Teasdale, Sara (1884–1933)
Teasdale, Sara (1884–1933)
American writer who was one of the foremost lyric poets in the early decades of the 20th century. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on August 8, 1884; committed suicide in New York City on January 29, 1933; daughter of John Warren Teasdale (a wealthy businessman) and Mary Elizabeth (Willard) Teasdale; graduated from Hosmer Hall, 1903; married Ernest Filsinger (a St. Louis businessman), on December 19, 1914 (divorced in Reno, Nevada, September 5, 1929; he died in Shanghai, China, May 1937); no children.
Member of arts group, the Potters (1904–07); traveled to Europe and Near East (1905); published Sonnets to Duse (1907); selected for membership in Poetry Society of America in New York (1910); moved to New York City (1916); won Poetry Society of America award (June 1917); awarded Columbia Poetry Prize (1918) and Brookes More Prize for poetry (1921).
Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems (Boston: Poet Lore, 1907); Helen of Troy and Other Poems (NY: Putnam, 1911); Rivers to the Sea (NY: Macmillan, 1915); Love Songs (NY: Macmillan, 1917); Flame and Shadow (NY: Macmillan, 1920); Dark of the Moon (NY: Macmillan, 1926); Stars To-Night, Verses Old and New for Boys and Girls (NY: Macmillan, 1930); Strange Victory (NY: Macmillan, 1933); The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale (NY: Macmillan, 1937); (ed. by William Drake) Mirror of the Heart, Poems of Sara Teasdale (NY: Macmillan, 1984).
(ed. by Teasdale) The Answering Voice: One Hundred Love Lyrics by Women (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1917, enlarged ed., NY: Macmillan, 1928); Rainbow Gold; Poems Old and New Selected for Girls and Boys by Sara Teasdale (NY: Macmillan, 1922); Marguerite Wilkinson, New Voices, includes a contribution by Teasdale on writing lyric poetry (NY: Macmillan, 1936).
"If I were only beautiful and a genius, what fun life would be," wrote Sara Teasdale. She was neither beautiful nor a genius, and she had little fun in life. She achieved success in the literary world, but personally foundered in a vain search for love and happiness. She was, however, "one of the great lyric poets of the English language," according to John Hall Wheelock. She was also shy, sensitive, physically frail, ambitious, and talented. Her Puritan background and Victorian upbringing burdened her with "crippling inhibitions that summed up the Victorian middle-class ideal of feminine propriety and refinement." Sara was pampered by her indulgent parents who kept her in a state of perpetual childhood until she was almost 30 years old. Only love and marriage, she believed, could free her from the oppressive restrictions imposed on her by her devout Baptist parents. Being torn between what she was and what she wanted to be created conflicts, and she "lived in contradictory worlds of feeling"; Sara's two selves, "Puritan and Pagan," never merged into a single personality. She accepted that a woman was to marry and live for her husband, but marriage "conflicted with the sense of being a free person in her own right." And William Drake claims: "In the end, the conflict cost her her life."
Sara was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1884 when her parents were already middle-aged; her father was 45, her mother 40. John Teasdale was a well-to-do businessman, and Sara adored him. Her mother Mary Teasdale was a strict Baptist and the dominant presence in the Teasdale household. The three other children, two boys and a girl, ranged in age from 19 to 14 at the time of Sara's birth. Teasdale was fond of her sister Mamie Teasdale , but never liked her brothers, George and John. The family home was large, comfortable, and secure, and Sara grew up in an adult world, never allowed to play with other children. She was considered frail, and each minor illness was treated as a medical crisis. Educated at home until age nine, she then attended prestigious girls' schools in St. Louis, first Mary Institute (founded by T.S. Eliot's grandfather) and Hosmer Hall which prepared young women for college. There was little chance that Teasdale's parents would have approved of higher education for their delicate girl, however. Medical experts claimed that if women "attempted to become educated their health would suffer" and "reduce them to unhealthy invalids and unfit childbearers." Moreover, girls were "never intended by the creator to undergo the stress and strain of higher education." Even without the rigors of higher education, Teasdale became a near-invalid and was plagued with ill health all her life.
Outwardly, Teasdale adhered to all the proprieties imposed on her by her pious mother, but she also lived a vivid, active inner life. Living "the life of a princess" with no responsibilities at home, she never learned to manage a household if she married, or to pursue a career and achieve financial independence, as if her life were to be a "perpetual childhood." Teasdale's life was orderly, regimented, and sanitized. She was a complex child, dreamy, yet practical, precocious, yet shy. And she was self-centered; her own needs were foremost in her insular world, and "it never entered her head to fit herself to others."
