Barter

Life has loveliness to sell—
     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.

Life has loveliness to sell—
     Music like the 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.

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

Footnotes

  1. The narrator invites us into a state of surrender. The price for “a breath of ecstasy” is the abandonment of the self. The egoic identity is generally defined by past action and future possibility—in other words, “all you have been, or could be.” The cost, our side of the barter, is thus twofold: our sense of self and our sense of time.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. The word “singing” points back to the narrator’s praise of “music like a curve of gold.” In “Barter,” Teasdale frames music and singing as beautiful, redemptive acts. The poem itself serves in such a role as well. With its song-like form and attention to sound, “Barter” comes to exemplify the very music it praises. Indeed, one of the oldest poetic themes is poetry’s ability to transform pain into beauty.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. Teasdale uses careful language to craft the notion of an ideal hour of loveliness. In religious and literary symbolism, whiteness denotes purity, goodness, and grace. The “white singing hour” suggests a momentary escape from the suffering of the world.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The third stanza introduces a shift in tone and rhetoric. After referring to but concealing the price for loveliness, the narrator reveals it in the third stanza. This change is announced by a change to the imperative verb form. The narrator commands us to “spend all you have,” a rhetorical move that creates an increased sense of urgency.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. Teasdale suggests that moments of religious wonder—“Holy thoughts”—are a source of loveliness. Teasdale was raised in a religious household but strayed from any strict faith during her adult life. “Barter” seems to reflect a broader sense of spirituality. The metaphor of “Holy thoughts that star the night” evokes a feeling of cosmic wonder without attaching it to any specific tradition.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. The word “spirit,” which suggests a soul or essence, comes from the Latin “spiritus,” which literally means “breath.” Teasdale uses both meanings. It is the spirit, or soul, that acknowledges the loveliness of the world. The phrase “spirit’s still delight,” suggests a feeling of holding one’s breath in a state of delight or wonderment.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. In a more literal reading, the “curve of gold” may refer to the “golden ratio,” an important mathematical ratio often expressed as a spiral. Certain works of 19th-century classical music employ interval series which reflect the golden ratio.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. Teasdale crafts a purposefully abstract metaphor here. Each piece of the simile defies comprehension. In no direct way is music like gold, but the comparison gives music a connotation of great value. It is not clear either what the “curve of gold” refers to, nor how music might curve. The three nouns fail to meaningfully meet one another. Yet this is precisely the purpose. Teasdale means to show us the ways in which language falls short of conveying beauty. There is no phrase that can fully evoke a passage of beautiful music.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. In a sense, the figure of the children’s faces “holding wonder like a cup” represents the perspective of the poem itself. The poem invites us to appreciate and enjoy the loveliness of the world. Thus the poem’s narrator, and in turn the reader, similarly “hold[s] wonder like a cup.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. In this line, Teasdale uses strong alliteration. Three syllables begin with *s*, and all of them land on stresses. This technique of stringing together alliteration on three of the four stressed syllables of the line is typical of [Anglo-Saxon verse](https://www.owleyes.org/text/beowulf). Teasdale uses beautiful sounds to more deeply convey the beauty of the image.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. Teasdale’s poem is built on imagery. The first two stanzas present a variety of different images, each a manifestation of beauty. Much of the poem’s strength arises from the diversity and specificity of the images. The first image, “blue waves whitened on a cliff,” is a vivid and unconventional evocation of worldly beauty.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. The poem is set in iambic tetrameter, or four-beat lines with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. Tetrameter lines tend to give a poem a song-like quality. They are shorter than standard pentameter lines, creating a quickened pace and excited tone.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. Teasdale establishes the poem’s conceit in the opening line. The poem is, to a great extent, an account of “loveliness,” of the world’s many sources of beauty. Yet, from the start, the poem contains tension: we know that all this beauty comes at a cost, but Teasdale does not reveal the cost until the final stanza.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff