Sunday, January 29, 2012

Sara Teasdale 1884 - 1933

Sara Teasdale, the poet, has recently become a favorite of mine; and having just read, Sara Teasdale, Woman and Poet by William Drake, I understand why that is. I relate to a number of personal traits in her life - a kinship I suppose. Sara Teasdale began writing poetry on the cusp of  a new century that was to introduce a whole new genre of modern poetry in free verse. As a young writer, Sara "cut her teeth" on the popular stories, genteel characters and higher ideals of the Arthurian romances as it was a major thematic trend in late Victorian literature. Her interest centered on the tragic love stories such as Tristan and Isolde that were portrayed by many of the greatest writers of their time. As it was, poetry was in a transition from the formal and artificial style of the Victorians to the concept of free and natural or "anti-literary" in verbiage, style and content of the new genre of free verse. But Sara had found her own place as a female writer, able to retain the conventions and traditions of the previous period while honing her skill with the free and natural verse and uncluttered verbiage of modern poetry. Tradition, convention and restraint were accepted as necessary to human life as Sara saw it. She believed they enabled one to understand the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, and truth and lies. Still Sara struggled for the mastery yet subtlety to accept  the formal restraint and convention in poetry while managing for the artifice to appear sincere and artlessly timeless.

Sara Trevor Teasdale was born August 8, 1884 in St. Louis Missouri. She was born to mature parents who had 3 older children ages 14 to 20. Sara grew up in a sheltered atmosphere, considered fragile and ill often, she became used to having a nurse near her at all times as she grew. She never performed any normal household chores. Sara was home schooled until age 9 and had no contact with peers until that time when she was enrolled in a school one block from her house. In her isolation, she learned to amuse herself with writing stories and poetry, having her first poem published at age 13. She graduated from Hosmer Hall in 1903.

Sara was courted by 2 men in 1913. One was the poet Vachel Lindsey who was deeply in love with Sara. She maintained a life-long platonic relationship with him but never accepted his proposals. There was also a third gentleman at that time that Sara herself was deeply in love with but who did not feel the same way about her. He also became a life-long attachment of Sara's. But in 1914, Sara did choose to marry Ernst Filsinger, a businessman who with Sara made their home in New York City.

Sara had become enchanted with the city of New York by the time of her marriage and made it her home for the rest of her life. Her enchantment with the covenant of marriage was not so long lasting though. I think she married out of a sense of duty and purpose but soon probably understood that she really did not want to be anyone's wife. She divorced Ernst in 1929 against her husband's wishes. Throughout their 15 year marriage, Ernst spent months at a time traveling to Europe and South America for business. On rare occasions Sara accompanied him, but mostly she remained at home in New York.  Frequently, Sara would become ill at those times, as she regularly did throughout her lifetime, and needed to take refuge in one of several of her favorite respites or retreat locations around the United States and Europe. It is Sara's need for withdrawal and isolation with her art that I relate to - that and her Victorian insatiable penchant for constantly seeking out beauty in the world around her, in nature and in word or deed and to endeavor to exemplify it in her work. Her favorite themes in her work were love, beauty and death. As a true product of the Victorian period, Sara was never able to experience the passion she expressed through her poetry.

Her illnesses seems to have been rather puzzling and unclear as to diagnosis but showed a pattern throughout her life from childhood on. It seems to have been a combination of exhaustion, nervous anxiety, depression and some degree of total collapse to the point of invalidism. She required a quiet, remote, beautiful place to renew her vigor and spirit, sometimes for months at a time. Some of the retreats included the presence of a nurse to travel with her. Eventually Sara would choose to rejoin her public life and return. It appears that after spending such long and stressfully lonely months apart from her husband, desperately awaiting his return, when he finally did reappear, it wasn't very long before Sara needed to leave again for a rest cure. Or occasionally, if she felt strong enough, she planned her own business trips to Europe when Ernst returned home. Sara spent her 15 years of marriage torn between her sense of duty as a woman and wife, and her one true passion and desire of her life, her poetry. Her poetry demanded all of her time. She realized she had no reserves left for a husband or children.

                                            I gave my first love laughter,
                                           I gave my second tears,
                                           I gave my third love silence
                                           Thru all the years.

                                           My first love gave me singing,
                                           My second eyes to see,
                                           But oh, it was my third love
                                           Who gave my soul to me.

                                       When I have ceased to break my wings
                                       Against the faultiness of things,
                                       And learned that compromises wait
                                       Behind each hardly opened gate,
                                       When I can look Life in the eyes,
                                       Grown calm and very coldly wise,
                                       Life will have given me the truth,
                                       And taken in exchange - my youth. 

In her later years, Sara, weakened by recurrent illnesses and depression was more and more obsessed with death in her work and thoughts. Distressed both in mind and spirit she was no longer able to see the beauty in simple things. A number of her friends and acquaintances had committed suicide in recent years, including her beloved friend and fellow poet, Vachel Lindsey just weeks earlier. On the morning of January 29, 1933 in her New York apartment, Sara prepared a warm bath for herself, took an overdose of sleeping pills and lay down in the warm water, fell asleep, and never again opened her eyes. She was gone at the age of 48. Her last collection of poems which she had produced, Strange Victory, was published posthumously that same year. I am fortunate to own a first edition of that slim 1933 volume that is very precious to me. After postponing the completion of this profile for several months, it is uncanny that I chose today, January 29, to finish it - on the anniversary of her death. Sara Teasdale's brilliant lyric poetry has attained a measure of true immortality in the hearts of poetry lovers everywhere.

                                                           I Am Not Yours

                                          I am not yours, not lost in you,
                                         Not lost, although I long to be
                                         Lost as a candle lit at noon,
                                         Lost as a snowflake in the sea.

                                         You love me, and I find you still
                                         A spirit beautiful and bright
                                         Yet I am I, who long to be
                                         Lost as a light is lost in light.

                                         Oh plunge me deep in love - put out
                                        My senses, leave me deaf and blind,
                                        Swept by the tempest of your love,
                                        A taper in a rushing wind.


  1. Thanks for sharing, Mo. You always make your subjects interesting and alive again for us, sharing things most of us are not aware about them. Sara must have been tormented by demons because, on the surface, it sounds like she had a good life other than the constant estrangement from her husband. But then it also sounds like that separation from him was a situation she preferred.

  2. you always share such well research pieces - another wonderful one. Thanks for sharing


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