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Sappho - The Lost Lesbos Lyricist
Written by: Robert Cortes Holliday
OUT of the dust of Egypt comes the voice of Sappho, as clear and sweet as when she sang in Lesbos by the sea, 600 years before the birth of Christ. The picks and spades of Arab workmen, directed by Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt of the Egypt Exploration Fund, have given the world a hitherto unknown poem by the greatest woman poet of all time.
Of course it is not a complete and legible manuscript, this buried treasure unearthed at sunburnt Oxyrhyncus. It is a little pile of fragments of papyrus, fifty-six in all. And on one of them is the tantalizing inscription, "The First Book of the Lyrics of Sappho, 1,332 lines."
To piece these fragments together has been a task more delicate and arduous than to dig them out of the earth. Messrs. Grenfell and Hunt succeeded in combining some twenty shreds of papyrus, and thus in showing the nature of the original manuscript. And the chief product of their labor and skill was a poem of six stanzas in the form to which Sappho's name is given, a poem, however, from which two entire lines and many words were missing.
Then it was that J. M. Edmonds, an eminent Hellenist of Cambridge University, gave his attention to the matter. He studied the possible relationship of the words, parsing and analyzing as diligently as any youth whom only the implacable Homer separates from a strip of parchment marked with the university's seal and his own name parodied in Latin.
"Anactoria," he saw, was vocative—and that was greatly significant. He added accents, syllables, words, and finally he supplied—it was pure guesswork, of course—two entire lines. And the result is undoubtedly a close approximation of the original lyric, more nearly complete, indeed, than most of the poems which have made critics call Sappho "the Tenth Muse."
For Sappho is known only by two brief odes and a few lyric fragments—"two small brilliants and a handful of star dust," they have been called. She wrote, it is believed, at least nine books of odes, together with epithalamia, epigrams, elegies, and monodies.
To account for the disappearance of all this poetry several theories have been advanced. One, which is largely accepted, is that Sappho's poems were burned at Byzantium in the year A. D. 380 by command of Gregory Nazianzen, who desired that his own poems might be studied in their stead, for the improvement of the morals of his people.
J. M. Edmonds has contributed to an issue of The Classical Review his amended version of the poem. He gives also the following prose translation:
The fairest thing in all the world some say is a host of horsemen, and some a host of foot, and some, again, a navy of ships; but to me, 'tis my heart's beloved, and 'tis easy to make this understood by any.
When Helen surveyed much mortal beauty, she chose for the best the destroyer of all the honor of Troy, and thought not so much either of child or parent dear, but was led astray by love to bestow her heart afar; for woman is ever easy to be bent when she thinks lightly of what is near and dear.
Even so you to-day, my Anactoria, remember not, it seems, when she is with you one of whom I would rather have the sweet sound of her footfall and the sight of the brightness of her beaming face than all the chariots and armored footmen of Lydia.
Know that in this world man cannot have the best; yet to pray for a share in what was once shared is better than to forget it.
I have roughly rendered the poem into English verse as follows:
|Unto some a troop of triumphant horsemen,
Or a radiant fleet, or a marching legion,
Is the fairest sight—but to me the fairest
Is my beloved.
Every lover must understand my wisdom,
For when Helen looked on the whole world's beauty
What she chose as best was a man, her loved one,
Who shamed Troy's honor.
Then her little child was to her as nothing.
Not her mother's tears nor her father's pleading
Moved her. At Love's word, meekly she surrendered
Unto this stranger.
So does woman yield, valuing but little
Things, however fair, that she looks at daily.
So you now, Anactoria, forget her,
Her, who is with you,
Her, to see whose face, fairer than the sunlight,
Her, to hear whose step ringing on the threshold,
I'd forego the sight of the Lydian army,
Bowmen and chariots.
Never in this world is the best our portion,
Yet there is a vague pleasure in remembrance,
And to long for joy that has passed is better
Than to forget it.
No one would venture to criticize Mr. Edmonds's treatment of the Greek text; his ingenious additions are a distinguished, scholarly achievement. Nor can any fault be found with his prose translation of the poem. But to readers of poetry who have not that peculiar literal-mindedness which characterizes scholars his interpretation of the translated poem, his explanation of Sappho's meaning, is anything but satisfactory.
It gives "point" to the piece, he says, if we imagine Anactoria to have fallen in love with a soldier. Sappho, he explains, clearly is away in exile. Anactoria and the other woman are living in the same town, presumably Mitylene. He gives this interpretation of Sappho's supposed address to Anactoria:
You, who are lucky enough to be with her still, have forgotten, it seems, a friend whom I would give anything to see again. For you have fallen in love. And yet it is natural enough; and I cannot blame you. But O, that I might have the joy you are throwing away! I know it is no use wishing; but still, past delights are better missed than forgotten.
Now, it is the scholars that have brought the poets into disrepute. They insist on interpreting them and in being at once too literal and too imaginative. Take, for instance, the obvious example of Shakespeare. Plays and poems written for the entertainment of the world have been twisted and tortured by erudite commentators who have seen in them supernatural prophecies, scientific treatises, political tracts, and—what is in this connection especially important—personal confessions. Mankind cannot be restrained, it seems, from the attempt to interpret all poetry as rhymed autobiography.
Why, it is respectfully asked, does it give "point to the piece" to imagine that Anactoria has fallen in love with a soldier? Why drag in the soldier? Surely a poet may mention the panoply of war without having in mind any particular fighting man. The poem is simple and direct; it may be taken at its face value without the addition of any love affair other than that which primarily it celebrates.
Mr. Edmonds is, it may be objected, too imaginative when he supplies Anactoria with a mysterious military lover. He is perhaps too literal minded in the very essence of his interpretation. Strangely enough, he seems for the moment to forget that a poet is not compelled always to speak in propria persona.
