Only in Sleep – Sara Teasdale

I stumbled across this poem largely by accident. I was listening to Ola Gjeilo compositions on youtube and Ēriks Ešenvalds began popping up in the recommended videos. Then I listened to this one.

The text is Only in Sleep by Sara Teasdale, a poet I hadn’t heard of before.

Only in sleep I see their faces,
Children I played with when I was child,
Louise comes back with her brown hair braided,
Annie with ringlets warm and wild.

Only in sleep Time is forgotten-
What may have come to them, who can know?
Yet we played last night as long ago,
And the doll-house stood at the turn of the stair.

The years had not sharpened their smooth round faces,
I met their eyes and found them mild-
Do they, too, dream of me, I wonder,
And for them am I too a child?

I immediately fell in love with the poem and its musical setting didn’t hurt. There are a few things I adore about this poem. I don’t have to point out the presence of nostalgia in the writing but I can gush over it. The proper names and descriptions of her friends and specific imagery of the doll-house feel so personal, so close to the poet’s heart. And the fact that she remembers them so clearly speaks of a holding on to her childhood and a longing for the past.

I haven’t yet read much of Sara Teasdale’s life, but I wonder if her nostalgia comes from a troubled adulthood. That is the sense I get even if it wasn’t her original intent. Perhaps her childhood was jut especially joyful.

Many of my favourite poems feature some kind of a turn or twist, a parallel image or connection between ideas that fleshes out the meaning and purpose of the poem. Teasdale spends most of the poem describing her childhood in simple yet rich detail and then adds at the end that she wonders if her childhood friends have the same experience. Again, my personal reading of this is that she’s reaching for some possible manner in which her childhood hasn’t yet finished. She wants there to be some way in which her simple pleasant childhood life continues.

To that effect, it’s interesting that she recalls details of her friends, her faces, and the doll-house on the stairs but she doesn’t say a word of herself specifically when she was a child, perhaps because she is unable.

While I’m tempted to read a sadder story into this poem, it is still a thoughtful and beautiful work of reflection and a thought that can probably entertain and delight all of us. To end optimistically, it can be comforting to think that the people we haven’t seen in a while may still think of us and that we might still be a part of their lives as they are a part of ours.


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