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Sappho

Love's First Poet Laureate


One of the world’s oldest known poets, Sappho crafted elegant lyric verses on the isle of Lesbos circa 600 B.C.E. Although only fragments of her work survive – as in literal shards of the tablets where she and her legions of fan girls transcribed her poems or tattered bits of papyrus from the scribes who copied them later – Sappho is still regarded as one of the most important voices on the subject of love. Unfortunately, years of academic study and serious proficiency in Ancient Greek are prerequisites to appreciate Sappho’s use of poetic tools like rhythm and meter in her few extant works.

Alkaiois und Sappho

Thanks to the work of excellent translators, whose ranks include legendary authors like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sappho’s poetry still rewards for its romantic paradigms and progressive views about the nature of love. Gender fluid and LGBTQ friendly, Sappho’s love poetry celebrates both masculine and feminine beauty and passions. The word “lesbian” famously derives from Sappho’s native land, and the poet herself remains a potent symbol for love between two women.

Although Sappho has classically been considered a love poet with a strong connection to the homoerotic in art and literature, more recent scholarship has suggested her work dealt with a wide range of subjects and themes in her time period. The medieval illustration by Jean Pichore, for example, shows a much more Virgin Mary-like depiction, suggesting that her reputation as a sensual poet may have been a romantic myth. However, given the fact that only fragments of her work survive, we may never know for sure.

Sappho-Fragment-antique

“Song of the Rose”

Translated by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

If Zeus chose us a King of the flowers in his mirth,
He would call to the rose, and would royally crown it;
For the rose, ho, the rose! is the grace of the earth,
Is the light of the plants that are growing upon it!
For the rose, ho, the rose! is the eye of the flowers,
Is the blush of the meadows that feel themselves fair,
Is the lightning of beauty that strikes through the bowers
On pale lovers that sit in the glow unaware.
Ho, the rose breathes of love! ho, the rose lifts the cup
To the red lips of Cypris invoked for a guest!
Ho, the rose having curled its sweet leaves for the world
Takes delight in the motion its petals keep up,
As they laugh to the wind as it laughs from the west.

Sappho by Ernst Stuckelberg, 1897

Ode to a Loved One

Translated by Ambrose Philips

 

Blest as the immortal gods is he,

The youth who fondly sits by thee,

And hears and sees thee, all the while,

Softly speaks and sweetly smile.

Twas this deprived my soul of rest,

And raised such tumults in my breast;

For, while I gazed, in transport tossed,

My breath was gone, my voice was lost;

My bosom glowed; the subtle flame

Ran quick through all my vital frame;

O’er my dim eyes a darkness hung;

My ears with hollow murmurs rung;

In dewy damps my limbs were chilled;

My blood with gentle horrors thrilled:

My feeble pulse forgot to play;

I fainted, sunk, and died away.

Sappho by Guerin

Hymn to Aphrodite

Translated by William Hyde Appleton

 

Throned in splendor, immortal Aphrodite!

Child of Zeus, Enchantress, I implore thee

Slay me not in this distress and anguish,

Lady of beauty.

 

Hither come as once before thou camest,

When from afar thou heard’st my voice lamenting,

Heard’st and camest, leaving thy glorious father’s Palace

golden,

 

Yoking thy chariot. Fair the doves that bore thee;

Swift to the darksome earth their course directing,

Waving their thick wings from the highest heaven

Down through the ether.

Bust of Sappho
Sappho by Gustav Klimt

Quickly they came. Then thou, O blessed goddess,

All in smiling wreathed thy face immortal,

Bade me tell thee the cause of all my suffering,

Why now I called thee;

 

What for my maddened heart I most was longing.

“Whom,” thou criest, “dost wish that sweet Persuasion

Now win over and lead to thy love, my Sappho?

Who is it wrongs thee?

 

“For, though now he flies, he soon shall follow,

Soon shall be giving gifts who now rejects them.

Even though now he love not, soon shall he love thee

Even though thou wouldst not.”

 

Come then now, dear goddess, and release me

From my anguish. All my heart’s desiring

Grant thou now. Now too again as aforetime,

Be thou my ally.

Is Sappho one of the great love poets of all time? Or is this a misogynist stereotype based on outdated notions that female poets could only write about love, perpetuated by mostly male translators of her work? Tell us what you think!

Do you happen to know Ancient Greek? Have you translated Sappho from a more modern perspective? Can you do a dramatic reading of her work? Submit your stuff and we may publish it on this page.

-Max

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