When we speak of Sappho, the poet from the island of Lesbos, and her poetry, we are thinking of something very special, a transcendental kind of poetry which is somehow purer, fairer, lovelier than anything else in the Western world. Considering how little we know about the poet herself, and how little we have of the remains of her poetry, we might well ask ourselves if we are not participating in a literary myth, creating a poet-figure of such great talent with so little verse, that one can only admire from a vast distance.
It is hard to believe that in early Byzantine times whole books of her poetry were available to read, even if the Aeolic special language was largely unintelligible to most readers. But her fame was large and it seems somehow unthinkable that her striking literary gems were simply not copied, perhaps even destroyed by orders. Odd books from the ancient world have managed to survive, like Lucretius whom no one could really understand in the ninth century, or Catullus who could be terribly shocking in places. So with the churchly Byzantines one would expect censorship and a list of unacceptable ancient texts. I suspect that male homosexuality may have been less threatening to a growing Christian church council than the homosexuality of females, which if developed could become a social problem and even limit childbearing. But no attitudes about same-sex relationships have been so harsh and unrelenting as those of our last two centuries, and it is useless to pry further back into Byzantine times on such a personal and secret topic.
But we are interested here in Sappho as a poet, and not the biography of an ancient woman from Lesbos who wrote poetry. What little historical information has come down has been the basis for vast speculation, but it is largely based on scraps of hearsay from inauthentic and late sources. It might be best to wipe the historical slate clean of "fact", and look more carefully at the poems themselves with their scraps and bits, and see what we can evoke from reading them as text.
There is a vast difference between Criticism and Interpretation. The classical scholarly world has long shown its preference for the critics, and has until recently been wary of the subjective side of interpretative study. It is as if Criticism founded in history through cumulative scholarship might seem at times more interesting than the imagine world of vision and intuition. In ancient studies we seem to have focused on developing a sharp critical outlook, even as an end in itself, rather than one of the tools of interpretation.
I must say something about Margaret Williamson's book: Sappho's Immortal Daughters (HUP 1995), an early evocation of the spirit of Sappho, before going further. Her great frankness in noting her under-class background, her feminist involvements and her lesbian interest is refreshing in a stuffy world of dry scholarship. One wonders how it happened that the proper Harvard Press, to its credit, undertook the publication of this unusual study. But as one reads into the book, which presents historical material about Sappho's social and historical place in the world of men and women, along with an excellent pictorial discussion from the vases, proceeding to the handful of rather ordinary translations at the end - - - - one sees again that it is the carefully prepared social criticism which gets the attention, with almost no artistic or poetic interpretation of any text of Sappho. Between the denoted meaning of a poem and its broad social meaning, there should be attention devoted to the poetry as poetry, to the sounds weaving and acoustic interplay, all of which has an often separate interior meaning of its own.
I am going to offer a few translations of some of Sappho's fragments, but with them I must include discussion and interpretation. I have found much inner meaning from them from over half a lifetime of reading these few un-stitched words. Everywhere there are rays of light shining through, I have shown students that bright light and found they understood it intuitively; so it will not seem completely subjective for me to put forth my translating comments here, in hopes that this glow of light from the poet is not hidden behind the formality of a conservative Classical archivist.
All Greek and Roman poetry has a strong base in sight and sound. There is the sound of the words themselves as pure musical sound, but also impressions of things seen the way we see moving images in cinematic art. Cinematic sight is not just the work of a machine, it is a way of seeing which has deep roots in the past, often ensconced in vivid storytelling, in the ancient Epic, and in the choral parts of Greek drama. I cannot interpret a Greek poem without its explicit sound and its explicit visual references. Together they present a very important second level of meaning which accompanies and amplifies the normal denoted "meaning" of a written literary text.
It might be good to take a look at a reconstructed page in the kind of characters which were used in the middle Hellenistic period, from which most of our papyrus fragments come. This won't be readable to a Greek scholar who read in Porson or Teubner printed font, but I think it is good for the mind to imagine the page which Dionysus of Halicarnassos might have had in hand when commenting on this poem in his book "On Style":
Here is the standard apperance of the Greek text of Sappho Poem I, as now printed. Note that the slanting font is copied from the perfect handwriting Richard Porson, an early 19th c. scholar, with accents traceable to the academic system of Aristophanes of Byzantium 2 c. B.C. but not found on early papyri. Other fonts in Europe can be quite different with their rounded characters, even difficult for beginning students to read.
