In the midst of our divisive, too often violent world, I have often found myself resting back on this poem:
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.
Sara Teasdale wrote this poem during the first World War, having it published in July of 1918. When I read it as a teenager, it spoke to my love of nature and beauty, as well as my idealism of the time. My youthful outrage at human cruelty, as well as my concrete sense of the fleetingness of human life due to my progressive disease, led me to seek something more. Through this poem, I glimpsed an abstract sense of something superior to humanity, something purer and more lasting. My spirituality at the time, perhaps like that of Sara Teasdale, centered on the powerful beauty of the natural world.
What I did not know in reading this poem was that the author committed suicide when she was 48 years old.
Sara Teasdale had always been known to love pretty things and to have frail health, even being schooled at home as a young child because of her sickliness. And yes, that does remind me of myself a little bit. Marriage was in Sara’s future, however, but so was divorce. She, like me, never had children and expressed herself through the beauty of words. In the last years of her life, she suffered from chronic pneumonia and decided to swallow a handful of sleeping pills. Her poetry shows that she was able to find extraordinary beauty in ordinary things, but this ability alone was not enough to save her life.
Now that I know more about the life and death of Sara Teasdale, I see something else in her poem that was always there though I didn’t recognize it: indifference. Nature is indifferent to Mankind, the poet tells us. Whether humans exist or not is of no consequence or concern to the natural world. Perhaps, she felt that her fellow human beings were likewise indifferent to her own suffering, loneliness, and sorrow. Perhaps, to her understanding, the Creator of all life was a distant, indifferent sort of absence that was meaningless in her thinking of life and death.
Did Sara Teasdale know that she was divinely loved into being by the supreme source of beauty, Beauty Itself, who is not impersonal, but willingly, lovingly incarnate? Perhaps, for her, indifference — the isolation that can be produced by ignorance of God’s intimate love — was all that remained when relationships, creative flow, and physical health ceased. Perhaps, Sara Teasdale became fixated on death as the only poetry for one whose quest for truth, no matter how sincere, is painfully and terminally flawed.
Depression, mental illness, addiction, and yes, physical pain can negatively affect the workings of the soul so that we may fail to believe that life is worth living. Once upon a time, Sara had believed in beauty, believed in the power of beauty to yield joy even in sorrow. But her understanding of beauty was lethally limited, dependent upon the finite dust of stars. And when illness and loneliness caused her to see that her faith had been poorly placed, that nothing of earth, no matter how beautiful, can answer the longing of the human soul, she became impatient for nothingness. She stopped mining her heart for treasure, because she felt exhausted.
Every human being, however, even a disillusioned poet, is an inexhaustible mystery whose depths can never be fully plumbed. I am not a scholar of poetry and have not fully studied biography of Teasdale, but I do feel sorry for Sara, the lyrical poet whose first spoken word was “pretty,” because she did not quite seem able to understand and love the meaning of her life in its entirety. We humans are sister creatures not only with the dust of the stars but also with the light, the light that is more than photons, particles, waves — the Light that no darkness can overcome. We are intrinsically part of the Light that can never be indifferent to anything or anyone, the Light that shines on all and sees that the world — every swallow, frog, tree, robin, and human — is very, very good. Our souls do not belong to the dust of the earth, but to the Light from which there is no escape. But we cannot fully and eternally live in the everlasting Light if we are indifferent to it.
All over the world, in a vast variety of difficult situations, human beings are feeling unloved, overwhelmed, and insignificant, and are failing to see the point of continuing life. How do we feel about that? What do we do about that? Is the plight of the clinically depressed divorcee, the ailing widower, the abused foster child, the pregnant and frightened teenager, the impoverished migrant, the desperate drug addict, the persecuted believer, or the war-torn family thousands of miles away of no consequence to us, of no concern to our daily lives?
The sense of indifference feeds the culture of death. The soft rains of silence are not harbingers of peace.
© 2019 Christina Chase
(I hope to return to Sara Teasdale and her poetry in a future reflection. These are my thoughts for now.)
Photo of Sara Teasdale, circa 1910, Missouri Historical Society
I don't call myself a poet — but the beating of my heart is poetry. I don't call myself a theologian — but the light of my mind seeks the Divine. Who I am is a Child of God, a Divine Creation, a person devoted to being fully human, fully alive.