“Fragment 58” is an extended reflection on the painful inevitability of aging. In the first surviving lines, the speaker expresses a desire to escape and references the pain of a bite. She refers to an unknown figure in the second person. She then speaks of beauty in terms of fine gifts, young children, and the clear sound of the harp. Yet she has grown old, and her hair has gone white. She finds that her knees can no longer hold her weight, and shake like the knees of a fawn. Yet she knows that there was nothing she could do to prevent old age. The goddess Dawn appears, her light reaching across the earth. Even she seems defeated. Despite the inevitability of aging, the speaker loves luxury and beauty. Her capacity for desire means that she will always be able to have the beauty of the sun in her life.
“Fragment 58” is one of the more severely damaged fragments discussed in this guide. The entire manuscript is compromised; the first few stanzas are almost entirely missing, and only a few lines of the entire poem are completely intact. Nevertheless, its discovery in 1982 was greeted with enormous excitement—not only was it a new Sappho fragment, intact enough that the touching arc of the poem could be gleamed, but it is her only surviving poem to deal with aging. The entrance of this new theme into the Sapphic canon contributes to our knowledge about her life, and more importantly provides a brilliant new perspective to the world of poetry dealing with the passage of time and the process of growing older.
Nevertheless, the partial nature of the poem makes certain analytic techniques more difficult. There aren’t enough surviving lines to focus on only the intact elements, yet creating a coherent narrative to encompass the whole poem would require a lot of guesswork. Guessing isn’t all bad—the translator Josephine Balmer chose to bring the poem together by filling in what she thought Sappho might have said, and to remind her readers that the original work would have been flowing and cohesive, not abstracted and broken. Another analytic strategy is to stick with what we have and attempt to draw meaning out of the individual phrases, knowing that this broken strategy can’t be wholly faithful to what Sappho intended when she wrote these lyrics. This ClassicNote will tend more towards the latter strategy, but you should feel free to extrapolate and imagine the poem as a whole.
Carson’s version of “Fragment 58” begins “]running away/ ]bitten.” Even on their own, these words are evocative. The speaker is “Running away” in the present tense, and it thus seems like she is speaking this part of the poem in a state of panic, in the midst of an escape. Because the running is still happening, it isn’t important where she is going to, nor does the phrase “running away” necessarily demand information on where she is running from. Escape becomes not the subject but the tone of the poem, the speaker’s state of being. The lone word “bitten” on the next line suggests that the speaker might have jumped up and ran off startled, as though from a painful bite, or she might be attempting to escape something painful like a bite. Either way, the implicit metaphor is bodily. A bite hurts the skin, and is inflicted by something with teeth. It’s also a much harsher image than most of Sappho’s poetry, which is often concerned with melancholy and loss, but not with pain and physical conflict.
In line 9, there survives a reference to some “you.” In other Sappho poetry, the “you” is most frequently the object of the speaker’s passion, sometimes a close friend, and sometimes the goddess Aphrodite. She doesn’t appear again in this poem, and it isn’t clear how this other person fits into a poem about the isolated and individual process of aging. Perhaps relevant is the relational nature of biting, the fact that someone has to bite. The next line, “]makes a way with the mouth,” suggests this connection, although it translates the violence of biting into a softer, more erotic image. The speaker refers to Dawn, the only other named character in the poem, in the third person. This “you,” therefore, most likely refers to a third party.
In lines 11-12, the speaker introduces the image of aging by contrasting it with symbols of youth. “Children” both explicitly refers to young people and suggests fertility, while the “clearsounding lyre” evokes the clear voices of the young maids who would have sung along to the harp. The long compound words in lines 11 and 12 pile image on top of image, giving the poem a kind of desperate joy, as though the speaker is trying to fit as much beauty as possible into her speech before it disappears. And disappear it does: in the next line, Carson uses almost exclusively monosyllabic diction. The language feels even harsher in comparison to the rich imagery of the two preceding lines. This contrast contributes to the thematic contrast the speaker is drawing between the abundance of youth and the painful realities of aging.
The poem is primarily concerned with the bodily side of aging, a theme that lines 6 and 10 hinted at. The speaker moves rapidly from one changing part of her body to the next, describing her wrinkling skin, her fading hair, and her weakening joints. She lingers a bit with this last image, reiterating the fact that her “knees do not carry” by comparing her trembling legs to a fawn’s. If you’ve ever seen a baby calf try to stand, you know how vivid this simile is, but it is still noteworthy that the speaker compares her aging to youth, especially because she already referred to “children” in line 11. Both old and young bodies can feel weak and helpless, and especially in Sappho’s time, the very young shared the elderly’s proximity to death. The comparison challenges the linear arc from glorious youth to deteriorating aging that the transition from “beautiful gifts children” to “hair turned white after black” might suggest; instead, the story the speaker tells about bodily fragility has implications for everyone.
The biggest shift in the poem happens in line 17, where the speaker uses the first person for the first time and shifts from describing the present to questioning her relationship to it. The pleading tone of “but what could I do?” evokes the pain the speaker feels about her own aging, and it also suggests that she feels a kind of guilt for aging, a need to justify the fact that she could not prevent it. That justification takes the form of an allusion to the mythical story of Dawn and Tithonos. Tithonos was so beautiful that Dawn, the goddess Eos, fell in love with him and asked Zeus to grant him eternal life. This Zeus granted, but because Dawn forgot to ask for eternal youth as well, Tithonos continued to age until he eventually grew so shrunken and wrinkled that he transformed into a grasshopper. The story is a parable on the foolishness of attempting to run from aging. It also speaks to the separation between aging and death in Greek culture, where fearing one’s own death was considered unusual, but the inevitability of aging was a frequent preoccupation.
In “Fragment 58,” the Dawn story illustrates the inevitability of aging. Sappho emphasizes Dawn’s power in Homeric language, adapting the expression “rosyfingered” that he uses to refer to her in the Iliad. She also employs her own romantic language, stressing the extent of Dawn’s efforts by referring to the depth of her love through hyperbolic language like “the ends of the earth.” The parallel that the speaker is drawing between herself and the Tithonos myth is a curious one. By focusing on Dawn’s role, she seems to equate herself both to the goddess, and to the aging Tithonos; she is both aging and attempting to halt her own aging, as the question “what could I do?” suggests. Perhaps the speaker simultaneously concerns herself with the aging of another (possibly the “you” who bites and “makes [her] way with the mouth” at the beginning of the poem), or perhaps the speaker is her own beloved.
Either way, the poem does end with the speaker’s desire, but not desire for either herself or another. Instead, she professes her love for “delicacy,” using a Greek word that could also be translated as “luxury” or “refined sensibility.” The luxurious imagery in lines 11 and 12 feel relevant here, as does Sappho’s own aristocratic lifestyle. As the speaker resigns herself to aging, she professes devotion to the kinds of beauty that can remain constant through life. Yet she isn’t quite satisfied with them. While she loves these things, she situates her desire somewhere else, with the “brilliance and beauty of the sun.” It is an impossible desire, and one which resonates with the Tithonos myth; Dawn is obviously associated with the rising sun, her journey “to the ends of the earth” suggests its journey across the sky, and the love between Tithonos and Dawn was as impossible as a mortal touching the heavens. By affirming such desire, the speaker ends the poem in a complex and dynamic reality, one which retains both the melancholy of various inevitabilities and the potential which life always holds.