Let me start with a look at the one complete poem, which is Fragment 1. as the best example of this kind of approach:
I print the text below in Roman characters for the benefit of those who want to hear some of the sound but do not read Greek. For others, the text is available perhaps most conveniently in Campbell's Loeb Library edition of the Lyra Graeca, Vol. I (with translation and the ancient comment). I have a much more detailed Study on this famous poem, with Greek text, transliteration, art pictures and phonetic analysis of the "Microstructure", which might be useful for detailed phonetic and metric analysis after reading this page.
Of course this loses a great part of the poem's original detail, specifically the musical pitches and the long and short vowels, all of which make a real difference in the way ancient Greek sounded. Unlike Attic Greek, there is no initial aspiration or "-h- sound" in Sappho's Aeolic dialect. The "-ch-" is not like English -ch- but more like a -kh-, although the exact pronunciation of this consonant is not exactly known after the passage of two and a half millennia. The accents which are printed in modern texts may not be the same as Sappho's Aeolic intonation. But in the study of the Greek language, modern Classicists ignore the musical pitches completely substituting stresses, which remove a critical factor in the art of Sappho's lyric poetry. But this poem can still be readable, singable, and even soundable as it is, if read with some awareness of the role of "vowel length" and musical "pitches" and a certain amount of imagination. Several recorded readings of this poem have tried to reconstitute the sound of the original, but this is difficult to do without good linguistic scholarship combined with a trained reading and singing voice, before a really convincing professional recording can be made.
The following literal translation is very bland, but poetic translations usually wander from the text and are generally not much better. Dionysos of Halicarnassos who quoted this poem for us, remarks that "the charm comes from the sounds themselves which are combined in special ways, interwoven with care and skill". Any translation is the first and primary loss for us, as said in Robert Frost's words: "Poetry is that which is lost in translation." The sounds are gone, and the configuration of sounds into words with the arrangement of the words in patterns. This loss might serve for us as a first reason for studying the Greek language if we are going to read in Greek literature at all.
There seem to be no problems in reading this English translation just as it stands, but there are two readings in the badly fragmented papyrus of the Greek which are difficult. First, just what word has disappeared right after the goddess "Persuasion" (Peitho)? Could that word "peith" be not the Goddess but a form of the verb "persuade", e.g. "should I persuade..." (deliberative 1st singular present subjunctive)? This would go well with the infinitive "agen/agein".
Second and more important, the what are words "despite herself" (etheloisa)? This is important because "etheloisa" is a feminine form and this word is the only sure evidence that it is a girl that Sappho and the goddess are speaking about. Since we have nothing better for a reading here, we should go with this reasonable feminine participle, and continue with the poem being spoken to a girl. So much of what Sappho wrote concerns the girls of her Academy, that it is not unreasonable to expect a feminine form for the lost part of this word.
I find my above translation acceptable but no indication of the work of a poet of high literary talent. But if I can have 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 done in 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 freestanding, lithe Aphrodites from Hellenistic times. Years ago when traveling in Greece I noticed 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, even the metopes of buildings, and waxed columns to a tan for color and waterproofing. In short their temple world was a blaze of bright and strong colors. And so here, "many-color-throned" is not a phrase of literary decoration, it is an exact visual term based on a piece of art work.
Such statues are located in the separated rear-cubicle of a small rectangular temple with pillars only on the front face front, much like the small temple of Nike on the right side at the entrance to the Acropolis . For lack of a complete reconstruction on an early Aeolic temple setting, I am going to take this small temple as a model for this discussion. The ancient public did not enter temples, the sacrifice was done out in front, and the priest or special person in charge alone could enter the sacred site within.
In such a role as teacher-priestess representing the Academy, Sappho in her literary imagination enters the temple. In the back room before the seated statue she kneels, her eyes are level with the painted designs on the throne. In fact the words "painted throne" locate her in the chamber bending low at 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 introduction and identification of the speaker, these word are enough! "Do not crush me down, O Lady" The Homeric title potnia is intentionally used, a Powerful Lady from the world of Epic speech.
The next paragraph does what every Greek prayer must do, it must recall 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 and compactly: "If ever you heard me, hear me now.....". Her act of speaking and the goddess's hearing are intimately connected and 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 Latin dies, and English day. Sappho's mind turns to heaven, she sees the circle of the sun as the wheel of the celestial chariot, beholds Aphrodite the daughter of SUN connecting up her chariot for an appearance on earth, about to traverse from heaven to earth to make a holy appearance in her temple's sacred room.
"Swift doves brought you....". Some dictionaries say strouthoi are "sparrows" which seem to me far too small, while doves not much better. But the proportional 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 sounds of their beating wings, and she knows this is a Sign that they are bringing the goddess here, truly.
And "suddenly they are there", the birds' sound-sign is recognized, they have winged their way from heaven to earth, and are arrived as in a flash. And in the same flash of Sappho's mind the celestial goddess born from sun and a Being of the sky, invests herself into the seated statue of stone, and Sappho sees a smile on the Lady's face. Her countenance changes as Sappho raises her eyes from the base.
