Letters to a Psychiatrist Analysis

May Sarton

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 823 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 867 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Berman, Harry J. “May Sarton and the Tensions of Attachment.” In Integrating the Aging Self: Personal Journals of Later Life. New York: Springer, 1994.

Blouin, Lenora P. May Sarton: A Bibliography. 2d ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 2000.

Braham, Jeanne. Crucial Conversations: Interpreting Contemporary American Literary Autobiographies by Women. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1995.

Fulk, Mark. Understanding May Sarton. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

Ingersoll, Earl, ed. Conversations with May Sarton. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

Kallet, Marilyn, ed. A House of Gathering: Poets on May Sarton’s Poetry. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.

Peters, Margot. May Sarton: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Sherman, Susan, ed. May Sarton: Selected Letters. 2 vols. New York: Norton, 1997-2000.

Swartzlander, Susan, and Marilyn R. Mumford, eds. That Great Sanity: Critical Essays on May Sarton. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.