Campbell McGrath

Virginia Woolf: Three Fragments (1910)
December 9, 2012 McGrath Campbell

Virginia Woolf: Three Fragments (1910)


i.How much must we carry with us? Must we bear the souls of errand boys, drovers, butchers in bloody smocks, the souls of houseflies buzzing around kitchen windows? And the souls of flowers in shaded gardens, what of them? And the cost to oneself, the cost inked in green leather ledgers? How provisional our lives, propped up by custom and social function—we need the Empire not merely to keep ourselves surfeited with luxuries but to stay sane; if not for the allowance of an uncle the spinster becomes a wandering lunatic, the shop girl a prostitute, the wood cutter abandons his children in the forest, etc. Cezanne’s work at last has arrived in London and it becomes clear how far behind we have fallen in imagining the modern, though paintings seem petty in comparison to books, I confess. From the asylum yard, a stone’s throw away, I can hear the inmates at play—their welcoming grunts, their adulation. Damnation, for me, would not be madness but voicelessness, silence, unintelligibility. To scratch my glyphs like a trained monkey, to look up at the master’s baffled mouth, his wrinkled brow, his eyes betraying fearful incomprehension.



) a tapestry woven of words
) a wishful hush
) a waterwheel, the mill race

) churning, the gears’ greased conversation
) symphony of the tongue-struck

) a calling-out, a beacon, a causus belli

) o my little waterfall, awash in sympathy
) poor phlox
) sweet william and timothy

) sibilance, trance-talk, the waves’ euphonic convergence

) a tickertape tea cozy, civilization in a jamjar
) a type a trope a trophy a trice a trace

) a caste a tribe a clan a class

) dens of lions, speckled eggs, decks of cards
) a skein of writers, a smart set
) a desk set, a settee, a nest of vipers

) two steps into the darkness but no more



This world and me, this self, myself, this London,

this demi-paradise of happily breeding men, these bank vaults, these mews, these lanes of haberdashers and umbrella makers, these gilded motorcars—the petrol smoke of Empire—this small, cold, dismal island

with half the world in its pocket like a watch on a fob,

this England.

We cannot blame the Victorians for their strange lacunae, their black silences, their thrift and providence and duty, their secrecy of the self even from the self, most especially from the self. They lacked the necessary idiom, the truth-telling machinery we take for granted in the cinema of the psyche that has replaced the vaudeville theater of those earlier, dustier times, those harder-working, lace-capped, more deeply-repressed—though no less thoroughly sexualized— times. So generations evolve, correcting the obvious faults and perpetrating new ones to be reacted against by a future currently mewling and cooing in the prams of Kensington Gardens.

Mother to daughter, it passes; but it is always the father we fear,

whose needs and jealousies remain forever invisible to himself alone, damage to the hull below the waterline,

every man captain of his own Titanic.

Campbell McGrath is the author of twelve books of poetry, including Fever of Unknown Origin (Knopf, 2023) and XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century, a 2018 Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He has received many literary prizes for his work, including the Kingsley Tufts Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, a USA Knight Fellowship, and a Witter-Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress. His poetry has appeared in scores of literary reviews, quarterlies and anthologies, including the New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Poetry Ireland, and the op-ed page of the New York Times. Born in Chicago, he lives in Miami Beach and teaches at Florida International University, where he is the Philip and Patricia Frost Professor of Creative Writing and a Distinguished University Professor of English.