We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Foremother Poet: Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) · 4 February 07

Dear Anne,

Here am I for the first time in a long time. I’m thinking maybe the way I can write here more regularly is regularly to send along some of the postings I’ve been sending each Friday to Wompo (a woman poets list) as "Foremother Poet" postings.

I thought I’d start with Sara Teasdale.

About age 20

I had a period where I read Teasdale’s poetry over and over again. I was in my late teens (17-19, this time I can’t remember most things from). Since I remember owning the book at age 20, I must’ve bought my favorite book of her poetry towards the end of those years: Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale, introd. Marya Zaturenska (she’s a fine poet in her own right).

Teasdale is today perhaps best known for her "Love Songs," "Helen of Troy and other poems," and "Sonnets to Duse" (she became infatuated and admired the actress so), and her poetry in this vein may be likened to Christina Rossetti’s; Teasdale uses the devices of repetition we’ve been talking about; here’s a famous one:

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 rains bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
        Than you are now.

Just a stanza from "I Would Live in Your Love"

I would live in your love as the sea-grasses
        live in the sea,
Borne up by each wave as it passes, drawn
        down by each wave that reces;
I would empty my soul of the dreams that have
        gathered in me …"

Perhaps more appealing to our era are her harder sharper ones. I like this and extend it to all love relationships:

Advice to a 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.

We had been talking on Wompo about our memories from when we were children, what we read especially, and in one of my two books of Teasdale’s poetry (Zaturenska), there’s a section called "Memories" (one of three stanzas call "Places" I like very much). In it is this one

Only in Sleep

Only in sleep I see their faces,
        Children I played with when I was a child,
Louise comes back with her brown hair braided,
        Annie with ringlets warm and wild.

Only in sleep Time is forgotten
        What may come to them, who can know?
Yet we played last night as long ago,
        With stealthy secrets whispered low.

The years had not sharpened their smooth round faces,
        I met their eyes and found them mild
I an eager shadowy child
        Care had not darkened, nor pain defiled.

[The above one is sometimes misprinted with banal sheerly sentimental lines substituted for that last couplet).

Teasdale wrote a monologue as Guenevere. I once used it to teach Arthurian literature to students and used it every time:


Sara Teasdale was born of wealthy parents in St Louis, Missouri; in the early 20th century this city was an important cultural center. T. S. Eliot came from there (so too Harriet Monroe who in Chicago ran The Poetry Magazine and was a good friend to Teasdale). Such people who came from the upper classes had connections to NY and Europe. When I was a graduate student I knew Allen Mandelbaum (poet, translator of Virgil and Dante) and he came from these people and would talk about the place.

I associate Teasdale with Elinor Wylie because they lived over the same era, both wrote strongly lyrical poetry that is deeply melancholy. Teasdale’s friends were Vachel Lindsay (who courted her with extraordinary letters but she didn’t marry him), Carl Sandburg and Amy Lowell (to whom Teasdale’s poetry can be compared and contrasted). She travelled a good deal (to Europe), planned a biography of Christina Rossetti, lived in hotels at times; she did marry, a prosperous businessman (with St Louis connections), someone who would have been just right for a debutant; they were divorced in 1929.

She committed suicide in 1933.

I think of her as having a Keatsian rich surface and retreating into a beautiful sensual world with a strong whiff of French culture. Some of her imagery makes me think of a Watteau painting and she has numbers of poems set in France.

I thought of her because in the favorite novels we had on Wompo some of the list members kept reiterating how they liked to read this or that mystery book because it had a "strong, smart" or successful heroine at the center. Now I prefer melancholy heroines who are "perfectly equipped failures" (from James’s Ambassadors, "Look about you—look at the successes …" &c). I feel Teasdale’s poetry if it’s out of fashion is so because it is a poetry of solitude, anguish, the cry of the heart mixed with song and landscape, traditional in that the specific source is left underground, not told.

A good biography is by William Drake, Sara Teasdale: Woman and Poet. A more recent anthology than the one I quoted is called Mirror of the Heart.

