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From Cather Studies Volume 7

Recollecting Emotion in Tranquility

Wordsworth and Byron in Cather's My Ántonia and Lucy Gayheart

Matthew Arnold judged Wordsworth and Byron "first and pre-eminent in actual performance, a glorious pair, among the English poets of this century. . . . When the year 1900 is turned," he added, "and our nation comes to recount her poetic glories in the century which has then just ended, the first names with her will be these" ("Byron" 236-37). Arnold's influential preface to Poetry of Byron (1881) helped create icons, literary figures who would become touchstones for future generations. For Arnold, Wordsworth and Byron operated as emotional shorthand: the reflective Wordsworth contrasting with the tempestuous Byron. By creating characters who are by turns Wordsworthian and Byronic in My Ántonia and Lucy Gayheart, Willa Cather engaged in a dialogue with the British icons who preceded her.

My Ántonia exemplifies this engagement, for Cather portrays Jim Burden as a man who has closed his Byron and opened his Wordsworth.[1] My Ántonia celebrates Wordsworth's values as expressed in "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey," though the theme of nature never betraying the heart that loved her is colored, curiously enough, by allusions to Byron's "When We Two Parted." In Lucy Gayheart, Cather turned to the theme of Byronic pessimism, and this particular lyric, in earnest. She showed just what can happen when someone gives way to Byronic passions without the sustaining influence of the land (Clement Sebastian) and what can happen when he does not (Harry Gordon). My Ántonia ends on a note of Wordsworthian hope, with Jim Burden exalted by the picture of Ántonia that revives again, much as Wordsworth drew sustenance from the "wild eyes" of his sister, Dorothy. Lucy Gayheart ends with the heroine's drowning and Harry Gordon's meditation on the meaning of her death and his own, quite passionless, life. For Jim Burden and for Lucy Gayheart, as for many in the nineteenth century, Byronism is both an inspiration and a disease. If the Wordsworthian impulse is centrifugal, inclined toward nostos (home-bound), the Byronic is centripetal, marked by nomadic wandering. Lucy Gayheart summarizes these twin impulses as she contemplates the Byronic influence of Clement Sebastian on her life: "she had lost it as one can lose a ravishing melody, remembering the mood of it, the kind of joy it gave but unable to recall precisely the air itself," Cather's narrator notes. "If only one could lose one's life and one's body and be nothing but one's desire; if the rest could melt away and that could float with the gulls, out yonder where the blue and green were changing!" (103). Cather's characters express a similar wish to cast off restrictions on their artistic vision, an allegory, perhaps, for Cather's own literary career in which she achieved iconic status, in part, by rejecting American forms of parochialism.


In his preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth wrote that "poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility" (126). Five years had passed since he first visited the Wye valley in 1793, and "Tintern Abbey" begins by recording this fact: "Five years have passed; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters!" (ll. 1-2). Wordsworth contrasts chronological time (clock time) with felt time. In the year 1793 (five years before 1798), he stood with his sister and Annette Vallon in Calais, having visited France shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution. England declared war on France in February 1793, and in January of that month Louis XVI was beheaded. So important is the passage of time for Wordsworth that he includes the date of July 13, 1798, in the very title of the poem, using the word "again" ("Once again / . . . again repose") in order to chart his mental development from what he once was to what he now is, to what he will one day become.[2] Specifically, Wordsworth charts his movement from a childish experience of nature, to adolescence, to adult-hood (ll. 66-88). Through Dorothy's eyes, the speaker learns to look on nature . . . not as in the hour Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes The still, sad music of humanity, Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power To chasten and subdue. (ll. 89-93) The barometer of Wordsworth's changes is his sister, Dorothy, the unseen presence who inspires the poem itself. The poet clearly prefers the loyalty of nature ("Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her"), which he finds exemplified in Dorothy, to the fickleness of the French Revolution (July 14, 1789), to which he indirectly alludes (Johnston 13).

In her introduction to My Ántonia, Cather depicts a special understanding between reader and listener, one fused by the landscape they shared and by their sensitivity to Nature (x). Wordsworth depends upon Dorothy to maintain his relationship to nature and his better self. Jim Burden lives imaginatively as long as Ántonia is alive in his mind. The land becomes "more dear both for itself and for thy sake," the Wordsworthian speaker says.

