Sappho’s Poetry

Wikimedia Commons: Red-figure vase (hydria, or kalpis) by the Group of Polygnotos, ca. 440–430 BC. Seated, Sappho is reading one of her poems to a group of three student-friends. National Archaeological Museum in Athens, 1260.

Sappho’s poetry exists only in fragments, except for one poem and about four others with missing pieces that are long enough to attempt reconstruction. Her work once filled at least four volumes and was disseminated around the ancient Mediterranean world. Homer, her predecessor, wrote epic poems of war in a poetic style (dactylic hexameter) that suited historical episodes, lists, and long speeches, while she wrote in her own style (Sapphic stanza) of the battles and triumphs of love.

Her poems were meant to be accompanied by a lyre, thus lyrical poetry, the words either spoken or sung. Each line contained syllables that were at different pitches. Today, modern stresses give each word a greater or lesser emphasis but do not indicate pitch. 

Sappho wrote at a time when heroic poems were being replaced by more personal ones. She included direct conversations in her poems. At times, she turned Homeric phrases around: rosy-fingered dawn became rosy-fingered sunset, and “black earth” created by armies was juxtaposed with fields of flowers.

Some say a cavalry corps,
some infantry, some, again,
will maintain that the swift oars
of our fleet are the finest
sight on dark earth; but I say
that whatever one loves, is.

This translation is by Mary Bernard, who didn’t keep to the four lines and meter but often communicated the poetic intent (IMHO).

42.

I have not heard one word from her
Frankly, I wish I were dead.
When she left, she wept
a great deal; she said to
me, "This parting must be
endured, Sappho. I go unwillingly."
I said, "Go, and be happy
but remember (you know
well) whom you leave shackled by love.

Translation by William Harris, showing what is missing in the fragment:

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..........

Wouldn’t be great to have this poem in its entirety? It’s about someone who has to go away, and how terribly (amazingly, wonderfully, deeply) we have felt, but we won’t forget each other. Memories are what we have, and hope.

Harris shows her alliteration in this stanza. It’s a wonder of the internet that we can see the Greek.

kai gar ai pheugei, taxeos dioxei
ai de dora me deket', alla dosei
ai de me philei, tacheos philesei
kouk etheloisa.

Translated:

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"

Harris says about this stanza:

… each line shows a remarkable balance of structure, with a compelling progression toward Unity. First “pheugei/flee” is balanced by “dioxei/follow” where the Greek words have nothing in 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.”

Harris – 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 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.

The Greek words especially in the last line are compact, repeated rhyme, so precise, it’s sublime.

Wikimedia Commons: Sappho holding a barbitos, from a Six technique kalpis c.510 BC by the Sappho painter. The vase is the earliest surviving depiction of Sappho. Now in the collection of National Museum of Warsaw. Drawing from D.M. Robinson’s Sappho and Her Influence, 1924.
whiter than virgin snow in the sun
gentler than water stirring to the gentlest breeze
a voice that pleases as no lyre can
bearing grander than a proud mare’s
skin so fair no rose has petals more delicate
softer than the thickest fur
far more precious than the most precious metals
               This loving has burst into my head
as mountain wind falls into the crowns of oaks.

Copyright 1981 by Ulf Goebel translated with Dimitrios Moschopoulos

I hope you’ve enjoyed this visit to the work of one of Western society’s oldest known poets.

References:

William Harris, Middlebury College: http://wayback.archive-it.org/6670/20161201174348/http://community.middlebury.edu/~harris/Translations/Sappho.html

Finding Sappho: https://stanforddaily.com/2017/10/29/finding-sappho-four-translations-in-conversation/

7 thoughts on “Sappho’s Poetry

    • Almost lost on the mist of time as it happened 2500-3000 years ago. Words were accompanied by a musical instrument, and the lyre was the most available then. Sappho is said to have written her music as well, but none of it survives. A scribe or librarian in the Library at Alexandria apparently put accents marks in her poems to indicate pitch. Today Joni Mitchell would be an equivalent to her.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Mary, a fascinating and erudite essay about Sappho and her lost poetry! I have never heard of her but wow, a gifted writer and how wonderful her words would have been set to music, literally a lyrical work! I loved learning about the initial Greek and the amazing poetic techniques within it. As younger I taught myself basic Greek and the language is wondrous. A beautiful post and and I enjoyed a morning of learning! Wishing you a lovely weekend! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I remember requesting a book of her poetry from my university library and when it turned up it was all in Greek! That was my first experience of seeing her poetry in print. As a lesbian, it goes without saying that I know about Sappho and I have been to Lesbos 🙂 And I have a print of Auguste Charles Mengin’s painting of her on my wall. But it was good to learn more about the poetry here.

    Liked by 1 person

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