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June 24, 2005

A new poem from Sappho . Its publication adds greatly to the sadly little that has survived from the oeuvre of thegreat poet of Lesbos. The TLS publishes Dr. Martin West's translation.

Oh this is superb. I hope more poems rise from obscurity! Go Sappho go!


Wonderful. More )s.

Is it true that much of what we know of her comes from scraps of linen found inside or around a mummified crocodile?

Because I seem to remember hearing that, somewhere.

Neat. I wouldn't call it a "new poem" -- it's a filled-out version of Lobel-Page's fragment 58 (you can see the original Greek here; scroll down to D. 65a L.-P. 58, it's the first fragment on the page longer than a line) -- but it's great to have basically the whole thing. I'd love to see the Greek, if anybody can find a link to it.


Awful. It doesn't even rhyme.

The original Greek will be in this week's TLS, according to the last link of the post.

I'm hardly an illiterate, and neither is my incredibly well-read boss, but both of us have a question:

If so little is preserved, how do we know if she's really "great," or we just happened to be lucky in what did survive? And what constitutes "greatness"? I saw no particular beauty in the poem, though of course translations are inevitably less beautiful than the original. The fact that something is "timeless" and has an eternal theme doesn't mean much. People on livejournal write about eternal themes all the time. They aren't great.

I've read what exists of Sappho's poetry, though I can't do so in greek 'cause I don't know it. But what I've read just suggests "poet," not "OMG WONDERFUL AMAZING."

musingmelpomene, I think she's known mainly by reputation. There's not a lot of her work surviving, but apparently there's a lot of stuff by contemporaries written ABOUT her that says she was da bombdiggity.

Of course by that standard, in 2000 years we might have people talking about how earth-shakingly influential and awesome Oasis and Radiohead were supposed to have been...

No, that's wrong -- we say she's great (those of us who can read her) because she's great, not because the ancients said so. musingmelpomene, you can't judge poetry in translation; you just can't. Poetry is the highest expression of the possibilities of a particular language, and all you can do in another language is wave convincingly in its direction. You'd know Shakespeare or Keats were great even if there were as little of them left; you'd know Ungaretti was great even if all you had was M'illumino d'immenso. Trust me: the one complete poem by Sappho we have, the "Hymn to Aphrodite" (this translation isn't bad, and does a decent job of conveying the rhythm of the original) is enough all by itself for anyone who knows Greek to judge the poet great.

You can read all the translations you want of, say, Pushkin, and you'll never understand why the Russians consider him their greatest poet. For that you'll have to learn Russian. That's just the way it is.

I know her contemporaries loved her, but I've always assumed part of that was the novelty value. Not many women were writing poetry, and they were regarded even by the most progressive thinkers as absolutely inferior, so oh, look, a woman writing poetry, isn't she a credit to her gender even if it's only mediocre? "It is done badly, but you are surprised to see that it is done at all," in the words of Johnson.

I'm not syaing that she's bad, just that what we hear the Greeks saying about a woman poet may not be trustworthy. Remember, people said that terminally ill Mattie Stepanek was a good poet, too -- because it was novel. Let's hope his crap doesn't get discovered in fragments two thousand years hence.

I also disagree that one could say that shakespeare was a great poet based on fragments. If you had EXACTLY THE RIGHT FRAGMENTS, then yes. But probably not. "tu-whit, tu-whoo, a merry note, while greasy Joan doth keel the pot" probably won't win any fans. If the fragments you happened to recover looked like (all word mistakes intentional):

To be or [not] to be,
that is the question
whether 'tis [better] to [endure]
the [problems] of an outrageous [fortune]
or to take up arms against a [host] of troubles...

Then maybe you'd have something, but PROBABLY NOT. And if you just randomly selected, say, 10% of shakespeare's output, then took a lot of words out, any greatness would be completely in your mind, in your idea of the person's ideal writing, not in their actual writing.

(the replacement of "sea" with "host" is particularly of note, incidentally. As Asimov wrote in a short story long ago, one does not take up arms against a sea. Fragments of shakespeare would likely lead to unmixing of the mixed metaphors and interesting phrasings that led to its beauty in the first place.)

I know her contemporaries loved her, but...

Did you even read what I said? I'm not talking about her contemporaries; I'm saying her poetry speaks for itself, and if you took the trouble to learn Ancient Greek you'd love it too (if you have any feel for poetry).

And no, it wasn't the "novelty value" -- if anything, her being a woman made it harder to accept that she was a great poet. But it was undeniable. The Hymn to Aphrodite isn't the equivalent of "tu-whit, tu-whoo," it's the equivalent of one of the great monologues or sonnets. If you don't want to believe me, fine, I have no way of convincing you. But it's not about what a few ancient Greeks thought. I might also remind you that it wasn't just the Greeks; people have been blown away by her poetry ever since, even people who weren't the least bit surprised that a woman could write poetry.

I just find it particularly suspicious that the exact fragments we happen to have, and the exact ONE complete poem we have, just happen to be grrrrrrrrreat. It seems -- as I've said from the Shakespeare stuff above -- unlikely at best that even the greatest writers could be seen as great from fragments.

All I'm sayin' is, I think people today are too quick to confuse old with great, and then bolster their position by citing the people who thought someone was great way-back-when. This is especially true of eras from which not a ton of stuff survived. There are basically three options here:

1) The average quality of Greek writing was such that would make mere mortals weep. They never wrote anything that was just "okay," not even a line or two, and the Greeks at their most mediocre were as great as every other literary era's greatest and most well-respected authors' greatest works.

2) Through a miracle of preservation, the absolute most impressive pieces of Greek poems and the most beautiful and elegant plays they ever wrote happened to be handed down to us, while the mediocre things all -- surprisingly coincidentally -- happened to be lost completely to history.

3) Our definition of greatness is very influenced by the age of literary works, because we make a bad assumption that it's all quality -- anything that we like is a universal, timeless theme captured for the ages by a great poet, and anything that isn't that good probably was great in context. We're so far removed from it historically that we give it absolutely every benefit of the doubt possible, which means we can go so far as to call someone great whose only available works are fragments and a single complete poem.

I find possibilities #1 and #2 absurd. #3 makes sense, and it's not a human fault to give more credit to things we're removed from. But I think we need to step back and examine our cultural assumptions of what constitutes "greatness."

Well, I think you've raised a good question, musingmelpomene. But I'm not sure why you find #2 absurd.

On the one hand, it seems entirely unsurprising to me that the surviving Greek literature that has survived might represent to some degree the best of what they had. That's why Homer's epics survive in their entirety, and the various sequels and prequels to Homer written in antiquity, sadly, do not.

And on the other, this ignores the quantity of extant Greek poetry which is not Sappho or Pindar, by folks whose work may have had a bit more luck in surviving than Sappho's, but are not considered "great". (Sorry I can't offer any specific examples.. I'm no expert and my books are a few thousand miles away at the moment.)

Of course, classicists still read these lesser poets, and genuinely like doing so. And not only classicists, either. Personally, if I'm reading ancient literature, Greek or otherwise, I'm well aware that a significant part of my enjoyment comes from the knowledge that I am sharing in the thoughts of someone who lived 2500 years ago. I think this is fully valid, not a "bad assumption that it's quality".

Compare it to looking at ancient ruins. If you walk through the Palatine Hill in Rome, what you see there is not magnificent palaces and temples, it's mostly a collection of half-standing decrepit brick walls. But there's still something incredibly cool about walking around there, totally different from, say, walking past the shell of a house that burned down a few weeks ago.

Similarly, whether it's great or not in some hypothetical objective literary sense, reading this ancient literature is a thrill in part because of the challenge to the imagination it represents.

languagehat's take on the matter strikes me as rather unnecessary and dismissive. For those few parts that survive relatively intact, I think their greatness still comes through in a good English translation (the translation of the new poem was, I take it, meant more as a direct translation than a literary one). And if it happens that in spite of everything you aren't blown away by them, well, that's life. No need for snobbishness.

For me, Sappho's few surviving poems are extremely well crafted and evocative. Moreover they tend to be very personal and direct, as opposed to other Greek poets who tend to write more on political themes or specific social themes (such as epitaphs) which we have a harder time relating to. Personally I find something really compelling about reading them and feeling this impossible personal connection across centuries.

Even in translation, Sappho's poems make my back hair stand on end. In the original Greek they are electrofying. And remember too that they would have been sung, not recited, so we lose a whole dimension in translation. That Sappho's poetry can have the impact it has with a handicap like that surely says something about its quality.