As writers, both Jim Burden and Wordsworth consider women as muses, forces that connect them to the earth. Part of this connection is linguistic; it helps to explain the simple, unadorned language one finds in Wordsworth and Cather. Like the narrator of My Ántonia, Wordsworth lived in a time that threatened to "blunt the discriminating powers of the mind . . . unfitting it for all voluntary exertion to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor" ("Preface" 128). Cather's narrator in My Ántonia notes how Jim's marriage has been unfortunate; his wife does not appreciate his "quiet tastes"[3] any more than Wordsworth's audience was prepared to appreciate "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey." Just as Wordsworth attacked the "sickly and stupid German Tragedies" that pandered to a vulgar taste created by "the encreasing accumulation of men in cities" ("Preface" 128) such as London, Burden's wife patronizes a group of young poets and painters of advanced ideas and mediocre ability" in New York (x). Wordsworth's purpose, by contrast, was to "adopt the very language of men" ("Preface" 130); to include "no personifications of abstract ideas" (130) such as appear in the poetry of Pope; to avoid artificial diction and allegorical language such as appears in the poetry of Thomas Gray; to deny any "essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition" (134). These are very much akin to Burden's simple tastes, scorned by his urban and sophisticated wife, and form another "kind of freemasonry" (x).[4] The public for both Cather and Wordsworth is led astray by the "gaudiness and inane phraseology" (Wordsworth, "Advertisement" 116) of modern writers, by the assault on the senses that is characteristic of urban life.

In My Ántonia, the heroine speaks a language of the heart not unlike the diction Wordsworth defended in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. Jim is attracted to Tony because her language is as striking and vivid as her personality. She conveys an emotional and physical warmth that contrasts strikingly with his mother's patronizing attitude toward the Shimerdas. Tony slipped under his arm. "It is very cold on the floor, and this is warm like the badger hole. I like for sleep there," she insisted eagerly. . . . As we rose to go, she opened her wooden chest and brought out a bag made of bed-ticking. . . . At sight of it, the crazy boy began to smack his lips. When Mrs. Shimerda opened the bag and stirred the contents with her hand, it gave out a salty, earthy smell, very pungent, even among the other odors of that cave. She measured a teacup full, tied it up in a bit of sacking, and presented it ceremoniously to grandmother. "For cook," she announced. "Little now; be very much when cook," spreading out her hands as if to indicate that the pint would swell to a gallon. (73, 75) Cather takes up the mantle that Wordsworth threw down for this passage, which includes its own idiot boy "smack[ing] his lips." At the same time, the passage points out Grandmother Burden's spiritual limitations, the way in which a decorous language keeps her from conveying the spiritual warmth Ántonia exudes. "All the way home, Grandmother and Jake talked about how easily good Christian people could forget they were their brothers' keepers" (75-76), she says rather too piously.

Cather's obvious respect for the Shimerdas, immigrants from Bohemia, plays itself out as a competition between two countries, even two types of bread ("I prefer our bread to yours, myself" [75]), and ultimately two forms of Christianity (Protestant and Catholic). One might even argue that the novel is about two ways of speaking. As Wordsworth wrote, in a preface meant to explain his own aesthetic purpose in including such poems as "The Idiot Boy" and "Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey" in a single collection: "Low and rustic life was chosen because in that situation the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity; are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language" ("Preface" 124). Cather was as committed as Wordsworth to conveying "feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions" ("Preface" 124). In recalling Ántonia, Jim Burden speaks the "emphatic" ("Preface" 124) language of the heart, for the "introduction" presents his manuscript as a continuation of a conversation he has on a "burning day when we were crossing Iowa" (xi). Throughout his text, Jim Burden succeeds in recapturing his heroine through an attention to the language of everyday life.


As Cather continues her introduction, pictorial metaphors like those employed by Wordsworth in "Tintern Abbey" emphasize the theme of recollection that is such an important part of his novel. "I had lost sight of her altogether, but Jim had found her again after long years, and had renewed a friendship that meant a great deal to him," the frame narrator notes. "He made me see her again, feel her presence, revived all my old affection for her" (xi-xii). Wordsworth's reliance on pictorial metaphors in "Tintern Abbey"—the picture in the mind that revives again—recalls Burden's gift: "He made me see her again" (xii). Burden fulfills Wordsworth's dictum that poetry is the "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility" ("Preface" 126), for he writes Ántonia's history long after his most passionate feelings for her have subsided, giving the manuscript to a friend.

At the very moment when Cather is most Wordsworthian, she inevitably alludes to Byron. In the introduction, her narrator notes that Jim "had found her again after long years," recalling Byron's lyric "When We Two Parted" ("If I should meet thee / After long years"). Cather then repeats this grace note two more times at key points in the novel, to heighten the dramatic encounter between her central characters and provide both pathos and historic, even poetic, gravitas.

The next afternoon I walked over to the Shimerdas' . . . Ántonia was shocking wheat . . . I went down across the fields, and Tony saw me from a long way off.
She stood still by her shocks, leaning on her pitchfork, watching me as I came. We met like the people in the old song, in silence, if not in tears. (310)
The emphasis on perspective ("Tony saw me from a long way off") is Wordsworthian ("Tintern Abbey" is written "a few miles above Tintern Abbey" and also emphasizes perspective), but the "old song" refers to a Byron lyric, "When We Two Parted," alluded to in the introduction. When we two parted, In silence and tears, Half broken-hearted To sever for years, Pale grew thy cheek and cold, Colder thy kiss; Truly that hour foretold Sorrow to this . . . If I should meet thee After long years, How should I greet thee!— With silence and tears. Cather successfully connects the Wordsworthian introduction to the body of the text through a single prepositional phrase: "after long years." Byron's rather conventionally romantic, if moving, lyric speaks of a secret shame that trails the woman Byron once loved, much as Ántonia's illegitimate child by Larry Donovan leads Burden to "hear thy name spoken, and share in its shame" (CPW 3: 320). Byron's poem most likely alludes to Lady Caroline Lamb and Lady Frances Webster, with whom he had erotic and platonic affairs, respectively, between 1812 and 1813. Both Lamb and Webster later flirted with the Duke of Wellington in 1815, inspiring Byron's caustic line, repeated in several different works, "the once fallen woman forever must fall" (CPW 3: 475).

In Cather's novel, animosities and sexual jealousy are kept at a lower temperature than in Byron's letters to Lady Melbourne describing these relationships. The next meeting between Ántonia and Burden, more than twenty years later, reflects Cather's method of mixing recollection and erotic passion, for it strikes both Wordsworthian and Byronic notes, though the former predominate (321). The echo of a romantic, Byronic moment, "It always is [a shock] to meet people after long years," competes with the Wordsworthian tone of this passage. Burden sees "the full vigour of her personality, battered but not diminished, looking at me, speaking to me in the husky, breathy voice I remembered so well" (321). Wordsworth was interested in the courage it takes to face life with fortitude: many of his figures—the Old Cumberland Beggar, the leech gatherer in "Resolution and Independence," Michael—become heroes or heroines because of their endurance. For Cather, raising a large family requires a heroism (as she suggests in Song of the Lark) tantamount to those acts rewarded by nations in paintings by Delacroix or pensions granted to war heroes. My Ántonia is emphatically not a story of the boy getting the girl "after long years," of becoming disappointed with her or sharing in her shame. Rather, it is about a boy attaining the "philosophic mind" to appreciate Ántonia's human dignity (her "grizzled" hair) despite all the hardship she has been through and to accept her unconventionality in the best Byronic, Wordsworthian, and romantic spirit.

What Jim Burden values in Ántonia is precisely her capacity to bring pictures before the mind, a quality Wordsworth attributes to his sister, Dorothy. Both Dorothy and Ántonia serve as an amanuensis: an inspirational force that helped the poet visualize nature in his mind's eye. Wordsworth wrote that "Tintern Abbey" has not been "As is a landscape to a blind man's eye" (l. 25); "Ántonia had always been one to leave images in the mind that did not fade, that grew stronger with time," Jim Burden writes of her after this final encounter (342). In my memory there was a succession of such pictures, fixed there like the old woodcuts of one's first primer: Ántonia kicking her bare legs against the sides of my pony when we came home in triumph with our snake; Ántonia in her black shawl and fur cap, as she stood by her father's grave in the snowstorm; Ántonia coming in with her work-team along the evening sky-line. She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one's breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. (342) What could be more Wordsworthian than this final phrase? After all, Wordsworth wrote that his task in such poems as "Tintern Abbey" was to show the extraordinary in the ordinary ("whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way" ["Preface" 124]). Cather's portrait of Ántonia with her hand on a crab tree encourages the reader to revisit the Eden myth: there is no fall now, but only a solitary reaper who "makes you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting" (342). Both Burden and Wordsworth celebrate their own countries, their own land, and the women who inhabit them. They write their prose poems and their lyrics for these women. Lena Lingard's laughter "gave a favourable interpretation to everything," Burden writes of his Norwegian lover. An image of the beautiful, alliteratively named Lena Lingard floats before him on the page like a picture, and underneath it stood the mournful line from Virgil's Georgics that so moved Samuel Johnson and which serves as epigraph to My Ántonia: "Optima dies . . . Prima fugit," "the best days are the first to flee" (iii). It is worth thinking about how Wordsworth's poem, Cather's novel, and W. T. Benda's illustrations create pictures in the mind that "revive again." Which are the most precious? Which are the first to flee? And which ones, ultimately, will we remember?