After graduating from Hosmer Hall in 1903, Sara and a few other young women formed a club called the Potters. She had been writing poetry for several years, and her enthusiastic, energetic friend Williamina Parrish encouraged her to publish some of her poems in their monthly magazine, The Potter's Wheel. The club promoted poetry and the fine arts above "the level of mundane reality." Serious intellectual discussions allowed Sara to have her work read and criticized. Even when she had achieved a literary reputation, she sought, and welcomed, advice and criticism from fellow poets. The Potters also provided an environment where she could establish friendships outside of the stifling atmosphere of the Teasdale family home. Sara's "aristocratic" ways at times amused her friends who called on her during designated "visiting hours" and "were announced by a maid" before Sara received them.
Women were central figures in Teasdale's life, beautiful, heroic women like Helen of Troy, the poet Sappho, Guinevere of Arthurian legend, and her female friends on whom she developed adolescent crushes. Since "feminine love" was considered "higher" than love between men and women, it was viewed as a harmless indulgence until one found the right man and married. In fact, Sara had never been exposed socially to men or boys, except for her father and brothers; consequently her budding sensuality was directed towards women.
The Teasdales traveled a great deal and spent each summer in Charlevoix on Lake Michigan. In 1905, Sara went abroad for the first time. With her mother she toured the Holy Land which was "miserable, filthy, poor, and diseased," and visited Egypt, Spain, Greece, Italy, France, and England. Her ancestors, paternal and maternal, were English, and Sara was proud of them: the founder of Concord, Massachusetts, in 1635, presidents of Harvard University, signers of the Declaration of Independence, legislators, judges, and clerics.
In 1906, Teasdale became a published writer. A prose sketch, "The Crystal Cup," appeared in William Morris Reedy's weekly, The Mirror, for which Sara was paid. A few months later, he published her poem "The Little Love." Reedy was "the H.L. Mencken of the Midwest," and Teasdale referred to him as her "literary God-father." Encouraged by the reception her work received, she began preparing a book of her poems for publication; 29 poems, which included many about the actress Eleonora Duse , were issued by the Poet Lore Company in Boston. Sara's parents gave her $290 for the publication of 1,000 copies. She sent a copy to Arthur Symons, the English poet and critic, who praised her lyric poems in the Saturday Review (London) in October 1907. Teasdale never hesitated to promote her career and sent poems to major magazines, but only to those that paid for her work. This initial success led to plans for another book.
At age 23, Teasdale remained totally dependent on her parents, emotionally and financially. She questioned whether she could survive alone in the "real world." Her sheltered life and frequent illnesses often reduced her to "infantile helplessness." In one of her poems she queried, "How shall I sing of sunlight/ Who never saw the sun." Her horizons were expanded through correspondence with the stockbroker-poet John Myers O'Hara in New York City and Marion Cummings Stanley, a philosophy professor at the University of Arizona, whom she visited in 1908. Away from St. Louis and her family, Sara was more physically energetic and active, but on returning home she sank into depression, loneliness, and bouts of ill health. "Rest cures" in a sanitorium in Cromwell, Connecticut, brought little relief. Friends in St. Louis, including Zoe Akins (later a playwright in New York) and the poet Orrick Johns introduced Teasdale to the rather risqué bohemian life in St. Louis that both shocked and attracted her. Unable to shed her puritanical inhibitions, she chose to adhere to social convention and find a husband to support her; she would have security while she pursued her literary career. Johns noted that Teasdale had "little existence outside of her poems," and she admitted, "I suppose my work is more truly I than I am myself."
In October 1910, the Poetry Society of America was founded in New York City; membership was by invitation only, and Teasdale was asked to join. To attend the meeting of the Society in February 1911, Sara, age 26, still had to obtain permission from her parents. "Waiting for love and fame," she arrived in New York in mid-January, an event that put an end to "the perpetual childhood and isolation of her home." Her book, Helen of Troy and Other Poems, had been accepted by Putnam in December 1910,
and the title poem was read, and well received, at the Poetry Society meeting. She finally met O'Hara but was disappointed to find he was as shy and solitary as she was—and he was not in love with her as she mistakenly had believed. However, Teasdale found New York liberating, and she wrote "a flood of new poems" which included "Union Square" in which she describes the plight of a woman who wanted a man's love but could not initiate a relationship because "decent women" had to retain a pure, virginal image. Her lyric poems were based on her own emotions and experiences, she stated, and "Union Square" reflects her longings: "With the man I love who loves me not/ I walked in the street-lamps' flare—/ But oh, the girls who ask for love/ In the lights of Union Square."
