Letters to a Psychiatrist

by May Sarton

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Themes and Meanings

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“Letters to a Psychiatrist” is a poem about the interior journey, a theme that has occupied Sarton in her novels, fiction, and poetry. While “Letters to a Psychiatrist” explores the unique relationship between psychiatrist and patient, it also explores the human journey of suffering, pain, depression, and loss as well as the human journey of growth, love, and transcendence. Although the patient/narrator is modeled on Sarton herself, it is most important to realize that any poem, if it works at all, should not require an exhaustive search into the poet’s own life and psyche to be understood, for good poetry speaks of the largesse of the human experience, however idiosyncratic the subject or even the poet may seem. However, because Sarton’s life and art are so closely related, her themes can be better understood by looking at a few of her own words.

In Journal of a Solitude, Sarton writes, “Here in Nelson [New Hampshire] I have been close to suicide more than once, and more than once have been close to a mystical experience of unity with the universe.” This preoccupation with both the realm of suffering and the realm of transcendence, the mystical realm, is what, most of all, informs these poems. Though Marynia F. Farnham was Sarton’s real therapist, readers will realize, if they look at the poems themselves rather than Sarton’s life, that Marynia must also be seen as a facet of Sarton herself and, by implication, as a facet of the feminine, if not the divine feminine, in every person.

Though the decision to exclude talk about the relationship between Farnham and Sarton in Journal of a Solitude was left to critic and editor Carolyn Heilbrun, Sarton herself argued, “There are still many people who believe that going to a psychiatrist is an admission of failure or an act of cowardiceI am a fruitful person with a viable life and I believe it would be helpful for people to know that I have had help and did not fear to ask for it.” This quote is important because Sarton’s personal life and her art are almost inseparable; yet, paradoxically, because she is an artist, her art is at once larger than her personal life.

Once again, though Marynia was a real, living person, this woman, through the action of the poems themselves, becomes much larger than a simple woman or a psychiatrist in the same way the narrator of these poems becomes much larger than Sarton the writer and poet. While the meanings and themes of this poetic sequence are based on what happened in Sarton’s real life, they are also much more than what happened; they are about emotional involvement and emotional detachment (stereotypically and traditionally represented in Western culture as the feminine/masculine) as well as the human/divine nature in each person that aspires to self-knowledge, understanding, love, and wisdom. As far as the patient/narrator/poet is concerned, Sarton asks, in Recovering: A Journal (1980), “Is there anyone, I sometimes wonder, who is not wounded and in the process of healing?” thereby aligning each reader with her narrator.

Though some of Sarton’s critics have criticized the poems in A Durable Fire for not confronting “the emotional issues she writes about with candor, openness, or a sufficient sense of honesty,” the strength of the poems in “Letters to a Psychiatrist” is that they transcend that which is purely personal. Human beings all suffer from lack of growth and unconsciousness, like those bulbs “forgotten” in a dark cellar that begin the sequence. While on one hand “Letters to a Psychiatrist” is a eulogy to Marynia, this...

(This entire section contains 719 words.)

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poetic sequence also concerns, at its core, the struggle toward integration of all the disparate parts that make people human, the struggle to integrate the feminine within themselves, the struggle to integrate the open and vulnerable child with the mature, suffering, and more cynical adult, and the struggle of the poet to integrate the passionate and emotional lover with the more rational detached artist, “those antiphonies/ Where the soul of a poet feeds and rests.” Finally, this poem is about the journey of the psyche and the self toward what Sarton calls “Total awareness,” toward “a new landscape” where “souls, released at last,/ Dance together/ On the simple grass.”