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SAPPHO

from A. M. Miller, Greek Lyric. An Anthology in Translation (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996) pp. 51-63 (modified). Copyrighted material. Do not cite or download except for study purposes.


Sappho was a contemporary of Alcaeus (c. 600 B.C.) and, like him, lived in the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Next to nothing is known about her life, although the extant fragments refer to a brother (no. 3) and perhaps to a daughter (no. 25). She is said to have spent time in exile, which suggests that her family (or her husband's family) was involved in Mytilene's factional politics. Sappho's poetic concerns, however, are almost entirely private. Her chief theme is erotic passion as experienced within the context of a close-knit circle of female friends (cf. nos. 1, 4, 6, 9-11,14,15, 24); in addition, a number of fragments (e.g., nos. 18-23) appear to be from wedding songs (epithalamia). In later centuries Sappho was much admired for the grace, charm, and passion of her poetry; an epigram attributed to Plato hails her as the tenth Muse. In the Alexandrian period Sappho's poems were arranged into nine books, largely according to metrical form. Nos. 1-7 are all in the stanza form known as Sapphic (see General Introduction, note 3).


Underlinings represent items explained in the notes (in red, following each poem).

1. (Fr. 1)

Immortal Aphrodite on your richly crafted throne,

daughter of Zeus, weaver of snares, I beg you,

do not with sorrows and with pains subdue

my heart, O Lady,

 

but come to me, if ever at another time as well,

hearing my voice from far away,

you heeded it, and leaving your father's house

of gold, you came,

 

yoking your chariot. Graceful sparrows

brought you swiftly over the black earth,

with a thick whirring of wings, from heaven down

through the middle air.

 

Suddenly they were here, and you, O Blessed,

with a smile on your immortal face

asked me what was wrong this time, and why

I called you this time,

 

and what in my maddened heart I wanted most

to happen. "Whom shall I persuade this time

to welcome you in friendship? Who is it,

Sappho, that wrongs you?

 

For if she flees now, soon she shall pursue;

if she refuses presents, she shall give them;

if she does not love, soon she shall love

even against her will."

 

Come to me now as well; release me from

this agony; all that my heart yearns

to be achieved, achieve, and be yourself

my ally in arms.

 

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a literary critic of the first century B.C., quotes this poem in his treatise On Literary Composition (173-79) as an example of what he calls the "polished and exuberant" style. It is the only one of Sappho's poems to have survived in its entirety; it may have stood as the first poem in the first book of the Alexandrian edition. In formal terms it is a prayer (of the kletic type; see note on Alcaeus 2), and most of the standard elements of the prayer are present: (a) an invocation (1-2), including such conventional elements as genealogy and honor)fic epithets; (b) an initial statement of the request (3 5); (c) a lengthy "reminder" of previous assistance rendered by the goddess (5-24); and (d) a second and fuller statement of the request (25-28).

 

with sorrows and with pains The poem as a whole makes it clear that the suffering here alluded to is that which arises from unrequited passion.


2. (Fr. 2)

Come to me here from Crete, to this holy

temple, where you have a delightful grove

of apple trees, and altars fragrant

with smoke of incense.

 

Here cold water babbles through apple

branches, and roses keep the whole place

in shadow, and from the quivering leaves

a trance of slumber falls;

 

here a meadow, where horses pasture, blooms

with flowers of spring, and the breezes

gently blow. . .

[one line missing]

 

In this place, Kypris, take up garlands,

and gracefully, in golden cups,

pour out nectar that has been mingled

with celebration....

 

A kletic prayer like the previous poem, addressed once again to Aphrodite (Kypris, 13). The description of the place to which the goddess is being summoned exemplifies the sensitivity to natural beauty and the vivid evocation of mood that seem to be hallmarks of Sappho's style.


3. (Fr. 5)

Kypris and you Nereids, grant

that my brother arrive here unharmed

and that everything his heart wishes

be perfectly achieved;

 

grant too that he atone for all his past errors

and that he prove a source of joy to his friends

and sorrow to his enemies; and to us may no one

ever again bring trouble.

 

May he be willing to give his sister

her share of honor, and grievous sorrow . . .

. . . formerly in distress . . .

