Prairie Spring by Willa Cather

‘Prairie Spring’ by Willa Cather is a nineteen line poem which does not conform to a specific rhyme scheme. The lines vary greatly in word and syllable number— the longest containing eight words and the shortest, three. In regards to the length of the lines, as the poem progresses they decrease on average in length. This gives the impression that the poem is counting down to something. A reader will feel as if they are drawing closer and closer to a climax in the final lines. 

The poem was first published as the prelude to Cather’s novel O Pioneers!  It is structured as a list poem. This means that it is a collection of content compiled in the form of a list. The images the poet has brought together are all concerned with the mid-western prairies of the United States in the springtime. 


Summary of Prairie Spring

‘Prairie Spring’ by Willa Cather is a list poem which describes what it is like to experiences one’s youth on the sometimes vibrant and sometimes “sombre” prairies. 

The poem begins with the speaker stating that the world she lives in is as “Rich” as it is “silent.” It is flat, and covered in “miles of fresh-plowed soil.”This soil is extremely important as it gives those caring for it sustenance. It also plays host to “weeds” though, and is the cause of exhausted horses and men. 

The second half of the poem speaks on the experiences of “Youth” and how aging can be enhanced and impacted by growing up on the prairies. The land provides an important and inescapable backdrop to one’s life. 


Analysis of Prairie Spring 

Lines 1-6

Evening and the flat land,

Rich and sombre and always silent;

The miles of fresh-plowed soil,

Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;

The growing wheat, the growing weeds,

The toiling horses, the tired men;

The speaker, who one might consider to be Cather herself, begins the poem right in the middle of listing of words, phrases, and image evoking descriptions. It is clear from the first lines that the landscape which is going to be discussed is that of a “flat land.” It is an area which the poet, Willa Cather, was intimately familiar with and often featured in her other works, such as that in which this poem is found. 

The first facts about this place that the speaker wishes the reader to know are those which begin during the “Evening” in the “flat land.” It is here that things are “Rich and sombre.” There is nothing shocking, loud, or overwhelming. The world is both predictable and “Rich.” The things which do exist there, which will be described further in the next lines, are densely beautiful and meaningful. The “flat land” exists in peace.  

In the next lines the speaker turns to the physical elements of the land and how the combination of those factors contribute to the emotional feelings the place evokes. There are “miles of fresh-plowed soil” which is part of the days and existences of all aspects of life there. It is described as being “Heavy and black.” It is full, rich, and infused with meaning, it supplies its owners with “strength.” 

The soil also gives off “harshness.” It is not always easy to work with, nor does it always supply what one needs. The next lines list some of the things which come from, and deal with, soil. It is there for the “growing [of] wheat” and “the growing [of] weeds.” It provides sustenance as well as strife. The soil also plays host to “toiling horses” and “toiling men.” It is unifying in this way. 


Lines 7-13

The long empty roads,

Sullen fires of sunset, fading,

The eternal, unresponsive sky.

Against all this, Youth,

Flaming like the wild roses,

Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,

Flashing like a star out of the twilight;

In the next set of lines the speaker introduces a second theme to the piece. The first concerned the beauty and strife associated with the landscape, while the following lines begin to delve into how these sights are connected to the experience of youth. 

As the landscape is flushed out and emphasized by the magnificent experiences one can have there, the speaker informs the reader that she is living this life as a young person. She is in the midst of her “Youth.” Before her are many “long empty roads.” There are innumerable paths available to her with no clear sign about which way one should go. 

The sunsets are made of “fire” but they are also “sullen.” They are infused with emotions, personified, and used to represent the feelings of this particular youth, and perhaps the experiences of youth as a whole. It “fad[es], but it is also “eternal.” It is a constant and everlasting source of emotional resonance. 

The experiences of “Youth” are set against this backdrop. The next three lines describes what some of these experiences are and how they play out against the land. 

All of life is enhanced by the backdrop on which it is being experienced. The emotions of  youth are exaggerated by a life lived “Flaming,” and “Singing” and “Flashing.” This use of assonance emphasizes a special way of living that is full and wild. 


Lines 14-19 

Youth with its insupportable sweetness,

Its fierce necessity,

Its sharp desire,

Singing and singing,

Out of the lips of silence,

Out of the earthy dusk.

In the final six lines of the poem the speaker states how “Youth” is lived with all its “insupportable sweetness.” It is filled with a “necessity” that is desperate and “fierce.” There is no middle ground between one emotion and another. 

The kind of living of which the speaker is describing is without limits. It is like an endless singing which comes out of “silence” and “earthy dusk.” It is created from the simplest of elements. 

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