The Cawein-Teasdale Letters

By Spencer Cawein Pate

[This post has been updated to include the text of Teasdale’s letters to Cawein, courtesy of the special collections of the Filson Historical Society. Please see the full explanation here.]

I’ve just learned of a new twist to the story of Madison Cawein (see my other posts on Cawein here) thanks to Sharon Cummings, a collector / dealer of literary memorabilia who  specializes in items from the poet Sara Teasdale (1884-1933). Ms. Cummings recently came into possession of a trove of Teasdale’s letters, which were auctioned off at the estate sale of Teasdale’s friend and biographer Margaret Carpenter. Apparently, a handful of the letters were sent from Madison Cawein to Sara Teasdale, ranging from 1909 to 1912. To my delight, Ms. Cummings found my thesis in researching Madison Cawein online, and since I’m related, albeit distantly, she decided to contact me to ask if I would want the letters. I enthusiastically said yes.

These letters constitute quite an interesting rediscovery, one which further illuminates a forgotten corner of literary history. Otto Rothert says in his The Story of a Poet (which reprinted most of Cawein’s extant letters) that Teasdale thought her correspondence with Cawein was lost. Otherwise, the only mention of her in the book occurs in a letter from Cawein to the poet, critic, and anthologist Jessie B. Rittenhouse, a friend of Cawein’s. Cawein says he is anxious to meet Teasdale in person and to introduce her to Rittenhouse, and he goes on to claim that Teasdale “is writing exquisite verse” and “will be heard from unquestionably, in the world of poetry, later on, as one of our greatest poets.” Considering that Teasdale is still well known, this is a fairly accurate judgment.

The correspondence would have occurred near both the end of Cawein’s life (1914) and the beginning of Teasdale’s career (as she published her first of four poetry collections in 1911); when these cordial letters began, Teasdale would have been only 25 years old and Cawein 44. This age gap between the two poets suggests that Cawein may have been a direct influence on a new generation of younger and more modern writers. (Which, of course, we already knew re: T.S. Eliot. Incidentally, there is a breathtaking example of historical irony when Teasdale says to Cawein: “your book contains enough spare inspiration to set up a dozen lesser poets.”) All of this underscores my contention that Cawein is a crucial mediator / missing link in twentieth century poetry.

The letters discuss Cawein and Teasdale’s travels, the death of Cawein’s mother, the bad review given to his work by the New York Times critic Shaemas O’Sheel (which I discuss in my thesis; amusingly, Teasdale disliked O’Sheel in person as well), and his book Nature Notes and Impressions, of which he sent a copy to Teasdale. In return, she sent Cawein some of her verse, and because he introduced Teasdale to Rittenhouse and recommended her for membership in the New York Poetry Society, I would be willing to surmise that Cawein indirectly helped her break into publication. Teasdale’s second collection, Helen of Troy and Other Poems, was published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, which was Cawein’s publisher at the time as well. And due to the Cawein connection, I’ve begun to read more of Teasdale’s poetry (having been previously familiar with only ten or so of her poems), and I can definitely see many strong similarities between the themes and styles of the two writers. Both poets were effusive in their praise of each other’s work both in their correspondence with each other and with mutual friends, such as Robert E. Lee Gibson.

Thank you again to Sharon Cummings for these fascinating and charming letters! I have scanned and transcribed all seven of Cawein’s letters to Teasdale and all five of Teasdale’s letters to Cawein to the best of my ability, so they are presented below for first time. Please note that a few letters appear to be missing from this chronological sequence. Interested readers can click on any image to magnify it to full-size.

Envelopes 1-3: October 1909, March 1910, October 1911

Envelopes 4-6: December 1911, December 1911, April 1912

Envelope 7: December 1912

Letter 1 from Madison Cawein to Sara Teasdale: October 18, 1909

My Dear Miss Teasdale:–

You hit it correctly. It was last year at Annisquam, near Gloucester, in the month of September that I saw the wonderful display of Northern Lights. The meteor passed directly through the splendor overhead. Mrs. Cawein and I were the guests of Mr. Eric Pape for that month and it was at his artistic and hospitable home and in the surrounding woods that I wrote all the sonnets including the one on the Aurora.

This summer we were there again with Mr. Pape, at a house party which included the poet Percy Mackaye and the eminent dramatist Charles Rann Kennedy, author of The Servant in the House, and his wife, whose stage name is Edith Wynn Matthison, greatest of the living English actresses.

I want to thank you for your kind words regarding my work.

Your work impressed me greatly, as it has also impressed my most critical and poetry loving friend Dr. H.A. Cottell, who has several of your lyrics by heart and repeats them constantly.

Mr. Gibson can tell you all about Cottell and what a lover of good poetry he is and what it means to have won his approval.

With wishes for your success, believe me, faithfully yours, Madison Cawein.