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 as follows:
If you go to a museum and stand before a statue with the Archaic Smile, you can stare at it for several minutes without moving your eyes, until the face becomes normalized and familiar. Then eventually your eyes will blink, and you will see in a flash the statue smiling back at you. I have done this many times to test it out, and it the imaginative animation of the archaic smile really does take place. But it works, then the question arises, why did the sculptural "smile" disappear in later Greek sculpture? I suspect it was may have been overused and became an automatic 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 sudden a vanishing cannot have been an sculptural accident.
As the praying Sappho sees Aphrodite smile in her mind's eye, she begins to hear 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 or banged her elbow: "What hurts? Who hurt you? What can I do to make it all better?" Mothers' thought changes little over the millennia, and Sappho hears her special theic mothering words very clearly.
In the following stanza, each line shows a remarkable balance of structure, with an compelling progression toward Unity. First "pheugei/flee" is balanced by "dioxei/follow" where the Greek words have nothing on common phonetically. The next line speaks of Getting as opposed to Giving (in Greek deket' and dosei) with clear initial alliteration of "-d-" (In English -g- ). But the third line uses the same actual verb stem: (philei/philesei meaning "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 Sappho as the arch "weaver of wiles".
We are witnessing in this poem a real Epiphany, a term usually reserved by Christians for the spiritual appearance of Jesus in a real-life situation. It is important to understand the religious context of this poem, with its deep and significant revealing or epi-phaneiaof deity in form, face and word to the humbled suppliant Sappho. I remember discussing this point years ago with a churchly colleague who was startled at the idea that a Greek could have had a real "epiphany". He assumed that all the appearances of deity in the ancient world were mythologizing storytelling , not serious religious situations. In fact most of our Mythology comes from the later period when real religion had shifted to the Mysteries, which were the dominant religion of the people for centuries and in several ways forerunners to the development of many traits of Christianity.
At this point in the poem there is an abrupt shift back to Sappho and her personal reality. Sappho has been hearing the goddess' words; now it is her moment to speak out: "Come to me now.....take off this care....". And with even more abruptness, surprising abruptness, the core of entreatment in her prayer with the pathetic pleas: "... what heart wants done, do it". The verb is "telesai/to do" but the imperative singular "teleson/ just do it!" is harder, a real order even a command, and an index of how deep the care is in Sappho's heart. O god, Fix it up!
And then as we near the end, in that strange personal plea to the Lady, a curious and striking addition: " You yourself, you be my 'summachos' " But what is a summachos? The word as used in epic language is for ally in battle, one who fights along side on the field of war, it is compounded from the Greek "sun/with" and "mache/battlefield".
"Be my Battle Ally", for a woman who never goes to war? The word makes you pause, sense something strange: Where is the battle, and when was Aphrodite, herself so soft and gentle, an ally in battle? How is Sappho's world connected with the epic of the Iliad scene? We must go back to a clue in the earlier portion of the poem: The doves flew down "over the black earth", a phrase any ancient or modern reader would know as a phrase from Homer, the chronicler of battles and allies. So Sappho's world is the same "black earth" of epic struggles, it has its battles too, but they are a different kind of 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 only ally, the best mothering and loving ally . This is the battle of living, of life.
From the above scenario of acoustic effects along with the visual shifting of settings, we have an initial entree into this remarkably complex poem. But of course we miss the sounds of the Greek which have to be learned in an ambiance of Greek literature with words and phrases drawn from Homer and the older poets. Or we can read the transliterated text aloud again and again until something of the sound seems to come back, just as we can hear Palestrina's grand choral work without understanding Latin or the rules of harmony and counterpoint, so long as we really listen. Greek literature was written tightly, it requires much attention to evoke its spirit and cannot be read casually.
But when we look at the draft of my translation, doesn't it seem rather tame and bland? It really is, because it lacks the threads of minute design and detail which must be seen before a poem can be evaluated as a work of art. This poem is in terms of meaning, acoustics and visual components, quite extraordinary, the only complete piece we have from Sappho's original nine books of verse. Here we have a personal inner-vision into the soul of this remarkable poet.
This poem is from literary MSS not papyrus and is the only complete poem we have from Sappho, but it seems that there may be one more complete poem. So this might be a good point to take a brief look at the famous new poem No. 58 from a 3 c. B.C. mummy-wrapping papyrus, which became known in 2004.
A Further View from 2007
One of the remarkable things about studying the Greek poets is that you are never done. I find myself now in 2007 coming upon a new perception of this unique poem, with something that I can add to the above commentary without refuting or altering what I had thought before. This is one of the charms about working with Greek writing, it has to be read and re-read and there is always a surprise at what you had missed understanding before.
