Although she wrote novels, journals, memoirs and literary criticism, May Sarton considered poetry to be the primary means by which she expressed her creativity and identity. She wrote poetry as a child, and it was to poetry that she turned when she left the theater. She published seventeen collections of poetry, the first, Encounter in April, in 1937 and the last, Coming into Eighty, in 1994. Several themes dominated her poetry, including love relationships, her passion for the natural world, her devotion to art and music, her interest in aging and death, the dynamics of growth and change, solitude, travel, and contemporary social issues.
Although she wrote in free verse, the majority of her poems used stricter formal structures such as the sonnet. Four of her major poems were collections of sonnets. The sonnets in Encounter in April portrayed the depth of passion between two lovers and their inevitable separation and sense of loss. This pattern of love found and love failed dominated in two other sonnet sequences: “A Divorce of Lovers,” which recounted an emotionally painful separation, and “The Autumn Sonnet,” where the agony of lost love led eventually to a healing process and an acceptance of renewal. In Letters from Maine, the poet affirmed the desire for love that is sustained in late life. In Coming into Eighty, Sarton examined some of the universal metaphors of old age, including wisdom, simplicity, and optimism.
Despite her lifelong devotion to writing poetry, most of her readers return time and again to May Sarton’s memoirs and journals. In the memoir I Knew a Phoenix, Sarton recalled her childhood, the influence of her parents, and her experiences in the theater. In effect, this memoir ended at the point where May Sarton’s career as a writer began, in 1937. As in her journals, Sarton recounted significant friendships that provided mentoring, inspiration, and education for the young woman. Plant Dreaming Deep opened Sarton’s works to a wider audience. Sarton wrote about her middle age, the years between the ages of forty-five and fifty-five, when she began to live alone in rural New England. Many readers responded positively to the ideal life of a working woman living alone. Sarton’s life alone enabled her to engage in a struggle with solitude and to find the means through which she could experience self-renewal and creativity.
Sarton continued to explore that struggle in eight later journals. These works are among the most accessible, and in some ways most enduring, contributions that she made as a writer. If Plant Dreaming Deep provided the model for the joys of solitude, then Journal of a Solitude provided a corrective by noting the negative effects of the solitary life. Sarton viewed solitude as a source of bliss and inspiration; at the same time, she felt—in that solitude—stricken by times of loneliness and despair.
In all of her journals, Sarton took great risks to expose her fears and insecurities, her bouts with depression, and her ambivalence toward fame. Another risk was to write about events that are part of the round of daily living, such as preparing meals, visiting the doctor, feeding the birds, or planting bulbs. Yet readers embraced Sarton’s journals because they see in her struggle as a writer and as a woman the capacity to maintain a freshness and originality despite writing about mundane events. She maintained sufficient distance between the emotion of the moment and the creative act of recounting the effects of that emotion. Self-discipline, honesty, and objectivity were her strengths in her journals. In two of them, Recovering: A Journal and After the Stroke, Sarton shared her struggles with disease and physical disability. In two of her last three journals, Endgame and Encore, she exposed her feelings of vulnerability and hopelessness because of physical disabilities and chronic pain. In these journals, Sarton raged against the frailties and losses that she associated with her aging process.
The title of her novel Crucial Conversations (1975) provides a clue to a basic organizing principle that Sarton employed in most of her fiction. The dominant internal structure within her novels is the conversation between two characters. In fact, extended dialogue between characters is emphasized far more than the conventional use of external action and plot construction. In some respects, this technique may reflect Sarton’s theatrical aptitude and skills. Perhaps, however, Sarton employs conversations because the action of most of the novels is internal rather than external. What matters is how characters change, not what characters experience. The subject matter of her novels is the process of women (more often than men) coming to an understanding of their identity and values, the significance of relationships in their lives, the possibilities for change in their lives, and their strengths and autonomy. Unfortunately, the attendant thinness of plot distracts from the repeated use of the conversational structure.
Sarton used the novel form to celebrate important women in her own life (a character in The Single Hound is based on a teacher Sarton had in Belgium, and the main character in The Magnificent Spinster is modeled after her teacher Anne Thorp). Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Calling (1965) and The Education of Harriet Hatfield (1989) explore themes related to androgyny and homosexuality.
In all of Sarton’s work, the integration of the self, and particularly the self of women, is of primary value. Working inward to discover self-knowledge, balance, wholeness, and creativity is the most important task of the individual.
Journal of a Solitude
First published: 1973
Type of work: Journal
Sarton records and reflects upon her experiences, ever-changing moods, significant relationships, and strains in her personal and creative life.
In Journal of a Solitude, Sarton explores significant issues in her life through the creative form of the journal. To Sarton, the journal is not to be confused with the diary. In the journal, the writer reflects upon experiences and analyzes the details of daily living. To Sarton, writing a journal means examining her life, putting herself in touch with priorities in her life (friends, work, gardening), reflecting upon the imbalances in her personal and creative life, and, most important, clarifying and resolving aspects of her sense of self.
Entries in Journal of a Solitude begin September, 1970, and end September, 1971. At the beginning of the journal, she examines a dominant theme in her life: the conflict between the opposing forces of solitude and society. She acknowledges the strains of public appearances and social engagements and recalls the times she yielded to the onslaught of personal inquiries and unwanted visits. These, she declares, are not part of her “real life.” For Sarton, who has always lived alone as an adult, real life means engaging in a process of reclaiming the self and finding a creative center from which new life can spring. In many respects she welcomes solitude, because in spite of its recurring loneliness, depression, and rage, solitude provides a source of energy and vitality to stimulate her creativity.
Sarton settles down in the fall of the year to renew herself in solitude. She realizes that after publication of Plant Dreaming Deep in 1968, she was “discovered” by many who viewed her as a seer or sage, someone who seemed “above” emotional frailty. She wrote Journal of a Solitude to reveal a May Sarton who faces daily the struggles between solitude and society, joy and despair, companionship and loneliness.
Love and creativity are closely allied in Sarton’s life. She comments several times on the rejuvenating power of love in an affair with someone she refers to only as “X.” This relationship spurs a creative breakthrough in her writing of poetry. Other high points in the year include the publication of her latest novel, Kinds of Love (1970); reunions with friends; several poetry readings; and her plans to publish a new book of poems, A Durable Fire: New Poems, to mark her sixtieth birthday in 1972. Low points include the death of a handyman, Perley Cole, who was the inspiration for a character in her 1973 novel As We Are Now; the death of one of her pets, a parrot named Punch; and the eventual ending of the relationship with her lover.
After a year of entries, Sarton realizes that it is time to end her journal. She marks the transition in her life with the decision to move away from Nelson, New Hampshire, to live in a house by the sea in Maine. For Sarton, writing the journal has been a process. She examines moods as they come, charts the high and low points of her days, and measures the gradual changes that occur within her sense of self. In this way, the changes in her life unfold, like the changes of the seasons. At the end of the journal, she is a different person, but that difference is not based upon one event or encounter. She has been changed through the process of living, thinking, interacting, surviving, and creating.
As We Are Now
First published: 1973
Type of work: Novel
An old woman, oppressed and abused by her caregivers after moving to a nursing home, strikes back with a desperate act.
The plot of As We Are Now is simple: An old woman, Caro Spencer, is placed in a rural nursing home, finds little stimulation in her relationships with other residents, experiences hostile and abusive treatment from the administrator and head nurse, communicates her distress to helpful acquaintances from the outside world, is frustrated and ridiculed by the head nurse after repeated attempts to improve conditions in the home, and decides finally to set fire to the nursing home and kill everyone inside,...
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