Sara Teasdale Teasdale, Sara - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Sara Teasdale 1884-1933

American poet and editor.

Teasdale's poetry is noted for its lyric simplicity and delicate craftsmanship. Viewed in its entirety, her work chronicles a woman's emotional development from youthful idealism, through gradual disillusionment, to the final acceptance of death. Though considered a minor poet, Teasdale was quite popular in her day. She received a Pulitzer Prize in 1918 for her collection of poems titled Love Songs.

Biographical Information

Teasdale was born August 8, 1884, in St. Louis, Missouri. The youngest child of well-to-do parents, she was a sheltered, physically fragile child. As a young woman, she joined a group of creative women called the Potters, publishing her first poetry in their monthly magazine, The Potter's Wheel. She gained her first significant exposure after being discovered by William Marion Reedy, who published some of her work in his widely read Mirror. As her literary reputation grew, she became part of the circle surrounding Harriet Monroe and the influential periodical, Poetry, in 1913. After marrying businessman Ernest Filsinger, the young couple moved to New York. Intensifying emotional depression characterized her later years, reflected in the dark verse collected in Love Songs and Flame and Shadow. After the death of her father, her divorce from Filsinger in 1929, and her friend Vachel Lindsay's suicide in December 1931, she fell into a deep depression. On January 29, 1933, she committed suicide.

Major Works

Teasdale's earliest influence was Christina Rossetti, whose lyric style and feminine point of view Teasdale greatly admired. Her first collection, Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems, illustrates the influence of Rossetti, Teasdale's early attraction to beauty, her sympathy with Sappho, and her admiration for the actress Eleanora Duse. The steady maturation of her lyric art becomes evident in her third collection, Rivers to the Sea, where she no longer speaks through ancient figures, and the emotions expressed are clearly her own. As her life progressed, Teasdale's veneration of beauty and love gave way to frustration and a preoccupation with death. Torn between her desire for love and her need for solitude, she slowly withdrew from an active life and became increasingly unhappy. The effects of this conflict, which had persisted since childhood, are clearly evident in Dark of the Moon. Although her anguish is still obvious in Strange Victory, published posthumously, the poet demonstrates in this collection her confidence in the peaceful release found in death.

Critical Reception

Commentators note that Teasdale was unaffected by the stylistic innovations in the works of her literary peers. Rejecting the experimental verse forms they used to examine the shallowness of twentieth-century life, she chose simple quatrains to explore her themes of love and beauty. Critics whose affinities lay with other styles dismissed this pure lyricism as sentimental and anachronistic. Although she is criticized for her limited range and conventional imagery, her best work is praised for its verbal precision and timeless exploration of human emotion. New York Times Book Review critic Percy A. Hutchinson praised Dark of the Moon and “the exquisite refinement of Sara Teasdale's lyric poetry,” which “shows how near Sara Teasdale can come to art's ultimate goals.” The reviewer J. Overmyer commenting in Choice upon the release of the 1984 collection Mirror of the Heart: Poems of Sara Teasdale that “simply stated thoughts are complex … and reverberate in the mind.” While very popular in her time—both critically and commercially—Teasdale's work has fallen into relative obscurity in recent years.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems 1907

Helen of Troy and Other Poems 1911

Rivers to the Sea 1915

Love Songs 1917

Flame and Shadow 1920

Dark of the Moon 1926

Strange Victory 1933

The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale 1937

Mirror of the Heart: Poems of Sara Teasdale 1984

The Answering Voice: One Hundred Love Lyrics by Women [editor] 1917

Vignettes of Italy: A Cycle of Nine Songs for High Voice 1919

Stars To-Night: Verses Old and New for Boys and Girls 1930

F. L. Lucas (essay date 1926)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Two Poetesses,” in Authors Dead & Living, Chatto & Windus, 1926, pp. 235-40.

[In the following excerpt, Lucas discusses Teasdale's Flame and Shadow.]

