It is clear from her writing that Sarah Teasdale did not find that life lived up to her expectations. She seems always to be reaching for something that eludes her grasp. She did not find the kind of love she sought, and though she was convinced it should, the beauty of the world which so transported her was not enough to fill her heart and soothe her soul.
The consistent lyrical quality of her poetry cannot disguise a ceaseless, restless searching and yearning after the love she dreams of having – a love which is strong and satisfying, and a lover who can enter and share her inner world.
Teasdale’s poetry has a flowing quality to it. It is clear and unpretentious, and completely without artifice. But despite her poems’ simple beauty, they express a complex inner-struggle – a ceaseless striving to come to terms with life and to find a resolution for the sense of unease that underlies the seeming tranquility of her world. The quality of lightness which allows us to read poem after poem without sense of surfeit or tiredness, leads us into an inner world where the legitimate themes of Poetry, love, death, and the changing of the seasons, carry us inward into an atmosphere of uncertainty and doubt.
Nature seems to be a mask which covers a sense of unease and dissatisfaction – and whenever a poem occasionally settles itself into an apparently pleasing conclusion, one feels that it cannot be trusted or relied upon to either endure or to satisfy.
The poems I have included here are deceptive in their straightforwardness, because just below the surface is a complicated and nuanced ambiguity about the sensual and sexual nature of love and desire. Genteel and dated though they may seem, and therefore dismissible to readers who have a taste for sophisticated poetical constructions, a closer examination of these poems shows that they meet all the criteria of genuine lyrical poetry, in theme, content and purpose. They are a serious commentary on the human condition as it pertains to the mysterious conflicts inherent in love. They are not trivial in the least; they are serious delvings into the workings of the human heart.
Whether the root of Teasdale’s problems was social or personal or physical we cannot know for certain, but the psychological pain which bleeds through almost all these poem–at least in the final twist–cannot be denied, and it confers a sense of authenticity and dignity to her predicament.
These poems are anything but light, and woven in them we find a riddle and a puzzle which resists a simple solution. They have to be read and understood in the light of the same ambivalence which led Teasdale to love life, and yet, in the end, at the early age of 48, to reject it.
What Do I Care
But what do I care, for love will be over so soon,
Let my heart have its say and my mind stand idly by,
For my mind is proud and strong enough to be silent,
It is my heart that makes my songs, not I.
I am alone, as though I stood
On the highest peak of the tired gray world,
About me only swirling snow,
Above me, endless space unfurled;
With earth hidden and heaven hidden,
And only my own spirit’s pride
To keep me from the peace of those
Who are not lonely, having died
Remember me as I was then;
Turn from me now, but always see
The laughing shadowy girl who stood
At midnight by the flowering tree,
With eyes that love had made as bright
As the trembling stars of the summer night.
Turn from me now, but always hear
The muted laughter in the dew
Of that one year of youth we had,
The only youth we ever knew –
Turn from me now, or you will see
What other years have done to me.
Come, when the pale moon like a petal
Floats in the pearly dusk of spring,
Come with arms outstretched to take me,
Come with lips pursed up to cling.
Come, for life is a frail moth flying,
Caught in the web of the years that pass,
And soon we two, so warm and eager,
Will be as the gray stones in the grass.
As dew leaves the cobweb lightly
Threaded with stars,
Scattering jewels on the fence
And the pasture bars;
As dawn leaves the dry grass bright
And the tangled weeds
Bearing a rainbow gem
On each of their seeds;
So has your love, my lover,
Fresh as the dawn,
Made me a shining road
To travel on,
Set every common sight
Of tree or stone
For me alone.
My forefathers gave me
My spirit’s shaken flame,
The shape of hands, the beat of heart,
The letters of my name.
But it was my lovers,
And not my sleeping sires,
Who gave the flame its changeful
And iridescent fires;
As the driftwood burning
Learned its jeweled blaze
From the sea’s blue splendor
Of colored nights and days.
When I went to look at what had long been hidden,
A jewel laid long ago in a secret place,
I trembled, for I thought to see its dark deep fire –
But only a pinch of dust blew up in my face.
I almost gave my life long ago for a thing
That has gone to dust now, stinging my eyes –
It is strange how often a heart must be broken
Before the years can make it wise.
My day is barren and broken,
Bereft of light and song,
A sea beach bleak and windy
That moans the whole day long.
To the empty beach at ebb tide,
Bare with its rocks and scars,
Come back like the sea with singing,
And light of a million stars.
I said, “It is no great sorrow
That quenched my youth in me,
But only little sorrows
I thought my youth was gone,
But you returned —
Like a flame at the call of the wind
It leaped and burned;
Threw off its ashen cloak,
And gowned anew
Gave itself like a bride
Once more to you.
