Melissa Girard, ‘How Autocratic Our Country Is Becoming’: The Sentimental Poetess at War

When it appeared in 1911, Sara Teasdale’s “Union Square” seemed to brand the rising young poet a “New Woman.” A bold portrait of female desire, “Union Square” forms the powerful denouement to a sequence of love lyrics staged on the streets of New York City. Within these six poems, Teasdale’s speaker assumes the role of a tourist, traveling from the quiet warmth of her hotel room on “A Winter Night” through some of the city’s signature destinations, including “The Metropolitan Tower,” “Gramercy Park,” and “Central Park At Dusk.” All the while, her male companion remains oblivious to her love. By “Union Square,” their unrequited affair has drawn to its disappointing close:

            And on we walked and on we walked

            Past the fiery lights of the picture shows—

            Where the girls with thirsty eyes go by

            On the errand each man knows.

 

            And on we walked and on we walked,

            At the door at last we said good-bye;

            I knew by his smile he had not heard

            My heart’s unuttered cry.

            With the man I love who loves me not

            I walked in the street-lamps flare—

            But oh, the girls who ask for love

            In the lights of Union Square. (lines 9-20)

The poem derives its shocking newness from the uneasy identification forged in its final lines: Teasdale’s speaker sympathizes with, envies even, the prostitutes working in Union Square.  Throughout her urban trek, the speaker had waited patiently, demurely, for her companion to declare himself, since she lacked the courage to “ask for love” outright. Ironically, he never “heard” her “unuttered cry.” Like Edna St. Vincent Millay a decade later, Teasdale was writing directly to a female audience about the failures and frustrations of conventional femininity. “Union Square” does not merely mourn love’s failure; it challenges women to articulate their own desires, and, in so doing, to alter fundamentally the course of modern love. “But oh,” the poem yearns, how different love could be in a “new” sexual and gender economy.

According to her biographer William Drake, Teasdale was “seized with misgivings” about this “daring” poem, and spent months consulting her friends as to whether or not she should include it in Helen of Troy and Other Poems (Drake, Sara Teasdale 69). In a letter to Teasdale, the critic Louis Untermeyer plainly declared his distaste. “Of course you know what the girls in Union Square ask for is very different from love,” he cautioned Teasdale, “And so is what they get—!” (qtd. in Sara Teasdale 86). The poet John Myers O’Hara, though more tempered in his criticism, similarly counseled restraint: “Perhaps it is better, after all, to pursue the lovelier side of existence, and only give expression to what is unmarred in the realm of beauty” (qtd. in Sara Teasdale 86). On the advice of Jessie Rittenhouse, however, Teasdale agreed to make her poem public. “But for your assuring me that it wasn’t so wicked after all,” she wrote to Rittenhouse a month after the poem appeared, “I should have let it stay in the seclusion of my tiny red note-book” (qtd. in Sara Teasdale 70). The threat of suppression, it seems, was quite real. Publishing “Union Square,” Teasdale knew, would signal her allegiance to the radical politics of the “New Woman.” Confronted with this bold choice, the poet balked. Although she had authored a fearless poem, her feelings toward the modern—in particular, modern gender politics—remained tentative. Actually, despite publishing “Union Square,” Teasdale never explicitly endorsed its progressive sentiments. “If the idea at the end of ‘Union Square’ had not been an accident suggested by rhyme,” she told O’Hara, “I should never have said what I said” (qtd. in Sara Teasdale 72).

This essay seeks to understand more fully Teasdale’s ambivalent relation to the modern. For, despite her demure protestations, “Union Square” was no “accident.” Throughout her career, Teasdale ventured repeatedly into “new” aesthetic and political territory, but then, inexplicably, doubled back. Traces of this radicalism run throughout her poetic corpus, yet she routinely disavowed her political ambitions. In fact, as I will show, Teasdale succeeded in suppressing many of her most controversial political poems—a fate that “Union Square” nearly shared. The record of this anxious struggle with modern politics and aesthetics has been largely effaced within Teasdale’s critical legacy. Over the last half century, we have reduced Teasdale to a caricature of her previous self. Rather than a complex, divided figure, she has been remembered as a stereotypical “poetess”: timid, genteel, and decidedly “un-modern.”

“I might have sung of the world”

In recent years, “[I might have sung of the world]” has emerged as Teasdale’s signature poem:

            I might have sung of the world

            And said what I heard them say

            Of the vast and passing dream

            Of today and yesterday.

                                     

            But I chose to tell of myself,

            For that was all I knew—

            I have made a chart of a small sea,

            But the chart I made is true.

Dated 1919, this previously unpublished fragment first appeared as the epigraph to William Drake’s 1984 anthology Mirror of the Heart: Poems of Sara Teasdale. Other than a gift book issued by Hallmark, Inc. in 1969, Drake’s marked the first new collection of Teasdale’s poetry to appear since the 1930s. Following Drake’s recuperation, the poem was also re-printed in the foundational feminist anthology, No More Masks! Considering how sparsely Teasdale’s poetry has been represented in the last century, these appearances make “[I might have sung of the world]” one of her most widely available and influential poems.

As a meta-poetic statement, “[I might have sung of the world]” seems to flaunt Teasdale’s status as a traditional “poetess.” With its neat stanzaic divide between the “vast” world and the “small” female self, it conjures that “empire of agoraphobia” that profoundly limited women’s literary pursuits in the nineteenth century (Brown). Demurely feminine, “[I might have sung of the world]” appears to revel in the familiar conventions and constraints of domestic discourse. It evokes, in particular, the formation that Gillian Brown terms “domestic individualism”: a nineteenth-century mode of self-definition that “locate[s] the individual in his or her interiority” (3). In line with its nineteenth-century predecessors, the poem positions the self as the only “true” source of knowledge (“For that was all I knew”) and dismisses the exterior “world” like a rumor (“what I heard them say”). Content to “chart” the “small” but “true” territory of the feminine self, Teasdale ostensibly turns her back on the modern and retreats into a nineteenth-century domestic fantasy.

Since her emergence, this strange habituation to the nineteenth century has troubled Teasdale’s reputation. Horace Gregory and Marya Zaturenska, for instance, note that Teasdale had always seemed “a little old for her age.” “One thinks of her,” they continue, “as one of the ‘singers’ who might well have lightened Clarence Stedman’s ‘twilight interval’ with a note of fresh, authentic song” (98). At first glance, this attempt to reconnect Teasdale with her sentimental predecessors seems like a generous act. Because Teasdale’s lyric poetry feels alien in the modern, Gregory and Zaturenska transport it to a more familiar, less hostile clime. However, despite its well-meaning intent, this retrospective re-periodization has the unfortunate effect of de-radicalizing Teasdale’s verse, because it strips it of any social or historical specificity. By emphasizing, exclusively, the backward character of her poetry, critics have displaced the complex demands it makes on its contemporary, modernist world.

