A friend put into my hands the new biography of Sara Teasdale by William Drake, and I have enjoyed the book enough to want to share it with others in this space. Teasdale, as many readers will recall, was a highly popular poet of the 1920s and early 1930s. Coming onto the literary scene at the same time as Elinor Wylie and a little before Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sara Teadale, at her best, wrote exquisite lyrics, rising from the lighter verses of her youth to the authentic poetry of her mature work. The poet herself remained something of a mystery, living an intense inner life and becoming more and more of a recluse before her career ended tragically in 1933.
The passing of years, and the release by her literary executors of her private notebooks and correspondence, make it possible for us to see her for the first time as a human being -- and as a woman challenged by a difficult fate. That the biography should have been written by a man is extraordinary in itself; for it would have seemed essential that a feminine sensibility unravel the perpexities of Teasdale's life and weigh the strange burden under which she suffered. But William Drake has not only performed the task with exemplary skill and tact, he has created a picture the more moving because it is viewed with a slight detachment and with the perspective of one of the opposite sex.
Sara Teasdale was born in St. Louis in 1884, the late child of wealthy, respectable parents, within the citadel of the secure, but soon to be dissolved, moral order. An energetic but morbidly possessive mother cast around the child from the beginning a cocoon of protectiveness. (At the age of twenty-six Sara still had to beg her mother's permission to make a visit to New York!) The daughter was affectionate and pliant; but she harbored a strong will and, as she matured, developed a passion to be free -- to write and to be famous, to love and to be fulfilled. The tensions created in her an almost constant train of undefined illnesses and withdrawals. Like Emily dickinson, lke Christina Rossetti, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning before she was rescued by marriage, Sara Teasdale grew up a semi-invalid.
The crisis of being was intensified in her case by the revolution in morals and sexual roles which exploded in the first decades of the new century. Teasdale's conventional mid-western upbringing made it particularly hard for her to escape the dogmas that had ruled women's behavior and their attitude to love. The woman was supposed to be eager and yet passive; to be ready for love and yet quick to reject it. In short, as Teasdale wrote in her maturity, "love was the predestined pursuit of the impossible."
Coming to new york amid the ferment of new ideas and standards, Teasdale, found it difficult to adapt. Yet she could not deny the imperative of love. In her personal life there were vain pursuits and touching failures (punctuated by periods of unexplainable illness); and when she finally married it was to a man from nowhere else than St. Louis, a businessman, but wonderfully appreciative of her art and tender and loving beyond what would have seemed the limits of mortal man. The marriage failed in the end: teasdale learned, or thought she learned, that she could share with no one but herself.
the frosty And half ironic musings of my mind.
Meanwhile, of course, there had always been poetry. It appeared in slim volumes through the years 1907 to 1933, the delicate crystallizations, drop by drop, of prodigious inner struggles. The last of these books, published after her life had ended in an act of despair, was entitled "Strange Victory." The final lyrics show the poet at the height of her art; but the victory was one of renunciation and ultimate acquiescence. the brave efforts, she felt, had never really succeeded; the triumphs had not been what they seemed: Even love that I bluilt my spirit's house for Comes like a brooding and a baffled guest, And music and men's praise and even laughter Are not so good as rest. . . .