May Sarton 1912-1995
(Born Elénore Marie Sarton; also known as Eleanor May Sarton) Belgian-born American poet, novelist, essayist, and autobiographer.
A prolific author who is respected for her poetry, fiction, and autobiographical writings, Sarton often focused on 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 evinced a literary sensibility that is regarded as diverse and astute.
Sarton was born on May 3, 1912, in Wondelgem, Belgium. In 1916 her family settled in the Boston-Cambridge area. 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-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.
Sarton is remembered for her poetry, novels, and memoirs. Her first collection of poetry, Encounter in April, displays her skill with varied poetic forms, including short lyrics, meditative pieces, free verse, and Shakespearean sonnets. 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 combines 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 verse in A Grain of Mustard Seed (1971) comments 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 reaffirms her belief in the importance of grace and spirituality through a variety of verse forms.
Sarton's first novel, The Single Hound (1938), features a confused young writer who becomes more confident in himself and his artistic abilities through his friendship with an older, established female poet. In this work, she introduces one of her most important themes: the conflict between physical passion and artistic commitment. In Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965), considered by many critics her most important novel, Sarton clearly reveals her beliefs concerning the inspiration and commitment necessary for artistic creation. The novel revolves around the ruminations of acclaimed poet Hilary Stevens as she prepares for and gives an interview about her career. Throughout the novel, Sarton raises such questions as whether a woman can be a successful artist while maintaining a family, what compels an author to write, and how personal emotion can be transformed into art. As We Are Now (1973) examines American attitudes toward the elderly by focusing upon Caroline Spencer, a former teacher confined to a nursing home whose independence is shattered by the dehumanizing treatment of the institution's staff. At the novel's conclusion, Caroline burns down the home as an act of defiance.
Sarton also garnered critical praise for her autobiographical works. I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography (1959) relates her childhood and youth up to the publication of her first collection of verse. In Plant Dreaming Deep (1968), Sarton recounts her purchase of an old farmhouse in rural New Hampshire and details the responsibilities of being a homeowner, emphasizing the importance of a stable domestic life and her need for solitude in relation to her literary career. Recovering: A Journal, 1978-1979 (1980) is an account of Sarton's emotional and physical recovery from cancer that further underscores the importance of love in her life.
Initially overlooked by literary critics, Sarton's work was not discovered until the later part of her career. Her work is generally held in high regard. Commentators note that her 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. Sarton's novels, which explore various topics, including aging, the failure of communication, and the relationship between love and artistic commitment, are commended for their rich descriptions of place and atmosphere and their reflective prose. Furthermore, critics praise her poetry, fiction, and autobiographical writings as inspirational, touching, honest, and thought-provoking.