Sara Teasdale was a critical as well as popular favorite in the 1910s, 1920s, and early 1930s. Her success opened doors for more women such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Margaret Widdemer, and Elinor Wylie, among others. She was very generous in her support of female peers and used her popularity to publish an anthology of their verse [The Answering Voice].
From her first book, Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems (1907), Teasdale was noticed, with British writer/critic Arthur Symons admiring Teasdale’s musical cadences. Helen of Troy (1911) was transitional. Its dramatic monologues were not rhymed and fared not as well with readers and critics who preferred the author’s magazine verses, which were lyrically sonorous. Teasdale’s 1920 revision attempted to smooth the rough edges, and today the original edition is seen as one to be studied for the hints of what she would achieve with her breakthrough volume Rivers to the Sea (1915).
Teasdale was pleased that the verse in Rivers to the Sea was compared to Christina Rossetti, Blake, and Housman. Influential poets and critics such as William Stanley Braithwaite, Edwin Markham, Harriet Monroe, Jessie Rittenhouse, and Arthur Symons praised without reservations the delicate simplicity that managed to convey both joy and wistfulness. The combined American and British appreciation warranted a German translation at the end of World War I.
Teasdale’s Love Songs (1917) was chosen by Columbia University as the best book of poetry for the year. This was the nation’s highest honor and the forerunner of the Pulitzer Prize in this genre before Pulitzers were given in verse. Critics agreed with the honor, and Teasdale became synonymous with a new Romanticism. Her esteem rose so quickly that the next year she became a judge deciding on the 1918 winner (a tie: Carl Sandburg and Margaret Widdemer).
In her next book, Flame and Shadow (1920), Teasdale, having been affected by her country’s entry into World War I, now tempered her Romanticism with fear. Critics noted her new direction, with Marguerite Wilkinson declaring that Teasdale “has found a new philosophy of life and death” (10). Among others, Babette Deutsch also praised the mature wisdom that was equal to a postwar audience that required it.
Teasdale’s frail health began to cast a pall over her life and work. She did not publish Dark of the Moon until 1926, and the critics observed that the title indicated there was less contrast of light and dark, as in her previous book, and more of a somber shade throughout. Again the critics were uniformly in admiration of her continuing depth of feeling contained within the sonorous lyricism that still remained in her work. Many believed it was her best work. Few realized that its foreboding reflected her being increasingly drawn to death. Another seven years would pass before her last book, Strange Victory (1933), would appear posthumously. The book was another critical and popular success and, as such, a tribute to her memory. Her biographer wrote that her last three books were her best, saying: “These later poems increasingly reveal her courageous outlook upon the mysteries of life and death; in them, she asserts her faith in the inviolateness of the human soul amid perishable things and fugitive emotions” (Carpenter 328).
After her death, poetry in general moved away from Teasdale’s type of delicate lyricism, which mirrored more of the era directly before hers than her own era or the years to follow. Until recently, her work has been largely ignored, even having been left out of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poets, which otherwise includes poets preceding her. This is regrettable. Without the enormous critical and popular success of Teasdale in her own time, there would have been fewer opportunities for other women during and after her own achievements.
Carpenter, Margaret Haley. Sara Teasdale: A Biography. New York: Schulte Publishing Co., 1960.
American Women Writers, 1900-1945: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Laurie Champion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000. 344-346.