Channeling Sappho

How Mary Barnard ’32 liberated the ancient Greek poet from a prison of Victorian rhymes.

By Bill Donahue | September 1, 2009

She was a tall woman, maybe, and a sultry beauty. In the paintings we have of Sappho, the lyric poet who lived circa 600 BC, her eyes are often soft and beguiling. Her robes are loose and flowing in the warm island breezes of her native Lesbos, and her features are painted with a sweet affection reminiscent of Caravaggio.

Usually, she is carrying a lyre, for in her largely preliterate culture, Sappho was a singer-songwriter—a feminist voice, and a sort of Ani DiFranco of her day. She performed at weddings and funerals, sometimes alone, and sometimes with a chorus of teenage girls. Some believe that she ran a finishing school for the wealthy young debutantes of her day, tutoring them in fashion and the arts. Others contend that Sappho’s school was secular, and cultlike in its embrace of homosexual love. But in truth Sappho’s poems are not raw anatomy lessons. They tend, instead, to dwell on Eros’ sting. Consider this poem, as rendered in a famous American translation:

With his venom

and bittersweet

that loosener
of limbs, Love

strikes me down

For several centuries, Sappho was venerated. In his first-century-AD treatise, “On The Sublime,” the Greek critic Longinus reveled, “Are you not amazed at how she evokes soul, body, hearing, tongue, sight, skin, as though they were external and belonged to someone else? And how at one and the same moment she both freezes and burns?”

But just a few years later, in 180 AD, the theologian Tatian of Adiabene dissed Sappho as a “pornikon erotomanes”—and Christianity was only beginning its purifying ascent. In 1073, according to one Renaissance writer, Pope Gregory VII ordered that Sappho’s poetry be burned.

The bonfires may be apocryphal. What matters is that Sappho’s poems went out of vogue. The pottery bearing her words turned into dust. The papyrus got tossed, mostly, and all that remains is a few fragments—a line here, a word there: a corpus so scant that it instills longing. It’s as though we can hear Sappho’s voice, just barely, calling out of the past, asking to be heard and deciphered.

Let me tell you this:
someone in some future time
will think of us

It is strange how things happen. You have a poet who stood on a Greek isle singing into the wind, and then 25 centuries later, in about 1930, here at Reed, a young woman from Vancouver, Washington, tunes into Sappho—and goes on, in 1958, to publish what many regard as the definitive English language translation of literature’s first significant female voice. Mary Barnard ’32 was an established poet by the 1950s, celebrated for her spare evocations of the Northwest landscape. Her slender book, Sappho: A New Translation, excerpted throughout this piece, is lucid and lean, delivering around 100 of the 200-odd extant Sappho fragments in free verse, in plainspoken American idiom. For example:

If you are squeamish
Don’t prod the
beach rubble

Nearly every English translation that preceded Barnard’s was a dog—a bona fide clunker that endeavored to twist Sappho’s clean Greek into bouncy rhymes. Lord Byron’s circa 1820 stab at Sappho, for instance, includes these regrettable lines:

Equal to Jove that youth must be —
Greater than Jove he seems to me —
Who, free from Jealousy’s alarms,
Securely views thy matchless charms.

Barnard’s rendering of the same stanza reads:

He is more than a hero

He is a god in my eyes—
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you—he
who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice

When A New Translation appeared, it was instantly celebrated. “The sheer penetration Miss Barnard achieves is staggering,” opined The Hudson Review. “She is Sappho, here.”

Barnard’s book remains the default Sappho—the best selling of the twenty-odd Sappho translations on and also, probably, the translation most widely used at American colleges. In the eyes of many, Mary Barnard brought Sappho to the American public—and helped, inadvertently, to spawn a new vision of the ancient poet, as lesbian activist. Witness the 1970 call to arms, “Sappho Was a Right-On Woman,” by Sidney Abbot and Barbara Love—and also the eighties-era all-women a capella group, the Sapphonics, whose specialty hit was, “There Is Nothing Like a Dyke.”

In her later years, Barnard was often embraced as an avatar of the Movement. “She would get fan letters that would begin, ‘Like you, I’m a lesbian. I read your book every night before going to sleep,’” remembers her friend James Anderson ’76. “She was a very open-minded person, but it perturbed her.”

