Once when he was preparing to teach a course in minor writers at a New England preparatory school, Robert Frost remarked, “I’d like to get the boys acquainted with some of the fellows who didn’t blow their trumpets so loudly but who nonetheless sounded a beautiful note.” If one were to determine the justice of a writer’s claim to be of major significance by the deceptive but often applied criteria of his celebrity or the volume of his production, Mary Barnard would surely be regarded as a “minor writer,” but if one were also to consider the excellence of a writer’s work, the “beautiful note” Frost wished to celebrate, then Mary Barnard, the author of an exceptional translation of Sappho, might be more properly regarded as a “minor writer” of major interest.
It is unusual, in these brash and contentious times, to discover an author so diffident that one almost longs for an occasional lapse into arrogant bad taste or at least some overt display of the artist’s ego. Barnard’s “literary memoir,” Assault on Mount Helicon, is an account of a lifelong love affair with literature that is so consistently modest, warm, and generous that it seems to be the work of a person living in some early, more tranquil time. One might imagine that Barnard’s devotion to Greek poetry is part of an attempt to locate herself away from the furor of modernism in an unthreatening Attic retreat, and yet she is a knowledgeable, enthusiastic supporter and practitioner of modern poetics; was a correspondent and then-sympathetic friend of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams; and a real pioneer in methods of re-creating the sensibility and artistic temperament of Greek mystery religions which directly defy the teachings of C. G. Jung, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Sir James Frazer, and Sigmund Freud. She is, in other words, a woman whose recollections of her acquaintances in the realm of American letters and of her efforts under their direction to develop a style and voice are an important contribution to the intellectual history of American literature in this century.
The tone of the entire book is struck by the dedication:
To my Young Friends,Fledglingsin the Forests of Helicon
Characteristically, Barnard offers her book, as she has dedicated her life, to the romantic myth of the young writer, fresh and hopeful, in an idealized vernal wood amid a “poetic” landscape. Towering above, toward the summit of poetic achievement (the legendary Mount Helicon, home of the Muses), the mighty figures of Pound, Williams, and Marianne Moore stand as inspiration and guide. Like most memoirs, Barnard’s book is the record of a journey, and in this case, the course of the journey is the development and cultivation of a poetic perception which eventually enabled Barnard convincingly to imagine the creative psyche of Sappho and then to reinvent Sappho’s art in vital, contemporary poetic measures. The most compelling aspect of the memoir is the juxtaposition of Barnard’s composed, friendly, rather reserved style—“wrought with a purity of language, a clarity of balance and sense,” W. S. Merwin contends—with the jagged, singular personalities of Pound and Williams and the delightfully idiosyncratic, powerfully and hermetically logical mind of Moore. Barnard’s letters from Pound and Williams are like a superb textbook on the form of modern American poetics in midcentury, while her observations about these men and many others, including Delmore Schwartz, E. E. Cummings, Kenneth Fearing, Henry Roth, and Carl Van Doren, are an interesting amalgam of insight and genteel eavesdropping.
Even as a young child, Barnard knew her vocation. She recalls that she was “always trying to find words that would capture something of the experience so that [she] could put it down and keep it.” She remembers how she was drawn to complete unfinished quatrains she found in an early songbook and how excited she was when she found a copy of a handbook entitled The Art of Versification with its explanation of the basic rules of scansion. She describes her surprise and delight at the sound of spoken Greek when she heard a classics professor at Reed College reciting Homer and her pleasure in membership in the “Gawd-Awful Society,” where undergraduates read their “gawd-awful poetry and their gawd-awful prose.” Her college days were alive with the rapture of discovery, a familiar and reassuring emotion for anyone who shares her passion for literature, but through these years, she appears to have been following a road often taken. Then, in the kind of quietly audacious action that has...