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Some time around the ninth century, Sappho's nine books were irrecoverably lost. We have some tantalising scraps, single lines and short quotations, but only one complete poem - the "Ode to Aphrodite" Fragment 1 , which is quoted by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. A few longish passages from other poems have been preserved in other authors: the most famous is Fragment 31 "He seems to me equal to gods" , quoted at length in On the Sublime. Until the end of the 19th century, these two poems were practically all that was known from the work of the poet Plato called "the tenth Muse".
Then, around the turn of the 20th century, some scraps of papyrus from an ancient rubbish tip at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt turned out to contain fragments of poetry - including substantial chunks of Sophocles, Euripides and Sappho.
Reconstructing Sappho from what remains is like trying to get a sense of a whole Tyrannosaurus rex from one claw. Both scholars and creative writers have made much of Sappho's fragmentariness. Anne Carson's new translations, with facing Greek text, make effective use of blank space and brackets to convey the feeling of a torn or burned scrap of papyrus. Carson loves the spaces almost as much as the words: she says in her introduction that "brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.
Carson provides brief but useful notes which should enable even the Greekless reader to understand some of the most important textual problems in Sappho. Carson tries to translate nothing which is not in the Greek, and to follow the original word order and line breaks as far as possible.
Here is her version of Fragment He seems to me equal to gods that man. Carson is also aware that repetition matters. Sappho's own inability to speak "no speaking" is mocked by the echo of her beloved's "sweet speaking".
In Carson's version, as in the Greek, the first line and the penultimate line echo one another "He seems to me I seem to me". The lover disintegrates as she contemplates the beloved object, until she can no longer speak or see or hear. But the controlling perceptions of the poet the "me" to whom it all "seems" shape the narrative of the poem.
The tension between the self who desires and the self who notices, often fudged in translation, has been an essential element in the influence of Sappho's poem on later writers of lyric.
For Carson, what matters is Sappho's poetry, not her gender or her sexual orientation. But Sappho's words themselves are not gender-neutral. Carson's translation of Fragment 31 does not make clear what is clear in the Greek: the beloved and the first-person speaker are both female.
The answer, obviously, is no. Sappho is the first surviving female author in the Western tradition, and most of the critical and imaginative responses to her life and work have treated her gender and sexuality as the most important facts about her. The Sappho History by Margaret Reynolds is the most recent of several books devoted to the reception of Sappho which have been published in English in the last 15 years.
Reynolds herself has edited The Sappho Companion , an anthology of stories, essays and translations. Her new book is an enjoyable introduction to what has become an essential topic for classicists interested in reception, for scholars interested in Hellenism or classicism in European vernacular literature, and especially for feminist historians and queer theorists. In classical Athens, the island of Lesbos was associated with sexual activity in general, but primarily with blowjobs.
The Greek verb lesbiazein means "to fellate". The island was known for other things as well, such as sweet wine and sweet music, but not for girl on girl action. Until the end of the 19th century, the usual English terms for lesbian practices did not draw on classical literature. Women could be "lovers of their own sex" or, in the more frank Greek loan word, "tribades" literally "rubbers"; the words "rubster" and "fricatrice" were also used in the 17th century.
The OED cites no usage of "lesbianism" in the modern sense before , when it was used to argue that Swinburne's obsessive interest in Sapphic love was just as "loathsome" as sodomy. The words matter. It was through Sappho that female homosexuality came to be understood as a distinct sexual orientation, and as a distinctly sexual set of practices. Sex between women was often not seen as sex, but as harmless touching and kissing. Sappho's poetry was a reminder that desire between women could be as intense as heterosexual desire.
Certainly, preth century versions of Sappho did not always keep her locked in the closet. Donne's wonderful verse epistle "Sapho to Philaenis" is the first English poem to describe what Sappho did with her girlfriend. The term "lesbian loves" was used in , in a satirical attack on a group of learned ladies.
Yet before the 19th century, Sappho's sexuality was far from clearly defined. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Baudelaire, through Sappho, invented modern lesbianism, and Swinburne brought it to England. Classicists in the late 19th century, protective of Hellenic purity, tried to repress Sappho's sexual orientation: Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff fantasised that she ran a girls' school, which helped dispel the whiff of impropriety. For the ancients, the problem with Sappho was her licentiousness, not her sexual orientation.
As an example of one of the pointless questions that people love to debate, Seneca includes "whether Sappho was a prostitute".
