Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Complete Poems of Sappho

Sappho: (born 630 BC) Daughter of Simon or Eumenos or Eerigyios or Ecrytos or Semos or Camon or Etarchos or Skamandronymos. Her mother was Cleis. She was a woman of the island of Lesbos, from the town of Eresus, and was a poet of the lyre.She flourished during the 42nd Olympic games, when Alcaues, Stesichorus, and Pittacus were also living. Her three brothers were Larches, Charades, and Ergyius. She was married to a very wealthy man named Cerkylas who traded from the island of Andros. Her daughter was Cleis. She had three companions and friends named Atthis, Telesipps, and Megera, but her relations with them earned her a shameful reputation. Her pupils were Angora of Miletus, Gongyla of Colophon and Eunica of Salamis. She composed nine books of lyric songs and invented the plectrum. She also composed epigrams, elegiac verse, iambic poetry and solo songs. 
 -Suda Encyclopedia (Tenth Century AD) 1

At face value it seems like we’re unsure of Sappho’s paternity; she has some girl friends that got her into trouble; she was a prolific writer, and contributed three major inventions to the lyrical/ musical world: the plectron, the pektis and the mixolydian mode. Upon further review, we realize that the name of her husband is actually a dirty joke, Cerkylas of Andros being loosely translated as “Prick from the Isle of Man.”2  Almost everything we know of her is suspect except for her own words and of these we have roughly one percent in fragmentary form and only one poem, "The Ode to Aphrodite" in its entirety. She is more of an enigma than anything else. 

I say “suspect” because many of her contemporary male writers were not huge fans. Since there was no way to refute her talent, her ancient contemporaries often slandered her. “She was called a prostitute and mocked on stage as immoral. And in a world where males prized a woman’s fair skin and well shaped form, second only to her modesty, she was described as short, dark, and ugly, even though the earliest portraits of her on vases portray a beautiful woman.” 3  Lucian describes her as a “nightingale with deformed wings enfolding a tiny body.” A rumor was spread that she jumped off a cliff because of the unrequited love of the boatman Phaon. Tough crowd. 

Return, Gongyla - Fragment 22

A deed
your lovely face

if not, winter
and no pain

I bid you, Abathis, 
take up the lyre
and sing of Gongyla as again desire 
floats around you

the beautiful. When you saw her dress
it excited you. I’m happy.
The Kypros-born once
blamed me

for praying 
this word: 
I want 

Willis Barnstone (2006) 

By the time we get to the first century AD, Seneca seems exhausted by the endless uninformed besmirching.

The grammarian Didymus wrote four thousand books. I would pity anyone who simply had to read so many supremely empty works. Among his book he inquires about the birthplace of Homer, the real mother of Aeneas, whether Sappho was a prostitute,and other things which you ought to forget if you know them. And then people complain that life is short. 
-Seneca Letters to Lucile's Ep.88

Ann Carson echoes Seneca when talking about Sappho’s sexuality: “Controversies about her personal ethics and way of life have taken up a lot of people’s time throughout the history of Sapphic scholarship. It seems that she knew and loved women a deeply as she did music. Can we leave the matter there?”4  Carson thinks such inquiries are merely a modern obsession that have little place and add little value to the discussion.

Despite the frenzy of intrigue she created, and of which we have an historical breadcrumb trail, she also left a trail of admirers. Her work is astounding. Plato calls her the Tenth Muse, and even our misogynistic friend Aristotle has to concede that she has earned her place in history as wise and honored, “although she was a woman.” (Aristotle Rhetoric 1398B)

In a world where everything from Homer to Augustine was written by men, what Sappho did was significant. Sappho provided a window into the lives of her contemporary fellow women, her poems brought the epic narrative into the home and took their place at the hearth. They are poems of friendship and love, desire and heartache. 

Ode to Aphrodite - Fragment 1

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,
child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you
do not break my heart

but come here if ever before
you caught my voice far off
and listening left your father’s
golden house and came,

yoking your car. And fine birds brought you, 
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky
through midair-

they arrived. 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. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O
Sappho, is wronging  you?

For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them. 
If she does not love, soon she will love 
even unwillingly. 

Come to me now: loose me from hard 
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish, You 
be my ally. 

(Ann Carson, 2002)

In this prayer, not only is Sappho placing herself within the confines of the poem, the object of her desire and the deity she prays to are both women. Within the confines of this safe place she pours out her heart and her longings to the goddess, whom she has an obvious relationship with. And gently, almost like a mother hen, Aphrodite responds with humor and compassion. Again she comes to Sappho’s aid. Again she is called upon to help Sappho restore a broken heart and unrequited love, as an ally, as a comrade in arms. Even against her will Aphrodite will do this thing, and the sixth stanza becomes almost an incantation. A magical love potion. 

Interesting side note: Not only was Aphrodite worshipped as a goddess of war, but she was also the patron goddess of prostitution. And it was also a spat between Aphrodite, Athena and Hera that lead to the Trojan War. 

According to Philip Freeman “Most of her poems are songs of love wholly unlike the epics of Homer, who lived in the century before her. Gone are the blood and glory of the Trojan War and the monster-battling adventures of Odysseus. Instead, the verses of Sappho are deeply personal and celebrate the joys and agony of the human heart.” (Searching for Sappho, xvii) 

While this is true in a way, both the Trojan War and monsters still find their way into her world, but from an entirely different view point. The Trojan War is referenced constantly but from a distance, such as in poems about the wedding of Hector and Andromache or the beauty of Helen. The monsters of Homer become the nightmares of children, as the monster Gello haunts all the little children, snatching them away to their death.  

