Letters to a Psychiatrist

by May Sarton

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The Poem

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As the title suggests, “Letters to a Psychiatrist” is a series of letters in verse. They are six in number, written to Marynia F. Farnham, the author and psychiatrist to whom A Durable Fire: New Poems, the collection in which these poems first appeared, is dedicated. As a sequence of poems, these six letters in verse, though varied in length and form, move from Christmas, 1970, the time of the first poem, through Easter, 1971, the time of the fifth poem. The movement of the sequence is at once linear and circular. The first-person narrator, a patient of Marynia the psychiatrist, is modeled on May Sarton herself, a poet/artist who, while singing songs of praise to Marynia, moves from a state of suicidal depression to a state that is more whole, conscious, and integrated by the poem’s end, an action of change made possible by the vehicle of the accepting and skilled therapist.

The eulogy to Marynia begins with “Christmas Letter, 1970.” Consisting of five numbered parts, the numbers provide slight shifts to the ongoing, interior lyrical narrative, an internal dialogue from the “I” of the poem to Marynia, sometimes referred to as “she,” sometimes addressed directly by name, and sometimes addressed as “you.” In this first poem, Sarton establishes Marynia metaphorically as an “angel” of wisdom, someone so gifted in her profession that she allows those wounded ones, like the narrator herself, to go deeply into themselves to begin the process of healing. The second poem in the sequence, a sixteen-line poem with four stanza breaks entitled “The Fear of Angels,” continues the eulogy to the psychiatrist. The poet expands the angel metaphor: The psychiatrist is described as one whose brightness and almost-divine presence allows the patient to drop her defenses in order to go deeper into herself.

“The Action of Therapy,” the third poem, is similar to the first poem in structure, a long poem in verse divided, in this case, into six parts. Sarton begins this poem with a whirlwind, a dangerous time when “The psyche nearly cracked/ Under the blast,” a metaphor linking the chaos of nature to the turmoil of the individual psyche. Darkness and storm, earthquake and whirlwind evoke a destructive passion that has blasted the narrator to the core. Yet the poem centers on the healer, the psychiatrist Marynia who, as the “psychic surgeon,” has the angelic power to accept, give, heal, and bless. Without judgment, with “Simple acceptance/ Of things as they are,” Marynia allows the patient to dig into her past, allows the patient to love her in a structured but nonthreatening and nonjudgmental atmosphere, and thereby allows the patient to break the spell her own mother had over her. To give and to receive love, to be receptive and teachable, are some of the actions of therapy. The psychiatrist is once again eulogized in glowing terms of light, transformation, and transparency—the soul’s realm.

The fourth poem, entitled “I Speak of Change,” is the pivotal poem in the sequence. An eighteen-line poem with no stanza or numbered breaks, it is more formally structured than those that have preceded it. Indeed, the tight structure serves to mirror the poem’s content: the lesson of passion contained (a recurring theme in Sarton’s poetry). The poet begins with the couplet, “Tumult as deep and formal as in dance/ Seizes me now for every scheduled hour.” The tension between chaos and order, passion and detachment is resolved by merging these two seemingly opposite impulses. Here the psychiatrist and poet meet, representing, on a figurative level, the reconciliation of elements in the poet’s own psyche. Indeed,...

(This entire section contains 823 words.)

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reconciled opposites inform the poem: words and silence, light and darkness, distance and closeness. The narrator indicates the relationship has served growth and change and has allowed the narrator/patient/poet to become more fully and authentically herself.

The fifth poem, entitled “Easter 1971,” is a celebration of the riches that have come from the patient-therapist relationship; it is also a celebration of the poet’s aloneness. The narrator knows that an epiphany is near, and she celebrates the antiphonies of opposite forces, named in the poem as “fervor and detachment,” two qualities that Sarton herself believes to be necessary for the poet/artist. In the last line of this poem, the narrator calls the psychiatrist-patient relationship “a structured, impersonal, and holy dance.”

In “The Contemplation of Wisdom,” the last poem in the sequence, the narrator speaks of the inevitable severing of the relationship with the psychiatrist and contemplates the wisdom she has gained. The narrator accepts more fully the life of one who has to live on the edge, the artist’s life, and shows acceptance of her darkness and loss. Once again the narrator eulogizes the psychiatrist: “I summon up fresh courage from your courage.” She ends with the acceptance of the psychiatrist’s love as the key that will help her with her solitary poet/artist’s life.