I end with a picture I put up on the groupsite space of Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo a few weeks ago. I just read Yvette’s live journal where she says in Buffalo looking out her window she sees more snow filling the world than ever she saw before. It’s by a Finnish woman painter, Fanny Churberg (1845-1892):

Winter Landscape (1880)

I like the feel of icy colors against browns and also the strokes for
snow; the two figures on the ice walking along are part of the
natural world. A lighthouse is seen in the righthand distance,
suggestions of houses and shipwrecks to the left side.

As I look out of my window at 1:22 am I see only blackness. Tonight was a bitterly cold night in Alexandria.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. Nanora Sweet from Wompo replied:

    "Thanks, Ellen, for again a standout Foremother posting.

    Teasdale continues to intrigue me and some of my student readers as well. May I add that she collaborated with a women’s arts group in St. Louis, The Potters, in creating their journal—and that she edited One Hundred Love Lyrics by Women (1917), still a very attractive anthology? She was indeed a WOM-PO forerunner.

    St. Louis remains an important cultural center…nowhere more so than in the neighborhood of Teasdale’s early home in the historic Central West End, and farther east, in Grand Center. River Styx and Boulevard are published in the neighborhood. RS holds its storied reading series at Duff’s Restaurant, across Euclid Ave. from the city’s prime independent bookstore Left Bank. The women’s poetry collective Loosely Identified reads at Duff’s. Cherry Pie Press sells its women’s poetry series at Left Bank."
    Sophie    Feb 4, 7:26am    #
  2. Annie Finch wrote and I replied:

    "I love hearing this. I’m a staunch Teasdale fan and have sent several of my favorites by her to wompo over the years. I find she appeals to those who love her across decades and across academic backgrounds. She’s the real thing in my estimation, and I’m sure her appreciation will begin to grow again.

    Thank you. I of course still like her very much (I would assign her Guenevere to students). I also find the stories about the cultures of poetry intersecting with the elite of the city and how all this led to interaction with Harriet Monroe and people in NYC and Europe revealing about a world in America that doesn’t get much talking about usually.

    I did (in my hasty way) seem to suggest that most of Teasdale’s travelling was done in Europe. Not so. She travelled around the US and lived in hotels in the US.

    On Mandelbaum I’ll add I love his translations of Salvadore Quasimodo’s poetry too. Quasimodo won the Nobel (if we want to mention prizes). Quasimodo is a lyricist. Unfortunately one book I have just filled with beautiful poetry is called by the singularly uncatchy title: The Selected Writings of Salvatore Quasimodo, translated by Allen Mandelbaum. One book of poems selected from is called "And suddenly it’s evening" ("ed è subito sera"), with poems about each of us alone in the heart ("cuor") of ancient winter ("antico inverno"), the wind gathering in full of snow, then the mist ("poi la nebbia"), all going white. Quiet, tranquille, ghostly (too), bright ("chiare"), snowed under ("subito de neve").

    Sophie    Feb 4, 7:27am    #
  3. From Fran:

    "Thank you for the link, Ellen. I appreciated both poems and commentary.

    I also love the beautifully simple yet resonant poem by Salvatore Quasimodo that gave the title to the collection you quoted from:

    Ed e subito sera

    Ognuno sta solo sul cuor della terra
    trafitto da un raggio di sole:
    ed e subito sera

    Everyone stands alone at the heart of the world, pierced by a ray of sunlight, and suddenly it’s evening.

    Evening was drawing in rapidly for more than the individual existence in the year he wrote it, 1936.

    Sophie    Feb 4, 12:50pm    #
  4. Dear Fran,

    I especially love how Quasimodo captures the changing aspects of the natural world, especially winter. There’s a kind of eerie light that comes through the sky in winter, particularly when it snows and the book is filled with this sort of imagery. It mixes ancient literary archetypal tropes with sudden apperceptions of ethical psychological states that go deep into the heart.

    Here are two pages at random:

    Ulysses’ Isle

    The ancient voice is still.
    I hear ephemeral echoes,
    oblivion of full night
    in the starred water.

    Ulysses’ isle
    is born of celestial fire.
    Slow rivers carry trees and skies
    in the roar of lunar shores.

    The bees, beloved, bring us gold:
    time of mutations, secret.

    Isola di Ulisse

    Ferma e l’antica voce
    Ood risonanze effimere
    oblio di piena notte
    nell’acqua stellata.

