There is no need to embellish upon the record of timeless verse that comes to us from the Hellenes. Its achievements continue to echo through the annals of history, not merely to inform, but to awe. The contributions from strong women remain especially visible, I would argue for more than in other cultures broadly termed the West (to what degree this results from chance I do not know). These women include the likes of Kassiane, Theodorou, Karelli, Aravantinou, Votsi, and countless others — and this is all to say nothing of its female warriors, political leaders, and troublesome muses.
Someone who has been considered both a troublesome muse (the tenth, according to Plato) as well as a poet who could only have come out of legend is Sappho. Unfortunately, the vast majority of her work is lost to antiquity and those who lived in it. She is best known in general discourse as a lesbian poet. This is hardly surprising– she lived in Lesbos! But this is surely not the most important characteristic of Sappho, nor, really, is it related to particularly defining motivation. Sappho’s truest concern was love, and a comprehensive appraisal of her work must study that concern in the context of her time.
As someone who studied Sappho many years ago, I always vowed to return to her again in the future. I found that opportunity when I encountered Anne Carson’s book, If Not, Winter. Compellingly, its translator/editor does not set out to write or revise history. In this way, Carson’s compilation of the entire corpus of Sappho’s work puts Sappho brilliantly into the context of her time. By not bloviating (or worse, fulminating) on the issue of her gender identity and sexual temptations, Carson leaves these issues unmarked in the discursive sense. Had she drawn attention to them, she would have marked them, thereby insulating the original author and her subject material from the general readership. Instead, Carson promptly deals with the issue on the second page of her introduction to the work, casually dismissing concerns:
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 as deeply as she did music. Can we leave the matter there?
Gladly! Many other arguments still rage regarding Sappho. For instance, scholars are not sure whether or not she was literate. One thing scholars seem to agree on, however, is that she was a brilliant musician, who composed her poetry to be sung with the lyre. At a time when poetry was both more dominant in general culture and less prevalent in the publication, her poetry must have been almost universally considered alluring and powerful. Even from only the sad, small, precious fragments that survive today, there can be no doubt of this. Consider this, the only surviving, complete poem:
Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,
child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you
do not break with hard pains,
O lady, 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 find birds brought you,
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky
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
Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You
be my ally.
If you think that a full analysis of this poem is beyond me, you would be right. Nevertheless, I should point out that there is a real narrative unfolding, with multiple voices, confused intentions, and possibly, in light of the role of angels as pointed out in the last post, some extraordinary angst. If we knew more about her, we might know how much was conscious irony and how much was sincere. It seems as though these words are just the tip of the iceberg, while so much more meaning lies beneath the surface. This is part of why the translator decided that the subheading of the book would be “Fragments of Sappho.” But the main reason is because the translator chose to place each and every remaining fragment of Sappho’s work on their own pages. In this manner, she accords all of Sappho’s works an equal dignity. Sometimes the fragments are only a sentence, phrase, or word long.
As compiled, the fragments seem like golden rays of light revealed through dense clusters of summer leaves. We cannot get a sense of the full day, but we know both the resplendent glory of the fragments as well as their soothing nature: somewhere, far away, another human, perhaps not so unlike us, lived with dilemmas we could empathize with and figured out some insight that we, too, could arrive at in time.
In another poem, Sappho writes of love, saying that “what you love” is the most beautiful thing on earth. She explains this by using Helen of Troy as an example, before her mind turns to her lost love, Anaktoria. The last half of the poem is mostly removed and it is difficult if not impossible to tell what she was talking about. After her lament, Carson translates the gaps as:
out of the unexpected.
Out of the unexpected! Is it possible that Sappho ended on an ambiguous, but hopeful note? Does it refer to paradox? Did it resolve with a moral tale? We cannot currently know the answers to these questions. But we have posed a great many of them, and therein lies the main use of Sappho for the modern day reader. I think Carson understood it better than any of us. For each fragment, we must deal with a new set of questions that we can only arrive at by assessing the meaning of Sappho’s fragments in relation to our own narrative experiences. For example:
do I still yearn for my virginity?
I might go
Or as she exults in her ability:
yes! radiant lyre speak to me
become a voice
Each of these echos resounds, for we know Sappho’s power. It would be as if someone had to assess Michael Jordan’s career from a complete video of his 1991 NBA Finals, highlights from 1992 NBA Finals, a clip of MJ swinging a baseball bat, a few clips of Jordan dribbling up court from 1997, 1998, and 1999. We might be acutely aware of how inspiringly talented MJ was from the evidence we possessed alone, and the accolades awarded by his peers (we have some of this of Sappho as well). When I read these fragments, I have a sense of Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Carson is our traveler in an antique land, perusing that ancient language, reading its extraordinary lyrics, dealing in all the relics. Sappho sculpted her own “shatter’d visage,” and we may wonder if a woman who knew so much happiness would be immortalized in a frown, though this may be all we have left. Carson delivers each fragment, no matter how small, to give us a sense of the “colossal wreck, boundless and bare,” as the “lone and level sands” of antiquity “stretch far away.”
neither for me nor the honey bee
Needless to say, Sappho’s poetry is referred to for its highly erotic content. More interesting to me is how the author translates from the original Greek (placed on the left-hand side of each page there is a fragment, translated in English on the right). Carson uses words such as sweetbitter, honeyvoiced, mythweaver, songdelighting. These are not words that we really have in English, but their composition follows standard rules for word formation and seem to be quite intelligible. Translators should never shirk from creating new words in order to translate. We need some frame of reference to understand these terms, after all. And if these new words help us see things we already understood in new ways, like a metaphor might, then these truly expand our power of comprehension, opening our minds to possibilities that we had never before considered. For example, typically, when we think of our “past,” we think of what is behind us. Not so in Cherokee culture. For them, the past is ahead of them, in front of their eyes anyway, because they can see it.
