This week is the inaugural meeting of my new poetry reading group, and muggins here has the job of introducing our first poet. Because I'm a classicist, I thought an ancient poet would be a good start. Because no one wanted to wade through an entire epic, we're doing Sappho, the 7th-century poet of the island of Lesbos.
What will I be saying about her? Well, to me one of the most interesting things about Sappho is the way she's been read: the transmission of her works, and her reception. She was massively admired in antiquity, and her works were edited into nine books (ie papyrus rolls) in the great library at Alexandria. She was known variously as "the tenth muse" and "the female Homer". She was a huge influence on Roman lyric poets: Catullus famously translated a poem of hers, Horace wrote in her distinctive "Sapphic" stanzas, and Ovid in his Heroides (a collection of poems purporting to be love letters by jilted lovers to their ex-boyfriends) has one by Sappho to her certainly apocryphal lover, Phaon, on account of whom she was legendarily supposed to have killed herself.
Now, hardly any of Sappho's work remains. There are only two complete poems. In Stanley Lombardo's excellent translation (which the reading group has tried and failed to get in time from Amazon, so be warned) he renders 73 fragments into English (out of 200-odd in David Campbell's 1982 text for the Loeb edition) and it is a very slim volume indeed. Until the late-19th century the reason we knew about any of these fragments at all was because they had been quoted in other works – in ancient books on literary criticism, metre, etymology, etc. Often they are quoted not because they are regarded as particularly fine in themselves, but because they might illustrate an interesting use of the word "cushion" (say), or provide an example of a particular poetic metre, or grammatical oddity. Lombardo's fr 46, for example, is simply this: "a child, very soft, picking flowers". A lot of them are like that.
In the late 19th-century and early 20th century, however, something extraordinary happened: excavations of a rubbish dump of the ancient town of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt turned up a number of papyri – more fragments and some almost-complete poems. In 1937, too, a poem was found written in pen-and-ink on a potsherd – easily attributable to Sappho because tiny chunks of it had been quoted elsewhere.
Still, Sappho has a pretty astonishing reputation, given how little survives. As we read them today, her minute, often deeply resonant fragments, offer us questions: are we to regard them as poetic wholes, like tiny Emily Dickinson poems? What aesthetic value do they have? Are we to see them as analagous, somehow, to the irretrievably broken potsherd on which the hymn to Aphrodite was found? Ezra Pound had an answer, in his poem Papyrus (1916) which is as follows:
Too long ...
Sappho's "afterlife" is a fascinating story in itself. Although the only "facts" that can be known about Sappho herself are in her poems – and it's important to bear in mind that it would be naive indeed to confuse the poetically constructed "I" of the poems with some objectively clear "real-life" Sappho – she has been the subject of some extraordinary fantasy over the years, the starting point for "biography", fiction and sheer titillation. Aside from anything, there has been the "was she, wasn't she?" question of sexuality. The Victorians seemed especially keen to preserve her from the charges of lesbianism. The great 19th-century German scholar Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff had her down as a sort of Prussian headmistress presiding over a boarding school of chastely virtuous schoolgirls. Gilbert Murray (1866-1957), the eminent professor of Greek at the university of Glasgow, wrote: "It is a little futile to discuss the private character of a woman who lived 2,500 years ago in a society of which we have almost no records." Fair enough, but then he continues: "It is clear that Sappho was a 'respectable person' in Lesbos; and there is no good early evidence to show that the Lesbian standard was low." Which, as Richard Jenkyns points out in his book Three Classical Poets, makes her sound like some Kelvingrove matron. On the other hand, Sappho was a poster-girl for the counterculture. Swinburne thought she was the best poet ever (better than Homer and Shakespeare). HD was also a big fan; and in the early years of the 20th century she was claimed by lesbians as, well, a lesbian.
And yes, the poems contain words of deep and passionate love for other women; how far those relationships would have resembled homosexuality as it exists in today's culture is another matter. Sappho was admired in antiquity for the elegance and exquisiteness of her writing: that seems to me to be right. Other qualities worth admiring: her wit, teasing tone and, I think, the deeply personal nature of her poems. I love the intensely sensuous, pictorial, sometimes synaesthesic nature of her descriptions.
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