‘There is but one thing certain,’ says Pliny, with his curious mixture of matter-of-fact and melancholy, ‘that nothing is certain; and there is nothing more wretched or more proud than man.’ Human unhappiness and the pride that half causes it and half redeems—of the union of these two eternal contrasts Flame and Shadow is made. It is the utterance of a mood which all feel sometimes, some always; which all the generations have repeated, yet each of them yearns to hear expressed anew in the special accents of its own day—that particular kind of pessimism which feels the vanity, and yet the value, of life. And it needs to be restated still. For the present cannot live on the past, on dead men's words, alone; its own literature may be inferior, much of it must be, inevitably, minor; yet, as Homer had already learnt, men love the song which is new, and a living voice has in some ways an appeal that no dead eloquence can bring. This is the value of Flame and Shadow not that it contains new ideas, but that a view of life which our age in part accepts, in part struggles to avoid, is here once more expressed with sincerity and skill—the feeling that for all the agony of transience, all the disillusion of hopes in vain fulfilled, there are no consolations, but the bitter beauty of the Universe, and the frail human pride that confronts it, for a moment, undismayed. ‘There is nothing more wretched or more proud than man.’ It is always strange that sorrow should possess this higher beauty than laughter, even children's or lovers' laughter, can possess; that Tragedy is so fundamentally a greater thing than Comedy. But for this, the sadness of the world would be unbearable; thanks to this, from sorrow itself there is wrung a kind of joy—

Let it be forgotten, as a flower is forgotten,
          Forgotten as a fire that once was singing gold,
Let it be forgotten for ever and ever,
          Time is a kind friend, he will make us old.
If any one asks, say it was forgotten
          Long and long ago,
As a flower, as a fire, as a hushed footfall
          In a long forgotten snow.
Even love that I built my spirit's house for
          Comes as a brooding and a baffled guest,
And music and men's praise and even laughter
          Are not so good as rest.
It is strange how often a heart must be broken
          Before the years will...

(The entire section is 1081 words.)

Harriet Monroe (essay date 1932)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sara Teasdale,” in Poets and Their Art, Macmillan Co., 1932, pp. 72-7.

[In the following essay, Monroe explores the feminine voice in Teasdale's work.]

The typical well-read American girl appears and develops in Sara Teasdale's books—and develops, as sometimes happens, into something rarer and finer than her early promise foretold. We have, quite frankly presented, in the Sonnets to Duse, of 1907, and in Helen of Troy and Other Poems, of 1912, this girl's dream “crushes,” her imaginary love-affairs, her tremors and bewilderments, her woes and delights. Even in Rivers to the Sea, of 1915, this girlish softness sometimes persists;...

(The entire section is 1575 words.)

Louise Bogan (review date 1933)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sara Teasdale's Last Poems,” in New Republic, Vol. 77, November 15, 1933, p. 25.

[In the following laudatory assessment of Strange Victory, Bogan deems the collection “the final expression of a purely lyrical talent and of a poetic career remarkable for its integrity throughout.”]

Lyric poetry, however deeply felt and felicitously contrived, nowadays falls dangerously near the line dividing the romantic nostalgia and mock heroics of the nineteenth century from more complicated and turbulent contemporary writing. The taste which cherished the simple lyric cry of grief, ecstasy or regret written into a sonnet or a series of quatrains has given...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Babette Deutsch (review date 1937)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Solitary Ironist,” in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Vol. 51, December 12, 1937, pp. 148-53.

[In the following review, Deutsch offers a mixed assessment of Teasdale's Collected Poems.]

About the time that Masefield was trying to bring the Chaucerian plainness of speech back to English verse, and a bright-haired young man from Idaho was transposing Provençal music in a fashion startling to English ears, Sara Teasdale published the poems with which this book [The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale] commences. They touched on recognized themes in the recognized way, they had nothing rough or foreign about them, and they possessed, beyond their...

(The entire section is 1426 words.)

Rica Brenner (essay date 1941)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sara Teasdale,” in Poets of Our Time, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1941, pp. 207-42.

[In the following essay, Brenner elucidates the defining characteristics of Teasdale's verse.]

Out of the happiness, the joy, the sorrow, the “soul's distress and body's pain” of a sensitive woman, Sara Teasdale made seven volumes of verse, delicately but firmly wrought, simply but authoritatively stated. In them can be traced the record of a developing personality. Yet it is not a thoroughly complete personality that is therein expressed; for in spite of the sincerity and frankness with which are revealed some of the most intimate emotions possible to experience,...

(The entire section is 10159 words.)