The translator in this case, Ms. Carson, appends thorough notes explaining difficult, tricky, or ambiguous translations. They certainly contain many insights. My favorite is the the discussion on the Greek word koma:
koma is a noun used in Hippokratic texts of the lethargic state called “coma” yet not originally a medical term. This is the profound, weird, sexual sleep that enwraps Zeus after love with Hera; this is the punishing, unbreathing stupor imposed for a year on any god who breaks an oath; […] Otherworldliness is intensified in Sappho’s poem by the synaesthetic quality of her koma–dropping from leaves set in motion by a shiver of light over the tree: Sappho’s adjective aithussomenon (“radiant-shaking”) blends visual and tactile perceptions with a sound of rushing emptiness.
My favorite definition is the first. That Zeus! Anyway, you will come to see the words synaesthetic and synesthesia much more often in the coming years, as I sense a resurgence of interest in the subject. Essentially, it is the fusion of senses, be it one’s seeing music or numbers, feeling texture in colors, and so on. Some say it comes from a curious biological happenstance in about 3% of the population, whereas others think it merely figments of people’s imaginations. ( The same debate rages over Fibromyalgia. ) Synaesthesia does not necessarily give anyone an advantage in comprehension or some extra computational capacity. If one is forced to see colors in numbers, and the colors are random noise, then this may actually distort an understanding of numbers.
Whatever the basis for synaesthesia, it seems that it fills a role similar to fictions. In my post, “The Angels Within,” I discussed the role of fiction and literature in our lives as filling a need. Simply, fiction can fill gaps in our identity, take us to places we could not otherwise go though we desire to, and allow us an escape from spatiotemporal confines. If we have explored the meaning of our most common adjectives, phrases, and emotions, then there really isn’t much space for the quality of being transcendent. Synaesthesia solves that problem. Fusing the senses might convey a sense of the ethereal or it might seem like it is opening a door into a world where the rules are entirely different. Either way, the concept synaesthesia allows us to transcend ordinary meanings, as if we lived in R^3 but suddenly inhabited R^5 or R^6; the point is that the possibilities would seem comparatively endless.
Poetry probably has a superior capacity to convey the essence of the synaesthetic because the more words you have, and most other literary forms have more words, the more anchored these new terms, concepts, and sensations become in what is already known. The power of the synaesthetic, however, lies precisely in its formless, abstract qualities. If Sappho’s poetry refers to words such as aithussomenon (“radiant-shaking”), then we might gain from a closer reading of what is left of her work.
Still, Sappho’s numerous actual expressions of love and longing will remain the most resonant aspects of her work. They certainly seem at least the equal of any opera that I have seen, and granted, I have seen only a few. From my favorite part in Puccini’s Tosca:
The stars were gleaming,
The ground was fragrant…
The creak of the garden gate,
light footsteps in the sand,
the smell of her hair. She came
and fell into my arms.
Oh tender kisses, sweet caresses,
While, trembling, I beheld
Her beautiful form freed of its gown.
Gone forever is my dream of love.
Time has fled, and I die in despair!
I die in despair,
But never have I loved life so much!!
Compare it to some of Sappho:
I simply want to be dead.
Weeping she left me.
with many tears and said this:
Oh how badly things have turned out for us.
Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.
And I answered her:
Rejoice, go and
remember me. For you know how we cherished you.
But if not, I want
to remind you
]and beautiful times we had.
For many crowns of violets
]at my side you put on
and many woven garlands
made of flowers
around your soft throat.
And with sweet oil
you anointed yourself
and on a soft bed
you would let loose your longing
and neither any[ ]nor any
holy place nor
was there from which we were absent
no grove[ ]no dance
The book itself admirably translates Sappho so that we may have a glimpse of her in her own context, but also in a way that preserves her and puts her in a highly respectful position amongst fellow poets and artists. New York Times reviewer Dinitia Smith seems to agree that this book is an excellent compendium of Sappho’s work:
Of course Sappho also composed poetry: erotic, sensual, desperate poetry, filled with the anger of desire, wonder at the beauty of the desired one, the sweet languor of gratification. And now her verse has been elevated to new heights in a gorgeous translation by the poet Anne Carson, who is also director of graduate studies, classics, at McGill University in Montreal. […] Sappho’s poetry is filled with a golden eroticism. It is redolent of Attic sunshine, the sweet smells of the Aegean, Grecian meadows.
Other fawning reviews of If Not, Winter may be found here. She will long be a part of our discourse on fiction. Perhaps Sappho herself had some sense of the gravity of her issues and the life she breathed into them:
someone will remember us
even in another time