Form and Content
May Sarton notes in her preface to A World of Light: Portraits and Celebrations that she carried this book in her mind for twenty years. Its purpose is to fill the gap in her autobiography between I Knew a Phoenix (1959), which covers her life from childhood to age twenty-six, and Plant Dreaming Deep (1968), which begins when she was forty-five. Sarton knew all the people described in the book by the time that she was forty, but by the time that she came to write the book, all but one were dead. The book is a joyful celebration of those deep and enduring friendships that shaped Sarton as a woman and as an artist. Its importance lies as much in what it reveals about her as in what it reveals about the friends whom she “celebrates.”
The twelve portraits, each introduced by a photograph, are divided into four sections, based on a loose chronology. The first section contains descriptions of Sarton’s parents, whom she had already sketched in I Knew a Phoenix. The most significant difference between the portraits is Sarton’s acceptance of and reconciliation with her father, which came only late in her life. Significant friends from her early womanhood, Celine Dangotte Limbosch and Edith Forbes Kennedy, are the subjects of the second section. The third section groups together friends from different times in Sarton’s life but is unified by the sense of place that rooted all four, a sense which Sarton acquired only with her own house in Nelson, New Hampshire. For the literary critic, the last section is the most important of the book for its intimate portraits of two famous women writers, Elizabeth Bowen and Louise Bogan, as well as the iconoclastic S. S. Koteliansky and the lesser-known French woman poet Jean Dominique.
The volumes that constitute Sarton’s autobiography, which also includes Journal of a Solitude (1973), have been called a social history of a contemporary woman writer. Sarton pays little attention, however, to her own creative process other than to maintain her position that poems must be inspired by Muses, which for her are women with whom she has had an intense relationship. She voices her distress at being ignored or dismissed as sentimental by critics. Her purpose in writing the book is to deliver the “essence” of the characters and her relationship to them. Moreover, since Sarton’s life has been an exercise in solitude and rootlessness, her friendships take on for her a deeper meaning. As she notes in the preface, every day she can trace the influence of one or another of the friends whom she describes.
On the whole, Sarton’s attitude toward her subjects borders on adulation, yet she carefully acknowledges that the very nature of deep friendships requires tolerance and pain. The variety of the friends she celebrates, from a struggling Swiss winemaker to famous women poets and novelists, emphasizes Sarton’s own compassion, acceptance, and ability to engage herself in meaningful relationships with people from all walks of life and all levels of society. The overwhelming theme in her friendships is her independence, diligence, love of art, admiration of intelligence, and sympathy for nature. Anyone possessing these qualities was readily made part of her circle of friends.
May Sarton has often been criticized for her sentimentality and laxity of style. A World of Light has not escaped such censure. She suffers, too, from her essential readability in a literary climate that prizes the difficult and obscure. Her output, nevertheless, has been prolific; she published almost a volume a year for more than fifty years. Throughout her career, she has been one of the few self-supporting women writers of her time. Indeed, one aspect of her significance to women’s literature is that she has persevered in the face of almost overwhelming obstacles.
In A World of Light , what some have seen as self-indulgence and self-pity can also be seen as the understandable self-doubt of a serious writer who had courageously given the...
(The entire section is 3,824 words.)