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Sara Teasdale was one of the most popular poets in America from the years of World War I through the 1920s. Her new work, appearing almost monthly in the major national magazines, was read aloud before large groups, quoted and occasionally parodied in the press, and frequently set to music.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Pampered Childhood
Sara Teasdale was the late-arriving and youngest child of John Warren Teasdale, a prosperous St. Louis wholesaler of dried fruits and nuts, and a pious mother, Mary Elizabeth Willard Teasdale, who strove for perfect middle-class rectitude. Teasdale was sheltered, pampered, educated in private schools, and led to believe that she was frail, chronically ill, and in constant need of protective care.
At twenty she joined a group of local young women in an amateur artists’ club called the Potters. For several years they published a hand-printed and illustrated magazine, the Potter’s Wheel in which Teasdale’s earliest work appeared.
In 1907 Teasdale, at the age of twenty-three, put together a collection of twenty-nine poems in a volume she titled Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems. Her parents gave her $290 for a printing of a thousand copies by the Poet Lore Company of Boston.
Entering a Literary Life
Teasdale was ready with a second volume of poems in 1910, but she circulated the manuscript for nearly a year in both England and America before G. P. Putnam’s Sons accepted it in 1911, publishing it as Helen of Troy and Other Poems. Helen of Troy and Other Poems is most noteworthy for a single poem, ”Union Square.” Teasdale had spent several weeks in New York in the early spring of 1911, attending some of the first meetings of the newly formed Poetry Society of America. Seeing the sights with two St. Louis friends, she composed a series of poems depicting imaginary love relationships in various appropriate locales in the city and added them to the manuscript of her book before it was accepted by Putnam’s. In ”Union Square” she yearns to express an unspoken love for a man who is unaware of it, and she envies the prostitutes who can take the initiative and ask for love shamelessly. Reviewers pounced on the poem, startled that a decent woman might harbor thoughts of sexual aggressiveness.
After 1911 and a taste of New York literary life, Teas-dale was never again satisfied to remain in the Midwest. She had made many new friends, including poet and journalist Jessie Rittenhouse, who had advised her that ”Union Square” was a strong poem and ought to be published. She returned eagerly to New York the next winter for the Poetry Society meetings, developing a warm friendship with Jean and Louis Untermeyer and arranging to go on a trip to Europe the following summer with Jessie Rittenhouse. But, at the age of twenty-six, she was still dependent on her parents, needing their permission for every trip away from home, unprepared to make a living for herself, and writing poem after poem filled with desperate longing for a love relationship that she believed would set her free.
A Period of Expansive Freedom
Teasdale dreaded becoming an ”old maid.” Following her trip to Europe in 1912, she initiated several romances and began to distance herself from the oppressiveness of her St. Louis Baptist background and gain a measure of mature self-assurance, even though St. Louis had to remain for a while her home base. The period from 1912 to 1914 was one of a rapid unfolding of her talent and her emotional life, the most voluminously productive period of her life, and probably the only period in which she was ever to feel expansive and free.
This time coincided with a national poetry renaissance. In 1912 Harriet Monroe launched Poetry magazine in Chicago; William Stanley Braithwaite started the Poetry Journal in Boston; and the Poetry Society of America adopted publicizing poetry as a cause. Critics have since designated this time as the birth date of modernism. But, the wave of energy was much broader and deeper and carried T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wallace Stevens into being along with countless poets still writing in traditional modes.
In 1913 Teasdale met Harriet Monroe, who became another close friend and useful critic, publishing her work frequently in Poetry. Teasdale spent ten days in Chicago, guided by Eunice Tietjens, Monroe’s assistant, into an acquaintance with Floyd Dell and the bohemian crowd. The new sexuality, which she witnessed for the first time, shocked and fascinated her. Later in the summer of 1913 Vachel Lindsay, on Harriet Monroe’s suggestion, initiated a correspondence with Teasdale that led to another intimate friendship, one that lasted to his death in 1932.
Choosing a Husband
Teasdale returned to New York in the fall of 1913 with the manuscript of her third volume of poems in preparation and with the private intention of inducing John Hall Wheelock to marry her; however, Wheelock was in love with someone else and failed to respond. After nearly a year of futile effort, Teasdale weighed the alternatives: Vachel Lindsay, a penniless small-town eccentric who by now had decided he was in love with her and wanted to keep her for his permanent inspiration; and Ernst Filsinger, a St. Louis businessman introduced to her recently by Eunice Tietjens and also worshipful of her. She had them both come to New York in the summer of 1914, first Lindsay and then Filsinger, in a sort of trial of her affections and to be introduced to her friends. The competition ended predictably as Teasdale selected Filsinger—a choice of middle-class propriety and security and of a man acceptable to her parents. They were married in a private ceremony at her parents’ home on December 19, 1914.
