Songs of the 10th Muse: Leslie Friedman on Dan Beachy-Quick’s translation of Sappho’s fragments, Wind, Mountain, Oak

Sappho has always been an influencer, even when her poems were burned when the Great Library at Alexandria was burned first by Caesar in 48 BCE. His goal was to burn the twenty two warships that came to avenge the death of Pompey; the Library was by-kill. Then, in 641 CE, the Emir Amrou Ibn el-As burned what was left. She was the lyric poet influencer of all time even when the New Comedians, Greek playwrights who lived at least 100 years after her death; she was the target of bullying humor. The Christian establishment in the forms of Saint Gregory of  Nazianzen, about 380 CE, and Pope Gregory VII, in 1073 CE, demanded that her books be burned, perhaps because neither one could manage to burn her in person.

Her poems disappeared or have been disappeared.  And yet, the world’s idea of Sappho and desire to read her work are strong.  She wrote in Aeolian Greek, a dialect, spoken on her native island of Lesbos and in Boetia, Thessaly, Greek colonies in Anatolia and nearby islands. Aeolian Greek flourished in 800-300 BCE. She was born in either Eresso or Mytilene; both Lesbos towns claim her. She spent most of her life in Mytilese.

The difficulty of translating from a language that is no longer spoken could be one of the Labors of Hercules.  Despite the head-hurting, dizzying challenge, Dan Beachy-Quick has produced a gem that honors this great poet, a cultural leader from a time beyond merely long ago

Beachy-Quick acknowledges the challenge he took on and which he met so well. The poetic tradition of her time was oral presentation accompanied by lyre. Writing was done in complex meters. Sappho also invented a meter that came to be named the Sapphic Strophe or meter. Curiously, her work, to the extent it survived, is normally praised for its emotion, straightforward presentation, even its simplicity. It would be a mistake to overlook the fine craft of her art. Beachy-Quick has translated with great attention to the poetic craft.

Sappho was born about 620 BCE and died around 550 BCE. Plato’s dates are considered as 428/427-348-347 BCE. During her lifetime, Solon was leading Athens. Nebuchadnessar captured Jerusalem, in 587 BCE. Her greatness was widely acknowledged: Sappho depicted on Lesbos coins; statues of her displayed in civic squares.

There may be only four “complete” poems as well as fragments found on bits of papyrus discovered in an ancient, Egyptian garbage heap. Much of her known work was found there as was work by Homer, Plato, St. Paul, Greek playwrights. There have been recent finds in 2004 and one in 2013 which were found in cartonnage, plaster like mummy wrappings. The Egyptians made use of recyclable papyri.

The 2004 fragment fit an already known fragment of the poem usually identified as Poem 58. In it, Sappho mourns her lost youth and recalls the story of Eos, a goddess, and Tithonos, an exceptionally handsome, young, human male. Zeus grants Eos’s desire to spend her immortal life with Tithonos, but she did not request that he would remain young forever. For him, an eternity of gruesome aging. For her; a reminder to be careful what you wish for.  Sappho’s desire for younger lovers turns to melancholy over her aging self-image.

The 2013 discoveries also fit to others and added four “new” verses. They fit the fragment called the Brothers’ Song. She describes her concern for her brothers’ safety as they travel the seas.

Cypris and Nereids, please, allow my brother
to reach me here unharmed, and that all he wants
in his soulswaying nervetouched nevermind heart
     be for him achieved,                                                            (Beachy-Quick, p 77)

One of her brothers had troubles:

accused of doing wrong    

disgrace                                                                                       (Beachy-Quick, p 78)

Sappho prays to Aphrodite, also called Cypris, for help.

The Brother’s Song shows Sappho had subjects other than her lovers. She had three brothers. One, Larichus, was the cup-bearer in Mytilene, a position that was a benefit to her patrician family. Another brother, Charaxus, was a wine merchant. Her brother, Eurygius is mentioned in family accounts but there is nothing more than his name.

Dan Beachy-Quick placed fragments and the apparently complete poems in an order unique to his reading of Sappho. His understanding of what we have of Sappho allows connections to happen as one looks at a page with perhaps only one word or one brief phrase.  Alone on the left page:   “honey-voiced girl”  On the facing page: “for as long as you want” (Beachy-Quick, 156-157)  Seeing one word on the left page and a brief phrase on the right becomes a story’s beginning or end to the reader. Maybe it has both buried in the letters that spell the words. Observing what is left of Sappho’s work, even in isolated, single words, gives the reader a chance to realize the beauty of the word. Our minds put things together without any prior understanding. We humans make stories in a blink. Seeing a word on a page can be a revelation: a word that means another word, something that adds up to that other word in an ancient language.

