A Good Night
Poet Sara Teasdale was a star in her day, but although her wisdom remained relevant, the way she expressed it in verse fell out of fashion. It has returned and this time to stay.
Last summer, I bought a children’s anthology of poetry for twenty-five cents at a yard sale in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. When I picked up the broken-spined hardcover from the hot driveway, I opened by chance to a favorite poem by Sara Teasdale, whose poetry and life in New York has long captivated me. For years, I have tested her poem Night, written in 1925, to see if its directive, stated in the final three lines, holds up to any and every situation. It has never failed the test. The six-line Night in its entirety: “Stars over snow,/and in the west a planet/Swinging below a star—/Look for a lovely thing and you will find it,/It is not far—/It never will be far.”
I have recited this poem to myself under the most challenging conditions—visiting a parent in a hospital; in the midst of a painful medical procedure; while stuck mid-tunnel, on a stalled, packed E train with no announcements—and what the poem orders us to do is true. That lovely thing is always somewhere in view, peripherally or fully, no matter the setting or circumstances.
When Sara Teasdale was found dead on January 29, 1933, in the bathtub of her apartment at One Fifth Avenue, it was front-page news in the New York Times. And for days afterward, reports of the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet’s death at the age of 48 vacillated between declaring it a suicide or the result of natural causes (ultimately, it was ruled a suicide, induced by an overdose of sleeping pills). According to that first article, Teasdale’s sister, Mrs. Joseph Wheless, referred to as being “of Riverside Drive,” was reluctant to believe it was self-inflicted, though she was quoted by the reporter as stating that her sister “…called me to her apartment yesterday and gave me power of attorney over her affairs.” The obituary added that Teasdale had developed yet another case of pneumonia from a recent trip to London while researching her in-progress biography of Christina Rosetti, an illness compounded by “a nervous breakdown from which she had not recovered.”
And though the obit did not state it, subsequent literary analyses did: Teasdale’s poetry was decidedly out of fashion. Her very style of work was deceased. Teasdale’s tight rhymes and strict meter, her poignant, some might say self-deprecating, pleas by a women for the love of a man, and her overt angst at the fear of aging away from love’s possibilities, couldn’t compete with the more allusive Imagists and Modernists, Dadaists and other ists and isms of the day. Hers was, perhaps, an early form of formal confessionalism, a more casual and visceral version of which would come into vogue decades later by the likes of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell. But near the end of her life, a distanced rationalism prevailed in poetry.
Teasdale had to have known this about her work. Found among her papers, according to William Drake’s 1979 biography, Sara Teasdale: Woman & Poet, was one of the last lines she had written in her life. “[Christina Rossetti] learned the exquisite truth that a poem can convey what you never dreamed of saying.” I am a collector of definitions of poetry and Teasdale’s summation, by way of Rossetti, is among the most original. Teasdale’s poetic admissions of longing and regret come across as effortless, but, clearly, the process of getting there was a highly wrought one for her. In her work, she seems able to say without restraint or pause what she hadn’t thought possible.
After years of commuting between St. Louis, where she attended faithfully to ailing parents, and New York, where she wanted to live and where her celebrity status as a poet would be earned, Teasdale finally moved to Manhattan permanently in 1917, writing to John O’Hara, “I am simply wild with the joy of life and with the most wonderful city that ever existed.” She knew the effect the city had on her creativity. During a two-month stay in 1911, Teasdale had written some of her best New York–specific poems, ones where destinations in the city are treated as friends or intimate characters with whom she interacts—The Metropolitan Tower, Gramercy Park, In the Metropolitan Museum, Union Square, Broadway, and Central Park at Dusk.
Every time I read one of her poems or letters, I bracket lines because so much of what she writes seems like pure wisdom or blunt truths, the kinds of sayings we want emblazoned on T-shirts and coffee mugs simply because we want to be reminded of them daily. “Take love when love is given/But never think to find it.” “…[I]t is perfectly useless to expect someone else to come into your soul and set it to rights for you—you must set your soul to rights yourself if it is ever going to be put in order.” “There is no use in thinking that you deserve all that you want simply because you want it very hard. Perhaps you’ll be a lot better in the end by not having what you want.” “Spend all you have for loveliness/Buy it and never count the cost.”
