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Loneliness is the poverty of self;
solitude is the richness of self.
– May Sarton
From a letter written by May Sarton to Juliette Huxley in 1939:
What is wrong with our complicated world today that ‘business’ gets in the way of everything important? I would like to go with a silver trumpet and pierce people’s ears ‘Soon you will be dead and what are you doing? What part of your day is living?’. . . You feel that if you knocked at the door and said ‘Look, I have found the truth’ they would answer ‘No time this week. Call me up a week from Thurs’ or if you came and said ‘ See, here is my heart,’ they would answer ‘O,thank you so much. Just put it in a glass of water in the icebox. I am so busy today – tomorrow –’
May Sarton (1912-1995) born Eleanore Marie Sarton on May 3, 1912 in Wondelgem, Belgium; prolific American poet, memoirist, and novelist. She was an only child. Her parents fled with their two-year-old daughter from their Belgian homeland when the Germans invaded in 1914, first to Britain, and then on to America. Her father, who was a chemist, went to work at Harvard, and got a grant from the Carnegie Foundation. He became one of the notable 20th century historians of science. Her mother was English artist Mabel Eleanor Elwes. She won a scholarship to Vassar, but disappointed her scholarly father by becoming an apprentice at the Civic Repertory Theatre, founded by the legendary actress Eva Le Gallienne. Later, Sarton founded her own company, the Associated Actors Theatre, but it failed in 1935, so she exited from the stage to concentrate on her writing, earning her living from it and from teaching others about writing.
Sarton never lost her sense of wonder, even in times of hardship or poor health. Her teaching and poetry readings put her on the road to many places, and she wrote about them all. This poem appeared in Poetry magazine in February, 1942. It’s about slavery and the Civil War, but it also reveals her feelings about the World War in which the United States had become engaged just two months earlier.
A Northerner Sees the Cottonfields for the
by May Sarton
The war between the states, that war of images in rout:
The beauty of Greek porches and the girls in white
Against the cotton fields. Each cast the other out.
These never met in any mind, seemed utter dark and light.
One from the South, the realist, refused the problem
That he could not solve, the other mad and blind,
Attacked without the saving answer in his mind.
This, the mythology of evil, this childish nightmare,
These fields festooned in white, these delicate bushes
Mahogany-color, sprinkled on earth dusty and bare
Like pretty handkerchiefs, this sight uprushes,
Seizes imagination, and all heart and mind,
Focuses on children with their dirty trains
(Tow-sacks for cotton) like bedraggled queens.
Here are the living ghosts: standing behind each slave
A paler one, enslaved by righteousness who fought
With images of evil not his own and died to save
A world he never made but could destroy, one so distraught
By rage he undertook the fearful labor of a war:
Here in these fields are planted hot seeds of man’s fate,
That legendary evil, passion, and the quick growth of hate.
How many times must unleashed rivers break
Out from their beds loosed by fanatic cloudburst?
How many times must human passions flood and shake
The structure of our lives before the mind is forced
To master those fierce living currents for its use,
Before we engineer and build a giant dam, release
Power implacably controlled, to light the world in peace?
“A Northerner Sees the Cottonfields for the First Time” from May Sarton, Collected Poems, 1930-1993, © 1993 by May Sarton – W.W. Norton & Company
‘One from the South’ in the poem may have been Robert E. Lee, as the description seems to fit the view of him shared by many historians in the 1930s. Although he did not die in the war, Lee was left exhausted and terribly aged by it, and died only 5 years after the war ended. The Other “mad and blind” is probably John Brown.
The 1930s and 1940s were the great dam-building eras in America. The Hoover Dam had been opened in 1936, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a program started as part of FDR’s New Deal, was building dams to bring electricity to the rural South at an unprecedented rate, spurred on by demands for more power to build the engines and weapons of War.
In 1945 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, May Sarton met Judy Matlack, who became her partner for the next thirteen years. Her poetry collection Honey in the Hive is about their relationship.
A Durable Fire
by May Sarton
For steadfast flame wood must be seasoned,
And if love can be trusted to last out,
Then it must first be disciplined and seasoned
To take all weathers, absences, and doubt.
No resinous pine for this, but the hard oak
Slow to catch fire, would see us through a year.
We learned to temper words before we spoke,
To force the Furies back, learned to forbear,
In silence to wait out erratic storm,
And bury tumult when we were apart.
The fires were banked to keep a winter warm
With heart of oak instead of resinous heart,
And in this testing year beyond desire,
Began to move toward durable fire.
“A Durable Fire” from May Sarton, Collected Poems, 1930-1993, © 1993 by May Sarton – W.W. Norton & Company
They separated in 1956, when Sarton’s father died and she used an inheritance to buy a house in the village of Nelson, New Hampshire.
The Work of Happiness
by May Sarton
I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring.
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.
So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours
And strikes its roots deep in the house alone:
The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,
White curtains softly and continually blown
As the free air moves quietly about the room;
A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall —
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done,
The growing tree is green and musical.
For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a lifespan in a single place,
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness?
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.
“The Work of Happiness” from The Lion and the Rose, © 1948 by May Sarton – reissued in 2014 by Open Road Media
When publishing her novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing in 1965, Sarton feared that writing openly about lesbianism would lead to a diminution of the previously established value of her work. “The fear of homosexuality is so great that it took courage to write Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing,” she wrote in Journal of a Solitude, “to write a novel about a woman homosexual who is not a sex maniac, a drunkard, a drug-taker, or in any way repulsive, to portray a homosexual who is neither pitiable nor disgusting, without sentimentality . . .”
Later, she moved still farther into solitude in an isolated house at the end of a long dirt road on the Maine coast. In 1990, she was felled by a stroke, which greatly hampered her concentration and ability to write. After several months, she was able to dictate her final journals, starting with Endgame, into a tape recorder.
by May Sarton
Lifting myself up
Like a heavy weight,
Old camel getting to her knees,
I think of my mother
And the inexhaustible flame
That kept her alive
Until she died.
She knew all about fatigue
And how one pushes it aside
For staking up the lilies
Early in the morning,
The way one pushes it aside
For a friend in need,
For a hungry cat.
Mother, be with me.
Today on your birthday
I am older than you were
When you died
Thirty-five years ago.
Thinking of you
The old camel gets to her knees,
Moves forward slowly
Into the new day.
If you taught me one thing
It was never to fail life.
“August 3rd” from May Sarton, Collected Poems, 1930-1993, © 1993 by May Sarton – W.W. Norton & Company
From her Journal of a Solitude:
“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove
“There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it a precarious business. But I must not forget that, for me, being with people or even with one beloved person for any length of time without solitude is even worse. I lose my center. I feel dispersed, scattered, in pieces. I must have time alone in which to mull over my encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.”
“If art is not to be life-enhancing, what is it to be? Half the world is feminine – why is there resentment at a female-oriented art? Nobody asks The Tale of Genji to be masculine! Women certainly learn a lot from books oriented toward a masculine world. Why is not the reverse also true?”
Now I Become Myself
by May Sarton
Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
‘Hurry, you will be dead before-‘
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!
“Now I Become Myself” from Selected Poems of May Sarton, © 1978 by May Sarton – George J. McLeod Ltd
May Sarton died of breast cancer at age 83 on July 16, 1995, in York, Maine.
Coming Into Eighty (1994)
Collected Poems: 1930-1993 (1993)
The Silence Now: New and Uncollected Earlier Poems (1988)
Honey in the Hive (1988)
Halfway to Silence (1980)
A Durable Fire (1972)
A Private Mythology (1966)
In Time Like Air (1958)
The Lion and the Rose (1948)
Encounter in April (1937)
The Education of Harriet Hatfield (1989)
The Magnificent Spinster (1985)
Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1974)
The Small Room (1961)
Faithful Are the Wounds (1955)
Shadow of a Man (1950)
The Single Hound (1938)
Selected Letters (1997)
At Eighty-Two: A Journal (1996)
At Seventy: A Journal (1984)
The House by the Sea (1977)
Journal of Solitude (1973)
I Knew a Phoenix: Sketches for an Autobiography (1959)
HONORS AND PRIZES
She was several times nominated, but never won any of the “big” poetry awards. It is ironic that there are now awards, which continue to grow in prestige, named in May Sarton’s honor:
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences Poetry Prize in Honor of May Sarton was presented for the first time in 2008, which recognizes emerging poets of exceptional promise and distinguished achievement. She was a longtime Academy Fellow, and she encouraged the work of young poets.
The Sarton Women’s Literary Awards™ are sponsored by the Story Circle Network, an international nonprofit association of women writers. Awards are presented annually in four categories. Lesbian entries are welcome in all categories.
- Women’s memoir
- Women’s biography
- Women’s contemporary fiction
- Women’s historical fiction