In Plant Dreaming Deep (1967), May Sarton remarks that, like Yeats, she wants her works, (a formidable collection of poetry, novels, articles, and autobiography, published at a rate of almost one volume per year since 1937) “to be seen as a whole ... a vision of life, which, though unfashionable all the way, has validity.” Her works before and since that time seem to fulfill that criterion through recurring themes that bind them together. That her vision of life was “unfashionable” is easily attributed to the fashionable despair and skepticism about the nature of man, of his relationship with nature, with others, with himself, and the ultimate fate of the civilization that he had created—ideas prevalent in major writers following World War I and World War II. With these attitudes, nearly every one of Sarton’s books has taken issue.
Conscious as she is of the dual heritage of Europe and America, Sarton finds her roots in humanism and romanticism, pointing the way back to an older tradition. For her, the “true tradition” of American Romanticism is that of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman—a tradition which, while acknowledging the imperfection of man and this world, still emphasizes the potentials and joys of man’s journey to self-awareness, the significance of the individual, the importance and complexity of man’s relationships with nature and with other men, and the final importance of the truth of the human heart. The need for a greater, more intense life achieved only with some struggle and pain, a desire for an order and harmony between past and present, between the inner and outer world, and a celebration of the basic human values—all these themes mark May Sarton’s best works. A World of Light: Portraits and Celebrations, Sarton’s fourth autobiographical work, both reiterates these unifying themes and helps the reader understand how and why they became the basis of the author’s vision of life and of her work.
In her Preface, Sarton poses the question of how a person grows and changes, in part “through the influence of friends,” and thus states one focus of her book: the complex interweavings of human relationships. Likewise, she acknowledges the artistic challenge of trying to capture “the essence of a person and our relationship” made all the more difficult by her awareness of the past as an ever-shifting flux. This interpretation of past and present becomes another important theme of the book. In spite of the flux, Sarton affirms the daily presence of each of the friends (now all dead but one) in her daily life: “We become what we have loved.” The persons developed here have imagination, dedication, warmth, and intensity, qualities shared by Sarton and apparent in all her work. The effort “to capture the essence” is more successful in some portraits than in others, yet the reader will find in the wealth and range of characters and relationships ones that echo the fabric of his own life. To some degree, also, because of the ages and backgrounds of the persons included, the book is partially a history of an age, of changing times, and of the effect of history upon individuals and entire classes.
As a record of the changing forces of history, A World of Light is fascinating in its wealth of detail and anecdote. Mabel Elwes Sarton, for instance, discovers her illegitimacy, a fact that leads her to break off her relationship with George Sarton and contributes to a nervous breakdown; even after her recovery and their reconcilement, she is painfully aware that his family looks down on her as a “poor match.” Both reactions are remnants of a society that no longer exists. The married Sartons escape with almost nothing in front of the advancing German army, and their reestablishment in America represents the displacement of many previously well-to-do European immigrants during those chaotic times. The gradual decay and final sale of Céline’s estate, Pignon Rouge (the first place May Sarton had found roots and thought of as “home”), and Céline’s removal to an apartment in the city, is the history of a whole class whose fortunes were irrevocably changed by the war. Likewise, Elizabeth Bowen’s aunt’s old estate is described as becoming a ruin with the gardeners and servants no longer available. “Bowen’s Court” in Ireland after the war, was also sold and later torn down by the new owners.
The process of modernization and the irretrievable loss of old values is presented most poignantly in the portrait of Marc Turian, the Swiss vigneron, whose winery and land had been owned by his family for generations. Being pushed out of the market after the war by cheaper wines, Marc joined a cooperative to try to compete, but finally returned to his own independent operation, regaining his sense of pride, independence, and family heritage, but at the risk of losing his vineyards. Sarton herself often gives vent to this sense of loss, of growing chaos, of a modern world losing its grip on what is humanly important. Yet, more importantly, she also finds certain places and persons that contain a sense of “vertical past” fused with the present in which stable humanistic values are preserved and celebrated. Marc Turian, doomed to be a species that will ultimately lose to the conglomerates, will endure forever, not just for the writer, but for the reader, both as an individual and as a symbol of values to cherish.
The changeless “black and white” values of Céline and “Kot,” different though they may be, both convey a sense of stability in the midst of a changing world. So does the ritualistic ceremony of having tea with “Kot.” This same sense of stasis is found in the depiction of Grace Eliot Dudley and her home, Le Petit Bois. Returning to the house several years after Grace’s death, Sarton finds the house still “full of peace, of Grace’s own presence, all alive and still, all in depth ... a healing balm.” Even places touched by loved ones, like the memory, preserve some things from change. The seasonal “ceremonies” of the Longs in their Santa Fe garden likewise are linked to a sense of the changeless. Descendants of the original Indians of the area still celebrate seasonal rites, fused long ago with the seasonal rites of the Roman Catholic Church. In this portrait, Sarton’s gift of “catching the essence” is especially remarkable in the evocation and celebration of the harmony of past and present, of pagan and Christian, of place and person. Indeed, she remarks that...