under her hand

Willa Cather‘s The Song of the Larkimg_11741

Breaking it down, as they say.  Taking a closer look.

Some of the similes: 

  • Ray thinking about Thea:  “She was like wedding cake, a thing to dream on.”
  • Thea thinking about an older couple she had seen together:  “Thea wanted to put her arms around them and ask them how they had been able to keep a feeling like that, like a nosegay in a glass of water.”

Examples of her technique:

  • moving swiftly through an unimportant part:  “For the next few minutes there was a clatter of teacups and responses about sugar.”
  • orienting the reader at the beginning of a new part:  “He is ten years older than when we saw him last…”

In 1908, years before her first novel was published, a fellow writer wrote to Willa Cather.  “You must find a quiet place.  You must find your own quiet center of life, and write from that.”

Thea: “Often when she sang, the best she had was unavailable; she could not break through to it, and every sort of distraction and mischance came between it and her.  But this afternoon the closed roads opened, the gates dropped.  What she had so often tried to reach, lay under her hand.  She had only to touch an idea to make it live.”

Willa or Thea?  Writing or singing?  Or all of the above.

breathing in art

img_11781Reading Willa Cather‘s The Song of the Lark is like breathing in art, instead of air.  It’s in the words chosen by the author, in Thea’s artistic pursuit of her voice (a lark, of course, known for its beautiful songs), and in Thea’s love of the painting, “The Song of the Lark,” by French painter Jules Breton.  Here on the cover, it was painted in 1884, and now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, perhaps since 1894.  The book was published in 1915. 

Thea describes the painting:

“But in that same room there was a picture–oh, that was the thing she ran upstairs so fast to see!  That was her picture…She liked even the name of it, “The Song of the Lark.”  The flat country, the early morning light, the wet fields, the look in the girl’s heavy face–well, they were all hers, anyhow, whatever was there.  She told herself that that picture was ‘right.’  Just what she meant by this, it would take a clever person to explain.  But to her the word covered the almost boundless satisfaction she felt when she looked at the picture.”

Toward the end of the novel, Thea says:  “I had lived a long, eventful life, and an artist’s life, every hour of it.  Wagner says, in his most beautiful opera, that art is only a way of remembering youth.  And the older we grow the more precious it seems to us, and the more richly we can present that memory.”

When the novel opens, Thea is eleven.  We meet her first as a child.  Late in the book, she says, “A child’s attitude toward everything is an artist’s attitude.”  Henri Matisse, years later, emphasizes this point in his famous essay, “Looking at Life with the Eyes of a Child.”  The artist, he writes, must look at everything “as though he were seeing it for the first time:  he has to look at life as he did when he was a child.”

Thea says, “They save me: the old things, things like the Kohlers’ garden.  They are in everything I do.”  It’s her being able to reach them, inside herself , that allows her to come into the fullness of her voice.

reading in slow motion

img_1090I felt like I was reading in slow motion, floating along on the words of Willa Cather

The Song of the Lark is rich.  The words paint pictures and hold you.  Impossible to skip any.  It’s one of the best books I’ve read all year. 

The full text is available online, with study guides and moreThe Song of the Lark is said to be somewhat autobiographical, about a young girl’s struggle to achieve her best–her destiny. 

My favorite passage, the one that caused me to want to read the novel:

“…what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining, elusive element which is life itself, –life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, to sweet to lose?”

Willa Cather was born in December of 1873.  The Song of the Lark is her third novel, published in 1915, in between O Pioneers! and My Antonia.  This is the first book of hers that I have read, or that I remember reading. 

More tomorrow…