I first encountered Willa Cather as I was browsing in a second-hand bookshop in Hay-on-Wye. Not an unusual occupation for me – browsing in bookshops, that is, not encountering Cather regularly. That would be extremely difficult as she died 71 years ago today.
Born in Gore, Virginia, in 1873 and named Wilella Sibert Cather, she grew up to be a novelist of some repute, winning the Pullitzer Prize in 1922. Her many books are still available as reprints or paperbacks, but modern copies don’t really interest me – hence my many hours of browsing.
My first purchase, on that occasion in Hay, was Sapphira and the Slave Girl, published in 1940. My copy (not a first edition, unfortunately) is in pristine condition even though it has been read and re-read by me. This was to be Cather’s last novel, published at a point when Europe was in absolute turmoil and occupied. Something that made Cather fear for the future. Although I didn’t know it at the time of my first reading of the novel, this book is one of the darkest she ever produced.
Cather wrote a dozen novels. One of Ours (1922), My Antonia (1918), A Lost Lady (1923), Shadows on the Rock (1931) and Sapphira being her most well-known.
Something that I hadn’t realised that day in Hay, was that I had encountered Cather before, but in another guise. Some years later, in another haven for books in Alnwick I found a collection of her poetry from 1913. Once home again, I started reading through it and found a sonnet that I had used as a teenager for one of my Poetry Society exams. It has since become a favourite and, as it is the anniversary of her death, I thought I would share it with you.
Alas, that June should come when thou didst go;
I think you passed each other on the way;
And seeing thee, the Summer loved thee so
That all her loveliness she gave away;
Her rare perfumes, in hawthorn boughs distilled,
Blushing, she in the sweeter bosom left,
Thine arms with all her virgin roses filled,
Yet felt herself the richer for thy theft;
Beggared herself of morning for thine eyes,
Hung on the lips of every bird the tune,
Breathed on thy cheek her soft vermillion dyes,
And in thee set the singing heart of June.
And so, not only do I mourn thy flight,
But summer comes despoiled of her delight.
Willa Cather 1913
Willa Cather December 7th, 1873 – April 24th, 1947. Her grave is behind the Meeting House in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. The Willa Cather Foundation is centred in Red Cloud, Nebraska and the US postal service and mint honoured her by issuing stamps and a medallion, respectively. In 2011, she was inducted into the New York Writers’ Hall of Fame.