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reed magazine logoAutumn 2009

Channeling Sappho By Bill Donahue Calligraphy by Carol Erickson DuBosch

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:

book cover
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.

reed magazine logoAutumn 2009