I Shall Not Care

Diane D’Amico: from "Saintly Singer or Tanagra Figurine? Christina Rossetti Through the Eyes of Katharine Tynan and Sara Teasdale"

The fact that the poems of Sara Teasdale recall those of [Christina] Rossetti has long been noted by critics. . . Despite the general recognition of stylistic affinities, however, the full extent of Teasdale’s relationship with her Victorian predecessor has yet to be explored. . .Although as a child Teasdale loved the music of Rossetti’s “A Christmas Carol,” as a young woman she showed most interest in Rossetti’s love lyrics. In 1917 she included five of them in her anthology of women’s poetry, The Answering Voice.

One of these is Rossetti’s “Song,” beginning “When I am dead, my dearest” (Crump, 1:58). Teasdale’s “I Shall Not Care,” one of her early and most famous lyrics, clearly recalls both the dramatic situation of Rossetti’s poem, one in which a female speaker imagines her lover’s response to her death, and the poem’s first line. Despite these similarities, however, there is a distinctive difference in tone.

The bitter tones of Teasdale’s female persona embody precisely the worldly response to loss that Rossetti’s persona rejects. Rossetti’s speaker calms her lover, attempting to free him from guilt: she wants no “sad songs,” and she does not worry about being remembered. Teasdale’s speaker responds quite differently: she wants her lover to be “broken-hearted” after her death, perhaps as a form of punishment for his “cold-hearted” response to her while she is alive. In death she might be beyond caring, but in life she cares very much. “I Shall Not Care” expresses disappointment, whereas Rossetti’s “Song” offers no such sign that disappointment in love gives rise to the speaker’s thoughts of death. In fact Rossetti’s belief in heaven requires the rejection of “sad songs.” Rossetti writes of “dreaming through the twilight,” implying an awakening on the last day. (In her devotional poetry, rest and sleep are often the terms used by Rossetti to describe the state after death and before the resurrection of the body). Teasdale’s poem offers no hope of rebirth. Behind the dark humor of the last two lines lies the cold and silent image of the dead. Although Teasdale echoes Rossetti’s earlier love lyric, she does so in order to revise and rewrite it. Not only is evidence of an underlying Christian mythology missing from “I Shall Not Care,” but the Victorian values of self-sacrifice and renunciation, values once associated especially with women’s sphere, are not part of the underlying ideology of the poem.

Victorian Poetry 32.3-4 (Autumn-Winter 1994): 387-407

Carol Schoen: On "I Shall Not Care"

The attitudes of the Poetry Society, though, were essentially conservative, following [Jessie] Rittenhouse’s view that poetry should reflect change but avoid the revolutionary; and their discussions of Teasdale’s work reflected the standards that seem quaint today. For example, at a reading at a Poetry Society meeting, her splendid lyric “I Shall Not Care” was the subject of an argument over whether it was, as one member described it, “charming,” or as Joyce Kilmer called it, “tragic,” or even as a third said, “It has a humorous effect on me because the writer is evidently playing with serious emotions. He’s trying to be tragic, and he knows he’s trying to be tragic.” Modern readers would recognize that it is precisely the juxtaposition of these emotions that produces the poem’s force, but the standards of the day called for a singleness of mood and purpose, and critics attempted to categorize poems as one form or another.

This poem, reminiscent of Rossetti’s “When I Am Dead, My Dearest,” is one of Teasdale’s most popular, not only in her own day but for generations after. It achieves such an extraordinary harmony so liquid that its sound patterns threaten to engulf its content.

            When I am dead and over me bright April

               Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,

Tho' you should lean above me broken-hearted,

               I shall not care

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful

               When rain bends down the bough,

And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted

               Than you are now.

The poem also presents a pattern that Teasdale used to great advantage--the announcement of a position or a description of a scene in the opening stanza, resolved with an unexpected or ironic twist in the closing. The brief half-line ending of each stanza, the standard practice in the Sapphic tradition, lends a sense of weightiness and finality to each part of the poem. Her adeptness with this particular form was so great that, in fact, it threatened to make the extended reading of many of her poems together seem monotonous and formulaic, often obscuring the real virtues of any particular one. 

 

Sara Teasdale. Boston: G.K. Hall and Company, 1986. 55-56.

Margaret Haley Carpenter: On "I Shall Not Care"

It was also at this meeting [of the Poetry Society of America in February 1912] that Sara’s poem, “I Shall Not Care,” which appeared in The Lyric Year, was read in public for the first time, anonymously, according to the Society’s rule for poems submitted by members for discussion. This poem was so well liked that it was read twice and then commented upon at length. Mr. [Arthur] Guiterman referred to it as charming. At this, Joyce Kilmer rose to say that he considered it a pity to call such a tragic and great poem charming. Mr. Guiterman defended himself by saying: “The poem has a humorous effect upon me, because the writer is evidently playing with serious emotions. He’s trying to be tragic, and he knows he’s trying to be tragic.”

Miss [Jessie] Rittenhouse commented: “I think the poem is tragedy in a small compass, like the poems of Christina Rossetti.”

Mr. Guiterman once more defended his remarks by saying: “I think the charm of this poem is enhanced by the fact that the writer does not take himself too seriously.”

And to this, Edwin Markham diplomatically replied: “Every man’s opinions are governed by his craft; and we all know that Mr. Guiterman is a humorist, so it is natural that he should find humor in everything.”

 

Sara Teasdale: A Biography. New York: Schulte Publishing Co., 1960. 158-59.