Let me introduce two terms much used in literary criticism: Subjectivity and Objectivity. These stem from the post-Kantian German critics of the late 18th century and were early introduced into English criticism, to the dismay of John Ruskin who called them "two of the most objectionable words . . . . ever coined by the troublesomeness of metaphysicians". When overused they miss the fact that most writing has both elements in use often at the same time, but there can be intentional separateness as well. Subjectivity marks work concerned with the personal and interior concerts of the writer, his feelings and experiences, while Objectivity suggests that the writer has positioned himself out of what he is writing about, so that the work can be appreciated aesthetically and not confused with reality. Between the gush of personal emotionalizing in much poetry, and the fly on the wall school of the disconnected observer, there are great differences.
Homer's world is one of sharp focus. There are almost no indications of who the writer was or what he thought; he describes scenes of fight, fright and passion with a perfectly even Objectivity, and it is that clarity of view and intelligent recording of words and deeds that makes the Iliad such a masterpiece of exact depiction. Used for centuries as a quasi-Bible or moral guidebook for behavior, the Iliad gave generations of Hellenic Greeks memorable samples of how one should live and work in their own lives. The first book of the Iliad was the "Reader" for ancients learning to read Greek, just as the Gospel of Matthew was the probably the first koine reading for a neo-Christian.
We usually see Sappho's poetry as a conscious turn away from the rigidity of the objective mode. She is the earliest example of the infusion of personal life and real emotion into the writing of poetry, and this has been one reason for her vast fame even centuries after most of her work was irrevocably lost. Modern cultural interest coming from Lesbianism and later from women's' Liberation have kept her name in the public mind, but it is the strength of her personal Subjectivism which still marks her few remaining poems as rare and remarkable.
I mention these matters because I see in the poem we have been studying a most interesting problem, something which can easily slip by the eye of a casual reader. Let me start by a process of consciously dis-assembling the poem in order to make my meaning clear
This would be a very simple little poem, but it has deep feeling couched in words of a basic prayer. To keep the organization in mind I will give the poem in English here since we have the transliteration above.
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
Come to me now, the harsh worry
Let loose, what my heart wants to be
Done, do it!, and you yourself be
This poem is in the exact manner of the prayer of Chryses to Apollo in the first book of the Iliad:
"Hear me now Thou of the Silver Bow , Lord of Chryse and holy Cilla, ruler of Tenedos, Mouse-God thou . . .
If every I roofed over shrine for thee, burned fat thighs of bull of goat, grant my this prayer: Let them pay for me tears with your arrows."
Coming to my point, both prayers are clear in their formulaic manner, they are recognizable instantly as a prayer in two well defined parts. They identify a deity with additional attributes, and then they ask for something quite specific, in her case Relief, in his Revenge. Both prayers are absolutely objective, they are written in the Homeric manner with what modern critics call an intentional "aesthetic distance". Sappho knew what she was doing having in mind a two stanza Homeric formula, which one might even suspect to have been a first or mental draft of the poem which was to come. Just as Homer is master of the objective view, so Sappho here is striking a severely objective stance, a fine example of literary Objectivity.
But that was just an experiment putting first and last stanzas together for comparison, now I will restore the poem by placing back in its proper position to brilliantly Subjective middle section, which stand out like a blaze in the night with its elaborately mixed sound and emotions, words and images, between the gray base coloration of the Prayer which encloses it.
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 have 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
Come to me now, the harsh worry
Let loose, what my heart wants to be
Done, do it!, and you yourself be
What I see now more clearly after many years with this poem, is the brilliance of Sappho's idea of inserting right into the middle section of a formal two-part prayer, a related but entirely different poem about love and yearning. It was always clear that the poem worked well with its internal contrasts. But what I now see as more important, is her way of combining the very different concepts of Objectivity in the prayer, with the inserted Subjectivity of the poem-proper, itself a masterpiece of passionate personal feeling. Knowing that Sappho was a remarkable lyrical reader of her poetry, I think can detect even at this far remove from her world, a trace of the complexity her lyric art. I am sure she would have sung the first stanza in a restrained, head-down and submissive manner; then after one compressed word to dismiss the plea (eterota), she escalates with a rush into a new way of feeling and talking which the Homeric world would never have understood or probably condoned. She has opened the world of subjective lyric poetry to the oncoming generations, to the Hellenistic world in fact. And to us.
A literary critic who deals with oral poetry will remark that the above interpretation is a case of what is now called "ring composition", a term borrowed from the world of astrophysics, where it has been used for a century and a half in the study of the Rings of Saturn.
