Today’s Poetry Sunday features the American poet Sara Teasdale. Like other female writers of the nineteenth century, she lived a quiet and reclusive life, yet was acclaimed in the wider world for compositions showing far greater skill and beauty than her seemingly limited perspective should have allowed. Unlike her predecessors, however, she lived to see the feminist movement take shape and win some resounding victories. One biographer wrote that she spoke for “women emerging from the humility of subservience into the pride of achievement.”
Born 1884 in St. Louis, Missouri, Sarah Trevor Teasdale was the youngest of four children. Due to frequent ill health, she was homeschooled until the age of nine, only rarely coming in contact with her peers. While a teenager, she attended private schools and afterward traveled in Europe and Egypt. At the age of 23 she published her first book, Sonnets to Duse, which was followed by others: Helen of Troy (1911), Rivers to the Sea (1915), Love Songs, a critical and popular success which won the Pulitzer Prize (1917), Flame and Shadow (1920), and Strange Victory (1933). Among her correspondents was the American poet Vachel Lindsay, whom Teasdale loved for much of her life, despite her marrying another man. She died of suicide in 1933, after suffering a long and painful bout of pneumonia.
Despite her inward-looking life, Sara Teasdale’s works are startlingly beautiful and moving. In simple, lyrical, but richly emotional verse, her poetry touches on two major topics: the beauty and grandeur of wild nature and the rapture of love. Both are in evidence in this excerpt from her poem “Sappho”, written from the viewpoint of the famed Greek poetess:
Here on the rock Zeus lifted from the waves,
I shall await the waking of the dawn,
Lying beneath the weight of dark as one
Lies breathless, till the lover shall awake.
And with the sun the sea shall cover me—
I shall be less than the dissolving foam
Murmuring and melting on the ebbing tide;
I shall be less than spindrift, less than shells;
And yet I shall be greater than the gods,
For destiny no more can bow my soul
As rain bows down the watch-fires on the hills.
By all accounts, Teasdale was a quiet, private person, and biographical information about her is sparse. But having read most of her poetry, I’ve noticed something that no other biography, to my knowledge, has remarked on: she was at least an agnostic and clearly a freethinker. In her poem “The Lamp”, she writes: “If I can find out God, then I shall find Him, / If none can find Him, then I shall sleep soundly”. Or consider this poem, titled “Mastery”:
I would not have a god come in
To shield me suddenly from sin,
And set my house of life to rights;
Nor angels with bright burning wings
Ordering my earthly thoughts and things;
…Rather be lost than let my soul
Slip vaguely from my own control…
Today’s featured poem illustrates Teasdale’s identification with nature’s beauty, as well as hinting even more strongly at its author’s awakening to freethought. It was first published in Rivers to the Sea (1915).
One by one, like leaves from a tree,
All my faiths have forsaken me;
But the stars above my head
Burn in white and delicate red,
And beneath my feet the earth
Brings the sturdy grass to birth.
I who was content to be
But a silken-singing tree,
But a rustle of delight
In the wistful heart of night—
I have lost the leaves that knew
Touch of rain and weight of dew.
Blinded by a leafy crown
I looked neither up nor down—
But the little leaves that die
Have left me room to see the sky;
Now for the first time I know
Stars above and earth below.
Other posts in this series: