Study Guide

Barter Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Music was a big deal for Teasdale. The way her poems sounded was probably as important to her as what they said. If you read "Barter" aloud, you'll likely hear what Shmoop is describing. The rhythmical feeling and sound of the poem are as striking as the words.

    Besides the meter and rhyme we discussed in the "Form and Meter" section, Teasdale has another auditory trick up her puffy white sleeves. Sara likes repeated sounds and she uses them to link words within individual lines, giving the lines a more musical quality. Take a look at these examples:

    Life has loveliness to sell (1)

    Sara is showing off her mad poetry skills here with a little alliteration and consonance. She's really hitting those L sounds, but the S sounds get a lot of play too. The musicality of the line kind of mirrors the loveliness she's talking about—the symmetry of the sounds here makes the line sound lovely. Check out another:

    Blue waves whitened (3)

    The repeated W sound, a good example of alliteration, gives us the wa wa wa feeling of waves. This makes it easier for us to experience, to see and feel, the ocean she is describing. We need to feel it if we are going to be convinced to buy it, right? Again:

    Soaring fire the sways and sings (4)

    More alliteration. If those repeated S sounds don't make you want to jump up and dance, nothing will. Okay, we've gone too far. The point is Teasdale does a great deal with sound in this poem beyond simply using rhyme and meter. She's using those repeated S sounds to make the fire image more vivid, more convincing, more compelling, more likely to make us choose to buy that loveliness life is selling.

    "Barter," actually, is also a good example of what, in many cases, separates poetry from song lyrics. In poetry, the words have to provide the meaning and the music. Lyrics, for the most part, rely heavily on musical accompaniment to generate feeling. When read without music, sometimes song lyrics lack the punch they have when they're heard with their musical accompaniment. Test it. Read the lyrics of your favorite song online and then listen to the lyrics with the tune. Shmoop bets the lyrics are waaaay better with the thumping base and guitars.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    You're probably familiar with the term "barter"—in the sense of exchanging goods or services for other goods or services, instead of for money. But the word can also mean the negotiation, or argument, over the terms of a transaction. That's what's really going on in this poem. The speaker is presenting us, the reader, with the terms under which life will provide us with loveliness.

    In the poem, the speaker is bartering with the reader. She is arguing that we must accept life's terms—that we will get to experience the loveliness life has to offer if we also accept all of life's hardship and strife.

    The title basically sets the reader up for a big game of Let's Make a Deal. The speaker thinks we should accept whatever life offers, even if it isn't the all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii. We might still get a nice boom-box (Google it) and some sweet tunes to enjoy if we just agree to play the game.

  • Setting

    This one seems to have kind of a mobile setting. We have descriptions of a seascapes and forest imagery, but it's tough to pin down where our speaker is located.

    One thing that we can say for sure, there isn't any indoor or urban imagery in the poem. This gives us the sense that the poem is being spoken in the presence of nature—perhaps outside, surrounded by the kind of loveliness the speaker wants us to purchase. Using this kind of setting enables Teasdale to give the reader a better sense of the loveliness she's trying to sell—kind of like a that free spritz of perfume at the mall, she's trying to get you to buy the loveliness by letting you experience, first hand, how awesome it is.

  • Speaker

    The speaker in this one seems, well, refined. Part of what gives us this refined sense of the speaker is diction, the words she uses. Words like "loveliness," "splendid," "wonder," and "ecstasy" feel like the words of an educated, genteel speaker. And notice: we referred to the speaker as she.

    Feels right doesn't it ? And it isn't just because Teasdale is a woman (remember, it's almost always best to separate the poet from the poem). The gaze (what the speaker notices) as well as the language feels, for the most part, more feminine than masculine. For example, the speaker notices "children's faces," "eyes that love," and "arms that hold." These feel more like the observances of an early-twentieth-century woman than a man of the same period.

    The speaker also feels just a tad desperate. This comes out in the repetition of "life has loveliness to sell" as the first line of two of the poem's three stanzas. It feels like she's not just telling us about it. She's reminding, or perhaps, trying to convince herself, that what she is saying is true. This feeling becomes even stronger in the poem's last stanza, when the speaker turns on the hard sell, telling us to "Spend all you have for loveliness/Buy it and never count the cost" (13-14). This does not seem like rational, well-considered financial advice, does it?

