Making it New: Sappho, Mary Barnard and American Modernism

Barnsley, Sarah. 2013. Making it New: Sappho, Mary Barnard and American Modernism. Synthesis, 5, pp. 71-93. [Article]

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Contrary to the pessimism of American editors in the 1950s who told Mary Barnard that “Sappho would never sell,” Barnard’s Sappho: A New Translation (1958) is now in its fifty-fifth year of continuous print by the University of California Press. Expressing the bare, lyrical intensity of Sappho’s poetry without recourse to excessive linguistic ornament or narrative padding, Barnard’s translation is widely regarded as the best in modern idiom, with leading translation studies scholar Yopie Prins asserting that “Barnard’s Sappho is often read as if it is Sappho.”

This essay will examine how Barnard managed this remarkable achievement, linking Sappho to the American modernist project to “make it new,” to quote Ezra Pound. New archival material is used to show how Barnard declared herself “A Would-Be Sappho” as early as 1930. The essay begins with the reasons why Sappho was appealing to those with modernist sensibilities, reading the development of Imagists Pound, H.D. and Richard Aldington against the backdrop of the public excitement that surrounded the major excavations of Sappho’s corpus at the turn of the century. The essay then zooms-in on the ways in which Sappho was a vital element in the formulation of Barnard’s identity as a late modernist writer, particularly examining her appropriation of the imagery from Sappho’s fragments as Barnard developed her “spare but musical” late Imagist style in her poems of the 1930s and 1940s. If Barnard’s deep absorption of Sappho in her emergent years enabled her to find a means of producing American free verse in the modernist tradition, then there was an intriguing reciprocation: it was this very “Sapphic modernism,” I contend, that enabled Barnard to find a means of translating Sappho to be read “as if it is Sappho.” The essay concludes with a new interpretation of the significance of Barnard’s appropriation of Sappho in her own poetry, noting how, peculiarly, Barnard drew out of her Sappho connection a thoroughly American idiom to pit against European literary autonomy, on a par with William Carlos Williams’s own attempts to produce a thoroughly American verse. In making Sappho new for modern Americans, Barnard was, I find, making a new language for modern American poetry.

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American poetry, modernism, Mary Barnard, Sappho, translation, Greek, reception

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature



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Date Deposited:

23 Jan 2015 14:00

Last Modified:

23 Jul 2019 15:21

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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