Monday, June 6, 2011

The Poetry of Sappho

After the success of Homeric epic poetry in Ancient Greece, a new kind of writing began to bloom: lyric poetry. One of the most famous lyric poets in ancient Greece was Sappho.  Sappho's poems use her own voice to tell the story of her own experiences.  She insists that daily life and love are every bit as worthy of poetry as the martial splendors and stories of gods found in earlier epics.

Originally, lyric poetry was poetry sung to the accompaniment of a lyre, and possibly performed with the help of mimes and dancers.  Soon, however, lyric came to mean short, personal and immediate poems which could use a variety of meters.  Sappho wrote with what translator Mary Barnard (1958) calls a "fresh colloquial directness." Maurice Bowra says Sappho's language is "ordinary speech raised to the highest level of expressiveness." And Dudley Fitts argues that both Sappho's work and Mary Barnard's translation "is stripped and hard, awkward with the fine awkwardness of truth."  Paul Roche says her poems have a "sharpness and jewelry of sound": "plain and ornate at the same time, in the same line, in the very same phrase."

Only two complete poems of Sappho's still exist--and one of the two was found only a couple of years ago.  A few others seem very close to complete. Others poems are merely fragments.  A few are bits of Sappho's work quoted in later authors' texts.  Many poems were found on degraded papyrus--many of which had been torn into strips to make wrappings for mummies, or were faded and then turned into usable paper.  Some of these were preserved only because they were in very dry ancient trash heaps in the deserts of Egypt.

A century ago, archaeologists began to collect  these postage-stamp size bits of ancient papyrus and sent them to England.  As Jeanette Winterson writes while channeling the spirit of Sappho, "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY POEMS?  When I turn the pages of my manuscripts my fingers crumble the paper, the paper breaks up in burnt folds, the paper colours my palms yellow."

Some of Sappho's poems present an impressionistic view of nature.  I love these lines (translated by Mary Barnard) personifying the morning light:

3. Standing by my bed

In gold sandals
Dawn that very
moment awoke me.

and these about the evening light:

24. Awed by her splendor

Stars near the lovely
moon cover their own
bright faces
                when she
is roundest and lights
earth with her silver

* * *

Several extant fragments show Sappho confronting with the issues of mortality--the issue with which both Gilgamesh and Achilles struggle. Just as the two men come to understand, Sappho knows that while her body will die, her memory will live on.  That is, the body is mortal but nevertheless the self can become immortal.

60. You may forget but

Let me tell you
this: someone in
some future time
will think of us

and, more obviously:

100. I have no complaint

Prosperity that
the Golden Muses
gave me was no
delusion: dead, I
won't be forgotten

Gilgamesh hoped to be remembered as the great king of a great city.  Achilles knew he would be remembered as a magnificent warrior-hero.  But Sappho knows that she will be remembered because of her poetry. As she writes in fragment 9, "Words which I command are immortal."

*  *  *

In the next post, I'll discuss Sappho the Lesbian.


  1. I'm fascinated by Sappho. Just out of curiosity, why did you choose this particular translation?

  2. I started with this translation because I already had it on my shelf from years ago--but I've been looking through other editions as well. It is amazing to me how different some of the translations are. Over the next several posts, I'll poke into other Sappho versions and talk a bit about some of the similarities and differences. Do you have a favorite translation?

  3. Interesting to consider that "someone in some future time will think of us" and "dead, I won't be forgotten." You summed it up so nicely: "That is, the body is mortal but nevertheless the self can become immortal." Today, I'll ponder this view of immortality. It's certainly true of Sappho.

  4. Bonnie: She has such powerful lines, doesn't she? Surely she would not have imagined that she would still be remembered this many centuries later!

  5. Anne Carson's If Not, Winter volume of Sappho translations is probably my favorite book of poetry out there, bar none, so I'll be interested to read your thoughts about it (assuming it's one of the translations you dipped into). Although the Barnard also sounds good, from the excerpts you posted. I think the fragmentary quality of so much of her work is a huge part of the appeal for me; the breaks build in pauses, silences that wouldn't have been there in the original. It's as if the poet I love is some combination of Sappho and the effects of time.

  6. I love your blog post on Carson. And yes, I think I'll be writing about her translation perhaps next Monday--perhaps with a giveaway?--and definitely linking to your review.

    Barnard is good--but it is very different. I think you are absolutely right that the effects of time, of fragmentation, add something to Sappho that makes her writing especially electric.

  7. I have the Carson translation on my 'wish-list.' I love Carson ever so much anyway, so I just know that her work on Sappho will be brilliant. I also want to read Stanley Lombardo's translation of Sappho, as I've heard very good things about it.

    There's always so much good stuff to find here among your postings! Keep up the good work! Cheers! Chris

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