"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Literature in the News: Two New Poems by Sappho Discovered

I’m not a classist, but stuff like this for a classist must be exciting.  Heck, I think it’s fantastic. 

From the Greek Reporter: 

Today, only few poems by the ancient Greek poetess Sappho have survived, but thanks to new findings, two new works have been recovered, giving experts hope to find even more.

These previously unknown poems by the great poetess of the 7th century B.C. came to light when the owner of an ancient papyrus consulted Oxford classicist world-renowned papyrologist Dr. Dirk Obbink about the Greek writings on the tattered scrap.

Despite Sappho’s fame in antiquity and huge literary output, only one complete poem survives until today, along with substantial portions of four others. One of those four was only recovered in 2004, also from a scrap of papyrus.

“The new Sappho is the best preserved Sappho papyrus in existence, with just a few letters that had to be restored in the first poem, and not a single word that is in doubt. Its content is equally exciting,” said a Harvard classics professor upon examining the papyrus.


You can read about Sappho at Wikipedia.   Of course the thing that is routinely stated about her is that she was a lesbian—she lived on the island of Lesbos, from which the term “lesbian” was derived—but frankly it’s hard to tell from the sketchy poems, as this article clearly points out here  She speaks of both male and female relationships and translation is paramount.  Not being a classists I’m not going to claim to have any special insight, one way or the other. 

More interesting to me is the actual poetry.  The Greek Reporter speaks of her style:

 The two poems share a common meter, the so-called Sapphic stanza, a verse form perhaps devised by Sappho and today bearing her name. Both belonged, therefore, to the first of Sappho’s nine books of poetry and their recovery gives a clearer glimpse into the makeup and structure of that book. “All the poems of Sappho’s first book seem to have been about family, biography, and cult, together with poems about love/Aphrodite,” Dr. Obbink writes.

Sappho wrote in a dialect of Greek called Aeolic, which is significantly different in sound and spellings than the Attic Greek that later became standard. The handwriting on the papyrus allowed Dr. Obbink to establish its date as late 2nd or 3rd century A.D., almost a millennium after Sappho first wrote. It was not long after this time that Aeolic texts and other non-standard dialects began to die out in ancient Greece, with the focus of educators and copyists shifting on Attic writers.

Well, here are some translations of the two poems.  First, Prof. William Harris of Middlebury College of what is identified as “Poem 58.”   Read his commentary on how the poem was reconstructed it include the missing phrases.   


[For you] the fragrant-blossomed Muses' lovely gifts
[be zealous] girls, [and the ] clear melodious lyre.

[but my once tender] body old age now
[has seized] my hair's turned [white] instead of dark.

My heart's grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

This state I bemoan, but what's to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there's no way.

Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn
love smitten, carried him off to the world's end

handsome and young then, get in time grey age
o'ertook him, husband of immortal wife.


The second poem seems to be a discussion of Sappho’s brothers, Charaxos and Larichos, with an interlocutor.  Here is a translation from Tom Payne from The Telegraph.   Payne is a classists and translator. 

Still, you keep on twittering that Charaxos
comes, his boat full. That kind of thing I reckon
Zeus and his fellow gods know; and you mustn’t
make the assumption;

rather, command me, let me be an envoy
praying intensely to the throne of Hera
who could lead him, he and his boat arriving
here, my Charaxos,

finding me safely; let us then divert all
other concerns on to the lesser spirits;
after all, after hurricanes the clear skies
rapidly follow;

and the ones whose fate the Olympian ruler
wants to transform from troubles into better –
they are much blessed, they go about rejoicing
in their good fortune.

As for me, if Larichos reaches manhood,
[if he could manage to be rich and leisured,]
he would give me, so heavy-hearted, such a
swift liberation.


Like most poetry, you never get the full poetic effect translated to another language.  Unfortunately I do not read ancient Greek.  Still, I enjoyed both of these.

Hat tip to Tom McDonald of God and theMachine blog for bring this to my awareness.


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