Friday, April 11, 2008

Sappho, translated by Willis Barnstone

After Horace came Sappho. Not historically, of course, but after I read Horace, I wanted more classics, and it came down to the Aeneid (which I am saving for the summer) or Sappho (since I didn't want to reread Homer or Ovid's Metamorphoses, the other Greeks and Romans on my shelves).

Willis Barnstone's translations of the Sapphic fragments are simply beautiful, and Sappho is (surprise!) a truly exhilarating writer:

Some say cavalry and others claim
infantry or a fleet of long oars
is the supreme sight on the black earth.
I say it is

the one you love.

But the bits of her work that are left are all touched with the melancholy of fragments. The few apparently complete poems that have survived 2,500 years are, like the one I just quoted, so brilliant that I cannot help but be saddened by the loss of all the other brilliant poems she must have written. Barnstone calls one of the most famous poems "Seizure":

To me he seems like a god
as he sits facing you and
hears you near as you speak
softly and laugh

in a sweet echo that jolts
the heart in my ribs. For now
as I look at you my voice
is empty and

can say nothing as my tongue
cracks and slender fire is quick
under my skin. My eyes are dead
to light, my ears

pound, and sweat pours over me.
I convulse, greener than grass,
and feel my mind slip as I
go close to death,

yet, being poor, must suffer

I wonder, wonder, wonder what the rest of this poem said:

Come, holy tortoise shell, my lyre,
speak to me and find your voice.

Or this, which, like so many passages in Horace, reveals so much about the world Sappho lived in, without trying to tell us anything in that "informational" way at all:

Dika, take some shoots of dill and loop them
with your tender hands about your lovely hair.
The blessed Graces love her who wears flowers
but turn their backs on one who goes plain.

I mentioned Horace's reference to the purple dyes of Sidon; Sappho refers to them, too:

My mother always said
that in her youth she was
exceedingly in fashion

wearing a purple ribbon
looped in her hair.
But the girl whose hair is yellower

than torchlight need wear no
colorful ribbons from Sardis
or some Ionian city. A

garland of fresh flowers will do.

These are just a few examples of the wonderful moments in Barstone's versions. I'll just put one more in, because it turned out to play such a central role in the next book I read after Sappho, Anne Carson's Eros the Bittersweet:

Like a sweet apple reddening on the high
tip of the topmost branch and forgotten
by the pickers-no, beyond their reach.

Like a hyacinth crushed in the mountains
by shepherds; lying trampled on the earth
yet blooming purple.


Anonymous said...

Love that first piece with the cavalry/infantry/nave -- says so much in so little space!

Unknown said...

I don't know if you've seen "If Not, Winter," Carson's translations of Sappho fragments. They are amazing. She includes the blank spaces where the missing text would have gone, so the fragments seem haunted by the missing text. It's an extraordinary book!