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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

"A fragment of her soul" 1

"Sappho, who broke off a fragment of her soul for us to guess at." 
[Elizabeth Barrett Browning]

I have managed to get to this point in my life with remarkably few unfulfilled ambitions, which is fortunate under the circumstances. It comes as both a vague annoyance and a pleasure that I've acquired an unexpected new one – one that won't be fulfilled.

   The villain of the piece is someone I met not long ago. "Met" is a bit misleading, because we've never seen each other face to face and never will. Had we met, we couldn't have communicated in words, because I can't speak Greek and she no doubt would never have bothered to learn a primitive language like English.

   I've mentioned her before and this is all about the pleasure she's brought me. Her name is Sappho.

   For one terrible moment there, I thought that Ab Fab's Edina might have named her long-suffering daughter Saffy after her, but of course, as a product of her fabulous times, Saffy's full name is Saffron. Saffron Monsoon.

   Whew. That was a narrow escape. Not that I dislike Saffy – she's far and away the most likeable character in Ab Fab. I'm just happy she was named after a spice, not in honour of the most wonderful lyric poet I've ever read.

   At the online font of all wisdom (you know what), you can read what's known of Sappho, but she's an enigmatic character.

Image source
   Not all that much can be told about her life, but three highly significant life events appear to have happened. She seems to have married, produced a daughter and for some unknown reason was exiled from Lesbos. 

   Let me not muddy the waters further. Maybe, if this Roman copy of the lost Hellenic original is a guide, take something from it. I like to think it's just as she was, because the Roman sculptor has been more faithful to the Greek style than other Roman examples, but draw your own conclusions about her from the translation of her poems. They're practically all we've got, and it's only by great good fortune that we have them at all.

   Our other piece of luck, if it can be called that, is that we have a freely downloadable version of Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics. An even greater good fortune is that this 1907 translation, by Bliss Carman, is beautifully empathetic. Tender, even, I feel; although to compare with the fragments in the Hundred Lyrics, I'd have to know the language of the era and life about 2700 years ago on the Aegean island of Lesbos.

   Sappho's poetry is sensuous and rich in imagery. She writes about women, men, children, nature and the seasons, the sea and the ships that come into port, the Lesbos capital Mytilene, gardens – her entire world. She writes passionately about love, the duality or ambivalence about sexuality in her poems captured so perfectly by Carman. I think in this regard her classical references to lovers contain clues, apart from the poetic themes themselves.

   I'd better give you a sample and not rabbit on too much.


In the quiet garden world,
Gold sunlight and shadow leaves
Flicker on the wall.

And the wind, a moment since,
With rose-petals strewed the path
And the open door.

Now the moon-white butterflies
Float across the liquid air,
Glad as in a dream;

And, across thy lover's heart,
Visions of one scarlet mouth
With its maddening smile.

You want one more? OK. Not all the poems mention rose petals as both of these do, but I thought one describing garments might appeal. It reminds me strongly of the Pillow Book, or the Tale of Genji, the Japanese classics of a millennium ago.


I recall thy white gown, cinctured
With a linen belt, whereon
Violets were wrought, and scented
With strange perfumes out of Egypt.

And I know thy foot was covered
With fair Lydian broidered straps;
And the petals from a rose-tree
Fell within the marble basin.

My unfulfillable ambition? I'll get back to it later. I do promise many more tastes of her poems, but here I'll concentrate on the slightly longer ones, not restricted to 140 characters. Some of you will know why. I can't stay out of it altogether though. This is about her and me!



  1. I decided a small relative of mine was quite clever when, aged about 4, she remarked, 'Mother & Son [Ruth Cracknell an elderly mother, Garry Macdonald, her son] and Absolutely Fabulous [why such a young child was allowed to watch it, I can't imagine - I blame the mother] are so similar aren't they?' 'Are they?' I asked the diminutive TV critic. 'Yes, of course, they are - they're both about sensible children and stupid parents'. Thank you, by the way, for introducing me to Sappho.

    1. I say from that comment there never was a kid more ready to tackle either Patsy or the infuriating Norman Gunston mum.

      What's annoying me now is the impossible task of trying to recall how I met Sappho. This lack of short term memory recall that's descended on me is so frustrating. It's an absolute blank.

      PS I have my suspicions about the identity of the mother.

    2. My husband has always admired my total recall of the details of all meals we've eaten - but now that's fading (so now I have to resort to making the dishes up, which is sometimes better, as I can recount tales of even more delicious things than were actually available and, since he doesn't remember, he usually believes me [pan-fried larks' tongues on a bed of deep-sea, tamari-seared sea cucumber strained even his credulity])

    3. Oh, we have that every Friday night before the footy. That or fish and chips.

  2. And, of course, your ambition is to read her in the original?

    1. That's a noble thought and I'm aware that you go around parts of Europe with a facility for speaking unpronounceable languages with lots of zeds in them, but I'm ashamed to say nothing was further from my mind. If a perfectly good translator in 1907 managed to get a version into English in a style I love, I am far too lazy to reinvent Lesbos and Mitylene of c.600BCE in my own image. [What could be a more romantic name than Mitylene?]

      You failed to take into account my sloth. I had enough trouble with Sanskrit, Hindi and Bengali to try something that's all Greek to me. Ancient Greek at that!


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