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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 769

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...

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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 interviewers and other scenes in which Hilary, alone, reflects upon her past. In the latter scenes, she relives the key moments in her life, including her relationships with her parents, her marriage and widowhood, and several key relationships—including love affairs—with both men and women. Her passionate attachments to women always precede the appearance of her muse—the engine for her creativity.

Hilary fell in love with her governess at fifteen and for the first time discovered the power of poetry in her life. Later, she married happily, but her concerns about how to balance domesticity and the creative process were short-circuited by his accidental death early in their marriage. In her grief, Hilary was attended by a physician named Holliwell. He recognized a dangerous pattern in her creative intensity and advised her to focus on her recovery, objectify her emotional pain, and pour her creative energies into writing poetry. Dr. Holliwell (note the name, “whole and well”) represents the perfect male figure in Sarton’s fiction—the sensitive man who has integrated his feminine and masculine sides. His advice (similar to the advice that she gives Mars) speeds Hilary’s recovery. Later, she admits that the struggle with the muse is multidimensional; it is at once inspiring and terrible, a balancing act between joy and pain, courage and fear, hope and despair. The struggle with the muse represents the poet’s attempt to plumb the mysteries of the self.

One of her most tragic attachments is to a dear friend, Willa MacPherson. When Willa shares the pain of a broken relationship with a man, that sharing prompts another appearance of Hilary’s muse. She can write again, and she is ecstatic. Now she desires the accompanying passionate attachment, but Willa rejects her at first. Finally, the two consummate their relationship in an unforgettable night of passion. Fate intervenes, however, and two days later Willa suffers a stroke and is severely disabled. In a few months, the muse withdraws, and although Hilary does see Willa again, their relationship is at an end.

A secondary theme in the novel is that women seeking the ideas of domesticity and creativity face extraordinary obstacles. This concern is reflected in the young female interviewer who wants to be married and raise a family—and yet also be a writer. Yet Hilary believes there is hope that this young woman can accomplish her goals. She characterizes the role of the creative woman as a “total gathering together where the most realistic and the most mystical can be joined in a celebration of life itself. Women’s work is always toward wholeness.”

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