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.
Borroff was born in New York City, the daughter of professional musicians Marie Bergerson and Ramon Borroff. The family moved to Chicago in 1941, and she received an undergraduate degree and an M.A. from the University of Chicago. She later earned a doctorate in English literature and philology at Yale. She began her teaching career at Smith College, and was the first woman appointed to Yale’s Department of English in 1959. In 1965 she was the first woman appointed as a professor of English, making her one of the first two women granted tenure in any department in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. In 1991 she became the first woman to be named a Sterling Professor, the highest honor bestowed on a Yale faculty member. She retired in 1995.
A scholar of medieval and Anglo Saxon literature and philologist by training, Borroff extended her range in scholarship and teaching to what she called “the language of poetry and the poetry of language.” She published several significant books, but her seminal achievement was a translation of all the works of the 14th-century poet known as the Gawain Poet into readable modern English. Her own poems were published in journals such as The American Scholar and The New Republic and were collected in a volume, “Stars and Other Signs,” published by the Yale University Press in 2002.
Borroff won almost every award Yale could bestow: a Wilbur Cross medal honoring distinguished alumni; the Phi Beta Kappa DeVane Medal for teaching; an endowed professorial chair; a scholarship fund named in her honor by a grateful graduate; and the Elizabethan Club Medal for Distinguished Service.
During much of the of the second part of the 20th century, Borroff served as a role model and mentor to many Yale women.
Norman Maclean, author of “A River Runs Through It,” taught Borroff at the University of Chicago, though he wrote 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 writes. She urged him, he wrote, “not to concentrate so much on the story” that he would “fail to express a little love I have of the earth as it goes by.”
Borroff’s last immediate relative, her younger sister Edith, a musicologist and composer, died in March of this year. Her close friend Professor Beatrice Bartlett of Yale will be happy to receive letters sent in care of 103 Adams, Evergreen Woods, 88 Notch Hill Road, North Branford, CT 06471. Burial will be private in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where Borroff had a much-loved summer home. A memorial service will be held at Yale in the fall.