Early Poems of Sara Teasdale: 9 Sonnets to Duse (1907)

Eleanora Duse

Sara Teasdale (1884 – 1933) was well known in her time for lyric poetry that celebrated the beautiful things in life, even as she herself struggled with perpetual illness and loneliness. Here we’ll explore a grouping of early poetry known as Sonnets to Duse, which served as Teasdale’s entry into the literary world.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she was the daughter of wealthy parents. In her young adult years in St. Louis, she was part of a group of creative, talented young women who called themselves the Potters. They hand-printed a magazine called The Potter’s Wheel, where Sara’s early poems were first published.

This led to the publication of her first  book, Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems in 1907. She was twenty-three at the time of its publication.

The title refers to Eleanora Duse (who is pictured throughout this post, beginning with the photo at upper right), an Italian actress who was quite famous at the time and who often went simply by the name of Duse. Sara never got to meet her, but was apparently quite taken with her, if not infatuated.

Why she chose to write this suite of sonnets to the actress isn’t clear. But her references to Sappho and Lesbos hint at an erotic interest, though Sara wasn’t known to have had liaisons with women in her love life. 

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To Eleonora Duse (I)

Oh beauty that is filled so full of tears,
Where every passing anguish left its trace,
I pray you grant to me this depth of grace:
That I may see before it disappears,
Blown through the gateway of our hopes and fears
To death’s insatiable last embrace,
The glory and the sadness of your face,
Its longing unappeased through all the years.
No bitterness beneath your sorrow clings;
Within the wild dark falling of your hair
There lies a strength that ever soars and sings;
Your mouth’s mute weariness is not despair.
Perhaps among us craven earth-born things
God loves its silence better than a prayer.

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Eleanora Duse, Italian actress
Portrait of Eleanora Duse in Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems by Sara Teasdale
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To Eleonora Duse (II)

Your beauty lives in mystic melodies,
And all the light about you breathes a song.
Your voice awakes the dreaming airs that throng
Within our music-haunted memories:
The sirens’ strain that sank within the seas
When men forgot to listen, floats along
Your voice’s undercurrent soft and strong.
Sicilian shepherds pipe beneath the trees;
Along the purple hills of drifted sand,
A lone Egyptian plays an ancient flute;
At dawn the Memnon gives his old salute
Beside the Nile, by desert breezes fanned.
The music faints about you as you stand,
And with the Orphean lay it trembles mute.


To Eleonora Duse in “The Dead City”

Were you a Greek when all the world was young,
Before the weary years that pass and pass,
Had scattered all the temples on the grass,
Before the moss to marble columns clung?
I think your snowy tunic must have hung
As now your gown does—wave on wave a mass
Of woven water. As within a glass
I see your face when Homer’s tales were sung.
Alcaeus kissed your mouth and found it sweet,
And Sappho’s hand has lingered in your hand.
You half remember Lesbos as you stand
Where all the times and countries mix and meet,
And lay your weight of beauty at our feet,
A garland gathered in a distant land.



To a Picture of Eleonora Duse in “The Dead City” (I)

Your face is set against a fervent sky,
Before the thirsty hills that sevenfold
Return the sun’s hot glory, gold on gold,
Where Agamemnon and Cassandra lie.
Your eyes are blind whose light shall never die,
And all the tears the closèd eyelids hold,
And all the longing that the eyes have told,
Is gathered in the lips that make no cry.
Yea, like a flower within a desert place,
Whose petals fold and fade for lack of rain,
Are these, your eyes, where joy of sight was slain,
And in the silence of your lifted face,
The cloud is rent that hides a sleeping race,
And vanished Grecian beauty lives again.

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Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems by Sara Teasdale

Portrait of Eleanora Duse in Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems by Sara Teasdale
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To a Picture of Eleonora Duse in “The Dead City” (II)

Carved in the silence by the hand of Pain,
And made more perfect by the gift of Peace,
Than if Delight had bid your sorrow cease,
And brought the dawn to where the dark has lain,
And set a smile upon your lips again;
Oh strong and noble! Tho’ your woes increase,
The gods shall hear no crying for release,
Nor see the tremble that your lips restrain.
Alone as all the chosen are alone,
Yet one with all the beauty of the past;
A sister to the noblest that we know,
The Venus carved in Melos long ago,
Yea, speak to her, and at your lightest tone,
Her lips will part and words will come at last.

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Sara Teasdale

Learn more about Sara Teasdale
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To a Picture of Eleonora Duse as “Francesca da Rimini”

Oh flower-sweet face and bended flower-like head!
Oh violet whose purple cannot pale,
Or forest fragrance ever faint or fail,
Or breath and beauty pass among the dead!
Yea, very truly has the poet said,
No mist of years or might of death avail
To darken beauty—brighter thro’ the veil
We see the glimmer of its wings outspread.
Oh face embowered and shadowed by thy hair,
Some lotus blossom on a darkened stream!
If ever I have pictured in a dream
My guardian angel, she is like to this,
Her eyes know joy, yet sorrow lingers there,
And on her lips the shadow of a kiss.


To a Picture of Eleonora Duse

Was ever any face like this before—
So light a veiling for the soul within,
So pure and yet so pitiful for sin?
They say the soul will pass the Heavy Door,
And yearning upward, learn creation’s lore—
The body buried ‘neath the earthly din.
But thine shall live forever, it hath been
So near the soul, and shall be evermore.
Oh eyes that see so far thro’ misted tears,
Oh Death, behold, these eyes can never die!
Yea, tho’ your kiss shall rob these lips of breath,
Their faint, sad smile will still elude thee, Death.
Behold the perfect flower this neck uprears,
And bow thy head and pass the wonder by.



To a Picture of Eleonora Duse with the Greek Fire,
in “Francesca da Rimini”

Francesca’s life that was a limpid flame
Agleam against the shimmer of a sword,
Which falling, quenched the flame in blood outpoured
To free the house of Rimino from shame—
Francesca’s death that blazed aloft her name
In guilty fadeless glory, hurling toward
The windy darkness where the tempest roared,
Her spirit burdened by the weight of blame—
Francesca’s life and death are mirrored here
Forever, on the face of her who stands
Illumined and intent beside the blaze,
Grown one with it, and reading without fear
That they shall fare upon the selfsame ways,
Plucked forth and cast away by bloody hands.



A Song to Eleonora Duse in “Francesca da Rimini”

Oh would I were the roses, that lie against her hands,
The heavy burning roses she touches as she stands!

Dear hands that hold the roses, where mine would love to be,
Oh leave, oh leave the roses, and hold the hands of me!

She draws the heart from out them, she draws away their breath,—
Oh would that I might perish and find so sweet a death!

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