But My Ántonia was not the last novel in which Cather posed such questions or attempted to reconcile Wordsworth and Byron through allusions to their verse. Lucy Gayheart's very name recalls Wordsworth's Lucy poems and the blithe possibilities of rural life. Leaving the town of Haverford, Nebraska, is Lucy's undoing and her fulfillment, for in Chicago she meets the great egotist Clement Sebastian, whose strange marriage and curiously intimate relationship with his lame piano player, James Mockford, recalls both Byron's satiric wit and his disability. Mockford's disability, after all, is precisely Byron's: a club foot, dragged "across the stage" (30) with due melodrama. Critics have noted that Sebastian feeds like a vampire on Lucy's youth (Rosowski 225): as such he recalls Dr. Polidori, Byron's physician, who wrote a sketch inspired by that famous night in Switzerland when Mary Shelley began Frankenstein. Polidori's "The Vampyre" was attributed, falsely, to Byron, and so the war of egos that ensued (Marchand, Biography 2: 787),[5] with Byron denying his authorship, sets the stage for Mockford's uncomfortable rivalry with Sebastian and Lucy's mistrust of him (39).

Thrown in for good measure is Giuseppe, the Italian footman, who recalls Byron's adventure in Italy and the Italian circle that would soon surround him in Geneva and Pisa, near the Bay of Spezia where Shelley drowned.

Cather's allusions to Byron as icon work in at least two ways. The first is literary, through direct references to Byron's lyric "When We Two Parted"; the second is biographical, with references to Shelley's near-drowning, Byron's funeral cortege, and other incidental features of Byron's life: his Scottishness (which is compared to Gordon's), his friendship with Larry MacGowan (which resembles Byron's with Leigh Hunt), his homoerotic friendships with young men and boys like Mockford, MacGowan, and Marius, the adopted son he acquires (all of which recall Don Juan's adoption of Leila and Byron's infatuations with John Edleston, Robert Rushton, Lukas Chalandritsanos, and others). Cather juxtaposes these allusions to Byron's life with Wordsworth's Lucy poems (which explore another Lucy's death) and with the acts of recollection by Harry Gordon, who merges Byronic and Wordsworthian voices by behaving like Byron but recollecting Lucy in Wordsworthian fashion.

I will begin with the allusions to "When We Two Parted." As in My Ántonia, they are repeated at least three times. The first occurs when Lucy hears Clement sing. Shortly after her first meeting with Byron in 1812, Caroline Lamb described "That beautiful pale face" as her "fate" (Marchand, Biography 1: 331) and summed up Byron as "mad—bad—and dangerous to know" (328). Lucy senses a similar danger when she encounters Clement Sebastian:

Sebastian walked to the front of the stage in the half-darkness and began to sing an old setting of Byron's When We Two Parted; a sad, simple old air which required little from the singer, yet probably no one who heard it that night will ever forget it.
Lucy had come home and up the stairs into this room, tired and frightened, with a feeling that some protecting barrier was gone—a window had been broken that let in the cold and darkness of the night. Sitting here in her cloak, shivering, she had whispered over and over the words of that last song: When we two parted, In silence and tears, Half broken-hearted, To sever for years, Pale grew thy cheek and cold, Colder thy kiss; Surely that hour foretold Sorrow to this. It was as if that song were to have some effect upon her own life. She tried to forget it, but it was inescapable. It was with her, like an evil omen. (32)

In a striking transition ("Lucy had come home . . ."), Cather switches the reader from the present tense to Lucy's recollection of the event, as if to combine the Wordsworthian retrospective glance with the adrenaline rush of her heroine's first encounter with a great artist. The poem, cast as a Wordsworthian backward glance, is also an evil Byronic omen predicting the future. (One aspect of this omen is that it is Mockford, not Sebastian, who has the pale, though not beautiful, face.)