Do you know how much you tell
In the meeting of our eyes,
How ashamed I am, and sad
To have pierced your poor disguise?
Secrets rushing without sound
Crying from your hiding places –
Let me go, I cannot bear
The sorrow of the passing faces.
– People in the restless street,
Can it be, oh can it be
In the meeting of our eyes
That you know as much of me?
I gave my first love laughter,
I gave my second tears,
I gave my third love silence
Through all the years.
My first love gave me singing,
My second eyes to see,
But oh, it was my third love
Who gave my soul to me.
It was April when you came
The first time to me,
And my first look in your eyes
Was like my first look at the sea.
We have been together
Four Aprils now
Watching for the green
On the swaying willow bough;
Yet whenever I turn
To your gray eyes over me,
It is as though I looked
For the first time at the sea.
Houses of Dreams
The old empty dreams
Where my thoughts would throng
Are far too full of happiness
To even hold a song.
Oh, the empty dreams were dim
And the empty dreams were wide,
They were sweet and shadowy houses
Where my thoughts could hide.
But you took my dreams away
And you made them all come true –
My thoughts have no place now to play,
And nothing now to do.
When I am dead and over me bright April
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Though you should lean above me broken-hearted,
I shall not care.
I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
Than you are now.
I would live in your love as the sea-grasses live in the sea,
Borne up by each wave as it passes, drawn down by each wave that recedes;
I would empty my soul of the dreams that have gathered in me,
I would beat with your heart as it beats, I would follow your soul
as it leads.
Perhaps if Death is kind, and there can be returning,
We will come back to earth some fragrant night,
And take these lanes to find the sea, and bending
Breathe the same honeysuckle, low and white.
We will come down at night to these resounding beaches
And the long gentle thunder of the sea,
Here for a single hour in the wide starlight
We shall be happy, for the dead are free.
If I should see your eyes again,
I know how far their look would go –
Back to a morning in the park
With sapphire shadows on the snow.
Or back to oak trees in the spring
When you unloosed my hair and kissed
The head that lay against your knees
In the leaf shadow’s amethyst.
And still another shining place
We would remember — how the dun
Wild mountain held us on its crest
One diamond morning white with sun.
But I will turn my eyes from you
As women turn to put away
The jewels they have worn at night
And cannot wear in sober day.
It was your voice I heard,
You waked and loved me so –
I send you back this word,
I know, I know!
I thought I had forgotten,
But it all came back again
To-night with the first spring thunder
In a rush of rain.
I remembered a darkened doorway
Where we stood while the storm swept by,
Thunder gripping the earth
And lightning scrawled on the sky.
The passing motor buses swayed,
For the street was a river of rain,
Lashed into little golden waves
In the lamp light’s stain.
I thought I had forgotten,
But it all came back again
To-night with the first spring thunder
In a rush of rain.
Night is over the park, and a few brave stars
Look on the lights that link it with chains of gold,
The lake bears up their reflection in broken bars
That seem too heavy for tremulous water to hold.
We watch the swans that sleep in a shadowy place,
And now and again one wakes and uplifts its head;
How still you are — your gaze is on my face –
We watch the swans and never a word is said.
I shall gather myself into my self again,
I shall take my scattered selves and make them one.
I shall fuse them into a polished crystal ball
Where I can see the moon and the flashing sun.
I Shall sit like a sibyl, hour after hour intent.
Watching the future come and the present go –
And the little shifting pictures of people rushing
In tiny self-importance to and fro.
I went back to the clanging city,
I went back where my old loves stayed,
But my heart was full of my new love’s glory,
My eyes were laughing and unafraid.
I met one who had loved me madly
And told his love for all to hear —
But we talked of a thousand things together,
The past was buried too deep to fear.
Oh, love that lives its life with laughter
Or love that lives its life with tears
Can die — but love that is never spoken
Goes like a ghost through the winding years. . . .
I went back to the clanging city,
I went back where my old loves stayed,
My heart was full of my new love’s glory, –
But my eyes were suddenly afraid.
Resting, as a tree rests
After its leaves are gone,
Waiting no more for a rain at night
Nor for the red at dawn;
But still, oh so still
While the winds come and go,
With no more fear of the hard frost
Or the bright burden of snow;
And heedless, heedless
If anyone pass and see
On the white page of the sky
Its thin black tracery.
Sun-swept beaches with a light wind blowing
From the immense blue circle of the sea,
And the soft thunder where long waves whiten –
These were the same for Sappho as for me.
Two thousand years – much has gone by forever,
Change takes the gods and ships and speech of men –
But here on the beaches that time passes over
The heart aches now as then.
