“Singing is simply a sign of human habitation, like smoke.” (John Berger)
This morning I woke at five and lay for a time listening to birdsong — robins, Swainson’s thrushes, at least one varied thrush, a western tanager, and others I couldn’t identify. I found myself thinking of Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. I bought a copy in New Mexico, in the lovely Tome on the Range in Las Vegas, and brought it home to be savoured over during the course of a week. Cather noticed landscape and how it shaped people. Shaped her, no doubt — no one notices the geography and weather of a place so much as one who has felt the imprint of that place on skin, the soles of feet walking its contours, eyes opened to its sky. I haven’t read all her books but certainly My Antonia and O Pioneers are full of Nebraska and Death Comes For the Archbishop is like a map of New Mexico, the arroyos and piñons lovingly recorded.
The Song of the Lark is Thea Kronborg’s story. Born in Moonstone, a small Colorado town, she knew from the very beginning that she would do something grand.
“Many a night that summer she left Dr. Archie’s office with a desire to run and run about those quiet streets until she wore out her shoes, or wore out the streets themselves; when her chest ached and it seemed as if her heart were spreading all over the desert. When she went home, it was not to go to sleep. She used to drag her mattress beside her low window and lie awake for a long while, vibrating with excitement, as a machine vibrates from speed. Life rushed in upon her through that window — or so it seemed. In reality, of course, life rushes from within, not from without. There is no work of art so big or so beautiful that it was not once all contained in some youthful body, like this one which lay on the floor in the moonlight, pulsing with ardor and anticipation. It was on such nights that Thea Kronborg learned the thing that old Dumas meant when he told the Romanticists that to make a drama he needed but one passion and four walls.”
Thea’s gift is music. And she aspires to be a singer. The novel traces her quest for teaching and for experience. She’s not entirely likeable and the men she encounters are a bit obsequious, even the one who knows her best and believes in her ability. Of course they — the men, I mean — are not free to love her wholly (what is it about Cather and the hidden wives, the dystunctional marriages?). But they offer money and encouragement and one of them, the wealthy Fred Ottenburg, offers her time in a transcendent place: his father’s remote ranch which contains Cliff-Dweller ruins. It’s here, in Panther Cañon, that Thea finds her voice again. Literally. (And it’s significant that the middle register is the range she has had trouble with.)
“Here she could lie for half a day undistracted, holding pleasant and incomplete conceptions in her mind — almost in her hands. They were scarcely clear enough to be called ideas. They had something to do with fragrance and colour and sound, but almost nothing to do with words. She was singing very little now, but a song would go through her head all morning, as a spring keeps welling up, and it was a like a pleasant sensation indefinitely prolonged. It was much more like a sensation than an idea, or an act of remembering.”
I loved this section of the novel. Cather takes the reader deep into the cañon where cottonwood seedlings flicker gold-green by the stream and swallows swim in the blue air. There are pot sherds (I saw so many of these at the Pecos monument) to remind her always of the original population:
“This care, expended upon vessels that could not hold food or water any better for the additional labour put upon them, made her heart go out to those ancient potters. They had not only expressed their desire, but they had expressed it as beautifully as they could. Food, fire, water, and something else — even here, in this crack in the world, so far back in the night of the past! Down here at the beginning, that painful thing was already stirring; the seed of sorrow, and of so much delight.”
The title of the novel is inspired by Jules Breton’s painting of the same name:
I can see how it appealed to Cather and the woman is certainly emblematic of prairie strength and beauty. But to my mind, it’s dated, and this novel has a rugged and contemporary heart. My copy has instead a cover image of a bird, clutching a strand of grass (maybe barley?), and looks almost pictographic in its simplicity. Like an image on a pot sherd, tawny and ochre, expressed as beautifully as some of the writing in this novel.