Sappho: Poem of Jealousy (26 Translations)
October 2, 2004 10:04 PM   Subscribe

Are you not amazed at how she evokes soul, body, hearing, tongue, sight, skin, as though they were external and belonged to someone else? And how at one and the same moment she both freezes and burns, is irrational and sane, is terrified and nearly dead, so that we observe in her not a single emotion but a whole concourse of emotions? Such things do, of course, commonly happen to people in love. Sappho’s supreme excellence lies in the skill with which she selects the most striking and vehement circumstances of the passions and forges them into a coherent whole.   Longinus, On the Sublime
Sappho’s poem of jealousy survives only because the ancient critic Longinus quoted it as a supreme example of poetic intensity--now Ken Knabb has put up 26 translations of it in the English at the Gateway to the Vast Realms , the literature and texts section of his Bureau of Public Secrets. And wait! There's more!
posted by y2karl (10 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A new essay, Classics Revisited (2) by one Kenneth Rexroth. This all seems so familiar...

*stares into space, rubs chin, screen begins to pulsate*

Sappho, Kenneth Rexroth and The Bureau of Public Secrets...

Moss made a wonderful comment in that thread which is very pertinent here as well. I wish Moss would make more comments.

I suggested the Basil Bunting translation of Catullus's Ad Lesbiam

*buffs lapel with fingernails*

posted by y2karl at 10:05 PM on October 2, 2004

it's a tragedy that not more of her poetry survives ... i have both diane rayor's and mary bernard's translations of her and the fragments that survive show a liveliness and passion that few can match
posted by pyramid termite at 11:04 PM on October 2, 2004

I love comparative translations! I must say, the addition of "because I am poor" in some of the versions 1) is not in the Greek and 2) is unbearably bathetic. Stick to "but all most be endured" if you insist on including the stub of an unknown stanza.
posted by languagehat at 7:22 AM on October 3, 2004

(from the other thread) the fact that we have so little of her poetry is a major point in my bill of particulars against Christianity

By the way, there's no evidence whatsoever for this common misconception. Sappho simply suffered the same fate as other archaic Greek poets — Alcman, Ibycus, Sappho's compatriot Alcaeus, Solon, and Xenophanes also survive only in randomly preserved fragments.

I'm particularly galled by the widespread tale that Gregory of Nazianzus ordered these poems to be burned! That particular Church Father was in love with Sappho's poetry, as is clear from the allusion in his own poem On Human Nature (my trans.):
Yesterday, worn out by my griefs, alone, apart from others
I sat in a shady grove, eating at my heart.
For I also somehow love this medicine mid sufferings—
silently to talk with my own heart.
And breezes whispered along with avian singers,
granting from the branches the favor of a beautiful deep sleep,
Even to my heart in its utter exhaustion.
From the quasi-sacred grove [alsos] to the wind-shaking branches to the striking word for "deep sleep" [kôma], this is a Christian appropriation of Sappho #2.

Here's that Sappho poem in Anne Carson's new translation [If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho]. For all of you Sappho nuts who haven't seen it, this is a version of lasting value. It is scrupulously close to the Greek, while still being poetry by a notable poet (a solution to a dilemma recognized by a poster to the other thread: Barnstone's... is my favorite translation, even if a comparison to West's translation makes me wonder if it isn't a little too free).

Anne Carson once told me I need to learn to finish my sentences, one problem I don't have on MeFi.
posted by Zurishaddai at 10:34 AM on October 3, 2004 [4 favorites]

I love this. This is what happens to a poet known only in fragments; she becomes a proving ground, a lineage, and an instruction on the habits of language and thinking of each successive poet and culture. So, of course Sidney's all hammering verbs, and Williams disturbs the syntax of the ending line for that final weird twist of "lack little of dying." Lowell can't resist interjecting some off-kilter, banal modern image ("cardplayer") before ending in a passionate storm ("I die!"). Rayor cribs from Williams, and all the modern translations crib from Rayor, with citation clearly preceding inspiration.

I would love to see other poets widely translated over time, particularly Petrarch, get the same treatment. Thanks, y2karl, very much.
posted by melissa may at 10:36 AM on October 3, 2004

I would love to see other poets widely translated over time, particularly Petrarch, get the same treatment.

This series of Penguins often does a good job of just that (sorry, no Petrarch yet).
posted by Zurishaddai at 10:46 AM on October 3, 2004

Thanks, Zurishaddai! Penguin Classics, is there anything you can't do, and do cheaply to boot?
posted by melissa may at 10:49 AM on October 3, 2004

I love the format of Anne Carson's If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho with the Greek en face and the fragments matched space for space. It is
a real contribution.

As for another sort of Classical fragments, Jonathan Barnes does a wonderful service in Penguin's Early Greek Philosophy, by presenting the fragments of the Pre-Socratics as quoted by or alluded to in passages by later Greek and Roman writers and commentators.
posted by y2karl at 11:19 AM on October 3, 2004

For you Anne Carson fans, Eros the Bittersweet is one of the best books I've read recently. It has the version of the poem that appeared in y2karl's link...
posted by louigi at 12:15 PM on October 3, 2004

Thanks for the great set of links! Best of web, definitely.
posted by jasper411 at 9:41 AM on October 4, 2004

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