Mary Barnard Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Although Mary Barnard’s principal genre was poetry, she also worked with translations from the Greek, most notably in her well-known Sappho: A New Translation (1958). The bulk of her fiction, published in widely read periodicals in the 1950’s, is as yet uncollected, though Three Fables appeared in 1983. Her essays from her research into Sappho, The Mythmakers (1966), also inform her poetry collection Time and the White Tigress. Perhaps her best-known work, aside from the poetry, is the autobiography Assault on Mount Helicon: A Literary Memoir (1984), which features portraits of many of the chief figures in modern American literature but especially of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Mary Barnard’s work shows the influence of the modernists transposed to a minor key. Although it lacks the cosmopolitan effusiveness of Pound or the cultural skeet-shooting of T. S. Eliot or the secret ambition of Williams, it nevertheless sets forth a legitimate agenda and succeeds in convincing its readers that although it is small as an oeuvre, it is by no means slight. Moreover, the scope belies the small size. If one believes with Samuel Taylor Coleridge that one of the distinguishing characteristics of high art is its ability to pack maximum content into minimum space, then the miniatures of Barnard offer more aesthetic satisfaction than their collective heft would suggest. By invoking the mythical within the ordinary and the everyday within the mythical, she created a resonant parallel device for treating the subjects of her choice: childhood, the meaning of change, the pervasiveness of limits, humanity’s relation to nature and to its past, and the fate of women.

Although she wrote essays and fiction as well as translated from the Greek, these endeavors provided—to use one of her favorite images—a spring from which to enlarge and refresh her poetry. In its classical approach to hidden truths about human nature, it bears resemblance to such earlier writers as Léonie Adams and Louise Bogan. Her translations of Sappho show what can be done to breathe life into revered but seldom-read classics, and the autobiographical Assault on Mount Helicon is an important and engaging document of literary history and literary survival from one who wrote from “the far shore” but was nevertheless in the midst of one of the great cultural revolutions of modern times. Her honors and awards include the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine in 1935 and the Western States Book Award for Poetry in 1986 for Time and the White Tigress.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Barnard, Mary. “Dialogue with Mary Barnard.” Interview by Anita Helle. Northwest Review 20, no. 2/3 (1982): 188-198. Few biographical sources on Barnard exist, therefore this interview is very important. Barnard explains that she uses myth to reveal lost history, especially the history of women in Western society. Interesting for all students.

Fantazzi, Charles E. Review of The Myth of Apollo and Daphne from Ovid to Quevedo. Choice 25 (September, 1987): 112. Fantazzi comments on Barnard’s highly learned book of comparative literature, which traces the story of Apollo and Daphne from Ovid to the Spanish Golden Age. Barnard’s facility with myth is apparent here, as it is in her poetry. Gives an idea of the breadth of Barnard’s accomplishment as a writer.

McDowell, Robert. “New Schools and Late Discoveries.” Hudson Review 34 (Winter, 1987). Discusses the unusual fusion of poetry and explicative essay in Barnard’s Time and the White Tigress.

Swift, John. “Separations.” Northwest Review 18, no. 3 (1980): 114-119. Swift explains Barnard’s attempt to separate the idea of boundaries as limits and the notion of limits as powers that enable transformation. This is related to Barnard’s connection with the land of the Pacific Northwest.

Van Cleve, Jane. “A Personal View of Mary Barnard.” Northwest Review 18, no. 3 (1980): 105-113. Barnard’s work did not find a large audience until the late 1970’s, when feminist writing came into vogue. Van Cleve discusses how Barnard’s poetry affects Van Cleve as a woman.

Whitman, Ruth. Review of Time and the White Tigress. Choice 24 (December, 1986): 620. Whitman calls Barnard’s book of poetry “extraordinary.” She describes how it weaves comparative mythology with comparative science in a beautiful, simple way. Provides students with a helpful overview and understanding of Barnard’s book. Informative for all students.