Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sappho of Lesbos: The "Tenth Muse"

Sappho of Lesbos (new poem published 21 June 2005)

Today's post on Sappho may seem oddly dated--but we know so little about the life of this renowned lyric poet, and we have no definite dates.

But on 21 June 2005, classics scholar Martin West announced the recovery of a "new Sappho poem" in the Times Literary Supplement: scholars had matched a newly discovered Sappho fragment with a previously identified fragment, the two together making a "new poem," though still incomplete, of about twelve lines. So I've used this date for today's post on Sappho.*

A Roman copy of a 5th c. BCE
bust of Sappho
The Greek poet Sappho was likely born around 620 BCE (dates range from 630 to 612), and she seems to have lived into the mid sixth century BCE--perhaps to around 550. 

All we really know about Sappho is found in her poetry--and even that is mostly fragmentary.

The great Library of Alexandria had nine books of Sappho's poetry, organized by the kind of metrical patterns in the lyrics. Today, only one complete poem survives, the "Hymn to Aphrodite," usually labeled as Fragment 1. Fragment 16, "Some Say," is about twenty lines.

Fragment 31 is perhaps my favorite lyric poem in the western canon. Here it is, in Mary Barnard's 1958 translation: 

He is more than a hero
He is a god in my eyes—
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you—he

who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice, the enticing

laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast. If I meet
you suddenly, I can’t

speak—my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,

hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body  
and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isn’t far from me.
And here it is, in Diane Rayor's, from 1991 :
To me it seems
that man has the fortune of the gods,
whoever sits beside you, and close,
who listens to you sweetly speaking
and laughing temptingly;
my heart flutters in my breast,
whenever I look quickly, for a moment--
I say nothing, my tongue broken,
a delicate fire runs under my skin,
my eyes see nothing, my ears roar,
cold sweat rushes down me,
trembling seizes me,
I am greener than grass,
to myself I seem
needing but little to die.

But all must be endured, since. . . .
Aside from Sappho's hymn addressed to Aphrodite and a handful of extended but incomplete poems, the remaining poetry is fragmentary, sometimes just a word or phrase. In modern editions, all of the fragments together number about 264. 

Just recently, another large bit of fragment has been recovered--its discovery was made  in 2014.

I've already had my little rant about Plato's reference to Sappho as the "tenth Muse" elsewhere on this blog--so I'll restrain myself here and just provide a link in case you want to see for yourself . . . We'll also see this "praise"--she's the "tenth muse"!--several more times, later in the year.

There's a nice overview of Sappho at the Poetry Foundation website. But, more important than reading about Sappho, read some Sappho today!!! 

Fragments of Sappho

*I used to be able to link to West's piece, but I can no longer find it online. Plenty of discussion is available if you google, but for now, I'll leave this link to a news article about the announcement available at The Guardian.