 

A prayer that Sappho's brother may have a safe journey home. Named Charaxos, he reportedly spent considerable time in Egypt and there became entangled with a notorious courtesan called Rhodopis; the reference to past errors (5) may pertain to this episode.

Kypris Aphrodite. Being born from the sea (at least according to one tradition), Aphrodite had marine associations and was frequently invoked as a protector of seafarers. The Nereids were likewise sea goddesses, being the daughters of Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea.


4. (Fr. 16)

 

Some say a host of horsemen is the most beautiful thing

on the black earth, some say a host of foot-soldiers,

some, a fleet of ships; but I say it is

whatever one loves.

 

Wholly easy it is to make this intelligible

to everyone, for she who by far surpassed

all humankind in beauty, Helen,

forsook her husband,

 

noblest of men, to sail away to Troy;

neither of child nor of beloved parents

did she take thought at all, being led astray by . . .

[one line missing]

 

. . . for pliant . . .

. . . lightly . . .

. . . now has brought Anaktoria to my mind,

though she is absent:

 

I would rather see her lovely step

and the glancing brightness of her face

than Lydian chariots and foot soldiers

arrayed in armor.

 

This poem takes the form of an argument in which Sappho addresses the question, "What is the most beautiful thing in the world?" Her procedure is methodical: a brief priamel (see below) which serves to highlight her own general definition (1 4); a mythological paradigm or example to confirm the validity of that definition (5-14); the substitution of a particular person for the general category "whatever one loves" (15-18); and a final return to the thought of the opening lines (ring-form), thus creating an effect of closure (19-20).

The rhetorical device known as the priamel highlights a point of particular interest by setting it against the background of other (related or contrasting) items to which it is preferred.


5. (Fr. 17)

Close at hand appear to me as I pray,

queenly Hera, in your graceful form,

you whom the sons of Atreus besought

with supplication, kings renowned:

 

having brought many trials to fulfillment,

first of all around Ilion, then upon the sea,

they set forth to this island, but could not

complete their journey

 

until they called on you and on Zeus of Suppliants

and on Thyone's charming son.

Now to me as well be gentle and give aid,

according to that ancient usage

 

Another prayer for divine assistance. In place of the "reminder" of past assistance rendered by the deity (cf. introductory note to no. 1), Sappho cites a historical precedent for calling upon Hera in time of need.

 

the sons of Atreus Agamemnon and Menelaos.

Agamemnon Son of Atreus, grandson of Pelops, and brother of Menelaos. As king of Argos, he was commander in chief of the combined Greek forces that fought at Troy to regain possession of Helen.

Menelaos Son of Atreus, brother of Agamemnon, and husband of Helen. He succeeded his father-in-law Tyndareos as king of Sparta.

this island i.e, Lesbos, where the Greek fleet stopped off on its return homeward after the capture of Troy (Ilion, 6).

Thyone's charming son i.e., Dionysos; Thyone is another name for Semele. The same "trinity" of Hera, Zeus, and Dionysos appears in Alcaeus 6. 5-9.


6. (Fr. 31)

He seems to me equal to the gods,

that man who sits across from you

and listens close at hand to your sweet voice

 

and lovely laughter. Truly it sets

my heart to pounding in my breast,

for the moment I glance at you, I can

no longer speak;

 

my tongue grows numb; at once a subtle

fire runs stealthily beneath my skin;

my eyes see nothing, my ears

ring and buzz,

 

the sweat pours down, a trembling seizes the whole of me, I turn paler

than grass, and I seem to myself

not far from dying.

 

But everything can be endured, because . . .

 

Quoted in Ch. 10 of On the Sublime, a work of literary criticism that probably dates from the first century A.D. The author of this work (traditionally known as Longinus) remarks that Sappho "wants to display not a single emotion, but a whole complex of emotions. Such things are what happens to all lovers, but it is in selecting the most important of them and then arranging them into a single whole that she demonstrates her excellence." The implied situation in the poem, the identity of "that man" and his relation to the young woman addressed as "you," and the exact nature of the speaker's "complex of emotions" have all been matters of extensive scholarly debate. Although its text and meaning are uncertain, the inclusion of line 17 in Longinus' quotation seems to indicate that the poem was not complete in four stanzas (as otherwise might be surmised on formal grounds).