Indeed, Barnard was no libertine revolutionary. Apolitical and single throughout her entire life, she was a remote and self-contained person. The poet Marianne Moore called the tall, bespectacled Barnard “trim, pale and spare,” and Sarah Barnsley ’95, a British academic now at work on a Barnard biography, labels her “an aesthete, and an immensely private person.” Barnsley spent eight weeks in the library at Yale University, sifting through the 3,000 letters that Barnard wrote to her parents. She has found no evidence that the poet ever had any romantic liaisons, and she is still not sure whether Barnard was gay or straight.

Deliberate and exacting, Mary Barnard produced only about 150 poems, all told, and they are burnished little jewels devoid of Sappho’s soft sensuality. They’re almost absent of people, in fact, and lonely. Consider:

Sweep the mind
like a field of dry stubble
when the constellations
of daisies have been mown

Reed grads of the 70s and 80s remember Barnard as a wry and crisp éminence grise who obligingly entertained poetry novices at her immaculate condo in Vancouver, Washington. “She had an old-school propriety,” says John Sheehy, ’82. “You’d go over there and she’d serve you tea and cookies.”

One has to wonder: How did such a cool character ever pull off a translation of Sappho that was so white-hot, so on the money? Likely, no one will ever know, but with the centennial of Barnard’s birth looming—she was born on December 6, 1909—it is time to piece the story together.

It all began, arguably, in the mouth of a crocodile. When the late Greeks and the Romans tired of Sappho, they treated the papyri bearing her work as something like old, coffee-stained newspapers. They used it as packing material—and one day in 1900, as a workman was digging in the Fayum basin of Egypt, looking for mummies on the site of an old Hellenist city, Oxyrhynchus, he unearthed the leathery body of a mummified croc. Inside its mouth were blackened papyri; hundreds more crocodiles were likewise stuffed. Most of the long-buried papyri were dross—IOUs, invitations, tax returns, laundry lists. But Oxford grads Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt kept probing through a nearby ancient garbage dump. They gathered scraps as small as postage stamps in reed baskets and brought them to England. By 1915, they’d reassembled texts from Euclid, Pindar, and Euripides, along with 56 undiscovered fragments of Sappho.

The new Sappho prompted great joy in London, for there a brash young American expat poet, Ezra Pound, was hatching a new literary movement—modernism—that was at war with Victorians like, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and their longwinded, fanciful musings. In founding a lit journal called Des Imagistes, Pound called on writers to present “images of concrete things arranged to stir the reader.” He also advocated a vigorous mining of classical texts, sprinkling his own poems with snippets of Greek. Sappho’s clarity and elusive mystique thrilled him. And as the Sappho papyri were shipped to the British Museum during the nineteen-teens, Pound was often there in the refreshment room, sharing buttered toasts and cream puffs with his old flame, the poet Hilda Doolittle, or HD, as they argued over verse that Hilda had written in Sapphic style.

Mary Barnard was starstruck by the whole episode. In a letter to her parents, she asked that they give her both the poems of HD and a translation of Sappho for Christmas. At Reed she veered from an institutional mania for T.S. Eliot (“It was Eliot, Eliot, Eliot all the way,” she wrote) to embrace the man who edited Eliot’s antiepic, The Wasteland: Ezra Pound. “He knew more about the technique of writing poetry than any other living poet,” she says in her 1984 memoir, Assault on Mount Helicon, “and I had a sneaking suspicion that he might like the kind of poems I wrote.”

In 1933, with the ink still wet on her Reed degree, she was living at her parents’ house in Vancouver, babysitting here and there for 50 cents an hour and arduously writing. She finally screwed up the courage to send Pound six poems and a note beseeching advice. Pound responded as he did to all letters—with a garbled note that reads like an antediluvian text message. “Age?” he harrumphed. “intentions? how MUCH intention? I mean how hard and for how long are you willing to work at it? . . . Nice gal, likely to marry and give up writing or what Oh?”

Barnard responded with sass: “I’m a nice gal, yes, but not in the least likely to get married. I abhor kitchens, I’m scared to death of children, and I have an extraordinarily chilly disposition. That I should give up writing is inconceivable.”

