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May Sarton, 'our poet,' at 100

May Sarton felt a strong affinity for Unitarians, who continue to revere her work.
By Sonja L. Cohen
Summer 2012 5.15.12

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May Sarton, 1946 (Bettmann/CORBIS)

The writings of May Sarton, shown here in 1946 at 33, are a staple at Unitarian Universalist services. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

From an early age, the writer May Sarton felt a kinship with Unitarians, and one hundred years after her birth many Unitarian Universalists continue to feel a particular connec­tion to her. “What has been once so interwoven / cannot be raveled, nor the gift ungiven,” she wrote in a poem often read in UU memorial services. “Now the dead move through all of us / still glowing.”

“Sarton was a strong advocate for growing one’s soul, discerning the truth, and living a life of service—qualities embraced by most UUs,” says Beverly Anderson Forbes, editor of the three-volume Remembering May Sarton. “Sarton is so significant to us because of the strong correlation between her vision of life and our UU Principles.” She published more than fifty books of poetry, novels, and memoirs.

Eleanore Marie Sarton was born in Wondelgem, Belgium, on May 3, 1912. Her father was a science historian and her mother a designer. In 1915 the family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her father taught at Harvard. It was here, when she was about 10, that she was introduced to Unitarianism when a friend brought her to First Parish in Cambridge. She was deeply moved by the message of the minister, the Rev. Samuel McChord Crothers. In her memoir, At Seventy, she remembered one sermon that “made a great impression on me—and really marked me for life. I can hear him saying, ‘Go into the inner chamber of your soul—and shut the door.’ The slight pause after ‘soul’ did it. A revelation to the child who heard it and who never has forgotten it.”

Sarton didn’t join any church as an adult. She was less interested in religion than in humanity. But she remained connected to Unitarianism all the same.

“An especially meaningful synergy between Sarton and UUs began in 1972,” says Anderson Forbes, “when the Rev. Richard Henry led a major worship service at the UUA General Assembly on the topic of ‘Composing a Life,’ where he focused on Sarton’s life and work.” The event created a huge following for Sarton among UUs, and in 1982 Sarton was invited to give the Ware Lecture at GA. “The president introduced me as ‘our poet,’” she recalled in At Seventy, “which was a beautiful beginning. I feel that the Unitarian Universalists are a community I can happily feel at home with. In that huge gymnasium there was so much intelligence and concern, such good, open, caring faces, so many men and women I longed to know. I am proud to be called their poet.” At the same GA, Sarton received the Ministry to Women Award from the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation.

Sarton didn’t see herself as a “lesbian” writer, although she wrote openly about homosexuality and her formative thirteen-year relationship with Judy Matlack. Her novels and memoirs were taught in women’s studies courses. She insisted, though, that she was interested in what was universal about love.

Sarton died of breast cancer on July 16, 1995, but many continue to find inspiration in her words. Three of her writings appear in the UUA hymnal Singing the Living Tradition. Her poems and quotations are a staple at Sunday morning services. This May, Sarton enthusiasts are gathering to mark what would have been her 100th birthday, including a group in York, Maine, that is holding a four-day centennial symposium on her life and works.

“Sarton is one of our prophets and our sages,” says Anderson Forbes. “It is my hope that her centennial will provide an even greater resurgence in her work and in what she has to offer us as we strive as UUs to realize the ‘beloved community’ here on earth.”


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