    Choosing a slightly desperate, refined, educated speaker helps Teasdale support her ideas about loveliness/happiness. The fact that this speaker still struggles with the pursuit of happiness reinforces the idea that money can't buy the kind of peace she's talking about. If it could, this speaker would know, since it sounds like she might have a few bucks—and some smarts to boot.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (1) Sea Level

    This is a pleasant trek through the lowlands that offers some beautiful scenery, but it won't be much of a workout for the body/brain. Better do a few push-ups and some Sudoku. That said, if you slow down and really take in everything the view has to offer the eyes and ears, you might start to appreciate this hike on a different level.

  • Calling Card


    As we mentioned in the "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" section, Teasdale chose Love Songs as the title for her collection containing "Barter." This sense of music is key throughout much of Teasdale's poetry (Get it? Key? As in, let's play it in the key of G? Okay, moving on…). The New York Times Book Review called Teasdale "first, last, and always a singer," and described her 1915 book Rivers to the Sea as, "a little volume of joyous and unstudied song." So, like Shmoop said: with Teasdale, music is key.

    Teasdale gives her poems a musical feel by using strong, regular meter (often iambic), coupled with strong end rhyme. The meter gives her verse a very obvious rhythm and the end rhyme ties the lines together in a way that many song lyrics are written. When you read Teasdale's poems aloud, you can really hear and feel the music in the words.

    For some other examples of Teasdale's musical verse, take a look at "The Kiss," "The Wind," and "I Might Have Sung of the World."

  • Form and Meter

    Rhyming Iambic Tetrameter (Mostly)

    The rhymed iambic tetrameter, the regular repeated sounds and stress patterns, helps make "Barter" sound song-like. Teasdale is kind of a rhythm junky, she likes her iambs. Let's take a closer look at how she makes those toe-tappin' lines, and just what the heck we're talking about here.

    So, an iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. (It sounds like da DUM.) And iambic tetrameter is when you have that pattern four times (tetra- meaning four) in a single line. For example:

    all beautiful and splendid things (2)

    Hear it? Try reading it aloud. You should hear this rhythm: da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM.

    Teasdale follows this pattern pretty strictly throughout the poem, but there are some exceptions. Take a look at line 1:

    Life has loveliness to sell

    What's wrong with this picture? Yup, that first unstressed syllable is missing. This is called a headless line (or for those who like more technical sounding terms, an acephalous line—Google it). By cutting off that initial unstressed syllable, the word "life" gets more stress and attention, which kind of goes along with what Sara is talking about—paying more attention to all that loveliness life has to offer. Teasdale uses these headless lines when she wants to give some added oomph to the first word. Lines 3, 4, and 9 are good examples. She really makes us pay attention to those first words—"blue," "soar," and "scent"—all very sensory words.

    The other element that gives this poem such a song-like feel is the rhyme scheme. Take a look at the last word of each line. "Barter" follows a strict end rhyme pattern of ABCBDD. That final DD really makes the rhyme stand out and makes each stanza feel like a completed unit. When we hit that DD, we know we are in for a transition. It's a signal that tells you the end of the stanza is coming—kind of like a yellow traffic light.

    You probably noticed that the second and fourth lines of each stanza are indented and wondered to yourself, "What gives?" Well, this structural element makes the first two rhymed lines in each stanza visually stand out, strengthening the connection between those lines and making us even more aware of the already strong end rhyme. It also mirrors the kind of back and forth sway of a dance—remember, Teasdale's all about the music.

  • Wheelin' and Dealin'

    Life drives a pretty hard bargain in "Barter." He's overstocked on loveliness, but he's keeping the prices up. What's more, Teasdale thinks we should buy anyway. A sound financial move? Perhaps not. But part of what makes this poem interesting is this extended metaphor of life as a salesman peddling loveliness.

