Daughter of John W. and Mary Willard Teasdale; married Ernst B. Filsinger, 1914
The youngest of four children, Sara Teasdale was born into comfortable circumstances provided by her father, a prominent businessman, and her independently wealthy mother. Because of her nervous temperament, she was educated at home until she was nine. After attending Mary Institute (founded by T. S. Eliot's grandfather) for a year, she completed her education at Hosmer Hall, a school designed to prepare young women for college. She was already writing poetry, and she received much encouragement from her teachers; she also read Heine and Sappho, who, along with Christina Rossetti, were the greatest influences on her own work.
Following graduation in 1902, Teasdale, together with several of her friends, published a manuscript magazine, the Potter's Wheel, in which many of her early poems appeared. Her first professional publication came in May, 1907, when her dramatic monologue "Guenevere" appeared in Reedy's Mirror. The poem attracted much attention, as did Sonnets to Duse, and Other Poems published that same autumn, though the book was not a financial success.
Teasdale literally sacrificed herself to poetry, and therein lay her tragedy. Frail and high-strung, she lived perforce a disciplined life which brought both unhappiness and loneliness, for she was innately an outgoing person, capable of great emotional depth. Her line, "O, beauty, are you not enough? Why am I crying after love?" reveals her constant ambivalence. She experienced two major romantic involvements, one with the poet Vachel Lindsay, and the other with Ernst Filsinger, a St. Louis businessman whom she married in December 1914. But the demands of poetry brought about a gradual estrangement, and the marriage was dissolved in 1929 by Teasdale's decision. After courageously enduring four years of rapidly deteriorating health and acute depression, exacerbated by the fear that she might become a helpless invalid, she took an overdose of barbiturates and died in 1933.
At first glance, Teasdale's poetry appears to be simple, but its simplicity is deceptive. Although it does not lend itself to involved critical exegesis, its highly connotative language can imply deeply felt emotion which evokes an equal response. Teasdale treads a fine line between revelation and reticence. Sonnets to Duse and Helen of Troy, and Other Poems (1911) reveal her experimentation to find her own poetic voice, and successive volumes demonstrate her constant striving to speak from her own experience, honestly and without sentimentality. Her constant theme is love, its joys, and, as her own life grew more difficult, its tragedies. The source of her imagery is invariably nature, which serves equally well for moments of exaltation—"I am the pool of gold/Where sunset burns and dies/You are my deepening skies,/Give me your stars to hold,"—or, as in her posthumous volume Strange Victory (1933), for moments of deepest pain: "Nothing but darkness enters this room,/ Nothing but darkness and the winter night,/ Yet on this bed once years ago a light/Silvered the sheets with an unearthly bloom;/ It was the planet Venus in the west/Casting a square of brightness on this bed,/ And in that light your dark and lovely head/Lay for a while and seemed to be at rest." Here the controlled objectivity of the language deepens the sense of anguish and desolation; the words must be read for implication and nuance, as well as for obvious meaning. In Teasdale's poetry, every word is important.
Though deprecated by critics of the post-Wasteland generation, Teasdale continues to be read and admired. One reason for her popularity doubtless derives from her ability to write about bitter experience without bitterness, and to laugh wisely, especially at herself. But even more important is a sense of that inner courage and integrity, which compelled her to write in her own way, uninfluenced by the work of her contemporaries: "Let the dead know, but not the living see—/ The dead who loved me will not suffer, knowing/It is all one, the coming or the going—/ If I have kept the last essential me./ If that is safe, then I am safe indeed…." She recognized her way inevitably incurred suffering. Even at her moments of deepest despair, however, Teasdale exercises a control born of a conscious choice, and the ultimate effect of her poetry is one of confident affirmation: "If this be the last time/The melody flies upward/With its rush of sparks in flight,/ Let me go up with it in fire and laughter…."
Rivers to the Sea (1915). The Answering Voice: Love Lyrics by Women (edited by Teasdale, 1917). Love Songs (1917). Flame and Shadow (1920). Rainbow Gold (edited by Teasdale, 1922). Dark of the Moon (1926). Stars To-Night (1930). Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale (1937, 1996). Mirror of the Heart: Poems of Sara Teasdale (1984).
Brenner, R., Poets of Our Time (1946). Carpenter, M. H., Sara Teasdale: A Biography (1960). Drake, W., Sara Teasdale: Women and Poet (1979). Dubois, J., The Same Sweet Yellow (1994). Howe, F., No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets, Newly Revised and Expanded (1993). Lester, D., ed., I Lay Me Down: Suicide in the Elderly (1994). Lupack, A., Modern Arthurian Literature: An Anthology of English and American Arthuriana from the Renaissance to the Present (1992). Maser, F. E., Sara Teasdale: A Returning Comet: An Essay (1993). Moore, M., Nevertheless (1983). Ruihley, G. R., ed., An Anthology of Great U.S. Women Poets, 1850-1990: Temples and Palaces (1997). Schoen, C. B., Sara Teasdale (1986). Sprague, R., Imaginary Gardens: A Study of Five American Poets (1969). Untermeyer, L., The New Era in American Poetry (1919). Walker, C., Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche, and Persona in Modern Women Poets (1991). Woodard, D., This More Fragile Boundary: The Female Subject and the Romance Plot in the Texts of Millay, Wylie, Teasdale, Bogan (dissertation, 1993).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Turn-of-the-Century Women (Summer/Winter 1990).