Those who admired her poetry but disliked the idea of promiscuity found a simple solution: there must have been two Sapphos on the island of Lesbos, one a courtesan and the other a great poet. According to ancient legend, Sappho was bisexual. After various affairs with girls, she supposedly fell in love with a ferryman called Phaon, and threw herself off the Leucadian Rock in order to rid herself of her passion. This influential story, which goes back at least as far as Menander, was probably inspired by allusions in Sappho's poetry to an Adonis-like myth about the ageing Aphrodite and a young sun deity called Phaon perhaps identifiable with Phaethon.
The legend was widely known in post-classical times through an Ovidian or pseudo-Ovidian epistle, "Sappho to Phaon", and assumed a central position in almost all later responses to the poet. Later writers often use the story of the Leucadian leap as a misogynistic fable, an emblem of the comeuppance awaiting any woman who is too intellectual and too highly sexed.
Erica Jong's latest novel, Sappho's Leap, corrects the legend by describing a Sappho who is unharmed by her various sexual adventures, which include a zipless fuck with a toy-boy called Phaon. She falls from the rock almost by accident, survives, and lives happily ever after with her first love, Alcaeus, and her devoted grandchildren.
Jong's novel is the latest in a long line of works about Sappho by women writers. An early example is Mary Robinson's breathless sonnet sequence, Sappho and Phaon Robinson aspires to the Longinian Sublime; sadly, her writing sounds like this:. Furious ranting is often more enjoyable than gushing praise. Sylvia Plath's "Lesbos" powerfully presents the island as an unreachable ideal place, the counterpart to everything that is wrong with real women's lives. The speaker and her beloved could meet on Lesbos, "in another life", but "Meanwhile there's a stink of fat and baby crap.
Jeanette Winterson's response to Sappho is even angrier. We have pretty much the same amount of Sappho as of her fellow Lesbian poet, Alcaeus, who was in his time an equally important figure, and whose work had a great impact on Horace. But the damaged text of Alcaeus has no value as a political symbol, whereas the gaps in Sappho can be used as an image of male oppression.
For Winterson, the loss of Sappho's poetry represents the damage done to women's bodies and women's writing by centuries of patriarchy. Like Winterson, Reynolds sees Sappho as an emblematic female artist, whose work has been mutilated by male writers, critics and scholars. She argues that both Baudelaire and Swinburne "break up Sappho, dissect her, fragment her and insert themselves into her spaces". By contrast, female writers have treated those blank spaces as an opportunity for sharing.
In the 19th century a pair of women, lesbians in the modern sense and also aunt and niece, published a set of imitations of Sappho under the name Michael Field.
They achieve, Reynolds argues, a "duet where Sappho is not a rival, but a partner". But it is not only men who mutilate texts. This is upsetting. Reynolds freely admits, however, that she is not a classical scholar, and that her subject is not Sappho herself, or the Greek text of Sappho's poems, but the work of later writers and artists who imitated and alluded to her.
Reynolds is flexible enough to recognise that there is more to the story of Sapphic reception than male oppression and female solidarity. Despite its definite article, The Sappho History is designed only "to take snapshots of particular moments in the peculiar history of Sappho's afterlife in cultural transmission and in the cultural imagination".
Reynolds says that she learned her method from Sappho's own fragments. Rather than offer a single explanation for why Sappho took such hold of the imaginations of writers and painters in the 18th and 19th centuries, she emphasises the diversity of responses. The only consistent thread in the book is Sappho's gender.
She is Everywoman: schoolmarm, nymphomaniac, abandoned woman, artist, mother, poet of private life, choral singer and much more. The lack of a unifying argument allows Reynolds to follow her intuitions about each text she discusses, and to offer many useful and stimulating readings of particular poems and images.
One of the best chapters is on Tennyson. She suggests compellingly that his early interest in Sappho was connected to his relationship with Arthur Hallam, and that he discovered his own identity as a poet partly through his rewritings of Sappho. The chapter is flawed only by the suggestion that Tennyson's response to the "body" of Sappho's text must be seen as murder or rape, although any successful poetic adaptation involves an alteration of the original.
There is no reason to assume in advance that male poets rape Sappho while female poets sing with her. Reynolds enthusiastically and uncritically adopts a metaphor which is all too common in writing about Sappho: the poet's literal body is associated with the body of her text.
But textual bodies are not really much like physical bodies. For one thing, their gender is indeterminate. Men do not always write as men, or women as women. It would be more plausible to say not that Tennyson murders or rapes Sappho, but that through her he discovers his own lesbian identity.
Reynolds's rigid assumptions about sexuality and gender become even more problematic in the chapters on Baudelaire and Swinburne. She misses their sense of deep identification with Sappho because of her assumption that male poets always dominate female poets. She tells us that in Baudelaire's "Lesbos", "there is no Phaon"; instead, there is a new story about a "brutal man" who destroys Sappho.
