Updated date:

Sara Teasdale's "To E."

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Sara Teasdale

Introduction and Text of "To E."

Sara Teasdale’s sonnet “To E.” appears in the front matter of her collection, Love Songs, published in 1917 by The Macmillan Company. The “To E.” designation appears to be the dedication of the entire collection, not just the sonnet that takes that title. She also dedicated her published collection, Flame and Shadow, “To E.” followed by the French epigraph, “Reçois la flamme ou l’ombre / De tous mes jours” (“Receive flame or shadow / From all my days.”) In her Rivers to the Sea, she dedicates the collection to the same man, but this time spells out his name, “To Ernest.”

(While I do suspect that “To E.” is the dedication of the collection, Love Songs, and not the actual title of the sonnet that follows that dedication, and I would, therefore, suggest that the proper title of the sonnet should be the first line, “I have remembered beauty in the night,” nevertheless, I will continue to refer to the sonnet by the “To E.” appellation.)

Sara Teasdale's "To E.” offers a unique portrait of a memory the speaker is sharing. In this memory, the speaker reveals beautiful images that spark her desire to share an even more important thought. The speaker wishes to create a tribute to a beloved soul whom she cherishes. His importance for her also rests on his ability to assist her in evoking those lovely, unforgettable images.

The rime scheme of the octave is ABBACDDC, and the rime scheme of the sestet is EFFGEG. The Petrarchan sonnet may have various rime schemes. As in the traditional Petrarchan sonnet, Teasdale's "To E.” fulfills different duties in the octave and the sestet. The octave traditionally sets up a problem that the sestet solves. In the Teasdale sonnet, the octave offers a catalogue of beautiful things that the speaker's memory holds and treasures, but the sestet then dramatizes how these memories fade when the memory of this special soul comes into view.

The sonnet is similar to a Petrarchan sonnet, with an octave that portrays those many things of beauty that she has experienced; then, the sestet turns to the one subject that not only provides her musing with beauty but also offers her peace and comfort. Because this sonnet is somewhat innovative, it might also be classified as an American (Innovative) sonnet. But it does function very closely to the traditional Petrarchan sonnet style.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

To E.

I have remembered beauty in the night,
Against black silences I waked to see
A shower of sunlight over Italy
And green Ravello dreaming on her height;
I have remembered music in the dark,
The clean swift brightness of a fugue of Bach's,
And running water singing on the rocks
When once in English woods I heard a lark.

But all remembered beauty is no more
Than a vague prelude to the thought of you—
You are the rarest soul I ever knew,
Lover of beauty, knightliest and best,
My thoughts seek you as waves that seek the shore,
And when I think of you I am at rest.

A reading of "To E."

Commentary

Sara Teasdale’s sonnet explores the nature of memory and beauty. It is dedicated to her husband, Ernst Filsinger. Although the couple divorced, the poet retained special memories about E.

The Octave: A Motivating Memory

I have remembered beauty in the night,
Against black silences I waked to see
A shower of sunlight over Italy
And green Ravello dreaming on her height;
I have remembered music in the dark,
The clean swift brightness of a fugue of Bach's,
And running water singing on the rocks
When once in English woods I heard a lark.

The octave begins, "I have remembered beauty in the night," and this memory motivates her to remember "black silences I waked to see" light shining brightly over Italy. The speaker is remembering the Italian village of Ravello, which leads her musing to what she has heard: music at nighttime, Bach's fugue, water running over the rocks. She then adds that once upon a time she heard a lark singing in an English woodThe speaker then portrays the many beautiful things she has both seen and heard as she has traveled in Italy and England. These memories are important to her; therefore, she cloaks them in rime and a pleasing meter.

The Sestet: Beauty Remembered

But all remembered beauty is no more
Than a vague prelude to the thought of you—
You are the rarest soul I ever knew,
Lover of beauty, knightliest and best,
My thoughts seek you as waves that seek the shore,
And when I think of you I am at rest.

As important as these memories are, the speaker finds that the most important aspect of those memories is that they remind her of her loved one. The beauty of all the things portrayed in the octave pales when she compares them to the beauty evoked by the "soul" to whom she is dedicating his sonnet, "To E."

The beautiful things described in the octave are natural phenomena, the "black silences" of night," the "shower of sunlight over Italy," and "water singing on the rocks," and the English lark, but there is also man-made beauty, such as the city of Ravello and the music of Bach. The beauty portrayed in the sestet is simply a human soul about whom the reminiscing speaker asserts, "You are the rarest soul I ever knew." And this soul is rare because of his own love of beauty, which the speaker admires as "knightliest and best.”

The final two lines of the sestet dramatize the speaker's thoughts through the simile, "as waves that seek the shore." The speaker's thoughts search out this fellow soul, this lover of beauty on their own, as naturally as the ocean waves that constantly run to the ocean's shore. But unlike the waves that continuously crash against the shore, when the speaker's thoughts flow over this rare soul, she finds tranquility: "And when I think of you, I am at rest."

The Other “To E.”

Flitting about the Internet is another very different poem titled “To E.” supposedly by Sara Teasdale. The Academy of American Poets features only that version; however, I have been unable to find that version in any of Teasdale’s published collections. The version I have commented on in this article is far superior to this possibly fraudulent alternative. The following text is that other “To E.”:

To E.

The door was opened and I saw you there
And for the first time heard you speak my name.
Then like the sun your sweetness overcame
My shy and shadowy mood; I was aware
That joy was hidden in your happy hair,
And that for you love held no hint of shame;
My eyes caught light from yours, within whose flame
Humor and passion have an equal share.

How many times since then have I not seen
Your great eyes widen when you talk of love,
And darken slowly with a fair desire;
How many times since then your soul has been
Clear to my gaze as curving skies above,
Wearing like them a raiment made of fire.

The two versions share the Petrarchan sonnet form, but that is where the comparison ends. This alternative version contains the silly line, “ . . . joy was hidden in your happy hair.” That obnoxious line fairly jumps out out at one, as it reeks of amateurish diction. This failed line along with the publication history detailed above lead me to suspect that this version of “To E.” has been erroneously linked to Teasdale. If anyone has information about Teasdale’s “To E.” that begins, “The door was opened and I saw you there,” please contact me.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles