464 pages, first edition
The Sapphic corpus consists today of about 50 pages of fragments of lyric poems from the late 7th and early 6th centuries BC. These are chance survivors of the winnowing of time, some gleaned from quotations in the works of other ancient authors, some recovered from torn and ravaged scraps of papyrus which the dry, hot Egyptian climate allowed to survive. This slender and partly incomprehensible body of text is of immeasurable importance in the story of our culture. Its significance goes beyond the question of the work’s quality--though that has been much praised. Plato, for example, called Sappho the tenth Muse (Anth. Pal., 9.506), and Ezra Pound remarked that there was nothing better in literature than the one long passage (fr. 1) which was known when he wrote. The scholar and translator Henry Wharton referred to Sappho in 1885 as “the Greek poetess whom more than eighty generations have been obliged to hold without a peer.” While judgments of quality are in general less stable nowadays than for a long time, this one seems to remain unvarying among those who bother to acquire the ability to read the relevant texts.
Perhaps more important than the question of quality is the fact that Sappho’s fragments constitute the central piece of evidence for an enormously important shift in human cultural and psychological history, one of a handful of specially formative moments in the western tradition--what Bruno Snell, in The Discovery of the Mind, called “the rise of the individual in early Greek lyric.” Snell meant primarily the first expressions of subjectivity. The corpus of Bronze Age literature and of the literature directly derived from it, such as the Homeric epics, shows only communal modes of discourse. The poet speaks as a disembodied voice of tradition, or of the community, rather than as an individual center of subjectivity describing his or her experiences, feelings and observations. The subjective voice does not clearly appear anywhere in the world until the Greek lyric age. There it is encountered in the 7th century BC, in the milieu of the breakdown of feudal landholding aristocracies and the rise of a new competing elite based not on inherited land but on wealth newly acquired through the opening of foreign markets to trade. In this situation, which was to recur in European history at a later age, the aristocratic tradition of wealth held by privilege was challenged by the emerging bourgeois tradition of wealth held by initiative; as a part of its ideology of personal initiative the new party began to make claims for the reality of the individual rather than the class. Not far behind was the age when artists would begin signing their works and poets expressing their private feelings. This is precisely the milieu in which Sappho lived; one of her brothers, Herodotus tells us, was an entrepreneur who marketed Greek wines in Egypt.
The early phase of the monodic or individual poem, insofar as it is visible from extant texts, extends from Archilochus in the 7th century to Sappho a generation or two later and from her, in another generation, to Anacreon. In this lineage it is really Sappho who predominates. The Archilochean remnants are very slight, though incredibly powerful in their freshness; the Anacreontic fragments, though more abundant, are already slightly overripe. It is the sapphic fragments in which the voice of subjectivity speaks most extensively and plainly, and with more self-consciousness in its articulations, than any other voice from a comparably early culture.
Thirdly, the significance of this author in feminist history cannot be exaggerated. She is one of a lineage of primal feminists that includes Hatshepsut. She is the Ur-model of the female artist. Futhermore, she was, in terms of modern feminist trends, a radical. Her unabashed expression of a lesbian point of view (named indeed for the island of Lesbos, where she lived) and her direct and fundamental addresses to the question of gender attitudes--such as her reversal of male values in fragment 16--laid the foundations on which the gender debate still stands.
Finally, as we shall see in part in the following pages, Sappho’s linguistic usage, along with her personally crafted body of poetic imagery, set the terms for much of the lyric tradition, not only for Catullus and Horace, but down to and including Hölderlin and Yeats. In the invention of the lyrical stance she forged fundamental innovations in the relations between signifiers and signifieds; the new linguistic methods she came up with made possible the hyper-expressive and intensified mood of the lyric, in which the individual voice seems to confront infinity, and have recurred, in a similarly fundamental role, in modern poetry. It would not take special pleading to argue that she was the most influential poet of the western tradition.
McEvilley's bilingual reading of Sappho on PennSound
English (1:30): MP3
Greek (1:42): MP3
Splendor-throned immortal Aphrodite,
child of Zeus, wile-weaving, I beseech you,
do not overwhelm with troubles and with sorrows,
mistress, my heart;
but hither come, if ever at other time,
hearing my voice from afar,
you heeded, and leaving your father’s house
of gold you came,
yoking your chariot; and fair swift
sparrows drew you around the dark earth,
fluttering fast their wings from heaven
and quickly were here; and you, oh blessed one,
and what most of all I longed for
smiling with your immortal countenance,
asked what now I had suffered, and for what
now I called you,
in my mad heart: “who now shall I persuade
to come to your love? Who, O Sappho,
is hurting you?
For look, if now she flees, soon she will follow,
and if she does not accept gifts, she will give them;
and if she does not love, quickly she will love,
Come to me now, too, and free me
from harsh anxiety,
and whatever my heart longs
to have fulfilled for me, fulfill it! And be,
yourself, my ally.
English (0:48): MP3
Come, for my sake, from Crete to this holy temple,
where is your lovely grove of apple trees,
and altars are smoking
therein cold water sings through the apple branches,
and all the place is shadowed over with roses,
and from quivering leaves a magic sleep
therein a meadow with pasture for horses blooms with. . .
flowers, and sweet
breezes breathe. . .
there, taking the garlands, Cypris,
into golden cups, luxuriously,
let the nectar mixed with good cheer
be poured like wine
(for these my friends and yours.)
English (0:53): MP3
Greek (1:01): MP3
Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry, others
of ships, is the most beautiful thing on the dark
earth--but I say it is
whatever one loves;
and it is very easy to make this understood
by everyone, for she who far surpassed
all mankind in beauty, Helen,
leaving her husband, that noble man,
and sailing away, went to Troy,
and she did not care at all for her child
or her parents, but . . . led
. . .for bend-. . .
and lightly. . .
which now reminds me of Anactoria
who is not here,
whose lovely walk
and shining brightness of face
I would rather see than the chariots of Lydia
and foot-soldiers with all their armor.
English (0:39): MP3
Greek (1:00): MP3
That man seems to me to be like the gods,
who sits opposite you
and hears you near
him speaking sweetly
and laughing attractively; but oh,
it shakes the heart in my breast,
for as soon as I look at you,
I can no longer speak,
my tongue is broken to silence
and already a subtle fire has run under my skin;
in my eyes is no vision,
my ears are humming,
a cold sweat pours down me, and trembling
seizes all (my body); I am paler than grass
and seem to be
almost dying. . .
But all must be borne, since. . .impoverished. . .
Greek (1:41): MP3
Really, I want to die; weeping she left me.
She said many things, and this:
“Alas, what terrible things we have gone through;
Sappho, truly I leave you against my will.”
And I made her these replies;
“Farewell; go, and remember me,
for you know how we cared for you.
But if you do not, I wish to
what tender and beautiful things we went through.
For many wreaths of violets
and of woven roses too,
you put around yourself at my side,
and many woven necklaces
made of flowers
cast about your soft neck,
and with much rich and royal
perfume elegantly you
and upon a soft bed...
you satisfied desire
of tender young girls,
and there was no sacred hill,
nor temple, nor stream of water
whence we were absent,
no grove...the rattle (of castanets)...”
Greek (1:03): MP3
Complete Reading (13:20): MP3
. . .at Sardis. . .
many times turning her mind in this direction,
since when we lived together
she held you like a manifest goddess
and took joy most of all in your singing;
now she shines out among the Lydian wives
like the rosy-fingered moon
when the sun has set,
outshining all the stars
and it sheds its light on the salt sea
and the flowery fields alike
and the fair dew is poured out,
and there bloom the roses
and tender chervils and blossomy honey-lotuses,
and, wandering far off,
she yearns for gentle Atthis
and her delicate breast is weighed down with desire,
her heart with grief, and she cries out for us
to come there...things not unknown to us
...the night...the sea...in between...