In Memoriam Virginia Woolf (1941)


Found - a press-cutting of an 'In Memoriam' poem written by Vita Sackville-West and published in The Observer on 6 April 1941 a week after her friend (and lover) Virginia Woolf had drowned herself in the River Ouse. It is odd that this version of the poem is not online (except possibly at a cash-for-knowledge site which reprints a version from the Winnipeg Tribune from May 17 1941 which may or may not be the same.) There is some suggestion that the free version available online was found at Sissinghurst in Vita's tower/study. From that version, presumably a later revision of the Observer poem (or just possibly an early draft) I have printed the changed words in square brackets. The word 'smell' in the tower version is surely wrong...'Mrs Brown' must be taken as representing 'unknown people.' The  lines:

How small, how petty seemed the little men

Measured against her scornful quality.

the same in both versions, have been praised as being particularly acute.


Many words crowd, and all and each unmeaning.

The simplest words in sorrow are the best.

So let us say, she loved the water-meadows,

The Downs; her books; her friends; her memories;

[her friends; her books;her memories]

The room which was her own.

London by twilight; shops and unknown people;

[shops and Mrs Brown] 

Donne's church; the Strand; the buses, and the large

Swell of humanity that passed her by.

[Smell of humanity]

I remember she told me once that she, a child,

Trapped evening moths with honey round a tree

[round a tree-trunk]

And with a lantern watched their antic flight.

So she, a poet, caught her special prey

With words of honey and a lamp of wit.

[and lamp of wit.]

Frugal, austere, fine, proud,

Rich on [in] her contradictions, rich in love,

So did she capture all her moth-like self:

Her fluttered spirit, delicate and soft,

Bumping against the lamp of life, too hard, too glassy,

Yet kept a sting beneath the brushing wing,

Her blame astringent and her praise supreme.

How small, how petty seemed the little men


Measured against her scornful quality.

Some say, she lived in an unreal world,

Cloud-cuckoo-land. Maybe. She now has gone

Into the prouder world of immortality.

V S-W  (The Observer 6 April 1941)

This piece is followed by a touching 'Appreciation' by the slightly forgotten critic Basil de Sélincourt. She notes in her diary how heartened she was when he praised (and seemed to understand) her novel The Waves (1937). It was said to be her favourite review. We will print Basil's 'Appreciation'  fairly soon.

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