Letter 1 from Sara Teasdale to Madison Cawein: February 28, 1910

My dear Mr. Cawein:

I am enclosing a review of “New Poems” from the St. Louis “Mirror” for February 24. The article is signed W.M.R., and is of course written by Mr. Reedy. It may not be of any interest to you, but I am going to send it anyway, for I am glad of a chance to thank you for the pleasure of your beautiful poem in the March “Harper’s” has given me. I have read it many times and the music grows more magical on each rereading. You show us a vision that we cannot soon forget–“White-limbed of the wind and light.” 

I am enjoying this lovely place [St. Augustine, Florida] to the full. Mr. Gibson tells me that you have several times been here. There is a strange lure about it that would make any poet long to return.

Ever very sincerely yours, Sara Teasdale


Letter 2 from Madison Cawein to Sara Teasdale: March 17, 1910

Dear Miss Teasdale:–

Your letter was good to receive. I thought the poems about Florida would appeal to you. I am sending you today another book of mine entitled “Nature Notes.” In it you will find a long prose note made in one of my notebooks when I took a trip up the Ocklawaha.

Ere this, doubtless, you are home again, and probably have seen Mr. Gibson, from whom I had a letter yesterday. He writes me of a new poem of yours which he says he intends sending me as soon as Dr. De Menil returns it. I am sure that I shall enjoy it if it is on the order of the blank verse piece by you which I read with such great pleasure in the February Forum.

With best wishes, believe me, ever sincerely yours, Madison Cawein.

Letter 2 from Sara Teasdale to Madison Cawein: March 25, 1910

My dear Mr. Cawein:

Your book awaited me on my return day before yesterday. I thank you very much indeed for it and the kind letter. I should have acknowledged them sooner had the two days since my arrival not been such busy ones. The book is delightful in the deepest and most beautiful sense. I am reading it closely and over and over, so that as yet I have not quite read half of it. I too am an ardent lover of nature. How I envy your intimate knowledge of all the ways of birds and flowers–and still more your gift of imparting your joy in these to others. As Laudor said of “Aurora Leigh,” your book contains enough spare inspiration to set up a dozen lesser poets.

Spring is coming fast. On my drive to-day in the park I saw the first flicker of the season. I am eagerly awaiting the first blue bird, for then I shall know that winter is really gone.

Once more thanking you, I am, Ever very sincerely yours, Sara Teasdale.

Letter 3 from Sara Teasdale to Madison Cawein: March 26, 1911

My dear Mr. Cawein:

I want to assure you of my sympathy in your sorrow. Mr. Gibson told me of the death of your mother and of what a lovely woman she was. I know that you must feel her loss deeply.

I have been home for about two weeks from my visit to New York–and I am already homesick for “the towers set in Gotham’s sky.” I met several people who knew you and I heard “golden opinions” of you from them all. Miss Rittenhouse spoke most beautifully of you and Mrs. Cawein. I attended two meetings of The Poetry Society and enjoyed them hugely. I know that I owe my happiness in that respect to you, for I heard from Miss Rittenhouse and later from Mr. Gibson that you had been so kind as to propose my name for membership. The society is going to be a real success I am sure. Both meetings were full of inspiration and every one was very enthusiastic.

Once more thanking you for your kindness in thinking of proposing my name, I am, very sincerely yours, Sara Teasdale

Letter 4 from Sara Teasdale to Madison Cawein: March 30, 1911

My dear Mr. Cawein:

I wish that you could have attended the meetings of The Poetry Society. As you say, Miss Rittenhouse and everybody else seems to think it a great success. I met Mr. Viereck both times and found him pleasant enough, polite and very interesting. I think a good deal of his decadence is only a pose. He is very young and one must expect some crudeness. Miss Rittenhouse spoke very nicely of him and said that he seemed to be improving very much. He made a good many remarks at both meetings, but they were always worth listening to, tho’ sometimes his criticisms were a little acid. There is a youth, even younger than Mr. Viereck, who is a terrible bore. It is Shaemas O’Sheel. He talks always, and seldom “to edification.” But in every society there are some of this kind, have you not found it so?

Mr. Gibson lent me your dear little book “So Many Ways.” What a charming little thing it is!

Thank you very much for your kind sympathy in regard to our accident. My mother and father are are [sic] getting on as well as could be expected. But it is very slow.

With best wishes, I am, yours very sincerely, Sara Teasdale

Letter 3 from Madison Cawein to Sara Teasdale: October 26, 1911

Dear Miss Teasdale:–

Thank you for your good words about my book of Poems. If it pleased you as much as your Helen of Troy delighted me I am satisfied.

As to Miss Jessie B. Rittenhouse–I have had several communications from her this month. She has spent several weeks at her summer home in Michigan, Mullett Lake, it is, and is now back in New York at work on a book, she tells me, which occupies all her time. Probably she failed to receive your vol. of poems. Her address in New York is #602, West 157th St. You might write her there and get a definite answer as to whether or not she received your book. She is indeed a charming as well as an intellectual woman, to whom Mrs. Cawein and I are greatly attached.

Very sincerely, your friend, Madison Cawein.

