May Sarton, originally named Eleanor Marie Sarton, was born on May 3, 1912, in Wondelgem, Belgium. She and her family were forced to flee after the invasion by the Reichswehr in 1915, and the family settled in Boston, Massachusetts, when Sarton was just four years old. For eight years she studied at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, one of the country's first progressive schools. By the time she graduated from high school, Sarton had decided to pursue a career as an actress, and at the age of seventeen she left home to join New York's Civic Repertory Theater under Eva de Galienne. After the dissolution of the company and the failure of her own repertory theatre, the Associated Actors Theater, Sarton abandoned her dream of acting and turned her attention to writing.
In 1945, while on vacation in Sante Fe, Sarton met Judy Matlack, a professor of English at Simmons College, who became her lover and companion of thirteen years. The couple separated after the death of Sarton's father, when Sarton moved to Nelson, New Hampshire. She later relocated to York, Maine, where she spent the last twenty years of her life.
During the early part of her career, Sarton enjoyed a good deal of critical acclaim, but later reviews were often harsh and even vicious. Sarton suffered from bouts of depression throughout her life, during which she questioned her talent and, on one occasion, almost gave up writing altogether. In the meantime, her audience continued to grow steadily, often by word of mouth, and Sarton continued to produce prolifically. In 1967, she received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Sarton's numerous collections of poetry include Coming Into Eighty (Norton, 1994), Collected Poems: 1930-1993 (1993), Halfway to Silence (1980), A Private Mythology (1966), The Lion and the Rose (1948), and Encounter in April (1937). She also published many autobiographical works and novels, notably Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965), in which she revealed her homosexuality to the reading public. Over the course of her career, Sarton taught at several colleges and universities, including Harvard University and Wellesley College. She died of breast cancer on July 16, 1995.