Reading 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.