Why should we believe that Sappho meant this poem as a personal message to a friend named Anactoria? Why is it not possible—even probable—that Sappho meant the poem as the utterance of someone else, of someone who existed only in her own splendid imagination?
If this were so the case would really not be without precedent. "My mother bore me in the southern wild; And I am black, but O, my soul is white," was not (as scholars of A. D. 2,000 may gravely state) the outcry of a little colored boy, but the work of an elderly English gentleman. Walter Savage Landor's "Mother, I Cannot Mind My Wheel," was not a personal expression—Mr. Landor, as his mother was well aware, had no wheel to mind. Shelley was not the daughter of Earth and Water and Browning never choked a young woman named Porphyria with her own hair.
No, in spite of the excellent advice that has been given them, poets refuse to look exclusively into their own hearts and write. They refuse to be consistently subjective, they insist on voicing the thoughts of others. Therefore, not all the scholars in Christendom and heathenry need keep us from regarding Sappho's newly found poem as anything but what, on the surface, it appears to be, the address of a rejected lover to a friend or sister of his lady.
If Mr. Edmonds's admirable prose translation be regarded in this light—which surely is the light of nature—what is there about it to perplex? That Sappho used the name "Anactoria" in other poems does not prove that in that shadowy school on Lesbos there was a girl so named. It is a good rhythmical name, fitting excellently into the middle of a lesser Sapphic strophe; why should not Sappho use it? Was Pompilia among Browning's acquaintances, or does E. A. Robinson write letters to Fleming Helphenstine and Minniver Cheevy?
Even if, because of the ode which Longinus praised and because of other references, we believe that Sappho really had an Anactoria, among her friends or pupils, we are under no obligation to believe that this poem was meant for her. Leigh Hunt—not to speak of Rossetti!—knew many Jennies, but none of them ever sued him for libel.
Sappho, whom a contemporary called "the flower of the Graces," suffered first from her enemies and then from her friends. That "small, dark woman" who wrote immortal lyrics and counted among her disciples such famous singers as Erinna of Telos and Damophyla of Pamphylia, was, after her death, grossly calumniated by the ribald writers of Athenian comedy. Those who believe in the anecdotes of her which fill those scurrilous but entertaining pages cannot consistently refuse to credit also Aristophanes's interpretation of the character of Socrates.
If we are to take any of Sappho's poems as genuine personal expressions, certainly we cannot pass by her ode to her brother Charaxus, in which, in the most strict, not to say puritanical, fashion she rebukes him for yielding to the charms of the courtesan Doricha.
Nor can her correspondence with that Alceus, that "fluent poet of fluctuating moods," as E. B. Osborn calls him, be neglected. Alceus wrote to her, in an ode of which a fragment is preserved: "Violet-weaving, pure, sweet-smiling Sappho, I wish to say somewhat, but shame hinders me." And Sappho answered, primly enough, in another ode: "Hadst thou desire of aught good or fair, shame would not have touched thine eyes, but thou wouldst have spoken openly thereof."
The famous story of Sappho's vain pursuit of Phaon, and her death by leaping into the sea from the Leucadian promontory, were, it may safely be stated, inventions of the comic poets. Charles G. D. Roberts, in his introduction to Bliss Carman's exquisite reconstruction of Sappho's lyrics, suggests that the Phaon story is perhaps merely an echo of the legend of Aphrodite and Adonis—who is, indeed, called Phaon in some versions.
But the modern admirers of Sappho have not hesitated to accept as authentic such stories as that of her love for the mythical Phaon, in spite of the fact that they originated 200 years after her death. The Phaon myth, however, Sappho herself might forgive, because of the literature it has begotten—Ovid's immortal epistle and Addison's fantasy, to mention only two examples. But it is too doubtful whether she would appreciate the eloquent but somewhat perfervid hysterical dithyrambs of the late Algernon Charles Swinburne and his followers. The "pure sweet-smiling" poet who scolded her naughty brother and snubbed the ardent Alceus was not:
|Love's priestess, mad with pain and joy of song,
Song's priestess, mad with joy and pain of love.
But she was a great poet. If it was not already known, the splendid strophes recovered at Oxyrhyncus would prove it. E. B. Osborn, writing in the London Morning Post, has called attention to their resemblance to the Canticle of Canticles, to the way in which, as he says, Love makes Lesbos and land-locked Sharon provinces in one principality. There is a close kinship between the ideas expressed in the first and third stanzas of Sappho's poem and those of these lines:
"I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses in Pharaoh's chariots. (I., 9.)
Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?" (V., 10.)
Lesbos is on the sea, so the picture of the white-winged ships came naturally to the mind of Sappho. But the poet of Sharon thought only of Pharaoh's shining cavalry and of (magic phrase!) an "army with banners."
The world cannot be too grateful to Messrs. Grenfell and Hunt for their literary mining, and to Mr. Edmonds for his marvelously ingenious work of reconstruction. We may object to scholars and commentators, we may regret their interpretations, but in this instance men of this sometimes irritating class have made the world's literature their debtor. They have recovered, they have almost recreated, one of the greatest poems of the greatest poet of the greatest age of lyric poetry. It is already a classic, this little song, whose liquid Greek syllables echo the music of undying passion. It is a poem not unworthy of her whom the amazed world called "the miracle"; of whom in our own time that true poet and wise critic, the late Theodore Watts-Dunton, wrote:
Never before these songs were sung, and never since did the human soul, in the grip of a fiery passion, utter a cry like hers, and, from the executive point of view, in directness, in lucidity, in that high, imperious verbal economy which only nature can teach the artist, she has no equal, and none worthy to take the place of second.