Woolf: Pass Me a Tissue and a Poet

Indeed it is to the poets that we turn. Illness makes us disinclined for the long campaigns that prose exacts. We cannot command all our faculties and keep our reason and our judgment and our memory at attention while chapter swings on top of chapter, and, as one settles into place, we must be on the watch for the coming of the next, until the whole structure—arches, towers, and battlements—stands firm on its foundations. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is not the book for influenza, nor The Golden Bowl nor Madame Bovary. … We rifle the poets of their flowers.

… In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other—a sound, a colour, here a stress, there a pause—which the poet, knowing words to be meagre in comparison with ideas, has strewn about his page to evoke, when collected, a state of mind which neither words can express nor the reason explain. Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in illness, more legitimately perhaps than the upright will allow. In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poems by Mallarmé or Donne, some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent and distil their flavour, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostrils, like some queer odour.

—Virginia Woolf, On Being Ill

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3 comments on “Woolf: Pass Me a Tissue and a Poet

  1. Stefanie says:

    It's a great essay isn't it? I like how she insists that the head gets in the way of meaning, that meaning is purer when it comes through the senses.

  2. Michelle says:

    Oh, this work is sooooo going on my wish list.
    I love this sentence:
    “In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning…”
    The main reason I named my own blog “Behind the Surface” is because illness really is all about seeing life beyond the surface where we exist when we're healthy. I see Ms. Woolf learned that well before I ever did, and, of course, explained it far more elegantly than I could.

  3. Sylvia says:

    Woolf certainly had a gift for saying beautifully what we all know but can't explain.

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