May Sarton, the poet, novelist, and autobiographer, was born in Belgium and came with her parents to the United States in 1916. Her father was a dedicated pioneer historian of science; her mother—of English heritage—was a designer whose own company provided supplementary financial support for the family. When Sarton was a student at the educationally progressive Shady Hill School in Cambridge, her teacher, Agnes Hocking, awakened her love of poetry. In 1930 five of her sonnets appeared in Poetry magazine.
After graduating from the High and Latin School in Cambridge in 1929, Sarton was so overwhelmed by theater that she became part of Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre in New York City in 1930. From 1933 to 1936 she became the founder and director of Associated Actors in Hartford, Connecticut.
From 1937 to 1960 she functioned primarily as a teacher of creative writing at Wellesley College and poet in residence or visiting lecturer at various colleges and universities throughout the United States. Her poetry readings were a vital means of support. She became a member of the Poetry Society of America as well as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science. Sarton was also awarded honorary doctorate degrees by more than a dozen colleges and universities. The honor she said she appreciated most was the “Ministry to Women Award” presented to her by Unitarian Universalists.
The themes presented in the writings of May Sarton are love and friendship, illness and the aging process, and animals and nature, as well as paintings and portraits. Her own friendships included such intimate relations with women that she is sometimes described as a feminist and a lesbian. She declared that, “The militant lesbians want me to be a lesbian, and I’m just not.” Her preference was to avoid such restricted categories although she did have long-term relations with some women, such as Marie Closset and Simmons College Professor Judith Matlock, whose death in 1982 was devastating. In any event, the feminist and lesbian movements do boldly acknowledge the heroic social advance evident through Sarton’s life and writings.
May Sarton wrote fifteen books of poetry, nineteen novels, and thirteen volumes of memoirs and journals. She never lacked literary and academic critics, yet she had and has an enthusiastic, immense corps of appreciative readers. Some forty of her books are still in print. One reason is that the author personally took time to write to every reader who wrote to her.
PRAYER BEFORE WORK
Great one, austere,
By whose intent the distant star
Holds its course clear,
Now make this spirit soar—
Give it that ease,
Out of the absolute
Abstracted grief, comfortless, mute,
Sound the clear note,
Pure, piercing as the flute:
Give it precision.
Austere, great one,
By whose grace the inalterable son
May still be wrested from
The corrupt lung:
Give it strict form.
THE CAGED BIRD
He was there in my room,
A wild bird in a cage,
But I was a guest and not for me
To open the gate and set him free
However great my gloom
And unrepenting rage.
But not to see and not to hear
Was difficult to try:
The small red bird burst into song
And sang so sweetly all day long
I knew his presence near
And his inquiring eye—
So we exchanged some words;
And then I scattered seed
And put fresh water in his pan
And cleaned the litter from the pen,
Wondering about caged birds,
What more this one might need.
But oh, when night came then
I started up in fear
At the fierce wing-beat of despair
Hurled at the bars, hurting the air,
And the heart wild within
As if a hawk were near.
The room was sealed and dark,
And all that war within
Where on the small cramped stage
The bird fought with his cage
And then lay beaten down,
Almost extinguished spark.
And I went back to bed,
Trembling, who nothing could,
As if this scene had grown so huge
It ripped apart all subterfuge,
And naked now as God,
I wept hot tears like blood.
A PAIR OF HANDS
Indeed I loved these hands and knew them well—
Nervous, expressive, holding a Chinese pink,
A child, a book always withdrawn and still
As if they had it in their power to think:
Hands that the Flemish masters have explored,
Who gave delicate strength and mystic grace
To contemplative men, to women most adored
As if to give the inmost heart a face—
Indeed I learned to love these secret hands
Before I found them here, open to mine,
And clasped the mystery no one understands,
Read reverence in their fivefold design,
Where animals and children may be healed
And in the slightest gesture Love revealed.
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