Study Guide

May Sarton

May Sarton Essay - Sarton, (Eleanor) May (Vol. 4)

Sarton, (Eleanor) May (Vol. 4)

Sarton, (Eleanor) May 1912–

Ms Sarton, born in Belgium, has lived in the United States since 1916. She is an award-winning poet, a novelist, and an autobiographer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Miss Sarton understands that we must mistrust the betrayals of technical facility fully as much as those of inarticulateness, and that we must employ whatever skills we may summon in the service of the things that move and shape us as human beings. In almost every poem [in In Time Like Air] she attains a delicate simplicity as quickeningly direct as it is deeply given, and does so with the courteous serenity, the clear, caring, intelligent and human calm of the queen of a small, well-ordered country. The only regret Miss Sarton raises is that she is not likely to become much of an "influence." What good effects her practice may have on others will have to take place like the working of a charm or a secret spell: they must be felt in the loving skill with which her poems are built, rather than in the quiet, true, unspectacular sound of her voice.

James Dickey, "May Sarton" (1958), in his Babel to Byzantium (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by James Dickey), Farrar, Straus, 1968, p. 73.

In the only interesting portion of her new book A Private Mythology, May Sarton provides us with a fragmented travelogue of Japan, India, and Greece. Practically all of the twenty-six poems in this section are occasional in nature, and many of them are devoted almost exclusively to sensory impressions. She encounters Japan with a sense of wonder. "I inhabit a marvelous world/" she tells us at an inn at Kyoto, "Where every sense is taught/ New ways of perceiving." There are two difficulties with what she learns, and they may or may not be related: the process is too self-conscious, and the products are dull too much of the time…. The writing is quaint but accurate, and the syntax does much to convince us that she has realized at least something of the Eastern perspective on natural detail. The poems on Japan, and some of those on India and Greece, are written in a free verse that she handles more successfully than she does the traditional line. After the book returns us to the West and to her extremely clumsy iambs, the poems are consistently bad.

James McMichael, in The Southern Review, Vol. III, No. 2, Spring, 1967, pp. 435-36.

May Sarton's newest book [A Durable Fire], her fourth, is … a book I wanted to like because so much of it attests to a difficult psychic growth and harmony perilously established; and, aside from what pain there always must be in criticizing the outcome of such a struggle, one also hopes to learn something from it….

But no matter my respect for the woman for having achieved this serenity, except for an occasional lovely moment she is all too right when she says "Out of the passion comes the form,/ And only passion keeps it warm."

There are many brief evocations of an actual rural world, but it is, every bit of it, so used and directed, that what is concrete in it melts and re-freezes as yet another impenetrable abstraction. So, while this kind of poetry appears superficially to work by equivalencies of fact with emotion, nothing in the end has its own real life to begin from: it is all props on which, we are assured, great inner consequences lean. Looking for perceptions of observed nature, all I can find is how they are, one by one, turned immediately to the grasping uses of Human Nature…. And none of it convinces me of anything beyond the poet's devouring will that can soften and manipulate anything in the actual world until, sounding wholly fabricated, it can be bent to her uses.

Rosellen Brown, in Parnassus, Spring/Summer, 1973, pp. 49-50.

An honest writer, never less than serious in her intent, May Sarton has created [in As We Are Now] a convincing record of evil done and good intentions gone astray. The device chosen suits her purpose and strengthens her book: the unity of viewpoint, derived from the use of the journal as a vehicle, reinforces both our sense of Caroline Spencer's isolation and helplessness and our own guilt. She is speaking to us.

But "As We Are Now" has the defects of its virtues. It is almost as if Miss Sarton became careless because she had a strong theme and a viable approach. The book is peppered with clichés … and weak statements…. There is a tendency to dissipate strong effects by the use of intensive adverbs….

One might argue that this is a journal, and therefore written as the character would have written it; but it is a novel and it must make its effects by art.

Ellen Douglas, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 4, 1973, p. 77.

