Classical Intoxication - Love through the lens of Sappho

Much of what we think we know about Sappho is apocryphal, conjecture, invented, or wrong, maybe even her name. (Sappho calls herself Psappho.) Yet somehow we feel we know her, that she is speaking directly to us across chasms of time, language, geography, and alphabets. And this is only from one, perhaps two, complete poems and a smattering of fragments from the nine-scroll corpus known in antiquity.

What we can reasonably say is that she was born on the island of Lesbos and flourished around 600 b.c., that she composed in the Aeolic dialect, that she probably had a daughter named Cleis—and thus, by deduction, a mother named Cleis, since (then as now) Greeks named grandchildren after their grandparents. She was a musician as well as a poet—her poems should properly be regarded as lyrics—and she was considered by the ancients to be the inventor of the plectrum—roughly, a guitar pick—and the Mixolydian mode. (It’s as if she invented the blues note.) Her poems are often addressed longingly to young women. 

Love is hardly Sappho’s only subject—there are hymns, bawdy wedding songs, musings on family difficulties, snippets of narrative, hints of political upheaval—but it is the love poem that she seems almost to invent, and if not love itself, certainly love-sickness, with her psychosomatic description of love’s symptoms: The sufferer is tongue-tied, dizzy, feverish, in a cold sweat, pale. It’s as if she’s the first pop singer to rhyme “fire” and “desire.” 

Sappho’s lost poems exert a mysterious influence, like dark matter, invisible to us but affecting the gravitation of all the lyric poetry after it. It’s something of a shock, then, to receive a new volume whose title is Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works.

Of course, what the authors mean is that this is a translation of all poems and fragments we have to date. This is also the only volume available, at this writing, that includes the “Brothers” poem, which electrified (and polarized) the classics world in 2014. Besides adding five nearly complete stanzas to her corpus, the poem refers directly to Sappho’s brothers, Charaxos and Larichos, whom we know by name from other sources. 

The story behind the reappearance of the new poem could be the basis of an A. S. Byatt novel, involving as it does ancient Egyptian papyrus, an anonymous collector, the evangelical Christian owners of Hobby Lobby (who hunt ancient manuscripts for a Bible museum), skeptical academics, and the man who recognized the new lines as Sappho’s (an Oxford papyrologist with the protagonist-worthy name of Dirk Obbink). This discovery happened just as this book, a 30-year labor of love, was going to print, and the authors were able to include the “new” poem. Another fragment could be discovered tomorrow; but for now, Diane J. Rayor and André Lardinois have bragging rights.

Anyone with an interest in Sappho will want to add this to their library: It includes a thorough scholarly introduction, copious notes, all extant fragments, an appendix on the new poem, and unvarnished translations that hew dutifully to the originals. Usefully, the authors have set forth the fragments in “order,” rather than grouping them by subject, making it easier to track down a specific fragment. What the book lacks is a certain grace: It could do with less whiff of lamp and more attar of Pierian roses. 

In her introduction, translator Diane Rayor discusses her choices for fragment 168B—which, as it happens, might not even be Sappho, written in a suspect dialect:
The Moon and Pleiades have set—
Half the night is gone.
Time passes.
I sleep alone. 

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