Letter 4 from Madison Cawein to Sara Teasdale: December 27, 1911

Dear Miss Teasdale:–

Yours is a happy little greeting and one that added considerably to my Christmas pleasure. A lovely card; and the quatrain graceful and surest to the poet’s soul.

Well, I don’t know any more to say, except that your card outclasses all the Christmas cards I have ever received, or even have seen, in originality and beauty.

I wish you, profoundly, success and joy with the coming new year.

Very sincerely your friend, Madison Cawein

Letter 5 from Madison Cawein to Sara Teasdale: December 30, 1911

Dear Miss Teasdale:–

Mrs. Cawein has finally persuaded me to go on to the Poetry Society’s dinner and Miss Rittenhouse’s reception on the 21st. We leave on the 19th of Jan. and look forward to seeing you in New York, and shall be at the Martinique Hotel, cor. of 32nd and Broadway. It is a charming hotel, and we wonder if you could not make it your stopping place also while in New York.

It was only three or four weeks ago that I was East, and am due there again in Feb., I think, for the National Institute of Arts and Letters dinner. I prefer the latter to any of these dinners, as there all the most eminent men of the country are brought together at the University Club. However, I shall have to omit this meeting for the Poetry Society’s the coming year, and count myself as well repaid by meeting you; as I have already met the greater part of the poets who will gather around the festal board on the 23rd of Jan.

I send you a little booklet of mine under a separate cover, with new year’s greetings. Mrs. Cawein is anxious to meet you, and just as wild about going to New York. She too has to have something new to wear, but as for myself–well!

Very cordially yours, Madison Cawein.

Letter 6 from Madison Cawein to Sara Teasdale: April 30, 1912

Dear Miss Teasdale:–

Thank you for the clipping from the Chicago Post. I am glad to see that you are back in St. Louis.

I am sorry I did not get to see you again before leaving the East. Mrs. Cawein was luckier than was I.

Mr. Gibson, you may be glad to learn, is out of the asylum at last, and is with Dan’s Mercantile Agency. He’s busy riding around the country–so beautiful this spring–and is enthusiastic, poor fellow, about his better outlook. [Note: Mr. Gibson was an official, not a resident, at the St. Louis Insane Asylum.]

Did you see the notice of your Helen of Troy in the May Smart Set?

Very truly yours, Madison Cawein

P.S. The clipping refers to an ovation extended me here in Louisville on March 23rd in honor of my 47th birthday and publication of my first vol. 25 years ago. C.

Letter 5 from Sara Teasdale to Madison Cawein: November 26, 1912

My dear Mr. Cawein:

How can I ever let you know how deeply I am enchanted with your magic in the new volume? For six weeks I have been unable to use my eyes–have had a serious infection in my right eye–and your book was a source of terrible temptation, for I longed to open it and read it–and yet I know that I must not. As the weeks wore by I wondered what you would think of my tardiness in acknowledging your beautiful gift. But I could not hear it to have anyone else write for me, and so waited. Freely “You are Nature’s favorite son”–no one else can give us the whole world of loveliness as you can. I think that the rain and the dusk and the stars and the weeds and even the august thunder are in league with you and give you the power to unveil their beauty for us. Tell me, how can you do should [sic] widely different things as “The Faery Burial” and “Feudists,” and “The Worm and the Fly” and that adorable song “They say that beauty withers”?

Each is so fine and each so different. The book has given me unalloyed pleasure and I thank you from my heart.

I was happy to see your charming poem in “The Lyric Year.” The book is a bit of a disappointment, tho’, don’t you think?

With greetings to dear Mrs. Cawein and to you, Sincerely, Sara Teasdale

Finished Dec. 2, 1912

Letter 7 from Madison Cawein to Sara Teasdale: December 5, 1912

Dear Miss Teasdale:–

I am very sorry to hear of your illness. I hope that your eye is perfectly well now. Too bad!

Your words about my book are most cheering, as Mr. Shaemas O’Sheel has pronounced the poems in “The Poet” etc. as being rank and absolute nonsense. [Note: You can read O’Sheel’s review here.] This in the N.Y. Times two weeks ago. Miss Rittenhouse wrote the Times a long letter about the notice, which they refused to publish, because Mr. O’Sheel is a particular pet of the Times. They published mine, however, much to my surprise. [Note: You can read Cawein’s reply here.]

Miss Rittenhouse’s review of the Lyric Year in last Sunday’s Times Book Review sums up the vol. to my thinking. [Note: Both Cawein and Teasdale appeared in this anthology.] Mr. Johns’ poem deserves the first prize, I think. But I question the other two. There is too much rhetorical fireworks in them. And this hard-spurring of Pegasus does not appeal to me for high flying. There are really only half a dozen lyrics in the book. It belies its title. How in the name of Heaven did the editors come to include such stuff as that rank imitation of Poe’s Raven–the poem called Miriam? a peacock, forsooth! One of Mr. Wheeler’s friends I suppose. And Julian Hawthorne too! What a mix up! Well, live and learn.

We are all quite well and Mrs. Cawein asked to be remembered to you with love.

Believe me ever sincerely yours, Madison Cawein

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