What Sappho does is change the perspective. The magnifying glass zooms in on the life and context of Homer, but then focuses on the unlikely subject of women and children, who in that day and age were only marginally separated. According to Hesiod, the best age for marriage for a young woman was four to five years after puberty, but girls from wealthy families tended to get married even younger, some as early as twelve or thirteen. Even when Plato and Aristotle encouraged families to wait at least until the Spartan custom of eighteen, this suggestion was largely overlooked. In this sense the very really monsters where not the ones far off on a distant shore but the ones between the bedsheets. While there is no way to ascertain the childbirth mortality rate, it would have been high. 

Many of Sappho’s poems would have been sung at weddings. They were performance pieces, and at times both celebratory and mournful. Between the lines (or fragments) is a world where women were esteemed slightly higher than the family ox; an almost invisible world of pain and heartache and fear. 

Walking to a Wedding - Fragment 27 

Yes you were once a child
come sing these things
talk to us and give us 
your grace

We are walking to a wedding, and surely 
you know too, but quickly as you can 
send the young virgins away. May gods

Yet for men      road to
great Olympus 

Willis Barnstone (2006)

During the Renaissance two of Sappho’s poems, “Seizure” (Fragment 31) and “The Ode to Aphrodite” (Fragment 1) were included by Longinos in his essay On The Sublime and Dionysius On Literary Composition. Besides these two poems, for more than two thousand years, the works and writings of Sappho had almost completely disappeared. Then, in 1896, two archeology students from Oxford, discovered a cache of papyrus scraps in an ancient cemetery in the city of Oxyrhynchus, and since then there as been a fairly exciting trickle of discoveries, the most recent being the discovery of the “Brothers Poem” in 2012. 

My introduction to Sappho was through Willis Barnstone’s translation and I was completely blown away. Here’s his translation of fragment 88a:

As Long As There is Breath - Fragment 88

You might wish 
a little
to be carried off

you also know


and would say
I shall love   as long as there is breath in me 
and care
I say I have been a strong lover

and know this

no matter
I shall love

Willis Barnstone (2006)

But then to round it out I read Ann Carson’s translation and a completely different view emerged. What Barnstone had rendered as being legible, Carson leaves with the footprint of the illegible. These are after all fragments, and so much of the translation has to do with how each word is not only translated but stitched together with the fragments surrounding it. Here’s Carson’s version: 




shall love



]in front

]you would be willing
]to be carried

]more sweetly
]and you yourself know

]someone would say

]and yes I
]as long as there is breath in me
]will be a care

]I say I have been a strong lover

To echo Strabo, Sappho is an amazing thing. She is the poet for anyone who has ever been in love or suffered loss. She speaks of the joy of the dawn, in a world where each day was governed by the goddess Fortuna, the goddess of fate, where life slips through your fingers and the years slip away, and your knees refuse to dance. In a world of pain and heartache her poetry is breathtakingly immortal. 

Seizure - Fragment 31

He seems to me equal to the gods,
that man who sits opposite you
and listens near
to your sweet voice

and lovely laughter. My heart
begins to flutter in my chest. 
When I look at you even for a moment. 
I can no longer speak. 

My tongue fails and a subtle
fire races beneath my skin, 
I see nothing with my eyes
and my ears hum

Sweat pours from me and a trembling
seizes my whole body. I am greener
than grass and it seems I am a little 
of dying

But all must be endured, for even a poor

Philip Freeman (2016)

The raw emotions and the physicality of this poem are almost visceral. Philip Freeman dives into her language and finds interesting comparisons again between the language of Sappho and that of Homer: 

“First her heart begins to flutter. Sappho was not the earliest to imply this motif; Homer uses the same Greek word (ptoeo, “to flutter, fly away”) to describe the emotions of Penelope’s suitors in the Odyssey, as does Alcaeus when he says Helen was overcome by her lover, Paris. This is not just a quaint metaphor, but a physical description of a heart set racing by passion and pounding wildly in the poet’s chest.” 5

While modern readers might miss the extreme eroticism of the final stanzas…it gets pretty intense. 

Sappho is using language previously reserved for warfare. The word to describe her weakening tongue is the same word Homer uses to describe “a chariot falling to pieces on the battlefield.” 6  Her language is militaristic, because the boundaries between love and war at times are murky, and as a woman, she is positioning herself from a vantage point where despite never fighting a battle with shields and swords, she is living one every day. 

To a Woman of No Education - Fragment 55 

When you lie dead no one will remember
or long for you later. You do not share the roses 
of Pieria. Unseen here and in the house of Hades, 
flown away, you will flitter among the dim corpses. 

Willis Barnstone (2006)


1. Freeman, Philip. Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet. New York; London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016. pg. xi
2. Campbell, David, ed. Greek Lyric Poetry: A Selection. London: Macmillan, 1967. 5n. 4.

3. Freeman, Philip. Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet. New York; London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016. pg. xxi
4. Carson, Anne. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. pg.12
5. Freeman, Philip. Searching for Sappho: The Lost Songs and World of the First Woman Poet. New York; London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016. pg. 123
6. Ibid. 

Reading List:

Searching For Sappho - Philip Freeman 
The Complete Poems of Sappho - Willis Barnstone 

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