Study Guide


Barter Summary

Don't blink, or you might miss this one altogether. It's a shorty. In "Barter," the speaker is imploring the reader to appreciate all the wonder and beauty the world has to offer. Even though the poem is only 18 lines long (broken up into 3 stanzas), Teasdale makes a pretty compelling case.

She presents "loveliness" as something life wants to "sell" us, and she catalogs some examples of the loveliness that life has in stock. From "blue waves whitened on a cliff," to the "scent of pine trees in the rain," Teasdale gives us a bunch of very sensory examples (we can see, hear, smell, what she describes) in the first two stanzas.

In the last stanza, the speaker stops listing examples of loveliness and starts in with the ol' hard-sell—telling the reader to "buy it and never count the cost." The poem ends by arguing that even a moment spent experiencing the beauty the world has to offer is worth the price of enduring all the hardships that come with life.

  • Stanza 1

    Line 1

    Life has loveliness to sell,

    • Since Teasdale is only working with 18 lines, you can bet each word is there for a reason.
    • The first line does a lot of groundwork that sets up the rest of the poem. She presents us with this idea of Life having "loveliness to sell." Teasdale uses this extended metaphor (in this case, Life is a salesperson that wants to sell us some loveliness) throughout the poem.
    • The word sell is important.
    • If someone is selling you something, they want you to have it. Usually, the seller gets cash in return for their product.
    • In this case, life is selling loveliness, but the loveliness can't be bought with cash—the title of the poem tells us that this is a barter transaction.
    • Life wants to barter with you, to exchange loveliness for something besides cash (no cash, no checks, no credit cards, no PayPal, nothing).
    • At this point, we aren't sure what life wants in exchange, but let's stick a pin in that and come back to it later.

    Lines 2-6

    All beautiful and splendid things,
    Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
    Soaring fire that sways and sings,
    And children's faces looking up
    Holding wonder like a cup.

    • The rest of stanza 1 begins a catalog. The speaker introduces the list with a general description of what will follow: "All beautiful and splendid things."
    • It's like the introduction to a sales pitch: "Sure, we got cars. We got the best cars in the tri-state area! Everyone is a gem. Let me tell ya what we got."
    • Next come the specifics. We have three examples of loveliness in the first stanza: ocean, fire, and kids.
    • Teasdale's descriptions include lots of sensory details (details that incorporate one or more of the five senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch).
    • Line 3 gives us the color blue, but just as we are imagining the blue waves, they are "whitened" when they crash into a cliff.
    • The alliteration, those repeated W sounds, sort of mirror the movement and uniformity of the waves (notice how your mouth has to make the same shape twice to make those W sounds) and then everything changes with the hard C sound of cliff. The Ws crash into the C. Kind of a cool trick, right?
    • We have more alliteration in line 4. The repeated S sounds mirror the fire's swaying and singing. It helps to give the line the rhythmical feel of a dance.
    • Teasdale has also thrown in some personification here, giving fire the human characteristics of singing and dancing.
    • The last description of loveliness in stanza 1 is of "children's faces." Seems like things are starting to get a little sappy, right? When Shmoop starts reading about the smiling faces of small children, we assume that rainbows and unicorns can't be far behind.
    • But Teasdale short-circuits the sentimentality by ending the description with kind of a weird simile. She tells us that the children's faces hold wonder "like a cup." Hmmm. We haven't heard that before. Way to go, Sara. Nice save.
    • You probably noticed that some of the lines in the first stanza have very strong end rhymes. This poem follows a rhyme scheme of ABCBDD.
    • The rhymes in this poem aren't all that special ("thing" and "sing," "up" and "cup"), but they do make the poem sound very tight, controlled, and it reads pretty quickly. It almost feels like a little song or nursery rhyme. 
    • To be fair, the rhyme scheme isn't the only thing responsible for the rhythmic feel of this one. Meter plays its part as well.
    • Some parts of "Barter" are written in a rhythmic form known as iambic tetrameter. It's what gives the poem that da DUM da DUM kind of a feel.
    • Listen: and children's faces looking up
    • So those iambs—an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one (there are four iambs in our example)—along with the strict rhyme scheme, give this poem its musical sound and feel.
    • For more on the poem's rhythms and rhymes, check out "Form and Meter" and "Sound Check."
  • Stanza 2

    Line 7

    Life has loveliness to sell,

    • No. You didn't nod off and skip back to the first line of the poem. And no. It's not a wicked case of déjà vu. Line 7 is exactly the same as line one.
    • The second stanza starts off the same way as the first stanza. This refrain acts kind of like the chorus in a song—the catchy part.
    • The repetition reinforces that sense of song or nursery rhyme. It also feels a lot like a repeated sales-pitch.