Planetary rings: theoretical and observational studies of the properties of ring material, the nature of ring structure, and the physical processes responsible. Major topics addressed have included moonlet belt dynamics, the evolution of ring composition and structure due to bombardment by interplanetary meteoroids, and radially variable ring composition as constrained by spacecraft and groundbased observations at microwave, infrared, and visual wavelengths.
It seems odd to lift a scientific term from one discipline and use it in an entirely different literary sense elsewhere. Or does the classical scholar feel more secure when using scientific terminology? Would it be enlightening to speak of the arrangements of words in a sentence as a case of "molecular cohesion"?. Do poems become more lifelike when we analyze them as example of "organic growth"?
Wouldn't it be better to use a separate term like Italian "ciclicità" or in English a simpler "circularity"? But that is still a rhetorical term which marks the writer's or oral-poet's intention of denoting a "start - to - end" format, a formal construction used as a layout for a passage. Over used and tired, our "ring composition" term glosses over the reasons for what is often a very special and pointed kind of arrangement. In this poem there is movement is from the Objective start through an "experimental" emotional center, to an Objective closure, used as a way of clothing the delicate materials of personal emotion with the fabric of a traditional prayer. Sheer emotion in a naked exposition is unknown in the 7th c B.C. world, it needs a setting around it, and that is what the organization of Sappho's poem provides.
Next we can look at a short poem which is simple in its compactness and does not need so much detailed comment:
asteres men amphi kalan selanan
aps apukruptoisi phaennon eidos
oppota plethoisa malista lampei
gan (epi paisan)
Stars around the lovely moon
hide, hide back their shining light
when she is full and most shine
over the (whole) earth.
There are two problems: In the third line there is only one word "gan/the earth" in the original, where the rest of the line is missing from the fragmented papyrus. The words "over the whole (earth) " was supplied by modern scholars, it is thus conjectural and un-authentic, but fits the meter well and seems highly probable. It is right to suspect emendations but if one looks reasonable formwise and in meaning, we can give it a conditional approval. Where there is a figure of shining moonlight, and the earth is mentioned, the light shining over the land seems a reasonable assumption, and one which suits the gentle diffusion of moonlight on a penumbral landscape.
Second, there is in the second line a repetition of the word "aps" and then compounded with the verb "apo-" meaning "back - - - back holds its shining light", which might be thought a copyist's error in the transmission of the text. But it is a genuine repetition for emphasis, with a shift in sense and rhythm which is quite lovely. This hesitant almost stuttering hiding of the moonlight beam will have a second meaning which I discuss below. Since I couldn't get this effect exactly right in English, I felt I had to repeat the word "hide", if only as an ineffective compensation.
Now to the poem: A number of years ago I was out on a clear night under a full moon, gazing up as many have done throughout the ages. I noticed an interference ring around the moon, measuring perhaps one diameter of the moon on each side. This must have been light from the sun which was being refracted off the surface of the moon, a diffused light which could not go far, hence the apparent ring. At that moment I remembered this little stanza of Sappho, and saw that the moon-figure must have meant something more, especially in the light of the doubled "back...back" in the second line.
I thought of shy little ladies in a American Civil War period drawing room, withdrawing themselves into a wallflowery non-identity and fluttering their fans in embarrassment, while the great shining lady of the party stands in the middle, all eyes on her and nobody else seen. What gives me the clue is the fluttering phrase "back . . . back they hide . . . which I believe has a sub-meaning for shy ladies in a social situation. This is the human side of a moonlit celestial evening, where the great glowing moon is the dominant center of attraction, while all else has the delicacy of mind to retreat and hide its face. The ring around the moon is there, enclosing like the walls of the drawing room, while the stars beyond like the invisible ladies, are holding back and hiding themselves.
This view is reflected in another broken line of Sappho:
"...and she outshines the Ladies of Lydia, as the rose fingered moon at sunset, surpassing all the stars..."
Here it is a different rose-red moon over Mediterranean waters at sunset, but the same setting as one girl outshines all others. We sense the infinite delicacy of the scene as the star-ladies withdraw in the gleam of the moon, along with another facet of what Sappho was trying to say: One beautiful Lady shines among so many nice little girls !
Here is another delicate fragment with a celestial figure set against a very human backdrop:
hespere, panta pheron osa phainolis eskedas' auos
phereis oin, phereis aiga, phereis apu materi paida
Evening-star, bringing all things that morning dawn scattered
You bring back the sheep, you bring the goat,
you bring the child to its mother.
