New Poem No. 58 from the
Koln papyrus

Here is the poem as it stands on a recently discovered papyrus, which was used as packing on the winding sheets of an Egyptian mummy. Obviously it takes a lot of work to make a readable text out of something as fragmentary as this, with much clever guessing and possibly some errors in reconstruction. But this seems initially to be a complete poem like No. 1 , a rarity in the Sapphic corpus.

You will note that there are no accents, since papyri from the early period do not have accents except for school-books or to correct barbarians like Romans and ourselves, ignorant people who don't know the sound of the Hellenic language. And note the dot under a "questionable" letter, and [ ] around a reconstruction. Now when this has been studied and deciphered with a lot of additional guesswork, it will be printed out like this:

You see there are parts of lines missing which have been reconstructed from a similar poem which was first published in 1922 from an Oxyrhynchus papyrusm 1787. Little could be made of the lines in that poem since the indications of poem-end, placed at the beginnings of the lines, were lost, and scholars could only guess where one poem ended and another began. But with the discovery and publication of the new poem No. 58 as appeared in the Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 151 (2005), 1-9, and in the Times Literary Supplement on 21 June 2005 with English translation and brief discussion we have been able to state that it is a complete poem as it stnds..

Of course the world of classical scholars is agog with a discovery of this sort, there will be a flood of discussions, articles and presentations of new views, and it will all end up as a grand archive for "New Poem #1". This would be as of now the only complete poem beside the famous Aphrodite Poem No. 1

Scholarly discussion will go on for a long time, but aren't we entitled to an early translation ? Here is the one which Prof. West put in the London Times at the moment of discovery:

[For you] the fragrant-blossomed Muses' lovely gifts
[be zealous] girls, [and the ] clear melodious lyre.

[but my once tender] body old age now
[has seized] my hair's turned [white] instead of dark.

My heart's grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

This state I bemoan, but what's to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there's no way.

Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn
love smitten, carried him off to the world's end

handsome and young then, get in time grey age
o'ertook him, husband of immortal wife.

For Greek students there is a full treatment of the text done with his usual diligence and accuracy by Will Annis (of which you can find at The Aoidoi Site . In the past teachers started Greek students off with easy and often irrelevant texts, it used to be a page or two of Xenophon or some fabricated quasi-prose. But we now know that those who are really interested in Greek literature can start out on the most difficult texts just as well, even those in Aeolic dialect as here, and they will get their grammar from something which is at the same time worthwhile to read. The love of literature leads one best through the thorny pathways of grammar.

Someone is sure to note that West's translation has the word "fragrant blossomed", although the Greek has "io-kolpon" meaning "violet-bosomed". Has the professor intentionally softened the anatomical term in his translation from "bosomed" to "blossomed"? No, it is more complicated than that.

Let us go back to the papyrus. We can see at the middle of the first line that the fourth word has, after a space for a lost letter restored as -i-, and then a dotted or questionable -o-, a very clear -k- which is followed by a lost letter and then a clear -l-. This spells out the word "kolpos" or 'bosom', recalling Homer's "deep-bosomed" ladies of the palace. But Dr. West says "blossomed" because he knows that the word "io-plokos" meaning flowered is more suitable here, the "violet-flowery Muses" being often mentioned in Greek poetry. Did he make a natural correction in his mind, or is there something more?

What if the original scribe who penned this sheet in the 3rd c. B.C. were not attentive or had other things on his mind, and had unconsciously penned "violet-bosomed" (io-kolpon) instead of the "violet-blossomed" (io-plokon). The reader in the copying hall was dictating to the roomful of tired and overworked Egyptian scribes, errors of the ear or the mind are known to occur. Then we would have to face the dangerous situation of having to go back and correct or "emend" an ancient classical text based on the verisimiltude of our correction. From the Renaissance on through the 19th century "emendations" were the common practice of clever text critics who sliced and sutured classical authors so arbitrarily that modern scholars, with Housman's pointed caution, adopted the role of Do Not Emend. But scribes from ancient times through the 11th century A.D. were never scholars, they often substituted easier words for unfamiliar ones, and many of our texts show signs of some required restorative-surgery. But emending a text as rare, valuable and ancient as this papyrus, is that to be considered at all?

Look at it from another angle. Could Sappho have intentionally changed a familiar epithet like "violet-flowered" which had become trite, to a new one like "violet-bosomed",? This would mean clothed in a garment of violet hue draped over the breasts, and it would be similar to the way she changed the Homeric "rosy-fingered dawn" to a startling nightly "rosy-fingered moon" over the waters of the Black Sea at Sardis. So perhaps best leave the text alone, let us think further about eliciting a workable meaning, and only go back to a textual emendation when we have no hint of a solution.

You have a readable poem here as it stands, but questions and arguments in the halls of Academe will go on for a long time. First there are problems about reconstruction of the text where lines are damaged. Then they may be sub-meanings of what Sappho was trying to say whether in a socially conscious framework, or a Lesbian mode or from a Feminist point of view. But for the literate reader of poetry, the poem is sufficient to stand on its own metrical Feet. It has come through the decay and attrition of a hundred decades and that, beside the wording of this lovely and triste poem itself, is miracle enough.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College