Steely stars and moon of brass,
How mockingly you watch me pass!
You know as well as I how soon
I shall be blind to stars and moon,
Deaf to the wind in the hemlock tree,
Dumb when the brown earth weighs on me.
With envious dark rage I bear,
Stars, your cold complacent stare;
Heart-broken in my hate look up,
Moon, at your clear immortal cup,
Changing to gold from dusky red –
Age after age when I am dead
To be filled up with light, and then
Emptied, to be refilled again.
Oh let me shut my eyes, close out
The sight of stars and earth and be
Sheltered a minute by this tree.
Hemlock, through your fragrant boughs
There moves no anger and no doubt,
No envy of immortal things.
The night-wind murmurs of the sea
With veiled music ceaselessly,
That to my shaken spirit sings.
From their frail nest the robins rouse,
In your pungent darkness stirred,
Twittering a low drowsy word –
And me you shelter, even me.
In your quietness you house
The wind, the woman and the bird.
You speak to me and I have heard:
“If I am peaceful, I shall see
Beauty’s face continually;
Feeding on her wine and bread
I shall be wholly comforted,
For she can make one day for me
Rich as my lost eternity.”
To-night I close my eyes and see
A strange procession passing me –
The years before I saw your face
Go by me with a wistful grace;
They pass, the sensitive, shy years,
As one who strives to dance, half blind with tears.
The years went by and never knew
That each one brought me nearer you;
Their path was narrow and apart
And yet it led me to your heart –
Oh, sensitive, shy years, oh, lonely years,
That strove to sing with voices drowned in tears.
I have remembered beauty in the night,
Against black silences I waked to see
A shower of sunlight over Italy
And green Ravello dreaming on her height;
I have remembered music in the dark,
The clean swift brightness of a fugue of Bach’s,
And running water singing on the rocks
When once in English woods I heard a lark.
But all remembered beauty is no more
Than a vague prelude to the thought of you –
You are the rarest soul I ever knew,
Lover of beauty, knightliest and best;
My thoughts seek you as waves that seek the shore,
And when I think of you, I am at rest.
Dreamily over the roofs
The cold spring rain is falling;
Out in the lonely tree
A bird is calling, calling.
Slowly over the earth
The wings of night are falling;
My heart like the bird in the tree
Is calling, calling, calling.
If you have forgotten water lilies floating
On a dark lake among mountains in the afternoon shade,
If you have forgotten their wet, sleepy fragrance,
Then you can return and not be afraid.
But if you remember, then turn away forever
To the plains and the prairies where pools are far apart,
There you will not come at dusk on closing water lilies,
And the shadow of mountains will not fall on your heart.
Did you never know, long ago, how much you loved me –
That your love would never lessen and never go?
You were young then, proud and fresh-hearted,
You were too young to know.
Fate is a wind, and red leaves fly before it
Far apart, far away in the gusty time of year –
Seldom we meet now, but when I hear you speaking,
I know your secret, my dear, my dear.
I am Not Yours
You love me, and I find you still
A spirit beautiful and bright,
Yet I am I, who long to be
Lost as a light is lost in light.
Oh plunge me deep in love – put out
My senses, leave me deaf and blind,
Swept by the tempest of your love,
A taper in a rushing wind.
I Have Loved Hours at Sea
First stars above a snowy hill,
Voices of people kindly and wise,
And the great look of love, long hidden,
Found at last in meeting eyes.
I have loved much and been loved deeply –
Oh when my spirit’s fire burns low,
Leave me the darkness and the stillness,
I shall be tired and glad to go.
Only in sleep I see their faces,
Children I played with when I was a child,
Louise comes back with her brown hair braided,
Annie with ringlets warm and wild.
Only in sleep Time is forgotten –
What may have come to them, who can know?
Yet we played last night as long ago,
And the doll-house stood at the turn of the stair.
The years had not sharpened their smooth round faces,
I met their eyes and found them mild –
Do they, too, dream of me, I wonder,
And for them am I too a child?
When I am dying, let me know
That I loved the blowing snow
Although it stung like whips;
That I loved all lovely things
And I tried to take their stings
With gay unembittered lips;
That I loved with all my strength,
To my soul’s full depth and length,
Careless if my heart must break,
That I sang as children sing
Fitting tunes to everything,
Loving life for its own sake.
A little while when I am gone
My life will live in music after me,
As spun foam lifted and borne on
After the wave is lost in the full sea.
A while these nights and days will burn
In song with the bright frailty of foam,
Living in light before they turn
Back to the nothingness that is their home
I cannot die, who drank delight
From the cup of the crescent moon,
And hungrily as men eat bread
Loved the scented nights of June.