Indeed, Teasdale’s atavistic tenor has been consistently simplified in this manner. Critics routinely note her nineteenth-century attributes, but rarely attach these forms or feelings to any material context within the modern. This is a crucial misreading: it not only elides Teasdale’s potentially modernist engagements, but also, simultaneously, dismisses her political and aesthetic claims as neurotic symptoms of historical lag.[1] Despite her dubious historicity, Teasdale was a modernist poet, albeit one who harbored an extraordinary affinity for the nineteenth century. She published in the most prestigious modernist magazines, including Poetry, The Dial, and even the notoriously snobbish The Little Review, and traveled within an influential modernist circle, comprised of poets and critics such as Amy Lowell, Vachel Lindsay, and Harriet Monroe. It is these comparisons, as well as her much-vaunted similarities to Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which demand critical attention.        

Consider what we have lost by ceding Teasdale to an imaginary, nineteenth-century economy: by presuming that her propensity for regression speaks not at all to her literary and cultural present. “I might have sung of the world,” Teasdale insists, “But I chose to tell of myself.” When contextualized within the early twentieth century, these articulations yield a sophisticated and troubling reflection on the nature of modern aesthetic and political freedom. “[I might have sung of the world]” was written in the age of Gertrude Stein, Mina Loy, and Genevieve Taggard, and it carries with it the “new” optimism of that moment: a time when the field of women’s poetry was ostensibly freer than ever before. It was written, moreover, on the eve of women’s franchisement in America, and it is marked, simultaneously, by this “new” sense of political hope. The poem, in fact, registers these distinctly modern possibilities. Teasdale’s speaker does not suggest that her ambitions have been thwarted—she freely admits that she “might have sung of the world,” “might” have opened her poetry into the social and political realm—but has “chosen” not to pursue these “worldly” possibilities.

This ambivalent renunciation resonates with the poet’s similarly vexing a-politicality in regard to “Union Square.” In each case, Teasdale tempts her reader with the possibility of direct modern engagement, but then, ultimately, retreats. This is not a knee-jerk conservatism, nor is it a simplistic, sentimental retreat from the modern. Here, and throughout her poetry, Teasdale registers a full and reflective awareness of the “new” possibilities afforded by her modernist world. Yet, she nonetheless rejects them: as if modernity itself might be fundamentally impoverished, or as if the past might somehow provide a richer mode of aesthetic and political being. I am proposing that we think seriously about this aversion to the modern, and, simultaneously, that we look more carefully at the historical residue that clouds Teasdale’s modernist work. What is it about the modern that sends Teasdale reeling backward? And what is it within the past that she can’t let go?

“[I might have sung of the world]” points, obliquely, toward an answer to these difficult questions. When read in the context of its twentieth-century production, it becomes clear that the poem is not only historically out of sync, but also notably insincere—perhaps, even dissimulative. Put bluntly, Teasdale did “sing of the world,” repeatedly and consistently—especially in the late teens, the period from which this fragment survives. In fact, in the years surrounding World War I, Teasdale produced more than twenty, overtly political poems in response to the war—many of which remain in the “seclusion” of her “tiny red note-book.” Approximately half of these “worldly” poems appeared in popular magazines, including Harper’s Monthly Magazine, The Century, Everybody’s Magazine, and The Nation, between 1915 and 1918. Yet, for reasons about which I can only speculate, Teasdale suppressed the majority of these remarkable poems, leaving them either uncollected or unpublished.

Drake, who is the only critic to mention the existence of Teasdale’s war poems, labels them “weaker than her usual work,” and thus concludes that they have been rightly neglected (Sara Teasdale 169). Following suit, he excludes them from Mirror of the Heart, even though this anthology is explicitly dedicated to recovering her previously unpublished and uncollected poetry. According to Margaret Conklin, Teasdale’s close friend and literary executor, Teasdale intentionally withheld more than fifty poems, because she feared that they were “too revealing” to be published in her lifetime (qtd. in Drake, Mirror of the Heart xvii). After studying this archival material, which prompted Teasdale’s strong reservations, Drake nonetheless concludes that the unpublished poems “do not contain any startling revelations or new information” (Mirror of the Heart xviii). Though he identifies a number of noteworthy poems—such as “[I might have sung of the world]”—he insists that Teasdale’s war poems hold little critical interest.

In what follows, I analyze this long-neglected archive of war poetry, as well as a series of correspondence in which the poet similarly documents her radical sentiments concerning WWI. In restoring this record of Teasdale’s engagement with the war, I will argue that these poems deserve a primary place in Teasdale’s poetic corpus, as well as the broader canon of WWI poetry. They document her intimate involvement with modern politics and aesthetics and contrast violently with the set of traditionally feminized values that Teasdale’s “poetess” poetry supposedly advertises. This new selection of texts, I hope, will help to refute the wide-spread critical presumption—fueled, at times, by Teasdale herself—that she was a cloistered, quaint, or self-centered poet.           

A final note before I turn to this archive: these are deeply affective, perhaps even “sentimental” poems—a categorization that I will pressure throughout my readings. As a result, I suspect that they are particularly vulnerable artifacts. Sentimentality, in common parlance, signals a kind of futility—a diffuse failure to enact material change within the social—a moment when feeling slips inward onto itself rather than propelling outward into the world. My intent is not merely to survey these poems, but also to reconsider these familiar objections, lodged so frequently against predominantly or excessively affective poetry. In the later part of this essay, I will argue that Teasdale’s grief-stricken expressions provide us with a crucial opportunity to rethink the value of affective poetry in a time of trauma. An attention to affect may even help to account for Teasdale’s seemingly inexplicable acts of self-censorship throughout her career. A poet who has long been criticized for her indifference to the modern actually harbored a more complex set of feelings about the political developments underway within her country and her world.

“Loveliness to sell”

In the years surrounding WWI, Teasdale ascended to fame as America’s foremost practitioner of the love lyric. Following the publication of Love Songs (1917), she was awarded the Columbia Prize for Poetry, the precursor to the Pulitzer Prize and the field’s highest honor. Though the war had “practically stopped book-buying,” at least according to Teasdale, Love Songs reportedly sold more than two-thousand copies in its first six-months.[2] Over the next two years, the collection went through five editions; over the next decade, it was re-printed an additional fifteen times. In their glowing reviews, critics unanimously praised Love Songs’ simple, unadorned “loveliness” (The Dial 457). Arriving as it did at the height of World War I, amid tremendous political and aesthetic anxiety, Teasdale’s intimate, affective poetry was hailed as a welcome refuge from the myriad uncertainties of the modern. “Since the invasion of vers libre,” The New York Times maligned, modern poetry had been too “difficult.” In Love Songs, these world-weary reviewers claimed to recapture the “lightness,” “joy,” and “beauty” they had been sorely missing. “To chance upon a book by Sara Teasdale,” they explained, “is to feel the thrill of one who, pushing through the heavy branches in a wood, stops suddenly to hear the song of a bird” (The New York Times 51).

Despite its reputation for charming birdsong, Love Songs hints at Teasdale’s primary preoccupation with the war at the time of its production. The poem “Dusk in War Time” arrives innocuously at the end of the collection:

            A half-hour more and you will lean

            To gather me close in the old sweet way—

            But oh, to the woman over the sea

            Who will come at the close of day?

