The Old Maid by Sara Teasdale explores how a life without love can wither a person away. Teasdale creates two characters that seem identical, with one having a lover and one alone. The ‘old maid’ that is without love has become ‘thin’, ‘her soul frozen in the dark’, lost without the ‘flame’ of love. Teasdale knows that this woman she sees could be her if it were not for her lover and the life she has lived.
The Old Maid by Sara Teasdale begins with Teasdale and her lover driving in a ‘Broadway car’, together in the seats. Outside the window, they see an old woman, which bares incredibly resemblance to Teasdale herself. Teasdale looks at the features of the woman without love, her body seems to have withered away from lack of care. Although there are similarities between Teasdale and the old maid, Teasdale has had love in her life and is therefore healthy. The poem emphasizes the importance of love, suggesting it can physically make people healthier and happier. Knowing she has been in love, Teasdale is glad to realize that she will ‘never be’ this woman who looks so physically similar to her.
You can read the full poem here.
Teasdale’s The Old Maid is written in four quatrain stanzas. Each of the stanzas is incredibly regular, all measuring four lines with a continuous 8 syllable count per line. Although there are moments of rhyme within the poem, it is not this that gives The Old Maid its sense of rhythm. In fact, the 8 syllable count per line creates an expectation that allows the poem to flow cleverly from line to line. This structure creates an almost sing-song rhythm, the story flowing through image as Teasdale writes the maid’s story. The regularity of the stanzas could also be seen as a reflection of the similarities between the two women in the poem. Both Teasdale and ‘The Old Maid’ are physically similar, displayed through the mirrored and consistent structure.
The Old Maid Analysis
I saw her in a Broadway car,The woman I might grow to be;I felt my lover look at herAnd then turn suddenly to me.
The poem begins by focusing on the first-person pronoun, ‘I’ instantly suggesting that The Old Maid will be discussing Teasdale’s own personal experiences. In doing this, Teasdale suggests that the story is directly applicable to her, the narrative coming from a past encounter she has had.
The use of ‘Broadway car’ within the opening line similar helps to set the tone of the poem. Although the ‘old maid’ within the poem is sat within a ‘Broadway car’, she is still unhappy. This could be Teasdale commenting on the fact that wealth does not bring happiness, love being the only force that can lead to true life enjoyment. The status of ‘Broadway’ bears no weight when presented against the incredible idolization of love.
The use of the modal ‘might’ within the second line of the poem suggests that, at this stage, Teasdale does not yet know if she will become like this woman. At first, only their physical similarities strike Teasdale, with the sudden realization that she ‘might grow’ into this Old Maid an unnerving prospect. The use of ‘grow’ suggests that one does not simply transform into an ‘Old Maid’ overnight, they are ‘grow[n]’ through years of (as we are known by the rest of the poem) lacking love.
The ‘sudden’ turn of the ‘lover’ ‘to me’ shows the alarm that Teasdale’s lover feels upon seeing the Old Maid, instantly seeing the resemblance. Both ‘her’ and ‘me’ are placed syntactically as the last word of lines three and four. In doing this, Teasdale creates a subconscious connection between these two words, both baring the same syntactical placement. This reflects their own physical resemblance, also being displayed as similar through this manipulation of structure.
Her hair was dull and drew no lightAnd yet its color was as mine;Her eyes were strangely like my eyesTho’ love had never made them shine.
The second stanza focuses on the physical characteristics of the ‘Old Maid’. Teasdale presents the characteristics as, at the base, similar to herself, with ‘its color was as mine’ and ‘strangely like my eyes’ drawing a connection between them. Yet, the core difference between the Old Maid and Teasdale herself comes down to the lack of ‘love’ in the Maid’s life. Indeed, ‘her hair was dull and drew no light’ suggests a lack of radiance, with Teasdale, therefore, suggesting that love gives the human body a sort of healthy glow. Similarly, ‘her eyes’ do not ‘shine’, with Teasdale attributing this to the fact that ‘love had never made them shine’, love again being presented as a force for beauty and health. Teasdale is suggesting that love is essential for both mental and physical happiness.
Her body was a thing grown thin,Hungry for love that never came;Her soul was frozen in the darkUnwarmed forever by love’s flame.
This idea is extended throughout the third stanza, with Teasdale focusing on the malnourishment of the Old Maid’s ‘soul’ and ‘body’ due to the lack of love within her life. Indeed, her body was a ‘thing grown thin’, this phrase masterfully reflecting growing thin as ‘thing’ withers the ‘g’ to become ‘thin’. Teasdale also presents the Old Maid’s ‘soul was frozen in the dark’, the use of darkness suggesting a lack of positivity and happiness, with ‘light’ often being representative of these traits.
Love is, therefore, presented as something that can ‘warm’ a soul, depicted as ‘love’s flame’, an image of warmth and comfort coming from love. The same goes for ‘hungry’, the body aching for love as if a hunger pang was inflicting the Old Maid constantly.
I felt my lover look at herAnd then turn suddenly to me, —His eyes were magic to defyThe woman I shall never be.
The final stanza of the poem resounds that Teasdale will never be the same as this old maid. Although both the poet and her love realize the physical similarities, Teasdale states that ‘the woman I shall never be’, finishing the poem on an assertive certainty. She will never wither into this woman because her life has love within. Indeed, she states throughout the poem that she is traveling with her ‘lover’, presenting their appearance in the poem as evidence for the fact that she is certainly living with love. Due to the presence of ‘love’, she knows she will never become the Old Maid but is still chilled by the shocking picture of what her life could have been like.