I find this snatch of the diurnal rhythm with its repeating pattern of the word "bring" most perceptive and somehow very reassuring. There is a Yin/Yang twist to it, all the world scattering out in the enthusiasm of morning light, the animals to feed, the children to play, and so the day goes. But when the Evening-star appears, it signals day's end, alike for sheep and goat to the fold, and for child back to mother and dinner and the shelter of home. And next morning, it all begins again. Just two lines, but woven in is the pattern of our repeating days and the activity of our human world.
It is in the orchard is where you see the turn of the year, with its stages of bud and flower and fruit. And when the time comes to pick the apples the men with ladders and baskets are working as fast as they can to gather in the harvest. But there will always be one apple way up on the top branch which they cannot reach, as in this delicate poem:
oion to glukomalon ereuthetai akroi ep' usdoi,
akron ep' akrotatoi, lelathontai de malodropees,
ou man eklelathont', all ouk edunant' epikesthai
Like - - - the honeyapple turning red on the high branch,
High on the highest, but the apple pickers missed it.
Oh no, they did not miss it, they could not reach it.
The first word "like" gives away the secret. It is a lovely girl, like an apple high on the highest branch still there after the men have gone by. Have they missed her? O no, they did not miss her, but they could never reach her up there. Unlike the wallflowers girls above, this girl was different, someone so special that nobody could aspire to stretch up for her. Like the apple on the top of the tree, she is lovely and completely untouchable, unmatchable !
We go on to one of the few longer poems, one which echoes the motif of Homer's epic warfare and the world of men of action, whom Sappho must be speaking for at the first line. The papyrus on which the Greek was written is badly fragmented, and after the first fairly complete stanza much conjecture is required to suture together the individual words; so I will not reproduce the Greek text, which you can find in my longer .pdf article noted at the top.
Some say an army of horsemen, or infantry,
A fleet of ships is the fairest thing
On the face of the black earth, but I say
It's what one loves.
This is very easily understandable to do
For each of us. She who far surpassed
The beauty of all, Helen, just went and left
Her noble husband
Sailing she went far away to Troy,
And thought nothing of child or parents dear,
Nothing at all, but................... led her off,
...reminds me of Anactoria who is not here
Whose lovely way of walking, and the dark flash
Of her face I would rather see ---- than
War-chariots of Lydians and spear-men struggling
On a dusty battlefield.
Recall the word "battle ally" of the first poem, with the significant phrase "over the black earth" drawn from the Homeric battle fields. Here is at the beginning WAR, what the men like and say is the most important thing in the world. But Sappho says it is what a woman loves, and we slip into the story of fair Helen whom (..... lacuna....) led away to leave her family, sailing off to Troy. But this is not the typical view of Helen as the face that launched a thousand ships. It is seen here as completely understandable, because passionate involvement is the really nature of Love!
And in the train of Helen's story, Sappho thinks of her girl Anactoria, incidentally "who is not here" but still on her mind. I have always found something terribly drawing and sad about that phrase on her absence, I think it is more the sound of the Greek words "ou pareoisas" rather than the meaning itself. Sappho gives us a flash view of lovely Anactoria somewhere far away, and seeing her we come back to the start of the poem and the supreme importance of Love.
We start with War, then go to a Love Story turned around in defense of Love, go on to a true loving heart, and finally back to the killing field. We sense a strong distaste on Sappho's lips as she talks of a battle scene with war chariots mowing down the enemy, men with spears in their hands fighting on foot on the dusty plain. I added the word "dusty" which is not in the Greek on purpose, because I feel it echoes the distaste which marks the last five words of the poem. Aeschylus who had experience as a soldier had similar words about spears broken in the first attack, men falling in the dusty plain, the pointlessness of it all.
Here is here much heart and feeling in very little space, a small poem with much to say in complicated and interwoven turns of phrase. That is always Sappho's way, to load the sharpest feeling into a line or stanza, but it is done quietly and so unobtrusively that you have to search for it to find her inner sense.
The next poem is also from a highly damaged papyrus sheet, in which there are as many lacunae as words; so I won't print the transliterated Greek, which you can find laid out as it stands with breaks and conjectures, in the longer .pdf paper noted at the top. This halting and broken translation still gives much of the sense of what Sappho was saying, in one of her most delicate poems:
I just really want to die.
She, crying many tears, left me
And said to me:
"Oh, how terribly we have suffered, we two,
Sappho, really I don't want to go away."
And I said to her this:
Go and be happy, remembering me,
For you know how we cared for you.
And if you don't I want to remind you
.............and the lovely things we felt
with many wreathes of violets
and ro(ses and cro)cuses
and.............. and you sat next to me
and threw around your delicate neck
garlands fashioned of many woven flowers
and with much...............costly myrrh
..............and you anointed yourself with royal.....
and on soft couches.......(your) tender.......
fulfilled your longing..........
