Sappho: Poems and Fragments


Reputation in antiquity

In antiquity, Sappho was commonly regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets.[32] The Milan Papyrus, recovered from a dismantled mummy casing and published in 2001, has revealed the high esteem in which the poet Posidippus of Pella, an important composer of epigrams (3rd century BC), held Sappho's "divine songs".[33]

An epigram in the Anthologia Palatina (9.506) ascribed to Plato states:

Some say the Muses are nine: how careless! Look, there's Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth.

Claudius Aelianus wrote in Miscellany (Ποικίλη ἱστορία) that Plato called Sappho wise. A story is recounted in the Florilegium (3.29.58) of Stobaeus:

Solon of Athens heard his nephew sing a song of Sappho's over the wine and, since he liked the song so much, he asked the boy to teach it to him. When someone asked him why, he said: "So that I may learn it, then die."

A few centuries later, Horace wrote in his Odes that Sappho's lyrics were worthy of sacred admiration. Part of one of Sappho's poems (Fragment 31) was famously translated by the 1st-century BC Roman poet Catullus in his "Ille mi par esse deo videtur" ("He seems to me to be equal to a god") (Catullus 51).

Loss and preservation of Sappho's works

Although Sappho's work endured well into Roman times, with changing interests, styles, and aesthetics her work was copied less and less, especially after the academies stopped requiring her study. Part of the reason for her disappearance from the standard canon was the predominance of Attic and Homeric Greek as the languages required to be studied. Sappho's Aeolic Greek dialect is a difficult one, and by Roman times it was arcane and ancient as well, posing considerable obstacles to her continued popularity. Still, the greatest poets and thinkers of ancient Rome continued to emulate her or compare other writers to her, and it is through these comparisons and descriptions that we have received much of her extant poetry.

Once the major academies of the Byzantine Empire dropped her works from their standard curricula, very few copies of her works were made by scribes, and the 12th-century Byzantine scholar Tzetzes speaks of her works as lost.[34]

Modern legends describe Sappho's literary legacy as being the victim of purposeful obliteration by scandalized church leaders, often by means of book-burning.[35] However, modern scholars have noted the echoes of Sappho Fragment 2 in a poem by Gregory of Nazianzus, a Father of the Church. Gregory's poem On Human Nature copies from Sappho the quasi-sacred grove (alsos), the wind-shaken branches, and the striking word for "deep sleep" (kōma).[36]

It appears likely that Sappho's poetry was largely lost through action of the same indiscriminate forces of cultural change that have left us such paltry remains of all nine canonical Greek lyric poets, of whom only Pindar (whose works alone survive in a manuscript tradition) and Bacchylides (our knowledge of whom we owe to a single dramatic papyrus find) have fared much better.

Sources of the surviving fragments

Although the manuscript tradition broke off, some of Sappho's poetry has been discovered in Egyptian papyri fragments from an earlier period, such as those found in the ancient rubbish heaps of Oxyrhynchus, where a major find brought many new but tattered verses to light, providing a major new source.[37] One substantial fragment is preserved on a potsherd. The rest of what we know of Sappho comes through citations in other ancient writers, often made to illustrate grammar, vocabulary, or meter.

Translations into English

Poetry, such as Sappho's, written in quantitative verse, is difficult to reproduce in English which uses stress-based meters and rhyme compared to Ancient Greek's solely length-based meters.[38] As a result, many early translators used rhyme and worked Sappho's ideas into English poetic forms. Still, the Sapphic stanza, strongly associated with Sappho's poetry in the original, has become well known and influential among modern poets as well.[39]

Modern interest in Sappho's writing began with the European Renaissance, starting in France and later spreading to England. The first translation of Sappho into English was the translation of fragment 31 by John Hall in his 1652 translation of Longinus' On the Sublime.[40] Translations of Sappho's work as such began to appear in the 18th century, starting with Ambrose Philips' translations of fragments 1 and 31 published in The Spectator in 1711.[41] In 1877, Henry T. Wharton an authoritative reading edition of Sappho's fragments in translation, which dominated the reading of Sappho for several decades.[42] Wharton's edition included both his own prose renderings and previous verse translations by others.[43]

In 1904, Canadian poet Bliss Carman published Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics, which was not just a translation of the fragments but an imaginative reconstruction of the lost poems. While of little to no scholarly value, Carman's translations brought Sappho's work to the attention of a wide readership.[44] In the 1920s, several major translations appeared: the Loeb Classical Library translation by J.M. Edmonds in 1922 (enlarged in 1928), prose and selected verse translations by Edwin Marion Cox in 1924, and combined prose and verse translations by David Moore Robinson and Marion Mills Miller in 1925.[45]

In the 1960s, Mary Barnard reintroduced Sappho to the reading public with a new approach to translation that eschewed the use of rhyming stanzas and traditional forms. Subsequent translators have tended to work in a similar manner. In 2002, classicist and poet Anne Carson produced If Not, Winter, an exhaustive translation of Sappho's fragments. Her line-by-line translations, complete with brackets where the ancient papyrus sources break off, are meant to capture both the original's lyricism and its present fragmentary nature. Translations of Sappho have also been produced by Willis Barnstone, Richmond Lattimore, Paul Roche, Jim Powell, Guy Davenport, and Stanley Lombardo.[46]

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