Soon, the correspondence between Barnard and Pound was flowing. She played earnest student. He rattled off hoary advice—and launched her into the giddy swirl of literary life. With reference letters from her mentor, Barnard moved to New York in 1935 and befriended Marianne Moore. William Carlos Williams—26 years her senior, and a known philanderer—made an unrequited pass at her on the Brooklyn Bridge, then became a close pal. In 1940, New Directions Press included her, along with John Berryman, in a momentous slim volume, Five Young American Poets. She found work as an indexer and research assistant.

But still her life was not easy. Barnard was an odd bird—on the outside and alone in many a social setting. The only child of a traveling lumber buyer, she’d spent her freshman year at Reed with “no friends at all,” she writes. And when she traveled to New York, she was “green as grass” and “very shy, and more than a little terrified.” Her life was solitary, and small. In recounting her time in New York to James Anderson, she once told him a story about buying a warm winter coat. “That was the highlight of her whole year,” says Anderson.

She was never robust, and in late 1950, after losing her job, she came down with what her autobiography calls “the Bug-of-the-Year. I became more and more depressed, probably because I was already ill,” she writes in a rare confessional moment. “In January, when my landlord decided to put in a new boiler during a cold snap, it was the last straw.” Her weight plummeted to 105. She checked into the hospital. She spent a month convalescing at a friend’s apartment. In the spring she traveled home to Vancouver, so that her aging mother could tend to her in the family’s generous, tree-lined home near the center of town. Upon arrival, she came down with hepatitis B.

This bout of illness changed her life. She would lie in bed for about six months, and she would never again seek full-time work. Indeed, it was only a matter of time before she’d pull up stakes in New York. In 1957, she would leave the city and settle back into her parents’ home, on a permanent basis.

For Sappho, probably, a personal decline would have been splendid literary grist. So many of her poems express heartsickness. For instance:

It is clear now:

Neither honey nor
the honey bee is
to be mine again.

Barnard didn’t feel that 20th century writers were entitled to bellyache so. Indeed, after going to see James Agee read from Let us Now Praise Famous Men, a self-involved, sorrow-tinged nonfictional book about Southern sharecroppers, she snipped, “It was like listening to a man saying his prayers.”

Mary Barnard didn’t disdain Agee simply because she believed in privacy. She was also an heir to a certain artistic tradition. The modernists espoused impersonality, and the aesthetic is perhaps best enunciated by T.S. Eliot, who, in his seminal 1919 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” laid down a complex dictate: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

Barnard had personality and emotions, and when she was sick she wanted to escape from them. In her memoir, she writes of being “hooked up to a glucose bottle” at a Vancouver hospital—and of protesting vehemently when a doctor instructed, “Stay in bed another month.”

“I felt that I must do something to make this catastrophe pay,” she continues. She cracked open two Greek grammar books and began honing her rusty language skills, first acquired at Reed, where in the evenings her classics professor, Barry Cerf [English 1921- 48], read Homer aloud to his charges.

In bed, Barnard reread parts of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Then by chance a friend sent her a new Italian translation of Sappho done by Salvatore Quasimodo. It was “very beautiful,” Barnard writes, “spare but musical, and [it] had, besides, the sound of the speaking voice making a simple but emotionally loaded statement.” Reading in a language she knew only vaguely, she was “free to balance between the Greek phrase and the Italian phrase while I search for the truly equivalent phrase in living, not lexicon English.”

At first, Barnard just did translation in her head. But eventually she felt the prod of a note that Ezra Pound had sent her back in 1934, advising her to translate Sappho. (“You hate translation???” Pound thundered. “What of it? Expect to be carried up Mt. Helicon in an easy chair?”) She sat up and started to type, limiting her sessions, per doctors’ orders, to one or two hours. Each fragment went through about 40 drafts, and when she wasn’t writing, she did what she calls “pillow-work.” She lay in bed, rolling the fragments “around and around in my mind, trying different words and different arrangements of words, asking myself over and over: what did she mean?”

