The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

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Sara Teasdale’s “Appraisal,” a metrical lyric poem, displays remarkable complexity despite the surface clarity of its nineteen lines. The poem falls within the tradition of love lyrics that celebrate rather than critique, probe, or explore. As a consequence, it creates poetic dissonance from its first line: “Never think she loves him wholly.” Simultaneously the reader learns that the loved one of the poem, a man, is under critical scrutiny and that the lover, a woman, is the scrutinizer. The reader also immediately understands that the poet is distancing herself from her subjects: She presents her third-person lovers as if under a bright light, without coyness or deception. Even though the literary vehicle is a lyric poem, her intent to make a statement is clear. “Appraisal,” the poet seems to say, will not be another simple evocation of a notoriously elusive emotional state. The worldly and possibly cynical connotations of the title itself reinforce this.

The blanket statements of the first two lines, “Never think she loves him wholly,/ Never believe her love is blind,” could stand as universal declarations. The “she” could be any woman and the “him” any man. From these generalizations, which suggest the existence of shortcomings in the loved one, the poem moves swiftly to particulars. The shortcomings are defined and placed in context: “All his faults are locked securely/ In a closet of her mind,” the poet says first. She then specifies two such faults: indecisiveness and cautiousness. She couches them in familiar terms. The indecisions appear “folded/ Like old flags that time has faded,/ Limp and streaked with rain.” Similarly, the poet characterizes cautiousness as being like old clothes, “frayed and thin, with many a stain.”

The middle line of the poem provides a pivot point on which the poem’s focus turns. “Let them be, oh let them be,” the poet says, less to the woman in the loving relationship than to the reader. The poet then makes her central statement: “There is treasure to outweigh them.” The reader thus learns how the poem will circle back into the proper realm of the love lyric. The faults of the loved one may be serious, they may be of consequence, yet the man has strengths, too. From this second general statement, the poet proceeds to particulars, first by identifying a trait conventionally masculine, “proud will,” followed by virtues that are more domestic: gentleness, humor, and tenderness.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609

Teasdale achieves part of her effect by playing against expectations, beginning with her choice of the anacreontic for a lyric form. Conventionally, anacreontics speak of the pleasures of wine, women, and song. In tone, the lyrics rarely move beyond the celebratory and joyous to the critical or even realistic. While Teasdale does address the matter of love, she chooses realism as her mode. Moreover, she delays any sense of celebration until the latter half of the poem. Anacreontics are usually in trochaic tetrameter, which refers to the poem having lines of four two-syllable feet with stresses falling on the first syllables. In “Appraisal,” the poet uses this meter, although not rigidly. Teasdale, one of the most consciously musical of twentieth century poets, employs several devices to achieve rhythmic variety, including the measured substitution of iambs for trochees. Many of the lines are varied by catalexis (the dropping of the final, unaccented syllable). Strikingly, the seventh line, “Limp and streaked with rain,” has only three feet, perhaps as a means of underlining the inadequacy or insufficiency being discussed.

Teasdale supports the two halves of the poem with different sets of imagery. In the first listing of shortcomings, she uses metaphors that are anything but romantic: She speaks of faded cloth and old clothing and of a closet that conceals the unwanted. The subsequent list of strengths then adopts terms of the natural world, reclaiming the romantic territory of the love poem. The shift in types of imagery provides a means of creating movement within the lyric, which otherwise lacks narrative flow. Teasdale similarly shifts poetic gears in the lyric “Those Who Love.” The short poem’s first stanza states its contention that “Those who love the most,/ Do not talk of their love” and supports it with such elevated examples from myth and literature as Iseult, Heloise, and Guinevere. The second stanza, in contrast, descends to the everyday, referring to “a woman I used to know.” Teasdale’s poem “Wisdom” similarly uses a shift of imagery to create a sense of progression. The word “spring” occurs in a literal sense, or nearly so, in the first two stanzas, then recurs in the third in a new and figurative sense, symbolizing love that was never realized.

Like these two poems, the shifting imagery in “Appraisal” includes a change from the tangible or accessible to the intangible and unreachable. “Those Who Love” turns its focus to one of those “who love the most,” whose love was never requited. Similarly in “Wisdom,” the “spring” that never arrived seems now forever out of reach. The shift of imagery in “Appraisal” moves the poem from the controlled realm of the domestic world to the uncontrollable realm of nature. The loved one’s will is compared to the ocean’s tide. He exhibits gentleness not to people but “to beast and bird.” In the most beautiful evocation of his elusiveness, the poet describes him as possessing “Humor flickering hushed and wide/ As the moon on moving water.” Even his tenderness escapes the lover’s grasp, for it is “too deep/ To be gathered in a word.” Ironically, these strengths are typically considered domestic virtues.

Also like “Those Who Love” and “Wisdom,” “Appraisal” strikes a tonal balance characteristic of Teasdale’s mature works. In this balance, the romantic and practical coexist. Romance never becomes sentimental just as the poet’s sense of practical limits never becomes too coldly conclusive. The title “Appraisal” is thus entirely appropriate. The poem describes a judgment of value, a weighing of pluses and minuses. In the end, the balance weighs toward the heart. Teasdale stretches but does not break the anacreontic form.