Paul Verlaine, one of the great innovative French lyricists of the nineteenth century, experimented with the traditional forms of French poetry because, as he states in the first line of his poem, “Art Poetique,” “De la musique avant toute chose.” While Verlaine modified French forms by his use of “vers impair,” “le rejet,” and “enjambement sur la Cesure” as well as his use of weak rather than rich rhymes, he always preferred to work within the established tradition. He believed that his modifications achieved a more melodic sound than a strict adherence to form or the abandonment of it could produce.
Sara Teasdale, an American, born in 1884 when Verlaine was forty years old, published poems in the first part of the twentieth century which stretch the English poetic forms In much the same way, and for a similar reason. Although none of Sara Teasdale's poems present her philosophy of poetry as directly as “Art Poetique” presents Verlaine's, her letters contain sentiments that reflect her poetics. In a letter to her husband she writes, “One is absolutely forced to believe that the melody is in itself valuable. . .” In another letter she writes that she prefers traditional forms “because melody seems to me so magical a thing. Indeed we must admit its magic because many lyrics having little else beside melody have become priceless treasures of our race.” Teasdale comments on Shakespeare's “Under the Greenwood Tree” that “there is not a single, striking phrase in the song, neither is there an image nor even a deep emotion. Yet by virtue of the magic of melody alone, “It succeeds in giving us deep and everlasting delight.”
One of the modifications Verlaine employed to enhance the musicality of his poetry was “vers impair,” a line of an uneven number of syllables. He composed lines of five, seven, nine, eleven and thirteen syllables. However, his most significant deviation from traditional form was his manipulation of the alexandrine. Traditionally, the caesura was placed after the sixth syllable in a twelve syllable line. Verlaine made the true pause in the line at a place different from the caesura frequently enough that “enjambement sur la Cesure” became a hallmark of his style. Another innovation in metrics that interested Verlaine was “le rejet,” lines whose sense run on to the next line. These stylistic choices indicate that Verlaine's interest lay in softening the rigidity of traditional French metrics without destroying the basic form of French poetry.
Sara Teasdale’s poems stretch traditional poetic forms also. Although she most often wrote short lyrics in four or eight line rhymed stanzas, her creative innovations and their similarities to Verlaine’s become evident when we compare her work to the poetry of her contemporaries. Jean Starr Untermeyer writes:
The sun was smiling lazy smiles
And crinkling all the winter weather;
He planted spring for miles and miles
And drew two women friends together.
Each sauntered from her separate hill
And, when they met, walked by the river,
Discussing modern love until
Their pliant hearts began to quiver.
She who so loved herself and her own warring thoughts,
Watching their humorous, tragic rebound,
In her thick habit's fold, sleeping, sleeping,
Is she amused by dreams she has found?
Infinite tenderness, infinite irony,
Are hidden forever in her closed eyes,
Who must have learned too well in her long loneliness
How empty wisdom is, even to the wise.
The regularity of the iambic feet in Untermeyer's poem compels the reader to focus on the incessant beat of the poem rather than on the content, which, because of the demanding abab rhyme scheme, seems trite. The poem has the sing-song rhythm of a nursery rhyme. In contrast, Teasdale's poem, while also written in four line rhymed stanzas, exploits the traditional form, treating it the way Verlaine treated the French form. In the above lyric, Teasdale added longer lines to the traditional ballad stanza and varied the meter, mixing dactyls and trochees with her iambs. Although the meter controls the poem, because the meter has been made flexible by Teasdale's varied feet, the rhythm is subtle. It enhances the meaning, particularly in line eight: “How empty wisdom is, even to the wise.” In this line the iambic feet are broken with the word “even” immediately after the caesura. The accent is on the first syllable. The break in the predictable rhythm creates the melody in the line. Also, the rhyme scheme abcb is less obvious although still traditional. Four of the lines are broken with a caesura, but the caesura is in the second and third lines in the first stanza and in the first and fourth lines in the second stanza. The caesura is followed in lines two and three by trochees instead of iambs, but in line five it is followed by two anapests, and in line eight by a trochee and an anapest. Line four seems to have no break at all.
[. . .]
Teasdale's formal variations compose a melody suggestive of Verlalne's dictate in “Art Poetique”: “Car nous voulons la Nuance encor/ Pas la Couleur, rien que la nuance!” Unfortunately, even though Teasdale experimented with English verse forms in the same way that Verlaine stretched French verse, he is recognized as an innovator and she is not. In part Teasdale's label of traditionalist can be explained by the difference in the nature of English and French poetry. Because French verse had stayed metrically the same from the mid-sixteenth century until the dawn of the nineteenth, slight metrical changes, like those Verlaine made, appeared as revolutionary. On the other hand, Teasdale's innovations when placed against Pound's and Eliot's sweeping changes in English metrics seem insignificant. However, appearance is not necessarily reality. Although melody, metrics, and rhyme have fallen on hard times, in twentieth-century English verse, and Teasdale has been caught writing in a style that is currently out of fashion, her skill at inventing new melodies within formal limits demands a reevaluation of her poetry.
Mannino, Mary Ann. “Sara Teasdale: Fitting Tunes to Everything.” Turn-of-the-Century Women. 5.1-2 (1990): 37-42.