As Barnard describes it in Assault on Mount Helicon, the translation was sort of like doing a crossword puzzle: She searched for clues, then wrote things down. You figure, reading the memoir, that her translations are literal. But actually she pruned; she bridged fragments together. She made brazen assumptions, and then, for each fragment, she devised a title. Look at these two related fragments as they were rendered in an intentionally literal translation by poet Anne Carson in 2002:

1. Evening
you gather back
all that dazzling dawn has put
you gather a lamb
gather a kid 
gather a child to its mother

2. of all the stars most beautiful

Now, look at Barnard’s condensation:

The evening star

Is the most
of all stars

Likewise, Carson records these words:

but I to you of a white goat
and I will pour wine over

Where Barnard writes:

And I said

I shall burn the
fat thigh-bones of
a white she-goat
on her altar

In truth, Sappho never said anything about the goat being fat, or about thigh-bones. But in Barnard’s almost filmic version we can see the meat crisping and sizzling, and the word “altar”—not in the Greek, either—gives the whole tableaux a shimmering holiness, without being highfalutin. Surely, as she lay there, devising her clear, concrete imagery, Barnard was thinking of Pound munching his toasts.

And maybe she thought of Sappho as a friend, too, for the ancient poet—despite all her modern guises (Super Dyke, Porn Queen)—shared much with the odd bird laid low in Vancouver. On the page, Sappho does not present as a brazen Amazon ringleader, but rather as an outsider, a sensitive artiste so astonished by the hurt of life that when she speaks of a girl losing her virginity it is:

like a hyacinth in
the mountains, trampled
by shepherds until
only a purple stain remains
on the ground

“There’s a sense of loss about Sappho,” says Sheehy, now a San Francisco-based writer and editor. “She wrote so much great poetry, but then it just disappeared. And there was something tragic going on in Mary’s life, too. She’d had all this promise and now there she was, in her forties, sick and living with her parents.”

How did Barnard contend, artistically speaking, with the drab misery of it all? It seems almost certain that she’d read Eliot’s manifesto, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”—and that she heard its call for “concentration.” Eliot wrote that poetry is a “concentration of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all.” And in a 1989 letter to a graduate student, Angela Christy, Barnard hints at how she concentrated her bedridden interlude into poetry. The letter discusses this Sappho fragment, as translated by Barnard:

Pain penetrates

me drop
by drop

Christy has just written a thesis speculating that Sappho was thinking of dripping stalagmites. Barnard corrects her. “I’m sure that she did not have stalagmites in mind,” she writes, “nor did I. I thought of a faucet dripping—in the next room, say—then of a heartbeat, then of the pulse, then of throbbing pain. The comparison is not with a hard stone pointed object, but with rhythmic liquid movement, inside the body. The Village Voice published a long poem by Joel Oppenheimer at the time of his death. In it he described what it felt like to be eaten by cancer and treated by chemotherapy, and in the midst of it he quoted those six words of my translation. I’m sure he understood it exactly the way I meant it.”

In her memoir, Barnard says she likely couldn’t have translated Sappho had she been leading an active life: “I would never have had the patience to work so long over each fragment.” She also speaks fondly of the house in Vancouver where she grew up and did her translation, extolling its large porch and the cleared back yard running down to nearby railroad tracks.

The place is still there, in a quiet, leafy neighborhood just off Main Street. It’s just a few miles from my home in Portland, so recently, on a spring afternoon, I pedaled my bicycle over the bridge and rolled up to the lawn.

The Barnard house was grayish blue, the paint flecked, and the roof rotting and speckled with moss. Inside, a large dog was barking at a plasma TV sitting amid a cluster of cardboard moving boxes still unopened by the new owners. I knocked. A young woman came to the door, and then I stood on the porch explaining my mission.

The woman looked at me, skeptically. “Are you a Reedie?” she asked.

In time, she warmed up. She offered to let me come back and tour the place once her husband got home, and for a while I did plan on returning for Mary Barnard instilled a certain sadness in me. Just like Sappho, she’d almost vanished. She’d left behind no heirs, and although she did write a memoir, it was close to the vest. I wanted some tangible hint of her life: I wanted to touch the walls that she touched. I wanted a bead on the story of her life in that house.

But soon, as I kept reading the poems, that urge for facts faded—and felt rather silly: A New Translation is, really, all about imagination. Sappho, working when literature was a new medium, imagined a fresh way to tell the truth, and Mary Barnard, lying on her back, stared up at the ceiling over her sickbed. She imagined the evening star, and she made it the most beautiful of all the stars.


Portland writer Bill Donahue has contributed to the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and the Washington Post Magazine. His website is at

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