Aug. 10, 2009

Nonsense Song

by W. H. Auden

My love is like a red red rose
Or concerts for the blind,
She's like a mutton-chop before
And a rifle-range behind.

Her hair is like a looking-glass,
Her brow is like a bog,
Her eyes are like a flock of sheep
Seen through a London fog.

Her nose is like an Irish jig,
Her mouth is like a 'bus,
Her chin is like a bowl of soup
Shared between all of us.

Her form divine is like a map
Of the United States,
Her foot is like a motor-car
Without its number-plates.

No steeple-jack shall part us now
Nor fireman in a frock;
True love could sink a Channel boat
Or knit a baby's sock.

"Nonsense Song" by W.H. Auden, from As I Walked Out One Evening. © Vintage Books, 1995. Reprinted with permission (buy now)

On this day in 1912, writer Virginia Stephen (books by this author) married Leonard Woolf in London. She was 30, he was 31, and the two intellectuals had been friends for more than a decade. They'd first met in 1899, when Leonard had come over to dine with Virginia's siblings at their house near the British Museum, in the Bloomsbury district of London.

When Leonard and Virginia first met at a dinner party at 46 Gordon Square in Bloomsbury, on a Thursday evening in November, Virginia was recovering from a mental breakdown. Leonard recalled that Virginia was "perfectly silent" during the entire dinner.

After they met, Leonard Woolf headed off to British-controlled Ceylon, where he had a government position. He'd hoped to marry one of Virginia’s sisters, Vanessa. But in 1907, Vanessa married a different member of the Bloomsbury Group, critic Clive Bell. Eventually, Leonard became engaged to Virginia. During their engagement, she wrote in her diary that he was a "penniless Jew."

But Leonard and Virginia Woolf's marriage turned out to be companionable, productive, and happy. A quarter century after they married, she wrote in her diary: "Love-making — after 25 years can't bear to be separate … you see it is enormous pleasure being wanted: a wife. And our marriage so complete." They encouraged each other's writing, and Leonard nursed her compassionately during her recurring bouts of mental illness.

He was always the first reader of her manuscripts, and she valued his critiques and suggestions. After leaving his career in the colonial department so that he could stay with her in England, he became an editor by profession. He served as editor of a number of prestigious international politics journals. In 1917, he bought a small printing press, thinking it would be a good hobby for his wife, recovering from another episode of mental illness. They set up the hand-operated printing press in the dining room at Hogarth House, their dwelling in London.

They called it "Hogarth Press," after their house, and started to publish the works of their friends and colleagues: E.M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, and T.S. Eliot. It was Hogarth Press that did the first edition of The Waste Land. They also published the first English translation of Freud's writings. In 1918, they were asked to print James Joyce's Ulysses, but their small new operation wasn't equipped to handle the monumental tome. The press would later publish Virginia Woolf's novels.

Their stable marriage, and Leonard's steadfast encouragement and stellar editorial skills, helped Virginia Woolf to be productive. In the 1920s, she wrote masterpieces Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and A Room of One's Own (1929). But while productive, she was also plagued by recurring manic-depressive episodes. Leonard kept notes about her illness in his diary, but he coded the notes in Tamil and Sinhalese so no one finding the diary would easily be able to read the notes. He also suffered from severe depression.

In 1941, with war raging in Europe, Virginia Woolf feared that she was on the verge of another breakdown. On March 28, she filled the pockets of her jacket with rocks, waded into the River Ouse and drowned herself. Her last note was to her husband Leonard. She wrote:
"I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. …What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness …"

Leonard Woolf edited some of her works posthumously, including selected diaries, and he wrote four volumes of autobiography. He wrote about being married to a brilliant, troubled woman and he chronicled her deteriorating mental illness. Their relationship is the subject of a book by George Spater and Ian Parsons, A Marriage of True Minds: An Intimate Portrait of Leonard and Virginia Woolf (1977).

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