7. (Fr. 34)

Around the beautiful moon the stars

withdraw the radiance of their form

whenever, at her fullest, she shines over earth....


8. (Fr. 44)

. . . the herald came . . .

Idaios, the swift messenger these words:

[one line missing]

"and of the rest of Asia fame imperishable;

Hektor and his companions are bringing a flashing-eyed

maiden from holy Thebe and from fair-flowing Plakia,

graceful Andromache, in their ships over the salt

sea; and there are many golden bracelets and robes

 

of crimson ... ... trinkets of cunning make,

and silver drinking cups unnumbered, and ivory."

Thus he spoke; and Hektor's dear father leapt up nimbly;

and the news reached his friends throughout the spacious city.

At once Ilos' descendants hitched up mules

to the smooth-running carriages, and onto them the whole crowd climbed,

women and slender-ankled girls together;

but separately the daughters of Priam . . .

and young men yoked horses to chariots . . .

. . . and greatly . . .

. . . charioteers . . .

[several lines missing]

. . . like gods . . .

. . . holy . . . all together . . .

set out ... ... to Ilion,

and the flute's sweet music and ... ... were mingled,

and the clatter of castanets, and clear-voiced girls

sang a holy song, and a wondrous echo

reached the sky . . .

and everywhere in the streets were . . .

bowls and cups . . .

myrrh and cassia and frankincense were mingled.

The older women all raised a joyful shout,

and all the men sent forth a lovely high-pitched cry,

calling on Paian the far-shooter, skilled in the lyre,

and they praised in song the godlike Hektor and Andromache.

 

This fragment, which describes how Andromache was brought to Troy as a bride by the Trojan prince Hektor, is the only example of Sappho's narrative poetry that has survived. It has been suggested that the poem may have been intended for performance at a wedding celebrahon.

Hektor The eldest son of Priam, and husband of Andromache. As the greatest of the Trojan warriors to fight in the Trojan War, Hektor represented Troy's only hope for victory, and with his death at the hands of Achilles the city's doom was sealed.

Idaios a Trojan herald; he appears as a minor character in the lliad.

Asia i.e.,Asia Minor.

Thebe, Plakia According to lliad 6. 395-97, Andromache was the daughter of Eetion, king of Thebe "under wooded Plakos."

Ilos' descendants i.e., the Trojans. Ilos was the mythical founder of Troy (Ilion). 33 Paian another name for Apollo.


9. (Fr. 47)

Love shook

my mind like a wind falling on oak-trees on a mountain.


10. (Fr. 48)

You came, and I was yearning for you;

you plunged my heart into coolness when it flamed with longing.


11. (Fr. 49)

I loved you, Atthis, once long ago . . .

a small child you seemed to me, and graceless....

 

Atthis is also mentioned in nos. 15 and 24. These lines are quoted by two different sources and may not belong together.


12. (Fr. 55)

But when you die you will lie there, and no memory of you

will linger in later time, for you have no share in the roses

that come from Pieria. Unnoticed in Hades' house as well,

you will range among the shadowy dead, flown from our midst.

 

According to Plutarch in his Table Talk (3. 1. 2), the poem from which these lines are quoted was addressed "to some uncultivated and ignorant woman." By the roses that come from Pieria (2-3) Sappho means poetry.

Pieria A region immediately to the north of Mt. Olympos, birthplace of the Muses, who thus are often called Pierian.


13. (Fr. 81)

Place lovely garlands, Dika, around your hair,

twining together shoots of dill with your tender hands;

 

for the blessed Graces too prefer things decked with flowers

to gaze upon, and turn aside from those that are ungarlanded.


14. (Fr. 94)

. . . honestly I wish I were dead.

She wept as she was leaving me,

 

shedding many tears, and said to me:

"Oh, what terrible unhappiness is ours!

Sappho, I swear I'm leaving you against my will."

 

And to her I made this answer:

"Go, and fare well, and remember me,

for you know how we cared for you.

 

If not, why then I want

to remind you . . .

. . . and the happiness we had.

 

Many the wreaths of violets,

of roses and crocuses together . . .

