Magazine article The Christian Century

In Woolf's Footsteps

Magazine article The Christian Century

In Woolf's Footsteps

Article excerpt

IN THE SPRING, the poet Geoffrey Chaucer famously wrote, humans long to travel. Once the flowers bloom and the birds take up their song again--and, we might add, once we have shucked off our heavy coats and put away the snow shovel--"than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages."

During spring break I made a pilgrimage. With my husband and my daughter, I traced the path novelist Virginia Woolf took through Italy in 1908, when she was still Virginia Stephen. I followed in her footsteps as best I could, searching for the sights she described in her diary, standing before works of art she analyzed and puzzled over.

It is almost the definition of pilgrimage that we follow in the footsteps of others. The Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, the route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain--these paths have been traveled by countless pilgrims, been prayed over and wept over. When we step onto those pilgrimage roads we join all those who have traveled them. We join our prayers to their prayers and, in a very real sense, we join our lives to theirs.

Pilgrims have long sought not only religious inspiration but artistic inspiration through pilgrimage. In her memoir Just Kids, the great rock 'n' roll poet Patti Smith describes walking through New York City as a young aspiring artist, following Frank O'Hara's footsteps up Second Avenue and following the spirit of Dylan Thomas through the doors of the Chelsea Hotel. Seventeenth-century haiku master Matsuo Basho walked thousands of kilometers in the footsteps of the artists he admired. When he came across a tree described by ancient poets, or found a stone where a poet had once stopped to rest, or saw the moon rise above a mountain he had seen described in a poem, he would feel the presence of the poets he loved, recall their poems and experience the generativity of the Japanese landscape, just as his ancient mentors had. Basho's own poetry flowed from these encounters.

My pilgrimage was also layered with the presence of someone who had gone before me: Virginia Woolf, who traveled to Italy as a young writer to think amid Italian art and Italian landscapes about the kind of beauty she hoped to create in her novels. I wanted to see that young writer more clearly and to understand how her engagement with religious art shaped her own artistic achievement.

The artist with whom Woolf thinks most often is Perugino, the Umbrian painter and teacher of Raphael. In his frescoes and paintings, figures of rounded, harmonious beauty stand in carefully arranged groups. …

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