Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rereading "My Antonia"

As I've already mentioned, I've been rereading Willa Cather's My Antonia, and once again arriving at the conclusion I so often arrive at when I reread a great book: the conviction that "I never noticed this part before, but it's exactly what I need to hear, right now, at this exact moment in time, at this exact place on earth." Here are a few of those trigger passages, which may trigger nothing in you, or everything.

As I remember them, what unprotected faces they were; their very roughness and violence made them defenseless. These boys had no practised manner behind which they could retreat and hold people at a distance. They only had their hard fists to batter at the world with.

Yet the summer which was to change everything was coming nearer every day. When boys and girls are growing up, life can't stand still, not even in the quietest of country towns; and they have to grow up, whether they will or no. That is what their elders are always forgetting.

I propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of [Virgil's] Georgics where to-morrow's lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee. "Optima dies . . . prima fugit." I turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class that morning. "Primus ego in patriam mecum . . . deducam Musas"; "for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country." [Professor] Cleric had explained to us that "patria" here meant, not a nation or even a province, but the little rural neighbourhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains) not to the capital, the palatial Romana, but to his own little "country"; to his father's fields, "sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops." 
Cleric said he thought Virgil, when he was dying at Brindisi, must have remembered that passage. After he had faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the Aeneid unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas, crowded with figures of gods and men, should be burned rather than survive him unperfected, then his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the Georgics, where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, "I was the first to bring the Muse into my country."


Helen in South Australia said...

Thank you Dawn for sending me back to this wonderful book - and for all your posts.

Dawn Potter said...

Helen, I'd love to hear your reaction to rereading the book. I think its completely gorgeous. And thank you so much for reading these posts . . . I still can't get over the fact that I have readers in Australia!