Literary Cage Fight

I marvel over literary descriptions of commonplace things. If only there were a reality TV show pitting two writers against each other. At the sound of a bell and the pointing of a finger, they would be told to “Describe this!”—say, a scene of the sun and sunmoonmoon each on a horizon’s edge. Well, I’m delighted to report that two literary heavyweights are game and the contest is on.

Enter Willa Cather, from One of Ours:

“The sun was already low. It hung above the stubble, all milky and rosy with the heat, like the image of a sun reflected in grey water. In the east the full moon had just risen, and its thin silver surface was flushed with pink until it looked exactly like the setting sun. Except for the place each occupied in the heavens, Claude could not have told which was which. They rested upon opposite rims of the world, two bright shields, and regarded each other, —as if they, too, had met by appointment.”

And Marilynne Robinson, from Gilead:

“At first I thought I saw the sun setting in the east; I knew where east was, because the sun was just over the horizon when we got there that morning. Then I realized that what I saw was a full moon rising just as the sun was going down. Each of them was standing on its edge, with the most wonderful light between them. It seemed as if you could touch it, as if there were palpable currents of light passing back and forth, or as if there were great taut skeins of light suspended between them.”

Is there a winner of this literary cage fight?

Can there be a winner?

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5 Responses to Literary Cage Fight

  1. Scott W. says:

    A reality show pitting two writers against one another? You must run a video search for “Lucha Libro.”

    Nice pair of quotations. Though I’d be tempted to pick Robinson, simply for her injecting a bit more awed enthusiasm into the scene, I think I have to hand the medal to Cather’s managing to mix those martial notes (“opposite rims of the world” and “two bright shields”) with that slight eroticism (“milky and rosy with the heat” and “flushed with pink”)

    • Yes, the pair is nice, even bereft of context. In context, they’re downright splendid. Each author frames a major theme of her work in the quote. In the case Cather, we get the admixture of prairie life and World War I. And in Robinson, we’re treated to union and reconciliation. Both writers are grand.

  2. The sun hung above a stable like like the image of a sun reflected in grey water? Isn’t that a bit repetitive?

    But I’m not taken with Robinson either; that ‘wonderful’ sounds like a teenager’s awesome.

    • Pykk says:

      I think both of those details are meant for grave plainness, not as accidents or as effusions. “Like” and “like” so close together are a rhythmic reflection of one another, and the author’s point is that these two objects are, indeed, reflections of one another; and so the mirroring is in the language as well as in the described presences of the sun and moon themselves, these two round unearthly bodies by two flat horizons.

      “Most wonderful” is too formal to be the equivalent of “awesome.” Emerson used it, and so did Matthew Arnold. So did Churchill when he was referring to Tennyson’s poem Locksley Hall: “the most wonderful of modern prophecies.” Arnold used it to describe Goethe. “Faust stands as one of the great works of poetry; and, perhaps, the most wonderful work of poetry in our century.” Wordsworth used it when he wanted to admire a phrase from Paradise Lost, calling it “one of the most wonderful sentences ever formed by the mind of man.” So “most wonderful” has a pedigree.

  3. Kat says:

    How wonderful that you found both of these quotes! I think there can be no winners here. I think Cather might win ONLY BECAUSE SHE WROTE MORE. Robinson has written three novels in, what?, 30 years? Willa had more to say…

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