The second incident occurs when Sebastian and Lucy part as Sebastian prepares for his continental tour. Sebastian's thoughts are despairing ("It was a parting between two who would never meet again" [126]), and Lucy slowly realizes their love is doomed. "Lucy knew what he was thinking. She felt a kind of hopeless despair in the embrace that tightened about her. As they passed a lamppost she looked up, and in the flash of light she saw his face. Oh, then it came back to her! The night he sang When We Two Parted and she knew he had done something to her life. Presentiments like that one were not meaningless; they came out of the future. Surely that hour foretold sorrow to this. They were going to lose something. They were both clinging to it and to each other, but they must lose it" (117). In what amounts to an explication of Byron's poem, Cather stresses key phrases to depict Lucy's and Sebastian's anguish: he notes their "parting between two," and she casts her mind into the future. "Lucy felt the old terror coming back; to sever for years" (128). With her sense of "presentiment," Lucy has become "theatrical" (154), as her sister Pauline later regrets: she has caught the Byronic disease, even as her life unfolds in the tripartite time scheme that recalls Wordsworth's description of his life in "Tintern Abbey."

The final allusion to "When We Two Parted" occurs when Harry (Clement's double) abandons Lucy and "share[s] in her shame" by refusing to show her any kindness after Clement's death. When Harry avoids picking up Lucy in his sled during a winter storm, in one of many petty acts—she shouts his name in reproof: "'Harry!' Indignation, amazement, authority, as if she wouldn't allow him to do anything so shameful" (221). The word "shameful" recalls the diction of Byron's lyric, "share in its shame" (and reminds the reader of Larry Donovan's mistreatment of Ántonia in their mock marriage).

If Cather was interested in Byron's "When We Two Parted," as these playful allusions suggest, she was also interested in the male psychology that made such self-serving lyricism possible (evident, perhaps, in Clement and Lucy's willingness to conflate singing a musical setting for Byron's poem with being Byron). In the climax of her novel she rewrites Shelley's boating accident (especially Byron's narration of it) to expose the dangers of Byronic egotism. "The story of Shelley's agitation is true," Byron wrote to John Murray on 15 May 1819, I can't tell what seized him—for he don't want courage. He was once with me in a Gale of Wind in a small boat right under the rocks between Meillerie & St. Gingo—we were five in the boat—a servant—two boatmen—& ourselves. The Sail was mismanaged & the boat was filling fast—he can't swim.—I stripped off my coat—made him strip off his—& take hold of an oar—telling him that I thought (being myself an expert swimmer) I could save him if he would not struggle when I took hold of him. (Letters and Journals 11: 220; my emphasis) Cather's novel replays this scene. Mockford could not swim and was apparently terrified; he had locked his arms about Sebastian's neck. Wiertz thought Sebastian would be able to control a man so much slighter, so he swam toward the boats coming out from shore. . . . Mockford must have fastened himself to his com panion with a strangle-hold and dragged him down. The bodies had not yet been recovered. (138; my emphasis) In a mock inversion of Shelley's relationship to Byron, Mockford clings to life relentlessly, drowning Sebastian in the process. Shelley's romantic selflessness has given way to Mockford's sordid self-interest.

Why allude to this historical event, recounted by Edward Trelawny and others, in such an obvious manner? The implication, I think, is that Cather hopes to make a point about Byron's career. Byron and Byronism could affect lives even in remote villages like Haverford, Nebraska. This could happen through brief exposure to icons, a man singing a musical setting of Byron's poem, or an aged singer demonstrating her commitment to excellence and inspiring Lucy to return to Chicago to pursue a musical career (178). Cather deliberately explores the image of Byron as icon by comparing Lucy's father, Jacob Gayheart, to "an old daguerreotype of a minor German poet" (6). If Jacob has something of the poet in him, it is not surprising that Lucy would be inspired by a poet like Byron, whose image was so connected with his fame (through portraits by George Sanders [Byron and Robert Rushton], Thomas Phillips [Byron in Albanian Dress], Richard Westall, and George Henry Harlow and busts by Lorenzo Bartolini, Bertel Thorvaldsen, and others [see Peach]). Lucy's exposure to Byronism is through the ear rather than the eye (Clement, after all, is described as "oval" [29]), but her susceptibility to icons is repeatedly shown through her frequent viewings of Clement Sebastian in Byronic postures of brooding (31, 54-55). At the same time, Cather's novel exposes Byronic conduct as dangerously egoistic. Clement's somewhat ungracious refusal to give Mockford equal billing as an accompanist (and Mockford's effrontery in asking for it) well illustrates what one might call the Byronic disease. Clement keeps Mockford in a subordinate position, sometimes ostentatiously so, which is ultimately destructive to both artists. Many people who surround Clement become stunted (Giuseppe, Mockford, Lucy, Clement's wife) because of Sebastian's tendency to use people to arrange his gloves, interpret his moods, and restore his youth. And this too was part of Cather's engagement with Byron's iconic status, her subtle critique of Byronic egotism.

