The Ghost by Sara Teasdale

‘The Ghost’ by Sara Teasdale is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of the quatrains follows a slightly different pattern. The first and last stanzas rhyme, abab while the remaining rhyme, abcb. 

A reader should also take note of the fact that the first stanza repeats, almost word for word in the last four lines. There is an important alteration in the last line that helps to solidify the main themes of this piece though. 

There are also quite noticeable moments of repetition, especially at the beginning of the lines. Six of the twenty lines begins with “I.” A few others begins with “But” and “My.” The repetition also functions in the narrative of the piece. Teasdale’s speaker moves through a town she once lived in, meeting past lovers. For each she analyzes her feelings and comes to a specific conclusion. By the end of the poem the verses have circled back around to the beginning and the speaker is forced to reassess her experiences in the two. 

 

Summary of The Ghost

‘The Ghost’ by Sara Teasdale describes a speaker’s unwelcome experience after reuniting with two ex-lovers in a city she used to know. 

The poem begins with the speaker stating that she went back to a city she used to live in. There are a number of men who she used to love in this place and she means to speak with them. She is not worried about this experience as she has a new lover she is very happy with. 

With the first man there are no issues. They used to love one another passionately but that is buried in the past. The second she comes into contact with strikes fear into her heart. Their love was never fully expressed and she feels it resurfacing. The poem concludes with the speaker altering her first statement. Her eyes are now full of “fear” rather than “laught[er]”

 

Analysis of The Ghost 

Stanza One 

I went back to the clanging city,

I went back where my old loves stayed,

But my heart was full of my new love’s glory,

My eyes were laughing and unafraid.

In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins with two lines that start with ‘I.” This makes clear that the story is going to be a first person narrative. The speaker is going to give the reader access to her actions and emotions. 

Teasdale’s speaker is arriving in the “clanging city.”  The poet’s use of alliteration here helps the reader to envision the clashing of industry, society, and emotions that exist there simultaneously. This is a place she was once quite familiar with and lived for a fairly long period of time. All her “old loves stay…” there. While a reader might expect this to cause some trepidation, that is not the case. She is not worried about visiting the town or seeing her lovers because she is involved in a new relationship. Her heart contains all the “glory” of a “new love.” In fact, the speaker seems to take some pleasure in this trip. She is in a good mood with laughter in her eyes. There is no expectation of anything going wrong. 

When a reader finishes this piece it will become clear that Teasdale has used this same stanza, almost line for line, as the fifth of the poem. There is one significant difference though. 

 

Stanza Two

I met one who had loved me madly

And told his love for all to hear —

But we talked of a thousand things together,

The past was buried too deep to fear.

In the second quatrain the reader is introduced to the first lover that the speaker reunites with. This is someone who once felt very passionately about her. She states that he “had loved [her] madly.” He could not control himself around her, nor could he keep from telling everyone about his love. Any who would listen learned of its depths. 

When the speaker met up with this person it was not awkward and there was no talk of lingering feelings. She was able to “talk…of a thousand things” with this person. The only reason this was possible was because the feelings had been expressed, they were known. After the relationship was over they were “buried too deep” within the speaker and her ex-lover for her to have any “fear” of them. 

 

Read more:   A Ballad of Two Knights by Sara Teasdale

Stanza Three

I met the other, whose love was given

With never a kiss and scarcely a word —

Oh, it was then the terror took me

Of words unuttered that breathed and stirred.

It is in the third stanza that the narrative changes. Once the story gets to its halfway point the speaker’s outlook on her return to her “clanging city” has changed. She meets with another lover. This person had given her “love” without, “a kiss and scarcely a word—.” 

The fact that the feelings the two shared for one another were never flushed out the dynamic is different. When they are speaking there is something of a resurgence of feeling. The speaker feels a “terror” take her. This new feeling is in anticipation of other feelings which might follow. She does not want to feel anything for this person again. She is supposedly in a happy relationship. 

 

Stanza Four

Oh, love that lives its life with laughter

Or love that lives its life with tears

Can die — but love that is never spoken

Goes like a ghost through the winding years. . . .

In the fourth stanza the speaker explains why it is that this type of love had the impact on her that it did. She separates the first relationship from the second with two different phrases. The speaker says that a “love” that is out in the open and gives “laughter” to life can pass. That is what she had with the first man.  An alternative to this love is one that is defined by tears. It is still be lived out in the open so it too “Can die.” 

In the third line she brings up the possibility of a “love that is never spoken.” This is the kind of love she had with the second man. They never told the truth of how they felt. Therefore it is able to last through the “winding years” like a ghost. 

 

Stanza Five  

I went back to the clanging city,

I went back where my old loves stayed,

My heart was full of my new love’s glory, —

But my eyes were suddenly afraid.

As mentioned previously, the fifth stanza is almost a perfect replica of the first. Here the speaker is reiterating how she first felt about coming back to the “clanging city.” She was initially confident and blasé about her return. Now though, the ending of the stanza is changed. Her eyes “were suddenly afraid” rather than filled with laughter. 

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