I'm with flongj on #2, musingmelpomene. It makes sense that the best of the best, or at least the most popular of the popular, would be reproduced the most, so we have, for instance, a corpus of Aesculus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and very little besides of the genre of Greek tragedy. Dare one hope that the most popular was also the best, in the sense that it had the greatest impact on its audience?

One has only to look at the works of Shakespeare to see this winnowing process in action. You can walk into almost any college bookstore in the English-speaking world and find copies of "King Lear", "Hamlet", "Othello", "Twelfth Night", but at the very least you'd probably have to place a special order to lay hands on "Pericles, Prince of Tyre" or "Henry VIII".

Of course, the winnowing process for ancient authors was helped along by the advent of Christianity and the Dark Ages. The monasteries kept literature alive, and that, unfortunately, meant literature that the Christian establishment approved of. So we have lots of Vergil intact, but only one seminal manuscript of Catullus that managed to slip through the cracks, probably because one of the more humanistic brothers had it tucked under his matress. Someone like Sappho wouldn't appeal to either the Eastern or the Western church, so it isn't surprising that what we have of her is mostly fragments dug out of the sands of Egypt or quoted by more approved authors.

Popular has rarely meant "great."

Are you telling me that humanity has changed from appreciating true greatness in plays and poetry, and giving the authors the credit and respect they deserved, to American Idol, in only a couple millenia? Human nature doesn't change. Greatness and popularity rarely mix. Shakespeare is the one exception I can think of, but in general, what's great hasn't been that popular and what's popular hasn't been that great.

I hope that if there's some sort of cosmic cataclysm, people 2000-3000 years in the future don't find fragments of our literature and, based on popularity, decide that John Grisham and Dan Brown were truly amazing writers.

No need for snobbishness.

I'm not being snobbish (if you read my comments in other places, you'll find I'm one of the least snobbish people around -- I'm the sworn enemy of elitism/snobbery), I'm just being realistic. Unless you seriously think translations are just as good as originals, you have to agree that you can't fully appreciate poetry in translation. And some authors come across better in translation than others; Sappho does better than Pushkin in that regard, but it's still impossible to give an idea of the powerful impact of the Greek in an English translation. The languages are just too different.

musingmelpomene, I never said "the exact fragments we happen to have... just happen to be grrrrrrrrreat." Most of the fragments are bits too small to tell us anything: phrases or single words, quoted by some grammarian to illustrate a point about grammar or usage. Some of them are from conventional genres (wedding poems, for example) that don't really show her greatness. A very few are long enough and good enough to show her at their best, and those are the ones I'm talking about. The same is true for Archilochus, who's as great as Sappho (and was so considered by the ancients) but is not as famous because he lacks the "lesbian" chic. And it's not at all strange that some of the best stuff was preserved; what would you expect people to hang on to over the centuries?

But there's no point discussing it further with you, since you're clearly more interested in your own theories (based on no actual knowledge) than in absorbing information from people who actually know the poems in question. So, you're right: I'm just arbitrarily hyping basically worthless writing that's been promoted for some strange reason by all sorts of people over the centuries, and you've penetrated with your keen intuition to the hidden truth. Happy now?

I kept constantly thinking of that point when I started reading Haruki Murakami. I love his fiction in translation, and I think he's a gifted and ballsy writer, but I couldn't help but think I was really missing out. I mean, the man's practically worshipped in Japan, and I can't shake the thought that that extra measure of greatness got lost in translation.

I'm understanding your argument less and less, musingmelpomene. What would you say are the proper criteria for greatness, then?
-Not the appreciation of many people over many years...that's just meaningless popularity.
-Not the appreciation of people with specialized knowledge...they're probably just getting carried away confusing old with great.

languagehat: I was unclear, I wasn't accusing you of snobbishness. But your response did strike me as a bit dismissive.
People have different tastes, and it's certainly possible that a reasonable and literate person might read Sappho, in English or even in Greek, and be relatively unmoved. What I would find snobbish is insisting that anyone who doesn't like her poems is a fool, or equally, insisting that anyone who does like her poems is a fool.
Perhaps I misread, but from the initial posts, I took it that musingmelpomene was just saying something like: I read the poems, now what's all the fuss about? Is it just because she's old and famous?
That's a tough but worthwhile question to try to answer, and above is my comparatively uninformed attempt. Dismissive is responding, well, you just don't get it since you don't know Greek/don't have a feel for poetry/whatever. Of course you're absolutely right, poetry is much better in the original language. But when that's the case, it's still not out of the question to try to explain what's so great about it.

