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Saturday, September 1, 2012

"A fragment of her soul" 2

Bring me those sweets from Africa.
I give to you a fleeting taste of each.
You crave their dark gold centres –
One tiny bite, no more.

India has its ragas; its music of the dawn and dusk and other special times, played by sitar and tabla, and many other instruments besides. You could not mistake the time of day from the sound of the first few notes.

Wright's vision of Sappho in Mitylene
   So it is with Sappho. In her poetry imbued with the scent of Lesbos in the Aegean, Sappho appeals to every human sense in a profusion of colour, of delight in natural form. The lyrics exude sensuality with a deftness that seems spontaneous, but is crafted with the skill of the finest jeweller. 

   Allow me that paragraph of rather florid prose, but I couldn't help it.

   There's a hundred poems on offer, which are random in their original form. I chose these these snippets from amongst them, and put them in a vague order which I like.

   See for yourself. Read slowly. Don't be greedy, as I was first time round. Stop if you've run out of time, and come back later. It'll still be here.

   It's like that CD you bought because it has one or two special songs on it, but after a while, you come to appreciate many others on the album as well. You enjoy it no matter how often you hear it.

   In the same way, you'll get more and more from Sappho every time. Although it looks a generous sample, it's really just one fleeting taste. No more.

And there, as darkness gathers
In the rose-scented garden,
The god who prospers music
Shall give me skill to play.

And thou shalt hear, all startled,
A flute blown in the twilight,
With the soft pleading magic
The green wood heard of old.

Then, lamp in hand, thy beauty
In the rose-marble entry!
And unreluctant Hermes
Shall give me words to say.

Add to that the exotic – chimes from Nepal or Tibet:
And a tinkling Eastern wind-bell,
With its fluttering inscription,
From the rafters with bronze music
Should retard the quiet fleeting
Of uncounted hours.

So many references to the sea, the ships, their sailors, especially the beach and the waves in spectacular images that resonate strongly with me:
Lo, where the white-maned horses of the surge,
Plunging in thunderous onset to the shore,
Trample and break and charge along the sand!

The day passes; its rhythms threaded through the lyrics:
All day long now is the green earth renewed
With the bright sea-wind and the yellow blossoms.
From the cool shade I hear the silver plash
Of the blown fountain at the garden's end.

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

As dusk approaches:
Noises are hushed in the courtyard,
The busy day is departing,
Children are called from their games,
Herds from their grazing.

Softly the first step of twilight
Falls on the darkening dial,
One by one kindle the lights
In Mitylene.

What should so detain thee,
Now the wind comes walking
Through the leafy twilight?

Over the roofs the honey-coloured moon,
With purple shadows on the silver grass,

And there is nothing more in this great world
Than thou and I, and the blue dome of dusk.

Night falls:
Sleep thou in the bosom
Of the tender comrade,
While the living water
Whispers in the well-run,
And the oleanders
Glimmer in the moonlight.

Seasons come and go.

All day long now is the green earth renewed
With the bright sea-wind and the yellow blossoms.

When to the meadows the young green comes back,
And swelling buds put forth on every bough,
With wild-wood odours on the delicate air;

Cold are the chattering oak-leaves;
And the ponds frost-bitten.
The sun on the tide, the peach on the bough,
The blue smoke over the hill,
And the shadows trailing the valley-side,
Make up the autumn day.

Natural forms create personal images:

Thou, the hyacinth that grows
By a quiet-running river;
I, the watery reflection
And the broken gleam -

And so we come to love; its ambiguity and passion:


Phaon, O my lover,
What should so detain thee,

Now the wind comes walking
Through the leafy twilight?

All the plum-leaves quiver
With the coolth and darkness,

After their long patience
In consuming ardour.

And the moving grasses
Have relief; the dew-drench

Comes to quell the parching
Ache of noon they suffered.

I alone of all things
Fret with unsluiced fire.

And there is no quenching
In the night for Sappho,

Since her lover Phaon
Leaves her unrequited.