 

            A half-hour more and I will hear

            The key in the latch and the strong, quick tread—

            But oh, the woman over the sea

            Waiting at dusk for one who is dead!  

Love Songs includes both new and selected poetry, and “Dusk in War Time” is among its many re-prints. In Teasdale’s notebooks, the poem originally dates to January 30, 1915—making it her earliest poetic response to WWI.[3] Indeed, by September 1917, when Love Songs appeared, the poem’s message was already significantly outdated. For “Dusk in War Time” was written at a moment when the costs of war were still incalculable to many Americans. The poem forges a sympathetic identification with—or, at least, reaches toward—an impossibly remote world of violence across the Atlantic. Unlike her European counterparts, Teasdale’s American speaker suffers only a crisis of conscience. The routines of her everyday life remain as yet untouched by this foreign war. As in “Union Square,” the expression, “But oh,” signals the speaker’s desire to transcend her individual self, and to engage more fully in the collective, political experience of the war. Although “Dusk in War Time” thus provides an important, sentimental response to the war, it is not an especially “daring” poem, particularly for 1917.  

By the time the poem appeared in Love Songs, America had already entered WWI. The poem’s oblique critique of American policy—its attempt to shame Americans for their peaceful privilege—had been rendered obsolete by the recent declaration of war. These are at least some of the reasons, I would suggest, that “Dusk in War Time” managed to slip into Love Songs. Its mild political critique and swooning sentimentality do not disrupt, too forcefully, the public’s expectations for “poetess” poetry; and, furthermore, its potentially critical reference to American isolationism would have, by that later date, appeared quaint. By September 1917, it was no longer necessary for Americans to imagine the losses of war. Their earlier sympathy had been transformed into empathy, since the war was now their own. I mention “Dusk in War Time” mainly as a point of contrast—for this comparatively tame, collected poem proves a poor ambassador for Teasdale’s broader corpus of war poetry.

Less than three weeks after completing “Dusk in War Time,” on February 18, 1915, Teasdale produced another, far more subversive response to WWI, “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley.” Although the poem appeared in the progressive periodical The Survey in April 1915, it was subsequently omitted from all of her popular books of poetry. As a result, this radical and incisive poem has been completely forgotten. In stark contrast to “Dusk in War Time,” which casts WWI as comfortably remote and foreign, “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” brings the violence home:

News item: “Brass, copper and wire mills in the Naugatuck Valley are shipping nearly a thousand tons of war material daily. One mill is turning out 200 tons a day of shrapnel ‘fillers’ of lead and other metals.”

 

Spring comes back to the winding valley,

The dogwood over the hill is white,

The meadow-lark from the ground is piping

His notes like tinkling bells of light;

Peace, clear peace in the pearly evening,

Peace on field and sheltered town—

But why is the sky so wild and lurid

Long, long after the sun goes down?

 

They are making ammunition,

Blow on blow and spark on spark,

With their blasting and their casting

In the holy April dark.

They have fed their hungry furnaces

Again and yet again,

They are shaping brass and bullets

That will kill their fellow-men;

Forging in the April midnight

Shrapnel fillers, shot and shell,

And the murderers go scathless

            Though they do the work of Hell.

With its emphasis upon domestic arms manufacturing, the poem exposes the hypocrisy of America’s official, isolationist stance. It is profit—not peace—that reigns in this valley. The poem thus provides an ironic counterpoint to “Dusk in War Time.” Both poems are concerned with America’s national boundaries, but “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” dispels the sentimental illusion that Americans are as yet uninvolved in WWI. Even within this “sheltered town,” tucked away in the heart of New England, blood is being spilled.

“Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” thus marks a significant departure from the genteel style of poetry Teasdale purportedly favored. If Love Songs was dominated, as virtually all critics believed, by a single-minded pursuit of “loveliness,” then “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” serves as the antithesis of its cloistered aestheticism. The genteel tropes scattered throughout the poem’s first stanza—“tinkling bells of light” and “pearly evening”—are undercut sharply by the clandestine operations that occur “long, long after the sun goes down.” These genteel epithets are ultimately exposed as a kind of idyllic front masking the mills’ murderous business. Rather than a genteel poem, “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” belongs to a vital tradition of popular anti-war poetry, which collectively radicalized the conventions of the so-called “genteel” lyric in response to WWI.

In this early war-time response, Teasdale begins to realize the new aesthetic and political possibilities nascent within the genteel form. The poem’s newspaper epigraph, for instance, lends a concrete urgency to Teasdale’s outrage. “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” exposes—rather than imagines—the mechanisms of modern warfare. At the height of America’s involvement in the war, in 1918, Teasdale would admit that the war had significantly altered her reading habits: “You know, I never used to read a newspaper, but for the past year and a half, I have been a regular newspaper fiend” (Letters, 1 March 1918). “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” confirms this new form of political engagement, and inaugurates a powerful transformation in her poetry and poetic method.

Drake, who provides what is perhaps the only critical reference to “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” since its publication, concludes that Teasdale withheld the poem from publication because “she disliked poems that suggested a message” (Sara Teasdale 147). This explanation belies the prolific and persistent nature of Teasdale’s response to the war. In his brief survey of Teasdale’s war poetry, Drake implies not only that it is a limited and limiting corpus, but also that Teasdale’s interest in the war peaked in its early years. This is a crucial misrepresentation on Drake’s part. The anti-military, anti-war sentiments expressed within “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” are no aberration; the poem is merely the first in an ongoing political project that intensified significantly in subsequent years. Indeed, Teasdale’s letters and notebooks suggest that 1917 and 1918 represented her most productive period for political poetry. Her letters and notebooks from this time are dominated by a growing preoccupation with the war. The aesthetic and political themes Teasdale explored in early anti-war experiments like “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” ultimately transform into a powerful critique of American nationalism and a scathing indictment of America’s growing militarization.

“I suppose she prayed”

Well into 1917, Teasdale maintained a strict adherence to pacifism, opposing war in any guise on moral grounds. “Both Ernst and I hope war can be avoided,” she writes on March 1, 1917, on the eve of America’s involvement, “but the feeling here is very high and it looks doubtful” (Letters). Eventually, Teasdale would admit the necessity of America’s intervention in WWI:

I suppose if the United States had not entered the war, Germany would have been almost             without a doubt, the victor, since Russia has crumpled up. But, although, taking this view     of it, I feel that we almost had to come into the fight, I simply can’t get up any            enthusiasm in the hurrahing sense of the word. It is too terrible to take any way but    grimly. (Letters, 13 December 1917)

This was as close to advocacy for the war as Teasdale ever came, and she arrived at this compromise position reluctantly and belatedly. Though she opposed “autocratic Prussianism,” she found the nationalistic fervor—the “hurrahing”—that was sweeping America to be equally terrifying (Letters, 14 March 1918). “New York is all agog,” she observed bitterly on February 5, 1917, and a few weeks later, “Flags are flying everywhere and ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ is played at all times. Everybody is expected to stand up when this is done and of course all this inflames public opinion” (Letters, 1 March 1917). Teasdale was particularly appalled by a jingoistic display she witnessed at one of Isadora Duncan’s performances. In the last act, the dancer stripped on stage, revealing her body draped in an American flag. Duncan was greeted with “storms of applause and strains of the ‘Star Spangled Banner.” “The whole audience stood and sang,” Teasdale reports, “It was one of the many hectic symptoms of war-madness that one sees every place” (Letters, 11 March 1917).

