Monday Poetry: Two by Sappho
Sappho is one of the first and greatest poetic singers of romantic longing and the ‘bittersweet’, an image she apparently coined. Along with the Greek lyric poets (Archilochus, Sappho, Mimnermus, Alcaeus) of the Archaic age (7th-6th centuries) she moved poetry away from the sweeping epic to the individual and personal. Does Homer ever deal with the choked back anguish caused by unrequited or expressed love? Certainly Odysseus yearns for Penelope, which is romantic tension, and Menelaus has good reason for romantic anguish, but never really expresses it. With Sappho, we first experience tormented and thwarted desire as both inescapable and self-defining. We become what we behold. The obscure object of desire brings the self into closer focus.
It is perhaps appropriate, then, that we have only one complete poem by Sappho, along with a nearly complete second and over a hundred evocative fragments. There is a danger of reading too much into these fragments, although even the ancients debated about how Sapphic was Sappho. The upside to the fragmentary nature of her work is that many of the pieces read like Zen koans or stimulating riddles. Her clear, crisp metaphoric visuals pack much meaning into a very small space.
Take, for example, fragment 90. (Sadly, WordPress is not accepting of the Greek alphabet, or it would be included here.) The great Sacred Text archive has the Greek rendering. The literal translation however is charming:
As the sweet apple blushes on the end of the bough
The very end of the bough,
Which gatherers missed,
Nay, missed not,
But could not reach.
In the first place, this is a fantastically vivid image: a tree picked clean with its sweetest fruit just out of reach and all the sweeter for that. The Greek poets frequently draw on images from nature before comparing them to human behavior; Homer does it all the time, for example. And there’s nothing contrived here- I think it’s best to take the image as literal and poetic. The first part of the simile and the second part both resemble each other and are in harmony.
So what is the next line? The most likely image is of a virginal girl who has ripened to sexual maturity but remains out of the reach of her suitors. The sweetness and blushing are charming in this context, although there is an obvious sexual subtext, whether or not we compare apples to bottoms. Sappho writes often of a beloved girl who she herself will never possess. However, there’s also an implicit warning here: the apple is either snatched away from the tree, or ripens past the point of edibility and falls to the ground to rot.
The thwarted desire here needn’t be sensual, though that seems the best explanation; it could also be existential: desire for a sort of existence that remains out of reach of mortal humans. We could also take the apple for the divine Logos, which humans reach for fruitlessly while on this earth. In fact, these three modes: sensual longing, longing for existence and for non-existence: correspond well to the three types of craving (Tanha) specified in the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism, in which “the origin of suffering (dukkha) is craving.” Siddh?rtha Gautama himself could not have hit upon a better image for human desire than Sappho has.
Fragment 48, in contrast, gives the ideal brief image of romantic despair:
The moon has set and the Pleiades,
It is midnight,
The time is going by
And I recline alone.
The fantastic thing about the human sleep cycle is that, roughly 2,400 years later, we still understand immediately what it means to be lying awake at midnight: for humans this is to be troubled. The fragment has a melancholy undertone, but is so understated that it does not verge on melodrama. Lying in bed alone is just a fact here, although after a certain age, it’s an uncomfortable and painful one for most of us.
There are many good renderings of this fragment in prose. Even though it’s a bit inaccurate, I especially like those by the great John Addington Symonds, given at the Sacred Text archive:
The sinking moon has left the sky,
The Pleiades have also gone.
Midnight comes–and goes, the hours fly
And solitary still, I lie.
The Moon has left the sky,
Lost is the Pleiads’ light;
It is midnight,
And time slips by,
But on my couch alone I lie.
-J. A. Symonds, 1883.
1. To get away from the strict chronology a bit, I’d like to discuss a different poet each Monday.
2. I’d also like to get to the pre-Socratic philosophers in the near future: at least Parmenides and Heraclitus, although, admittedly, this might only be of interest to me and Jaybird!