The Work of Happiness: May Sarton’s Stunning Poem About Being at Home in Yourself
By Maria Popova
In a culture predicated on the perpetual pursuit of happiness, as if it were a fugitive on the loose, it can be hard to discern what having happiness actually feels like, how it actually lives in us. Willa Cather came consummately close in her definition of happiness as the feeling of being “dissolved into something complete and great” — a definition consonant with Iris Murdoch’s lovely notion of unselfing. And yet happiness is as much a matter of how we inhabit the self — how we make ourselves at home in our own singular lives, in the dwelling-places of our own experience.
That is what May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995), who has written so movingly about unhappiness and its cure, explores in her poem “The Work of Happiness,” included in her indispensable Collected Poems: 1930–1993 (public library).
THE WORK OF HAPPINESS
by May Sarton
I thought of happiness, how it is woven
Out of the silence in the empty house each day
And how it is not sudden and it is not given
But is creation itself like the growth of a tree.
No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark
Another circle is growing in the expanding ring.
No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark,
But the tree is lifted by this inward work
And its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering.
So happiness is woven out of the peace of hours
And strikes its roots deep in the house alone:
The old chest in the corner, cool waxed floors,
White curtains softly and continually blown
As the free air moves quietly about the room;
A shelf of books, a table, and the white-washed wall —
These are the dear familiar gods of home,
And here the work of faith can best be done,
The growing tree is green and musical.
For what is happiness but growth in peace,
The timeless sense of time when furniture
Has stood a life’s span in a single place,
And as the air moves, so the old dreams stir
The shining leaves of present happiness?
No one has heard thought or listened to a mind,
But where people have lived in inwardness
The air is charged with blessing and does bless;
Windows look out on mountains and the walls are kind.
Complement with Bertrand Russell on the secret of happiness and Kurt Vonnegut on the one word it comes down to, then revisit Sarton’s poem “Meditation in Sunlight” and her magnificent ode to solitude.
Published June 28, 2023