Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sappho...and Beyond

Thank you for your patience and your kind thoughts during my extended break.  Now: back to Ancient Greece!

Greek Lyric Poetry: A New TranslationSherod Santos recently published Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation, a fabulous collection of poems by a variety of ancient Greek poets.

Early in Santos' book is a selection of Sappho poems.  His translations are lyrical and ornate compared to some of the plain, direct versions of her work.  Sometimes I find that more ornamented style to be effective with those little fragments that have survived from Sappho's originals.  When we have very little remaining, it feels fairly comfortable to add a bit of decoration.  But often--especially with the longer fragments--I'm put off and wish for the plainness, the directness of Sappho's speech really holds it on.  Santos' poetry, while beautiful, seems to compete with that other kind of beauty the Lesbian poet offers us.

Here is the start of his version of that famous poem I talked about recently:

     He must feel blooded with the spirit of a god
     to sit opposite you and listen, and reply,
     to your talk, your laughter, your touching,
     breath-held silences.

There are a few phrases in his translation that leave me breathless: "when you return from Crete, meet me at the apple grove, our little temple, its leafy alter incensed with the mineral scent of your soapy hair."  The specificity of the line makes it seem intensely real and immediate, and the use of senses other than sight and hearing makes the image lush.

Even Santos' brief but thoughtful introduction is written in this lush style.  One of my favorite sections explains how Sappho is the heir to what comes before:

To read Sappho is to gaze across the every-widening gulf of history into the flickering lucidities of an interior life, a scattered dialogue of self and soul that seems to begin where Penelope [from the Odyssey] left off, in a brooding meditation on love and loss--the anguish of separation, the intense carnality of the loved one's presence, the rattled, nerve end wait for love's return--all the keen desiderata of a heart ensconced dead center in the sway of any given moment.

*  *  *

The best thing about Santos' book are all the poems by Greek lyricists unknown to me.

Many of the male poets seem to accept that the proper topic for writing is war.  But unlike Homer who believes a man should come home carrying his shield or on it (that is, fighting bravely instead of running away from battle, even if one was to die), here we see poets challenging that idea:

     The Shield

     Some half-cocked Thracian swaggers about 
     raising up before his men my blazoned shield,
     the one I abandoned near a blackthorn tree.
     So?  It's not my head he's ragging them with,
     and any old shield can replace that one.


Like Sappho, Archilochus seems to be talking about a very specific person, talking about the real experiences confronting him, rather than the almost mythological heroes of Homer's epics.  This is definitely the first text I have read in my lifetime reading plan that seems to directly confront the politics and culture of the state.  And this, perhaps, is a major step toward the modern.  Much of ancient literature (ie, Homer) exists to justify national power.  Other ancients, such as Sappho, discuss a very separate private world.  But here with Archilochus, we have the roots of the subversive.  A huge step.


  1. Slow Plot-Driven ReaderJuly 16, 2011

    I couldn't even place the snippet of his translation that you share. Perhaps it is more of an interpretation than translation, or maybe a riff or inspiration. That said, it is meaty and lush, stirring.

    I love your observation that writing that is critical of the state, or maybe of the status quo, is modern. But I am also struck that from your earlier posts you have shown that much of what we think of as modern has been with us from the beginning of writing and stories. Perhaps these are two ideas are both present in the poem about the shield.

  2. Excellent post, and one that has inspired me to look for the Santos translations, as well as the poetry of Sappho. This is a hole in my ancient classics section of my bookshelf that I do need to fill--soon. Beautifully written post!

    By the bye, did you hear about the new Stephen Mitchell translation of The Iliad set to be released in early-October? Yippee! I, for one, can't wait. I blogged about it too. Cheers! Chris


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