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SAPPHO Poem I

TRANSLATION and TRANSLITERATION



(A detailed introduction to Sappho and her world is included in the article SAPPHO under the TRANSLATIONS index on the main index page. The following is the text/commentary section of that longer treatment. The Greek text is available at that location.)




This poem is the only complete one we have from the several volumes of Sappho's poetry which were circulating as late as the 8th c.. A.D. It has always been prized as remarkably sensitive and elegant, but there are dimensions which I believe have not been explored or interpretated. Let me give you first the text in Roman letters for those who do not read Greek, so they can at least read the words aloud and get their general sound. The translation which follows is necessary since Sappho's Aeolic dialect is not the normal Attic Greek you learn in in school, and I believe some help is called for.

poikilo' thron' athanat' Aphrodita 
pai dios doloploka, lissomai se
me m'asaisi med' oniaisi damna
 potnia thumon.

alla tuid' elth' ai pota katerota
tas emas audos aioisa peloi
eklues, patros de domon lipoisa
 chrusion elthes

arm' updeuxaisa. kaloi de s'agon
okees strouthoi peri gas melainas
pukna dinnentes pter' ap oranothe-
 -ros dia messo

aipsa d'exikonto, su de O makaira
meidiaisas' athanato prosopoi
ere' otti deute popontha kotti
 deute kalemmi

kotti moi malista thelo genesthai
mainolai thumoi. tina deute peitho
.......agen es san philotata? tis s' O
 Psapph' adikeei?
kai gar ai pheugei, taxeos dioxei
ai de dora me deket', alla dosei
ai de me philei, tacheos philesei
 kouk etheloisa.

elthe moi kai nun, chalepon de luson
ek merimnan, ossa de moi telessai
thumos imerrei, teleson, su d'auta
 summachos esso.


Many colored throned immortal Aphrodita,
 daughter of Zeus, wile-weaver, I beg you
with reproaches and harms do not beat down
 O Lady, my soul

But come here, if ever at another time
My voice hearing, from afar
You gave ear, and your father's home leaving
 ----golden --- you came

yoking the chariot. And fair, swift
doves brought you over the black earth
dense wings whirring, from heaven down
 through middle air.

Suddenly they arrived, and you, O Blessed One,
Smiling with your immortal countenance
Asked what hurt me, and for what
 Now I cried out

And what do I want to happen most
In my crazy heart. "Whom then Persuasion
..............to bring to you, dearest? Who 
 Sappho hurts you?

And if she flees, soon will she follow,
And if she does not take gifts, she will give,
If she does not love, she will love
 Despite herself"

Come to me now, the harsh worry
Let loose, what my heart wants to be
Done, do it!, and you yourself be
 My battle-ally.



Of course this translation loses immense detail, specifically the long and short vowels which make a real difference in Greek. There is no initial aspiration -h- in Aeolic so that no problem. The letters -ch- are of course more like -kh-, and the exact pronunciation of the consonants is not exactly known after the passage of two and a half millennia, not surprisingly. The accents which are printed in modern texts may not be the same as Aeolic intonation, but modern Classicists ignore the musical pitches completely, which again removes a critical part of Sappho's lyric poetry. But the poem is readable, singable, soundable as it is, with some imagination.

This literal translation is very bland, but poetic translations are generally not much better. Dionysos of Halicarnasos who quotes this poem for us, remarks that the charm comes from the sounds themselves which are combined in special ways, interwoven with care and skill. This is the first and primary loss for us, in Robert Frost's words: Poetry is that which is lost in translation. The sounds are gone, which might serve as the first reason for studying Greek.

There seem to be no problem in general meaning, reading this translation just as it stands, but there are two readings in the Greek text which are difficult. First, just what word has disappeared right after the goddess "Persuasion"? Second and more important, the words "despite herself" below are reconstructions of an unreadable MS by Bergk, Lobel, Schaefer and Knox (separately with some differences). This is important because "etheloisa" is a feminine form and the only sure evidence that it is a girl that Sappho and the goddess are speaking about. But to cavil at this point is pointless, to doubt the Lesbian part of her poems of which so many are written to and about girls doesn't make sense except to a critical nit picker. Since we have nothing better for a reading here, we should go with this reasonable fem. participle, and continue with the poem.

I find the above translation interesting but no indication of the work of a poet of high talent. But if I can borrow your attention for a while, I think I can supply a new view of the poem as a visual scenario, interwoven with sounds of music. Let me start with the setting:

The seated statue of a goddess is common in museum holdings of work from Sappho's archaic period. The figure of the deity is carved integral with the rectangular block of marble, this is early statuary and the whole sculpture is heavy and primitive --- one must not think of the later freestanding, lithe Aphrodites. Years ago in Greece I noticed clear traces of several colors of paint on the side of such block- statues, which didn't seem surprising since I knew that the Greeks regularly painted all statues, the metopes of buildings, they even waxed columns to a tan for color and waterproofing. In short their temple world was a blaze of strong, earth-clay-colors. And so here, "many-color-throned" is an exact visual term.

Such statues are in temples, in the separated rear-cubicle of a small rectangular temple with pillars only in front, much like the small temple of Nike at the entrance to the acropolis on the right side. For lack of an archaic reconstruction, I am going to take this small temple as a model for this discussion. The public did not enter temples, the sacrifice was done out in front, the priest or special person in charge alone could enter within.

In some such role, Sappho does enter the temple, in the back room before the seated statue she kneels, her eyes level with the painted designs on the throne. In fact "painted throne" locates her in the chamber bending low to see the throne first before she dares look at the goddess' countenance. Her prayer begins, as Greek prayers must, with proper identification of the god : "O Daughter of Zeus".... That is central and enough by itself as a prooimion.! Do not crush me down, O Lady (the Homeric title potnia is used, powerful Lady from the world of Epic).

