Amy Lowell’s liberating influence on other women poets is not easily measured. Some poets, not surprisingly, felt embarrassed and apologetic at the effrontery of a woman who would clash with men and smoke cigars in publics. She seemed too noisy against the background of traditional feminine silence. But when Lowell could once be perceived apart from the male reaction, she emerged as an authentic, often inspiring presence. Sara Teasdale had met her a number of times, always under some social pressure, and had taken the usual amused view of the Lowell phenomenon.
Sara Teasdale’s work occupies a unique place in the history of American poetry and the changing fortunes of women in modern life. Out of the large band of women publishing poetry before World War I, she was the first to rise to a level of professional competence and national popularity comparable to that of men. And she did so not by couching her themes in male terms, or under the cover of religion, but by consciously writing as a woman of feminine experience.
[Sara Teasdale] responded in March 1923 to a request from a Professor Lewis for comments on her poetry. She preserved her answers to his questions, although the questions themselves are lacking. In a paragraph titled “The Pattern of a Poem,” she wrote:
The planning of the pattern of a poem is largely subconscious with me. Naturally the idea needs more or less space according to whether it is simply a statement of an emotion, or whether added to the statement, a deduction is made. The patterns of most of my lyrics are a matter of balance and speed rather than a matter of design which can be perceived by the eye. The pattern of “The Unchanging” in “Flame and Shadow” is necessarily very simple for the poem is only 8 lines long. It consists of the balancing of a picture of the sea shore against the mood of the maker of the poem. The poem rises swiftly for the first three lines and subsides on the slower fourth line. It rises again for two lines and subsides finally on the slow last two lines. The short and very slow last line is an emotional echo of the 4th line.
“The better the lyric is the less I consciously plan it,” she added. She had moved away from the regular metrics of her early work, she said. “The best modern poets can not be pinned down to regular and exact metres for very long.” And on the matter of intention, she said, “Often I am seeking not so much communication with my reader as a better understanding of myself.”
Drake, William. Sara Teasdale: Woman and Poet. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979. 214.
Sara, who found the poems of The Lyric Year mostly without merit, made the discovery of a new poet, in early December 1912, that sent her reeling with excitement. “I am perfectly wild over John Hall Wheelock’s “The Human Fantasy,’” she wrote Jessie [Rittenhouse]. “You must read it. The poems are good separately, but they gain vastly by their cumulative effect, and I am sure you would agree with me that nothing finer in the line of a love story in a sequence of poems has been done since George Meredith’s ‘Modern Love.’ The book is the best thing done by an American in years. I am telling everybody about it, and am sure that you will find endless pleasure in its spontaneity, its vigor and its healthy passion. . .I wrote a note to him last night--I do hope that he won’t dislike me for it.” As Wheelock recalled, her letter hailed him “as one of the world’s greatest poets. She was coming up to New York, she said, and would like to look me up.”
Wheelock, a son of a Long Island physician and for three years a doctoral student in Germany, was then working as a clerk in Scribner’s Book Store, associated with the firm where he was later to become a distinguished editor. Sara’s letter, coming as it did from a well-known poet and filled with enthusiasm, buoyed him up considerably. “She was like the answer to a poet’s dream,” he recalled, because of her generous and intelligent praise of what she liked. He quickly replied, “I confess it sent a thrill through me to see your name at the end. It is a name which already has a certain glamour--definitely represents a beautiful fact. Perhaps your words especially pleased me coming from one whom I associate with a very finished perfection.”
Sara’s adoration of his work spread like a halo around him personally as well, and she immediately began to picture herself in love with him, as she had a tendency to do with every new interesting man. Within a week after receiving Wheelock’s first letter, she wrote to her friend Orrick Johns, with whom she had been sharing her excitement:
I’ve just got up, after having spend most of the night in a mixed worship of poetry and J.H.W., to find a letter from him. May the gods be praised! Tho’ I could never forgive him if he stooped to love me even in the remotest sense (the chances of my ever having to do any forgiving are small!) Here is evidence of my madness:
I have not seen my lover’s face,
And I have never heard his voice;
But I have seen his naked soul,
And I rejoice.
It is enough for me by day
To walk the same bright earth with him,
Enough by night that over us
The same great roof of stars is dim.
The second stanza, slightly revised, and a third in the same vein were published the following July in Smart Set under the titled “Enough.” But she dropped the first stanza, which was about her relationship with Wheelock at the time of the writing and would doubtless have been puzzling to a reader.
Sara Teasdale: Woman and Poet. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979. 100-101.
Vachel Lindsay’s suicide in December 1931 brought [Teasdale] to the edge of emotional collapse, perhaps because it shocked her with the reality of what had long lain in her own mind. She never recovered her balance. But in the last two anxiety-ridden years of her life she began to write lyrics again and produced some of her most perfectly achieved and moving work, as if the imminence of certain death gave her the sense of peace and assurance she had so long been looking for. She returned from a trip to England in September 1932 critically ill with pneumonia and hoping she might die.