Article abstract: One of the best-selling poets of the early twentieth century, Teasdale used traditional verse forms to express her own attitudes toward love, beauty, and solitude.
Sara Trevor Teasdale was born on August 8, 1884, in St. Louis, Missouri. At the time of her birth, St. Louis was experiencing a cultural and economic flowering, brought about in part by its mixed population of transplanted Easterners of Puritan ancestry and more recently immigrated Germans who stressed the importance of art and music. In 1884, the city was home to two universities, a museum, an art school, and numerous theaters where the great names in the acting and music worlds of the day sometimes performed.
The Teasdale family was of New England stock, descended from a dissenting Baptist who had emigrated from England in 1792. The poet’s grandfather was a Baptist minister who had moved his family west to St. Louis in 1854. John Warren Teasdale, the poet’s father, was a successful businessman. The ancestors of Sara’s mother, Mary Elizabeth Willard, included the founders of Concord, Massachusetts, two presidents of Harvard, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Throughout her life, Sara would acknowledge the Puritan aspect of her character and its conflict with her more “pagan” poetic self.
Kept at home in early childhood because of her poor health, Sara began her formal education at the age of nine, attending a private school a block from her home, and she was graduated from a girls’ school at the age of eighteen. In 1903, she became friends with an artistic and intellectual young woman named Williamina Parrish, with whom she and other friends formed a club called the Potters. These young women were products of the active women’s club culture of the day and were themselves enthusiasts of and participants in the arts. For more than two years they produced a monthly hand-printed magazine known as The Potter’s Wheel. Among their artistic influences were the Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters, particularly Christina Rossetti, the Celtic Revivalist Fiona MacLeod (actually, Scottish writer William Sharp), the Greek poet Sappho, and actress Eleonora Duse. Most of the poems in Sara’s first book had originally appeared in The Potter’s Wheel.
In 1905, Sara and her mother traveled to Europe and the Holy Land. Sara was depressed by the dirt and poverty of what was then Palestine but loved Seville, Spain, and Paris, France, where she pronounced the Venus de Milo “the most beautiful thing on earth.” While in London, she sought out the homes of poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Algernon Charles Swinburne. The beauty that Teasdale found in Europe contributed subject matter for many of her later poems.
In 1906, The Potter’s Wheel came to the attention of William Reedy, the publisher of a weekly newspaper known for its sponsorship of new artists. Reedy published one of Sara’s prose sketches and a poem, thereby arousing her sense of professionalism and bringing her to the attention of poetry critics. The next year, the Poet Lore company published Teasdale’s first book, Sonnets to Duse, and Other Poems.
On the surface, Sara Teasdale’s life changed little following her initial publications, but she experienced a growing dissatisfaction with life in St. Louis and in her parents’ home. This period saw the beginning of her lifelong pattern of periodic “rest cures” (then prescribed for many ailments of women) at various sanatoriums and hotels. She was proposed for membership in the Poetry Society of America in 1910, and in January of 1911, she made her first visit to New York City for the meeting of the society. Her second book, Helen of Troy, and Other Poems, was published by Putnam in October of that year.
Poetry Society membership brought Teasdale friendships with influential poets, editors, and critics. Her work also brought her into contact with John Hall Wheelock, the young poet who became the unrequited love of her life and the subject of many of her finest lyrics of frustrated love. Although he never reciprocated Teasdale’s romantic affection, Wheelock became the person to whom she turned in many of the later crises of her life.
In 1913, Teasdale visited Chicago and met Harriet Monroe, editor of the recently founded magazine Poetry. Monroe introduced her to Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay, then just becoming famous as the author of “General William Booth Enters into Heaven.” Lindsay’s midwestern aesthetic was nearly the opposite of Teasdale’s emphasis on careful craftsmanship in traditional verse forms, but he fell in love with his fellow poet and courted her with extravagant, lengthy letters and periodic visits. Teasdale remained fond of Lindsay throughout his life but found him exhausting and the prospect of a life of poverty with him terrifying. In December, 1914, she married St. Louis businessman Ernst Filsinger. Filsinger was passionately fond of the arts and a supporter of the twentieth century’s new developments in poetry. In the early years of their marriage, he and Teasdale lived in St. Louis and occasionally wrote poetry together.
Teadale’s 1915 volume Rivers to the Sea found her experimenting with free verse despite her original misgivings about the form. In this volume Teasdale found her poetic voice. Sonnets to Duse had been full of girlish enthusiasm, while...
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