A Different Interpretation of the Poem
Teasdale’s poems are noted for their classic forms, evocative imagery, and traditional subjects and themes. She is often described as staying within the mainstream of conventional lyric poetry and avoiding the experimental, revolutionary poetic structures and subject matter that characterize the work of many poets of her time. “Barter,” one of her best known poems, seems to support the literary criticism. The poem is traditional in form; it is lyrical, rich in sensory language and vivid imagery, and seems to romanticize beauty and the “loveliness” found in life.
A closer examination of “Barter,” however—and even the title itself—reveals a thematic undertone that belies a conventionally romantic view. Life is indeed filled with “loveliness,” but it isn’t a gift to those who would possess it; it must be purchased, and the price is high. Teasdale doesn’t detail the price to be paid in exchange for beauty, love, or spiritual fulfillment, but an “hour of peace” may cost “many a year of strife.” To experience even “a breath of ecstasy,” one must sacrifice “all you have been or could be.” Since the nineteenth-century development of Romanticism as a literary genre, beauty as an ideal and the beauty one can experience in life have been celebrated in joyous or reverent tones by the Romantic poets. Teasdale acknowledges that life is filled with “beautiful and splendid things,” but she does not take a conventionally romantic view of them. In “Barter,” there are strings attached to all that is lovely in life.