If Cather replays the near-drowning of Shelley through the deaths of Mockford and Sebastian, she alludes to another well-known incident in Byron's life: his dramatic funeral train in England, when his body was transported back to England from Messolonghi, Greece. Byron's casket surprised Caroline Lamb in a similar way: "as I was slowly driving up the hill here, Lord Byron's Hearse was at that moment passing under these very walls, and rested at Welwyn" (Marchand, Biography 3: 1261). In Cather's novel, the man, not the woman, observes the cortege. "Why had he been compelled to drive in that procession?" Harry asks himself as he recollects Lucy's death. "He couldn't pass it,—not after he had stopped and asked what was the matter" (183). Lucy's funeral is described in part 2 and repeated, through Harry's Wordsworthian reminiscence, in part 3. Cather plays with subject and object, showing Gordon as both brooding Byronic hero and Wordsworthian recollector, as both Byron and Caroline Lamb! In this way she turns Byronic behavior back on itself, forcing Harry to redeem, and overcome, his previously selfish conduct. Paul Douglass's biography of Caroline Lamb shows how prescient Cather was in her portrait of Lucy Gayheart. Byronism was an infection (Douglass calls it "erotomania") that Caroline Lamb could never overcome. By focusing on the funeral cortege, Cather explores the late-nineteenth-century view, popularized in part by Harriet Beecher Stowe's Lady Byron Vindicated, that Byronism was morally destructive. Cather's 1935 novel reflects, and adds nuance to, the critique of Byronism that led to the decline of his reputation, his iconic status, in the first half of the twentieth century.

Where Wordsworthian heroes like Jim Burden believe that feelings deepen with time (for they become spiritualized), Byron suggests the opposite (and Clement echoes the sentiment), because both value erotic over spiritual passion. This becomes clear in their response to the death of friends. When Clement hears of Larry MacGowan's death (77), he reviews his life in Wordsworthian fashion: "He had missed the deepest of all companionships, a relation with the earth itself, with a countryside and a people" (78). If the narrator of "Tintern Abbey" imagines, like Jim Burden, a life sustained by a particular landscape, Clement is forced to confront his own itinerant lifestyle and the toll this has exacted on friendships, such as Wordsworth enjoys with his sister, Dorothy. "Friendships?" Clement queries himself. "Larry was the man he had cared for most. Among women? There was little for sweet reflection in that chapter" (78).

Unlike Burden, who remains content with the philosophic mind that he brings to Ántonia, Clement actually seeks out the empathy of a young girl, Lucy. "Did you happen to notice in the morning paper that Larry MacGowan died yesterday in a sanatorium in Savoy?" he asks Lucy. "Years ago if I had seen that thing in brutal type, I would have lain down and cried like a boy. Things happen to our friendships; that's the worst about living. Young people can't know what it means" (83). Byron wrote in similar terms about the death of John Edleston in a letter to Francis Hodgson on 10 October 1811: "I heard of a death the other day that shocked me more than any of the preceding, . . . yet I had not a tear left for an event which five years ago would have bowed me to the dust" (MacCarthy 145). Larry hiked with Sebastian in the Sullanches (as Hobhouse hiked with Byron in the Simplon pass) and appears to be jealous of Clement's wife when he visits them at their home in Chantilly (70). Having lost Larry, Clement tries to turn Lucy into him. "He had sometimes thought of her as rather boyish, because she was so square" (80). By reinventing her as a boy (he "thought of her as rather boyish" [my emphasis]), Clement learns to trust Lucy (though others, such as Fairy Blair, describe her as ridiculously feminine, all curls and coquettishness). His comfort with men, including the French basso who cheers him enthusiastically during one of his concerts, reminds us that Clement has been surrounded by male admirers, even as his estranged wife stays abroad in France. Paul Auerbach, who imagines a conventional life for Lucy with a husband like Harry, considers Clement exceptional—not only in his talent, perhaps, but in his bisexuality.

