Friday, December 30, 2011

Sappho's Jealousy

Sappho (630? – 570? B.C.) is still revered as a poet although little more than fragments of her work have survived to the present. It is clear that her poetry was highly esteemed in the ancient world.

Hermaic pillar with a female portrait, so-called “Sappho”; inscription "Sappho Eresia" ie. Sappho from Eresos. Roman copy of a Greek Classical original.
Early 5th century B.C.

Longinus, a Greek literary critic who lived in the first century A.D., lavished this praise on Sappho:

Are you not amazed at how she evokes soul, body, hearing, tongue, sight, skin, as though they were external and belonged to someone else? And how at one and the same moment she both freezes and burns, is irrational and sane, is terrified and nearly dead, so that we observe in her not a single emotion but a whole concourse of emotions? Such things do, of course, commonly happen to people in love. Sappho’s supreme excellence lies in the skill with which she selects the most striking and vehement circumstances of the passions and forges them into a coherent whole.

The modern poet and translator Kenneth Rexroth added this:

Translations of Sappho, until recent years, have been fantastically inappropriate. . . . Today a sufficient number of literal translations by modern poets may enable the reader of English to envelop Sappho and measure her as we do distant stars by triangulation from more mundane objects. It then becomes apparent that we are not deluding ourselves. There has been no other poet like this. Wherever enough words remain to form a coherent context, they give one another a unique luster, an effulgence found nowhere else. Presentational immediacy of the image, overwhelming urgency of personal involvement — in no other poet are these two prime factors of lyric poetry raised to so great a power.

Longinus was referring to one particular poem by Sappho, on jealousy. Only because Longinus quoted that poem in his critique can we read it today. One website has collected 29 different translations of the Sappho poem, demonstrating just how much variety one can find in the English translations of the Greek classics. The following is a translation by Guy Davenport:

He seems to be a god, that man
Facing you, who leans to be close,
Smiles, and, alert and glad, listens
To your mellow voice
And quickens in love at your laughter
That stings my breasts, jolts my heart
If I dare the shock of a glance.
I cannot speak,
My tongue sticks to my dry mouth,
Thin fire spreads beneath my skin,
My eyes cannot see and my aching ears
Roar in their labyrinths.
Chill sweat slides down my body,
I shake, I turn greener than grass.
I am neither living nor dead and cry
From the narrow between.
But endure, even this grief of love.

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