Perhaps I misread, but from the initial posts, I took it that musingmelpomene was just saying something like: I read the poems, now what's all the fuss about? Is it just because she's old and famous?

Yeah, that's what I took her as saying, too, and if you'll read my first response ("musingmelpomene, you can't judge poetry in translation; you just can't. Poetry is the highest expression of the possibilities of a particular language, and all you can do in another language is wave convincingly in its direction...") you'll see I was attempting to be helpful, with great enthusiasm for the subject. But it's become clear from her succeeding responses that she's not interested in what anybody else has to say -- she's sure it's a scam, and that's that. I get very impatient with that sort of know-nothingism, and I may have become too acerbic in response, but my patience is not unlimited (which is one reason I didn't become a teacher).

it's still not out of the question to try to explain what's so great about it.

That's why I linked to the translation, which gives an idea of the form of the poetry as well as the sense; I just now googled up this (from a page using Buffy to explain Sappho!), which actually does a good job of describing the phonetic web being woven in the first stanza. But there's only a certain amount of explanation you can do of why great poetry is great.

Shakespeare is the one exception I can think of, but in general, what's great hasn't been that popular and what's popular hasn't been that great.

Well, most of the greats of English literature were all very popular - Byron, Shelley, Dickens and so on

Popular has rarely meant "great."

...Human nature doesn't change. Greatness and popularity rarely mix. Shakespeare is the one exception I can think of, but in general, what's great hasn't been that popular and what's popular hasn't been that great.

I think this might be true only in the last couple of hundred years or so. Why? Because literacy for the masses has not been around that long.

I would dare to theorise that what was popular in the past would be more likely to be great, because not that many people could read, or had the leisure time to attend theatre and poetry readings. Only the rich and the religious had the wherewithal to learn reading and writing; and within this small subgroup, only those with the inclination for literature would have taken the time to read and attend theatre.

Hence, you had a small group of dedicated, literate people who decided on the popularity on works of literature in the past, especially the ancient past. Moreover, stuff wasn't as easy to get in the past; drama and music couldn't be piped to your house; it took more than a fifteen minute walk to the nearest library to get the latest bestseller for people back then. Therefore, to make that effort, to warrant that effort, the work had to be good enough to attract the attention of those willing and able to spend time and effort to obtain the work (either to watch or read).

Thus, popularity in the past can't be judged in the same way as popularity in modern times. So yes, we might take more credence about the quality of popular stuff then than now.

However, it all hinges on the defintion of "great". If something that is universally loved is not great, then Dickens is not great. If something that is loved by only the "elite" (intellectual or wealthy) is not great, then many Nobel Prize or Booker Prize winners are not great (sorry, brain not working at best right now, can only remember Salman Rushdie).

So. What is greatness? Yes, a thousand years from now, Bob Dylan might be considered great music; or Dylan Thomas a great poet. But is the former less valid an opinion than the latter? It's not really for us to say, I think, about future opinion. All we can say is what we might consider great now. But I think we might want to agree on a definition first before we start arguing about a valid list.

Heh. I'm with hanguagehat one hundred per cent. And 'tis true about Puskin, who is likely to remain an unfathomable mystery to me in this lifetime.

Housman, who was an accomplished poet and classicist, maintained that poetry can make the hairs on your neck stand up. I always thought this was hyperbole until I encountered Sappho. There are very few can do this to me.

This one by her has been repeatedly translated, but no tranlation satisfies. Here Paul Roche tranlates the bit that hit me so hard when I was one and twenty -- and still has that power over me, now I am three and sixty --

you bring
home everything
which light of day dispersed:
home the sheep herds
home the goat
home the mother's darling

And it brought shivers to me just now. Thanks, bees.

La Gatta's own translation:

Hesperus, evening star, you gather home
All that bright dawn has cast asunder.
You bring the sheep home, the goats home,
You bring home the child to its mother.

Sappho labored under that additional disadvantage that she wrote in the Lesbian dialect. With the exception of Homer, most surviving Greek literature is in Attic.

LaGatta, in what sense do you mean disadvantage? Because it would make her less accessible to later readers?
Didn't Herodotus also write in an Ionian dialect? (It's been a while for me.)
Thanks for the translation btw.

