The ancient Greek poet Sappho is one of the oldest poetic voices we have record of. Like the Greek epic poet Homer, her work likely predates written literature and was originally intended to be sung. How much more do we know about her?
Almost nothing for sure — or even by likelihood. As with Homer there are traditions and later stories about her, none of which are plainly based on first-hand accounts, all written centuries later. If one prefers to base their literary analysis on the text alone, that would be just about the only choice in Sappho’s case. Yet for many people not generally interested in ancient Greek poetry, Sappho is best known for being a lesbian writer — indeed the very term for that erotic affinity is derived from the Aegean Island where Sappho lived, Lesbos.
I’d need to be more knowledgeable than I am to discuss how Sappho’s lesbian identification came to be accepted as general knowledge, but some arguments are made using evidence from the text of her poetry. Which brings me to the next thing I was reminded of as I looked at using some of Sappho’s poetry over the past couple of weeks: there’s really very little of it. Very little of it.
Imagine you are a couple of centuries after some event which has erased a great deal of our formerly recorded literature. Suppose you were, in such a time, to try to assess the works of T. S. Eliot, Bob Dylan, or Emily Dickinson based only on other writers’ surviving references to them, references you can only hope will be buttressed with a short quote or two. Everything else would be lost. Sure, those commentaries in surviving texts would be tantalizing, testimony to the author’s greatness — but because they were written before some general loss of literature, they are painful too in their assumption that they needed then to be only pointers to something every cultured person would know.
In such a world of imaginary loss T. S. Eliot would be the “April is the cruelest month” and “bang not a whimper” guy without necessarily the rest of the poems that contained those lines in context surviving. And what could we make about a lost work about, what — cats? Dylan’s music* might well be lost, but a few pithy phrases would survive because so many others liked to quote him to make a point about their times. Some accounts would say he was a great performer, yet others would make fun of his voice. Dickinson? Perhaps a legend would survive of a lifelong, lovelorn hermit, since that makes for a good story,** but beside that we could have only a stanza or so of her short poems, her actual art retaining only the “greatest hits” lines that got quoted, “Hope is a thing with feathers,” “Because I could not stop for death,” and so on.
Sadly, this is what’s left of Sappho’s art.*** So perhaps it’s consolation during Pride month that we have presently imagined her as someone like those we know today: a breathing, living individual of desires and feelings.
Until this century there are only a couple of Sappho poems that were complete enough to consider as an entire work. Then in 2004 another mostly complete poem was added to the canon. The text was found incorporated into the structure of a paper-mache like mummy case that had languished in a European museum. The ancient makers of the mummy case had just recycled what was then garbage dump material, but this dump just happened to contain a manuscript from the 3rd century BCE of a poem by Sappho.
If you’d like to see the text in archaic Greek, a gloss in English, and several English translations other than mine, you can find it at this page. Alas, I can’t link to this section on the long web page that this poem’s entry is part of, but if you search for (Control F on your keyboard) Lobel-Page 58 you’ll jump to it.
Once more in my translation I was tempted and gave in to changing a concluding cultural reference made by the original author. Sappho used a mythological story of Tithonus, but having just this spring translated a poem (“Dawn”) by 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud that imagined a strikingly similar story of a tryst between a young man and the personified dawn, the vividness of that similarity set against the biographical course of Rimbaud’s life was too powerful to resist.**** Up until that last part of the poem I tried to render my best estimate of what Sappho intended in modern English.
My translation, which substitutes Rimbaud for Tithonus
You can hear my musical performance of what I’ve titled “Sappho’s Old Age (Rimbaud version)” with either the player gadget that some will see below, or with this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab to play it.
*Sappho was a composer and lyre player. Some accounts have her as the leader of a school that taught music, which led me to translate the opening of today’s poem as a musical admonition.
**That summary of Dickinson’s life isn’t all that different rounded-off from the one I received in my youth anyway, even though our modern scholarship has established a roughly normal life for Dickinson, whose noticeable agoraphobia came after her literary work decreased.
***There doesn’t seem to be a single cause for so little of Sappho’s work surviving intact. The random acts of time alone would account for much of that loss. The famed lost libraries of Alexandria no doubt carried some of her work.
****Rimbaud, who wrote his entire influential corpus of revolutionary poetry before he turned 20, spent the last years of his short life as a merchant-trader in an Ethiopian branch office dealing in coffee.