MAY SARTON 1912-1995
May Sarton was born in Belgium and raised in Boston. She tried acting but ultimately settled down as a writer, and spent the last twenty years of her life in York, Maine. “It is clear that May Sarton’s best work,” suggested Sheila Ballantyne in the New York Times Book Review, “whatever its form, will endure well beyond the influence of particular reviews or current tastes. For in it she is an example: a seeker after truth with a kind of awesome energy for renewal, an ardent explorer of life’s important questions. Her great strength is that when she achieves insight, one believes—because one has witnessed the struggle that preceded the knowledge; her discoveries do not come cheap.”
Sarton never thought of herself as a lesbian or feminist writer: “The vision of life in my work is not limited to one segment of humanity . . . and has little to do with sexual proclivity,” Sarton wrote in Recovering: A Journal 1978-1979.
I discovered May Sarton sometime in the 70’s, mainly through her journals, which described a comfortable day to day existence of friends, solitude, lovers, and animals, everything thing tinged with the sea and the seasonal cycles of the Maine coast. Her gardening experience had a great influence on both her life and work: “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.”
In the middle of the night,
My bedroom washed in moonlight
The faint hush-hushing
Of an ebbing tide,
I see Venus
The waning moon.
I hear the bubbling hoot
Of a playful owl.
Ripple under my hand,
And all this is bathed
In the scent of roses
By my bed
Where there are always
Books and flowers.
In the middle of the night
The bliss of being alive!
EDWARD ARLINGTON ROBINSON 1869-1935
Born in Head Tide, Maine,but ended up in Gardiner, the third son of a wealthy New England merchant, a man who had little use for the fine arts. His father sent him to Harvard. He did not aim to get all A’s; as he wrote his friend Harry Smith, “B, and in that vicinity, is a very comfortable and safe place to hang.” He managed to publish some poems in local magazines and newspapers, but “collected a pile of rejection slips “that must have been one of the largest and most comprehensive in literary history.”
He eventually self-published his work, in strictly traditional form. When one critic found it too grim, the poet responded, “I am sorry that I have painted myself in such lugubrious colours,…The world is not a prison house, but a kind of spiritual kindergarten, where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.” Robinson took to alcohol in response to the lukewarm reception, until he found a new fan, President Theodore Roosevelt, whose son admired his work. Teddy obtained a sinecure for the author at the New York Customs House, which gave Robinson the security he needed.
I well remember well two of his poems from high school-Richard Cory, who “glittered when he walked” and Miniver Cheevey, born too late. His verse was rather dark, but immediately accessible to an unversed kid, even though his austere New England towns were a world away from a boy in Texas.
Mr. Flood’s Party
Old Eben Flood, climbing alone one night
Over the hill between the town below
And the forsaken upland hermitage
That held as much as he should ever know
On earth again of home, paused warily.
The road was his with not a native near;
And Eben, having leisure, said aloud,
For no man else in Tilbury Town to hear:
“Well, Mr. Flood, we have the harvest moon
Again, and we may not have many more;
The bird is on the wing, the poet says,
And you and I have said it here before.
Drink to the bird.” He raised up to the light
The jug that he had gone so far to fill,
And answered huskily: “Well, Mr. Flood,
Since you propose it, I believe I will.”
Alone, as if enduring to the end
A valiant armor of scarred hopes outworn,
He stood there in the middle of the road
Like Roland’s ghost winding a silent horn.
Below him, in the town among the trees,
Where friends of other days had honored him,
A phantom salutation of the dead
Rang thinly till old Eben’s eyes were dim.
Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
Down tenderly, fearing it may awake,
He set the jug down slowly at his feet
With trembling care, knowing that most things break;
And only when assured that on firm earth
It stood, as the uncertain lives of men
Assuredly did not, he paced away,
And with his hand extended paused again:
“Well, Mr. Flood, we have not met like this
In a long time; and many a change has come
To both of us, I fear, since last it was
We had a drop together. Welcome home!”
Convivially returning with himself,
Again he raised the jug up to the light;
And with an acquiescent quaver said:
“Well, Mr. Flood, if you insist, I might.
“Only a very little, Mr. Flood—
For auld lang syne. No more, sir; that will do.”
So, for the time, apparently it did,
And Eben evidently thought so too;
For soon amid the silver loneliness
Of night he lifted up his voice and sang,
Secure, with only two moons listening,
Until the whole harmonious landscape rang—
“For auld lang syne.” The weary throat gave out,
The last word wavered; and the song being done,
He raised again the jug regretfully
And shook his head, and was again alone.
There was not much that was ahead of him,
And there was nothing in the town below—
Where strangers would have shut the many doors
That many friends had opened long ago.
EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY 1892–1950
“Edna St. Vincent Millay,” notes her biographer Nancy Milford, “became the herald of the New Woman.” Raised in Rockland, then Camden, Edna greatly benefited from a strong willed mother who divorced her father, made the best of an impoverished existence and raised her children on the likes of Milton and Shakespeare. The young poet took Vincent as her name, which didn’t sit too well with her high school teacher in Camden.
The poem “Renascence” brought her instant fame. She attended Vassar and ended up in Greenwich Village where she was described as “a frivolous young woman, with a brand-new pair of dancing slippers and a mouth like a valentine.” Though she eventually married Eugen Jan Boissevain, she had lovers of both sexes during their twenty-six year relationship, notably George Dillon,who was 22 to her 36 and inspired the sonnets in the collection Fatal Interview.
Boissevain found them a run down 700 acre farm in Austerlitz, New York. During this period Millay wrote a libretto for an opera called The King’s Henchman, set in tenth- century England, which was well received. In 1927 she was arrested during a protest against the Sacco and Vanzetti murder conviction, which made her “more aware of the underground workings of forces alien to true democracy.”
Even though she succumbed to writing “acres of bad verse” for the war effort and drank heavily after her husband’s death in 1949, Millay managed to produce a new book of poems, Mine the Harvest, working in solitude before she died in 1950. The deep insight still came through:
“Read history: so learn your place in Time;
And go to sleep: all this was done before;”
Patricia A. Klemans states that Millay became a poet for the ages “by interweaving the woman’s experience with classical myth, traditional love, literature, and nature.”
Mover and shaker, feminist, free thinker, dramatist, writer of sublime verse, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s intense embrace of existence inspires me upon every reading. I am only just now discovering her fascinating universe.
New England Spring, 1942
The rush of rain against the glass
Is louder than my noisy mind
The rain shouts: “Hear me, how I melt the ice that clamps
the bent and frozen grass!
Winter cannot come twice
Even this year!
I break it up; I make it water the roots of spring!
I am the harsh beginning, poured in torrents down the hills,
And dripping from the trees and soaking, later,
and when the wind is still,
Into the roots of flowers, which your eyes, incredulous,
soon will suddenly find!
Comfort is almost here.”
The sap goes up the maple; it drips fast
From the tapped maple into the tin pail
Through tubes of hollow elder; the pails brim;
Birds with scarlet throats and yellow bellies
sip from the pail’s rim.
Snow falls thick; it is sifted
Through cracks about windows and under doors;
It is drifted through hedges into country roads. It cannot last.
Winter is past.
It is hurling back at us boasts of no avail.
But Spring is wise. Pale and with gentle eyes,
one day somewhat she advances;
The next, with a flurry of snow into flake-filled skies retreats
before the heat in our eyes, and the thing designed
By the sick and longing mind in its lonely fancies—
The sally which would force her and take her.
And Spring is kind.
Should she come running headlong in a wind-whipped acre
Of daffodil skirts down the mountain into this dark valley
we would go blind.