Poetry

Barter

Sara Teasdale published “Barter” as the first poem in her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1917 collection Love Songs. The poem’s opening line establishes its theme and its underlying logic: “Life has loveliness to sell.” The first two stanzas form an inventory of the “splendid things” the world has to offer, from the “soaring fire that sways and swings” to the “scent of pine trees in the rain.” The beauty of music is mentioned more than once, suggesting a special attention to sound that is reflected in the poem’s form. Hovering over these moments of beauty is the titular barter, the understanding that all this loveliness comes at a price. As the final line declares, one must “give all you have been, or could be.” This requirement of personal surrender gives the poem a spiritual dimension, though Teasdale avoids drawing on any specific religious traditions. “Barter” is ultimately an invitation to appreciate the many forms of beauty that surround us.

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