Forms and Devices

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These poems abound with references to the natural world of plants and animals; light and dark; seasons, earth, water, and sky; and earthquakes, storms, and fire. Used as both metaphors and images that inform the poetic landscape, these references make it clear that human beings, with their capacity for suffering and joy, also belong to this natural kingdom. The personal psyche can be blasted just as a tree struck by lightning can be blasted or the earth, rent by an earthquake, can be blasted. Juxtaposed with these natural images are images of transcendence, an arena of experience belonging to both God and humans.

Sarton begins “Christmas Letter, 1970” with “These bulbs forgotten in a cellar,/ Pushing up through the dark their wan white shoots,/ Trying to live—.” Used metaphorically as a part of the narrator/poet that is lost in unconsciousness, the bulbs, a symbol of potential beauty and transformation (the flower), serve as that potential for growth that is acknowledged yet “forgotten,” that part of the narrator’s own psyche that wants realization. Sarton, who speaks lovingly in her journals of gardening, writes, in her Journal of a Solitude (1973), a non-fiction journal she was writing even as she composed the poems for A Durable Fire, “For a long time, for years, I have carried in my mind the excruciating image of plants, bulbs, in a cellar, trying to grow without light, putting out white shoots that will inevitably wither. It is time I examined this image.”

Juxtaposed with the natural world in these poems is the more transcendent world of angels and God, a nonetheless human world that incorporates mystery, wisdom, and rebirth as well as the great “Unknown.” The movement toward reconciliation of these seemingly opposite forces contributes to the tension of this sequence. The human rises to the divine in the person of Marynia, described again and again as “an angel,” one who has “superior powers.” Marynia is also emblematic of a surrogate mother figure, the divine Mother, the Eternal Feminine. The divine also descends to the human in the figure of Christ, a symbol of transcendence and rebirth but also of suffering (his earthly life leading up to the Crucifixion). In the fifth part of the third poem, “The Action of Therapy,” Sarton writes, “In middle age we starve/ For ascension,” clearly indicating that in maturity the interior psychological drive is for transcendence, which means, for Sarton, a drive for love and connection, for earthly communion and wisdom. “The cruel ascension/ Toward loss” described in part 3 of “The Action of Therapy” epitomizes the narrator’s struggle to transcend humankind’s animal nature by merging into it and accepting loss and change.

The Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter are integral to the sequence and parallel the narrator’s struggle. Christmas, symbolic of Christ’s birth, is, in the Christian tradition, a time of joy and hope for the world. It is also, for many, a time of loneliness and depression. In part 2 of “Christmas Letter, 1970,” the reader hears Marynia’s voice through the interior dialogue of the narrator/patient: “‘Yes,’ you say, ‘of course at Christmas/ Half the world is suicidal.’” Sarton also draws the parallel between vulnerable infant love, which the Christ child also represents, and the vulnerable love of the patient for the psychiatrist, a love that, in parts of the sequence, appears naïve in its ubiquitous adoration, a naïveté that is clearly a part of the process of therapy. The patient, like the vulnerable infant and the “homeless cat” mentioned in part 1 of this same poem, is “hungry” and “starving.” This animal need for food, symbolic of the narrator/patient’s need for love and acceptance, will be satisfied by a meeting of the divine presence, symbolized in the literal as well as figurative Marynia, one who is associated with both the human and divine mother. Words such as “food,” “nourish,” “restore,” “save,” “shelter,” “provide,” and “mother” surround Marynia throughout these poems as do words such as “angel,” “goddess,” “power,” “light,” “mysteries,” and “blessed.” The narrator/patient/poet must, like the Christ child, integrate the human and divine into herself. She does this through the meeting with the literal and figurative Marynia, who, as a psychiatrist with “superior powers,” represents for the patient mother love, divine love, and transcendent love.

As Christmas connotes both joy and suffering, Easter connotes both as well. In the Christian tradition, Easter represents Christ’s death and suffering as epitomized in the crucifixion; Easter also represents Christ’s rebirth and resurrection. In “Easter 1971,” the narrator has been, through “the action of therapy,” figuratively resurrected. She writes, “I come to this Easter newly rich and free/ In all my gifts.” Celebrating both the richness of her own gifts as a poet and her “winter poverty,” the aloneness and detachment required for a writer, the narrator has come to a fuller acceptance of her self. Though the poet feels reborn through “the action of therapy,” she nevertheless must struggle, as all humans do, with loneliness, suffering, and loss. Wisdom, the topic of the last poem, is, Sarton implies, the true meeting place that is both God-like and human, the reconciliation of the human and divine soul.


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