‘The Answer‘ by Sara Teasdale is a short lyric poem made out of two eight lines stanzas that are mostly written in free verse. There are only two sets of rhyming lines in the piece and they fall exactly three lines apart. The fourth and eighth lines of the first stanza rhyme, and the first and eighth lines of the second stanza rhyme. This alternating rhyme scheme that only crops up in specific places helps to contain the poem within concise verses. These rhymes are strategically placed and help to give the poem an amount of flow that it would not have otherwise.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how after she has died, and her body is buried in the earth, the “red and white” will have drained out of her face. She will have lost her vitality and her beauty, but these things are not the most important parts of life. The speaker will have returned to the earth from which she came and she is content with that. She describes that although she was once so proud of her physical life, now in death, she finds the pleas of mourners over her grave as “false and feeble pity.” Their tears are meaningless and fake. The speaker hopes that she will, in death, be able to find a voice with which she can decry their pity and say something aloud.
In the second stanza, the speaker describes what type of answer she hopes she will be able to give to these unnamed “men.”
She does not want anyone to think that she is unhappy in her new state, she is in fact, “content.” So, she asks, retract your “poor compassion.”
The last lines of this poem describe the joy that the speaker felt in her life. Joy was to her, a “flame” within her body. It burnt in her throughout her whole life giving her much fulfillment and happiness. In fact, she tells these mourners that she experienced more joy in her sorrow than they have ever felt in their happiest moments.
Analysis of The Answer
When I go back to earth
And all my joyous body
Puts off the red and white
That once had been so proud,
If men should pass above
With false and feeble pity,
My dust will find a voice
To answer them aloud:
The speaker of ‘The Answer’, who is perhaps the poet herself, begins the poem by describing the future state of her body. She is predicting how she will look, feel, and think after she is dead. She does not want, once she has passed on, to be considered a victim.
When the poet, “go[es] back to earth,” or, when she is buried, returning to the elements of nature from which she came, her body will lose all “red and white.” She will, once dead, lose the whiteness of her skin, or beauty, and her redness, or vitality, of which she had once “been so proud.” While alive, the speaker had appreciated the life she had been given, the body she lived within, and the ways she was able to feel, but now that is no longer important.
After all, this has happened to the speaker and she is buried, with her body decaying, she states that, if and when, “men should pass” over the grave, and express pity for her lessened state, that she will be able to answer them.
She does not want anyone to see her, after she is dead, as anything less than what she was, or pity her for her death. She does not want to accept from “men…false and feeble pity.” These emotions that mourners express are seen as being fake and worthless. She does not want these thoughts around her.
The speaker is hoping that she will, even though she is dead, be able to find the strength of voice to speak up.
“Be still, I am content,
Take back your poor compassion—
Joy was a flame in me
Too steady to destroy.
Lithe as a bending reed
Loving the storm that sways her—
I found more joy in sorrow
Than you could find in joy.”
The second stanza of ‘The Answer’ contains the words that the speaker is hoping to relay to those who might feel pity for her.
She tells them, “Be still” and do not worry because she is “content” in her new state. She asks them to “take back [their] poor compassion” as it is meaningless. The speaker describes her own life as having been filled with “Joy” that burned like a “flame” inside of her. It was too “steady to destroy.” Her life was filled with powerful happiness that makes her feel as if she was fulfilled in the time that she had on earth.
She describes herself as being “Lithe as a bending reed” that relished in the storms that blew her around, or “sway[ed] her.” Many might experience changes in their lives as being traumatic, but she enjoyed them. She loved the ups and downs of life just as a reed blows with the wind.
She reiterates this in the final lines of this piece when she says that she equally enjoyed the “joy” as the “sorrow.” In fact, she states, that she was able to find more joy within the sorrows of her life than the happiness these unnamed “men” were capable of finding in the most joyous moments of their life.
About Sara Teasdale
Sara Teasdale was born in 1884 in St.Louis, Missouri, and was an American lyric poet whose work was mainly concerned with beauty, love, and death. She was known to work her own experiences into her poetry, from those of youth to those of depression around the time of her suicide in 1933.
She grew up in a staunchly religious household and was privately educated. Sara Teasdale’s first poem was published in Reedy’s Mirror in 1907 and in that same year she published her first book, Sonnets to Duse, and Other Poems. She was married in 1914 and moved with her husband to New York in 1916. She worked throughout this period on her own poetry as well as editing two anthologies, The Answering Voice: One Hundred Love Lyrics by Women, and Rainbow Gold for Children.
Her poems are well known for their emotional subject matter and lyrical language. She gained fame during her lifetime and won the first Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1918. Today her popularity has waned, she is not as well known or as popular amongst readers and critics as she was in her own lifetime.