One of the most prolific and distinguished of American women of letters, Eléanore Marie Sarton was born in Wondelgem, Belgium, on May 3, 1912, to a Belgian father and a British mother. In 1916 she and her parents immigrated to the United States, settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was naturalized in 1924. George Sarton, her father, was a distinguished historian of science on the faculty at Harvard University. Her British mother, Mabel Elwes Sarton, was an artist and designer of furniture and textiles. Sarton was educated at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, attended the Institut Belge de Culture Française, and graduated from the Boston High and Latin School in 1929. Preferring not to attend college, she was selected in 1930 as apprentice to Eva Le Gallienne at New York’s Civic Repertory Theatre, where she remained until 1936. In 1933 she founded the Apprentice Theatre at the New School for Social Research, and in 1936 she became the director of Associated Actors Theatre in Hartford, Connecticut. When her interest in the theater waned, Sarton traveled to England, where she met Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Julian Huxley, and S. S. Koteliansky, who became a lifelong friend. Her first volume of poems, Encounter in April, was published in 1937.
Sarton taught at the Stuart School in Boston (1937-1940), Harvard University (1950-1953), Bryn Mawr College (1953), and Wellesley College (1960-1964). During her lifetime she received eighteen honorary degrees from American colleges and universities. After 1964, Sarton wrote full-time and lectured and read her poetry at universities and conferences across the country. She revealed in 1965 that she was a lesbian. Her works include novels, poetry, journals, memoirs, and several miscellaneous works, including two children’s books. Her range thus extends to several distinctly different genres of literature; some of the same themes are addressed in a variety of forms.
Sarton explores several kinds of personal growth in her novels, including the miraculous flowering of unexpected or unconventional love and friendship. In some of the novels, unconventional love is repressed or denied, often with devastating consequences, as in The Small Room and in As We Are Now. In others, love powerfully transforms the lives of those who are open to it. In Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, love for both men and women moves the protagonist, Hilary Stevens, to create works of art inspired by a personal muse (the theme of several of Sarton’s best poems, as well as of several other novels). In A Reckoning, Laura Spelman, dying of cancer, remembers her mother, her daughter, and a beloved woman friend, memories that enable her to achieve a transcendent perspective on her life. Harriet Hatfield, sixty-year-old protagonist of The Education of Harriet Hatfield, also achieves a perspective on her past life, when she opens a feminist bookstore in a working-class neighborhood. Conversations with several younger friends help Harriet to understand some issues for lesbians and gay men she has never confronted before. In all of her novels, Sarton explores with sensitivity and courage the difficulties and joys of intense personal relationships in an often-hostile world.
In “The Writing of a Poem” (reprinted in Writings on Writing), Sarton called the making of a lyric poem a “holy game.” The “game” is the intellectual crafting of effects; the “holiness” is a life discipline undertaken to keep the poet “perfectly open and transparent, so that he [sic] may meet everything . . . with an innocent ‘eye.’” This combination of sacred calling and formal crafting is one of the principal themes of Sarton’s poetry. “The Muse as Medusa” from A Grain of Mustard Seed, “The Sacred Wood” and “Because What I Want Most Is Permanence” from The Land of Silence, and “The Autumn Sonnets” from A Durable Fire are among the finest of Sarton’s poems in the ars poetica tradition. Other themes in Sarton’s poetry include the power of passionate love, the magical beauty of the natural landscape, the difficult quest for self-knowledge, the relationship of art to issues of social justice, and the role of silence and solitude in the poet’s life.
In her later years, Sarton’s health began to fail as she suffered a series of illnesses and then a stroke; she turned more toward writing in her journals. Her journals and memoirs present more directly many of the issues addressed in her novels and poetry, especially the importance of friends and lovers in the poet’s life and the role of solitude and silence for the artist. Sarton had a gift for divining, in her personal experience, patterns of meaning common to women of all ages and from many different educational and economic backgrounds. These readers, to whom Sarton refers as “Friends of the Work,” often find her journals and memoirs uncannily reminiscent of their own experience of love and family, as well as evoking the beauty and healing power of the natural world.
Sarton distinguished between “journals,” selective accounts of day-to-day experience, and “memoirs,” distilled reflections on the past. The most powerful of the journals, such as Recovering, Journal of a Solitude, and The House by the Sea, achieve an aesthetic integrity seldom seen in the journal form. The most widely known of the memoirs, Plant Dreaming Deep, confirmed Sarton’s reputation as a writer acutely sensitive to issues of aging, both as metaphor for human limitation, and, more important, as opportunity for positive growth.
Sarton’s final collection, Coming into Eighty, published shortly before her death, is a meditation on the meaning of old age, unaccustomed limitations, and intimations of mortality. The everyday activities of the old person, taken for granted by those of younger generations, are highlighted and dramatized here, in curt lines that imitate the conservation of energy and snipets of memory typical of old age: “These days,” she informs us, “Everything is an effort, . . ./ An adventure.” The poems capture the nexus between the sublime and the mundane: the “effort” and the “adventure,” or the “Muse” that, like her cat, “Mews.” The poet becomes enthralled by even the most common daily sensations–“Alive to every stir of a leaf”–which in turn reinforce her own, still living, state. These are the experiences, sharply focused, that move her, and her readers, on a “slowing ship,” a “last mysterious voyage,” toward a final destination.
Sarton’s literary career embraced more than half a century of experimentation and achievement in a wide variety of literary forms. Still at the height of her powers in her last years, she celebrated with style and profound insight the life of artist and lover. She died at the age of eighty-three from breast cancer.