Looking past the gaps and bug-eaten holes in the papyrus original, we see an absolutely remarkable micro-interplay of emotions. The first line is spoken in the persona of the poet Sappho, "I just want to die.". But we turn immediately to the girl who is crying hopelessly, sad and torn by her parting from the happiness with Sappho her friend and teacher. "How we have suffered, the both of us, Sappho . . . "
Note that the work "suffered", in Greek 'peponthamen' , is more complex than it seems. All the translations settle for "how we have suffered", which in English refers to sheer pain. But the Greek verb 'pascho' has many meanings, of which the most basic is "feel, have a feeling, have an emotion". Thus in Greek usage the verb 'kako-paschein' means to feel bad or suffer, but 'eu-paschein' is the opposite, to feel fine, be well off. In standard usage the present participle "ho paschon" refers to a man of feeling and sensitivity. In this passage in the poem we find the common and basic meaning of this word: "to feel an emotion". So I have a double meaning to convey in the translation:
A: "Oh how terribly we have suffered...."
B: "Oh what terrible-deep feelings we have had..".
Now consider at the adjective "terrible" in Greek 'deina'. Here again there are multiple meanings:
a) terrible, even as in our word Dino-saur or Awful Lizard, and
So if we want to explore all the possibilities there is one more possible translation:
b) clever, sharp, tricky as used by Socrates defending himself as not a "clever speaker" or 'deinos legein'and
c) 'deinos' as marvelous, wondrous.
The girls says: "What wonderfully deep feelings we have had", with real tears in great sadness.
These three meanings are here superimposed, they are all here as mixed emotions at this compressed moment, and there is no way to separate out a single "right" meaning. This is part of the subtlety of Greek in general, used here with obvious intent, and a special turn of Sappho's poetic montage.
Back again to the poem: The girl has been speaking a complex message in a flood of tears. But now Sappho, with the stance of a mature woman taking up this virtual poetic dialog, answers her with her best possible counsel :
"Think of all the wonderful love we had, of scenes with beds of flowers, the richness of scent, and color, and garlands on your neck, and couch and love. This has been, and is your comfort for what we had, think of this and not of what you lose....."
Sappho changes the tone from the girls's tearful emotional burst, to a tapestry of mixed lovingness, flowers' hues, the setting of love . . . . this is what you have to remember. Think not of an unknown future, but a beautiful past, which is good psychological counseling indeed. The tuning of this personal interchange between the two women, so simply put in direct quoted speech fragments, gives not only a sense of reality of a living moment; but also marks the closeness between the two women. Directly quoted speech is always alive, something Sappho had also learned from Homer, whose epics are more than half in direct speech.
Williamson's study makes a good point in her analysis of women on the Greek vases. Whereas the male homosexual portrayals have a young boy approached by a clearly older man, indicating a rite of subordination even more than sexual pleasure, the women portrayed are always shown as equals, similar in figure, age and action. Dominated by a sense of power the men act out what the society does in large, while the women attend to their own personalities, their own individual woman-ness. So in this poem Sappho and the girl are shown as equals in spirit, both sad but in a closely knit emotional bond. Again a difference between the nature of the men and the women.
Permit me one more longer poem, full of gaps and questions, but with the royal mark of Sappho's poetic hand:
.....often turning her mind to that place
so as to.................we..............
she honored you as like unto a goddess,
was joyous most with your singing.
Now she shines forth among the women of Lydia,
as when the sun goes down, the rosy-fingered
Outshining all the stars, her light spreads
over the salty sea, over the many-flowered fields
The dew falls in beauty, the rose
and delicate anthruska and honey-lotus
in flower, are all of them abloom
Often wandering back and forth
remembering gentle Atthis in her longing,
she eats away her delicate breast with your fate
To go there we do....... (wish?)..................
A girl who was in Sappho Academy, which perhaps was something like St. Aphrodite's Finishing School for Young Ladies (a much disputed proposition, but worth imagining), has left and gone to the East in Asia Minor, probably married off to a man of nobility in Sardis. At the beginning of the poem we have the isolated word 'Sardis', a major city on the sea in Asia Minor, and this must have been the initial geographical focus of the poem.
As an aside: An early German film from 1929: Maedchen in Uniform, is a re-creation of the emotional ambiance which can involve a sensitive teacher and student in an academic setting. The teacher and one girl form an emotional attachment of great sensitivity, which may parallel this situation in Sappho's hypothetical "Young Ladies' Academy". The film is outstanding, it is listed in a catalog of historical cinema and I recommend it as well worth seeing as illustrative of this poem.
