Windfalls – Fragments of Sappho

imageSappho was born on the island of Lesbos, near Asia Minor, around 650 BC. I have provided a brief comment on her life in an earlier post devoted to her most famous poem, The Moon and the Pleiades, a fragment that some argue is not her own. That confusion haunts her memory. It is uncertain where on Lesbos she was born.  It could have been Eressos; it could have been Mytilini. It is uncertain what she looked like. Plato thought her “Beautiful”, a later author called her “very ugly, being short and swarthy….like a nightingale with misshapen wings enfolding a tiny body.” It is uncertain whether she was married, perhaps to a rich merchant named Kerikles from Andros , or whether she was a prostitute. (Kerikles is the Greek for “prick” and Andros for “man”,   so that claim may be nothing other than a bawdy, scholarly joke.)  It is uncertain whether she was an oversexed predator of men whose passion for one, a good-looking mariner called Phaon, drove her to commit suicide by jumping from a cliff. That was Ovid’s belief. Or was she the lesbian literary icon she has become? In their Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary, by Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig (1979) they devote a page to Sappho. It remains blank. She writes of her daughter Kleïs, but some scholars suggest this might be a reference to her slave. It is uncertain whether or not she was the headmistress of her own school or whether or not she was a political activist who was exiled to Sicily. How she died, suicide or old age, remains, like much of her life, an intriguing mystery.

 

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SAPPHO’S POETRY

Sappho probably wrote around 10,000 lines of poetry; today, most of that is lost. Only about 650 lines survive. A couple of complete poems and about two hundred fragments are all that remain of the nine substantial books, in diverse genres and meters, that she produced. Her poems could be consulted, complete, in the ancient libraries, including the famous one at Egyptian Alexandria. But they did not survive the millennium between the triumph of Christianity and the frantic export to the West of Greek manuscripts from Constantinople before it fell in 1453. While most of her poems have been lost, some have endured through surviving fragments (a few were found wrapping Egyptian mummies!). Of the 189 known fragments of her work, twenty contain just one readable word, thirteen have only two, and fifty-nine have ten or fewer.

Why do so few complete poems by such a great poet remain today? As J. B. Hare explains, Sappho’s books were burned by Christians in the year 380 A.D. at the instigation of Pope Gregory Nazianzen. Another book burning in the year 1073 A.D. by Pope Gregory VII may have wiped out any remaining trace of her works. It should be remembered that in antiquity books were copied by hand and comparatively rare. There may have only been a few copies of her complete works. The bonfires of the Church destroyed many things, but among the most tragic of their victims were the poems of Sappho.

 

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TRANSLATING SAPPHO

Michael R. Burch wonders, Why are there so many translations of Sappho, despite the fact that most of her poems came down to us in fragments? 

Kenneth Rexroth may provide one answer: Translations of Sappho, until recent years, have been fantastically inappropriate. . . . Today a sufficient number of literal translations by modern poets may enable the reader of English to envelop Sappho and measure her as we do distant stars by triangulation from more mundane objects. It then becomes apparent that we are not deluding ourselves. There has been no other poet like this. Wherever enough words remain to form a coherent context, they give one another a unique luster, an effulgence found nowhere else. Presentational immediacy of the image, overwhelming urgency of personal involvement — in no other poet are these two prime factors of lyric poetry raised to so great a power.

While it is true that earlier versions may have been “fantastically inappropriate”, some of them, as evidenced below, still retain a charm even if they are far from what Sappho may have expressed. The metrical forms used in Sappho’s poetry are difficult to reproduce in English, as Ancient Greek meters were based on syllable length, while English meters are based on stress patterns and rhyming schemes. Early translators often dealt with this problem by translating Sappho’s works into English metrical forms. Walter Petersen’s versions entitled Sappho in English Rhyming Verse shouldn’t work, but they have a certain old world charm.