The poem “Sons” is a product of this uneasy time, when Teasdale fearfully observed the growing hegemony of a modern military “machine” that seemed to her to be painfully at odds with American democracy:

            Men in brown with marching feet,

            Like a great machine moved down the street,

            And the shrieking of a fife

            Led the river of that young life,

            Soldiers bearing kits and guns,

            Mothers’ sons—mothers’ sons.

                                                     

            Out of the crowd a woman pressed

            Forward a little from the rest.

            “That’s him,” she said, “the third one there,

            The third one with the light brown hair!”

            She caught my arm and then she swayed

            And whispered—I suppose she prayed.

            And still they passed with kits and guns,

            Mothers’ sons.

In her notebooks, “Sons” is dated September 1917, and that same summer, according to Teasdale, America’s nationalist campaign reached a fever-pitch. “The feeling is so rabid here,” she warns on June 11, 1917,

It makes me heart-sick to see how autocratic our country is becoming and how avidly people are going into war—not as though from necessity, but with a certain fanaticism and ferocity which makes me feel that the world has almost gone into lunacy. (Letters)

“Sons” provides a spectator’s snapshot of these “autocratic” developments in war-time America. Ironically, the poem highlights the terrifying fact that American military power was being used not only to subdue its foreign enemies, but also to transform its democratic subjects from individuated “mothers’ sons” into a nearly indecipherable mass of “feet,” “kits,” and “guns.” Teasdale may have feared “autocratic Prussianism,” but she was equally terrified of the casual militarization of everyday life occurring within America.

Nonetheless, despite its anti-military sentiments, “Sons” does not concern itself exclusively or even primarily with the fate of the soldiers it represents. Marching forward down the street, machines now rather than boys, they are already beyond the poem’s reach. Instead, “Sons” focuses its gaze on the female spectators, the mothers, whose primary affective attachments—indeed, whose very identities—are being similarly morphed and molded by the modern military. The poem’s climactic moment occurs in the second stanza, when a single mother emerges “out of the crowd” and attempts to distinguish her son from the mass. The woman speaks not to her son, however, but to the other women on the sidelines of the parade: “‘That’s him,’ she said, ‘the third one there, / The third one with the light brown hair!’” Like this mother, the poem harbors no delusions about its capacity to hail the soldiers, to halt their inevitable forward march, or to restore the individuality that has been stripped from them. The woman is not trying to save her son from his inevitable fate, but to save herself—to distinguish herself “a little from the rest,” however briefly.

By hailing the women on the side—those at the parade, as well as the ones at home reading the poem—“Sons” offers an important, gendered statement concerning the war. In a 2005 study, Janis Stout notes that women’s civilian perspectives remain conspicuously absent in contemporary canons of war poetry. There is, Stout claims, a troubling persistence of gender bias within the field, which makes it necessary to continue to argue for the inclusion of women’s war writing (59). As Stout explains, this prejudice results from a narrow definition of war-time experience. Even critics who attempt to recuperate women’s war writing have turned almost exclusively to women’s first-hand, battlefield accounts. Though these writings by nurses and other volunteers in active combat zones are invaluable, Stout argues for the necessity of a broader, more inclusive conception of war-time involvement, one which recognizes war as a “total and totalizing social experience” (64). Following Stout, a gendered perspective on the war would have the potential not only to account for women’s direct contributions to the war effort, but also to expand significantly the boundaries of war. This revised paradigm proves extremely relevant to Teasdale’s war poetry.

“Sons’” parade setting, for instance, serves as a self-conscious reflection on the gendered position of the war-time civilian: it highlights the perceived powerlessness of women who are called upon to celebrate the spectacle of war’s cruelty even as it engulfs their most intimate attachments. Amy Lowell, one of Teasdale’s close friends, likewise took up the alienating experience of the military parade in her WWI poem, “In a Stadium.” She writes,

            This is war:

            Boys flung into a breach

            Like shovelled earth;

            And old men,

            Broken,

            Driving rapidly before crowds of people

            In a glitter of silly decorations. (lines 36-42)

This is the essence of the civilian’s encounter with war: she was called upon contradictorily to reconcile war’s inconceivable traumas with a “glitter of silly decorations.” These newly ambivalent acts of citizenship in an increasingly nationalistic, repressive state represent a crucial portion of WWI’s complex political inheritance. Poems like “Sons” and “In a Stadium” help us to understand more fully the price women paid for their complicity in this jingoistic spectacle, and, simultaneously, to witness the subtle forms of protest that remained possible within an increasingly “autocratic” America.

“Sons” provides a particularly complex statement concerning these foundational issues regarding gender and war-time citizenship. The mother who emerges from the crowd is a classic sentimental character, imported directly from nineteenth-century American literature. She is the prototypical small woman, shaking her fist at God, an individual filled with pain and powerlessness who can do little more than rage against the machine. When she shouts to the other women in the crowd, she is attempting to mark her own and her son’s individuality. In so doing, she registers what Lauren Berlant terms “the sentimental complaint.” As Berlant explains, in the nineteenth-century tradition, the sentimental complaint functions “to build pain alliances” across a community—to suture together the similarly dispossessed in a moment of collective grief (636). This is the much-heralded connective or adhesive facility that lies at the heart of antebellum sentimental literature. Facing an insurmountable obstacle—in this case, the dehumanizing effects of the modern military “machine”—a sentimentalist would try to alleviate, if not eliminate, the burden of individual suffering by connecting, affectively, with others.

What makes “Sons” such a remarkably complex poem is that it invokes this classic nineteenth-century character, but subsequently withholds the sympathy or identification demanded by her sentimental complaint. Although the mother performs her sentimental role perfectly, “Sons” refuses to embrace her in a final, cathartic tableau. At the moment when Teasdale’s speaker ought to identify with the woman, to share the burden of her individual suffering, the poem states only, “She caught my arm and then she swayed / And whispered—I suppose she prayed.” Literally, the speaker cannot support this woman or her desire for sentimental connection. The flatness of the speaker’s response—“I suppose she prayed”—produces a profoundly different effect (and affect) from nineteenth-century sentimental literature. Rather than connecting with the mother in a cathartic moment of identification, the poem implies that such sentimental gestures are a quaint relic of a gentler time. In the poem’s final lines, it is sentimentality itself that collapses into the unceasing progress of the modern: “And still they passed with kits and guns, / Mothers’ sons.”  

