May Sarton Sarton, May (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

May Sarton 1912-1995

(Full name Eleanore Marie Sarton) Belgian-born American poet, novelist, memoirist, autobiographer, children's author, screenwriter, and playwright.

A prolific poet, Sarton often dwells in her works upon such concerns as the joy and pain of love, the necessity of solitude for creativity and identity, and the conflict between body and soul. Influenced by her early exposure to both European and American cultures and her interest in such European poets as Rainer Maria Rilke and William Butler Yeats, Sarton evidences a literary sensibility that is regarded as diverse and astute. Sarton's verse is often introspective and displays her penchant for natural imagery and refined language. Although some critics fault her rigid adherence to traditional forms and her tendency to lapse into melancholy and didacticism, others praise the passion, insight, and graceful language she exhibits in her poetry.

Biographical Information

Sarton was born May 3, 1912, in Wondelgem, Belgium. When her family was driven out of Belgium during World War I, they settled in the Boston-Cambridge area of the United States in 1916. After graduating from high school, Sarton became an apprentice to Eva Le Gallienne at the Civic Repertory Theatre in New York, where she remained until 1934. During the mid- to late-1930s, she founded both the Apprentice Theatre at the New School for Social Research and the Associated Actors Theatre in Hartford. It was during this period that she produced her first two volumes of poetry, Encounter in April (1937) and Inner Landscape (1939). During World War II, Sarton worked as a scriptwriter for documentary films for the Office of War Information. Over the next twenty-five years, she held positions at a number of universities and lectured at a variety of conferences. Sarton died of breast cancer in 1995.

Major Works

Sarton's first published verse appeared in Poetry magazine in 1929. Her initial collection, Encounter in April (1937), displays her skill with varied poetic forms, including short lyrics, meditative pieces, free verse, and Shakespearean sonnets. In “A Letter to James Stephens,” from her next volume, Inner Landscape (1939), Sarton suggested that an artist's dedication to the creative process may require isolation and independence from others. This concept has served as both a literary theme and a personal directive throughout her career. In Inner Landscape, as in her first book, Sarton made use of a wide range of poetic forms and examined love, art, and personality while employing landscape as an increasingly dominant image. During the next decade, Sarton lectured extensively at colleges and universities throughout the United States. The poems in The Lion and the Rose (1948) detail her visits to different regions of the country and explore such topics as social unrest, Native American culture, and feminist issues. The Land of Silence and Other Poems (1953) reflects the tranquility and spirituality Sarton experienced in her travels through the American West during the early 1950s. Cloud, Stone, Sun, Vine: Poems, Selected and New (1961) contains thematically linked verse from previous volumes as well as new pieces, including “A Divorce of Lovers,” a complex sequence of twenty sonnets in which Sarton combined ordinary and decorative language to detail the end of a love affair. A Private Mythology (1966) was inspired by Sarton's visits to Japan, India, and Greece during the early 1960s. The poems in this volume evidence her experiments with such forms as free verse and the Japanese haiku as she searches for spiritual peace and reveals a sense of humor rarely present in her previous work. The poems in A Grain of Mustard Seed (1971) comment upon global violence and injustice in commensurately harsh language and imagery. This volume also contains religious poems, many of which suggest the need for faith in solving world problems. In A Durable Fire (1972), Sarton reaffirmed her belief in the importance of grace and spirituality through a variety of verse forms. Most of Sarton's poems in Halfway to Silence (1980) and Letters from Maine: New Poems (1984) contain observations on domestic matters and the landscapes of New Hampshire and Maine. In Coming into Eighty (1994), Sarton meditated on aging in general and approaching the end of her own life specifically.

Critical Reception

Initially overlooked by literary critics, Sarton's work was not widely reviewed until the later part of her career. Her poetry is generally held in high regard, although many commentators find her form rigid and her language overly privileged and stiff. Nonetheless, most critics maintain that her poetry has a broad range and audience, encompassing the personal impacts of political events, the nature of marriages and friendships, the experiences of aging and illness, and the deaths of friends.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

Encounter in April 1937

Inner Landscape 1939

The Lion and the Rose 1948

The Land of Silence and Other Poems 1953

In Time Like Air 1958

Cloud, Stone, Sun, Vine: Poems Selected and New 1961

A Private Mythology 1966

As Does New Hampshire 1967

A Grain of Mustard Seed 1971

A Durable Fire 1972

Collected Poems: 1930-1973 1974

Selected Poems 1978

Halfway to Silence 1980

Letters from Maine: New Poems 1984

The Silence Now: New and Uncollected Earlier Poems 1988

Collected Poems: 1930-1993 1993

Coming into Eighty 1994

The Single Hound (novel) 1938

Toscanini: The Hymn of Nations (screenplay) 1944

Valley of the Tennessee (screenplay) 1944

The Bridge of Years (novel) 1946

Underground River (play) 1947

Shadow of a Man (novel) 1950

A Shower of Summer Days (novel) 1952

Faithful Are the Wounds (novel) 1955

I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography (autobiography) 1959

The Small Room (novel) 1961

Joanna and Ulysses (juvenilia) 1963

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (novel) 1965

Miss Pickthorn and Mr. Hare (fables) 1966

Plant Dreaming Deep (memoirs) 1968

The Poet and the Donkey (fables) 1969

Kinds of Love (novel) 1970

As We Are Now (novel) 1973

Journal of a Solitude (journal) 1973

Punch's Secret (juvenilia) 1974

A Walk through the Woods (juvenilia) 1976

A World of Light: Portraits and Celebrations (nonfiction) 1976

The House by the Sea (nonfiction) 1977

A Reckoning (novel) 1978

Recovering: A Journal, 1978-1979 (journal) 1980

Writings on Writing (nonfiction) 1980

Anger (novel) 1982

At Seventy: A Journal (journal) 1984

The Magnificent Spinster (novel) 1985

May Sarton: A Self-Portrait [edited by Marita Simpson and Martha Wheelock] (autobiography) 1986

After the Stroke: A Journal (journal) 1988

The Education of Harriet Hatfield (novel) 1989

Endgame: A Journal of the Seventy-Ninth Year (journal) 1992

Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (journal) 1993

At Eighty-Two: A Journal (journal) 1996

Selected Letters of May Sarton [edited by Susan Sherman] (letters) 1997

Martha Bacon (review date 1948)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Bacon, Martha. “Marvels of Interwoven Syllables.” Saturday Review of Literature 31, no. 16 (17 April 1948): 50.

[In the following review of The Lion and the Rose, Bacon comments favorably on Sarton's execution and expression.]

May Sarton is an artist of remarkable powers. She is one of those rare poets who, in making use of simple combinations of words—and of the words of our common speech at that—has achieved a vocabulary and style as distinctly her own as any poet now writing. As Lewis Carroll said, “It's a question of who shall be master.” In her case there is no question. She has drawn upon the whole stream of English literature to develop her subtle cadences and delicate, all-but-inaudible rhymes. One remembers the author of “I Sing of a Maiden,” and the most refined and expressive of the pre-Elizabethan poets. One wonders at the extreme simplicity of her statement (for such simplicity needs courage), and the more one wonders the more one is aware of the great gifts set forth in The Lion and the Rose. Here every part of a poem contributes to the whole. I have before me one entitled “The Clavichord,” a little marvel of interwoven syllables through which emerges a highly wrought subject, which is all the more interesting because the separate parts are wholly uncomplicated.

She keeps her clavichord
As others keep delight, too light
To breathe,...

(The entire section is 456 words.)

Agnes Sibley (essay date 1972)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Sibley, Agnes. “The Heart Translated.” In May Sarton, pp. 27-66. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1972.

[In the following essay, Sibley presents an overview of Sarton's poetry.]


In Encounter in April (1937), Miss Sarton's first volume of poetry, three themes appear that are dominant in all her poetic works: love is a source of wonder and delight; love inevitably brings either parting or painful disillusionment; and art is more permanently satisfying than life. Related to the last of these is what might be considered in this volume a minor theme—the desire for a perfection that is understood to be spiritual,...

(The entire section is 15713 words.)

Henry Taylor (essay date 1974)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Taylor, Henry. “Home to a Place beyond Exile: The Collected Poems of May Sarton.” Hollins Critic 11, no. 3 (June 1974) 1-16.

[In the following essay, Taylor presents a retrospective of Sarton's career as a poet up to the publication of her Collected Poems.]


The retrospective exhibition of a poetic career may be either highly selective or generously inclusive; the choice the author makes between these two approaches has much to do with the sort of poet he is. The highly selective poet, whose definitive collection contains less than half of his published work, is likely to think of poetry as the production of separate finished...

