Sappho was a poet from ancient Greece, born around 630 BC on the Greek island of Lesbos. She was honoured by Plato as the tenth muse and the Ancient Greeks celebrated her poetry and reproduced her image on coins and vases. Sappho’s poems survive after all these millennia in fragments, with many having been completely lost and there are virtually no complete poems (1).
Her style is what is known as lyric poetry and would have been originally sung to the lyre. She was one of the first poets to write from a personal point of view, moving away from the narrative of the gods to direct and human stories of the individual. Sappho’s style is melodic, intimate, and sensual, and she wrote lyrics of love and desire, loss and longing.
So come with me, let’s take a walk on her island, where the ‘breeze feels as gentle as honey’. The titles of these poems have been lost, but are often referred to by the first line. The first poem is a simple setting, where the narrator describes her reaction to the sight of a much loved girl talking and laughing with a man. Much of this poem is essentially a list of symptoms of the narrator’s love. One question you might ask about this poem is ‘why the narrator is so agitated?’ – is it jealousy because a man is enjoying the company of her beloved? Or perhaps it is a sympathetic reaction to how the man might be feeling. I like to think it’s the first.
That fellow strikes me as god’s double,
Couched with you face to face, delighting
In your warm manner, your amiable
Talk and inviting
Laughter – the revelation flutters
My ventricles, my sternum and stomach.
The least glimpse, and my lost voice stutters,
Refuses to come back
Because my tongue is shattered. Gauzy
Flame runs radiating under
My skin; all that I see is hazy,
My ears all thunder.
Sweat comes quickly, and a shiver
Vibrates my frame. I am more sallow
Than grass and suffer such a fever
As death should follow.
But I must suffer further, worthless
As I am …
This second poem is about the speaker’s current beloved who goes over to her rival Andromeda. In the second stanza, Sappho uses a lunar simile for the goddess Dawn, where the moon brings the dew and opens flowers. At some stage the poem returns to the real world although it is not exactly clear where this happens. The departed girl is compared with the moon in its loveliness, but also walks under the moon when she wanders off alone. The poem moves from a figurative night to a real one, from the world of simile to the real world where the girl resides.
Off in Sardis,
And often her thoughts turn back to our shores.
The girl adored you more than anything,
As if you were a goddess –
But most of all she loved to hear you sing.
Now she outshines those dames with Lydian faces
Just as, when the sun
Has set, the rosy-fingered Moon surpasses
The stars surrounding her. With equal grace
She casts her lustre on
The flower-rich fallows and the sterile seas.
Dew is poured out in handsome fashion; lissome
Chervil unfurls; Rose
And Sweet Clover with heady flowers blossom.
Often on long walks she commemorates
How tender Atthis was.
Her fortune eats at her inconstant thoughts…
1 Notes and translation by Aaron Poochigian and published in ‘Sappho: Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments’ by Penguin (2009).