Sappho, across the years
I read today in the Guardian that a piece of 1,700 year-old papyrus has revealed two new poems (though not in their entirety) by Sappho. Well, “new” is a relative term. New to readers of that enigmatic poet of Lesbos who was born around 630 BCE and who died around 570. New to a world that expects immediate gratification — would Sappho have tweeted her new work? Would she have uploaded her poems to a website so her acolytes could read her words as soon as she’d committed them to, well, memory? (Often her poems were composed as wedding songs or celebratory anthems.) Wax tablets? What we have of her work comes to us from later sources and occasionally, like this new find, a tantalizing fragment is found on a piece of cartonnage from the wrapping of a mummy or from an inscription on a potsherd. I haven’t seen a translation of these new poems and given the condition of the papyrus, I have to wonder.
I remember the excitement in 2004 when some lines of Sappho were discovered on a piece of cartonnage in Cologne. Because fragments of the poem existed, scholars knew they had something very special; the find supplemented the extant version and completed lines, offering an almost-complete lyric. In 2005, I read Martin West’s translation of what’s known as Fragment 58 in the TLS. I thought, Well, this is interesting but it doesn’t sound like Sappho to me. I can read a tiny bit of Greek and had devoured Mary Barnard’s translations in my university years (which are perhaps more true to Mary Barnard than Sappho) and hugely admired Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter when it came out in 2002. It is still one of my essential texts and has pride of place on my desk. I loved that she didn’t fill in — Mary Barnard tried to make sense of the gaps in the texts and her guesses were very intelligent and educated; but they were guesses.
When I read the translations of Fragment 58, I realized that I missed Sappho’s plain-spoken voice. Hers was a woman’s voice, full of longing and wistfulness and occasionally envy. I thought I’d try to make a version for myself so I found the Greek online and took my lexicon to our upper sundeck — it was summer — and tried to find the Sappho I thought I knew. Bees hummed in the oregano and the sky was as blue as any sky I knew in Greece in the 1970s when I spent time there. This is what I came up with:
You, pursuing the flower-girdled Muses’ beautiful gift, girls –
seize this clear-toned lyre:
my delicate body, now taken
by age, dark hair become white.
Spirit heavy, uncertain knees
(once as quick to dance as young deer).
I sigh – but what’s to do?
To be ageless, strong: not possible.
Once Tithonus, so they say, was swept up by rosy-armed Dawn
taken utterly by love, to the ends of the earth,
while he was young. Yet still grey age
seized him. And, oh, his immortal wife!
(This is in couplets but for some reason I can’t get the space between each to show. So imagine them, please.)
So was it Sappho I recognized or was it myself? Lines of a middle-aged woman disarmed by the beauty of young girls, their ease with poetry and movement, their grace? In any case, I can’t wait to read the latest Sappho, more than 2500 years old.