“The simple things that were our heritage”

Reticent and unyielding, “Sons” resides at a difficult impasse. The female, civilian speaker seems similarly disillusioned by each of the choices her modernist, war-time culture has to offer: mechanized progress or sentimental regress. Stuck between these two options—a push forward and a pull backward—Teasdale’s speaker merely stares. This state of inaction may not be a forceful protest, but it is an effective means of marking the impossible contingencies of her war-time present. The poem contains an allusion in line 10, which lends additional significance to this conflict. The sentimental woman’s final, futile utterance—“the light brown hair!”—is borrowed directly from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love of J. Alfred Prufrock”—modernism’s premier poetic testament to psychic and social immobility. Unlike Eliot, Teasdale does not direct these words toward a female body, but her speaker nonetheless shares a portion of Prufrock’s profound ambivalence. She is terrified by the homogenization and mechanization of the soldiers’ bodies, which continue to provoke desire, and horrified by the powerlessness of the women standing beside her—a powerless she recognizes as her own.

Although “Sons” does not participate explicitly within a pastoral tradition, its deeply conflicted nature hints at Teasdale’s predilection for this classic form. Even in “Sons,” where the pastoral impulse is muted, we can begin to understand the significance of Teasdale’s formal affinity. Structurally speaking, the pastoral stakes the quintessential “middle ground”: it resides always in the spaces “between” the urban and the rural, civilization and nature, the present and the past (Marx 23). According to Harold Toliver, this foundational dialectic represents the single, unifying principle within the pastoral tradition. Although its style and content alter radically in response to historical context, the pastoral invariably posits a fundamental “contrast” between nature and its perceived antithesis—be it mechanization, civilization, industrialization, war, or any number of shifting, culturally specific threats to an organic way of life. In her later war poems, Teasdale turns repeatedly to the form of the pastoral to model a crisis of aesthetic and political immobility brought on by WWI.

Some of Teasdale’s pastoral poems are relatively conventional and evince a classic, nostalgic longing for the impossible comforts of a natural world. “Spring 1918,” for instance, begins

            I never longed so hungrily for spring

            Before, nor in the past and peaceful years

            Saw the first robin through a rush of tears,

            And heard his throaty whistle quivering. (lines 1-4)

The poem crystallizes the traditional pastoral’s affective project. In essence, it hearkens to an idyllic, paradisal state prior to the fall of war. This is the single aspect of the pastoral’s function that critics tend to emphasize, especially within the devalued field of women’s war-time writing. Nosheen Khan, for instance, studying a sample of women’s pastoral poetry that is fundamentally similar to “Spring 1918,” argues that “the pastoral world, by its affirmation of life and its continual ability to renew itself, serves, like religion, as a means whereby comfort and hope can be proffered to the bereaved” (56). Khan’s assessment of women’s pastoral poetry confirms her broader thesis that “en masse” women’s poetry during WWI was “conservative and traditional” (5). Yet, there is a considerable amount of contradiction within the rich tradition of women’s pastoral poetry—indeed, even within Teasdale’s comparatively slim corpus. Poems like “Spring, 1918,” though not necessarily “conservative,” do not exploit fully the radical possibilities nascent within the pastoral structure. Following Khan, these are poems that primarily lend solace, or at least hint at the natural world’s abiding store of hope. “Spring,” in other words, remains as yet untouched by the atrocities of war.

However, throughout WWI, the pastoral frequently served a more radical purpose. Rather than providing an imaginative retreat from the war’s atrocities, it used the past to measure the modern world’s profound loss of innocence. The form’s radical potential lies in this means of contrasting the past and present in a time of war, as Teasdale’s “Nahant 1918” aptly illustrates:

            Bowed as an elm under the weight of its beauty,

            So earth is bowed, under her weight of splendor, 

            Molten sea, richness of leaves and the burnished

            Bronze of sea-grasses.

 

            Clefts in the cliff shelter the purple sand-peas

            And chicory flowers bluer than the ocean

            Flinging its foam high, white fire in sunshine,

            Jewels of water.

 

            Joyous thunder of blown waves on the ledges,

            Make me forget war and the dark war-sorrow—

            Against the sky a sentry paces the sea-cliff

            Slim in his khaki.[4]  

Teasdale wrote the poem in August 1918 during a visit to the small beach town of Nahant, Massachusetts. She had vacationed in Nahant before, and this trip highlighted its stark differences from a pre-war time:

This town is much changed since our entrance into the war and searchlights play over these waters in all directions. The vantage points in the cliffs are manned with guns, and a good many soldiers and sailors are quartered here. […] Many of the fine places here are closed. I suppose their owners, like everybody else, have had their usual modes of life changed by the war. (Letters, 11 August 1918)

Teasdale expected to find in Nahant the pastoral comforts she remembered from previous visits. “This is as beautiful a village as I know,” she told her mother-in-law, “and if anything could make one forget war, the great bending elms and quiet lawns of this town would do so” (Letters, 9 August 1918). But the escape she remembered and hoped for was not to be found.

In the poem’s final stanza, the past and present are placed in perfect contradiction: the beauty of the natural world juxtaposed with the military necessities of the present. The stanza’s opening lines are, moreover, strategically ambiguous. At first read, they seem to suggest that the sea has succeeded at helping the speaker to forget. Yet, the final two lines, with their quasi-Imagist evocation of a soldier, “Slim in his khaki,” reveal that Teasdale’s “make me forget” is a plea rather a record of what actually transpired. Despite the landscape’s tantalizing promise of pastoral retreat, the speaker has not forgotten the war for even an instant. “Nahant 1918” radicalizes the conventions of the traditional pastoral by exposing the speaker’s desire for escape to be a naïve relic of a pre-war past. In an earlier draft of “Nahant 1918,” there was an additional line in the final stanza: “Even here why must war-sorrow haunt me?” This “haunted” feeling represents the essence of Teasdale’s modern pastoral vision

“Nahant 1918” is written in the distinctive form of the English sapphic stanza. The sapphic is a four-line stanza: the first three lines are hendecasyllabic, comprised of eleven syllables arranged trochee trochee dactyl trochee trochee, and the fourth line, termed an adonic, contains five syllables arranged dactyl trochee. It is also possible to substitute a spondee for the second or fourth trochee—a strategy that lends additional stress to the poem and which Teasdale uses liberally. A modern imitation of Sappho’s ancient verse, the sapphic stanza was popularized in the nineteenth century by poets such as Tennyson, Swinburne, and Thomas Hardy, all of whom influenced Teasdale importantly. But as Hugh Kenner’s iconic reading reminds us, Sappho also proved to be a rich source of inspiration for many modernist poets—Ezra Pound first among them.[5] “Nahant 1918” takes some considerable liberties with the traditional sapphic stanza. A number of lines are not hendecasyllabic and their metrical patterns are irregular. Line 11, for instance, switches to iambs to mark the speaker’s radical shift in perspective. But Teasdale has kept the essence of the form intact. She relies primarily on the falling rhythms of trochees and dactyls to mimic the sapphic’s forceful starts and stops. (“Sons” uses dactyls and trochees to create a similar rhythmic effect). Moreover, despite these variations, Teasdale’s adonics are perfect.

