Emergence: Poems Dedicated to Virginia Woolf No.2 #IWD2021

Her head bobbed just beneath the surface 
of the water
hair spread out 
like a painting by John Everett Millais
androgynous, amorphous:
wide eyes
severe jawbone
sharp aquiline nose.

She was afraid to break the surface;
and to emerge
from the silence
of her amniotic sac:
โ€˜Stay safe inside,’
her inner critic counselled:
‘Do not dream to give the world
the words it does not lack.’

Though knew she shouldnโ€™t speak
her lungs were bursting:
bubbles breaking the glass ceiling
just above her head;
had her pockets been weighed down with stones
she would have ceased her breathing
but instead
she heard the rallying call:
‘Rise up and breathe,
give me your word.’

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Virginia Woolf committed suicide in 1941

She waded into the River Ouse, her pockets weighed down with stones. I read a most insensitive review of her character in the foreword to the Collins Classics edition of To The Lighthouse, which suggested she’d been too well off, and so had too much time to indulge in fantasies of writing, rather than working hard and being able to forget her mental illness. In this foreword, Gerard Cheshire writes:

‘In the absence of responsibilities to toughen the character, she lived in a world of ever-decreasing circles until, one day, her horizons closed in so tight that she chose suicide as a means of escape.’

He goes on to make the following, hugely subjective observation:

‘Had she abandoned writing in favour of an occupation that took her mind away from her obsessive thoughts, she would undoubtedly have lived a happier and more fulfilled life. but instead she became the author of her own undoing.’

I could hardly believe what I was reading! What writer could possibly find a life without writing fulfilling? Just consider the quote about Shakespeare’s sister in my previous post.

Woolf’s work was groundbreaking: she trod the fine line between madness and genius as so many great artists do. Unfortunately, as she was a woman, her actions have been misappropriated and misinterpreted. In her suicide note she stated simply to her husband that she did not wish ‘to go through another of those terrible times,’ and that she did not wish to prevent him from working.

I think as women writers in particular, we can be acutely sensitive to our inner critic. It stopped me writing for 17 years. We take criticism hard because we criticise ourselves too much. I am sure this affects men too, but perhaps women are even more sensitive to the counselling of the inner critic and so we become afraid to let our voices be heard. So I am calling on you to do exactly this, for International Women’s Day: share a poem in the comments below, or via Twitter or Instagram. Remember to tag me and to use the hashtags #IWD2021 and #ChooseToChallenge!

18 thoughts on “Emergence: Poems Dedicated to Virginia Woolf No.2 #IWD2021

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  1. A very moving poem! And Gerard Cheshire clearly doesn’t understand mental illness. I do wonder if he would have made these comments about a man.

  2. A strange analysis indeed. But then women are always to blame, aren’t they? That she accomplished so much despite her inner demons is amazing. (K)

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