Another poetry post, this time on the winning side of a doctorate!
To celebrate passing my Ph.D. and hopefully entering the world of paid employment (hahaha…ha) here is one of the major poems that I looked at in my thesis!
I spent the last four years studying the ancient Greek poet Sappho, including translations of her poetry (which are often hilariously inaccurate, bad, and otherwise covered in grubby fingerprints belonging to centuries of weird and wonderful translators.) The following poem is excellent for several reasons:
1. It’s one of the first recorded poems to have used first person point of view.
2. It’s one of the major sources of inspiration for the entire Romantic movement across Europe (yes, it’s that good).
3. It’s full of sneaky subtly feminist references, despite being composed and transmitted during times when such things were absolutely not ok.
4. Sappho is magnificently manipulative, self-absorbed, and completely in control of her oeuvre, as well as every single figure in the poem, despite all signs to the contrary.
5. There had been nothing else quite like this written beforehand. Sappho presents a love-triangle between herself, the bride and the bridegroom in a wedding poem, bemoaning her loss of a beloved girl and also examining in detail her own experiences as a result, rather than just writing a normal epithalamion (wedding poem) to celebrate the couple and to pay respects to the gods and the groom.
Without further ado, here it is – Sappho’s Fragment 31, as it was translated by my favourite translator, Anne Carson!
Translated by Anne Carson
He seems to me equal to the gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking
and lovely laughing – oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead – or almost
I seem to me.
But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty…
This poem may not seem to revolutionary in comparison to a lot of modern poetry, but this kind of immediate personal, sensual style was completely unique to Sappho at the time. No one in recorded history had previously written of passion, let alone a woman’s passion, in quite so frank terms. Not only is Sappho the first recorded female poet, but she is also one of the earliest and best masters of the lyric poem, writing in her own specific formulation (Sapphic stanzas) and inspiring hundreds of poets after her for centuries to come.
All in all, awesome stuff. I would recommend getting hold of a copy of Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter which contains great English translations of Sappho’s poetry alongside the ancient Greek text.