Often [Sarton] gives her work (and thus provides us conveniently with) unusually indicative titles: Kinds of Love (1970) or the poetic account of love, aging and her time in psychiatry, A Durable Fire (1972). Journal of a Solitude, in the same year, advances her conviction that it is not in relationships but in maintaining one's aloneness that a creative woman realizes herself. And The Small Room (1961), [was] the book that appealed especially to academic women (I was one then) because it raised (but never tried to solve) the question of how it was possible to be productive, scholarly, creative and yet lead the life women were "destined" for.

As a longtime reader of hers I want to join the celebration because I admire the nature of her career—serene-seeming despite "the anguish of my life … its rages"; her declared traumas of bisexual love, breakdown, conflict; her increasing productivity (to my mind her book published last summer, As We Are Now is one of her finest achievements), everything she has written entirely professional, solid yet sensitive….

Love has always lived an uneasy, fitful, secret existence in May Sarton's novels. It enters surreptitiously, it was never meant to be admitted into the ordered life, it takes possession of the reluctant spirit. In Mrs. Stevens, it may be because love is irregular, but more I think because it is (as in Thomas Mann) a disruptive and diminishing force working against creative fulfillment and purpose, "love as the waker of the dead, love as conflict, love as the mirage … Not love as … lasting, faithful giving … No, that fidelity, that giving is what the art demands, the art itself, at the expense of every human being," Hilary tells her interviewer.

It makes no difference to us that for May Sarton the Muse is, has been, feminine—love of any kind is always "a costly indulgence in primary emotion." "Would it have ended differently … if Dorothea had been a man?" No, because the end is brought about by a vital rage in which "the Muse vanished"; she remembers an earlier lover's words that "we are lepers, we are treated like lepers." Here Sarton is speaking not of lovers alone but of the artist: "the creative person, the person who moves from an irrational source of power, has to face the fact that this power antagonizes." For Hilary (and Sarton) the face of the beloved is the gorgon face: "we have turned the Medusa face around and seen our selves. The long solitude ahead would be the richer for it."…

[Sarton] has examined her sex as subject, and her art as mistress, companion and hazard. She has seen, and made us see, the dangers as well as the joys of living alone. Hers has been a durable fire, despite the fact that criticism and recognition have often ignored her; her small room seems to make most male critics uncomfortable. She accepts love now, perhaps, in a small and secret way.

Doris Grumbach, "The Long Solitude of May Sarton," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 8, 1974, pp. 31-2.

F. Hilary Stevens, the 70-year-old protagonist of "Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing" by May Sarton, the author of "Collected Poems (1930–1973)" and of 14 novels, is the author of two novels and six books of poetry. Like her creator, Hilary Stevens has lived abroad, now leads a relatively isolated existence in the New England countryside, loves nature, and has for most of her career been denied the critical acclaim she would have liked to enjoy. Of course, Hilary is ficticious, i.e., she serves her creator's purposes; given Hilary's beliefs and behavior, I would like to think that those purposes include irony, but the evidence suggests that she is Sarton's mouthpiece and perhaps alter ego….

The predominating point of view is Hilary's. So the very form of the novel establishes her as a source of knowledge and enlightenment, an answerer, authoritative if not downright oracular.

Hilary's voice is consistent with the role, employing a public, rhetorical tone and diction even in intimate moments. She tends to make generalizations and pronouncements, particularly with regard to Writing and Women; moreover she fails to distinguish between what is acquired (historical, cultural) and what is inherent, and also among herself, some others, and all others. As a result she makes some very large claims of the form Women Are: "Women do not thrive in cities," and "Women are afraid of their daemon, want to control it, make it sensible like themselves," and "Women have to deal with the things men in their wildness and genius have invented."