    Dal fuoco celeste
    nase l’isolca di Ulisse.
    Fiumi lenti portrano a l’erbi e cieli
    nel romo di river lunari.

    Le api, amata, ci recano l’oro:
    tempo delle mutazioni, segreto.

    [The bees is an allusion to Tasso’s Aminta and its songs—translated by Anne Finch and Richard Fanshawe]

    On the hill of the "Terre Bianche"

    Surviving the day
    with the trees I humble me.

    Enough of arid things:
    friends to feeble green,
    to chill clouds
    resigned in rains.

    The night is filled by sea,
    and the howl bears down malignly
    sunk in little flesh.

    An echo of the earth consoles us
    at the tardy harrowing, beloved;

    or the geometric quiet of the bear.

    Sul colle delle "Terre Bianche"

    Dal giorno, superstite
    con gli alberi mi umilio.

    Assai arida cosa;
    a infermo verde amica,
    a nubi gelide
    reassegnate in piogge.

    Il mare empie la notte,
    e l’urlo preme maligno
    in poca carne affondato.

    Un’eco ci consoli della terra
    al tardo strazio, amata;

    o la quiete geometrica dell’Orsa.


    He begins and ends so well. And the above two aren’t about snow and winter. When these and water come in, he’s unbeatable. The woods, the light, the grass. Ancient winter.

    The translations are by Allen Mandelbaum.

    Here’s his translation of "Ed e subito sera:"

    Each alone on the heart of the earth,
    impaled upon a ray of sun:
    and suddenly it’s evening.

    When I open this book I’m reminded of how I used to spend time before there was a Net. I was alone but I did love these sorts of books. Since coming onto the Net I’ve moved to participating with others in popular books, and it’s out of that desire to be with others my book on Trollope and turn to the novel, and Austen too (for publication, I never originally wanted to publish on her) came. While I was translating Colonna, I’d sit and immerse myself in volumes like these.

    When I mentioned Quasimodo on wompo though no one said anything about him. They appeared not to know anything of this earlier non-English poetry. The man did win the Nobel.

    How about one more?

    Dolore di cose che ignoro

    Fitta di bianche e di nere radici
    de lievito odora e lombrichi,
    tagliata dall’acque la terra.

    Dolore di cose che ignoro
    mi nasce: non basta una morte
    se ecco pieu volte mi pesaLbr>
    con l’erba, sul cuore, una zolla.

    Grief of things that I know not

    Thick with white and black roots,
    odorous of worms and ferment,
    severed by the waters—earth.

    Grief of things I know not
    is born in me; one death is not enough
    it often on my heart, behold,
    a sod lies heavy with the grass.

    Sophie    Feb 5, 1:42am    #
  5. She’s 20 in that picture? She looks a lot older than me.

    It’s funny that there’s an option next to my name that says forget.
    Jennica    Feb 5, 7:30pm    #
  6. "Dear Ellen,

    Thank you so much for the further Quasimodo poems; I really appreciated them. My Italian accent is not exactly the world’s greatest, but they still managed to sound good even when I read them aloud, so much so I wondered if they’d ever been put to music. It turns out that several composers have used them, including Elizabeth Lutyens.

    Here are a couple of BBC links with a bio. I couldn’t seem to manage to access the music that’s suppose to be there, too, though. Have you heard her version of ‘and suddenly it’s evening’? I’m afraid I’m more familiar with her dad’s lions than with her music.



    Sophie    Feb 7, 1:05am    #
  7. I’m torn when I open that volume to quote a poem. Each one seems the better than the others (illogical and impossible as this is) and I find myself typing them out.

    Luytens sounds like a survivor and tough enough woman. I had never heard of her before. I’ll see if I can get the sound going again tomorrow morning.

    I’m particularly fond of Italian literature of certain types in different eras. I really find myself drawn by the poetry in the 1890s and again 1910s. It was called the crepuscular (twilight) school. Some is simply repetitive, but Quasimodo took it and transcended the cliches that emerged.

    Ed e subito sera appeared in 1942. Tragic poetry. Mandelbaum translates them beautifully too.

    Sophie    Feb 7, 1:06am    #

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