatory, clause (without commas or parentheses) and does not change the subject to plural. It's a stylistic thing, of somewhat unusual structure. – Phil Perry May 23 '14 at 14:30
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  • Here is — Woolf employs the singular because she is speaking of a single object she has in her sight: the depiction of the-past-and-its-inhabitants. She portrays Sandars’ biography of Christina Rossetti as a contrived miniature world, a “magic tank” like an aquarium. (Note the sentence a few paragraphs down: “It is as if a fish, whose unconscious gyrations we had been watching in and out of reeds, round and round rocks, suddenly dashed at the glass and broke it.”)

  • For — These for clauses do not modify their respective main clauses (we shall arrange... and we shall read... but the immediately preceding subordinate clauses. Detach these clauses from the sentences in which they are embedded and they look something like this:

    They were ignorant of these patterns, for they thought when they were alive that they could go where they liked.

    Meanings of these kinds never struck them, for they believed when they were alive that they said straight off whatever came into their heads.

Woolf implies (and will go on to say, fairly explicitly) that the ‘patterns’ and ‘meanings’ discerned by biographers and scholars and critics are abstractions from a reduced version of Rossetti’s life, abstractions which have little to do with the existence which Rossetti actually experienced, and from which her poetry grew.

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  • @kih1930 No, "rather" means "somewhat" - but of course this may be classic British meiosis. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 20 '13 at 16:31
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    @kih1930 Yes, exactly. Woolf is playing with a metaphor from sculpture, speaking of a reduction in physical dimensions to suggest a reduction in human complexity. – StoneyB on hiatus Dec 21 '13 at 13:48
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I interpret

Here is the past and all its inhabitants miraculously sealed as in a magic tank

as shorthand for either

Here is the past, and all its inhabitants miraculously are sealed as in a magic tank

or

Here is the past, with all its inhabitants miraculously sealed as in a magic tank

either one of which would (arguably) justify the use of is.

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