Now as Sappho recalls her, thinking of her lovely singing while here, and suddenly. . . . (as the text becomes readable again). . . . we see her far away in Sardis in distant Lydia. Sappho's brilliant picture of the girl outshining the ladies of Lydia is interlocked with the image of sunset and the moon rising. But there is a change of focus which immediately surprises. Homer, the ultimate backdrop for everything the coming ages, had spoken dozens of times of the "rosy-fingered Dawn", virtually as a cliché, or formula of his bardic tradition. But now Sappho changes the phrase to "the rosy fingered Moon. . . ", a surprising alteration and one which notes the difference between the two human worlds. One is the world of men with swords and fleets of ships over the Homeric "black earth", the other is the world of women and Lovers and what the heart desires. Here is that intimate world seen by means of the space from Lesbos to Sardis, as hearts yearn over the distance for each other.
If the rosy-fingered Dawn opens each day of the siege of Troy, the rosy-fingered Moon belong to the ladies who let their thought go roaming in the night air from the island home, far off to Sardis, where in the shining moonlight the graduated girl who has left the school is shining forth among the ladies of the great city by the sea.
And, if we can guess from the broken line-ends of words which the papyrus has left us, the final stanza was meant to say: "We too, send our thought to Sardis and to her, over the wide sea and night air of many flowers, which calls the message to her over all the way between".
Actually this is the reconstruction of these few last words which Edmonds, the earlier editor of Sappho in the Loeb series, had proposed. In the edition of l982 Campbell speaks of Edmonds' work being "spoiled by his excessive eagerness to fill the gaps", i.e. by suggestive and unwarranted reconstruction. Edmonds as scholar and poet had inserted on the basis of a few words (we too.....speaks.....the middle) a poetic image of great beauty, while consonant with the tenor and direction of the existing poem, inauthentic certainly but lovely withal. Campbell half a century later removes the imagined conclusion with academic precision, and leaves us with nothing but a few stray words on an empty page. The question is not who is textually more reasonable, who is nearer to the sense of the original poem; but who is the better poet and who is the better Humanist?
I quote the following from a dry source, the late Greek nit-picker of details Aelian, himself only quoted by an even later one of the same tribe Stobaeus (Ael. ap.Stob. Flor 3.29.58 (iii 638s.Wachmuth-Hense) a quotation from the great lawmaker and social reformer Solon (who lived c. 640/635 to 561/560 B.C.)which sums up the impact a poem of Sappho can have on a sensitive soul, then or now:
Solon of Athens, son of Execestides, when his nephew sang a song of Sappho over the wine at dinner, enjoyed the song greatly and asked the boy to teach it to him. And when someone asked why he was so enthusiastic about this song, he replied: "I just want to learn it and die."
If you know what kind of feeling went through Solon's mind, you understand what Sappho's poetry was about. But if you cannot understand this quote, I suspect you do not have a talent for understanding this vein of the purest art of poetry.
How do I say farewell to Sappho? Her words in a two word fragment may suffice as a description of her self:
"the sweet-voiced girl"
Her own words will suffice.
It is sometimes surprising how new things can come out of our reading of poetry. Consider this poem which generated itself somehow out of the poem I gave above, but as a very personal account of my recollection of a tutorial on Sappho late one Fall Semester afternoon, and a visit a few years later. I include this poem with some hesitation, mainly to show how the tradition of personal feeling can distill from an ancient poetic papyrus and turn up as an evidence of faith in human feeling a few thousand years later. This does seem a part of the humanist tradition.
She said: I feel really awful, really sad
Going away like this, there's so much more.....
And she broke off.
And I said to her
No, go and be glad for all the good,
All the wonderful things we had, and if you forget,
I'll call to mind for you those October afternoons
Sitting in the booklined office while the sun stream rays
Dropped and suddenly left us sitting in the half dark room.
And when you told me about your dog, and just at dark
I drove you home, and watched you vanishing in your door
Flicking the porch light on. I saw you go slowly, you know
I waited a minute before I went driving down
Seminary street thinking of nothing but you.
And later when the first snow came, and you sat
Cold in my office pulling your arms up inside your sleeves
Shivering a little without noticing the cold.
And that paper cup of water I brought you, you fidgeted it
Talking about something, and finally threw it down
Crushed a little, on the table. I left it there all week,
Put it in the closet in case you ever returned.
You said that maybe you would read more Greek,
Aristotle sometime in springtime, just for fun,
And all I could think about was springtime and warm air,
Walking in woods and new leaf greenery, and Lo!
Somewhere in April I expected you coming, smiling.....
You never came, years passed suddenly, but this afternoon
I know you'll be here at half past three. The day is gaunt,
Springtime seems far away. Slightly nervously
I roll the years back off in reverse, wondering
How you will be, coming through the door, and what you'll say.
Prof. Em. Middlebury College