Sappho is known for her sexuality, probably more than for her Hendecasyllabic meter (11 syllables per line) or even more than the Dodecasyllabic meter (12 per line), Her work is sensual. She appreciates the touch of fine cloth, the colors of wine and fruit. She breaks the mold of standard subjects of her era: heroism, military actions, public pride. Sappho expresses an individual’s experiences, her feelings; this lyricism is revolutionary. She is the heart of lyric poetry.

This poetry of personal expression was not only a break from public subjects; it was poetry of a female’s feelings and thoughts all built into the finest use of ancient craft in words. It transgressed societal norms for a woman to emerge individually and gloriously. Sappho was fortunate in her family’s position and allowed to create as she wished.

She writes beautifully of her daughter, Cleis, named for her mother.
I have a child, she is the golden flowers
she seems to be, my only Cleis,
for whom I would not trade the daughters of Lydia,
                                                           Or lovely...                (Beachy-Quick, p98)

There is this fragment about her daughter, but, so far, nothing about a husband. What is missing now might have been there. For example, Western civilization accepted that the Parthenon was simply white. Now, we know it was colorful; shocking, world-changing news.

Sappho’s Ode to Aphrodite, goddess of love, is often listed as Poem 1. Beachy-Quick set the prayer to Aphrodite in Sappho’s preferred meter: three lines of eleven syllables followed by one line of five. Or, eleven, twelve, eleven, five (p 62) Bravo! In what seems to be a complete poem, Sappho begs the goddess, even displays her discontent with the goddess while seeking help in her love life. Aphrodite responds:

what want, what better thing in your craving heart
do you wish to see? Who now? Who must I coax
back again in the agony you love? Who,
          Sappho, does you wrong?                                (Beachy-Quick, p 65)

According to Sappho, Aphrodite knows how Sappho suffers with her loves. The struggle with the goddess is real for Sappho. Zeus, Leda and other characters of Greek myths are described or called upon to intervene in life in her poetry. For ancient Greeks, these were not myths. Sappho was not an atheist, agnostic, or monotheist. In Sappho’s time, some believed that poetry was a form of magic. By arranging words and meters, one might rearrange reality.

Her influence and inspiration is in translations and work by Catullus, Sir Phillip Sidney, Shelley, Lord Byron, Tennyson. Romans to Romantics admired and adopted her expression of plain emotion and personal feelings. A reader can see it in a J.D. Salinger title:

Raise high the roof-beam
Builders, raise it high,
The bridegroom enters, equal to Ares,
A man more mighty than mighty men. (Beachy-Quick, p 184)

An earlier translation:  

Raise high the roof-beams, Workmen!
Like Ares comes the bridgroom!
Taller far than all tall men!
                  Hymenaeus!               (quoted by Hephaestion, Cox*, p 111)

Sappho writes of the “impalpable fire” running through her when she sees a man talking to the girl she loves (Cox, p 72, translation by J.A. Symonds, 1883). Beachy-Quick translates her anxious, physical reactions:

                                Love shook frantic         

my heart, wind crashes down on mountain oaks          (Beachy-Quick, p 111)

Walt Whitman has similar feelings in a different situation.

O you whom I often and silently come where you are that I may be with you,
As I walk by your side or sit near, or remain in the same room with you,
Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is playing within me.

                                                                      Walt Whitman Archive

Sappho opened the world of the particular. She found individual human experiences worthy of description in words spoken to the music of the lyre. Erotic love was her dominant subject because it was part of her life as it is for humans being human. She found energy in erotic senses, not as a survey or study but by living it. She tells her reality. “I want the real girl who actually exists” (Beachy-Quick, p 126) Not intended to educate, her work, the work that we have, has a lesson: Don’t mess with love. It will mess with you far better.

sweat pours off me like water as if I toiled
long like a child, trembling takes hold of me,
more green than grass is green, I seem to myself
          Almost dying to die...
...but the heart endures all, poor day-laborer...            (Beachy-Quick, p 139)

*Cox, Edwin Marion, The Poems of Sappho with historical and critical notes, translations, and a bibliography, London: Williams and Norgate; New York: Charles Scribener’s Sons, 1924.

Writer and dancer/choreographer Leslie Friedman’s writing has been published in France, India, Poland, and the US. Her dancing and dances have won applause from  audiences and critics on four continents. The US State Dept. co-sponsored her with host countries on historic “Firsts:” performance tours to Russia, China, Egypt, Poland, others. She received her History Ph.D. from Stanford, taught there, Vassar, Case Western Reserve, and left academia to write and dance full time. She received the Fulbright Lectureship to India and Senior Lectureship to Bulgaria. She has published two nature memoirs: The Dancer’s Garden and The Story of Our Butterflies.