The first two adonic lines—“Bronze of sea-grasses” and “Jewels of water”—present densely layered natural metaphors. All of these are natural substances, but “bronze” and “jewels,” unlike “sea-grasses” and “water,” are emblems of nature cultivated and reformed—not raw material—and they have acquired considerable economic “weight” through this human processing. The final adonic—“Slim in his khaki”—similarly but more subtly marries these contrasting visions of nature. “Khaki” derives from an Urdu word meaning “dust,” “earth,” or “earthy” (Dictionary). It originally referred to the color of uniforms worn by Sikh regiments in Punjab. The dusty earth of this British colonial territory was used to dye the harsh white fabric of the soldiers’ uniforms, so that they could blend unobtrusively into the landscape. In 1846, Sir Harry Lumsden introduced this specially dyed fabric to the British Army. By WWI, khaki dress was ubiquitous among both British and American soldiers. In fact, this so-called “Multani mitti” or “mud of Multan,” named for the city of its origin, is still prized today for its reputed health benefits. The word “molten,” in line 3, is resonant with this colonial history.[6]

Teasdale’s sentry, “Slim in his khaki,” is thus adorned by the earth. Notice that in Teasdale’s vision, he carries no gun. The roots of violence in this poem are far more difficult to trace. “Bronze,” “jewels,” and “khaki” are all commodifications of earth’s natural substances—they are each mined and subsequently transformed into profitable products. The weight of the poem’s critique falls upon this act of “unearthing.” Teasdale’s adonic lines place WWI in the context of a much longer historical process of modernization and colonization. While the soldier is a shock to Nahant’s tranquil landscape, these adonics suggest that his presence is, in fact, the logical consequence of modern development. This is a perfectly poised poem: history balanced against the present; an ancient form deployed in critique of modernity; and civilization brought in brutal contact with nature. This dialectic does not suggest, comfortingly, that history or nature might offer a retreat from WWI. Quite the opposite: it implicates WWI in a long and violently unfolding narrative of historical progress.

Another of Teasdale’s poems, written at the same moment, confirms her radical critique of modernization and modernity. “Strange” appears in Teasdale’s notebooks on June 24, 1918, but has never been published:

            Strange that we two, who love all quiet things,

            Coves by the sea, with waves too small for foam,

            Stars seen in water, love too sure for speech,

            And eyes that make for other eyes a home;

 

            Strange that we two should choose this harried hour

            To leave whatever world we knew before,

            For this sick planet, with tired hordes

            Locked in the grim futility of war.

 

            Strange that we two, and millions more like us,

            Caught like poor beasts, and beaten in a cage,

            Send up no curse to God who let us lose

            The simple things that were our heritage.

As in “Nahant 1918” the poem contrasts the “quiet,” “simple things” of a pre-war world with this new, “sick planet” “locked in the grim futility of war.” A sympathetic connection between lovers—“eyes that make for other eyes a home”—and the perfect affective symmetry of “love too sure for speech”—are no longer possible in a post-war world. The poem uses this juxtaposition to intensify the speaker’s feelings of alienation, and also to make “strange” the state of supposed innocence that existed before the war. The poem does not merely mourn the present state of the world, it claims, more foundationally, that the war has destroyed modernity’s natural “heritage.” The progress of the past has been ruptured utterly and its inheritance lost to the present. These “two,” “and millions more” like them, are thus profoundly homeless, “caught like poor beasts, and beaten in a cage.”

The poem’s evocation of choice in the second stanza is particularly crucial to Teasdale’s historical critique. The lines render the speaker complicit in the earth’s destruction, for it is she who has abandoned the “simple” world she once inhabited, in exchange for life on “this sick planet.” This feeling of culpability provides an answer for why these “two,” as well as the world’s “millions,” “Send up no curse to God”: the cages in which they are caught are of their own making. The poem does not indict God or fate, but places the blame for humanity’s impoverished condition on the shoulders of humanity itself. The speaker herself is no solider, nor has she perpetuated any overt acts of violence or destruction. But she, too, feels guilty of abandoning something vital from the past—of allowing herself and her world to arrive at this terrible state.

The poem’s affective claims do not rest on the individual, but slip readily into a collective historical critique. Despite her reputation for sentimental flight, Teasdale channels her individual grief into a productive meditation on her political present. Moreover, Teasdale’s fluid historical frame, which is, admittedly, vague and imprecise, represents a crucial part of her achievement. “Strange,” like “Nahant 1918,” is transhistorical—not a-historical—but concerned fundamentally with the passage of time, with history across place and space, and with the impact of war on her feelings about what has come before. Consumed by the apparent senselessness and dehumanization of the war, Teasdale reflected repeatedly on the precariousness of modern culture:

It all makes me heart-sick, for it represents such terrible loads of sorrow to be borne later when our men are killed and maimed by thousands. It is staggering when one thinks of the four thousand years of so-called civilization on this planet—that it culminates now in the most brutal and tremendous blood-shed that the world has ever seen. We have worked out a system of courts for settling small disputes—but disputes between peoples are still settled by killing. (Letters 13 December 1917).

Critics have routinely diagnosed Teasdale’s pervasive “heart-sickness” as a personal rather than cultural or political condition. But her letters and poetry make clear that her feelings of melancholy and grief were directed in the service of a material historical and political critique. The Western “civilization” in which the poet had placed tremendous faith had proven to be the source of unprecedented violence and destruction. Modernity itself, she seems to suggest, had been fundamentally contaminated.

It is important to note that this capacious historical frame, which I am crediting as one of Teasdale’s crucial achievements, represents the source of Raymond Williams’ profound ambivalence regarding the pastoral. The pastoral’s “retrospective radicalism,” Williams warns, “is often made to do service as a critique of the capitalism of our own day: to carry humane feelings and yet ordinarily to attach them to a pre-capitalist and therefore irrecoverable world” (Country 36). In contrast, he argues that anti-capitalist poetry must offer a concrete historical perspective—not the vague historical “tensions” constitutive of the pastoral. Although it mourns the injustices of modernization, the pastoral’s slippery historical regression, Williams claims, cannot produce any material social change. Instead of the pastoral’s “unresolved division and conflict of impulses,” Williams says, we might do better to identify “the real shape of the underlying crisis” of modernization and to face capitalism “in its own terms” (297).

But what would those terms have been at the height of WWI from Teasdale’s vantage on the sidelines of this terrifying, new spectacle? Although it is true that Teasdale’s pastoral poetry fundamentally lacks historical precision and avoids specific economic and political terms, I would argue that these inconsistencies and obfuscations do not undermine its material import. Indeed, I believe that this imprecision was a necessary and strategic part of Teasdale’s poetic response to the war. At a time when the social was radically in process, Teasdale experimented with the pastoral in order to find a new way to respond to a radically unfamiliar world. This “kind of feeling and thinking,” which is tentative, unformed, “embryonic,” may not be “fully articulate.”—indeed, we often misrecognize its social claims as “private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating”—but it nonetheless represents a significant means of struggling toward new aesthetic and political forms in a moment of cultural transition (Williams Marxism 131-132). [7]

“And not one will know of the war”

Since 1913, Teasdale had been an avid student of Charles Darwin. Following America’s declaration of war, she returned again to his foundational work.[8] She writes to her mother-in-law in August 1918, from Nahant,

Tell Father Filsinger that I am reading with real delight Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species.’ I wonder if he has read it? I have always imagined it a dry deep book, far too learned for me, but to my surprise it is immensely entertaining and opens up vast vistas to me. (Letters, 9 August 1918).