George Brandon Saul (essay date 1957)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Delicate Fabric of Bird Song: The Verse of Sara Teasdale,” in The Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring, 1957, pp. 62-6.

[In the following essay, Saul addresses the lack of critical attention to Teasdale's work, and reflects on the popularity of her work in the early twentieth century.]


To anyone remembering Sara Teasdale's decade and a half of popularity and honors following Love Songs taking the 1917 Pulitzer prize for poetry, it seems pathetic—some would prefer to say “ironic”—to recall how sharply death meant a falling off in critical attention to the poetry. One suspects that five years' earlier...

(The entire section is 1667 words.)

Rosemary Sprague (essay date 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sara Teasdale,” in Imaginary Gardens: A Study of Five American Poets, Chilton Book Company, 1969, pp. 99-134.

[In the following essay, Sprague provides a biographical and critical study of Teasdale and her work.]

A lyric poet is always contemporary. He works in the changeless feelings of men, and not in their changing thoughts that shift relentlessly from decade to decade.1

So Sara Teasdale described Christina Rossetti, in the biography of that poet which she was writing at the time of her death. In this perceptive observation she not only provided the key to Christina Rossetti's...

(The entire section is 8904 words.)

Carol Schoen (essay date 1986)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Look to the Stars,” in Sara Teasdale, Twayne Publishers, 1986.

[In the following essay from her biographical and critical study of Teasdale and her work, Schoen examines Teasdale's most prolific period.]

The years between the publication of Rivers to the Sea and Flame and Shadow represent the period of Teasdale's greatest fame, during which she became one of the most popular poets in America with critical approbation that gave her a national reputation. At one point in 1917 she had three different volumes available: Rivers to the Sea, which had gone into its fourth printing; The Answering Voice, her anthology of women's love...

(The entire section is 10525 words.)

Cheryl Walker (essay date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Women and Selfhood: Sara Teasdale and the Passionate Virgin Persona,” in Masks Outrageous and Austere, Indiana University Press, 1991, pp. 44-66.

[In the following essay, Walker evaluates the influence of Teasdale's work on other American poets and discusses the most characteristic persona in her verse: the passionate virgin.]

If Amy Lowell is rarely read these days, Sara Teasdale is practically forgotten. Routinely excluded from anthologies of American literature, her work doesn’t even appear in Gilbert and Gubar's Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. It is usually assumed that her poetry, suggestive but chaste in its diction, containing no...

(The entire section is 11821 words.)

Jeanne Larsen (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Lowell, Teasdale, Wylie, Millay, and Bogan,” in The Columbia History of American History, edited by Jay Parini, Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 203-32.

[In the following essay, Larsen explores the work of Amy Lowell, Sara Teasdale, Elinor Wylie, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Louise Bogan, asserting that “understanding the value of these poets' work, and the reasons behind the changing estimations of that value, restores to us a fuller picture of a vital era in American poetry.”]

Passionate expression of emotion, revelation of personal sensibility, apparent delicacy overlaying sensuality and self-assertion, musicality created by diction and cadence,...

(The entire section is 11351 words.)

Diane D’Amico (essay date 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Saintly Singer or Tanagra Figurine? Christina Rossetti Through the Eyes of Katharine Tynan and Sara Teasdale,” in Victorian Poetry, Vol. 32, Nos. 3-4, Autumn, 1994, pp. 387-407.

[In the following excerpt, D’Amico determines the influence of Christina's Rossetti's work on Sara Teasdale.]

Scholars have given little attention to the topic of Christina Rossetti's influence.1 In fact, she has so often been presented as a Victorian recluse who resembled more the poets of the seventeenth century than those of her own period that one is led to infer she had few followers. However, an examination of family letters and diaries indicates that by the...

(The entire section is 5225 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Carpenter, Margaret Haley. Sara Teasdale: A Biography. New York: Schulte Publishing Co., 1960, 377 pp.

Important biography of Teasdale.

Drake, William. Sara Teasdale: Woman and Poet. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979, 304 p.

Biography that incorporates and draws from Teasdale's unpublished letters and journals.

Schoen, Carol. Sara Teasdale. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986, 190 p.

Biographical and critical study.


Wilkinson, Marguerite. “How Poems Are Made.” New Voices: An Interpretation to...

(The entire section is 115 words.)