Marie Borroff, 1923-2019

Tributes paid to a poet and scholar of medieval literature who ‘rendered the world brighter’

July 25, 2019
Marie Borroff

A poet and scholar whose work surveyed many centuries of English has died.

Marie Borroff, the daughter of two professional musicians, was born in New York City on 10 September 1923 and studied for both bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Chicago.

After a doctorate in English literature and philology from Yale University (1956), she taught at Smith College before returning to Yale in 1959 for the rest of her career as the first woman ever appointed to the department of English.

Once established at Yale, Professor Borroff continued to break through glass ceilings. When she was promoted to professor of English in 1965, she was one of the first two tenured women right across the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Even more significantly, in 1991, she became the very first woman ever to gain a Sterling professorship, the most prestigious faculty title in the university.

An expert in medieval and Anglo-Saxon poetry, Professor Borroff was the author of a celebrated translation of the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1969) as well as a critical analysis titled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: A Stylistic and Metrical Study (1962). She followed this up with Traditions and Renewals: Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and Beyond (2003) and then, when close to 90, The Gawain Poet: Complete Works (2012).

Despite her exceptional knowledge of the Middle Ages, Professor Borroff’s interests ranged far more widely. She published a collection of her own poetry, Stars and Other Signs (2002), and was fascinated by what she called “the language of poetry and the poetry of language”. This led to her study of three 20th-century poets, Language and the Poet: Verbal Artistry in [Robert] Frost, [Wallace] Stevens and [Marianne] Moore (1979).

“Marie held the whole history of English poetry in her mind,” said Langdon Hammer, the current chair of the department of English, “and shared it with generation after generation of Yale students".

Harold Bloom, Sterling professor of the humanities and English at Yale, added that Professor Borroff was “humane in all things, a sane, clear bell ringing out and rendering the world brighter".

A beloved teacher whose final class was greeted by students throwing hats and flowers into the air, Professor Borroff also took on a number of important administrative roles, notably as faculty counsellor to the 1992-3 presidential selection committee that eventually appointed Richard Levin. In 2008, an anonymous donor established an endowed professorship in her name.

Professor Borroff died on 5 July.

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