Sappho was a major female lyric poet, born in the 7th century BC, who was revered in antiquity on roughly the same level as Homer, a generation or two after whom she was writing. But whereas the Iliad and the Odyssey remain household names, Sappho’s work is now obscure outside of scholarship, and her legacy endures mostly only in the etymologies of ‘sapphic’ and ‘lesbian’ (from ‘Lesbos’, the island where she lived). Whilst I love that she expressed her sexuality so openly in her poetry that it came to be named after her and her birthplace, it’s also heart-breaking that she’s now chiefly remembered for, reduced to, one biographical detail. She was celebrated by the ancient generations which followed her (she’s cited by Plato and Catallus), but the large body of poetry for which she was praised remains now only in fragments, which make it difficult for us to see, now, what a brilliant, beautiful, feminist poet she was.
Reading the Penguin Classics edition translated by Aaron Poochigian, I found myself getting frustrated at how little of Sappho’s voice I was getting to hear, though as far as I can tell it’s a brilliant translation and a useful edition if, like me, you’re coming to Sappho for the first time. As helpful and even unobtrusive as Poochigian’s commentary is, I couldn’t feel like I was getting to her poetry when several paragraphs on context and potential interpretations were followed by a four or six line fragment. Style is virtually impossible to render in translation—though Poochigian does do his best to preserve the musical sound patterning so important to these poems, sung solo or by a chorus in their original setting, in English renditions like ‘Bandeau to hand you’ and ‘roses without number / Umber the earth and … The leaves drip slumber’.
But despite their sparsity, her lines did end up leaving a powerful impression. The one almost complete poem in this volume, ‘I asked thee, ‘Give me immortality’’, blends down-to-earth female experience with myth and fantasy, as the speaker describes being granted eternal life without eternal youth, enabling her to draw on the familiar mythic framework of Tithonous (the lover of the ‘rosy-forearmed Dawn’ who aged while his immortal consort remained ‘forever young’) to openly grapple with the female experience of ageing, perhaps the menopause, which it’s still revolutionary to take as a poetic subject today. Before Ovid told the story of the Cumaean Sybil (another immortal who ages) in his Metamorphoses and Eliot used her words to front The Waste Land, Sappho inhabited the Sybil’s experience, imagining what it must be like to live through ‘strong Hours indignant’ which ‘beat me down and marred and wasted me’, to have ‘Stiffness’ seize ‘on these once supple limbs’ and ‘black braids with the passing years’ turn ‘white’. And I think she reframes this phenomenon of myth as an intensely relatable human experience: you don’t actually have to live forever to feel that you ‘dwell in the presence of immortal youth’, and to desire again to be one of the ‘Girls’ who she bids ‘chase the violet-bosomed Muses’ bright / Gifts’, to wish that ‘the knees’ which now ‘Buckle’ could be restored to a time when they ‘pranced nimbly’. Sappho is quietly suggesting the profound psychological impacts of ageing in a world filled and obsessed with female youth in a no less ground-breaking way than Woolf in Mrs Dalloway centuries later.
In ‘Some call ships, infantry or horsemen’ she renders Helen of Troy an autonomous agent ‘Coasting off to Troy’ rather than a passive object of desire, and posits a female lover as a more interesting and worthy poetic subject than the apparatus of war:
And I would rather watch her body
Sway, her glistening face flash dalliance
Than Lydian war cars at the ready
And armed battalions
In ‘Once as a too, too lissome’, she uses the example of Artemis to make an understated case for virginity desired and cultivated, a rejection of the heterosexual and inevitably oppressive ‘plucking a blossom’ which ensues on a maiden’s marriage. In ‘Sweet mother, I can’t take shuttle in hand’ she begs exemption from domestic duties in favour of fulfilled desire and realisation of a ‘lust’ which ‘Has crushed my spirit’.
Flowers are everywhere, abounding to surround her enduring concerns. They increase godly favour ‘Because the blessed Graces’, who themselves have ‘wrists like roses’, ‘grant gifts to the garlanded’; they stand for both virginity and desire; they are always bound up with reminiscence and springtime love, as when parting is softened by the memory of having ‘culled violets and roses, bloom and stem’, and recalling flower beds blends into sensual memory of a suggestive, shared ‘bed / Prepared with fleecy sheets and yielding cushions’.
Memories, for Sappho, are made with and in love and desire, but they endure beyond the heated and romanticised moments into the realities of a world in which young girls must be married, and must age. But if young women’s flowers are ultimately, inevitably, out of their control, their memories of freedom, desire, love, and springtime are allowed always to belong to them, enduring in their own future mental lives and in these fragments which have fought so hard to last:
You will have memories
Because of what we did back then
When we were new at this,
Yes, we did many things, then—all