An Analysis of Willa Cather’s April Twilights
April Twilights is a poetic exorcism of grief for the loss of her composer, Ethelbert Nevin on February 17, 1901. Cather captures his death in “Song,” “Arcadian Winter, and Sleep,” “Minstrel, Sleep.” The collection was hatched from the significant events in Cather’s life, such as Red Cloud as indicated in the Night Express (38), Nevin’s death, as well as her experiences in a trip she had accompanied Isabelle McClung to Europe in the summer of 1902. However, some poems seem to express happiness and adventure as Cather travelled to various European countries as described in poems, such as “Paris,” “London Roses,” “Provencal Legend,” “Mills of Montmartre,” and “Poppies on Ludlow Castle.”
The title creates a tone that is contradictory of a beautiful April evening. April Twilights is filled with a spirit of haunting melancholy with an underlying sadness as seen in the first poem, “Grandmither, Think Not I Forget.” In the poem, a heartbroken maiden asks her Grandmither to make room in the grave in what can be seen as meditative sorrow where an April twilight lurks over a bank of flowers. Willa Cather wrote the collection while mourning the death of Nevin, which explains the grieving tone. However, Cather might have used the title, April Twilights as a tribute to Nevin whose most popular song was “Twas April.”
Cather wants to keep the memory of Nevin through the collection of poems. The comparison between April and Twilights is meant to show the cloud of sorrow that hangs over a beautiful month as is the case with Nevin’s death. The twilight represents death, misery, and sorrow. The beauty of April, on the other hand, can be seen in lyrical poems, such as “Prairie Spring,” “Poor Marty,” “Winter at Delphi,” “The Hawthorn Tree,” and “Going Home.” Here she displays a richly symbolic use of the landscapes of myth as well as sensitivity to the beauties of the European landscapes. Such is the theme that animates the rest of the collection with the haunting sonnets and ballads.
The poems in April Twilights seem to move through various psychological stages of grief, which include denial, anger, negotiating within self, depression, and acceptance. The first stage is shown by the death of a person she adores where she seems to expect his return to seeks for the person in familiar places. Such is seen in “Winter at Delphi” where she asserts that “the lamps are trimmed and the cup is full for his day of returning” (26). April Twilights details the other stage of grieving, which involves anger whereby Cather looks for explanations for their loss. Cather looks for something to blame in the poem “In Media Vita” where she expresses her anger at the world’s futility even in the face of love, beauty, and life that coexist “and the dead under all” (22).
In the third stage, Cather goes through bargaining as shown in the poem “I Have No House for Love to Shelter Him.” In this poem, Cather, who is the persona, prays for her beloved to return by alluding that “who woos the sapless winter for his lover, or hangs his garlands at a cloister grim?” Additionally, the author seeks to offer her prayers in the darkened chamber to ask for her lover’s return, “but thou wert not there.” Cather’s grief proceeds to the fourth stage regarding response to death which is characterized by feelings of frustration, hopelessness, and loss as well as feelings of numbness. In the poem, “Fides, Spes,” Cather talks about her emotions where she asks what their faith is to bear it till it come, waiting with rain-cloud and swallow, frozen, dumb? (19).
It is apparent that Cather wrote the April Twilights as a tribute to her friend Nevin and to honor his memory. In other poems, she expresses acceptance of her loss as well as the decision to move on as indicated in “Lament for Marsyas.” In this poem, Cather proclaims that, “whether summer come or go, April bud or winter blow, he will never heed or know underneath the daffodil” (30). Cather chooses to lay bare her soul and reconcile with the fact that Nevin is gone and would never return to her life. One can thus assert that the poems in this book are used as a therapeutic tool for the persona to heal from the death of a loved one.
The April Twilights thus deals with the theme of frustrated, forbidden, and lost love. In “Grandmither, Think Not I Forget,” she yearns for comfort of the grave to see the eyes of her beloved. In other poems, Cather portrays Nevin as Apollo, the god of light and music. By comparing Nevin, who was a composer with an idol, she indicates that death has robbed her of someone with great talent as well as one who has been the light of her world. In “Sonnet,” Cather comes to terms with her grieving by acknowledging how she mourned his flight as well as in Media Vita where she feels that she has reconciled her sorrowful spirit with the reality of Nevin’s death. As such, she moves from mourning to acceptance, which cements the theme of sorrow and grieving in April Twilights.