I propped my book open and stared listlessly at the page of the ‘Georgics’ where to-morrow’s lesson began. It opened with the melancholy reflection that, in the lives of mortals, the best days are the first to flee. ‘Optima dies…prima fugit.‘ I turned back to the beginning of the third book, which we had read in class that morning. ‘Primus ego in patriam mecum…deducam Musas‘; ‘for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country.’ Cleric had explained to us that ‘patria’ here meant, not a nation or even a province, but that little rural neighbourhood on the Mincio where the poet was born. This was not a boast, but a hope, at once bold and devoutly humble, that he might bring the Muse (but lately come to Italy from her cloudy Grecian mountains), not to the capital, the palatia Romana, but to his own little ‘country’; to his father’s fields, ‘sloping down to the river and to the old beech trees with broken tops.’
Cleric said he thought Virgil, when he was dying at Brindisi, must have remembered that passage. After he had faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the ‘Aeneid’ unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas, crowded with figures of gods and men, should be burned rather than survive him unperfected, then his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the ‘Georgics,’ where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, ‘I was the first to bring the Muse into my country.’
Willa Cather. My Ántonia. 1918.