Teasdale remained in New York for the March meeting of the Society. She had become friends with Jessie Rittenhouse , a critic for The New York Times Book Review, who introduced Sara to members of the literary establishment. They remained friends throughout Teasdale's life. Home again in St. Louis, Sara became ill and chafed against her mother's rigid and over-bearing control of her life. The stifling atmosphere did not affect Teasdale's literary production, however. She wrote a short story entitled "The Sentimentalist," using John Myers O'Hara as a character who rejects a woman's love. H.L. Mencken published it (her only prose piece) in Smart Set in April 1916. Her book, Helen of Troy, garnered praise from national magazines and newspapers and put her in contact with the poets Louis and Jean Untermeyer .
A second visit to New York in early 1912 brought an end to Sara's psychological attachment to St. Louis. Here she was a recognized talent, a woman, not a protected, obedient child. Only a passionate love was missing from her life as she laments in "Imeros," written in February 1912: "I am a woman who will live and die/ Without the one thing I have craved of God," and she pleads with God, "Send me not back to death unsatisfied." Melancholic thoughts did not diminish the pleasure she had during a four-month trip to Europe with Rittenhouse during the summer of 1912. And on the ship returning to New York, Teasdale fell in love with a charming Englishman, Stafford Hatfield. What he wanted or expected of her is not known, but Sara's reaction to commitment was not unexpected—she became ill and went home to St. Louis; as she described her reaction, "But I feared the onward surge,/ Like a coward I turned aside."
Teasdale dreaded the idea of being a spinster, an "old maid" who evoked the sympathy of family and friends. As she approached her 30th birthday, she was still dependent on her aging parents. She had no life or money of her own. She wanted a husband and had assumed that Hatfield's attentions meant he was in love with her. Once again she was disappointed, but she persevered. She now directed her sights to a young man whose poems she admired; John Hall Wheelock worked in Scribner's Book Store in New York (he was later an editor at Scribner's publishing house). Sara wrote him saying she wanted to meet him, a rather bold gesture on her part. And typically, she soon imagined herself in love. In January 1913, on a visit to New York, she went to the bookstore and found Wheelock was everything she wanted, handsome, talented, a gentleman, and unmarried. They began taking long walks together in the evening, but the passion Teasdale sought was not forthcoming. In New York, Sara was never lonely and made friends easily. Harriet Monroe , the founder of Poetry magazine, became a lifelong friend. Surprisingly, Teasdale also enjoyed the companionship of the Communist activist John Reed. And then she met the poet Vachel Lindsay.
Like Teasdale, Lindsay was a Midwesterner, a passionate, productive poet whose fame was just beginning. He wrote to Sara, probably at the suggestion of their mutual friend Harriet Monroe. Lindsay urged Teasdale to leave New York, come home and write about St. Louis, to be "a poet of America"; New York was not America to him. He and Sara also were offspring of an intensely "puritanical evangelical Protestantism" which each found restrictive. Moreover, he still lived with his mother in Illinois "like an un-grown boy." But Teasdale identified with New York more than the Midwest, and when Lindsay visited her in St. Louis in 1914, he found the delicate, refined woman was also ambitious and strong willed. In spite of this, Lindsay fell in love with Teasdale, but the attraction was not reciprocated for Sara loved the evasive Wheelock.
Teasdale continued to attend Poetry Society meetings in New York and to socialize there. She was becoming more poised and self-confident, and her career was advancing. Eunice Tietjens , a staff member of Poetry magazine in Chicago, visited Sara in the spring of 1914, and introduced her to a friend, St. Louis businessman Ernest Filsinger. He had read Teasdale's poetry and admired her work. He was "a man of culture, warmth, and deep sincerity" who knew several languages and had broad interests. When Filsinger fell in love with Teasdale, it created a dilemma for her. She loved Wheelock, was being pursued by Lindsay to marry him, and now Filsinger revealed his affection and intention to marry her. But Wheelock was actually in love with another woman, and Lindsay was unable to support a family. Teasdale needed a mature, self-assured man to provide her with financial and emotional stability.