Clement Sebastian's marriage distances him from Larry Donovan, as surely as his infatuation with Lucy Gayheart compromises his intimate relationship with James Mockford. The air from Twelfth Night which Sebastian uses to tease Lucy reinforces this theme of a "concealed love" that dare not speak its name: is it Sebastian's love for Lucy? Or Sebastian's love for other boys and men? Perhaps both, as in the complications that attend Shakespeare's drama. For Byron, as for Clement, enjoyment and passion are the thing. This is the epigraph, after all, of Don Juan, also taken from Twelfth Night. "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?—Yes, by Saint Anne, and ginger shall be hot i' the mouth, too!" (CPW 5: 6). Byron's—and Clement's—allusions to secret pleasures, captured in Clement's patronizing treatment of Lucy, recalls Byron's taunting of the rather "square" Annabella Milbanke with his exploits with young boys in the East.

If Clement tries to turn Lucy into Larry, he also casts her into roles that recall specific incidents in Byron's life. "Perhaps you will dream that we are both twenty, and are taking a walking trip in the French Alps. And I shall call to you at daybreak from my balcony!" (72). This sentence, almost out of place in Lucy Gayheart, recalls details of Leigh Hunt's visit to Byron in Italy. "I was generally at my writing when he came down, and either acknowledged his presence by getting up and saying something from the window," Hunt later remembered, "or he called out 'Leontius!' and came halting up to the window with some joke, or other challenge to conversation" (Marchand, Portrait 381). These three details are striking, but no more so than the cumulative effect of their being placed, side by side, near other Byronic passages. For example, Marius (whose name recalls the hero of Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean) comes to live with Clement Sebastian, but his wife objects; he then loses a portion of affection for his wife because of her coldheartedness. Similarly, Annabella Milbanke became cold toward Byron because of his homosexual liaisons with boys in the East, exposed (apparently) by the jilted Caroline Lamb. His Harrow friendships, even the Sanders portrait of him with Robert Rushton, who accompanied him in 1809 and 1816, recall Clement's close friendship with Marius. In the same way that Clement visits the boy and misses him, funding his education, Byron made his will over to the boys he fell in love with, providing an education for Robert Rushton (Marchand, Biography 1: 286), an annuity of 7,000 pounds to Nicolas Giraud (1: 286), and a posthumous gift to Lukas Chalandritsanos (3: 1227). For Sebastian and Byron, these passionate friendships with boys interfere with their monogamous marriages.

Like My Ántonia, Cather's novel moves away from Byronic emotion to Wordsworthian recollection, modifying one mood by making reference to another. As Harry Gordon strives to make a fitting "recollection" of Lucy, he is struck by his own lack of imagination, the very qualities that make Wordsworth's and Cather's Lucy "gay." Cather suggests the inadequacy of his cement rendering of Lucy's light footprint by implicitly comparing it to the footprints in the snow described in Wordsworth's "Lucy Gray; or, Solitude." In Wordsworth's poem, Lucy's father asks his child to "light / Your mother through the snow" (CPW 1: 392, ll. 15-16). The deaths of both heroines take place at dusk on a snowy night; the footsteps of both heroines disappear, though Harry Gordon clumsily, uncomfortably (for Milton Chase) preserves Lucy Gayheart's. In the same way that the search party gets as far as a broken bridge where Lucy's footsteps end (she has put on her skates here), Lucy's footprints disappear precisely where her mother tries to find them. Not blither is the mountain roe: With many a wanton stroke Her feet disperse the powdery snow, That rises up like smoke. The storm came on before its time: She wandered up and down; And many a hill did Lucy climb: But never reached the town. (392, ll. 25-32) A search party is sent out when the mother spied "The print of Lucy's feet" (392, l. 44). They lead down a "steep hill's edge / They tracked . . . / them on, nor ever lost; / And to the bridge they came" (392-93, ll. 45-52). These footmarks, which recall "She Dwelt among Untrodden Ways," are a literal act of disappearance. They followed from the snowy bank Those footmarks, one by one, Into the middle of the plank; And further there were none! (393, ll. 53-56) The resemblance to the search party that is sent out after Lucy's disappearance is striking.

