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Blue Squills

by Sara Teasdale

How many million Aprils came
 Before I ever knew
How white a cherry bough could be,
 A bed of squills, how blue!

And many a dancing April
 When life is done with me,
Will lift the blue flame of the flower
 And the white flame of the tree.

Oh burn me with your beauty, then,
 Oh hurt me, tree and flower,
Lest in the end death try to take
 Even this glistening hour.

O shaken flowers, O shimmering trees,
 O sunlit white and blue,
Wound me, that I, through endless sleep,
 May bear the scar of you.

Nature Masochism:
Blue Squills by Sara Teasdale

"Blue Squills" by Sara Teasdale starts conventionally enough. In the first two stanzas, the speaker describes the white flowers that cover the cherry tree, and refers to blue squills, which are also flowers. She says there were millions of Aprils before she was alive and could know their beauty, and there will be many more after she is gone. This is a sentiment that, itself, had been expressed many times before her life, and would be expressed many times after it.

But then the speaker makes an utterly enigmatic request that sounds like it is based on an odd combination of nature-love and masochism. She says:

Oh burn me with your beauty, then,
Oh hurt me, tree and flower,
Lest in the end death try to take
Even this glistening hour.

It sounds like she is seeking some kind of magical means to avoid death. Maybe she wants nature to transfer some of its longevity to her or give her an experience that is so intense, she will somehow continue to experience the "glistening hour" of it's beauty. Maybe there is even a subtext derived from a personalized perception of Christianity in which a wound (from beauty!) will somehow protect her from death.

But then, in the last stanza, the speaker seems to acknowledge that she will die even while she offers imagery that denies it, describing death as a sleep in which she can continue to carry the scar of nature's beauty and thus be close to it: "Wound me, that I, through endless sleep,/ May bear the scar of you."

"Blue Squills" is clearly a poem that involves enigma and contradiction. In it, Sara Teasdale freed up her mind to offer complexity and the ambiguities of the mind, as she also did in the poem, "Morning." Unfortunately, her description of doing harm to herself wasn't only a literary device. In 1933 she committed suicide.

It is interesting to contrast "Blue Squills" with the poem, "God's World," by another early twentieth century female poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, in which the speaker feels so overwhelmed by nature's magnificence, she fears it is too much for her and will injure her. In "Blue Squills," the speaker actually says she wants the injury.

And compare both of these to the bitter emptiness and despair of the poem, "Spring," by Millay, in which nature shows a very different face. In "Spring" the words are blunt and the tone is one of hopelessness and despair. But the poet and speaker communicate with a clarity about the reality of life and death that has a mark of sanity about it. By contrast, "Blue Squills" feels like an expression of madness. Whatever hope is in the poem seems bizarre, which can itself be a source of despair.

-- Ken Sanes

Sara Teasdale, Wikipedia
Sara Teasdale's poems at Project Gutenberg
"Blue Squills" appears in the book, Flame and Shadow

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