This passage is Virginia Woolf writing about moments of intensity she experienced after her mother’s death:
“I remember going into Kensington Gardens about that time. It was a hot spring evening, and we lay down – Nessa and I – in the long grass behind the Flower Walk. I had taken The Golden Treasury with me. I opened it and began to read some poem (which it was I forget). It was as if it became altogether intelligible; I had a feeling of transparency in words when they cease to be words and become so intensified that one seems to experience them; to foretell them as if they developed what one is already feeling. I was so astonished that I tried to explain the feeling. “One seems to understand what it’s about”, I said awkwardly. I suppose Nessa has forgotten; no one could have understood from what I said the queer feeling I had in the hot grass, that poetry was coming true. Nor does that give the feeling. It matches what I have sometimes felt when I write. The pen gets on the scent.“
My first memory of understanding a poem was a bit like this. It was either my first or second year of high school, so I would have been about 12 years old. The teacher read the poem aloud to the class; it was ambiguous and we couldn’t figure out the context. The classroom was a sea of mildly confused faces. Then she read it out a second time, and as she reached the end of the final line (I remember what it was: “I am first to go.”) the realisation hit me with an almost physical blow. I inhaled a little “oh!” of surprise and pressed a hand to my mouth and my eyes started watering.
The context was a hospital; the ‘I’ of the poem had finally decided to obey the wishes of their loved one, and leave them to die on their own and keep their memory intact. I realised all of this in an instantaneous moment, like a magic-eye puzzle suddenly materialising in my brain. And yes, my reaction in the dead silent classroom and everyone’s baffled eyes swinging towards me were mildly embarrassing. But the teacher – I can’t even remember her name or what she looked like – as soon as I made a sound her eyes locked on to mine like bam, a shooting laser beam of empathy and connection. A wordless understanding forged through words.
Virginia Woolf speaks to me again:
“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we – I mean all human beings – are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”
… And now I have an inkling of where my love of semi-colons has come from.