This very hour
In Mitylene,
Will not a young girl
Say to her lover,
Lifting her moon-white
Arms to enlace him,
Ere the glad sigh comes,
"Lo, it is lovetime!"

Ah, how comes it my frail heart
Is so fond of all things fair,
I can never choose between Gorgo and Andromeda?

Touch with thy lips and enkindle
This moon-white delicate body,
Drench with the dew of enchantment
This mortal one, that I also
Grow to the measure of beauty
Fleet yet eternal.

Once you lay upon my bosom,
While the long blue-silver moonlight
Walked the plain, with that pure passion
All your own.

And then her mouth, more delicate
Than the frail wood-anemone,
Brushes my cheek, and deeper grow
The purple shadows.

O but my delicate lover,
Is she not fair as the moonlight?
Is she not supple and strong
For hurried passion?

Surely somehow, in some measure,
There will be joy and fulfilment,
– Cease from this throb of desire, –
Even for Sappho!

I loved thee, Atthis, in the long ago,
When the great oleanders were in flower
In the broad herded meadows full of sun.
And we would often at the fall of dusk
Wander together by the silver stream,
When the soft grass-heads were all wet with dew,
And purple-misted in the fading light. 

And three longer, complete poems for you:


Softer than the hill-fog to the forest
Are the loving hands of my dear lover,
When she sleeps beside me in the starlight
And her beauty drenches me with rest.
As the quiet mist enfolds the beech-trees,
Even as she dreams her arms enfold me,
Half awaking with a hundred kisses
On the scarlet lily of her mouth.

Ah, what am I but a torrent,
Headstrong, impetuous, broken,
Like the spent clamour of waters
In the blue canyon?
Ah, what art thou but a fern-frond,
Wet with blown spray from the river,
Diffident, lovely, sequestered,
Frail on the rock-ledge?


Well I found you in the twilit garden,
Laid a lover's hand upon your shoulder,
And we both were made aware of loving
Past the reach of reason to unravel,
Or the much desiring heart to follow.

There we heard the breath among the grasses
And the gurgle of soft-running water,
Well contented with the spacious starlight,
The cool wind's touch and the deep blue distance,
Till the dawn came in with golden sandals.


I shall be ever maiden,
If thou be not my lover,
And no man shall possess me
Henceforth and forever.

But thou alone shalt gather
This fragile flower of beauty, –
To crush and keep the fragrance
Like a holy incense.

Thou only shalt remember
This love of mine, or hallow
The coming years with gladness,
Calm and pride and passion.

Most of what's above are just fragments of the fragments we have. There is one more poem, which reveals my newly-acquired desire, and that one completes my Sappho story.

You have had but a nibble at the chocolates in the box!


  1. Swoon. These are SO beautiful, even more than those of one of my favourite poets, Tagore, who cannot be quite so luscious and wise together, perhaps because he is a man (? that dangerous statement requires a long discussion:)) or because, more likely, I am reading him in translation. Here's 'The Gift'

    Today I do feel like this, though, thank you:

    "All day long now is the green earth renewed
    With the bright sea-wind and the yellow blossoms."

    Even though the sea is somewhere away.

    You've given us a gift too:) Happy Spring.

    Julie M xx

    1. Tagore is wonderful, as is that particular poem [though it has some minor errors in the transcription.] Thanks for that reference. Sappho thanks you too, and I think she, like Tagore, would have won a Nobel Prize for Literature.

      Of course, we are reading Sappho in translation too, from a far earlier era, and through a 1907 [male] poet filter. I thought someone called Bliss Carman was going to be a woman, but it doesn't seem to matter.

  2. Very nice collage/image, too. I see that the FB page is actually where people comment -I'll do that in future and not feel so stand-out-ish.

    1. Tracey's right. Facebook tends to confuse me these days [it doesn't take much!] and if it's not in front of my nose there I fail to see it. But I prefer responses here and you shouldn't worry about standing out. After all, you might be outstanding!

      Many more people see it here than on Facebook.

    2. And thanks for the collage appreciation!

  3. Just so you know - it could be days before he reads a FB comment but he is on here pretty much every day :-)


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