On a Wonderful, Beautiful, Almost Failed Sentence By Virginia Woolf
A Close Reading of the Opening Lines to an Iconic Essay, 'On Being Ill'
“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to light, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us in the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm chair and confuse his ‘Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth’ with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this and infinitely more, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”
It may well be the sentence that for diverse reasons—because thinking about Woolf, or sickness, or essays, because trying to emulate a certain rhythm in my own writing—I’ve copied out by hand more than any other.
Each time, I’ve marveled at the logic and ease and length (181 words) of the sentence, the hard clausal steps that slowly mount (or is it descend?) to a grammatically wrong-footing conclusion—the dash’s flat fall where we might have expected a “then…” or “so…” I have wondered about the oddity of Woolf’s metaphors—the sentence is mostly made of metaphors—and their unabashed mixture: the lights go up, the lights go down, the patient rises and falls as though in a rickety old elevator, till at last the cage clatters open, slightly missing the floor one wanted. This is the first sentence of Woolf’s 1926 essay “On Being Ill,” and it’s hard to think of a verbal array whose structure better mimics both its subject and the larger text of which it’s part: precisely because, despite its exquisitely shaped adventure, the sentence finally fails to hold itself together.
Everything that rises must converge, or not. Seven times—four hows and three whats—the sentence invites us to anticipate a logically and artistically satisfying terminus. With the final how we may reasonably expect that the grammatical, argumentative, and symbolic denouement is just around the comma-swiveling corner. Instead, we embark on a mysterious paratactic excursion, with no punctuation and no hint, for what seems an age, that our destination is the dentist’s chair: “we go down… and feel … and wake … and come to the surface … and confuse…” Everything tends toward the sentence’s second and final dash—the first dash, the dentist’s, may as well be any instrument at all—and an abrupt meta-swerve: “—when we think of this…” Do we, does even Woolf, really think of this? The sentence has allured us a long way, but I’m not certain I follow, not even sure what “this” consists of, never mind the “infinitely more.”
Woolf was complexly unwell in the autumn of 1925, when T.S. Eliot asked if he might publish a piece of hers in the literary magazine The Criterion, which he had founded in 1922. (By the time Woolf’s essay appeared, the journal had relaunched as The New Criterion.) The novelist was trying to start work on To the Lighthouse, but had been laid low by flu, headaches, and a vulturous pecking at the spine: this last, in a letter to her friend and lover Vita Sackville-West, is Woolf’s way of describing her most recent mental and emotional breakdown. When she speaks in “On Being Ill” about “the act of illness” (how odd, to think of it as an act) and “the great experience,” when she imagines the moment when “we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright,” one may assume she has more vicious symptoms in mind than feebling coughs and sniffles. The essay is a lurid reflection on the uses of melancholy, the limits of sympathy, and the triumph of death.
You can hear in the delaying rhythms of the opening sentence the influence of Marcel Proust and the digressive, paid-by-the-word style of Thomas De Quincey, whose essays Woolf had lately looked into for the first time. The asthmatic novelist and the opium-eating essayist are among the very few writers in whom, she tells us on the first page, we will find the subject of illness authoritatively or even adequately treated—“literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, negligible and nonexisent.” We lack a language to capture “this monster, the body, this miracle, its pain,” and if we tried to coin new words for the shiver and the headache, taking “pain in one hand and a lump of sound in the other,” the result would likely be laughable. Only poets come close. So what would a prose literature devoted to illness sound like? Perhaps it could only exist in the form of the essay, of which genre Woolf’s opening sentence is both an elegant part-for-whole and a less than obvious parody.
Woolf herself was ambivalent about “On Being Ill,” and about its opening sentence. At first she and her husband Leonard Woolf thought the essay one of her best: it is funny, learned, vagrant, strange, and quite aware of the Montaigne-mimicking cliché of its titular “On…” Woolf was late sending it to Eliot, informing him, as the deadline passed, that the manuscript was imminent but she had been “working under difficulties.” Eliot was willing to publish, but had reservations. His postcard to that effect has not survived; instead we have Woolf’s letters and diaries, in which she laments that she may have overwritten. Returning to the text in light of Eliot’s note, she “saw wordiness, feebleness, and all the vices in it.” She had composed the essay from her sickbed, and it seemed that one of the main arguments of the piece—that the hiatus and the solitude of illness encourage a febrile sort of reading, and writing—had proved correct: Woolf had simply used too many words.
Four years after it first appeared, Woolf reprinted “On Being Ill” as part of a series of essay-length books for the Hogarth Press, which she had set up with Leonard. She took the opportunity to rein in what must have seemed syntactic and figural excesses in the work. In a passage about the invalid’s attitude to poetry, the 1930 version states: “We rifle the poets of their flowers. We break off a line or two and let them open in the depths of the mind.” But in 1926, Woolf had let the second prose flower bloom: “We break off a line or two and let them open in the depths of the mind, spread their bright wings, swim like coloured fish in green waters.” Time and again in 1930, she strips away such decor: images disappear, adjectives vanish, and sentences quite as long as the opening one are pruned at their extremities as if they were rangy roses in her Sussex garden. The excess clauses are sometimes replanted or grafted nearby, not disposed of entirely.
There’s a contradiction, not quite buried, in the way the essay characterizes the sick person’s experience of language. On the one hand: “Illness makes us disinclined for the long campaigns that prose exacts.” The works of Edward Gibbon, Gustave Flaubert, and Henry James are beyond the powers of the bedridden, whose memory, judgment, and attention are apt to stray “while chapter swings on top of chapter.” On the other hand, illness makes us adventurers, in language and imagination; we are pleased to abandon concision and coherence. Above all, so it seems as “On Being Ill” starts to mimic the shape of its own beginning, illness frees us to fall back on the pillows and give up pretending to the logical progression of our thoughts.
Here is what happens in 1930 to the first sentence of 1926: very little, almost nothing. There are some small changes to punctuation, as when “arm chair” acquires a hyphen. In a sentence that is governed in its opening lines by the (somewhat confusing) play of light and dark, Woolf avoids a minor repetition when she writes “what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view” instead of “… brings to light.” Perhaps that change diverts the metaphoric force of the sentence a touch, but we are, after all, still in the territory of the visible, inside a reverie that with its field of flowers and “Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven” could be straight out of a medieval dream poem. The real alteration from the version of the sentence in The New Criterion comes a little way after the dash, when “and infinitely more” is quietly forgotten. It’s hard not to conclude that Woolf’s “infinitely more” is just this: the swelling perplex of metaphors, which she is doing her best to soothe and shrink.
What remains? Most of the sentence, and of course the crucial dash, which is the sveltest emblem possible of the license afforded to the sick, to the essayist, and to the sentence itself. “On Being Ill” contains one of Woolf’s boldest essayistic deviations. She has been thinking about Hamlet, and the way rashness, “one of the properties of illness,” allows at last a proper, because “outlaw,” reading of the play’s illogic and excess. And then, without warning: “But enough of Shakespeare—let us turn to Augustus Hare.” Hare was a mediocre 19th-century biographer: his 1893 book The Story of Two Noble Lives (on Countess Canning and the Marchioness of Waterford) is the sort of thing one might have read in bed with flu in 1925. But it gives Woolf her last, long paragraph, on the eruption of violent death into poised, aristocratic Victorian lives. The essay ends in a kind of dream—with the image of a plush red curtain clasped and crushed in grief. And we’re happy to follow Woolf there, in part, because of that dash in her opening sentence, which denotes a passage from the dream-fugue of sickness, depression, and undirected reading into the dirigible madness of writing.
This essay originally appears in issue 62 of Cabinet Magazine.