SARA TEASDALE (1884-1933) had published three volumes of poetry before Love Songs appeared in 1917. Her third, Rivers to the Sea, had been published two years before and had sold especially well. Her move to New York in 1916, in-between Rivers to the Sea and Love Songs, was perhaps her coming of age and meant she was able to devote more of her time and energy to present herself as part of America’s literati. Much of her adolescence was spent travelling to Chicago for part of her schooling, and there she had become integral to the circle that had formed around Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine. As recognition of her emerging status, Love Songs was awarded the Columbia Poetry Prize in 1918 (which was inaugurated in 1922 as the Pulitzer, and its organisers now list this book as its first recipient for poetry), as it was “made possible by a special grant from the Poetry Society.” She was invited to be a judge the following the year’s prize (awarded to Carl Sandburg and Margaret Widdemer), and she became one of the spearheads for a new poetic romanticism.
Her poetry hereafter contained less optimism. Flame and Shadow (1920) moved her away from previous themes of beauty and love, and revealed a poet taking on social concerns – her reaction to America’s entry into the World War and there is an underlying theme of pacifism. This collection showed also that Teasdale had developed the technical side of her poetry, particularly with variation of metrics and adjustment to form. Any number of health issues delayed her next publication until 1926: Dark of the Moon, if sonorous and lyrical, is far darker and, it is often suggested, reflects Teasdale’s uneasy and growing preoccupation with death. Her last book, Strange Victory, was published posthumously in 1933.
Teasdale had suffered an unhealthy childhood and was overly protected; at times she had been isolated from company. She was a semi-invalid for the last years of her life. Fearful of failing health (a brother had been paralysed by a stroke and spent twenty years in a wheelchair), she possessed ample medicine always to match her worry. Weakened by pneumonia which she contracted in England while researching an intended biography of Christina Rossetti, and overcome with hypochondria, she took her own life in January 1933 by overdosing on sleeping tablets in her Fifth Avenue appartment. The poet Vachel Lindsay, with whom Teasdale had an unfulfilled tryst in her twenties (this relationship flourished again in their late lives), also had killed himself just two years earlier.
During Teasdale’s lifetime, her verse was never to win universal acclaim from critics, although her technical proficiency never held her back from being published in the prestigious literary magazines of her day. However, it sold well always, for its melancholy and display of human frailties made her poetry both accessible and gratifying, as did its aesthetic qualities and the sheer delight she could find in her philosophy of life and living. Her lack of abstraction kept her one step removed from her modernist contemporaries and closer to popular appeal. In her subject matter you can plot her life’s progress – the sick young girl born in St Louis, Missouri, the breathes of confidence she found in the climate of New York, and the fear she subjected herself to as she neared death. Very traditional in form and presentation, short and pithy, always lyrical and emotional, often romantic and occasionally passionate, her poetry hints at complex thought yet distills always to the simple and direct.
After Teasdale’s death, much of American poetry moved away from the lyricism and romantic worldview that she represented, and, as a result, her poetry has been viewed since as either old-fashioned or perhaps irrelevant. She missed out on inclusion in many seminal anthologies; even today she barely surfaces as a significant voice on any timeline of American poetry. Certainly her career was stalled always by illness, either imagined or real, but the shortcoming of her poetry is immediately apparent. The evocative and affective often make do for the real and, possibly, even the authentic, just as her life in many ways was marked by a lack of experience and a failure of ambition. It is this that ultimately may well have held back the development of her poetic voice. Nonetheless the lilt and abundant musical cadence and rhythm contained within her writing make it a rare treat, especially if read out loud.