In My Ántonia and Lucy Gayheart, men almost obliterate women in the very act of trying to love them. Ántonia survives in Jim Burden's memory as an ideal because Jim never possesses her. He avoids doing so, in part, because he learns the danger of Byronic passion through Wick Cutter, who almost seduces him in a scene worthy of Don Juan, mistaking him for Ántonia; Jim's humiliation teaches him that love should elevate, not debase. Harry Gordon's efforts to possess Lucy are similarly doomed, and his penance in Haverford partly teaches him this Wordsworthian lesson. Although he tries to preserve her footsteps in cement, the cement is a poor substitute for the original, who becomes, like Wordsworth's heroine, pure spirit, rolled around with rocks, and stones, and trees.

The best days are the first to flee in "Tintern Abbey" as in "When We Two Parted," in My Ántonia and in Lucy Gayheart. Art's provenance is to remember this fact, sometimes in tranquility, more often in tears. But there are at least two ways of recollecting emotion in tranquility. By contrasting Wordsworth's and Byron's centripetal and centrifugal treatment of passion in their major works, Cather enters into a conversation with these writers. She does not slavishly depend upon them, as Emerson perhaps mistakenly feared an American writer might. Instead, My Ántonia and Lucy Gayheart perform an important assessment of icons not unlike that which Mill undertook at a debating society in 1827, when he considered "the immoral tendencies of Byron's poetry, with [Sterling] Roebuck upholding Byron" (1: 153). In 1829, Mill again "discussed for two evenings [with Roebuck] the comparative merits of Byron and Wordsworth, propounding and illustrating by long recitations our respective theories of poetry" (153).

Enough of a romantic to take her subject from the soil of Nebraska, Cather also engaged in a conversation with British culture, comparing the moral tendencies of Wordsworth's and Byron's verse as Arnold and Mill had before her. In doing so she showed how Lord Byron and Percy Shelley were relevant to American fiction, that these figures could influence even a young girl on the Nebraska plains. Some of Cather's heroes brood and regret (Harry Gordon); others become meditative about their loss of the visionary gleam (Jim Burden). Both show the limits of Wordsworthian complacency or Byronic egotism, contrasting unfavorably with women like Ántonia and Lucy, who (at their best moments) face life squarely, despite setbacks. Jim Burden and Ántonia, Harry Gordon and Lucy Gayheart do not always achieve the excellence after which they aspire, but they do salute it "from afar" (Lucy Gayheart 12; Arnold, "Function" 285). In this sense, they, like the novelist who created them, become icons who form "the best title to esteem with posterity" (Arnold, "Function" 285).


 1. One of Cather's favorite works by Carlyle was Sartor Resartus, in which he instructed his readers to "close thy Byron, open thy Goethe." For Cather's reading of Byron and Carlyle, see Stout 14, 36. (Go back.)
 2. Wordsworth's use of the word "still" and "again" recalls Susan Rosowski's description of Jim Burden's Wordsworthian narration: "This is, after all, the middle-aged Jim Burden's recollection of his childhood, a retrospective Cather recalls by phrases repeated so often they become motifs—'I still remember,' 'they are with me still,' and 'I can see them now'" (81). (Go back.)
 3. Jim Burden's "quiet tastes" echoes Mill's description of Wordsworth's appeal: "Compared with the greatest poets, he may be said to be the poet of unpoetical natures, possessed of quiet and contemplative tastes" (153). Cather's echo of Mill, however slight, raises the interesting question of whether she read Mill's Autobiography. In any case, Mill's assessment gives us interesting insight into Burden. A lawyer rather than a poet, Burden might be described as "unpoetical" himself, though alive to the poetic gifts of others, such as Gaston Cleric, his teacher. (Go back.)
 4. The narrator's odd reference to freemasonry strikes a Byronic note (Byron joined Masonic lodges in Italy to fight with the Carbonari). For Byron and freemasonry, see my article in Freemasonry in Enlightenment Europe. (Go back.)
 5. Marchand notes that Byron saw an advertisement in Galignani's Messenger "for a tale called The Vampyre, with his name attached to that of the author, Dr. Polidori, his erstwhile physician, who had taken a ghost-story idea which Byron had projected at Diodati and written a story of his own on the subject" (Biography 2: 787). (Go back.)


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