Saturday, February 7, 2009

Fragment 16

February is often a dreary month—the tedious continuation of winter, with gray skies & snow that’s no longer pristine & white as it was in December & January. At least in our parts, it’s typically the beginning of mud season (at least by the end of the month), when you trade your winter boots for irrigation boots to slosh around in the mud & ice & snow.

But February is also a month with a holiday celebrating love in its center. Of course Valentine’s Day has become mostly a bonanza for the greeting card & candy industries, but let’s put cynicism to one side for the time being. I’ll be posting love poetry for the Weekly Poem series throughout the month—& not just love poetry in the sense of poems addressed to a beloved, but poems that consider what love means.

What better starting point than a poet who produced love poetry in a dim past—a poet whose works are fragmentary, but who has an almost mythic reputation; Plato called her the 10th muse; the author of the Greek anthology, who compared poets to a particular flower (the “anth” of “anthology” comes from the Greek word for flower), said of her poems: “Few—but roses.” The poet is Sappho.

Very little is known for sure about Sappho; it’s known that she lived some time between the years 630 B.C. & 570 B.C.—the dates are approximate—on the island of Lesbos, in Asia Minor. Lesbos & the surrounding islands were cultural centers in the 7th & 6th century; many of the early Greek lyric poets & the pre-Socratic philosophers came from this area.

Beyond this, & beyond her reputation amongst later Classical Greek writers, not much is known about Sappho. There’s conjecture that her poetic circle may have been a religious community of sort, a circle of women who worshipped Aphrodite; we do know that later Greek writers saw her as a teacher with a group of followers, & sometimes compared her to Socrates in this regard. It’s also worth noting that in Sappho’s time religiosity was considerably more pervasive than it is in the modern, western world, & that hymns to Aphrodite probably would have been “hymns” in a literal sense.

It’s also know that she was a “lyric” poet—that is, her poems were intended to be sung, accompanied by the lyre. Her language was not flowery, however; in fact, one of the most noteworthy aspects of Sappho’s poetry is its colloquial nature; she is plain-spoken, but in an incredibly passionate way. Her eye for description was also considered almost uncanny among the Greek commentators.

Classical Greek is a language that sounds much different than modern English. It’s a language that includes pitch, like some contemporary Asian languages; the underlying rhythm of the poetry doesn’t have to do with the pattern of stressed & unstressed syllables (as in English) but with the sounds of long & short vowels. When you combine these considerations with the fact of Sappho’s singular poetic voice & the fact that her existing poems are fragmentary, you may come to the conclusion that her poems are, in the words of British Classical scholar A.R. Burn, “strictly untranslatable.”

Fortunately, some have put their hand to the task of translating these poems. In the 1950s, Mary Barnard produced a complete translation of Sappho’s fragments, & the clear language she used gives us a view into the great poetry. Here is Ms Barnard’s translation of one of Sappho’s most famous poems, Fragment 16:

Some say a cavalry corps,
some infantry, some, again,
will maintain that the swift oars

of our fleet are the finest
sight on dark earth; but I say
that whatever one loves, is.

This is easily proved: did
not Helen—she who had scanned
the flower of the world’s manhood—

choose as first among men one
who laid Troy’s honor in ruin?
warped to his will, forgetting

love due her own blood, her own
child, she wandered far with him.
So Anactoria, although you

being far away forget us,
the dear sound of your footstep
and light glancing in your eyes

would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored
tread of mainland infantry

translation by Mary Barnard

The picture up top: "Sappho on an Attic red-figure vase by the Brygos Painter, ca. 470 BC." (from


  1. What a lovely poem. I'll be looking out for the Barnard translations.

  2. Hi Sandra:

    The Barnard translations are still in print & available at Amazon. A number of the Barnard translations are also available online here:

  3. I don't know much about the art of literary translation (or Greek poetry, for that matter). Do you think that Bernard made a deliberate choice to render the poem in such plain language? For some reason, I would have expected something more high-flown. Not that I'm complaining: What she has done is beautiful.

  4. K:

    Yes, she absolutley did this deliberately. She said in the afterword: "Of all her virtues...the one most stressed by her modern critics & least taken account of by her translators is that of fresh colloquial directness of speech." The nineteenth century translators of Sappho tended to go pretty far in the opposite direction. The problem is that English & Greek are apples & oranges, or apples & figs, perhaps-- so very different in character & sound.

  5. Gorgeous ancient poetry and ancient vase, too. I love them both. Interesting post.

  6. Thanks Willow: I've loved this poem for many years, & there are several interesting translations. Willis Barnstone has one in the book "Women Poets from Antiquity to Now" (Schoken) that I like about as well as Barnard's.

    I was very happy to find the pic of that vase on Wikipedia.


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