Melissa Girard: on "Spring in the Naugatuck Valley"

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.

 

Work Cited

 

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

 

Girard, Melissa “‘How autocratic our country is becoming’: The Sentimental  Poetess at War.” JML 32.2 (Winter 2009): 41-64.

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Criticism Overview
Title Melissa Girard: on "Spring in the Naugatuck Valley" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Melissa Girard Criticism Target Sara Teasdale
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 29 Jul 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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