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M A R Y R. R Y D E R Illinois State University Prosodic Variations inWilla Gather's Prairie Poems In 1903, Willa Cather published a slim volume of poems which were unremarkable in both theme and form but which anticipated a serious commitment to writing. As Bernice Slote notes, the poems collected in April Twilights would have seemed familiar and perhaps slightly oldfashioned to readers,1for poems on classical subjects, nature, and the role of the artist were conventional at the turn of the century. Within the next twenty years, however, Cather continued to write poetry, to revise her early pieces, and to expand her collection. Although most of the poems remained conventional in form, Cather did prove herself to be a capable prosodist, unafraid of experimentation. A movement toward freer form exhibits itself in those poems which present Cather’s personal struggle to reconcile ambi­ valent feelings toward the Nebraska prairie with its beautiful, yet threaten­ ing, landscape. These poems, though few in number, belie Rene Rapin’s contention that Cather’s poems are not of much importance, “unoffending [to] ear or taste, at best picturesque, hardly ever impressive, betraying practically nothing of their author’s personality.”2 Three poems written between 1903 and 1923— “Prairie Dawn,” “Prairie Spring,” and “Going Home”—not only reveal Cather’s progress in dealing with her personal feelings but also indicate her trend toward modern prosody. Cather’s conception of her own role as a poet may have contributed to her reluctance to experiment with form in those poems composed before 1903. In her early essay on Christina Rossetti, Cather had pondered over the role of the poetess: It is a very grave question whether women have any place in poetry at all. . . . If a woman writes any poetry at all worth reading it must be emotional in the extreme, self-centered, self-absorbed, centrifugal.3 224 Western American Literature For the young college student and budding poet, there were even greater concerns than just the infusion of emotion into poetry: Learning and a wide knowledge of things does not seem to help women poets much. It seems rather to cripple their naturalness, burden their fancy and cloud their imaginations with pedantic metaphors and vague illusions.4 These critical comments could serve as Cather’s review of her own April Twilights. Deep into classical studies, Cather had created poems of mythic images, Latin titles, and Medieval legends. Such subjects conformed readily to traditional meters, standard rhymes, and established stanzaic forms. Even her attempts to use regional dialect did not release her from the artistic forms that prevailed in the nineteenth century (e.g., “Grand mither, Think Not I Forget” ). Indeed, Gather’s father had exposed his children to the works of Thomas Moore and Thomas Campbell, and Willa Cather listed among the poets for whom she had a “special feeling” the names of both Romantics and Victorians— Keats, Shelley, Heine, Poe, Browning, and others.5 Both her background in poetry study and her reservations about women poets surely led to Cather’s pronouncement that “ ‘I do not take myself seriously as a poet.’”G By 1912, Cather seems to have been embarrassed by her youthful poetical endeavors, and she refused to send a copy of April Twilights to her friend Elizabeth Sergeant. Cather claimed to have purchased and destroyed all the copies she could find because they “belonged to the time when she was young and inexperi­ enced and had been nowhere.”7 Apparently Cather felt she had failed to reach the standard of creation for which she so greatly admired Christina Rossetti: “Never sinking to moralizing, never yielding to accepted forms, she wrote with the mystic, enraptured faith of Cassandra, which is a sort of spiritual ecstasy, and which is to the soul what passion is to the heart.”8 Even the most promising of her poems, “Prairie Dawn,” must have fallen short of the mark, yet it is this poem which introduces Cather’s potential as a writer of both poetry and fiction. Composed in 1903, “Prairie Dawn” captures in its first seven lines of blank verse the spirit of the yet unnamed and undefined Imagist movement in poetry: A...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 223-237
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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