“Life is Never Absent”: May Sarton, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

mrs-stevens-hears-the-mermaids-singingIn her 1974 introduction to Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, Carolyn Heilbrun comments on how little “organized acclamation” or “academic attention” May Sarton has received. I was curious to see if that had changed in the intervening decades, so I did a quick subject search on the MLA Bibliography and turned up 108 results since 1974 — which is within hailing distance of George Eliot’s (surprisingly modest) 117 results for the same time frame, much better than Winifred Holtby’s 36, but far from Virginia Woolf’s startling 5147. Sarton’s star has risen, then, at least a little.

I’m almost as interested in Heilbrun’s interest in Sarton as I am in Sarton herself. Heilbrun clearly found something in Sarton that mattered to her, and thus she became her reader, her critic, and her advocate. She works hard to understand and go beyond strains of conventionality in Sarton’s novels, and particularly in Sarton’s ideas about women and women’s work, and to articulate what it is, despite Sarton’s formal limitations, that gives her work such speaking force. In this introduction, for instance, Heilbrun praises Sarton’s compassion:

Louise Bogan, in a letter to Rush Limmer, calls some poems of Sarton’s “sentimental,” an easy charge, a palpable danger to any writer not barricaded against revelation. But what appears sentimental to the society Mrs. Stevens envisioned as composed of male critics is an inevitable aspect of the compassion which, in Sarton, has never cowered behind the usual defenses. As a result, life is never absent from her work as it is from, to name a master, the work of Flaubert. And even Bogan must have understood something of this. Writing of Elizabeth Bowen’s crystalline and pristine prose, never for a moment lax or sentimental, Bogan observed, “The Death of the Heart is too packed, too brilliant, for its own good. What Miss Bowen lacks is a kind of humility.”

I was struck by how these comments actually bring us back to what I was puzzling over in my last post: the relationship between a certain kind of artistic excellence and a quality of what, in Heilbrun’s terms, might be called lifelessness. Another way to think about it, building on Bogan’s word “humility,” might be that Sarton comes across as a writer trying to figure things out, whereas Flaubert or James seem so sure of themselves — an effect that of course is the result of effort, not ease. There is intellectual excitement as well as beauty in their achieved confidence, but there’s something appealing in a different way in Sarton’s awkwardness — a quality that (in my limited experience, at least) is more apparent in her fiction, as if when writing memoir some obstacle (psychological, formal, whatever) melts away and she finds her own kind of writerly certainty.

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is actually a lot like a memoir: it’s hard not to read the story of novelist and poet Hilary Stevens reflecting — through the device of an interview — on her life’s work as a version of Sarton’s own story, as an attempt to dramatize questions she had thought a lot about regarding creativity and love. I think I might have found it more engaging if I were a creative writer myself: as it is, I have little idea what the relationship between a poet and her “muse” might be, and I care a lot more about the results! Still, I was quite interested in Hilary’s comments on poetic form:

Inspiration? It felt more like being harnessed to wild horses whom she must learn to control or be herself flung down and broken. The sonnet form with its implacable demand to clarify, to condense, to bring to fulfillment, became the means to control. Now for the first time she understood about form, what it was for, how it could teach one to discover what was really happening, and now to come to terms with the impossible, how it was not a discipline imposed from outside by the intellect, but grappled with from inner necessity as a means of probing and dealing with powerful emotions.

But what I liked best here, as in Plant Dreaming Deep or Journal of a Solitude, is Sarton’s ability (or, perhaps, her willingness) to convey the vitality of a single person: a person alone in her own space, observing it closely but also filling it with her thoughts and memories; a person deeply, persistently, without self-satisfaction, simply being herself. “You’ve given me courage,” says Jenny Hale, one of the interviewers and herself an aspiring writer, near the end of the visit: “courage to be myself, to do what I want to do!” “How did I do that, I wonder?” asks Hilary. “Maybe –” replies Jenny, “maybe because you have dared so greatly to be your self.” It doesn’t sound like much, to be your self, but it is a lot, isn’t it? And it’s hard to do, especially among other people who inevitably, often quite legitimately, make their own explicit or implicit demands on who you can be. Sarton’s fascination with being alone is tied to this sense that solitude brings (albeit at a cost) a certain freedom otherwise inaccessible — perhaps especially for women.

2 thoughts on ““Life is Never Absent”: May Sarton, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

  1. D.Reynolds December 28, 2015 / 12:46 am

    Your quoting Heilbrun brings back fond memories of her “Hamlet’s Mother”, teaching me I had almost completely misapprehended Gertrude, despite several close readings and carefully attended performances of the play. I also had the privilege of attending one of her senior seminars which I took twice at Columbia, writing an essay on Humor in the Novels of Camus, Hesse and Kafka. I flunked her class the first time I took it (because I didn’t request an incomplete the first time and, despite her efforts, having the request rejected by the department head) but earned an A the second time. When she saw me in the first class of the second time I took it, she was surprised asking if I was certain I wanted to take the class again with her since she had failed me . I told her at the time the failure had been mine and I had learned a great deal in the first semester. Though I have had many fine teachers both at Columbia and the University of Chicago, and in clinical supervision since my degrees, she was one of the finest teachers I ever had. She combined a remarkable intelligence, gentle empathic manner in class, and a singular command of the literature of many languages. I treasure her memory.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 28, 2015 / 11:51 am

      Thank you so much for your comment – it sounds like she was an extraordinary teacher, or could be, for the right students. I think that pedagogical impulse is strong in a lot of her criticism, and especially in her little but powerful book Writing A Woman’s Life — she manages to balance revelations and insights with remarkably simplicity.


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