The following paragraph does what every Greek prayer must do, it recalls former connections with the deity. Remember the priest in Iliad I :" If I ever roofed over temple for you, or burned fat thigh pieces, now for me do this.....". Sappho speaks more delicately, compactly: "If ever you heard me, hear me now". It is Sappho speaking and Aphrodite hearing, totally personal.

Now the scene shifts to heaven, the Chariot is the sun, just as Zeus was of old the ancient sun-god, just like his cousin in Sanskrit Dyaus "the Sun God" and of course the Latin cognate "dies", and English day. (Leave Apollo for later ages...) Sappho's mind goes to heaven, sees the wheel of the sun, sees that as wheel of the celestial chariot, sees Aphrodite the daughter connecting up the chariot for an appearance on earth, investing herself in what is called an apotheosis down there in the temple below.

"Swift doves brought you......" Some dictionaries say "sparrows" which are far too small, doves not much better, but the disproportional size is not important since this is all in the mind of the supplicant Sappho on her knees in the dark. How does she know there are birds? Because a flock of pigeons at that very moment is circling the temple, she can hear the whirrr of their beating wings (pterrrr...), and knows this is a sign: They are bringing the goddess here, truly.

And suddenly they are there, the birds' sound sign is recognized, they have winged their way from sun to earth, and are arrived in a flash. And in the same flash of Sappho's mind the celestial goddess is borne down from sun as a being of the sky, invests herself in the statue of stone, and (behold) there is a smile on her countenance as Sappho raises her eyes from the base to the face.

Turn aside for a moment: All statues from the Archaic period have a curious portrayal of the mouth, the lips curving upward at the sides in what art-historians call "the Archaic smile". I have carved stone a bit, and know that it takes far more effort to carve out smiling lips than make a flat mouth slit with vestigial lips. This must have been done on purpose, and I believe the purpose is this.

If you go to a museum and stand before a statue with Archaic Smile, stare at it for several minutes without moving your eyes, until the face becomes normalized and familiar. Your eyes will eventually blink, and then you will see in a flash the statue smiling back at you. I have done this many times, as others have to test it out, and it really works. Then the question arises, why did the sculptural "smile" disappear? I suspect it was overused, over-contemplated, and became a mere feature of ordinary temple stonework. Or it may have scared children and some believers who feared a moving stone face. But it disappeared over one generation, and that too cannot have been an accident.

As praying Sappho sees Aphrodite smile in her mind's eye, she hears her speaking aloud in her mind's ear. The words are short, simple, and just what a mother would say to a child who has scraped her knee, banged her elbow. "What hurts? Who hurt you? What can I do to make it all better?" Mother's thought changes little over the millennia, and Sappho hears her special mothering words clearly.

In the next to last stanza, each line shows a remarkable balance of structure, with an interesting progression toward unity. First "pheugei/flee" is balanced by "dioxei/follow" where the Greek words have nothing on common phonetically. The next line with getting as opposed to giving (in Greek deket' and dosei) alliterates initially. But the third line uses the same verb "philei/philesei" for love/will love, bringing together the words as symbol for the bringing together of the two lovers. Very subtle and most effective because it doesn't show right away, a sly effect suiting a human "weaver of wiles".

Then an abrupt shift back to Sappho. This has been a real Epiphany or Apotheosis, a deep and significant revealing of deity in form and face and a sign to the humbled suppliant Sappho. The vision snaps, back to reality. "Come to me now.....take off this care....". And with even more abruptness, a surprising abruptness, "what the heart wants done, DO...." The verb is "telesai = to do" but the imperative singular "teleson = just do it!" is hard, a real order, a command, and an index of how deep the worry is in Sappho's heart." Fix it up! (please)".

And then as we near the end, we have that strange personal plea to the Lady: " You yourself, you be my "summachos"! But what is a summachos? An ally in battle, one who fights along side of you on the field of war, in Greek "sun/with" and "mache/battlefield".

Be my Battle Ally, for a woman who never goes to battle? The word gives you pause, we sense something strange: Where is the battle, and when was Aphrodite, so soft and gentle, an ally in battle, ever? Go back to a clue in the earlier portion of the poem: The doves flew down "over the black earth", a phrase anyone ancient or modern should know as a cite right out of Homer, the writer of battles and comrades and deity-allies. Sappho's world also has the "black earth" of its own epic struggles, it has its battles too, but they are different battles. Battles of women, battles of giving birth, of infants dying, of love refused, battles of the heart, and for these, of course Aphrodite is the sole ally, the best mothering, loving ally ---- in this battle of living, of life.

Now seeing in your mind's eye this scenario of shifting visual scenes and shifting scenes in Sappho's mind as she prays in the dark of the temple chamber, you have a better visual entree into the intricacies of this remarkable poem. You lack the sounds, which are Greek property and have to be learned in a matrix of Greek writings, Homer and the older poets at a minimum, next Herodotus and Plato for a later reflected glory. Or you can read the transliterated text aloud again and again and something of the sound will come back to you, just as you can hear Palestrina's grand choral work without understanding Latin or harmony or counterpoint, so long as you really listen.

Beside all this detail of comment, doesn't the first draft of my translation look tame and bland? All these threads of minute detail must go back into the poem before it becomes the grand work of art, which it is. This is an extraordinary poem, the only complete one we have from Sappho, a vision into the soul of a very gifted woman indeed.




William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris