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Summary and Analysis

“Barter,” by the American poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), is a lyric poem consisting of three stanzas of six lines each. Most of the lines consist of either seven or eight syllables, with some variation in this pattern from stanza to stanza. For example, the syllable counts for the first stanza 1 are 7, 8, 7, 7, 8, 7. The numbers of syllables for the second stanza are 7, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7. Finally, the numbers of syllables found in the third stanza are 8, 8, 8, 9, 8, 8. From the mere appearance of the poem on the page, one might have expected the line lengths to be very regular, but as the aforementioned numbers suggest, there is far more variation in the poem, especially from one stanza to the next, than one might have anticipated. Teasdale is often praised for the subtle music of her poetry, and the syllable counts suggest that she did not hesitate to vary from strict, predictable patterns (at least in this poem) if she thought that doing so would improve the poem’s rhythms and sounds.

In its rhyme scheme, the poem displays more regularity, but here again the design is more intriguing than it might at first appear. Thus, the rhyme scheme of stanza 1 is as follows: a/b/c/b/d/d. This same basic (but fairly unusual) pattern is repeated in the next two stanzas, although line 7 is a verbatim repetition of line 1. We might thus expect line 13 to repeat lines 1 and 7, but instead Teasdale offers another departure from expectations. Although she was writing during a period of great formal experimentation in poetry, and although her poem might at first look fairly conservative and traditional in its design, there is more variation in this text than is at first apparent. Once again, then, Teasdale seems more subtle than one might have assumed.

One way in which the poem does display a strong degree of regularity is in its syntax (or sentence structure). This is especially the case since each stanza consists of a single sentence. Stretching one sentence across six lines (while having that sentence make clear sense) can be difficult, but one way Teasdale achieves clarity is by breaking her sentences up into smaller units—units whose existence is often signaled by the punctuation at the ends of lines. Of the eighteen lines of the poem, only three feature enjambment (that is, an absence of punctuation at the end of a line). By mostly avoiding enjambment, Teasdale fills her sentences with plenty of pauses and thus makes their structure easier to follow. Of course, the risk of so much punctuation at the ends of lines is that of creating a kind of “singsong” effect, and so some readers might accuse this poem of sounding merely simplistic rather than appealingly simple.

The speaker of the poem is anonymous; not even a particular gender is implied. The voice is a voice of confident, authoritative wisdom. The poem opens with a clear assertion (“Life has loveliness to sell”), an assertion made all the more emphatic when it is repeated, word for word, in line 7. This text, we immediately realize, is a poem intended to teach us something. In a sense, the poem begins with a lesson that the rest of the poem will then explain and develop.

The phrasing of the first two lines of stanza 1 is abstract and general, while the phrasing in the next four is vivid and highly specific. The first two lines make broad claims; the ensuing four offer particular examples to support those claims. Line 3 is especially vivid, partly because of its use of colors and partly because of the splendid verb whitened to describe how blue waves abruptly become white breakers. The first two lines of the opening stanza might have been written by almost anyone, but line 3 reveals the sharp perceptions of a genuine poet. Line 4, while less startlingly vivid than line 3, nevertheless is also inventive, particularly in the way it uses a metaphor to describe fire as if fire were a singing dancer. All four of the final lines of stanza 1 are “romantic” in the sense that they tend to...

(The entire section is 1,445 words.)