Sappho’s Moon and Pleiades

imageSappho was born on the island of Lesbos, near Asia Minor, around 650 BC. She was a contemporary of the poet Alcaeus. Little is known with certainty about her life. It seems she was born to an aristocratic family of wealth and that she had a brother named Larichus who, it seems, poured wine in a ceremonial manner in the town hall. It seems that she had a child named Cleis whom, it seems, she took with her into exile in Sicily during a period of political unrest. The appearance of so many “seems” in this paragraph attests to the uncertainty that continues to surround her reputation. What is certain, however, is that she was thought of as “The Tenth Muse” by Plato in one of his epigrams

Some say the Muses are nine: how careless!
Look, there’s Sappho too, from Lesbos, the tenth

and that she was so well known in Greek civilization that the city of Mytilene put her likeness on its coins.

The Library of Alexandria collected Sappho’s poetry into nine books, mostly based on their metres. But these were lost in the great fire. Now, only two complete poems survive, quoted by two literary writers; Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Longinus. The rest of her work survives in a number of forms:

  • in brief quotes by ancient writers
  • on lists of words or lines in ancient dictionaries and glossaries
  • on pieces of pottery
  • on papyrus fragments found in the late 19th early 20th centuries in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt
  • on pieces of 6th or 7th century parchment

About the fragment on the moon and the Pleiades

It seems (that word again) that this poem was written by Sappho, but there are those who dispute that. This fragment, which is given a different fragment number in different editions of her poetry, was included without attribution in an ancient metrical handbook, then judged to be Sappho in the 15th century. Modern editors don’t include it with Sappho, though obviously modern translators follow tradition and do.

About translations of the poem

The greatest difficulty in translating Sappho is the metrics.  Sappho’s poetry, written in quantitative verse, is difficult to reproduce in English which uses stress-based metres and rhyme compared to Ancient Greek’s solely length-based metres. According to Paul Roche, “In Greek you have schemes of quantitative rhythm which cut across the natural accents or stress values of words. In English you have schemes of stress rhythm which cut across the natural accents or stress values of the words. The difference is that in English the stress values of the syllables is not constant, whereas in Greek the quantitative value of the syllable (within certain limits) is.” It is relatively easy to provide a prose translation as in that of H. T.Wharton (below). But making poetry out of the fragment is another matter and one that leads to varying approaches. One of my favourite versions of this fragment is by A. E. Houseman who offers two poems that considerably lengthen the fragment but also do it a poetic justice. They are not translations. They are not even what Robert Lowell calls “Imitations”. Let’s call them derivations which are too long to tweet but short enough to post. Here is one:

The weeping Pleiads wester,
And the moon is under seas;
From bourn to bourn of midnight
Far sighs the rainy breeze:

It sighs from a lost country
To a land I have not known;
The weeping Pleiads wester,
And I lie down alone.

And here is another:

The rainy Pleiads wester,
Orion plunges prone,
The stroke of midnight ceases,
And I lie down alone.

The rainy Pleiads wester
And seek beyond the sea
The head that I shall dream of,
And ’twill not dream of me.

If Houseman’s version is a typical Houseman poem, it goes to show that the translation of this fragment often reflects the style of the age or of the poet. Symonds and Higginson offer versions appropriate to the 19th century. The Irish novelist and ship’s doctor Henry De Vere Stacpoole turns it into a melancholy sea shanty.

In the 1960s, Mary Barnard adopted a new approach to translation, one that eschewed the use of rhyming stanzas and traditional forms. Subsequent translators have tended to work in a similar manner. But many still maintain more of their own styles. Rexroth sounds like Rexroth and Carson sounds like Carson. Diane Rayor explains her approach to translating Sappho as an attempt  “to re-create the vivid and direct effect of the Greek. I retain all specific details and imagery, while compensating for formal aspects, such as lyric meters that sound awkward in English.” How that compensation works is another matter. My own favourite version is that of Tom Scott in a Scottish dialect.

You might fill  in the comment box below this post and share your favourite version of this remarkable poem.

 

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English Translations

Δέδυκε μεν ἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληΐαδεσ, μέσαι δὲ
νύκτεσ πάρα δ᾽ ἔρχετ᾽ ὤρα,
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω

***

Prose version by H T Wharton: “The moon has set, and the Pleiades; it is midnight, the time is going by, and I sleep alone.”

***

The Moon has left the sky,
Lost is the Pleiads’ light;
It is midnight,
And time slips by,
But on my couch alone I lie.

J  Addington  Symonds

***

The moon has set beyond the seas,
And vanished are the Pleiades;
Half the long weary night has gone,
Time passes—yet I lie alone.

Henry De Vere Stacpoole

***

The moon is down;
And I’ve watched the dying
Of the Pleiades;
‘T is the middle night,
The hour glides by,
And alone I’m sighing.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

***

The moon is set; the Pleiades are gone;
‘T is the mid-noon of-night; the hour is by,
And yet I watch alone.