The rest may die – but is there not
Some shining strange escape for me
Who sought in Beauty the bright wine
Since there is no escape, since at the end
My body will be utterly destroyed,
This hand I love as I have loved a friend,
This body I tended, wept with and enjoyed
Since there is no escape even for me
Who love life with a love too sharp to bear:
The scent of orchards in the rain, the sea
And hours alone too still and sure for prayer –
Since darkness waits for me, then all the more
Let me go down as waves sweep to the shore
In pride; and let me sing with my last breath;
In these few hours of light I lift my head;
Life is my lover – I shall leave the dead
If there is any way to baffle death.
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous light;
Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.
As reflected in her poetry, the strongest emotional relationships in Sara Teasdale’s life were with women.
Teasdale might be viewed as a casualty of the struggle between propriety and passion that marked late Victorian social mores. Born in St. Louis into a genteel middle-class family, she was overprotected by her mother, who instilled in her young daughter an anxiety about her own body–its physical inadequacy and its ailments–that was to affect both her work and her personal relationships for most of her brief life. Because of her mother’s fears, Teasdale was educated at home until she was nine, and, left to herself, she retreated into her own dreamy world; she spent hours fantasizing about the romantic possibilities of her own life. Keeping reality at a tasteful distance became a habit of her life and of her art.
Although she cultivated romantic obsessions about men, the strongest relationships in her life were with women. After completing her college education at Hosmer Hall in St. Louis, she and several other young women formed a literary association called The Potters, which published a monthly magazine, The Potter’s Wheel, in which Teasdale’s early poems appeared.
Many of her early works were addressed to particular women, whose identities were disguised. Her first major work was a set of effusive sonnets in praise of Eleonora Duse, which was included in her first collection, Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems (1907).
In 1908, Teasdale formed an intense friendship with Marion Cummings Stanley, with whom she was able for the first time to discuss matters such as her own ill health and her curiosity about sex. Their friendship temporarily released Teasdale from the constrictions of her rigid upbringing, and she commemorated it in a poem entitled “Song,” which concludes “For all my world is in your arms, / My sun and stars are you” (from Helen of Troy and Other Poems, 1911).
At the same time, Teasdale was also carrying on a correspondence that mixed flirtation and serious poetic debate with John Myers O’Hara, a young poet living in New York. This was the first of a series of passionate relationships with men that were conducted by Teasdale almost entirely from afar. They corresponded for over three years before they finally met face to face, and the meeting was a disappointment for both of them.
Teasdale traveled widely although while abroad she spent much of her time abed with one illness or another. When she settled in New York, she formed friendships with Jessie Rittenhouse (a founder of the Poetry Society) and John Hall Wheelock, another young poet, with whom she fell seriously in love. His unwillingness to commit himself to her seems to have been part of the attraction, and despite that handicap, they remained friends for the remainder of her life.
Her poetry was becoming more widely known, and generally praised, and with the publication of Rivers to the Sea (1915), she was acknowledged as a significant American writer.
Teasdale’s physical and emotional health, however, remained frail. As she approached the age of thirty, she became almost frantic to be married, and indeed at one point, she had several suitors to choose from. The poet Vachel Lindsay pursued her with passion and ardent verse, but he was too wild for her, and she settled for the businessman Ernst Filsinger, a fellow St. Louisan.
She was full of hope about this union, but in the end, she was unable to reconcile her romantic fantasies with the realities of married life. “I am not yours, not lost in you,” she wrote in a poem composed just before their wedding in 1914. And afterward, “why . . . alone for me / is there no ecstasy?” (“Midnight Rain,” 1915). She sued Filsinger for divorce in 1929.
Teasdale’s emotional life became more and more unstable, and she fell into deep depressions from which she gradually lost the will to extract herself. The poems in Flame and Shadow (1920) and Dark of the Moon (1926) are darker than her earlier, simpler lyrics, and many of them deal with her lifelong preoccupation with death.
The last great friendship of her life was with Margaret Conklin, a young student who came into Teasdale’s life in 1926 and wooed her almost like a lover. Teasdale saw in Conklin the reincarnation of herself as a child, and their relationship was profound and complex. If there was a lesbian component to it, however, it was probably unacknowledged.
In January 1933, at the age of forty-eight, weighed down by despair, Teasdale ingested a large number of sedatives and was found dead in her bathtub the following morning. Strange Victory, including a poem to Conklin, was published later that year.
*Ann Wadsworth is the author of the beautifully written lesbian love story Light Coming Back – which I think is her first and only book so far. I keep hoping she will write another, but I am afraid I may be hoping against hope.
A thoughtful essay on Sarah Teasdale