This novel tells the story of Hilary Stevens, who reflects upon the various manifestations of the poetic muse throughout her life. She shares those reflections with two young interviewers from a literary magazine who visit her one day at her New England home. Mrs. Stevens, like May Sarton, lives alone in a house by the sea. She loves gardening, and she has made of her home a work of art. The title of Sarton’s novel comes from a reference in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Near the end of the poem, the narrator, a disenchanted middle-aged man, admits, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each/ I do not think that they will sing to me.” In other words, he realizes that his life lacks meaning and purpose. Life has passed him by. Sarton employs Eliot’s lines as a metaphor for the creative individual who hears the mermaids singing—in other words, the writer attuned to her muse, the source of her inspiration, her guiding genius in the creative process.
Before the interviewers arrive for their scheduled visit, Mrs. Stevens gardens, and she reflects upon Mars Hemmer, a young man and neighbor who has become, in some respects, her latest muse. Mars is gay, and he shares with Mrs. Stevens a recent disappointment regarding his love for an older man. Hilary encourages Mars, a budding poet himself, to write about his pain as a way of objectifying it and filtering out his anger and self-pity. At the end of the novel, after the interviewers have left, Hilary meets Mars Hemmer again, and she realizes that Mars represents her masculine side, that part of her which confronted all aspects of her self in the struggle to create poetry. Even in her old age, then, Hilary Stevens uncovers more of the truth about the core of her identity through her friendship with Mars.
Most of the novel consists of conversations between Hilary and the...
(The entire section is 769 words.)