The writer Virginia Woolf saw beyond the ordinary. She was authentic in her work, in describing the world around her. And her words became the palette in which she painted truth regarding women in the world during post World War I and before World War II.
In A Room of One’s Own, she has been asked to write on the subject of women and writing. A broad subject that gives her great pause in trying to capture the specifics within it.
Virginia writes great narrative in her approach to the subject, using the context of a woman in a man’s world, she juxtaposes education of men and women in her time: the halls of education at Oxford University, where she tried to enter the library and was told her only entrance was as a guest of someone who worked or attended the University.
Virginia uses several chapters describing her visit around the Oxford University grounds. She is a guest and dines noonday in a luxurious dining hall with sumptuous food. Later she attends a nearby Women’s college for dinner where the plainest of food is served, simply because it is all the college can afford.
She goes on to compare the two learning institutions: the Women’s College spent years working hard and sacrificing to establish a modest school. Whereby Oxford had shovels full of money donated to build the grandest buildings and house the finest books and modes of learning for young men.
The brilliance of using this as a setting to approach the subject of Women and Writing, is just one of the real ways Virginia speaks to her audience.
Virginia was plagued with severe depression in her adult life. Today, she might be diagnosed with manic-depressive or bi-polar condition. She was in and out of hospitals and sanatoriums.
I wonder if her brilliantly layered words and meanings were symptomatic of a life gone inward? She was ahead of her time. She shone brightly and intelligently. She saw things others could not see.
At the age of 59, she wrote a loving note to her husband Leonard Woolf. She walked to the River Ouse near her home, placed heavy stones in her overcoat pockets and walked into the river.
I hope this poem can evoke some of my own feelings about Virginia Woolf, even if they seem misplaced or imaginings of my own.
The River of Forgetfulness
She remembered too much. She knew too much. She saw too much.
And the facts, the thoughts, and voices were too much. They blinded her with brilliance and brutality.
Nowhere to go but pen and paper, she found her relief.
It took will, it took courage to remain in her body, a vessel of truth and untruths. Keeping the voices at bay, trained with a watchful eye for an uprising.
What do you do with self-knowledge? With feelings so deep, so true you want to go down, down to the river of forgetfulness?
Perhaps ignorance would have helped. Perhaps denial is more pretend.
Perhaps it is the way one has to live in order to maintain sanity.
At times, I want to join you Virginia. I’ve remembered too much, I’ve known too much, and I’ve seen too much. I want to join you in the river of forgetfulness. I’m tired of shining in this dull, cloudy world.
I want to put stones in my pocket and wade into the dark, cool waters. Stones of sorrow, stones of my childhood, stones of my ambitions and lost dreams weigh me down. I can’t escape them.
So I take pen to paper. I find my courage. I take the stones out of my pocket and one by one lay them aside by the river.
The voices subside. Joy inches in like slivers of sunlight.
Did you struggle in the end, Virginia? As your stones dragged you under? Was your last breath trying to escape the river? Did you question the voices at the very end?
Or did you surrender to the river of forgetfulness? I will remember you, Virginia. As I read your brave words, as I feed upon your deep thoughts.