Though land and setting seem rarely featured in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, they do comprise an unusual role, one that grows towards the past instead of the future. Cather expresses a sentimentality and longing for the old ways because it somehow grounds her central character Thea Kronborg. For Thea, the desert town of Moonstone and its landscape, the epiphanies of Panther Canyon, and the sentiment of childhood all come to wield a lasting influence upon the artist she becomes.
In Moonstone, Colorado, Cather paints a desert landscape of color, light, and life for young Thea. Her wanderings trace her freedom and growth as a child, but more importantly, they resurface as sentiment in her young adult life. One example is when she first visits the Art Institute in Chicago—“The Institute proved, indeed, a place of retreat, as the sand hills or the Kohler’s garden used to be; a place where she could forget… she could relax and play.” It’s as if her understanding of place is based on her ability to reconnect to the past. Later, as Thea experiences her first symphony in Chicago, her initial physical reaction to the melody is a recollection of the land outside of Moonstone—“the high tableland above Laramie; the grass-grown wagon trails, the far-away peaks of the snowy range, the wind and the eagles.” By the next movement, Thea recalls “the sand hills, the grasshoppers and locusts… the reaching of high plains, the immeasurable yearning of all flat lands. There was home in it, too; first memories, first mornings long ago; the amazement of a new soul in a new world; a soul new and yet old.” Again, her understanding is tethered to her past experiences. It is dependent on the past and yet possesses something more enigmatic. Her soul “had dreamed something despairing, something glorious, in the dark before it was born; a soul obsessed by what it did not know, under the cloud of a past it could not recall.” This same pattern is reflected upon her first return to Moonstone—“Thea felt that she was coming back to her own land…” Unlike Chicago, “This earth seemed to her young and fresh and kindly, a place where refugees from old, sad countries were given another chance. The mere absence of rocks gave the soul a kind of amiability and generosity, and the absence of natural boundaries gave the spirit a wider range.” Thea bonded to a freedom there, and yet the thread to the past is always present.
After two years of enervating study in Chicago, Thea travels to Panther Canyon in northern Arizona to recuperate for several months. Here “was the first great forest she had ever seen,” and these environs revitalize her weary, work-worn spirit as “the earliest sources of gladness that she could remember. She had loved the sun, and the brilliant solitudes of sand and sun, long before these other things had come along to fasten themselves upon her and torment her.” Recollecting her past once again, Thea even goes so far as to recreate her childhood bedroom there in the canyon. Her small childhood loft had been “the end room of the wing, and was not plastered, but was snugly lined with soft pine,” a comforting floral wallpaper, carpet, and full light from a large window. While on her first summer home in Moonstone, Thea describes her room as “snug and tight, like the cabin of a little boat… like a sunny cave with roses running all over the roof.” In the canyon, Thea terms her “rock-room” an “old idea: a nest in a high cliff, full of sun.” The sentimental and safe nest Thea creates in Panther Canyon becomes almost a cocoon where her spirit is nourished, and she finally comes to know more of herself and her voice.
In some way, however, Thea’s past is also her salvation. As the years have passed and Thea performs professionally, she explains to Dr. Archie how she is able to connect emotion to her singing because she ties all to her past and her childhood—“They save me: the old things, things like the Kohlers’ garden. They are in everything I do… the light, the color, the feeling… like the smell of a garden coming in at the window.” Thea also admits to Fred that the setting of Panther Canyon gave her ideas “for heroic parts… out of the rocks, out of the dead people.” She continues by saying that the sense of history in such a place with the cliff dwellings taught her “the inevitable hardness of human life.” Thea has not only matured, but she has also experienced enough to express the vital range requisite for an artist, the full possession of her passion.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of Thea’s past then is not the landscape Cather creates, but the fact that so much of her experience is in fact man-made—from the garden created by the Kohlers to the room she decorated herself with her first piano monies to the hand-carved rock dwellings. Even in her adulthood, Thea finds repeated comfort in her memories of place. Before her final solo performance in the novel when she is too anxious to sleep, Thea intentionally recalls her childhood memories as she mentally walks through each room of her home, seeing her sleeping brother, retrieving her hot brick, hearing her father, and finally sleeping. It is then and only then that she wakes the next day to burst forth in her finest performance ever as “one awakes in shining armor” as “she entered into the inheritance that she herself had laid up, into the fullness of the faith she had kept before she knew its name or its meaning.”
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Song of the Lark” (1884) by Jules Breton.