Sara Teasdale was one of America’s best-known and most popular poets during the 1920’s. By the time of her death in 1933, however, the more “modern” work of writers like Pound, Eliot, and Sandburg had overshadowed her highly polished lyrics of love and pain, and she has received comparatively little critical attention in recent years. That her work deserves closer study, both for its own sake and for what it reveals of the special problems of the woman writer, is the clear message of William Drake’s engrossing biography.
Drake views Teasdale as both victim and victor in the struggle that seems to have been almost inevitable for the women poets and novelists of her time. To be a professional writer was by definition to be unfeminine. As Drake points out in his excellent first chapter, “Sara Teasdale and the Feminine Tradition,” society preached the doctrine that womanly fulfillment was possible only through “submission to love.” The self-assertiveness required to be a successful artist left the aspiring woman writer no real choice but to find meaning in renunciation and to celebrate in her work not “joy” but “anguish and deprivation.” Although as a twentieth century writer Teasdale was perhaps less limited than poets like Emily Brontë, Emily Dickinson, and Christina Rossetti, she was bound by many of the same psychological and societal restrictions that affected each of them.
The first biographer to be allowed full access to Teasdale’s private papers, Drake has used letters and unpublished works as well as published poems to probe the inner conflict that he sees at the heart of her life: the tension between what she called the puritan and pagan sides of her personality. The puritan Sara was the sheltered, sickly, late-born daughter of Midwestern Victorian parents. Her upper-middle-class St. Louis upbringing left her almost obsessed with propriety and dependent both emotionally and financially on her domineering mother and her father, whom she idolized. It was this side of her that could protest that marriage and motherhood were far more important to her than her art at the same time that she was graciously but shrewdly sending her newly published poems to those best able to enlarge her literary reputation.
Counterbalancing her conventionality and conservatism were her “pagan” instincts, that part of her that felt “an ecstatic love of beauty,” longed for an all-consuming passionate romance, and responded to the poetry of Sappho, Swinburne, and the Pre-Raphaelites. There was no way to reconcile fully her desire for submersion into the life of the senses on the one hand with her need for security and stability on the other, but out of the tension between the two grew the poetry that gave meaning to her existence.
The romantic young pagan Sara never seems to have doubted that ultimate happiness lay in the love of one man. The inhibited puritan daughter of St. Louis somehow believed that she could find this happiness in a socially acceptable, economically secure marriage. Her doomed quest for a grand passion with a suitable husband forms the main narrative thread of Drake’s biography.
Teasdale’s romantic involvements through her twenties followed a similar pattern, one that shows both her essentially adolescent romanticism and her fear of a real, demanding commitment. Her relationships with men typically began with a long exchange of increasingly personal letters, progressed to fantasizing about the future from a safe distance, cooled once there was a question of marriage, and settled finally into supportive friendship. The first of Sara’s correspondents was John Myers O’Hara, a young poet whose adaptations of Sappho, published in 1907, prompted her to write to him. For three years they conducted a flirtation on paper, but when they finally met it became clear that however amorous his letters might be, he was only “playing at love.” Her next serious attachment was the result of a shipboard romance with an Englishman she met as she returned from a European trip in 1912. Although she saw him for no more than a few weeks, she considered him as a possible husband for months afterward, apparently with very little encouragement from him.
Late in the same year she turned enthusiastically to poet John Hall Wheelock, with whom she professed herself “deep in love” after reading two of his books of poetry and corresponding with him. They did eventually become lifelong friends and confidants, but he, too, failed to offer the kind of relationship she was looking for. The last of her poet-correspondents, Vachel Lindsay, was introduced to her by his patron, Poetry editor Harriet Monroe. Lindsay idealized Teasdale and advised her to abandon her personal lyrics to “glorify and gild” the Middle West. They did meet, fairly soon after their first letters, and she encouraged his interest.
When Teasdale met Lindsay in 1913 she was twenty-nine, approaching the age that marked certain spinsterhood in her world. Drake’s account of her actions during this period of her life suggests that she made a calculated, rational decision that it was time to marry, then set about to clothe this decision in romantic colors to fit her dreams of what love and marriage ought to involve. She went to New York in June, 1914, to determine for once and all whether Wheelock would propose. When he made it clear that he would not, she summoned Lindsay to join her in the city while she tried to decide whether she was or could be “desperately” in love with him. If not, she had a third suitor, Ernst Filsinger, a St. Louis businessman she had met the preceding April. He was an ardent admirer of her poetry who had apparently idealized her from afar in much the same way that she had dreamed of O’Hara and Wheelock. On one level a practical woman who...
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