Cheryl Walker: On Sara Teasdale

If Amy Lowell is rarely read these days, Sara Teasdale is practically forgotten. Routinely excluded from anthologies of American literature, her work doesn’t even appear in Gilbert and Gubar’s Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. It is usually assumed that her poetry, suggestive but chaste in its diction, containing no obscure or arcane language, and absolutely without intellectual complexity or challenge, is better suited to the young girl’s romantic calendar with its daily quotation than to assemblages of modernist poets such as Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams. Studies of American culture in the first two decades of this century usually feel they can afford to ignore Sara Teasdale entirely.

Few people now remember that John Berryman had great respect for the dark lyrics Teasdale wrote at the end of her life, or that Sylvia Plath was more than a little influenced by Teasdale’s work, or that Louise Bogan—whose work often receives the academic respect refused to Teasdale—made dramatic use of Teasdale’s poetry in her own small and carefully edited opus. It has fallen to William Drake, almost alone among contemporary scholars, to give Sara Teasdale the respectful scholarly attention denied her by others. His feminist appreciation of the poet does not overlook the weaknesses in her poems but reminds us that her classic lyrical strengths, reminiscent of Sappho’s and Christina Rossetti’s, give her poetry a certain staying power in spite of its limitations. In fact, Teasdale’s Collected Poems remained in print until the mid-seventies.

In our fascination with modernism’s pursuit of novelty and intellectual challenge, we tend to overlook the fact that Sara Teasdale was a revolutionary in her own time. True, she was a quiet revolutionary, but she broke new ground for women poets in her particular devotion to what she called “song”: a musical poetry based on directness, simplicity, and emotional intensity for which the main model was Sappho. Her first major book, Helen of Troy and Other Poems, was published in 1911, before the advent of Edna St. Vincent Millay or H.D., and her particular brand of feminine verse would influence not only Millay but Amy Lowell, Elinor Wylie, and Louise Bogan.

After Teasdale’s appearance, it became fashionable for women poets to write poems like hers with short lines of three or four stresses. In fact, the movement away from iambic pentameter in women’s poems had begun earlier with the poetesses, with Emily Dickinson and Lizette Woodworth Reese. The ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge and the later lyrics of A.E. Housman and Thomas Hardy had established the legitimacy within a male tradition of rendering feeling, especially sorrow, in language meant to juxtapose human and natural settings. They too had defied the domination of iambic pentameter. But for women like Teasdale, the language of song was apt to express not only a vision of life controlled by eternal cycles of birth and death, love and pain, but also the experiences of women speaking, as Carol Gilligan suggests, “in a different voice.”

Teasdale’s narrow lyrics were principally concerned with emotional life, often with love. Unlike Dickinson and certainly unlike Amy Lowell, Teasdale was seemingly content to mine the territory traditionally conceded to women, what Louise Bogan calls “the line of feeling.” In Teasdale’s wake a series of women poets followed her pattern of lucid exposition, at times ironic but always intimate in its address to the reader, a poetic practice producing a feminine voice recognized as such and applauded by its generation. As Drake says: “Reviewers found the feminine point of view in her work to be one of its chief points of interest—a revelation of women’s emotion” (Drake 151).

To her generation, Teasdale’s work was “modern” in the sense that it was virtually stripped of verbal posturing. Though it often relied on metaphors drawn from nature, it epitomized the modern passion for colloquialism and straightforwardness. Beyond this, Sara Teasdale’s work represented a tension of considerable interest to her generation and of continuing interest to ours: the modern problem of feminine identity-formation. Put another way, we might describe this as the problem of balancing autonomy with affiliation, freedom with love.

Even Teasdale’s verse forms suggest this tension. In her choice of conversational seemingly spontaneous diction, she appeared to be a free spirit, unconstrained by the affectations of the past. Her poems seem to say, “I am willing to go my own way even at the risk of appearing naïve, undereducated, or slight.” Though always modest, this poetry was in its own way an indictment of an English tradition which valorized philosophical renderings of “universal” human problems all the while coopting female voices in what Toril Moi has called “the ventriloquism of patriarchy.”

However, Teasdale refused the freedoms so ardently proposed by a certain branch of modernism. She was committed to a disciplined art giving full credit to the benefits and traditional meters and rhyme schemes. Like so many modern poets in the nightingale tradition, she admired Sappho, Swinburne, and Yeats. To her their legacy seemed to imply that passion must be restrained and tempered by the discipline of measured cadence, a careful balance between music and silence. Otherwise, it remained mere sentimental indulgence. From this standpoint, her respect for the past was greater than her immersion in the present.

If her verse forms embodied a tension between two commitments—one to independence and the other to conventional proprieties—her themes were even more clearly concerned with the need to balance self-indulgence and self-restraint. In this she captured an undercurrent of her historical moment, in which progressivism struggled with an older Victorianism advocating caution and propriety. One can see these clashing forces represented by the way that women before the First World War were both encouraged to be independent and reminded not to forget their duties. Furthermore, the social revolution of the teens and twenties promised women hitherto unknown opportunities for freedom and self-development while at the same time preserving in its insistence on a romantic love plot many of the assumptions about femininity which had proven so detrimental to women in the past. For women like Sara Teasdale, female identity-formation was likely to be a process fraught with difficulties.

 

Work Cited

Drake, William. Sara Teasdale: Woman and Poet. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979.

 

Walker, Cheryl. Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. 44-46.

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Criticism Overview
Title Cheryl Walker: On Sara Teasdale Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Cheryl Walker Criticism Target Sara Teasdale
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 30 Jul 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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