Sappho’s invisible poetry

Sappho-and-Alcaeus-1881The literature of ancient Greece was the foundation of modern Western culture, yet we don’t know much about it, aside from the fragments which have survived into modern times. We know the scholars in Alexandria in the second century edited and annotated the works of many writers of earlier times, and the Byzantines preserved digests of some of this material. But very often the 10th century Byzantine scholar known as Suidas gives details about ancient authors which are merely derived from their works.

We don’t know whether Aeschylus had a nickname, if poets wrote drafts or spoke their words until they had them right, if Homer was an actor, an editor or an original composer, whether farmers from the outskirts fell asleep during a recitation of Pindar like a 19th century tycoon during the Ring cycle.

We do know that writers and scholars of classical times in the fifth and fourth centuries BC thought the three greatest poets of Greece were Homer, Archilochus and Sappho. We know that (according to Gibbon) there was an edition of the complete poems of Sappho in 10th century Constantinople. We know Sappho was an aristocrat from the island of Lesbos in the northeast Aegean Sea who lived about 600 BC and who may have been involved in some of the political warfare between rival parties occurring in her lifetime. The two stories which have survived, from much later periods than her own, were that she was passionately involved with young women in her society, and that she committed suicide when abandoned by her husband. These are both considered by many to be derived from satyrical references in fourth century comedy.

The edition of Sappho’s poems did not survive the sack of Constantinople by the Venetians, and we have only one poem of hers, and fragments of others quoted by later grammarians to illustrate dialect variations or unusual constructions.

Somehow Sappho’s reputation has survived into modern times. She has come to stand for the fragility of human culture, for the destruction that awaits us all and all of our creations. Her poetry haunts us, and reminds us, in the words of Thomas Lodge in plaguestruck London:

Brightness falls from the air
Queens have died young and fair

Is there any way in which Sappho could be one of the greatest poets? Some things can be recovered which give us a clearer picture about her and her work.

She was a lyric poet, with quite different metres and subject matter than Homer, who wrote, or recited, in the epic form of poetry, the hexameter. Lyric poetry has come to mean the expression of personal emotion in poetry (largely because of Sappho) but at first it referred to a particular metre, and to an accompaniment on the lyre. We don’t really know whether Sappho’s poems were sung, chanted or recited, or whether she composed the music and played the lyre herself (we don’t even know this for the fifth century tragedians). This is because ancient music has not survived at all, in any form. We have lost both the colour from ancient building facades and statues and the sounds and music of ancient times.

The most obvious characteristic of Sappho’s poetry is the simplicity and directness of her expression (which has been imitated in the form of modern ‘lyric’ poetry). All the more reason to be aware that in her society, like all ancient societies, public life was much more extensive than it has since become. It was considered to be the mark of a pious and loyal citizen to participate in the many seasonal, religious and political ceremonies, rituals and festivities that filled the year. Much of Sappho’s work is likely to have been written for performance on these occasions, and is more closely related to drama than the lyric poetry we know from later times. In other words it is antecedent to both those later forms.

Sappho’s poems were probably performed at public ceremonies, some of which were marriage feasts. It may be that some of her compositions were dramatic ones written for the bridegroom to recite, just as the Jewish Song of Solomon might have been, and that this may have been the origin of her later reputation as a ‘lesbian’. It’s worth remarking that in Sappho’s world there was no sanction against homosexuality, and there is no actual advocacy or descriptions of homosexuality in her poems. What the poems express often is the emotion of longing and desire. Prominent in the fragments are invocations to Aphrodite, which might indicate performance at her festivals. What we don’t know is the identity of the ‘I’ who often speaks in her poetry. Is it Sappho telling us how she feels? Is she celebrating the power of the goddess? Is she speaking for a character from a mythological story?

One of the best books on Sappho I’ve read is by Arthur Weigall. Sappho of Lesbos was written in 1932 and has long been out of print, but it contains the most vivid evocation of the island of Lesbos I’ve ever read, and I’ve never forgotten it. There are two choices if you want to read Sappho’s poems: you can read the original words or their translation as the fragments they are, and occasionally appreciate an adjective or even a metaphor, or part of a narrative; or you can read ‘reconstructions’ of the poems, in which fragments have been put together, gaps filled, and an attempt made to recreate the effect of the original poem. Both are helpful, but it must be remembered that neither are Sappho. Her works have been irrecoverably lost. Of interest are modern musical reconstructions of Sappho. Both Eleftheria Arvanitaki and Angelique Ionatos (Sappho of Mytilene) have sung Sappho’s lyrics.

So though it’s easy to answer the first question about Sappho, ‘was she a lesbian, did she make love with other women?’ with a ‘we don’t know, and don’t have enough information about her to find out, but it’s unlikely’, how do we answer the next question, ‘was she a great poet?’

Poetry is difficult to translate, many would say impossible. While it is just possible to appreciate the power of Catullus’ ‘Odi et amo’ without knowing Latin, what can the non Greek speaker make of ‘Ποικιλόθρον᾽ ὰθάνατ᾽ ᾽Αφροδιτα’? The first problem is that each language uses different means to create music, in Greek it’s the measure, or length, of the vowels, in English it’s the emphasis placed upon them, or the beat. So translators can’t reproduce the metres of Sappho’s lyrics because their language won’t let them. They have to try and recreate a similar effect using other means, such as rhyme. This usually distorts the meaning of the words translated and lessens their impact.

My lovely daughter, Kleis, a golden flower
I love her more than golden Lydia or lovely Lesbos

I have a child, a lovely one,
In beauty like the golden sun,
Or like sweet flowers of earliest bloom;
And Claïs is her name, for whom
I Lydia’s treasures, were they mine,
Would glad resign
(J. H. Merivale)

A lovely little girl is ours,
Kleïs the beloved,
Kleïs is her name,
Whose beauty is as the golden flowers
(Frederick Tennyson)

I have a beautiful daughter
Like a golden flower
My beloved Kleis.
I would not trade her for all Lydia nor lovely…

(Julia Dubnoff)

They’re all different, but none of them are Sappho, and none of them is poetry. They do give us an idea of what she meant in these few lines, and what’s good about her poetry. We don’t know if they are personal, about her own child (the traditional interpretation) or written for a birth celebration, or the dedication by the parents of their child to a deity and sung by the parents at the ceremony.

What we can say is that the surviving fragments show Sappho to have had a genius in the use of metaphor, that this concrete imagery is as vivid as Keats’. That her pictures are mostly of simple natural objects, fruit and flowers, and the feelings she speaks of are simple direct ones we all have and recognise (none of Catullus’ ‘I lovehate you’). She had the rare ability to express a strong emotion through words whose music makes us feel it. Our first impulse when writing is to overelaborate, and we achieve the complex easily. The simple is much harder work. Sappho writes invisible poetry. Almost all her work has vanished, yet we can still hear it, and that makes her unique among poets, among writers.

the apple branches sway above the stream
their gentle sounds bring slumber…

Cool murmur of water through apple-wood
Troughs without number
The whole orchard fills, while the leaves
Lend their music to slumber
(H de Vere Stacpoole)

Sappho’s poems are available at in several translations (and in Greek), with links to sources of further information.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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