Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Sara Teasdale—Vachel Lindsay’s Shy One-That-Got-Away

The beautiful young poet who captured Vachel Lindsay's Heart.

Like, yesterday’s featured poet Vachel Lindsay, Sara Teasdale was once enormously popular with critics and public alike but has fallen out of favor and into a kind of obscurity.  In fact, she and Lindsay were contemporaries, Midwesterners from prosperous and religious families whose lives paralleled each other and intersected.  Lindsay once tried to woo the lovely young poet, but was rejected, probably because of his near poverty and bohemian life style.

Sara Teasdale was born August 8, 1884 in St. Louis, Missouri.  She was the youngest child of large family, born when her parents were both in their 40s.  She was small, frail, sickly, and under the care of a nurse most of her life.  Her parents adored, sheltered, and spoiled her.  She was tutored at home until she was nine and had almost no contact with other children except for her much older siblings.  She learned to imitate adult conversation and cultivate adult praise.  He mother thought she was “drawn to beauty.”

She completed her education at a series of private schools, but her infirmities and shyness kept her from being close to other students.  She began to write lyrical poems in school and was first published in a local newspaper.

After leaving school she traveled as often as she was able with a companion including influential trips to Europe and spent a good deal of time in Chicago where she became part of the group around Poetry Magazine.  Harriet Monroe encouraged her and provided a literary audience for her for the first time.  Teasdale’s first collection, Sonnets to Duse, and Other Poems was published in 1907.  The title reference was to dancer Eleanora Duse, who she read about but never saw perform.  The book was a popular and critical success.  Critics admired her deceptive simplicity, lyricism, and musicality.  As one said,  Miss Teasdale is first, last, and always a singer.”

Two more volumes were published in the next few years, Helen of Troy, and Other Poems in 1911 Rivers to the Sea, in 1915.

Just before the latter volume was published, Teasdale married Ernst Filsinger, who had courted her, off and on, since their teens.  Ernst had been wooing her at the same time as Lindsay, who inundated her with passionate letters.  But she chose the more stable businessman, although the two poets remained close the rest of their lives.  Lindsay never really got over her—which might explain his decade of  exile in that Seattle hotel room.  One of his greatest poems, To a Chinese Nightingale was said to be inspired by Teasdale.

Teasdale as she rose to fame.

By all accounts, however, Sara and Ernst were at first deliriously happy young couple.  Together they moved to New York City.  Her 1917 book Love Songs reflected their happiness. The following year she was awarded the first Columbia University Poetry Society Prize—the award that would be re-named the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry—on the strength of that book.

She continued to write during the 1920’s and critics began to note an increasing depth—even hints at an underlying philosophy, that they felt had been missing from her earlier work.  These were Flame and Shadow in1920, Dark of the Moon  in 1926, and Stars To-night  in 1930. 

Even as she was achieving professional respect as a poet, Teasdale’s personal life was unraveling.  She was in despair over Ernst’s frequent and extended absences on business.  She divorced her husband against his will in 1929.  Following the break-up she re-established her relationship with Lindsay by correspondence, but he was married with young children and battling his own demons over not being able to support them.

She spent the rest of her life as a semi-invalid, seldom venturing far from her Manhattan home.  Her writing began to explore a world in which she could not quite extract a sense of wonder and beauty as she had before. 

Near the end, London 1932.

Teasdale fell ill with a protracted and devastating case of pneumonia.  In despair, she swallowed the contents of a bottle of sedatives and died on January 29, 1933,  just a few months after Lindsay took his life. 
Strange Victory, hailed as her most mature work, sophisticated in its deceptive simplicity, was published posthumously the same year. 

Was this inspired by Lindsay?

Advice to a Young Girl
No one worth possessing
Can be quite possessed;
Lay that on your heart,
My young angry dear;
This truth, this hard and precious stone,
Lay it on your hot cheek,
Let it hide your tear.
Hold it like a crystal
When you are alone
And gaze in the depths of the icy stone.
Long, look long and you will be blessed:
No one worth possessing
Can be quite possessed. 

–Sara Teasdale

In this one she contemplates the choice she made.


Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children's faces looking up,
Holding wonder like a cup.

Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like the curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit's still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.

Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.

–Sara Teasdale

Here is a poem from that some believed it to be Teasdale’s suicide note.  It was included in her posthumous collection but it dates to 1915 and first appeared in Rivers to the Sea.

I Shall Not Care

When I am dead and over me bright April
      Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted,
      I shall not care.

I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
      When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
      Than you are now.

–Sara Teasdale

Although not a combatant and far away from the carnage, like other poets of her generation she was deeply moved and disturbed by World War I.  This poem envisions nature reclaiming a battlefield and even imagined human extinction, the kind of post-apocalyptic theme that did not become widespread until the nuclear age.  The poem inspired Ray Bradbury’s 1950 science fiction story of the same name and was played on an automated tape recording by a robotic house after its family, and apparently all humanity have been wiped out in a nuclear war.
There Will Come Soft Rains
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools, singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

–Sara Teasdale


  1. This post came up in a Google search of the poet, and now I am intrigued to read more. After posting a reflection of my own on There Will Come Soft Rains, https://divineincarnate.com/2019/05/02/soft-rains-sara-teasdale/ I read this and am inspired to dig more deeply into her work and write again. Thank you!

    1. Thank you. I enjoyed reading your essay on There Will Come Soft Rains.

  2. I, too came to your page via a google search of Sara Teasdale - I thought you might be interested to know.

    I very much appreciate what you've written here, thank you.