History’s Lost, Part II: Sappho
“Euripides was eaten by dogs; Aeschylus killed by a stone; Sappho leapt from a cliff. We know no more of them than that. We have their poetry, and that is all.” – Virginia Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek”
Of Sappho, the so-called Tenth Muse, we have her poetry only barely. Unlike Stesichorus’, her reputation has survived despite the loss of the overwhelming portion of her works. Her advantage, perhaps, was in the nature of the poetry: Stesichorus wrote lengthy poems that strive for the scale and content of epic; Sappho wrote lyric (broadly understood) and her focus, rather than ancient myths or contemporary politics, fell upon friendship and love. Her contemporary reputation may rest less upon that which she had among the Greeks than the fact that her poetry lends itself well to being appreciated even when all that remains are fragments. When we have less than a full poem to move us, we have her images—and they still do.
In Alexandria, her poems were edited into nine books categorized by meter. Book I (Sapphic stanzas) contained 1,320 lines while Book VIII contained only around 100. We know also that Book II contained poems written in dactylic pentameter and Book IX assorted poems that did not fit, metrically, in the other volumes. There are records that she also wrote in elegiac form, but none has survived.
These poems survived more or less complete until at least Roman times. What happened next is unclear, and likely will always be. Reports of Church-ordered book burnings are likely more myth than truth—but with Sappho, distinguishing the two can be difficult. It may simply be that she fell from popularity and accidents of time and preservation ensued. For well over a millennium, all that remained of her poetry was what was quoted in other texts.
Fortunately for us—and for Sappho—this included one complete poem (Sappho 1) and several that appear to be almost complete (e.g., Sappho 31). Shorter, one or two line quotations are more numerous, generally for the sake of etymological curiosity. (Sappho’s Lesbian variation on Aeolic is obscure and difficult—and, in the days of Koine Greek, was able to shed light on other obscure uses and forms.) Again fortunately, these writers were concerned with non-ichtho-centric words, and these quotations (unlike too many of those of Stesichorus) hold genuine poetic value.
Sappho 1 is quoted by Dionysius as an example of “polished and exuberant expression.” Others quoted her for the rhythm of her Greek and her mastery of consonance and assonance. These are all statements with which I agree—though I would prefer to substitute “genuine” or “sincere” for Dionsysius’ “exuberant”—but I am among the group struck most immediately by the vividness and aptness of the images on which she chooses to linger. (Her lingering, I should say, is something entirely different than that of the Homeric simile: she notes, she pauses momentarily in description, and moves on—but the imprint of her poetry remains.)
As an example, take Sappho 31. The poem is mostly complete, four full stanzas plus the first line of a fifth (and likely last). The images themselves are made striking as much through the way she moves from one to another effortlessly, almost without moving her attention, as through her language. It begins with the successful lover, “like a god” in his luck but soon flows into the sight and sound of the beloved before turning inward to the distraught narrator. In the marvelous ninth line, the poem itself stutters at the hiatus of “glossa eage” as the narrator’s tongue “is broken.” Her physical sensations of panic and terror are juxtaposed with the ease and relaxation of the lover and beloved—and the narrator pales as if to die before declaring, in the final surviving line, “But everything must be dared.”
Unfortunately, the most I can do in this space is to describe Sappho’s rhythm. Translations I have encountered (including my own) have trouble capturing more than the images alone. I’m certain that there is an excellent translation out there, but I’m unable to recommend it. (Anyone out there have suggestions?) But a translation that succeeds and doesn’t leave one feeling slightly too cold will succeed in capturing not just the image, but the rhythms of the poem that establish the method of her lingering.
Of course, when we read her poetry today, in translation, we are not reading the “real” poetry of Sappho—and in a way more severe than the average case of translation entails. Because of the fragmentary nature of her work, and because of the myths that surround her private life (Was she a lesbian or merely Lesbian? Was Kleis her lover or daughter? Is her husband’s name, as passed down, merely a lewd joke taken too seriously by scholiasts? Etc.) we read translations never quite of the Sappho who lived on Lesbos all those years ago, but of whichever Sappho the individual translator believes in.
I’ll close with perhaps the most intriguing version of Sappho a translator has, even half in jest, insisted upon–and I include it as a compliment to all involved. We are able to infer some detail about the performance of Sappho’s poetry. Whether sung by her or another, much was likely written and performed for small gatherings (whether these were symposia or not depends, I suppose, on the gender of the audience—another of those debated questions), with light musical accompaniment: a lyre, or some related instrument. Thinking along these lines, the critic Guy Davenport, himself a translator of Sappho, proposed:
“Given the kinship of the ancient lyre, or barbitos, to the autoharp, Sappho’s cunningly woven assonances and consonances probably sounded like Mother Maybelle Carter.”