As she confided to Tietjens, she did not love Filsinger, but she wanted to get married "for at bottom I am a mother more intensely than I am a lover." A rather strange self-portrait of a woman who knew nothing about children or about being a "lover." Ernest "idolized her to the point of letting her have her own way in everything," not unlike the pampered, indulgent life her parents had provided. Pragmatic considerations, not love, convinced Sara to accept his marriage proposal. As she wrote to Monroe, "I am doing what seems right to me. I may be all wrong, but I can't help it." Teasdale's decision was also dictated by social convention: she could not live with Lindsay as her lover. In a poem, she wrote, "I am a woman, I am weak,/ And custom leads me as one blind," a telling insight into her assessment of her life. Sara and Ernest were married in her parents' house in St. Louis on Saturday, December 19, 1914.
All Teasdale's friends liked Ernest, as did her parents and John Hall Wheelock who had urged her to marry Filsinger. If Sara had doubts about her marriage she did not vocalize them, but on December 4, she had written a poem entitled "I am Not Yours," a prophetic rendering of her future with Ernest. The couple settled in a hotel in St. Louis because Teasdale was preparing a book of poems for Macmillan; the title, Rivers to the Sea, was taken from a line in a poem by Wheelock. And domesticity was beyond Sara's ken. The reality of marriage was also setting in, and by the spring of 1915, she became ill as she had always done to avoid dealing with unpleasant situations. Sara respected Ernest, but she did not love him. She was determined to maintain her own identify; she wrote her sister-in-law, Irma Filsinger , that she did not want a "master" and that any man "who wants a woman's brain, soul, and body wants really only a slave." Indeed, to Sara her poetry and career were all important. In public she was the dutiful wife, but she and Ernest were companions, not lovers. Sex without love on her part was not satisfactory.
Outwardly happily married, Teasdale was at the pinnacle of her profession when she and Ernest attended the Poetry Society meeting in New York in January 1916. Rivers to the Sea was successful and received glowing reviews. She had begun preparing an anthology of love poems by women poets (The Answering Voice) which was accepted for publication by Houghton Mifflin in July. When Ernest's shoe-manufacturing business failed, he went to work for a textile firm in New York. On November 24, 1916, Sara left St. Louis permanently. She had a new book of poems ready for publication by December. Entitled Love Songs, the volume reflected her realization that "love was not attainable."
Sara Teasdale was now an acclaimed poet, and by the fall of 1917, she had three books in print which were selling well. In 1917, and again in 1918, she was awarded national poetry prizes which pleased her greatly. William Drake notes that she "was the first woman to gain a reputation as voicing a woman's point of view and emotions." Ill, depressed, and increasingly pessimistic, Teasdale began to withdraw into herself. Ernest was ambitious, driven to succeed, energetic, and active. He worked long hours and traveled extensively on business. A specialist on Latin American trade, he had written two books on the subject and spoke at numerous conferences. Teasdale's reaction was to accuse him of neglecting her. She renewed her friendship with Wheelock who was the subject of several of her published "love songs." When she drifted into deep depression, she left New York for lengthy rest cures; her black moods were not revealed in her poetry, however. As Wheelock declared, her poems were "a record of her experience," but "this record was symbolic rather than literal or confessional." Sara trusted Wheelock, and when she was pregnant in mid-1917, she asked his advice about an abortion, but he declined to give an opinion. She had an abortion, probably in August 1917.
Ernest continued to make month-long business trips abroad. Because of her illnesses, Sara remained alone at home. She developed a "secret obsessive fear of a threat to her marriage," perhaps another woman. Ernest was gregarious, enjoyed partying with friends, and even in New York often went out without his wife, but there was never any suggestion that he was unfaithful. To Teasdale, marriage was both "a safe haven" and a "prison." She missed Ernest when he was traveling, but his presence at home was an intrusion into her placid, routinized life. She accompanied Ernest to Cuba in December 1918, but not on his longer trips to Europe and South America. In the fall of 1919, she went to Santa Barbara alone, hoping the change would rejuvenate her. For several months, she worked on a new book of poems, Flame and Shadow, for Macmillan. She met William Butler Yeats whom she greatly admired, but avoided contact with the local residents. After returning to New York in mid-May 1920, she suffered from depression and became ever more reclusive, "more aloof and critical of poets she knew." The "new realism" poetry of Robert Frost, Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot signaled a new era in literature, especially in academic circles, but Sara's lyrical verses were still popular with the reading public. Flame and Shadow had a second printing in late 1920. She won the Brookes More Prize for poetry, evidence that she was one of the most popular poets in America. Offered an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Baylor University, she declined the honor. Her collection of poems for children, published in September 1922, was also an immediate success.