 

The poem “There Will Come Soft Rains” shows the subtlety and sensitivity of these Darwinian meditations:

            There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,

            And swallows calling with their shimmering sound;

 

            And frogs in the pools singing at night,

            And wild-plum trees in tremulous white;

 

            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.[9]

Unlike the majority of Teasdale’s war poems, “There Will Come Soft Rains” has not been entirely forgotten. Three decades after its initial publication, in the wake of World War II, Ray Bradbury featured the poem as the foundation of a similarly post-apocalyptic short story, also titled “There Will Come Soft Rains,” in his 1950 novel The Martian Chronicles. In his re-appropriation, Bradbury portrays a future world that has been destroyed by mankind’s heedless progress: mechanical mice scurry energetically around a house while a dog, covered in radioactive sores, lies down and dies. His story shares with Teasdale’s poem the terrifying insight that mankind is no longer connected, organically, to the natural world. The only species capable of mass, mechanized, self-destruction, humans are utterly alone, detached from a natural world that no longer even notices we are there. Imported into the futuristic world of 2057, Teasdale’s words become bitterly ironic. As early as WWI, Bradbury implies, mankind had been warned.

The poem awakens that old sentimental longing to return to a state of deep connectedness with nature. It even deploys a set of familiar stylistic markers that seem to have been borrowed directly from a nineteenth-century aesthetic economy. The poem’s alliteration, for instance—“whistling their whims,” “feathery fire”—and the sing-song rhymes—“ground/sound,” “night/white,” “fire/wire,” all evoke a sense of comforting gentility. But this veneer of conventional sentimentality merely heightens the profound impact of nature’s heartlessness. The poem’s cloying, saccharine quality and its tranquil, pastoral descriptors are deceiving. Ultimately, all of our sentimental feelings about “frogs” and “wild-plum trees,” as well as the language through which we have constructed those myths of a deep and abiding connection to nature, are tossed, mockingly, back at us—we, who naively believe that the “soft rains” will signal our own renewal and that the birds will sing to celebrate our salvation. The poem undercuts those pastoral fantasies with the reality of a natural world dominated by indifference, motivated only by its own survival, and oblivious to the existence or extinction of man. Ironically, however, Teasdale locates a kernel of hope in this harsh vision. Devoted exclusively to its own survival, nature, in Teasdale’s conception, proffers no comfort to mankind, but can, nonetheless, provide the key to our own preservation. Rather than a retreat into an irrecoverable, idyllic past, Teasdale’s Darwinian pastoral presents a cold, cautionary tale: urging her modernist audience to adopt the ways of nature—to focus more whole-heartedly on their own survival.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” first appeared in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in July 1918—less than two months after the passage of the Sedition Act. Meant to strengthen the provisions of the already-repressive Espionage Act, the Sedition Act of May 16, 1918 was designed to quash American opposition to the war, outlawing “virtually all criticism of the war or the government” (Goldstein 108). Following its passage, anthologies and magazines continued to publish a small number of anti-war poems, but only if these poems were strategically “nonspecific” in their critique and refrained from offering any “substantive political alternative” to the war (Van Wienen 27). This climate of censorship casts a different light on the apparent obliqueness of Teasdale’s anti-war pastorals. Rather than a limitation, their rhetorical vagaries and historical imprecision might be precisely what enabled their circulation at the height of WWI. It is possible, in fact, that Teasdale’s cultivation of a demure, “poetess” persona might have, contradictorily, enabled her to publish anti-war poetry with impunity.

With the exceptions of “Dusk in War Time” and “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” all of the poems I have discussed here were published—or pointedly not published—after the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts—even Love Songs. Given the severe restrictions these laws placed on American freedoms, it is easier to understand why Teasdale chose not to collect many of her antiwar poems. “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley,” for instance, and its overt condemnation of the “murderers” of war, would likely have been deemed criminal. Fear of political repercussions also seems like the only plausible explanation for what happened to “Sons.” Incomprehensibly, given the poem’s harsh portrait of a dehumanizing military “machine,” as well as Teasdale’s own, well-documented aversion to American nationalism, “Sons” was featured in 1918 in a full-page advertisement for War Savings Stamps (Drake, Sara Teasdale 169). Only the glibbest of readings could credit “Sons” as a pro-war poem; yet, glib readings were the most this “poetess” seemed to warrant. Reading Teasdale’s notebooks and letters, it is impossible not to believe that this act of complicity in the war effort—this “hurrahing” to borrow Teasdale’s phrase—would have cost the poet greatly. However, both “Spring in the Naugatuck Valley” and “Sons,” each of which voices powerful anti-military sentiments, appeared initially in progressive periodicals, then disappeared from Teasdale’s poetic corpus. In the case of “Sons,” its powerful critique of the modern military “machine” was fed into the machine itself.

Michel Foucault argues that for an individual or group to enact resistance “the field of power relations” must be “mobile.” If those power relations are, conversely, “blocked” or “frozen,” if there is no possibility to disrupt the dispersal of power, then society enters a “state of domination.” “In such a state,” Foucault observes, “it is certain that practices of freedom do not exist or exist only unilaterally or are extremely constrained or limited” (283). In 1917 and 1918, the period in which Teasdale produced the majority of her war poems, America arguably entered a “state of domination.” Certainly, Teasdale’s poetry is marked by a profound sense of “immobility” and “frozen” or “blocked” agency. However, while I believe that America’s repressive political culture played some role in Teasdale’s acts of self-censorship, de-radicalization, and obfuscation, it can only ever provide a partial explanation. If Teasdale were simply a thwarted radical, why wouldn’t she have published her political poems later, in the more forgiving peace-time economy? Amy Lowell’s Pictures of the Floating World, which contains a number of overtly political critiques of the war, and which serves as an apt companion to Teasdale’s anti-war poetry, appeared safely in 1919. But even at that late date Teasdale continued to censor her own political expressions.

To understand this ongoing political reticence, it is necessary to take Foucault’s “state of domination” more loosely: to think about how the lines between political repression and affective obstruction blur in the uncertain time of trauma. Teasdale’s grief-stricken poems invariably espouse a sense of hopelessness. In “Sons,” her speaker stands powerless at the spectacle of modernity’s ceaseless military progress. The “machine” passes down the street, but its helpless female audience can do little more than stare. Her pastoral poems index the wholesale contamination not merely of a small beach town in New England, nor even of America, but of the entire planet. And surely a “sick planet” is more easily diagnosed than cured. This stasis is likely what drew Teasdale to the pastoral. For where, after all, does the pastoral leave its displaced reader, but in a state of profound immobility? It is, as Williams suggests, a form divided, conflicted, nearly torn apart by its contradictory tensions.