Teasdale reached a pinnacle of success in the late 1910s, first with the publication of the enormously popular Rivers to the Sea (1915) and then with Love Songs (1917). In spite of these successes, Teasdale had drifted into morbid depression of the kind that would periodically afflict her with increasing intensity until her suicide in 1933.
World War I was deeply troubling to her; she felt that the nation had gone mad. She and her husband took a pacifist position during most of the war, influenced in part by his background in the liberal German community of St. Louis. At the end of the war, Ernst Filsinger began a series of lengthy business trips abroad. Over the next decade he went to Europe, South America, and the Near East. Teasdale was left alone for many months at a time, gradually becoming more reclusive and self-absorbed. With her fame secure, and her youthful romanticism waning, she became an ironic and truthful observer of her own states of mind and emotion.
A major shift in her work was under way when she published Flame and Shadow (1920), her fifth book in thirteen years. Most of the ninety-two new poems in the book had been written in the troubled time since 1917. Her notebooks from this period show repeated attempts to come to terms with her complex emotional disturbance. She was trying to make the best of a marriage from which she was gradually withdrawing to fight her battle with herself, the conflict between her self-determination as a woman and the grip of the forces of patriarchy.
Through the early 1920s Teasdale’s productivity began to decline. She fled more and more frequently to country inns in New Jersey or New England for lengthy ”rests,” and Filsinger was often away on business trips. In 1921 the death of her father, with whom she had always had an adoring attachment, left her feeling depressed and vulnerable for a long time. Becoming fastidious and sensitive to an extreme and more filled than ever with indefinable ailments, she rarely went out and saw few friends. She continued to wear clothing in the styles popular before World War I. Suffering from insomnia, she spent nights working on her poems and rose late. Sometime in the early 1920s she had begun taking Veronal, a sedative, regularly.
Longer and longer gaps began to occur between her periods of creativity as she wondered whether she would ever again have enough poems for another volume. By 1926 she was able to gather fifty-nine poems for a new book, Dark of the Moon. Also in 1926, a young college student named Margaret Conklin wrote Teasdale a charming letter, which, contrary to her custom, she answered. On meeting, Teasdale was startled to find someone who, she felt, was herself all over again. At a time in life when she felt herself sinking under a weight of hopelessness, she revived, as if an infusion of youth could restore her to the time before everything began to go wrong. She took Margaret on a ten-week trip to England in 1927, trying to repeat the happy summer she had spent in Europe with Jessie Rittenhouse fifteen years earlier in her own youth. She told friends that Margaret was the daughter she had always wanted to have. From then until Teasdale’s death, Margaret Conklin was her closest friend and afterward became her literary executor.
By 1928 Teasdale had decided to get out of her marriage, which seemed to stand in the way of her finding herself again. Instead of finding release and freedom following her divorce, Teasdale lapsed further into loneliness and inactivity, refusing to discuss her problems with her friends and writing almost nothing for two years. But in 1931, when her increasing morbidity began to frighten even herself, she turned to her despair as a subject and began to write again. Over the next two years she produced around fifteen moving and skilled lyrics, recovering her voice as she yielded to the dark side she had not been able to prevail against. Vachel Lindsay’s suicide in December 1931, following a mental breakdown, shattered Teasdale’s self-control, partly because she had often entertained the thought of suicide herself.
In search of a project, she had signed a contract with Macmillan in 1931 to edit and prepare an introduction for a collection of love poems by Christina Rossetti. The research seemed endless and took her to England in the summer of1931 and again in 1932. She completed about eleven thousand words before being stricken with pneumonia in both lungs in England in August 1932. Teasdale then returned to New York, ill and severely depressed; her state of mind was alarming to her friends. She recovered enough physically to spend two weeks in Florida in early January 1933 with Jessie Rittenhouse, who urged her to seek psychiatric care. In her apartment at 1 Fifth Avenue in New York, in the early morning hours of Sunday, January 29, 1933, she took an overdose of sleeping pills and lay down in a bathtub filled with warm water. Her body was found the next morning by her nurse.
Works in Literary Context
Teasdale had a relatively brief but shining period of success. This success arose from two essential features in her work: her technical mastery of the brief lyric in simple, sometimes ironic language—she called her poems “songs”—and the fact that she typically wrote of love from a woman’s point of view.
Probably no other figure, except Sappho, whom Teasdale revered, is so closely identified with feminine love poetry. In her later years, however, and in her best work, she extended her range in philosophical depth and self-examination.
