Since 1913, Teasdale had been an avid student of Charles Darwin. Following America’s declaration of war, she returned again to his foundational work. 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.
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.
Van Wienen, Mark. Rendezvous with Death: American Poems of the Great War. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2002.
Girard, Melissa. “‘How autocratic our country is becoming’: The Sentimental Poetess at War.” JML 32.2 (Winter 2009): 41-64.