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Sappho’s poem

Oddly enough, this surfaced in Yahoo! Odd News:

LONDON (Reuters) – A love poem written 2,600 years ago by Sappho, the greatest female poet of ancient Greece, was published on Friday for the first time since it was rediscovered last year.

Sappho’s verses expressing love for her female companions on the Greek island of Lesbos have either shocked or delighted generations of readers ever since they were first composed.

Her works once filled nine volumes and the ancients called her the “tenth muse”, but little has survived to modern times.

The 12-line poem, only the fourth to have been recovered, was found on papyrus wrapped around an Egyptian mummy. It was published with an English translation in the Times Literary Supplement.

“She obviously had emotional relationships with women of her circle, quite possibly sexual,” the poem’s translator, Oxford University academic Martin West, told Reuters.

“They seem to have had some sort of society in which they could be in each other’s company quite a lot, rather cut off from men,” he said. “But the were clearly able to have plenty of fun.”

The poem was rediscovered last year after researchers at Germany’s Cologne University identified a papyrus once wrapped round a mummy as part of a 3rd century BC roll containing poems by Sappho.

They noticed that some of the verse fragments on the crumbling Cologne material matched parts of lines already identified as Sappho’s on a papyrus discovered in 1922.

By combining the two they were able to reconstruct the original, adding likely missing words in the gaps that remained.

The Reuters report contained only the first four lines. So I toodled off to the Times Literary Supplement to read the full poem. It was part of an article by the translator, Martin West.

The poem

(“The words in square brackets are supplied by conjecture”, explained West.)

“[You for] the fragrant-blossomed Muses’ lovely gifts
[be zealous,] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre:

[but my once tender] body old age now
[has seized;] my hair’s turned [white] instead of dark;

my heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

This state I oft bemoan; but what’s to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way.

Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
love-smitten, carried off to the world’s end,

handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o’ertook him, husband of immortal wife.”

Martin West adds:

We know of several poems in which Sappho spoke of herself as getting on in years. Here she addresses a group of younger women or girls, whom she calls (to translate literally) “children”, contrasting their blithe singing and dancing with her own heaviness of heart and limb. It is clear from other evidence that she composed her poetry, or most of it, within an intimate circle of women whom she calls her “companions”. Later writers saw her as a chorus-leader or teacher, to whom people of class in several cities sent their daughters for a musical education. We cannot tell how accurate a construction this is, but it must have been based on the impression given by the poems, and it is consistent with what we know.

In this poem she tells herself that growing old is part of the human condition and there is nothing to be done about it. This truth is illustrated, as typically in Greek lyric, by a mythical example. It is a tale that was popular at the time, the story of Tithonus, whom the Dawn-goddess took as her husband. At her request, Zeus granted him immortality, but she neglected to ask that he should also have eternal youth, so he just grew ever older and feebler. Finally she shut him up in his room, where he chatters away endlessly but barely has the strength to move.

Sappho is very economical with the myth, giving it just four lines and ending the poem with it. At first sight it might seem a lame ending. But the final phrase gives a poignant edge to the whole. Tithonus lived on, growing ever more grey and frail, while his consort remained young and beautiful – just as Sappho grows old before a cohort of protegees who, like undergraduates, are always young. The poem is a small masterpiece: simple, concise, perfectly formed, an honest, unpretentious expression of human feeling, dignified in its restraint. It moves both by what it says and by what it leaves unspoken. It gives us no ground for thinking that Sappho’s poetic reputation was undeserved.

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