Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

May Sarton 1912-1995

In my reading log, my first May Sarton read appears after Adrienne Rich’s What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Poetics and before Jeanette Winterson’s Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery.

May Sarton Stacks and NotebookAll three books had a fundamental impact on my life and writing but it was with Journal of a Solitude that I felt, as I had upon discovering L.M. Montgomery’s journals, the sense of meeting a kindred spirit.

The cats, the blooms, the long walks, the loneliness, the books: all the more reasons to collect her work.

***

May Sarton has not only been an artist, poet, novelist, memoirist, but, like other modern writers, she has seen her life as interacting with her art.
Experience becomes meaningful, reveals itself, when it has been transformed into art.
Carolyn Heilbrun Hamlet’s Women

***

Lenora P. Blouin’s “May Sarton: A Poet’s Life” appears online here, under the banner of Mary Mark Ockerblum’s “Celebration of Women Writers” site.

Some quotes from her earliest memoir, I Knew a Phoenix:

Of her father:
“He spent his days writing and reading, yet he reminded himself in his journal that next year (he would be twenty-one) he would undertake some scientific studies at the university, ‘in order to get into closer touch with life’. There was no sign of the dedicated scientist and historian, except that cryptic comment in his journal, a journal that bore the title The Non-Conformist: ‘I believe one can divide men into two principal categories: those who suffer the tormenting desire for unity and those who do not’.”

Of her mother:
She had lifted out of a pile of rubbish a single Venetian glass on a long delicate stem so dirty it had become opaque, but miraculously intact. How had this single object survived to give us courage? It went back with us to Cambridge and it was always there, wherever we lived. And now it is here, in my own house, a visible proof that it is sometimes the most fragile thing that has the power to endure.

Harriet Hatfield SartonOf her dream:
I blurted out that my dream was to play Hedda Gabler. No one could have looked more remote from the cold elegant Hedda than this awkward adolescent girl, hair cut like a boy’s, her whole peson suggesting exactly what she was, a professor’s daughter. The incongruity of the wish and the person who expressed it made Miss Le Gallienne laugh, and turn on me an amused, appraising eye. The ice was broken, and after that she asked me to come back several times, and we were able to talk.

Of solitude in London:
Then I lost myself in London, I found a furnished room near Baker Street brown walls – brown bedcovers, a sooty window opening onto sooty ‘backs’ – where I stayed in bed writing all morning to save shillings on the gas meter, and in the afternoon walked and walked, in ignorance, dismay, curiosity through the streets and parks, wondering sometimes if I existed. This suspension of one’s own reality, this being entirely alone in a strange city…is an enriching state for a writer.

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There’s a charming Literary Traveller essay online, written by Deborah Straw who knew May Sarton for some years, that offers a glimpse into the geography of the writer’s homes, here: “Permanence and May Sarton”.

May Sarton is most closely associated with Nelson (a tiny settlement in southwestern New Hampshire which readers of Plant Dreaming DeepJournal of a Solitude, and As Does New Hampshire will recognize immediately), and York, Maine with The House by the Sea.

Of her 18thC farmhouse in Nelson, with its five fireplaces and thirty acres of land bordered by a brook:
I had brought up a silk panel, turquoise damask, embroidered by my mother with a geometric design in blue and gold. That panel had never found a place on the walls at Channing Place, but both the shape and the color fitted perfectly in my study [at Nelson]. It was, I saw when I had hung it experimentally, surely meant as a background for flowers, and so it became a kind of stage where the whole glorious sequence could be played out, from daffodils and tulips in May, to iris, and then to the great white peonies, the vivid blue delphinium, the long sequence of lilies, to end with chrysanthemums and asters in the fall. It is the tokonoma of the house, the sacred place where beauty is kept alive in the memory of the dead.
Plant Dreaming Deep

Of Wild Knoll “big and handsome with a large terrace in front…then a long lawn…then the sea” (this description from 1973 letter to Angèle Oosterlinck-Baele) with her study on its third floor:
I have never been so happy in my life, never for such a sustained period, for I have now been in this house by the sea for a year and a hlaf. I have not said enough about what it is to wake each day to the sunrise and to that great tranquil open space as I lie in my bed, having breakfast, often quietly thinking for a half hour. That morning amplitude, silence, the sea, all make for a radical change in tempo.
House by the Sea

Fur Person SartonNothing will ever replace Nelson in my life, even the spacious world where I now watch sunrise over the ocean. Deep down inside me Nelson is home, and I am glad I shall be buried in the cemetery there under the maples.
At Seventy: A Journal

Two houses stand behind me  – one, my grandfathe’s somber house in the city of Ghent, where my father grew up; the other, all light and sunshine, the country house three miles outside, in Wondelgem, where I was born. ‘Wondelgem’, the name itself sounded like magic to me as a child. It was part of that faraway paradise ‘before the War’.
I Knew a Phoenix

I wandered, borrowing other people’s lives, other people’s families, with the nostalgia of the only child; and for many years could not decide whether I was a European or an American at heart.
Plant Dreaming Deep

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A selected bibliography of May Sarton’s works appears online at Mary Mark Ockerblum’s “Celebration of Women Writers” site: novels, poetry, special editions, broadsides, journals, memoirs, children’s books, plays, essays, collections, correspondence, interviews, audio and video recordings, and some secondary sources are included: enough to keep you reading for a good long while.

Here are eight quotes that I’ve noted in reading May Sarton’s works:

These are the great days when clarity comes back to the air and all is a radiant suspense before the first leaf falls. Autumn is on the threshold, but for a week or two we have the best of everything. A still center before the wheel turns.
Recovering: A Journal 1978-1979

Loneliness is the poverty of self;
Solitude is the richness of self.
Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

There the door is always open into the ‘holy’ – growth, birth, death. Every flower holds the whole mystery in its short cycle, and in the garden we are never far away from death, the fertilizing, good, creative death.
Journal of a Solitude

One thing is certain, and I have always known it – the joys of my life have nothing to do with age. They do not change. Flowers, the morning and evening light, music, poetry, silence, the goldfinches darting about…
At Seventy: A Journal

Journal Solitude SartonAll the way down I had been in a state of great praise for trees wondering … how I could ever live without them, thinking of their comfort, how they nourish and sustain us with their beauty and coolness, their steadfastness, the fact that they will outlive those who plant them. And I understood why old men plant trees.
House by the Sea

When I said that all poems are love poems, I meant that the motor power, the electric current is love of one kind or another. The subject may be something quite impersonal.
Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

I can cast out the wrong idea of fidelity and understand that in the end one cannot be faithful in the true life-giving sense if it means being unfaithful to oneself.
Recovering: A Journal 1978-1979

It is only when we can believe that we are creating the soul that life has any meaning, but when we can believe it – and I do and always have – then there is nothing we do that is without meaning and nothing that we suffer that does not hold the seed of creation in it.
Journal of a Solitude

As far as I can see from here almost everyone I know is trying to do the impossible every day. All mothers, all writers, all artists of every kind every human being who has work to do and still wants to stay human and to be responsive to another human being’s needs, joys, and sorrows. There is never enough time and that’s the rub. In my case every choice I make means depriving someone. I write one letter and have to push another aside. I go away for a few days to see a friend, and lose the thread of the journal…I live in a perpetual state of guilt about the “undone”. Probably everyone does?
Recovering: A Journal 1978-1979

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