Painfully Outgrowing Victorian Attitudes
Although Teasdale thought of her poetry as continuing in a tradition of nineteenth-century women’s verse, particularly that of Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she outgrew the conventional Victorian attitudes of her early work to probe in maturity the personal conflicts she experienced as revolutionary changes swept twentieth-century society. Women were thrown to the forefront of those changes, with both greater freedom and the heavier, sometimes confusing, demands placed upon them. Teas-dale’s venture into independent professionalism, like those of the new female journalists and scientists, was a departure typical of a new generation. She sensed that the freedom of action she sought also had its corollary in sexual freedom; yet, she was too heavily burdened with the inhibitions and submissiveness of her Victorian middle-class upbringing to follow her more rebellious instincts. The result was a troubled ambivalence, a constant wavering between daring and guilt, desire and fear, assertiveness and retreat, that, to paraphrase her own imagery, was an inner wound bleeding ceaselessly. Teas-dale ended up not so much a heroine of the new age as much as a victim, and her later work reflects the cost exacted by disillusion in romantic love, a failed marriage, divorce, striving for professional prominence, and eventual loneliness and suicide.
Taking Sides in the Great Poetry Debates
The post-World War I years were an explosive time for poetry. What began as simply a popular groundswell of interest had broken up into quarrelsome “schools,” competing theories, and competing personalities. Temperamentally, Teasdale reacted with distaste to the new modernist productions of T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and James Joyce. While indifferent to, and unchallenged by, modernist experimentation, Teasdale felt a greater impact from poets in the familiar lyric tradition, particularly Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats. Frost’s tough-mindedness and colloquial realism, much admired by her husband, were influential in the direction her own work took.
Two of the major controversies of the war years, free verse and imagism versus the traditional forms, engaged her briefly. Ultimately she felt that both of the new movements were essentially trivial, though she tried her hand at a few freeform pieces, concluding that formal restraints, like social conventions, produced more forceful poems. She already shared with the imagists a taste for the pictorial and for succinct, self-contained imagery.
Works in Critical Context
Fluctuating Critical Attention
Teasdale was one of America’s most popular poets during World War I and the 1920s. Her work appeared frequently in major national magazines and was widely anthologized. After her death in 1933, however, Teasdale’s work gradually disappeared from anthologies and textbooks, and her critical reputation declined as the fortunes of modernist poets rose in the 1940s and 1950s.
Despite her decline in critical attention, Teasdale’s popularity with nonacademic readers nevertheless continued. The Collected Poems (1937) went through more than twenty printings before being republished in paperback in 1966. With the rise of women’s studies and feminist criticism in the 1970s, Teasdale’s work emerged in a new light. John Hall Wheelock considered her ”one of the great lyric poets of the English language.” Her struggle with her identity and conventional role as a woman has emerged as an important concern in the work of recent critics. While critical estimation of her work is still being formed, there is no doubt that Teasdale’s popularity with readers has remained surprisingly constant since she first came to public notice in the early decades of the century. During World War II a Liberty ship was named after her. When Love Songs was republished by Macmillan in 1975, 2,760 copies were sold the first year. The Collected Poems has remained continuously in print since 1937.
Rivers to the Sea
Teasdale’s third volume of poetry was as well received by critics as it was popular with readers. For Joyce Kilmer, writing in the Bookman, the book ”is full of poetry more finely wrought than any she has written before, and, furthermore, it has the virtues of variety in form and thought, and of a wholesome and joyous inspiration.” O. W. Firkins, in the Nation, expressed a similarly positive view. Rating Teasdale very highly among contemporary American poets, he commented, ”The passion which these lyrics embody is a strong, but also an unhurried, unimpetuous, clear-sighted, and self-guiding passion. . . . Hence the rare combination of fervor with a high, serene discretion, a poised and steadfast art, which makes the expression of feeling in these compact poems half-ardent, half-austere.” In the view of William Stanley Braithwaite, ”There is in Miss Teasdale’s art the purest song quality in American poetry. Her poems are brief, alluring and simple in expression. No mystery, no symbol, no inexplicable allusions, are woven into them. They are swift like swallows, with emotions; glittering and sparkling with the sunlight of love, on which an occasional shadow falls. . . . Love is her great theme.”
- Braithwaite, William Stanley. ”The Best Poetry of 1915.” Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1915 and Year Book of American Poetry. New York: Gomme & Marshall, 1915,pp. 223-255.
- Carpenter, Margaret Haley. Sara Teasdale, A Biography. New York: Schulte, 1960.
- Drake, William. Sara Teasdale: Woman and Poet. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.
- Rittenhouse, Jessie. My House of Life. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934.
- Schoen, Carol. Sara Teasdale. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
- Untermeyer, Jean Starr. Private Collection. New York: Knopf, 1965.
- Walker, Cheryl. Masks Outrageous and Austere: American Culture’s Legacy to Modern Women Poets. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
- O. W. Nation 102, no. 2636 (January 6, 1916): 12-14.
- Kilmer, Joyce. ”This Autumn’s Poetry.” Bookman 42, no. 4 (December 1915): 457-62.
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