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#0138: Willa Cather to Sarah Orne Jewett, May 10, 1908

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Dear Miss Jewett1;

Do you, I wonder remember what an extravagantly beautiful place this is? The camelias are all in blossom in the Rufolo garden and our hotel is over run by yellow roses. I have one of the rooms on the terrace which hangs above Minori5 and the sea. You probably remember what a magical aspect the sea presents from that terrace—very much like hot green porcelain whose flow has been checked by those jagged cliffs along which runs the Salerno road. From here it is certainly the sea of legend–nothing else, and it glimmers centuries away from you, like the opaque blue water that Puvis de Chavannes6 painted. When I was little I knew a funny old lady in Nebraska7 who had some water from the Mediterranean8 corked up in a bottle, and when you looked at the bottle for a long time and suddenly shut your eyes you saw the sea itself for a moment, and this was the way it looked—a color and a remoteness that exist in legends and nowhere else. But the color one does find elsewhere, after all. I have seen this turquoise kind of green in Japanese porcelain, haven't you?

Seven hundred years ago yesterday a galley from the Holy Land first brought St. Andrew9's skull to Amalfi10, in Amalfi's time of sea–sovereignty. Every hundred years the arrival of the skull is celebrated. On Wednesday the skull was taken up from the crypt and sent down to Sorrento11. It was brought back to Amalfi yesterday by a fleet of forty-seven vessels, and the cardinal from Rome12 was down at the marina to receive it. The bells in Ravello2 rang all day long and the whole countryside trooped down to Amalfi. I fell in with a priest and a lot of old people who were hurrying down the footpath that outruns the carriage road. We were all feeling gay and tramping hard, and all wore our best things—Except the priest who wore his old cassock and carried his best one in a handkerchief. But just as we were hurrying over the one place where the wood path winds out a hundred feet above the carriage road, yes, just at that identical instant, some people from Nebraska, whom I had not seen for years and years, swung into the carriage road, and by some diabolical presbyopy recognized me and shouted and gesticulated and haled me from that glad company. I shall probably not see those good people for a dozen years to come, but I had to go back to Ravello with them and lose the festa and my pleased companions. I have felt as if I were being put through the world by some awfully complicated kind of clock-work ever since.

The volume13 of Mrs. Meynell14's essays you gave me has been an inexhaustible delight. Do you remember the one which she calls "The Lesson of Landscape"15? It seems to me about the only truthful writing I have ever read about Italy16—in English. I cannot, alas, feel that Vernon Lee17 is altogether, or even measurably, truthful. Surely she is capricious and self–conscious and and she takes liberties with things and places to get her effects. But Miss Meynell tells the truth—How beautifully truthful she is about all this pale-colored lovely earth, and how fine her words show[illegible] the frugality and temperance that it ought to teach one. What a coarse and stupid conception of Italy we have all been reared upon! A tufted Monte Carlo18 palm garden sort of country.

But Mrs. Meynell has a fellow in the truth. Housman—A.E.19—did a little poem which rings in my ears all day when I tramp about the gray terraced mountain sides and go in and out among the fields, so little and precious and dear-bought. It is not in "The Shropshire Lad"20: but he gave me a copy of it, and I must quote it to you here, at the risk of misquoting it. My copy is in Pittsburgh21, and I have never seen it (the verse)anywhere else. I never cared about it much until I left Naples22 three weeks ago, and then it rose out of the limbo of forgotten things and smote me full in the face. The Olive23 The olive24 in its orchard, If man could plant it sure, The olive in its orchard Should flourish and endure. So deep among the trenches Its dressers digged and died, The olive in its orchard Should prosper and abide. Thick should the fruit be clustered And light the leaf should wave, So deep the roots are planted In the corrupting grave. That's the Italy I have found—just about all of it. And how miraculously true the truth is! This morning when the Cardinal visited the church here and all the children for miles about came up befo the hill before his carriage carrying big olive branches, what incredible lightness and spring it had, that hard, dry, sharp, little leaf that is so tempered and [illegible] to dust and wind and run sun and damp and drought.

Betsey Lane25 has gone spiriting on to Rome in my other trunk, but the "White Heron"26 and the Dulham Ladies27 abide with me always. Ah they are like the olive leaf—"si triste, si gai."28

Faithfully Willa Cather.
Miss Sarah Orne Jewett1 148 Charles Street3 Boston4 Massachusetts Stati Uniti RAVELLO (SALERNO)2 11 5 08
RAVELLO2 11 MAG 1908