A critical reading of a short lyric poem
‘I Shall Not Care’, a short eight-line poem about dying, was once mistaken for Sara Teasdale’s suicide note, after she took her own life in 1933. The poem had, in fact, been published in 1915, in her collection Rivers to the Sea. We thought we’d share this little gem of a poem with you, and offer a few words of preliminary analysis – though the poem, written in plain and clear language, doesn’t need a great deal of critical commentary.
I Shall Not Care
When I am dead and over me bright April
Shakes out her rain-drenched hair,
Tho’ you should lean above me broken-hearted,
I shall not care.
I shall have peace, as leafy trees are peaceful
When rain bends down the bough,
And I shall be more silent and cold-hearted
Than you are now.
Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) was an American lyric poet whose work is often overlooked in discussions of twentieth-century American poetry. Yet at its best, Teasdale’s work has a lyricism and beauty which can rival that of many poets of her time, even if her work is not as innovative or revolutionary as that of, say, Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, or William Carlos Williams.
‘I Shall Not Care’ is about a popular theme in lyric poetry: death as the great remover of all worldly pains and troubles. Yet it combines this, curiously, with the idea of the forsaken lover, or the lover who feels that her love is not returned. The repetition of the compound ‘hearted’ formation at the end of the third line in the second stanza sees us move from the metaphorical ‘broken-hearted’ to the literal ‘cold-hearted’, and underscores a shift – a twist even – in the poem between the first and second stanzas. For whilst the first stanza invites us to assume that the addressee of the poem is a true lover who will be broken-hearted after the poet’s death, the second stanza suggests that the addressee will only come to realise the extent of his love for the poet after her death, when it is too late. The poem seems to be a variation on the theme identified in A. E. Housman’s poetry: ‘one day I’ll be dead, and then you’ll be sorry.’ But Teasdale offers this sentiment, as Housman frequently does, just the right side of sentimentality, the taut verse form and short final line preventing the poem from spilling over into self-pity.
‘I Shall Not Care’ is one of a number of poems by Sara Teasdale which are worth discovering, and you can discover more of her work via the Internet Archive. ‘Let It Be Forgotten‘ is a great place to start.
Image: Sara Teasdale in 1919 (photograph: Arnold Genthe), Wikimedia Commons.