She identifies this man with Baudelaire himself, who makes Sappho his "victim". All this is ingenious, but it is a complete misreading of the poem. The "brutal man" is Phaon, although he is not named. Reynolds, who generally pays too little attention to poetic form, does not mention that the first and last lines of each stanza in "Lesbos" are identical.
Poetic mirroring evokes Lesbian homoeroticism. For Baudelaire, as for Donne, the idea of two women in bed together seems like perfection. Lesbianism promises a new kind of language as well as a new kind of sexuality: words and bodies will at last achieve total unity. The only place where the mirror cracks is in the account of Sappho's death. She is killed by this aberrant moment.
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What do we know about Sappho? That she was born sometime around B. Alcaeus calls her ''violet haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho''; perhaps she looked like the young Elizabeth Taylor. She is said to have been married to a wealthy man, Cercylas; to have had a daughter, Kleis; and may have run a thiasos, a kind of finishing school for girls, dedicated to Aphrodite, Eros and the Muses. Of course Sappho also composed poetry: erotic, sensual, desperate poetry, filled with the anger of desire, wonder at the beauty of the desired one, the sweet languor of gratification.
And now her verse has been elevated to new heights in a gorgeous translation by the poet Anne Carson, who is also director of graduate studies, classics, at McGill University in Montreal.
Plato called Sappho ''the 10th Muse. There were no spaces between the words, no line breaks, and they were probably intended to be sung to music. We don't know if Sappho was literate. Some scholars believe that only one poem remains intact, a hymn to Aphrodite, in which Sappho asks for help in winning a young girl's love:.
Yes, Sappho composed love poems to women, and sometimes to men. It seems she loved Anaktoria, who left her, and who in her thoughtlessness reminds Sappho of Helen of Troy.
But, Ms. Carson asks beguilingly in her introduction, ''can we leave the matter there? Sappho is a mystery. Her life is a mystery and so is her work because of its incompleteness. It is partly what is missing in the poems, what we don't know, to which we bring our own desires and interpretations, that enhances its erotic spell. In her translation Ms. Carson denotes the missing words and lines in the poetry with single bracket marks, as in the title piece:. The words seems like a cry of anguish, the missing line, the blank space, like a freeze, or a death.
What is the meaning here? Who is talking? Is it Sappho, an old woman tormented by sex? Or the voice of Sappho's creation?
It is the need to decide that draws us in. In the fragments of just a single line, the words assume a particular, devastating power. Carson is one of the most extraordinary poets writing in English. In book after book -- ''The Beauty of the Husband,'' ''Plainwater,'' ''Men in the Off Hours''-- she has bent and reshaped the poetic form. Her best-known work, ''Autobiography of Red,'' is based on a fragment of the seventh century B.
Greek poet Stesichoros, about a winged red monster, Geryon, who is slain by Herakles. Carson turns it into a verse novel, a contemporary gay love story, but its mythic counterpart is never far from the surface. Who can forget the mother sending her frightened red-monster child off to school after he has been picked on by other children?
In ''If Not, Winter,'' Ms. Carson's learned footnotes constitute their own poetry. In one she refers to Sappho's use of the phrase ''rosey-fingered moon.
By bringing her particular kind of austerity to the translation, Ms. Carson has deepened Sappho's mystery and yet brought us closer to her. Compare Ms. Carson's translation to that of Guy Davenport, until now the best known of Sappho's modern interpreters. Davenport brings his own poetic voice to bear on the lines:.
And we have Sappho torn with jealousy, watching her girlfriend with a handsome man:. Sappho's poetry is filled with a golden eroticism. It is redolent of Attic sunshine, the sweet smells of the Aegean, Grecian meadows.
It is an eroticism from an ancient time when lines between homosexuality and heterosexuality were blurred, before distinctions were made and fear and prohibitions came into place. It is said that Sappho died for love of a younger man, Phaon, a ferry boat captain, that she threw herself off a cliff because of him.
View on timesmachine. TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers. Alfred A. But you, O blessed one, smiled in your deathless face and asked what now again I have suffered and why now again I am calling out and what I want to happen most of all in my crazy heart.
Davenport brings his own poetic voice to bear on the lines: Dusk and western star, You gather What glittering sunrise Scattered far, The ewe to fold, Kid and nanny home, But the daughter You send wandering From her mother.
Carson lets the lines stand there naked: Evening you gather back all that dazzling dawn has put asunder: you gather a lamb gather a kid gather a child to its mother. But that is probably a lie. Home Page World U.