In Memoriam

Marie Borroff, distinguished scholar of English literature

Marie Borroff ’56 Ph.D., Sterling Professor of English, Emeritus and one of the pioneering women in the Yale Faculty of Arts and Sciences, died on July 5 at 95.
Marie Borroff

Marie Borroff ’56 Ph.D., Sterling Professor of English, Emeritus, at Yale, a highly regarded scholar, poet, translator, and teacher of English literature, and one of the pioneering women in the Yale Faculty of Arts and Sciences, died at her Branford home on July 5.  She was 95.

Marie Borroff will be remembered not only because of her place in Yale history but because she exemplified excellence and demonstrated an unwavering commitment to the university’s mission,” says Peter Salovey, ’86 Ph.D., President of Yale and Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology. “A superb scholar, dedicated educator, and exemplary community citizen, she mentored scores of students and made critical contributions on and beyond our campus through her writing, translation, and teaching. Yale mourns the passing of one of its greats.”

Professor Borroff was born in New York City the daughter of professional musicians Marie Bergerson and Raymond Borroff. The family moved to Chicago in 1941, and it was there that she received an undergraduate degree and an M.A. from the University of Chicago. Later, she earned a doctorate in English literature and philology from Yale. She began her teaching career at Smith College, and in 1959 became the first woman appointed to Yale’s Department of English. In 1965 she was appointed as a professor of English, making her one of the first two women granted tenure in any department of Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and in 1991 she became the first woman to be named a Sterling Professor, the highest honor bestowed on a Yale faculty member.

A scholar of medieval and Anglo Saxon literature and philologist by training, Professor Borroff extended her scholarship and teaching to what she called “the language of poetry and the poetry of language.” Her critical book-length studies, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Stylistic and Metrical Study” (1962) and “Language and the Poet: Verbal Artistry in Frost, Stevens and Moore” (1979), received accolades, as did her many articles and editions on the history of the language and modern poets.

Marie held the whole history of English poetry in her mind and shared it with generation after generation of Yale students,” says Langdon Hammer, the Neil Gray Jr. professor of English and chair of the Department of English at Yale. 

Professor Borroff’s 1967 translation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” set a standard and soon entered the academic canon when it was selected for printing in an early Norton anthology, used by thousands of students nationwide. In her 89th year, she published “The Gawain Poet: Complete Works,” translations of all five Gawain poems, with a formidably erudite introduction. Her translations follow the metrical and rhyming structure of the original exactly and demonstrate her musical ear (she was a trained musician) and her feel for language, enabling her to create what one critic called a translation that was both “accurate and sensitive.”

Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of the Humanities and English at Yale, who was a graduate student at the same time as Professor Borroff, lauded her as a great medievalist, a fine critic of modern poetry, and a person “humane in all things, a sane, clear bell ringing out and rendering the world brighter.”

Her poetry was published in journals such as The American Scholar and The New Republic and was collected in a volume, “Stars and Other Signs,” published by Yale University Press in 2002.

One poem, dedicated to former Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead and read by him and by President Salovey at several first-year addresses, speaks of her many years walking to Yale from her home on St. Ronan Street. In it, she considers how “bell on bell borne past / as leaves blown from a tree / tells how time’s branches hold us fast / only to set us free.”

As one of the few female faculty members on campus during her early teaching days, Professor Borroff was a notable figure at Yale. Writing in the Yale Alumni Magazine in 2012, author and former New Yorker editor Charles McGrath noted the impression she made on students in an all-male environment with her “heels, beautifully tailored suits, and pinned-up red hair.” A photo of the English department from that era shows her seated in the middle of the first row, surrounded by an all-male faculty.

Professor Borroff went on to win almost every award the university could bestow: a Wilbur Cross Medal honoring distinguished alumni; the Phi Beta Kappa DeVane Medal for teaching; an endowed chair named in her honor, the Marie Borroff Professorship, now held by Ardis Butterfield; a scholarship fund created in her name by an anonymous donor that awards financial aid to graduate students in English; and the Elizabethan Club Medal for Distinguished Service. Along with celebrated art historian Vincent Scully and historian Donald Kagan, she received the Yale Alumni Association’s inaugural Howard Lamar Award for faculty service to the alumni.

Among her participation on scores of other influential committees, she was the faculty counselor to the Presidential Search Committee that appointed Richard Levin as Yale president in 1993.

Professor Borroff was a beloved teacher, and at her final class in poetry before her retirement, students expressed their enthusiasm not only with applause but also by throwing hats, flowers, and anything they had available high into the air.

Norman Maclean, author of “A River Runs Through It,” taught Professor Borroff at the University of Chicago, though he writes in his acknowledgments that she ultimately became his teacher. “I have published practically nothing that has not profited from the criticisms … of Marie Borroff,” he wrote. She urged him, he noted, “not to concentrate so much on the story that I would fail to express a little love I have of the earth as it goes by.”

During much of the second part of the 20th century, Professor Borroff served as a role model and mentor to many. Her death signals the end of an age.

Professor Borroff’s younger sister, Edith, a musicologist and composer and her last immediate relative, died in March of this year. Her close friend Beatrice Bartlett, professor emeritus of history at Yale, will be happy to receive letters sent in care of 103 Adams, Evergreen Woods, 88 Notch Hill Rd., North Branford, CT 06471. Burial will be private in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where Professor Borroff had a much-loved summer home.

A memorial service for Marie Borroff will take place on Saturday, Oct. 26 at 11 a.m. in Battell Chapel, corner of College and Elm streets.

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