‘The River’ is rich with emotion and imagery. Readers should find themselves feeling incredibly empathetic towards the river’s plight. Teasdale uses its choice, grief, and finally its acceptance of its fate to allude to broader concerns. ‘The River’ is up for interpretation in regard to what or who the ocean represents. It is going to symbolize something different for most readers, a feature of Teasdale’s writing that makes it easy to read over and over again.
Explore The River
‘The River’ by Sara Teasdale is a beautiful poem about loss that features a river as the narrator.
In the first lines of ‘The River,’ the narrator describes how it’s headed hopefully and optimistically towards the ocean, certain that there in the gray waters it’s going to find peace. It’s leaving its sunny valley behind for good. When the river finally meets the ocean, it realizes very quickly that this “peace” is not all it was cut out to be. It’s dark and dreary, and the ocean is powerfully consuming the river’s freshwater. It begs to be returned to the valley, but there’s no way to reverse what has already begun. The poem concludes with the narrator describing how it’s now as “bitter” as the sea.
I came from the sunny valleys
And sought for the open sea,
For I thought in its gray expanses
My peace would come to me.
In the first stanza of ‘The River,’ the speaker begins by using a first-person pronoun, “I.” It’s soon revealed that the speaker is not a human being, it’s the river. Teasdale is writing from the river’s perspective, a clever, although not entirely unusual, example of personification. She’s tapping into what she thinks a river might think and feel as it tracks its way towards the ocean.
The poet imagined that the river would be lusting after the “gray expanses” of the ocean, longing to join them. The river, she imagined, would think “peace” would be there if it could only get there.
The fact that it began in the sun and raced towards the “gray expanses” of the water is an example of foreshadowing. Readers might realize as soon as the poem begins that something is not right. The river might, when it finally gets where its going, miss where it came from.
I came at last to the ocean
And found it wild and black,
And I cried to the windless valleys,
“Be kind and take me back!”
In the second stanza, it’s revealed that the river does indeed regret its decision to commit to joining the ocean. Interestingly enough though, readers might find themselves considering the fact that this is just the nature of the world. It’s not really the river’s choice. It was going to end up joining the ocean whether it wanted to or not.
The river was horrified to discover that the ocean was “wild and black.” It didn’t provide it with the peace it was looking for. Now, the river regrets its journey, longing for its old, windless valley the first stanza depicted as “sunny.”
But the thirsty tide ran inland,
And the salt waves drank of me,
And I who was fresh as the rainfall
Am bitter as the sea.
The final four lines reveal the river’s fate. There’s no way back, Teasdale writes. The river has made its choice, and now it has to contend with the consequences. The ocean drank the river’s freshwater, consuming it with salt waves. What used to be clear and freshwater is now “bitter as the sea.”
This is a powerful piece of writing that allows for a great deal of interpretation. It could, in some reader’s eyes, be about giving oneself to another person and the way that person might consume and change you. Or, another interpretation suggests that it’s about choices more generally and how you can never go back to how things were. A committed choice, like the one the river made, is irrevocable.
Throughout ‘The River,’ Teasdale engages with themes of decision-making and loss. The speaker, a river, makes a decision and then immediately regrets it. The river loses that which makes it happy while in the pursuit of peace. With the loss of sun and independence, the river is consumed by the ocean’s bitter, gray, and cold waters. The ocean drinks it up thirstily until the two are indistinguishable. The poem may inspire readers to question their own decision-making and how much of themselves they give to another person or task.
Structure and Form
‘The River’ by Sara Teasdale is a three-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds in the second stanza. The final stanza uses the same rhymes, “sea” and “me” as the first. The lines are all around the same length, giving the poem a unified and even feel.
Although the pattern is not consistent, the poet almost uses alternative tetrameter and trimeter lines. This means that the odd-numbered lines contain eight syllables (with several exceptions) and the even-numbered lines contain six syllables (with several exceptions).
Teasdale makes use of several literary devices in ‘The River.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two as well as three and four in the first stanza.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “sunny,” “sought” and “sea” in lines one and two.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly vibrant descriptions. For example, “And found it wild and black” and “But the thirsty tide ran inland.”
The meaning is that one shouldn’t fully commit oneself to another person, or to a choice, without fully understanding the implications. In this case of the river, it willingly entered into the ocean without know what would happen to its freshness and sun.
Teasdale likely wrote ‘The River’ as an allegory. It’s meant to tell a story and share a lesson about decision-making. It’s up to readers what kind of decisions they relate to the river’s. But, it does appear as a warning in regard to giving oneself up entirely to another being or choice.
The river takes a hopeful and then desolate tone in this poem. The first stanza is filled with hope for the future while the second and third reconcile with the river’s choices and the life it now has to contend with.
The mood is dark and contemplative. Readers are meant to finish this piece and contend with their own choices in life. It might also make one remember a time in their life when they were as naive as the river ends up being.
Personification is the most important literary device at work in ‘The River.’ It’s used through Teasdale’s narration and through the imagery in the last stanza. She personifies the river and the ocean. The latter drinks from the river’s freshwater, turning it bitter. The river itself is hopeful and naive.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The River’ might also be interested in reading some other Sara Teasdale poems. For example:
- ‘The Old Maid’ – explores how a life without love can wither a person away.
- ‘The Long Hill’ – uses the extended metaphor of climbing a hill to represent the journey of life, with all the highs and lows featured on the way.
- ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ – is a beautiful, image-rich poem. In it, Teasdale describes the impact, or lack thereof, that humanity really has on the natural world.