Lesbian was one of the more obscure dialects and quite different from Attic. Non-speakers of Greek (Romans, for example, and subsequent non-Greek readers) had trouble understanding it. Not to mention 20th-century English-speaking graduate students.

Thanks for the translation btw.

You're welcome. It sprang fully-armed from my head in the middle of a final exam on Greek lyric poetry. For a wonder, the professor liked it. One is in a very strange state of mind at times like that, and susceptible to the Muse.

As for Herodotus, it's been awhile for me too, but I seem to recall that he wrote in an early form of Ionic, not too far removed from Homer, so he would have been more easily understood than Sappho would have. (Ionic is also a lot less strange than Lesbian in its basic constructions and pronunciation.)

As a 'poet' and someone who has married someone from another culture and is trying to learn their language, I would agree that to fully understand and appreciate poetry in another language (or even an older version of your own) can be very difficult. There are concepts expressed by some words in German that we really don't have in English.

I think people today are too quick to confuse old with great,

Hence the reason I still had to read Spenser in my grad Literature classes. Oy.

And Housman (A.E.) makes my hair stand up. So does Byron.

Lesbian was one of the more obscure dialects and quite different from Attic. Non-speakers of Greek (Romans, for example, and subsequent non-Greek readers) had trouble understanding it.

This is not true. Can you point me to any evidence that anyone in ancient times had trouble reading Sappho, or to anything in the "Hymn to Aphrodite" that would have seriously impeded the understanding of a Greek-speaker? Remember, all Greeks were familiar with the basic features of each others' dialects, because the Aegean is small and they were constantly visiting each other's cities. Lesbian is an Aeolic dialect, on the same side of the major East-West split as Attic-Ionic; this site gives an excellent summary of the basic features. Yes, they said Moisa for Mousa and ummes for humeis and philemi for phileo; none of these would faze a Greek speaker, any more than an Englishman is fazed by the American dialect. Your struggles as a 20th-century English-speaking graduate student, while I entirely sympathize with them, are not to the point.

Also, Aeolic/Lesbian was one of the major literary dialects; the form of speech used by Alcaeus and Sappho cannot possibly be called "obscure." Greek kids had to memorize Alcaeus and Sappho the way English-speaking kids have to (or rather, sadly, used to have to) memorize Shakespeare and Burns, both of whom have equivalent minor difficulties. The first time you encounter "O wad some Power the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as ithers see us," you get told that "wad" means 'would' and "gie" means 'give' and "ithers" means 'others,' and you get the idea pretty fast. It's really not a major obstacle.

No, no, I'm quite sure Sappho's contemporaries had no problem with it. But non-Greek speakers who came later, yes.

Good example of Burns, by the way. I was trying to think of an English dialect that would compare to Lesbian, and couldn't; I think English speakers tend to look at dialects as infra dig. Try to imagine someone writing soul-searing poetry in English as spoken in Yorkshire or Zummerzet. The closest I could come was English as spoken in East Harlem (rappers, e.g.).

(By the way, some English dialects can be very boggling to modern English speakers. My family and I took a trip to England some years back, and hired a driver to take us out to Housesteads, not caring to tackle driving on the "wrong" side of the road. We found the man's speech incomprehensible, and were astonished to discover that he couldn't understand us either. It was an interesting afternoon...)

You hired an Albanian by mistake, LaGatta.

That's my theory, anyway.

I once met an Englishman named Grime. Or so it sounded.

Now that I know musingmelpomene is Jeanette Vander "U.N Owen" Bush, this thread makes a great deal more sense.

She's on


I wanted to hear
Sappho's laughter
and the speech
of her stringed shell.

What I heard was
whiskered mumble-
ment of grammarians:

Greek Pterodactyls
and Victorian dodos.
-- Mary Barnard

Sappho LXXIV

If death be good,
Why do the gods not die?
If life be ill,
Why do the gods still live?

If love be naught,
Why do the gods still love?
If love be all,
What should men do but love?
-- Bliss Carman

I believe in doing what I can
In crying when I must
In laughing when I choose
Heigh-ho, if love were all
I should be lonely.

--Noel Coward

And no, the irony of pitting Noel Coward against Sappho is not lost on me...

Fragment I

Loveliest of what I leave behind is the sunlight,
and loveliest after that the shining stars, and the moon's face,
but also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears, and apples.
-- Praxilla of Sicyon, trans R. Lattimore

This thread needs more lesbos.


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