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Sappho's poems, composed 2,600 years ago, are with us still. Her images, her vocabulary, her subjects, her style have influenced the work of poets from her own day until now. But even people who have never read a line of the Classics will recognise Sappho, because the phrases and images that she first used have become so widely popular, so familiar and apparently instinctive that they are used by almost everyone who wishes to speak about the beauty of nature, the pain of love or the evanescence of a changing world. She was in the 1920s' hit parade with:
By the light,
Of the silvery moon,
I want to spoon,
To my honey I'll croon love's tune
(Fragment 34 `the stars and the shining moon ...'); she is in a jazz song from the 1950s by Carmen McCrae called `You Took Advantage of Me', which goes:
I'm just an apple on the bough
I knew you'd shake me down
(Fragment 105A `the sweet apple ...'); she is in Diana Ross's hit `Where Did Our Love Go?':
You came into my heart, so tenderly,
With a burning love, that stings like a bee
(Fragments 130 `Love once again ... limb-loosening ... bitter sweet ...' and Fragment 146 `neither honey nor bee ...'). And she is even in Madonna's controversial single `Like a Virgin' (Fragment 114, `where are you, virginity?').
None of these performers would have worried about borrowing from Sappho, or even realised that they were doing so, but from the time of the Roman poets on, Sappho's verse has been imitated, plagiarised, re-invented. In English this process did not begin until the end of the sixteenth century, but once it did, Sappho acquired many new voices. Or, rather, many latterday writers acquired her, ventriloquised her, spoke for her.
In fact, Sappho has no authentic voice in any language, even her own. The Greek given here for each Fragment, taken from the scholarly work of a modern edition, is also a reconstruction, but it reminds us that Sappho and her work should be thought of as something strange, foreign and remote; something that is ultimately unrecoverable, in spite of all the many layers of invention by later writers.
One reason why Sappho must remain so remote is that none of her work was ever written down. She lived at a time when the early civilised world around the Mediterranean was going through a period of transition from an oral tradition to a literate one. Sappho herself would have performed her poems to music, and they would have been either memorised or improvised. But a classical Greek alphabet originated from Miletus not long after her death, and in Egypt and other places it had long been known that papyrus reeds could be made into a material Nike paper and used for writing on.
There is some argument for suggesting that Sappho's likely knowledge of the new possibilities of literacy contributed to her character as a self-aware poet, recognising in the development consequences for the survival of her work beyond her own lifetime, and even beyond the lifetimes of those who memorised her verses. That poetry could have a long life was something already within her own experience, for she certainly seems to have known the work of her great predecessor Homer, who had lived some 200 years earlier. There are two epigrams from the Palatine Anthology that have been attributed to Sappho and, if they are hers, then they do suggest that she was a writer who believed in the power of writing to memorialise and celebrate what is lost, to make it survive through poetry. The first is on the death of Timas, here in a version by J. A. Symonds (1883), and the second on Pelagon the fisherman, here in a version by Michael Field (1889):
This is the dust of Timas, whom, unwed,
Persephone locked in her darksome bed:
For her, the maids who were her fellows shore
Their curls and to her tomb this tribute bore.
Above a fisher's tomb
Were set his withy-basket and his oar,
The tokens of his doom,
Of how in life his labour had been sore:
A father put them up above his son,
Meniscus over luckless Pelagon.
The most authoritative sources for Sappho's verses are the earliest that is, papyri fragments, mostly from about the second or third centuries AD which record her work. But these were written long after Sappho's death, so they are quotations, or memories of memories of her compositions. These papyrus fragments were found at the turn of the last century on rubbish heaps and many of them were badly damaged, some even torn into strips to make bandages for mummies or recycled as useful papyrus (while the poetry written on them was considered pretty useless). The challenge for scholars reconstructing Sappho's work can readily be imagined. In her book Sappho's Immortal Daughters (1995), Margaret Williamson gives an amusing account of what it means, by showing what could happen if a scholar had to attempt to recover Shakespeare's speech from Hamlet, `To be or not to be', when all he had was a torn scrap of papyrus with a few random legible words. Add to this the fact that in early writing practice no punctuation was used and, worse still, no gaps between words, and you can see how difficult it was to decipher these early texts.
We do, however, know that Sappho's poems were written down comparatively soon after she died and that there were a great many of them. By the end of the fifth century BC (about 150 years after Sappho died) there was an established trade in manuscript production and a brisk market among rich persons who collected private libraries. Sappho was one author whose works were collected, written down on long papyrus rolls, which were then wrapped around two `holders' so that you read by feeding the manuscript from one roll to the other. In the early third century BC a library, or museum (House of the Muses), was founded in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, where scholars collected books (or rather papyrus rolls) and developed the systems of comparison and collation that are the staple methods of textual editors even today. At this time Sappho was canonised as one of the great lyric poets and her work ran to Nine Books of verse. One whole book contained her epithalamia, songs composed for weddings; another was said to have run to as much as 1,320 lines. Today only just over 200 Fragments survive, most of them only two or three lines long.
So what happened? In the legends, the wholesale destruction of Sappho's oeuvre is attributed to some dramatic event: the earliest stories grew out of the repeated sacking of the library at Alexandria by barbarian hordes. The truth is rather more prosaic and more complicated. As long as manuscripts of Sappho and other Greek lyric poets were treasured, it was worth while for dealers and enthusiasts to go on with the laborious process of making manuscript copies, and undoubtedly there were many copies of Sappho in the wealthiest libraries of the ancient world. In the first century BC there was a great fashion for the Greek lyric poets, which is why the Roman poets Catullus and later Horace knew Sappho and were able to imitate her work. But fashions change, and technologies change too. Gradually it became the custom to cite the language of Athens, Attic, as the true classical Greek, and Sappho's Aeolic dialect was considered provincial. Then, when the book trade improved its materials and switched from papyrus rolls to the more durable parchment codex, it seems that scribes and their employers thought Sappho an arcane taste, not worth the labour of retranscription. Gradually all her Nine Books disappeared.
However, during the years when those manuscripts were copied and recopied, many writers consulted them. And because Sappho was much admired as a stylist, her works were quoted, and those quotations survived from antiquity. From the Middle Ages right up until the end of the nineteenth century Sappho was known only from the snippets quoted by others. Her two most famous fragments, Fragment 1, the so-called `Ode to Aphrodite', and Fragment 31, 'That man seems to me ...' were handed down in this way. Fragment 1 was quoted in its entirety in a book entitled On Literary Composition by Dionysius of Halicarnassus written in about 30 BC, and Fragment 31 was quoted in part by Longinus in his treatise On the Sublime, which was written during the first century AD. (These works by Longinus and Dionysius of Halicarnassus are themselves available today only because they happened to survive another major change in the technology of book production, the invention of the printing press in the sixteenth century, when once again printers made decisions about what they would, and would not, bother to copy from manuscript into type.)
From the Renaissance on, a different kind of development meant that the works of ancient authors were revalued. Once books became a practicable form and comparatively cheap to make and acquire, scholars could begin to collect them and to write yet more books about books. Humanist scholars valued the Greek lyric poets and their status remained high right up to the nineteenth century, when the study of Greek and Latin, `Greats', was the core of the syllabus at Oxford and Cambridge universities. Sappho's work, in particular, enjoyed a huge revival from the beginning of the eighteenth century, and many new translations and then editions were published, which combed the works of ancient authors for any stray quotation that could be added to the meagre collection of Fragments. In this way the size of her oeuvre increased steadily, if very slowly. Then something happened that radically changed the state of Sappho scholarship.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century farmers in Egypt began to turn up pieces of papyrus as they ploughed new fields. Gradually news of this filtered through to the West, and Germany, France and Britain, in particular, began to send out teams of excavators to see what they might find. In 1895 Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, two young men from Queen's College, Oxford, set out for Egypt with financial backing from the Egypt Exploration Fund. They settled on a site at a small town about 120 miles south of Cairo, Oxyrhynchus (now called Behnasa). On the outskirts of the town was a group of low mounds. Almost as soon as they began to dig, Grenfell and Hunt realised that it was the huge rubbish dump of a once-thriving town dating from the period of Hellenistic Egypt. The rubbish had been thrown out in about the fifth century AD, but quite a lot of it was much older, often dating from the second to third centuries AD. For months they lived in tents, quarrelled with the cohorts of local workers, piled tiny scraps of torn papyrus into reed baskets, then sifted and deciphered, before packing them up into Huntley and Palmer's biscuit tins and sending them back to Oxford. In the end there were crates and crates of such fragments, and the process of dealing with them goes on to this day. The Egypt Exploration Society began, slowly, to edit and publish the finds. Despite having reached their sixty-sixth volume in the series, the findings are still being published, and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford still holds crates of fragments in their basement.
Most of the fragments are dross: bills and receipts, IOUs, invitations, inventories, tickets, laundry lists. But one page seemed to record some of the sayings of Jesus. And another tiny scrap, dating from the third century AD, was a copy of a poem by Sappho a new poem, previously unknown. It is included here as Fragment 5, `To the Nereids'.
As the work at Oxyrhynchus went on, other Sappho fragments were recovered, including some of the most substantial, such as Fragment 16, `Some say a host of cavalry ...', Fragment 44, `Hector and Andromache ...', and Fragment 58 `[fleeing?] ... [was bitten ...?] ... love has got for me the brightness and beauty of the sun'. Altogether the body of Sappho's known work increased considerably. Some of the finds are now in the British Museum, London; others in the Ashmolean and in Berlin. It had been the fantasy of the ages to recover the precious lost Nine Books of Sappho and here, in a shabby, dusty Egyptian town, that overdue dream seemed to be coming true. Excavations continued at Oxyrhynchus into the twentieth century, although irrigation has now destroyed anything that may be left. Other sites in Egypt are still being excavated and some Sappho scholars go on hoping that new finds might turn up one day.
Of the 213 Fragments that are currently known, I have selected thirty, designed to give some indication of the flavour of Sappho's work, her themes and subjects, as well as some sense of the world for which her poetry was created.
We know very little about the actual circumstances in which Sappho's poetry was composed, and many of the wilder guesses are included in the later sections of this anthology. But modern scholarship places Sappho in a privileged and aristocratic world, where she took part in rituals dedicated to the cult of Aphrodite. This does not make her a priestess, but perhaps a leader of young noble women, probably training in the arts and being groomed for an advantageous marriage. This group of young girls (parthenoi, virgins, as opposed to gynaikos, adult women) figures in many of Sappho's fragments, including Fragment 41, Fragment 57 and Fragment 96.
Fragment 1, the so-called `Ode to Aphrodite' and the only complete poem of hers to survive from antiquity, would have been written for public performance for this female audience, within the context of the cult of Aphrodite, goddess of love. However, the fact that Sappho names herself in the fifth stanza ('who wrongs you, Sappho?'), combined with the urgent tone of the poem, means that it has often been read like a latterday lyrical effusion, both private and personal. This is also one of the poems that helps to give rise to questions about Sappho's sexuality, because the phrase translated as `even against her will' in the sixth stanza is feminine in the Greek. As you will see, this does not stop Sappho's earliest translators into English from turning the lover she desires into a man (a `coy Youth' in John Addison's 1735 version), or even from giving her beloved a name, `Phaon' (as Francis Fawkes did in 1760).
The next almost-complete poem is Fragment 31, `That man seems to me ...' This is probably the most influential of all Sappho's extant verse, partly because it was known relatively early on and partly because it has been translated and interpreted so many times. When Longinus quoted it in the first century AD he cited it as an example of `love's madness':
... are you not amazed how at one and the same moment she seeks out soul, body, hearing, tongue, sight, complexion as though they had all left her and were external, and how in contradiction she both freezes and burns, is irrational and sane, is afraid and nearly dead, so that we observe in her not one single emotion but a concourse of emotions? All this of course happens to people in love ...
D. A. Campbell, Loeb translation, 1982
Sappho's catalogue of symptoms, as relayed to us by Longinus, has since become the conventional description of the physical effects of desire, repeated in cultures high and low, from pop songs to Roland Barthes (who quoted Longinus and Sappho in his A Lover's Discourse: Fragments of 1977). Certainly Sappho seems to have been an original inventor of the language of sexual desire. Fragment 31 is also important within Western culture because it evokes the psychic geometry of a love triangle, which has since become a commonplace. Sappho looks at, and desires, a girl who is unavailable because she favours a man, who therefore seems, to Sappho, `equal to the Gods'. Again, this poem contains a crux much discussed by those who argue over Sappho's sexuality. Chlorotera, `I am greener', in stanza four has a feminine ending. (The `green' adjective has also been a trial to scholars: it might refer to feeling sick or being pale; it may be to do with restored youth, freshness and innocence; or it may be connected to an Homeric image that describes the warrior's fear as `green'.) So the speaker of the poem is definitely female and, as is clear, her desire is inflamed by the girl, and not the man, in the poem. Translators who are determined to make Sappho into a poet of heterosexual love have gone to great lengths to arrange the poem to suit their view. The simplest method is to make the speaker male, as Catullus did in his imitation of Fragment 31, and as most of the early English translations do. But if a translator had Greek, he (usually he) would have known the sleight of hand he was practising, and it is interesting to note that in 1735 John Addison made it absolutely clear that the speaker was female.