"… [We] agree I hope that neither the novel [nor] the poem of ideas is woman's work." Thus Hilary relegates women to literary housekeeping and renders herself incapable of dealing at all with Mary McCarthy and Simone de Beauvoir: "My opinion about these writers can have no interest. I never pretended to be a critic." But that is doubly disingenous of Hilary, because she expresses quite a few critical opinions and because the greatest achievements of these writers have been in non-fiction. Since they do not conform to her theory she dismisses (in effect erases) them, a godlike maneuver. But then control is one of the big issues in Hilary's life. The word is used so many times, either by Hilary or about her, that it becomes a kind of verbal tic.

Hilary's sentimental attitudes toward writing and women converge in what she and her interviewers agree is "the question"—i. e., the Muse, that sexist fairy-tale figure who personifies Inspiration. Actual, incarnate, female, by no means merely a way of speaking, the Muse is embodied for Hilary in female love-objects. The logical conclusion is that the position of writer is not open to homosexual men and heterosexual women; refusing to say so explicitly. Hilary falls back on the concept of women's work and men's….

So the final solution in a double bind: woman writer is a contradiction in terms: "After all, admit it, a woman is meant to create children not works of art—that's what she has been engined to do, so to speak…. It's the natural order of things that (a man with talent) construct objects outside himself and his family. The woman who does so is aberrant…. [When] the artist is a woman she fulfills (the need to create) at the expense of herself as a woman." A female person who writes must therefore define herself as freaky and/or crippled, as not-a-writer or not-a-woman. If she defines herself as other-than-woman, women must be the Other to her, and in that case she should not pretend to speak for them.

The belief in the feminine sensibility informs Sarton's poetry, too. In "My Sisters, O My Sisters" she expresses a compassionate awareness of women's potentialities and the limits imposed on them, yet she manifests her own complicity in the traditional oppressions, reinforces and perpetuates the damaging myths, by encouraging women "To be Eve … To be Mary …" and by speaking of "the masculine and violent joy of pure creation—" It is in her intense, delicate, sensuous poems about Japan that Sarton seems to me to most successfully give herself over to and present a "universe of feeling/ Where everything is seen, and nothing mine/ To plead with or possess, only partake of."

The novel, with its special pleading and implicit self-justifying, reads like a gloss on the life work of the author of "Collected Poems" by May Sarton. She deserves more and better than its restrictive attitudes allow. We all do.

Helen Chasin, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by the Village Voice, Inc.), June 13, 1974, pp. 36-8.

May Sarton has done her best with that now expanding novel of feminine consciousness, customarily marked by disease, suffering, old age and death. As You Are Now gets them all in as it wheezes to a climax at an old people's home in America. Caro Spencer looks back over a life which seems to be easily divisible into a series of diary entries: her lover, her school, her relatives and her more forbidding passions. These conventional reflections were ruined for me when I realised that their source was a most unpleasant old party, being both boring and snobbish. Mrs Sarton does not seem to realise this, a fact which I can only put down to the Wicked Witch principle of the mirror showing only the fairest of all.

Peter Ackroyd, "Private Lies," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), July 27, 1974, pp. 118-19.

On a first reading, May Sarton's story [Punch's Secret] seems simple and touching—lonely, Punch the parrot "longs for someone small to love," and that night "a sweet wild mouse" comes into his cage and becomes his "secret friend in the dark." But as I read this simple and touching story a second and a third time, I wondered why, like one of Miss Sarton's fine poems, it yielded increasingly complex and disturbing resonances. The book's final sentence, "it is good to have a secret friend in the dark," was not comforting but a cause for anxiety, suggesting that darkness is a more fundamental condition of life than friendship. What if one doesn't have a friend in the dark? Why should having a friend be a secret?…

What is Punch's secret? And from whom is he keeping it? As much as I was moved by this book, there's something unconvincingly passive about Miss Sarton's conception of Punch, something unacceptably accepting. I think Punch is keeping his secret to himself—that he'd really like to bite those "kind" hands that cover his cage at night, that he dreams not so much of "someone small to love" but of flapping his wings and rising swiftly above the treetops, screaming against the sky.

Ross Wetzsteon, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 1, 1974, p. 8.