We prefer political poetry to be stronger, to harbor the capacity to resist, and to affect in no uncertain terms its ambitious agenda for change. But perhaps it is equally important to mark the limits of what is possible in one’s historical present, no matter how negative those political feelings may be.[10] Looking back now on a century of war, Teasdale’s skepticism regarding modern progress, her stubborn refusal to get on with modernity, seems like a fundamentally ethical and potentially productive form of protest. Moreover, her unwillingness to let go of an aesthetic and political time before the war, her utopic dream of a “new” nineteenth-century, also deserves attention.

In conclusion, I offer one, final poem. In November 1918, William Stanley Braithwaite, Teasdale’s editor and close friend, asked her to contribute a “peace poem” to his forthcoming anthology. Teasdale responded,

I should love to be represented in your book of peace poems, but I’m afraid that I must forego the idea. In the first place I am far from well, and in the second place, I simply can not write a good poem by wanting to. And the present peace is so new that I don’t seem to have got it into my heart and soul yet—so that anything I wrote now I should be sure to hate later on. (emphasis author’s own)  

Teasdale felt tremendously indebted to Braithwaite. He had helped her to publish Rivers to the Sea in 1915 and had written a glowing review of the volume that helped establish her reputation. Yet, as she admits, “the present peace” wasn’t yet in her “heart and soul.”

In fact, Teasdale seems never to have authored a true “peace poem.” If she had simply taken up the genre of war poetry opportunistically, as some writers did, or out of the necessity to weigh in on this defining cultural event, she would likely have embraced this final chance for a war-themed publication. But the closest she seems to have come to a “peace poem” in those supposedly optimistic days as the fighting waned is “Autumn Night 1918”:

Let us forget! The night smells fresh,

The park is quiet, the stars are white—

They are fighting, the youth of the world are dying—

 

Let us forget! Kiss me to-night,

It is autumn now the whole world over,

Run down this path with me, let us forget!

Over the sea they are dying—kiss me,

Never mind if my lashes are wet.

 

In the lamp-light see two scarlet branches!

What is that ghostly thing under the tree?

Only a wild white aster stirring

In a wind blown westward over the sea.

 

Listen, the wind is moaning in trouble,

It brings what dying soldiers say,

Crying out from the bloody stubble

To women three thousand miles away.

 

The poem, dated September 13, 1918, is recorded in Teasdale’s notebooks, but was never published. In “Autumn Night 1918” the memories of war have been inscribed indelibly on the landscape. Trees bear traces of blood and the wind continues to carry the terrible moaning of dying soldiers. It is a monument to the profound transformations of war and the impossibility of returning to pre-war life. Despite its continual refrain, “Let us forget!” the speaker cannot let go of the war. She prays only for forgetfulness and dares not hope for change. “It is autumn now the whole world over,” she proclaims, and the war, “that ghostly thing under the tree,” will continue to haunt modernity.

 

[1] Cheryl Walker was the first to call attention to this critical problematic in Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991). My work is indebted to Walker’s myriad insights regarding the sophistication of modernist “poetess” poetry. However, my reading departs significantly from Walker’s influential paradigm. Walker categorizes Teasdale as part of the “nightingale tradition”: a sentimental project that extends seamlessly from its roots in the nineteenth century. As my readings make clear, I believe that Teasdale’s poetry complicates and, at times, explicitly critiques many of the dominant aesthetic and political conventions of her nineteenth-century predecessors.

 

[2] Sara Teasdale, letter to Wanda and Irma Filsinger, 11 August 1918. All subsequent references to Teasdale-Filsinger correspondence will be cited as “Letters” and identified by the letter’s date. The Filsingers of St. Louis were the family of Teasdale’s husband, Ernst Filsinger. The letters addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Filsinger refer to Ernst’s parents and Wanda and Irma Filsinger were his sisters.

 

[3] Teasdale’s unpublished poetry notebooks include six leather-bound volumes, arranged chronologically, beginning April 1, 1911 through October 1, 1932.

 

[4] The poem first appeared in The Nation in September 1918. It was subsequently reprinted in Teasdale’s Flame and Shadow (New York: Macmillan, 1920), as well as The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale (New York: Macmillan, 1937). In its collected versions, the text remains the same, but the title is shortened to “Nahant.”

 

[5] For Sappho’s influence on Pound, see Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1971), especially 54-75. For a primer on the sapphic stanza, see Grace Schulman, “Sapphics,” An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, eds. Annie Finch and Kathrine Varnes (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2002) 132-140.

 

[6] For background on the colonial history “khaki,” see Elisha P. Renne, “From Khaki to Agbada: Dress and Political transition in Nigeria,” Fashioning Africa: Power and the Politics of Dress, ed. Jean Allman (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2004) 125-143; and A.C. Whitehorne, “Khaki Service Dress,” Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research 15 (1936): 180-183.

 

[7] I am using Williams against himself here. In his thinking about the pastoral, Williams reaches a limit: namely, he cannot find a means to value the affective, inconsistent, and historically imprecise grievances posed by the pastoral. They remain, for him, fundamentally immaterial, a kind of naïve circumlocution, which ultimately misses its political target. However, this is exactly the point he takes up again in his innovative conception of “structures of feeling.” This later thinking, I would argue, provides a provocative addendum to The Country and the City.

 

[8] The poet, Eunice Tietjens, one of Teasdale’s close friends, claims to have introduced Teasdale to the concept of evolution in 1913. See Tietjens’ The World at My Shoulder (New York: Macmillan, 1938) 28-29.

 

[10] A number of recent critics have taken up such stubbornly negative affects as productive political and aesthetic formations. See, especially, Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2005) and Lauren Berlant, “Cruel Optimism,” differences 17.3 (2006): 20-36. Both Ngai and Berlant are attentive to moments in which agency is thwarted or obstructed. Such moments of impasse, they both suggest, provide crucial insights into the process of cultural and psychic transition. These recent theorizations of affect, I would argue, might help us to value anew the negative sentiments of Teasdale’s poetry.

 

Works Cited

 

Berlant, Lauren. “Poor Eliza.” American Literature 70 (1998): 636.

Brown, Gillian. Domestic Individualism: Imagining Self in Nineteenth-Century America.

            Berkley: U of California P, 1990.

Drake, William, ed. Mirror of the Heart: Poems of Sara Teasdale. New York:        Macmillan, 1984.

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

Foucault, Michel. “The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom.”

            Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954-1984: Ethics, Subjectivity, and Truth.

            Vol. 1. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: The New Press, 1994. 281-301.

Goldstein, Robert Justin. Political Repression in Modern America: From 1870 to 1976.

            1978. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2001.

Gregory, Horace, and Marya Zaturenska. A History of American Poetry 1900-1940. New

            York: Harcourt Brace, 1942.

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            1988.

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Melissa Girard, "‘How Autocratic Our Country Is Becoming’: The Sentimental Poetess at War." Journal of Modern Literature 32.2 (Winter 2009): 41-64.

 

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Criticism Overview
Title Melissa Girard, ‘How Autocratic Our Country Is Becoming’: The Sentimental Poetess at War Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Melissa Girard Criticism Target Sara Teasdale
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 30 Jul 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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