by Sara Teasdale
In A Nutshell
On the cusp of the "Roaring '20s," an artistic young woman from a well-known St. Louis family turns her back on true love to marry a man that could offer her financial security. She moves with her husband New York City where her literary career blossoms; but her marriage withers and she runs back into the arms of her true love. Yet, in their time apart, he has married and started a family so they are forced to settle for friendship. She continues to write award winning poetry until, weakened by pneumonia and battling depression, the woman takes her own life—leaving behind a final volume of poetry to be published after her death.
Is this the plot of a new PBS mini series? Nope. It is, in a nutshell, the poet Sara Teasdale's life.
The fact that Teasdale committed suicide gives "Barter" a poignant, darker subtext. On the surface, the poem urges us to revel in the loveliness life has to offer. But the circumstances of Teasdale's death adds a sense of desperation to the poem, almost as if the speaker is trying to convince herself that what she is saying is true—that loveliness makes life worth living.
"Barter" appeared in 1917 and was the first poem in Teasdale's collection, Love Songs. Teasdale (1884-1933) became well known in her day for writing clear, musical, heartfelt poems. In 1918, Love Songs won the Columbia University Poetry Society Prize, which you've probably never heard of. But, the prize was later renamed the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, which might sound a little more familiar. It's a reeaaallly big deal—kind of like the writer-equivalent of winning the Super Bowl MVP. In 1918, Teasdale's collection of poem—"Barter" among them—was that MVP.
Why Should I Care?
Shmoop knows things can seem pretty bleak at times: murder, pollution, paper cuts—all of it. Most of the stuff we see on TV or online makes it easy to forget that there is any good in the world at all. It's easy to lose sight of all the truly wonderful things that the world has to offer.
Sara Teasdale's "Barter," though, reminds us that the good stuff is right there all around us every day. But we have to choose to see it. We have to make a deal with ourselves (or, as Teasdale puts it, with "Life") to appreciate beauty and goodness when and where we can. If we don't make an effort, if we don't accept the deal life is offering, the loveliness will get drowned out by the roar of reality TV and the 6 o'clock news.
So, what are you going to choose?