The perennially restless Teasdale lived in numerous Manhattan apartments and neighborhoods before settling in 1932 at One Fifth Avenue, the masculine-handsome Art Deco building with its telescoping tower that had been completed just years earlier. Prior to her residency there, Teasdale’s other addresses had included the Martha Washington Hotel on East 29th Street, Beresford Hotel at 81st and Central Park West, Schuyler Hotel on West 45th Street, a boarding house at 53 Irving Place, and the Hotel Bonta at Broadway and 94th Street.
She was a regular figure and celebrant at the Poetry Society of America, housed then, as it is now, in the National Arts Club. On the second floor of the Club is a meeting room that faces Gramercy Park and a bay window there projects so far out that when looking from it, you feel almost as if you’ve entered a miniature room within a room. Every time I am in the Club, I sneak up to that window and think of Teasdale standing in this same spot and taking in the view, virtually unchanged since her day. To occupy that tiny arc of space is as close to feeling a ghostly presence as I know in New York. The illuminated Metropolitan Tower rises three blocks north, and in Teasdale’s namesake poem, as darkness fell and a red light bathed the tower, she wrote how “…Love’s birth/Was reckoned from that hour.”
From reading the few biographies of her, but especially from her poems and letters, one learns that it was a constant of Teasdale’s life to be falling in and out of love with unavailable men—or, rather, not falling in love enough with available ones, such as Vachel Lindsay, the famous, and emotionally fragile Illinois poet with whom she maintained an inordinately close friendship and bond. In a letter to Harriet Monroe, the editor of the influential Poetry, a still-extant journal that published many of her works, Teasdale quoted stage actress Ethel Barrymore’s quip: “The men I love and the men who love me are never the same.”
After much vacillating about which of two simultaneous marriage proposals to accept, she chose what she considered the “safer” of the two men, Ernst Filsinger, a successful businessman and an ardent pursuer, who she married in 1914 and divorced in 1929. For decades, though, she corresponded with the handsome, widely published, though increasingly unstable Lindsay (he, too, years later, would kill himself), finally telling him that she needed to be his friend and not his lover. Lindsay, in response, wrote, “I would rather have the tiniest star of love from you than all the friendship that was ever brewed.”
I am often smitten with any poet who articulates well the effects of unrequited love, one of the most powerful fuels of the poetic engine. A good friend of mine, Lee Stern, a talented lyricist and casual philosopher, claims that the evolutionary purpose of the pain of unrequited love is that it makes for good art. Such pain was one of the main topics of Teasdale’s poetry. But as is often the case with the sufferers of that state, Teasdale was also self-indulgent and self-destructive. Just as her heart was broken several times, so, too, did she break—sometimes callously—others’, rarely acknowledging such. In Gramercy Park, she writes of a man in love with her who, it seems, has both a comforting and claustrophobic presence in her life: “I only felt your restless eyes/Whose love was like a cloak for me.” Yet, in Union Square, she walks “With the man I love who loves me not,” and who she accuses of likely being tempted by the tawdry “girls who can ask for love/In the light of Union Square.”
For much of her life, Teasdale doubted her physical attractiveness and worried that as she aged, love would become increasingly elusive. Although a male St. Louis newspaper critic described her early on in her career as “the best young woman poet in America,” he also thought it relevant to include that “She is attractive but not particularly good looking”—which seems not at all true upon seeing photos of her, even-featured, dark-eyed, brown hair coiled elegantly in the fashion of the time. “As you grow older,” she wrote in a letter to Lindsay’s wife, who she had befriended, “it is the vague feelings of discontent and sorrow rather than the clearly defined ones, that are really tragic.” To not be able to articulate the vague may be the truest source of a poet’s discontent—or any artist’s.
Great poets, I believe, voice our own worries and fears (and abilities to love or not). That is why I admire Teasdale. And she recognized the need to experience and embrace love when it does arrive. As she expresses to a lover in a wintery Coney Island, its sand dusted with snow, “Alas, there cannot be/For us a second spring; Come let us go.”
I wish Sara Teasdale had lived longer. And I remain haunted by her presence, not only when I occupy that bay window in which she once stood a century ago, but by the belief that had she reread her own poem, Night, on the last night of her life, she might have looked and found that “lovely thing” that could have saved her.