May Sarton

May Sarton (Eleanore Marie Sarton (1912 – 1995)), was a poet, novelist, and writer of extraordinary memoirs. She was born in Belgium; her family emigrated to the United States at the beginning of World War I. She was complex and lived out that complexity in her relationships and in her work. Her final book, Coming Into Eighty (1995), published after her death, covers the year from July 1993 to August 1994, describing her attitude of gratitude for life as she wrestled with the experience of aging. She died of breast cancer on July 16, 1995, and is buried in Nelson Cemetery, Nelson, New Hampshire.

She chronicles, in prose and poetry beginning in 1937, her struggles with her own inner life as well as relationships. At the same time she gives us her whimsical take on nature and animals. I recommend The Fur Person (1957) as a starting point from which to explore her work. In his review, Jonathan Beecher writes:

The hero of The Fur Person does not start by being a Fur Person. He is first a stray who considers himself Cat About Town. Then he decides to be a Gentleman Cat and find a home. Though his first attempts are discouraging, he perseveres; and his fortunes are reflected in his changing names: Nice Kitty, Tom Jones, Jones, Terrible Jones, Gentle Cat, Cat of Peace, Glorious Jones, Official Philosopher, and, finally, Fur Person.

In Her Own Words…

Given the abundance of Sarton’s poems, stories, and memoirs I decided to focus on quotes from her book, Journal of a Solitude. I think it mirrors much of what many of us have gone through during the pandemic isolation. In 1972, she was 60 years old and decided to embark on an extended period of living alone.

“It is raining. I look out on the maple, where a few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself and to the rain ticking gently against the windows. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my “real” life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone. (Page 11)

…For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self. I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose — to find out what I think, to know where I stand.”

“My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there. I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines. (Page 12)

“The value of solitude — one of its values — is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within, just as there is nothing to help balance at times of particular stress or depression. A few moments of desultory conversation … may calm an inner storm. But the storm, painful as it is, might have had some truth in it. So sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.”

“The reasons for depression are not so interesting as the way one handles it, simply to stay alive.” (Page 16)

“Sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.” (Page 20)

“Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.” (Page 38)

“I can hardly believe that relief from the anguish of these past months is here to stay, but so far it does feel like a true change of mood — or rather, a change of being where I can stand alone. So much of my life here is precarious. I cannot always believe even in my work. But I have come in these last days to feel again the validity of my struggle here, that it is meaningful whether I ever “succeed” as a writer or not, and that even its failures, failures of nerve, failures due to a difficult temperament, can be meaningful. It is an age where more and more human beings are caught up in lives where fewer and fewer inward decisions can be made, where fewer and fewer real choices exist. The fact that a middle-aged, single woman, without any vestige of family left, lives in this house in a silent village and is responsible only to her own soul means something. The fact that she is a writer and can tell where she is and what it is like on the pilgrimage inward can be of comfort. It is comforting to know there are lighthouse keepers on rocky islands along the coast. Sometimes, when I have been for a walk after dark and see my house lighted up, looking so alive, I feel that my presence here is worth all the Hell.” (Page 43)

“There is no doubt that solitude is a challenge and to maintain balance within it is 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 any encounter, and to extract its juice, its essence, to understand what has really happened to me as a consequence of it.” (Pages 195-196)


Featured Media

May Sarton: Writing in the Upward Years (1988)
Journal of a Solitude – audiobook – May Sarton
May Sarton She knew a Phoenix
Note: Picture courtesy of Wikipedia.

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