    • Line 1: In the very first line, Teasdale sets up this extended metaphor of life as a salesman. He's got some product, loveliness, and he wants to sell it to us. You buyin'?
    • But wait. There's more. This extended metaphor relies on another tricky little piece of figurative language, personification
    • Teasdale gives"Life," well, a life. She gives the idea of Life the human characteristics of a salesman
    • Line 7: Once more, from the top—line 7 is a repeat, word for word, of line 1. And you know what? The same things apply this time: extended metaphor, personification. But this time, since it is a repetition of that first line, something else happens as well.
    • The repetition, or refrain, brings to mind the way a salesman might call out to customers, pitching his product to the crowd: "Peanuts! Get your peanuts here. Peanuts! Get your peanuts here." Get it?
    • Remember, this poem was written in 1917. Online shopping wasn't very big yet.
    • Lines 13-14: The first two lines of the poem's last stanza close out the extended metaphor. In these lines, the speaker addresses the reader, "you," and kind of turns on the hard-sell. She implores us to give up whatever we must for some of that loveliness she's been going on and on about.
    • Perhaps the speaker is a happy customer—someone who gave all she had "for loveliness." You know what they say: happy customers are the best advertisement money can buy.
  • Music and Song

    "Barter" is from Teasdale's book titled Love Songs. Several of the poems in the collection are titled as songs. It's a pretty safe bet that music, sound, and song were key elements for Teasdale thematically and in terms of her creative strategy (how she put her poems together). Music and song come up in "Barter" as well. No big surprise, really—which is too bad. Shmoop loves surprises. We even like pop quizzes. We're that sick.

    • Line 4: What do you think of when you think of fire? Shmoop bets you said hot. Those of you that didn't say hot probably said barbeque. If you are in group 2, time to take a snack break.
    • The point is Teasdale doesn't go with the typical descriptions and associations for fire. Flames are not jumping or crackling. In line 4, the fire "sways and sings." That's a pretty musical fire.
    • Teasdale finds the beauty of dance and music even in the movement and sound of life's most basic elements. Looks like she's already bought what Life's sellin'.
    • Line 8: This line talks directly about music. Music is one of the lovely things that life has to offer. The line is also a simile: "Music like a curve of gold." The line has a rhythmic feel that fits with the content, but the comparison to a "curve of gold" is unexpected.
    • Gold is beautiful, valuable, and the description of a curve brings to mind a ring and all the symbolic weight a ring of gold carries (no, not like The Lord of the Rings, more like a wedding ring). So, in a way, the comparison of music to gold kind of makes sense—it gives a value and importance to music in a visually and symbolically interesting way.
    • Line 15: This line describes a peaceful mental or emotional state as, "one white singing hour." Yup. More music.
    • This description also seems a bit unusual at first. But if we take a closer look, it makes its own kind of sense. We have white, which often symbolically represents purity. So, this hour is pure, in the sense that it is untainted by anything. None of life's unpleasantness or cruelty is present. It's like that first day of school feeling—no failed tests or cafeteria drama to pull you down.
    • The fact that "peace" is a "singing hour" is another example of how important music and song are to Teasdale. It is in a sense of music and song that her speaker finds "peace."
  • Nature Imagery

    "Barter" is made up of two major ingredients: ideas and imagery. These ingredients are no good if you're making cookies, but they work great for making poems. The ideas come in the form of intangible things (things you can't touch or see) like "loveliness," "wonder," "peace," and "ecstasy." When Teasdale gives us imagery, it's almost always nature imagery. No cars or boats or buildings in this one.

    • Line 3: Nature pops up first in the form of waves crashing on cliffs. It's a nice image, and Teasdale knows how to get the most out of it.
    • First, she uses color. The "blue" waves are "whitened" against the cliff. This sets up a strong contrast between the colors blue and white. We even get a sense of the color black, from the cliffs, even though it isn't mentioned specifically. Most of us are going to picture the ocean cliffs as dark or black.
    • Contrast can intensify our response to a poetic image just as it can in a photograph. When a photo has sharp contrast between colors, or even in the grayscale of a black and white photo, the image is more interesting visually and draws us in.
    • Teasdale also gets a lot of bang for her imagery buck with sound. Here again, she doesn't mention sound specifically, but we bet you could hear those waves crashing against the cliff just by her describing the visual elements of the scene.
    • Line 9: This time, Teasdale gives us some nature smells—don't worry, just the good kind. 
    • The "scent of pine trees" is something most of us can recall pretty easily. Just think back to that great Christmas tree smell that told you presents were on the way.
    • Teasdale ups the sensory level a bit by including "in the rain." Now we have that rainy-day-in-the-country smell too, the wet soil and foliage.
    • Teasdale also gets some auditory action going here. We can practically hear the rain falling through those trees. Here once again, she doesn't mention the sound explicitly but it's there. We add it ourselves based on the other sensory details in the image.
    • Steaminess Rating


      This one is just a puppy dog away from being too sweet to stand. Look elsewhere for the racy stuff.