James Gate Percival

***

The moon has left the heavens;
“The Pleiades have set;
And at the hour of midnight
In solitude I fret.

Walter Petersen

***

The silver moon is set;
The Pleiades are gone;
Half the long night is spent, and yet
I lie alone.

John H. Merivale

***

The sinking moon has left the sky,
The Pleiades have also gone.
Midnight comes–and goes, the hours fly
And solitary still, I lie.

Edwin Marion Cox

 

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Well, the moon has set
And the Pleiades. It is the middle
Of the night. And the hour passes by,
But I sleep alone …….

Terry Walsh

***

The moon has set,
and along with it the Pleiades; it is midnight,
so time has passed me by,
and I lie down to sleep alone.

Richard Vallance

***

The moon has set and the Pleiades; it is midnight, the night-watch goes by, and I sleep alone.

Constantine A. Trypanis

***

The Moon and the Pleiades have set –
half the night is gone.
Time passes.
I sleep alone.

Diane Rayor

***

Tonight, I’ve watched the Pleiades and the moon
And now…I’m in bed alone;
The night is half-gone.

Jean Elizabeth Ward

***

The moon is set. And the Pleiades.
It’s the middle of the night.
Time [hôrâ] passes.
But I sleep alone.

Julia Dubnoff

 

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The moon has set and the Pleiades
Have gone.
It is midnight; the hours pass; and I
Sleep alone.

Edward Storer

***

The moon has set,
And the Pleiades.
Midnight.
The hour has gone by.
I sleep alone.

Stanley Lombardo

***

The moon has set,
And the Pleiades. It is
Midnight. Time passes.
I sleep alone.

Kenneth Rexroth

***

The Pleiades disappear,
the pale moon goes down.

After midnight, time blurs:
sleepless, I lie alone.

Sam Hamill

***

The moon has set, and the Pleiades.
It is the middle of the night,
Hour follows hour. I lie alone.

Guy Davenport

***

Now the moon is gone, the Pleiads
Gone, the dead of night is going;
Slips the hour, and on my bed

I lie alone.

Bliss Carman

***

The moon and Pleiades
are set. Midnight,
and time spins away.
I lie in bed, alone.

Willis Barnstone

**

Tonight I’ve watched

the moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

in bed alone

Mary Barnard

 

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The moon has set
and the stars have faded,
midnight has gone,
long hours pass by, pass by;
I sleep alone

Josephine Balmer

***

Doun gaes the muin herself, an aa
The Pleiades forbye.
Nicht is nearin her mirkist hoor
And yet alane I lie.

Tom Scott

***

Selanna (the moon) has dipped and the Pleiades too
Ahh midnight darkens
& I sleep alone….

Edward Sanders

***

The moon has long since set;
the Pleiades are gone;
now half the night is spent,
yet here I lie—alone.

Michael R. Burch

***

The moon has set, and the Pleiades; it is midnight, and time is passing; and I lie alone.

A. M. Miller

***

The Moon is down,
The Pleiades. Midnight,
The hours flow on,
I lie, alone.

A. S. Kline

***

The moon has set,
and the Pleiades as well;
in the deep middle of the night
the time is passing,
and I lie alone.

Susy Q. Groden

 

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The moon has gone
The Pleiades gone
In dead of night
Time passes on
I lie alone

Paul Roche

***

Dwynit is the mune awa
And the Pleiades, the nicht
Is at her mid, the hours flee, and I
-My lane I ligg.

Sydney Goodsir Smith

***

Moonset already,
the Pleiades, too: midnight,
the hour passes
and I lie down, a lonely woman.

Jim Powell

***

Moon and the Pleiades go down.
Midnight and tryst pass by.
I, though, lie
Alone.

Aaron Poochigian

***

Dropping out of sight go the moon
and Pleiades. Midnight slides
by me, then hour on hour.
I lie here awake and alone.

Frank Beck

***

Moon has set
and Pleiades: middle
night, the hour goes by,
alone I lie.

Anne Carson

***

the moon’s disappeared above me
the Pleiades, too, have vanished
midnight, and the hours pass by
and still do I sleep alone

Ted Gellar-Goad

***

The moon has set
and so the Pleiades; in the middle
of the night, the hours pass by
and I, alone, I lie.

Magda Kapa

***

CINQUAIN

Midnight.
The moon and the
Pleiades both vanished.
Time ticks by. Here is the sofa.
Here me.

George Szirtes

Ten Cinquains: Variations after Sappho by George Szirtes

***

 

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LINKS

A detailed analysis of the poem in its original Greek version.

A comic book version of the poem.

An astronomical view of the poem on the Clive Thomson blog.

 

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4 thoughts on “Sappho’s Moon and Pleiades

  1. Pingback: Frost-Crisp’d Leaves – Cinquains by Adelaide Crapsey | Brief Poems

  2. Pingback: Windfalls – Fragments of Sappho | Brief Poems

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