    Lines 8-12

    Music like a curve of gold,
    Scent of pine trees in the rain,
    Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
    And for your spirit's still delight,
    Holy thoughts that star the night.

    • The second stanza continues the catalog of life's loveliness.
    • Teasdale starts with music. Shmoop totally agrees that music is part of what makes life worth living.
    • Teasdale uses a simile to describe music: it's "like a curve of gold."
    • This little simile does a lot of work. We get the bright color of gold, we get the sense of something that is very valuable, we get the smooth texture, and we also get the sense of a ring from the word curve in the description.
    • What's missing from this description of music? Anyone? Anyone? You got it. Sound. Teasdale uses other, more unexpected sensory details to describe music.
    • We would expect her to use sound to describe music, but she gives us a visual and tactile description instead (you can almost feel that smooth curve of gold under your fingertips—we'll, Shmoop can anyway).
    • When you think about it, this is really a very fitting way to describe music. Sure—we listen to music. But much of the joy of listening to music comes from the way it feels. The feel of the bass, the way the song makes us feel (happy, sad, etc.). It's about sound, but it's even more about how the sound feels.
    • You might be thinking (always a good thing) that the descriptions of loveliness in lines 9 and 10 (scent of pine trees in the rain, and the eyes and arms of a loved one) are kind common, cliché examples—almost greeting card-ish, right? Well, compared to the curve of gold that describes music, you're right.
    • It's pretty obvious that Teasdale is capable of precise, surprising descriptions. Chances are, she didn't just get lazy or run into a killer case of writers' block.
    • So, she must have had a reason for lowering the bar a bit on these two descriptions.
    • These lines are still quite sensory (especially that scent of pine) and, perhaps more importantly, they also set up the stanza's last two lines. Line 10 also introduces a "you," someone the speaker is talking to.
    • Because we get no other information to make this you a specific person, we feel like the speaker is talking to US. This really pulls the reader into the poem.
    • By making the descriptions in lines 9 and 10 very simple and worldly, it heightens the sense of contrast with the more spiritual, ethereal descriptions in lines 11 and 12.
    • In lines 11 and 12, Teasdale gives us an example of the psychological and philosophical loveliness life has to offer. The scent of pine, the crashing waves, a lover's arms, these things are for the delight of the senses, the delight of the body. The "holy thoughts that star the night," are for the "spirit's" delight.
    • Teasdale uses a metaphor here, making thoughts or ideas into stars in the night sky. Nice, right?
    • Spirit makes us think of things like the soul, something we can't see or touch. The word holy brings to mind the sacred and even religion.
    • So, it is pretty clear that Teasdale wants us considering the loveliness of the mind and spirit in this stanza's last two lines, as opposed to the more worldly loveliness in the preceding lines.
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 13-14

    Spend all you have for loveliness, Buy it and never count the cost;

    • The third stanza's first line breaks the refrain, or pattern set up by the poem's first two stanzas. She doesn't start with that same old sales pitch: "Life has loveliness to sell." 
    • This change gives us a little jolt. It gets the reader's attention—kind of like when you think the milk carton is full, but it's actually almost empty and, when you pick it up, you almost throw it through the ceiling. When something isn't how you expect it to be, you notice.
    • The change refocuses our attention. Teasdale wants to make sure we are tuned in for the home stretch.
    • In lines 13 and 14 the speaker talks directly to the reader again, this time directing us to buy all the loveliness life has to offer, no matter the cost.

    Lines 15-18

    For one white singing hour of peace
    Count many a year of strife well lost,
    And for a breath of ecstasy
    Give all you have been, or could be.

    • The poem's last four lines explain why we should buy all that loveliness even if it breaks the bank.
    • Remember that pin we stuck way back in the first stanza, in the word sell? Well, it's here in these last four lines that we finally find out what life demands in exchange for all that loveliness. Remember, the title is "Barter," so this isn't going to be a cash transaction.
    • The speaker argues that just one hour of the "peace" that comes from an appreciation of life's loveliness is worth many years of strife and hardship—that all of life's difficulties are worth it for just a "breath" of the "ecstasy" life's loveliness can provide.
    • An appreciation of the simple, lovely things in life is more important than the past ("all you have been") or the future (all you "could be").
    • So, there it is. The cost of loveliness is a willingness to endure life's hardships and pain. Is it a good deal? Our speaker sure seems to think so. How about you?