When Teasdale's father died in 1921, she experienced a sense of diminished identity. Obedience to social convention typified her choices and lifestyle. Always a "lady," she disparaged the writing of James Joyce as "coarse" and "as raw as I ever read," and disapproved of Ernest Hemingway's characters in The Sun Also Rises—without ever reading the book. According to Drake, Sara's Puritan upbringing had left her with inhibitions but not faith. Her love for Wheelock and increasing estrangement from Ernest drained her emotionally. She did travel with Ernest again to Cuba (1923) and to England (1925), but they spent more and more time apart. If Sara's life were poetry, Ernest sought refuge in work and travel. He provided her with a comfortable existence, and in addition, Teasdale's books sold well, providing her with a bit of necessary independence.
Sara also acquired a new friend, Margaret Conklin , a young college student who eventually became her literary executor. Margaret had written Sara asking for a photo for a former teacher who had fostered her love of poetry. When they met in the fall of 1916, Teasdale saw herself in the young woman, "What she had been." As Sara wrote, "I knew/ The self I was/ Came home with you." Without knowing it, Margaret became the daughter Teasdale never had. A trip to England with Conklin in 1927 delighted Sara. They remained close friends until Sara's death.
Convinced that Ernest was to blame for her unstable emotional state, Sara began to consider a divorce. She was concerned about her reputation and wanted to avoid gossip so she told only Conklin and Wheelock of her decision. When Ernest left for South Africa in May 1929, Teasdale went to Reno, Nevada, to obtain a divorce. She paid for her attorney's fees and did not ask Ernest for alimony. On June 1, Sara wrote to Ernest, informing him that their marriage was over. The divorce was granted in September on grounds of "extreme cruelty," that Ernest's neglect of her had affected her health. Back in New York, she announced to Wheelock, "I'm a free woman, I can do anything I want." Actually, Teasdale had always done what she wanted, and now as a free woman she experienced only loneliness and increased isolation. She became touchy and irritable and more self-absorbed. In order to earn money, she started to work on a critical and biographical introduction to the love poems of Christina Rossetti , a project which developed into a biography, but was never completed.
In her mind, depression, ill health, and death were all that awaited her. Only after two years did she agree to see Ernest again, and she changed her will, leaving much of her substantial estate to him. Vachel Lindsay also visited her in mid-November 1931; in early December, she learned that he had committed suicide on December 4, by drinking a bottle of Lysol. On a research trip to England the following July, Teasdale contracted pneumonia in both lungs and returned to New York earlier than planned. She was also severely depressed, and friends tried to convince her to see a psychiatrist, but she refused. In the early hours of Sunday, January 29, 1933, Teasdale took a large cache of sleeping pills she had been collecting and lay in a tub of warm water. Newspapers reported that her death was accidental, but the medical examiner's findings refuted this. Morphine and phenobarbital were present in her system, and she had not drowned, facts not then made public.
John Hall Wheelock, who knew Teasdale so well, said, "The ordeal she went through seemed to have done something to her…. She cared supremely about her work [and] she was able to cry out in a way that was not just crying, but a real Beethoven cry." Sara Teasdale's ordeal was the unresolved conflict between her "warring selves," the "Puritan and Pagan or Spartan and Sybarite," as she described them. Her poignant plea to God to "send me not back to death unsatisfied" had gone unanswered.
Drake, William. "Sara Teasdale," in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 45. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1983, pp. 396–405.
——. Sara Teasdale: Woman & Poet. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1979.
Schoen, Carol B. Sara Teasdale. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1986.
Carpenter, Margaret Haley. Sara Teasdale: A Biography. NY: Schulte, 1960.
Gould, Jean. American Women Poets. NY: Dodd, Mead, 1980.
Monroe, Harriet. A Poet's Life. NY: Macmillan, 1938.
Sara Teasdale. Chicago, IL: Macmillan, 1930.
Walker, Cheryl. Masks Outrageous and Austere: Culture, Psyche and Persona in Modern Women Poets. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Materials relating to Sara Teasdale are located in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University, the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis, the Wellesley College Library, the University of Chicago Library, the Rollins College Library, and the library of the State University of New York at Buffalo.
Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor Emerita, Department of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah