menu Language Is A Virus

The Governor in the Garden: May Sarton, More and More by Michael Finley

She has lived a score of lives at least -- as actress, poet, novelist, teacher, writer of journals, scourge of critics, confidant of so many hundreds. At 70, sensing that the final act was being played out, she wrote a journal named just that, At Seventy.

Sometimes, with her vast amount of correspondence, the pilgrimages of people from all corners to her cottage in York, Maine, and her passionate mastery of detail, and of the edifices of art she has erected to stave off the chaos of the world, she seems almost like the governor of an invisible state or province -- a principality of flowers, friends and self.

Today, at 75, May Sarton is still a factor. Hampered late last winter by a stroke and "imprisoned" in bed for another nine months with a heart condition, she has been unable, for the first time in forty years, to begin her biennial novel. Fan letters continue to arrive in bales. The ability to answer each and every one is not to be relied upon as it once was. A year without the daily workout in the garden, or the walk down to the water. The wild fur-person (the Sartonian designation for actualized cat) Bramble has died, and been replaced by a woolly Himalayan.

"It's a nuisance, all right," says May Sarton. But she will go on tour in October, reading from her forty books of poetry (including A Grain of Mustard Seed, A Durable Fire, and Halfway to Silence), fiction (Faithful Are the Wounds, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, and As We Are Now) and nonfiction (Plant Dreaming Deep, Recovering, and Journal of a Solitude).

She will draw giant (for poetry) audiences, uplifting many and annoying several, for just as she has attracted friends so has she suffered fools with a minimum of solicitude. And she suffers critics hardly at all, not even at the allegedly serene age of 75.

It was not always thus. Born in Ghent, Belgium, of an artistic British mother and French-Belgian father (George Sarton, author of the massive study The History of Science), Sarton hardly figured to spend the bulk of her life in rural New Hampshire and Maine as one of America's premier poets of fixed place.

She never went to college, choosing instead an apprenticeship in the midst of the Depression with Eva Le Gallienne's Civic Repertory Theatre, and tours abroad where she acquaintanced with the greats of the literary world, including friendship with Virginia Woolf. Her first book of poems, Encounter in April (1937), and first novel, The Single Hound (1938), were hailed critically as the stirrings of a major new voice in American letters, and Sarton's future as a sleek modernist seemed assured. But something in her swerved away from mere stylishness, and she commenced a more inward journey, far from the fashionable, bestselling path through solitude, personal revelation, and a loyalty to the more enduring spirits -- friendship, nature, and the perfectionist demands of a her art.

Unitarian Universalist World 1990