The other week I was on Twitter discussing sci-fi with some other fans, and we wound up talking about Ray Bradbury’s story “There Will Come Soft Rains”. If you haven’t read it, do; it’s very short and available here in a probably-not-legal copy. In brief (spoilers!) it’s the tale of a smart home that is the only thing left in a city that has been razed by nuclear war. The family members who lived in the house are dead too, reduced to charred ash-shadows on the side of the building:
Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down.
The thing is, the smart home doesn’t know the inhabitants are dead, so it keeps on cooking meals for the family, cleaning the dishes, and issuing reminders about bills that need to be paid. Towards the end of the day, the house asks the mother in the family which poem she’d like the house to recite. Since the woman doesn’t respond, the house picks one on its own — a poem called “There Will Come Soft Rains”, by Sara Teasdale.
It’s a pretty unsettling poem. I’ll quote it here in full:
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
if mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.
Since I read this story around 1980, when I was in middle school and the Cold War was raging and the Toronto Star was printing maps of our city showing where, in the event of a full-on nuclear war, the bombs would probably land and how far the devastation would spread, the prospect of a world without any humans was not that far-fetched. This poem haunted me for years; whenever I read of the devastation of modern wars (Syria, Ukraine, Sudan) it cycles somewhere in the back of my mind.
I never knew much about the poem or the poet, though. As a kid, I figured Bradbury might have simply invented it, and that Sara Teasdale didn’t exist. But now I live in the future, where I have Wikipedia and Google at my beck and call, so upon reconnecting with this story two weeks ago I quickly found myself reading up on Teasdale’s life and works. It turns out she was, during her active career from the 1910s to 30s, one of America’s best-read and best-loved poets. But she was also extremely sickly — so frequently bedridden that she didn’t start school until she was about nine — and had a distant marriage. Teasdale was also frequently in hospitals and in a lot of pain, and this, as it turns out, is also something she wrote about ...
... which I discovered when I started poking around on Google Books for her work. I wanted to see what “There Will Come Soft Rains” looked like in its original layout. Poetry looks pretty dull when you see the poem rendered in a house font (as above); it’s a lot more powerful when you see it with its original typography, particularly when it’s an old gorgeous book from the 30s. So I went looking for it and found it, via Google Books, in Teasdale’s volume Flame and Shadow.
Fortunately for me, Flame and Shadow was published in 1920, so it is pre-1923, the year when copyright law slams down tight on contemporary works. Because American works published before 1923 are out of copyright, Google Books not only has many of those works scanned, but they’re fully readable online, and even downloadable as a PDF.
So barely 15 minutes after shooting the breeze about Ray Bradbury on Twitter, I was sitting in a corner reading the complete copy of a book of poetry from 1920.
It’s a remarkable book. Teasdale is like a remix of Tennyson and Robert Frost, obsessed with death and what the specter of nonexistence means to our earthly life, yet still slightly carrying the courtly/mawkish airs of Victorian poetry. One of the more intense sections of Flame and Shadow is an eight-poem sequence called “In a Hospital”, which is pretty clearly drawn from Teasdale’s own grim experiences of being serially hospitalized. One of the poems is bluntly called “Pain”; another compares her body to a broken field ploughed by agonies; “The Unseen” describes Death itself corporeal, drifting quietly through the corridors of the hospital, unseen by the nurses.
There are also quite a few poems devoted to war and its ravages, which makes sense when you realize she probably wrote most of these during World War I — the most brutal, horrific opera of death the planet had yet seen, when the new technologies of the tank, the machine gun and poison gas pioneered slaughter on an industrialized scale. Once I’d read and pondered these other influences on her life, “There Will Come Soft Rains” takes on a bunch of new shadings. Teasdale is clearly talking about the War, but she’s also thinking of her own war — her body against itself, the erasure that was coming when disease wore her down and the world went on without her.
Obviously, I’m writing this essay to encourage everyone to go read Sara Teasdale now! She is pretty awesome. (At very least, go check out the original typeset version of “There Will Come Soft Rains”, which is here.)
But on a different level, this is a story about how the Internet, Google Books, and copyright have tweaked the way I read — and what I read.
Before the global information highway came along, I didn’t really have any easy way to stumble on Teasdale’s work. Hell, I’d half suspected she was a fiction of Ray Bradbury for decades. Now that I can look things up and scratch any itch of curiosity, I get led down some wonderful rabbit holes. But the deepest rabbit holes, I notice, have been in works of literature that are out of copyright — i.e. published before 1923 — because they’re all there, not just in “snippet” format but the whole gorgeous lovely works, waiting to be read the moment I become interested.
So in the last few years, I’ve found my reading list is tilting more and more heavily to pre-1923 works. One night I stumbled across a mention of the 1706 book The Art of Memory, a wonderful description of ancient memory techniques by Marius D’Assigny. I discovered, hey, it was all there on Google Books, so I downloaded and read it. I heard about Wired Love, an awesome 19th-century novel about a woman telegraph operator who falls in love over the wires, and read that too. Last week I noticed a footnote in a book that mentioned a 1916 magazine article that claimed rural women were becoming so besotted with driving their newfangled automobiles that they were neglecting their hens. Whaddya know: That was online in full-text too.
Consider this one of the unanticipated pleasures of our modern age: The re-emergence of the past.