Like the `Ode to Aphrodite', and perhaps even more so, Fragment 31 has almost always been read as an expression of personal feeling. Recently, however, some critics have put this poem back into Sappho's social context and have suggested that it is an epithalamium, a wedding poem, designed to be sung during the celebration of a marriage. In this case the whole work could be read as an elaborate compliment to the bridegroom who has just acquired such a desirable bride. It is certainly clear that many of Sappho's poems were composed for performance at wedding celebrations, and among these would be Fragments 44, `Hector and Andromache ...', and 114 `where are you, virginity?', which Mary Barnard's 1958 translation makes into a whole wedding carol.
Fragments 1 and 31 have been consistently quoted and revised in English since the late sixteenth century, but other poems have gone in and out of fashion. Fragment 2, `Hither to me from Crete ...', is an invocation, a prayer for the presence of Aphrodite, but it is the evocation of the natural beauty of Sappho's island world that makes it seductive, and this too was one of Sappho's key themes. Until the twentieth century only a few lines from the middle section of Fragment 2 were known (handed down because they were quoted by the ancient writer Hermogenes in his Kinds of Style). Percy Osborn's 1909 translation and Douglas Young's 1943 Scots version are both based on those few lines. Josephine Balmer's 1984 translation, however, is based on the longer four-stanza version, which has become the accepted reading of the poem. Scholars were able to extend this fragment because one of the more unusual finds made at Oxyrhynchus, by the Italian papyrologist Medea Norsa, was an oistrakon, a broken piece of terracotta pottery dating from the third century BC, which had this poem inscribed on it, clearly identifiable as Sappho's because of the few lines already known. This piece of terracotta is now kept in a velvet case in the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence.
Fragment 16, `Some say a host of cavalry ...', and Fragment 44, `Hector and Andromache ...', were both papyri found at Oxyrhynchus. These too also seem to be nearly complete, and they are particularly important because they suggest Sappho's knowledge, and rewriting, of Homer's epic poem The Iliad.
It has been important to many modern commentators to place Sappho in relation to the works of classical Greece conventionally regarded as `mainstream' in order to get her away from the categorisation of `women's poetry' from which she has suffered in the past, and which is inclined to make her work seem flowery and pretty. In fact, it is neither, and some of the more recent translations, especially those by Mary Barnard, David Constantine and Josephine Balmer, attempt to convey the cool and yet impassioned tone, the concrete imagery and the spikiness of style of Sappho's original Greek. Critics have also tried to make Sappho's poems less personal and more political by pointing out, for instance, the realities of Sappho's own time that stood behind poems such as Fragment 16 and Fragment 132, `I have a golden child ...' In the late seventh to early sixth centuries BC Lesbos was a vulnerable island, threatened all the time by the immense military capabilities of the province of Lydia (now part of mainland Turkey). So when Sappho speaks of the impressive sight of Lydia's chariots, or prefers her own child to the wealth of Lydia, she is talking about something that would have been all too painfully apparent to her contemporary audiences.
For readers and translators today the comparatively new longer poems, which give an insight into Sappho's time and her literary antecedents, are often the most intriguing. But in the past other Fragments attracted attention. Fragment 55, `Dead, you shall lie there ...', has caught the imagination of many translators and has lent itself to numerous different interpretations, from the Countess of Winchilsea's condemnation of `an insipid beauty' to Richard O'Connell's modern scholar's griping. Fragment 102, `Truly sweet mother I cannot weave my web ...', enjoyed a great fashion in the second part of the eighteenth century, perhaps because at the time many women were failing to weave their webs and were taking up the pen instead, citing Sappho as their model. Fragment 104, `On the Evening Star', on the other hand, has always been a favourite while Fragment 105A and B, `the sweet apple ... and the hyacinth ...', by contrast, did not become really popular with translators until the 1800s, and it is tempting to see in that a connection to the invention of modern notions of sexuality during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I have included one verse, Fragment 168B, `The moon is set and the Pleiades', which is not now thought to have been composed by Sappho, because it has been so popular across the centuries. The evocation of the night, the delicate suggestiveness of the enveloping dark and the wistful lustfulness of Sappho's `lying alone' have found their way into many works by English poets, and have been partly responsible for one enduring image of Sappho as a voluptuary.
Excerpted from The Sappho Companion by . Copyright © 2000 by Margaret Reynolds. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.