Some translators have attempted to use Sapphics in their modern-language versions of Sappho’s own poems, for example Richmond Lattimore in his Greek Lyrics (1955).  Others aim for a more stark approach. In the 1960s, Mary Barnard introduced a new approach to the translation of Sappho that eschewed the use of rhyming stanzas and traditional forms. As Dudley Fitts puts it, in his introduction to her translations, Like the Greek, it is stripped and hard, awkward with the awkwardness of truth. I have a fondness for these translations and for those of Michael R. Burch on the Sappho page of his resourceful HyperTexts site. He calls them “loose translations”,  but almost all translations of Sappho are, by the nature of the process, loose. Anne Carson has achieved renown for her translations, collected in If Not Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2003). But I find them too austere for my liking

Willis Barnstone, who first introduced me to Sappho’s poems in translation, has recently  revised his work on the fragments, while still keeping his use of titles,  to convey Sappho’s conversational idiom. Other translations offer other options. Guy Davenport can inject humour into his versions and Stanley Lombardo in  Sappho: Poems and Fragments (2002),  harnesses authentic American speech rhythms to Sappho’s powerful imagery, utilising a modern verse idiom. Aaron Poochigian’s versions, Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments (2009), offers free versions geared toward rhythm and sound effects. Like Petersen, he uses rhyme but, allied to half-rhymes, assonance and alliteration, in a more subtle manner.

Having given my opinions of the translations, some of which are available below, I look forward to your response in the comment box which follows this post.

 

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Fragments of Sappho

Ἀρτίως μ’ ἀ χρυσοπέδιλλος Αὔως

Me just now the golden-sandalled Dawn …

H. T. Wharton

***

Me but now Aurora the golden-sandalled.

J. A. Symonds

***

Then

In gold sandals
dawn like a thief
fell upon me.

Willis Barnstone

***

Standing by my bed

In gold sandals
Dawn that very
moment awoke me

Mary Barnard

***

Just now Dawn in her golden sandals

Jim Powell

***

Just now the golden-sandaled dawn called me …

Michael R. Burch

***

going to see
Lady Dawn
arms golden

Stanley Lombardo

***

Mistress Dawn

Jim Powell

***

Just then golden-sandalled Dawn called…

Peter Russell

***

just now goldsandaled Dawn

Anne Carson

 

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αμφὶ δ᾽ ὔδωρ
ψῖχρον ὤνεμοσ κελάδει δἰ ὔσδων
μαλίνων, αἰθυσσομένων δὲ φύλλων
κῶμα κατάρρει.

Through appled boughs. Softly the leaves are dancing.
Down streams a slumber on the drowsy flow,
My soul entrancing.

T. F. Higham

***

From the sound of cool waters heard through
the green boughs
Of the fruit-bearing trees,
And the rustling breeze,
Deep sleep, as a trance, down over me flows.

Frederick Tennyson

***

Through orchard-plots with fragrance crowned
The clear cold fountain murmuring flows;
And forest leaves with rustling sound
Invite to soft repose.

John H. Merivale

***

All around through branches of apple-orchards
Cool streams call, while down from the leaves a-tremble
Slumber distilleth.

J. Addington Symonds

***

By the cool water the breeze murmurs, rustling
Through apple branches, while from quivering leaves
Streams down deep slumber.

Edwin M. Cox

***

. . . about the cool water
the wind sounds through sprays
of apple, and from the quivering leaves
slumber pours down. . . .

Kenneth Rexroth

***

cold water ripples through apple
branches, the whole place shadowed
in roses, from the murmuring leaves
deep sleep descends

Diane Rayor

***

Caller rain frae abune
reeshles among the epple-trees:
the leaves are soughan wi the breeze,
and sleep faas drappan doun

Douglas Young

***

And in it cold water makes a clear sound through apple branches and with roses the whole place
is shadowed and down from radiant-shaking leaves
sleep comes dropping.

Anne Carson

 

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ka;t e[mon ıtavlugmon

Because of my pain

Willis Barnstone

***

Pain penetrates
Me drop
by drop

Mary Barnard

***

pain drips
through me

Josephine Balmer

***

Pain
drains
me
to
the
last
drop
.

Michael R. Burch

 

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Ἦρος ἄγγελος ἰμερόφωνος ἀήδων.

The dear good angel of the spring,
The nightingale.

Ben Johnson,

***

The tawny sweetwinged thing
Whose cry was but of Spring.

Algernon Charles Swinburne,

***

The Nightingale

Spring’s messenger, the sweet-voiced nightingale.

