Hearing Sappho

”Because once I’ve learned it, I can die.” So said Solon the Wise, the great Athenian lawmaker of the sixth century B.C., when asked why he wanted to be taught a certain poem by Sappho. His extravagant admiration for her hotly yearning lyrics was shared by most literate people in the ancient world: from Plato, who called her the Tenth Muse, to the Roman poet Catullus, who, five centuries after she died, adapted a famous song of hers about erotic frustration into Latin.

And yet today so little of her poetry survives—only one complete poem and a handful of substantial fragments—that the rave reviews of two millennia ago can be more frustrating than inspiring. What was all the fuss about?

Even when we have the words themselves, much is missing. Music, for one thing. For the Greeks, the “lyric” in “lyric poetry” was literal: the verses were composed to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre. The ancients referred to her as, simply, “the Poetess,” but today the term is likely to give the wrong impression: a life spent cramped over a desk or a laptop; sparsely attended readings in small cafés; Iowa. What Sappho really was was a singer-songwriter. Like Joni Mitchell or Bob Dylan, she wrote her music as well as her lyrics, and performed her songs in public. Ancient authors loved to quote lines of her work, but for all we know when they did so readers were hearing certain famous melodies in their heads as well as registering the words. (Think of what goes on in your mind when someone mentions the song “Let It Be.”) Unfortunately, although ancient musical papyri have turned up, and classicists are increasingly confident about what Greek music might have sounded like, Sappho’s melodies, like ninety-nine per cent of her lyrics, are lost.

Still, given Sappho’s dazzling reputation, the temptation to reconstruct what her lyrics may have sounded like in performance has proved difficult for classicists to resist. The late Stephen Daitz, a professor of classical languages and of Hebrew at City College and the CUNY graduate center, devoted much of his career to studying how ancient Greek epic, lyric, and drama sounded in performance. (And, indeed, in the privacy of one’s own home: silent reading was virtually unknown in the ancient world.) Among the texts that Daitz recorded before his death, last autumn—a list that included the Iliad and the Odyssey in their entirety—was the poem that classicists know as Sappho Fragment 1. The only work of hers to have come down to us intact, it’s a slyly charming riff on a formal hymn to the goddess of love, Aphrodite. In it, the speaker appeals to the divinity for assistance in “yet another” love affair with a lovely girl. You can listen to it below.

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