Sara Teasdale wrote some of the saddest love poems I’ve ever read.
Less-well remembered than she should be, for a time about 100 years ago Teasdale was the most popular and esteemed love poet in America. In 1918 she won the Pulitzer prize for a new collection of her poetry, labeled right there on the cover with the title “Love Songs.”
Harriet Monroe, the founder and editor of Poetry, the indispensable American poetry journal of the day, said of Teasdale “She was as delicate as a lily, but under the white-petaled perfume one felt in her presence an impassioned intensity of feeling which her brief lyrics were then beginning to express.”
So, what did Teasdale know about love? More and less than you might expect. Born in 1884 in a wealthy and religiously conservative St. Louis family, she was protected and sheltered* until she was nearly 30 when her poetry career took her away from St. Louis to New York and Chicago.
As her poetry expresses, she dearly wanted to fall deeply in love, but she also wanted the independence to write, and though she moved in bohemian circles during a time of great social change, she’d internalized some of her family’s conservative values.
Romantic stories revel in love triangles, but Sara Teasdale, the woman who’d get the Pulitzer Prize as a love poet was about to deal with a love rhombus. She was crushing on a young poet she admired, John Hall Wheelock. She told Wheelock he was “The greatest living poet.” He wasn’t, though he was flattered. Wheelock, like Teasdale’s family, was a bit of a blue-blood, and he respected Teasdale’s poetic talents, but he was not interested in marrying her.
Then there was Vachel Lindsay, a literary phenom of the time, who had vagabonded about the U.S. trading his poems for meals and then bootstrapped that into touring the country’s speaking halls giving flamboyant readings of his chanted poetry. Lindsay, unlike Wheelock, wanted to marry Teasdale, and he plied his troth by dedicating books of his poetry to her**, but the reserved and sheltered Teasdale was both intimidated by his bluster and worried about his ability to provide the kind of stable home that would allow her to continue writing.
Who’s the fourth rhombus side? A St. Louis businessman, Ernst Filsinger. Like the other two, Filsinger appreciated Teasdale’s poetry, and like Lindsay he wanted to marry her. Problem solved? Well, Teasdale wanted to be deeply, mutually in love, and she wasn’t sure she loved Filsinger that much.
Tuning up for her Pulitzer-winning “Love Songs” Teasdale was tempering her intonation with three men.
Wheelock says that Teasdale asked him to decide who she should marry. “You know Vachel. I want you to meet Ernst. And I want you to tell me what to do. Which of these two good men should I marry? Should I marry Vachel Lindsay, who’s a genius and whose poetry I love? Or should I marry this fine, tall, dark, good-looking businessman who seems to care for my poetry?”
Wheelock may not have been the greatest living poet in 1914, but he seems a sensible sort of guy.*** He says he told Teasdale she must make the choice. She replied that no, he had to tell her which to marry, that she wouldn’t blame him if anything went wrong. OK, he said, he didn’t see her being happy with Lindsay “I don’t think you are one who could live in the kitchen doing all the housework and scrubbing the floors.”
She married Filsinger.
The next year she published the poem I used for today’s piece “I Am Not Yours” in a collection titled Rivers to the Sea, whose title came from a poem by Wheelock. “I Am Not Yours” also appears in her Love Songs collection that won the Pulitzer.
It’s possible to read this poem quickly and read it as a crush poem, a supple lyric about being madly in love with someone, where the title and opening phrase is poised rhetorically in the moment before love’s inevitable consummation will occur, as a poem written by someone who realizes her autonomy, but is willing to submit it to overwhelming passion. Teasdale’s poetry was not just prize-winning, it was popular in its time. Someone might read this poem at a wedding. It’s likely that Teasdale, who wrote this the same month as she married, wrote it thinking of hers.
Go ahead, listen to it now. Here’s the player gadget.
So how did things turn out for the Sara Teasdale love rhombus?
Wheelock lived until 1973. In his memoir of his life in publishing he said that the best way to edit poets is to not edit them. “If a person needs to have his poems edited, then he’s not a poet, because poets are perfectionists, and by the time they get through with all their agonizing work on a poem, either they’ve ruined it by revising too much or it’s the way it should be.” He’d tried to apply that principle to Teasdale’s marriage choice.
Vachel Lindsay may have been too odd and flawed to ever last long, but the Eliot and Pound wing of cultured expatriate High Modernism crushed him by the late 20s, and the mid-century New Criticism could barely bother with the effort to find the grievous lapses in good taste in his “higher vaudeville.” In 1931, depressed by his inability to keep his debts at bay as his touring revenue dried up, he drank Lysol and killed himself.
At first Sara Teasdale’s marriage seemed to work. Filsinger allowed her to concentrate on her writing, but she eventually felt the loss of not being lost in passion. In 1929, while Filsinger was overseas on a business trip, she headed west to a state with easier divorce laws and informed him by telegram. By the Thirties, Teasdale’s lyricism and complex emotional content fell out of favor with High Modernism/the New Criticism too.**** The poet who had won the Pulitzer Prize for a book called Love Songs felt unloved and forgotten. A little over a year after Lindsay’s death, she took an overdose of prescription meds and died in a filled bathtub.
And Ernst Filsinger? No one cares for the biographies of businessmen much after they die. We are not likely to sing the book he authored Exporting to Latin America to music decades later. His obituary claimed he gave the first transatlantic after-dinner speech by radio in 1929, speaking from Berlin to the National Foreign Trade Council sitting in Baltimore. Who now notes what he said? He died in China in 1937. In his memoir, Wheelock says he heard Filsinger too committed suicide, but I have no confirmation of that. Is it possible that he, Prufrock-like, heard the mermaids singing, but pointedly, personally knew they had, at least once, sang for him?
Even if we largely ignore it, we store away beautiful things like prize-winning lyric poetry, so we can read and hear what Sara Teasdale wrote the month she married. Listen again to “I Am Not Yours” or read it here. Looking to be the I that is I, but longing to get lost in love and knowing she was not, speaking of her light, a mere candle lit at noon, and asking for it to be plunged, put out.
As you read this, I tell you again that the first duty of an artist is to survive
Love poetry if it’s any good is as varied and complex as love is, as life is. Sara Teasdale wrote some of the saddest love poems I’ve ever read.
*Like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Teasdale also had some kind of long-standing (and hard to diagnose via remote historical methods) illnesses. This only increased the family’s protectiveness.
**Another admiring poet who dedicated work to Teasdale was Witter Bynner. Bynner was gay.
***Wheelock eventually had a long career in publishing, and he prided himself with befriending, scouting and signing poets from Louise Bogan and Conrad Aiken to May Swenson and James Dickey. His memoir is The Last Romantic: A Poet Among Publishers.
****Teasdale was born in St. Louis only four years before T. S. Eliot, even if she seems like she was born to a different generation, one both before and after Eliot. Their families, though Midwestern at their birth, shared similar New England backgrounds, and Teasdale attended a private St. Louis prep school founded by Eliot’s parents, and that was located next door to Eliot’s home until he was 16. One wonders if the two young poets were aware of each other as children, but Eliot left town at 17, Teasdale’s sheltered upbringing reduced the chances of social interaction, and Teasdale’s family were staunch Baptists while the Eliots were Unitarian.
Oh, and by the way, that Prufrock of Eliot’s first great poem? Prufrock was the name of another St. Louis businessman. If Eliot considered other name options from his St. Louis youth, Filsinger was less iambic as a name. Teasdale could have sounded its own connotations, but it wouldn’t fit with measuring with coffee spoons.