My antonia, p.36
My Antonia, p.36Willa Cather
AT THE UNIVERSITY I had the good fortune to come immediately under theinfluence of a brilliant and inspiring young scholar. Gaston Cleric hadarrived in Lincoln only a few weeks earlier than I, to begin his workas head of the Latin Department. He came West at the suggestion of hisphysicians, his health having been enfeebled by a long illness in Italy.When I took my entrance examinations, he was my examiner, and my coursewas arranged under his supervision.
I did not go home for my first summer vacation, but stayed in Lincoln,working off a year's Greek, which had been my only condition on enteringthe freshman class. Cleric's doctor advised against his going back toNew England, and, except for a few weeks in Colorado, he, too, was inLincoln all that summer. We played tennis, read, and took long walkstogether. I shall always look back on that time of mental awakening asone of the happiest in my life. Gaston Cleric introduced me to the worldof ideas; when one first enters that world everything else fades fora time, and all that went before is as if it had not been. Yet I foundcurious survivals; some of the figures of my old life seemed to bewaiting for me in the new.
In those days there were many serious young men among the studentswho had come up to the university from the farms and the little townsscattered over the thinly settled state. Some of those boys camestraight from the cornfields with only a summer's wages in theirpockets, hung on through the four years, shabby and underfed, andcompleted the course by really heroic self-sacrifice. Our instructorswere oddly assorted; wandering pioneer school-teachers, strandedministers of the Gospel, a few enthusiastic young men just out ofgraduate schools. There was an atmosphere of endeavour, of expectancyand bright hopefulness about the young college that had lifted its headfrom the prairie only a few years before.
Our personal life was as free as that of our instructors. There wereno college dormitories; we lived where we could and as we could. I tookrooms with an old couple, early settlers in Lincoln, who had married offtheir children and now lived quietly in their house at the edge oftown, near the open country. The house was inconveniently situated forstudents, and on that account I got two rooms for the price of one. Mybedroom, originally a linen-closet, was unheated and was barely largeenough to contain my cot-bed, but it enabled me to call the other roommy study. The dresser, and the great walnut wardrobe which held allmy clothes, even my hats and shoes, I had pushed out of the way, and Iconsidered them non-existent, as children eliminate incongruous objectswhen they are playing house. I worked at a commodious green-topped tableplaced directly in front of the west window which looked out over theprairie. In the corner at my right were all my books, in shelves Ihad made and painted myself. On the blank wall at my left the dark,old-fashioned wall-paper was covered by a large map of ancient Rome, thework of some German scholar. Cleric had ordered it for me when he wassending for books from abroad. Over the bookcase hung a photographof the Tragic Theatre at Pompeii, which he had given me from hiscollection.
When I sat at work I half-faced a deep, upholstered chair which stoodat the end of my table, its high back against the wall. I had bought itwith great care. My instructor sometimes looked in upon me when hewas out for an evening tramp, and I noticed that he was more likely tolinger and become talkative if I had a comfortable chair for him to sitin, and if he found a bottle of Benedictine and plenty of the kindof cigarettes he liked, at his elbow. He was, I had discovered,parsimonious about small expenditures--a trait absolutely inconsistentwith his general character. Sometimes when he came he was silent andmoody, and after a few sarcastic remarks went away again, to tramp thestreets of Lincoln, which were almost as quiet and oppressively domesticas those of Black Hawk. Again, he would sit until nearly midnight,talking about Latin and English poetry, or telling me about his longstay in Italy.
I can give no idea of the peculiar charm and vividness of his talk. Ina crowd he was nearly always silent. Even for his classroom he had noplatitudes, no stock of professorial anecdotes. When he was tired, hislectures were clouded, obscure, elliptical; but when he was interestedthey were wonderful. I believe that Gaston Cleric narrowly missedbeing a great poet, and I have sometimes thought that his bursts ofimaginative talk were fatal to his poetic gift. He squandered too muchin the heat of personal communication. How often I have seen him drawhis dark brows together, fix his eyes upon some object on the wall or afigure in the carpet, and then flash into the lamplight the very imagethat was in his brain. He could bring the drama of antique life beforeone out of the shadows--white figures against blue backgrounds. I shallnever forget his face as it looked one night when he told me about thesolitary day he spent among the sea temples at Paestum: the soft windblowing through the roofless columns, the birds flying low over theflowering marsh grasses, the changing lights on the silver, cloud-hungmountains. He had wilfully stayed the short summer night there, wrappedin his coat and rug, watching the constellations on their path downthe sky until 'the bride of old Tithonus' rose out of the sea, and themountains stood sharp in the dawn. It was there he caught the feverwhich held him back on the eve of his departure for Greece and of whichhe lay ill so long in Naples. He was still, indeed, doing penance forit.
I remember vividly another evening, when something led us to talk ofDante's veneration for Virgil. Cleric went through canto after cantoof the 'Commedia,' repeating the discourse between Dante and his 'sweetteacher,' while his cigarette burned itself out unheeded betweenhis long fingers. I can hear him now, speaking the lines of the poetStatius, who spoke for Dante: 'I was famous on earth with the name whichendures longest and honours most. The seeds of my ardour were the sparksfrom that divine flame whereby more than a thousand have kindled; Ispeak of the "Aeneid," mother to me and nurse to me in poetry.'
Although I admired scholarship so much in Cleric, I was not deceivedabout myself; I knew that I should never be a scholar. I could neverlose myself for long among impersonal things. Mental excitement wasapt to send me with a rush back to my own naked land and the figuresscattered upon it. While I was in the very act of yearning toward thenew forms that Cleric brought up before me, my mind plunged away fromme, and I suddenly found myself thinking of the places and people of myown infinitesimal past. They stood out strengthened and simplified now,like the image of the plough against the sun. They were all I had foran answer to the new appeal. I begrudged the room that Jake and Otto andRussian Peter took up in my memory, which I wanted to crowd with otherthings. But whenever my consciousness was quickened, all thoseearly friends were quickened within it, and in some strange way theyaccompanied me through all my new experiences. They were so much alivein me that I scarcely stopped to wonder whether they were alive anywhereelse, or how.
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