. . . you put on beside me,

 

many woven garlands,

fashioned from flowers,

you put around your tender neck;

 

with much costly perfume

fit for a queen

you anointed yourself,

 

and on soft beds . . .

. . . tender . . .

... you assuaged your longing....

 

There was neither . . .

. . . nor shrine . . .

from which we were absent,

 

no grove . . . or dance . . ."

 

The temporal scheme in this fragment is a complex one, involving three distinct stages linked (implicitly or explicitly) by memory: (1) the present moment in which Sappho "wishes she were dead" as she remembers (2) the earlier time when the young woman was going away and she tried to comfort her by recalling (3) the still earlier times of happiness that they shared. It should be noted, however, that some scholars attribute the first line not to Sappho herself but to the young woman whose past departure Sappho is describing (ancient Greek texts used no quotation marks).


15. (Fr. 96)

. . . Sardis . . .

. . . often turning her mind in this direction . . .

 

. . . she regarded you

as a goddess made manifest,

and in your song she took most delight.

 

But now among Lydian women she shines forth

as sometimes, after sunset,

the rosy-fingered moon

 

surpasses all the stars; its light is

spread alike over salt sea

and fields of many flowers;

 

the dew is shed in loveliness;

roses bloom, and tender chervil,

and flowery melilot;

 

and often, pacing to and fro,

she remembers gentle Atthis with yearning;

doubtless her delicate heart is heavy for your fate.

 

To go there.

. . . much

... sings ... in the middle.

 

It is not easy for us to equal

goddesses in attractiveness

of form, but you have . . .

 

Addressed to a young woman named Atthis (cf. 16), whom Sappho wishes to console by assuring her that she has not been forgotten by an absent friend, a young woman who is now living in Lydia (cf. 1, 6). Atthis is menhoned in nos. 11 and 24 as well.

 

Sardis the capital of Lydia.

in this direction i.e., toward Lesbos (presumably), where Sappho and Atthis are to be imagined.


16. (Fr. 102)

I tell you, sweet mother, I cannot weave at the loom,

subdued by longing for a boy through slender Aphrodite.


17. (Fr. 104)

Hesperos, bringing all things back which bright Dawn scattered,

you bring the sheep, you bring the goat, you bring the child back to its mother.

 

Hesperos the Evening Star.


18. (Fr. 105a)

 

Like the sweet apple that reddens on the highest bough,

high on the highest bough, and the apple gatherers have forgotten it&emdash;

no, they have not forgotten it completely, but they could not reach it.

 

This and the following five fragments appear to be from wedding songs (epithalamia).


19. (Fr. 105b)

Like the hyacinth which shepherds on the hillsides

trample underfoot, and on the ground the crimson flower....


20. (Fr. 110)

The doorkeeper has feet seven fathoms long,

and his sandals are made from five ox-hides;

it took ten cobblers to fashion them.


21. (Fr. 111)

Up, up with the roof--

Hymenaios--

raise it high, you carpenters--

Hymenaios!

The bridegroom is coming, Ares' equal,

larger by far than a large man.

 

Hymenaios the god of marriage, frequently invoked in wedding songs. He was also known as Hymen.


22. (Fr. 114)

Virginity, virginity, where have you gone and left me?

"Never again shall I return to you, never again shall I return."


23. (Fr. 115)

To what, dear bridegroom, may I fittingly compare you?

To a slender sapling most of all do I compare you.


24. (Frs. 130)

Once again Love drives me on, that loosener of limbs,

bittersweet creature against which nothing can be done.

 

But to you, Atthis, the thought of me has grown

hateful, and you fly off to Andromeda.


25. (Fr. 132)

A beautiful girl is mine, her form like that

of golden flowers, beloved Kleis,

for whom not even all Lydia would I take, or lovely....

 

Kleis has traditionally been taken to be Sappho's daughter, but it is possible that she was another beloved friend like Atthis in nos. 11 and 24.


26. (Fr. Adesp. 976)

The moon has set, and the Pleiades; it is midnight, and time is passing; and I lie alone.

 

The ancient source that quotes these lines does not name their author. Some scholars believe that they are by Sappho, others emphatically deny it.


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Last revised 14 January 1998