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May Sarton

May Sarton
Courtesy estate of May Sarton
May Sarton (May 3, 1912-July 16, 1995) left an impressive legacy of over fifty books, including novels, poetry, memoirs and journals. Her appeal lay in her ability to "sacramentalize the ordinary" by probing everyday subjects such as flowers, gardens, animals, changing sunlight and personal relationships in order to find deeper, universal truths. She examined such themes as the need for solitude, the role of the muse in the act of poetic creativity, and the role of the female artist in society.

Born in Wondelgem, Belgium, May grew up as an only child. Fleeing the German invasion in 1914, the Sartons eventually moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where her father George Sarton, a noted historian of science, taught at Harvard University while continuing his research. May's mother, Mabel Elwes, had been a designer of furniture and fabric in Belgium, but after moving to the United States, Mabel made these artistic interests secondary in order to care for her husband and child. Although her parents were not connected with any church, Sarton as an adult felt that their teachings were not far removed from the religious views of the Unitarian Universalists. Interviewed in The World in 1987, she told Michael Finley, "My father and mother believed that, though Jesus was not God, he was a mighty leader, and the spirit of Jesus, the logos of him, is the worship of God and the spirit of man."

At the age of ten May was introduced to the Unitarian church by her neighborhood friend Barbara Runkle, whose family attended the First Parish in Cambridge. May was impressed by the minister, Samuel McChord Crothers, whose sermons she thought "full of quiet wisdom." One sermon in particular, she recalled in her memoir At Seventy, 1984, "made a great impression on me—and really marked me for life. I can hear him saying, 'Go into the inner chamber of your soul—and shut the door.' The slight pause after 'soul' did it. A revelation to the child who heard it and who never has forgotten it."

May's formal education began at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, an open-air alternative school. She credited her love and appreciation for poetry to the genius of Agnes Hocking, poetry teacher and founder of Shady Hill. In the November 1978 issue of Boston Today, Sarton told Maureen Connelly that Hocking "did not tell us about poetry, but made us live its life." May later attended Cambridge High and Latin, graduating in 1929. Her first published poems, a series of sonnets, appeared in Poetry magazine in December 1930—when she was just eighteen years old.

May SartonAlthough she had a scholarship to Vassar, college was not Sarton's choice. She had dreams of becoming an actress even while continuing to write. She had fallen in love with the theater after seeing actress Eva Le Gallienne perform in "The Cradle Song." Much to her father's concern, May did not attend college but worked as an apprentice actress for Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre in New York, 1929-33, and later as director of her own Associated Actors Theatre, 1933-35. When the Great Depression and lack of funding brought about the demise of these efforts, Sarton withdrew into exhaustion. "All this was a kind of education," she later judged, "different perhaps from college, but I believe now immensely valuable for me as a writer, and I do not regret it."

Throughout her time in the theater, Sarton had continued to write poetry. Her first book of poetry, Encounter in April, was published in 1937. During the early years of writing poetry and novels, Sarton held a number of varied jobs, from film script writer at the Office of War Information to part-time instructor at Harvard, Wellesley and Radcliffe. In 1940 she undertook the first of what were to become annual poetry reading and lecture tours at colleges throughout the United States.

It was on one of these trips to Santa Fe, New Mexico that Sarton met Judith Matlack, the woman with whom she would share her life for many years and with whom she found the greatest stability and compansionship. In spite of early love affairs with men, it was with women Sarton found her muse. In the journal At Seventy Sarton wrote, "Judy was the precious only love with whom I lived for years, the only one. There have been other great loves in my life, but only Judy gave me a home and made me know what home can be." It was for Judy and their life together that Sarton wrote the poem "A Light Left On," which appeared in the volume Land of Silence, 1953.

In 1954 Sarton wrote her first memoir, I Knew a Phoenix. This and subsequent memoirs brought her a tremendous audience of readers and correspondents. Her novel, Birth of a Grandfather, 1957, and her acclaimed book of poetry, In Time Like Air, 1958, were each nominated for National Book Awards. In Time Like Air was one of the few volumes of her verse to receive a warm initial reception from the majority of critics.

After the death of her parents, Sarton lived in an old house in Nelson, New Hampshire, 1958-73, which she made the subject of her second memoir, Plant Dreaming Deep, 1968. Scholar Carolyn Heilbrun wrote of this book that it affected "more single or lonely lives than any other memoir published in recent years." Journal of a Solitude, 1973, Sarton's second memoir, was written to counteract the benign picture projected in Plant Dreaming Deep by unveiling some of her more painful emotions.

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, 1965, is often referred to as Sarton's "coming out" novel and one she admits she could not have written while her parents were alive. With its reissue in 1974, to which Carolyn Heilbrun contributed an important introduction, Sarton's work gained academic recognition, especially by feminist critics. Subsequently her work began to be studied in literature classes and college women's studies programs. Although she appreciated the recognition, Sarton believed that the label "lesbian writer" might limit and distort perception of her work. She wanted to be read as a writer who dealt with themes of universal interest. She had, in fact, already written novels about family and married life.

The women Sarton loved were the catalyst for her poetry. In the presence of the muse and in the creative act of writing poetry, Sarton found a "spirituality." In her June 1974 article "The Practice of Two Crafts" for the Christian Science Monitor, Sarton says "Perhaps every true poem is a dialogue with God" and "when we are able to write a poem we become for a few hours part of Creation itself."

In Journal of a Solitude Sarton describes what she meant by prayer. "If one looks long enough at almost anything, looks with absolute attention at a flower, a stone, the bark of a tree, grass, snow, a cloud something like revelation takes place. Something is 'given' and perhaps that something is always a reality outside the self. We are aware of God only when we cease to be aware of ourselves, not in the negative sense of denying self, but in the sense of losing self in admiration and joy."

As an adult Sarton did not become a member of any Unitarian church nor did she regularly attend religious services. She believed, however, that the Unitarian Universalists helped her "get over the hump" from small poetry audiences to larger engagements. In 1972 at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, Richard Henry, minister from Denver, presented a special service based on Sarton's work, "Composing a Life," to an audience of five hundred. Following this event, other large audiences gathered at various Unitarian Universalist churches to hear Sarton speak. In 1976 Sarton was invited to lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Thomas Starr King School of Religious Leadership in Berkeley, California, from which she also received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. In 1982 she delivered the Ware Lecture, "The Values We Have to Keep," to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. President Eugene Pickett introduced her as "our poet." In addition, she received Ministry to Women Award from the Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation.

In spite of these positive associations, Sarton could be critical of Unitarians. "I feel them a little sentimental," she wrote in a letter in 1978. "Perhaps because the emphasis is almost entirely on human relations." When she read her religious poems at the Unitarian church in Brattleboro, Vermont, she was not satisfied with their reception. "I suppose it went all right," she recorded in Journal of a Solitude, "but I felt . . . that the kind, intelligent people gathered in a big room looking out on pine trees did not really want to think about God. His absence . . . or His presence. Both are too frightening."

Sarton's work and life strayed beyond the boundaries of traditional faith. Writing in 1948 (a passage first published in May Sarton, Among the Usual Days, 1993) she observed that "At its best the Catholic mind seems to me much wiser than the Protestant, wholer and saner and also more gentle, more human. But I also think it is almost impossible to be a converted Catholic. The strain of belief is too great and one has to accept too many impossibles. The essential Christian wisdom . . . after all . . . comes back to what one can dig out of oneself."

If Sarton can be labeled at all, she was a humanist. She told Michael Finley, "We're humanists, you see—the extreme right considers us devils, and that's something else in our favor." Sarton was less interested in organized religion than in something she saw as broader—the spirit, or perhaps humanity. Terms such as God, Christ, heaven and hell were used only metaphorically in her writing. Yet a sense of the transcendent animated her work. In Journal of a Solitude she wrote, "There is really only one possible prayer: Give me to do everything I do in the day with a sense of the sacredness of life. Give me to be in Your presence, God, even though I know it only as absence."

In her poem, "Of Prayer," Sarton wrote

It is a mistake, perhaps, to believe
That religion concerns you at all;
that is our own invention,
Longing for formal acceptance
To a formal invitation.
But yours to be the anarchist,
The thrust of growth,
And to be present only in the
Prayer that is creation,
In the life that is lived,
Love planted deeper than emotion,
Pure Idea that cannot break apart,
Creator of children or the work of art.

In sympathy with beliefs of Teilhard de Chardin, Sarton was convinced that constructing a soul is the great human enterprise and responsibility. In order to compose a life, like composing a poem, one must remain transparent and allow life to flow through oneself. In Journal of a Solitude she wrote: "One must believe that private dilemmas are, if deeply examined, universal, and so, if expressed, have a human value beyond the private. . . I am willing to give myself away and take the consequences, whatever they are."

May Sarton
photo: Don Cadoret
During her last two decades in a house near the sea in York, Maine, Sarton remained productive as a writer, even after her life had become constrained by illness and physical challenges. During the 1980s Sarton wrote three novels, a book of poetry, and a journal, At Seventy, 1984. Reflecting on growing older she wrote, "I am more myself than I have ever been." After a stroke in 1990 Sarton was unable to write or concentrate for several months. Partially recovered, she used a tape recorder to dictate subsequent journals, affirmative works celebrating her love for life even in the shadow of death. On the videotape Signs of Love: Honoring the Final Voyage, her friend, Susan Sherman, related, "I think in a very important way May was ready to die. But the truth is, she was not ready to stop living."

In her work Sarton provided fresh insight into solitude, the process of mythologizing one's own life and the seeking of truth within oneself. Recalling her childhood minister's admonition to "Go into the innermost chamber of your soul and shut the door," she spent a lifetime seeking the solitude that would allow her to probe within. Solitude, she learned, was "No shelter but a grave demand,/ And I must answer, never ask." ("Moving In," Cloud, Stone, Sun, Vine, 1961). Thousands of her readers believed that she understood them and that she had become their closest friend. Despite her neglect by the literary establishment, these readers have kept her books in print. "There are never more than a few in any generation who can share the world of the spirit with us, to make us know that we are greater in thought or feeling than we believed we were," wrote William Drake in Forward into the Past, "but May Sarton is one, and we are grateful."

Many of Sarton's papers are in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library in New York City. In addition, the Maine Women Writers Collection/ University of New England houses a substantial archive of Sarton materials, including her personal library. Selected letters have been published in three books, all edited by Susan Sherman: May Sarton: Selected Letters 1916-1954 (1997), Dear Juliette: Letters of May Sarton to Juliette Huxley (1999) and May Sarton: Selected Letters 1955-1995 (2002). Interviews can be found in Earl G. Ingersoll, ed., Conversations With May Sarton (1991) and Sarton's critical essays in Writings on Writing (1980). For a comprehensive list of works by and about Sarton see Lenora P. Blouin, May Sarton: A Bibliography, 2nd edition (2000). See further materials see Bradford Dudley Daziel, ed., Sarton Selected: An Anthology of Journals, Novels and Poems of May Sarton (1991) and Richard Henry, Composing a Life: A Celebration Based on the Work of May Sarton (1973).

May Sarton's literary output is large; over the course of her writing life she produced over nineteen volumes of poetry, seventeen novels, nine journals and three memoirs. Of her volumes of poetry, In Time Like Air (1958), A Private Mythology (1966) and Coming Into Eighty (1994) are three of the more significant. In addition many of Sarton's poems are gathered in Collected Poems 1930-1993 (1993). A smaller collection is Serena Sue Hilsinger and Lois Byrnes, eds., Selected Poems of May Sarton (1978). Of significance among the novels are Faithful Are the Wounds (1955), The Small Room (1962) and Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1966). Sarton is probably best known for her journals, the seminal work being Journal of a Solitude, published in 1973 and still in print. The memoirs, which Sarton distinguished from her journals, include the important account, Plant Dreaming Deep (1968), of her house in Nelson, New Hampshire and World of Light (1996), the celebration of lifelong friendships. Some of her juvenilia is available in At Fifteen: A Journal (2002) and Catching Beauty: The Earliest Poems (2002), both edited by Susan Sherman.

Works about Sarton include Constance Hunting, ed., May Sarton Woman and Poet (1982); Elizabeth Evans, May Sarton Revisited (1989); Carolyn G. Heilbrun, "May Sarton's Memoirs," Hamlet's Mother and Other Women (1990); Susan Sherman, ed., Forward Into the Past: A Festschrift For May Sarton on her Eightieth Birthday (1992); Susan Swartzlander and Marilyn R. Mumford, ed., That Great Sanity: Critical Essays on May Sarton (1992); Marilyn Kallet, ed., A House of Gathering: Poets on May Sarton's Poetry (1992); and Constance Hunting, ed., A Celebration of May Sarton (1994). Short portraits of Sarton can be found in Maureen Connelly, "May Sarton—A Profile," Boston Today (November 1978) and major critical analyses of Sarton's poetry in Constance Hunting, "May Sarton," Dictionary of Literary Biography (1986).

Richard Henry and Susan Sherman provided kind assistance in the preparation of this article.

Article by Lenora P. Blouin - posted May 30, 2002


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