(The entire section is 5529 words.)

Darlene Mathis Eddy (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Eddy, Darlene Mathis. “This Sculptor and the Rock: Some Uses of Myth in the Poetry of May Sarton.” In May Sarton: Woman and Poet, pp. 179-86. Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, Inc., 1982.

[In the following essay, Eddy observes elements of classical, Judeo-Christian, and Far Eastern mythical patterns in Sarton's poetry and argues that this use of myth is Sarton's attempt to create order in a chaotic universe.]

In Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton declares that for her, poetry is a “soul-making tool.”1 Her metaphor directs us toward the center of her aesthetic consciousness. Throughout her work runs a constant preoccupation with...

(The entire section is 2507 words.)

Constance Hunting (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hunting, Constance. “The Risk Is Very Great: The Poetry of May Sarton.” In May Sarton: Woman and Poet, pp. 201-09. Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, Inc., 1982.

[In the following essay, Hunting argues against critics who consider Sarton's works to be simplistic and overly genteel.]

In his Preface to A History of Science, George Sarton, the pre-eminent scholar in his field, writes:

Nature is full of wonderful things—shells, flowers, birds, stars—that one never tires of observing, but the most wonderful things of all to my mind are the words of men, not the vain multiplicity of words that flow out of a...

(The entire section is 3357 words.)

William Drake (essay date 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Drake, William. “May Sarton's Lyric Strategy.” In That Great Sanity: Critical Essays on May Sarton, edited by Susan Swartzlander and Marilyn R. Mumford, pp. 49-63. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, Drake examines the connection between Sarton's spirituality and her lyricism.]

The genesis of a lyric poem, for May Sarton, lies in silence. “Silence / is infinitely more precious to me / than any word,” she wrote in “Request,” in her first volume of poems published in 1937.1 And for the more than fifty years that have followed, in almost every one of her books, the theme is never out of sight. The titles...

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Charlotte Mandel (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Mandel, Charlotte. “To See the Chaos Unbewildered: May Sarton's Earliest Collections.” In A House of Gathering: Poets on May Sarton's Poetry, edited and with an introduction by Marilyn Kallet, pp. 47-64. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Mandel explores major themes and poetic forms in Sarton's early poetry and discusses them as part of the “signature” of her work.]

A painter's hand may actuate characteristic spirals, angles, or brush strokes to create a form of writing as singular as her legal signature. For a poet, associations of image with sound, syllabic rhythms, and syntactical oddities may design unique...

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Kenneth G. Pobo (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Pobo, Kenneth G. “The Light That Stayed On: Imagery of Silence and Light in Halfway to Silence, Letters from Maine, and The Silence Now.” In A House of Gathering: Poets on May Sarton's Poetry, edited and with an introduction by Marilyn Kallet, pp. 191-98. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Pobo discusses the regenerative properties of lightness and silence in Sarton's poetry.]

E. M. Forster's famous epigraph at the beginning of Howard's End—“only connect”—could serve as an epigraph to many of May Sarton's poems. Sarton is eighty and has published three books of poetry during the last twelve...

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Beth Casey (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Casey, Beth. “May Sarton and the Muse: Lovers, Water, and Leaves.” In A House of Gathering: Poets on May Sarton's Poetry, edited and with an introduction by Marilyn Kallet, pp. 211-28. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Casey discusses Sarton's humanistic poetics.]

The mysterious muse, the source of poetic vision, has been the central focus of May Sarton's poetry and poetics for over sixty years. For Sarton, the muse opens the poetic dialogue with the self, confirming and releasing that poetic identity necessary to the creative act and to participation in the experience we have called the sublime. In two of her fables,...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Evans, Elizabeth. May Sarton Revisited. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989. 143 p.

Retrospective on May Sarton's life and literary career, including novels and memoirs. Revision of 1973 edition by Agnes Sibley.


Daziel, Bradford Dudley. “May Sarton and the Common Reader.” In Sarton Selected: An Anthology of the Journals, Novels, and Poems of May Sarton, edited by Bradford Dudley Daziel, pp. 19-61. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1991.

Argues that Sarton deliberately addressed her works to common readers rather than critics—much in the same way that Virginia Woolf...

(The entire section is 336 words.)