Edward Storer

***

The Herald

Nightingale, with your
lovely voice, you are
the herald of Spring.

Willis Barnstone

***

Nightingale, herald of spring
With a voice of longing…

A. S. Kline

***

The nightingale’s
The soft-spoken
announcer of
Spring’s presence

Mary Barnard

***

spring’s messenger, the lovelyvoiced nightingale

Jim Powell

 

 

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Μὴ κίνη χέραδασ

Stir not the pebbles.

E. M. Cox

***

THE RUBBLE-STONE

The rubble-stone
Leave thou alone.

Walter Petersen

***

Stir not the shingle.

H. T. Wharton

***

Let Sleeping Dog Lie

Don’t stir up the small
heaps of beach jetsam.

Willis Barnstone

***

If you’re squeamish, don’t prod the beach rubble.

Mary Barnard

***

If you
dont like trouble
dont disturb
sand

Cid Corman

***

Don’t stir
The trash.

Guy Davenport

***

Stir not the pebbles!

Andrew Alexandre Owie

***

do not move stones

Anne Carson

 

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Ἠμιτύβιον σταλάσσον

A napkin dripping.

H. T. Wharton

***

cloth dripping

Anne Carson

***

A handkerchief
Dripping with…

Aaron Poochigian

 

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Ὄπταις ἄμμε

Thou burnest us.

H. T. Wharton

***

To Eros

You burn me.

Willis Barnstone

***

…You burn me…

A. S. Kline

***

You set me on fire.

Julia Dubnoff

***

you scorch me

Diane J. Rayor

***

You burn me

Josephine Balmer

***

You make me hot.

Guy Davenport

***

You ignite me.

Michael R. Burch

***

you burn me

Anne Carson

***

you sear me

Conor Kelly

 

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Ἔρος δαὖτ’ ἐτίναξεν ἔμοι φρένας,
ἄνεμος κατ’ ὄρος δρύσιν ἐμπέσων.

Now Eros shakes my soul, a wind on the mountain falling on the oaks.

H. T. Wharton

***

Love shook me like the mountain breeze
Rushing down on the forest trees.

Frederick Tennyson.

***

Lo, Love once more my soul within me rends,
Like wind that on the mountain oak descends.

J. A. Symonds, 1883.

***

LOVE’S TEMPEST

Like the tempest which falls on the mountain oaks,
So Love stirs our hearts with violent strokes.

Walter Petersen

***

Love shakes my soul.
So do the oak-trees on the mountain
Shake in the wind.

Edward Storer

***

Love shook my heart
Like the mountain wind
Falls upon tress of oak ….

D. W. Myatt

***

The Blast of Love

Like a mountain whirlwind
punishing the oak trees’
love shattered my heart.

Willis  Barnstone

***

Desire has shaken my mind
As wind in the mountain forests
Roars through trees.

Guy Davenport

***

Now Eros stirs my soul, a mountain wind overwhelming the oak trees.

Peter Russell

***

Like wind hawking at oaks on a hill Eros has shaken our souls.

Andrew Alexandre Owie

***

Love shook my heart
like the wind on a mountain
rushing over oak trees

Josephine Balmer

***

Then love shook my heart like the wind that falls on oaks in the mountains.

Jim Powell

***

Eros has shaken my mind
wind sweeping down the mountain on oaks

Stanley Lombardo

***

Without warning
as a whirlwind
swoops on an oak
Love shakes my heart

Mary Barnard

***

As a gust
shakes oak does
love my heart

Cid Corman

***

love shook my senses
like wind crashing on mountain oaks

Diane J. Rayor

***

Eros harrows my heart:
wild winds whipping desolate mountains,
uprooting oaks.

Michael R. Burch

***

Like a gale smiting an oak
On mountainous terrain,
Eros, with a stroke,
Shattered my brain.

Aaron Poochigian

***

Eros shook my mind
like a mountain wind falling on oak trees

Anne Carson

 

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Ἦρος ἄγγελος ἰμερόφωνος ἀήδων

Spring’s messenger, the sweet-voiced nightingale.

H. T. Wharton

***

The dear good angel of the spring,
The nightingale.

Ben Johnson,
(The Sad Shepherd, Act ii)

***

The tawny sweetwinged thing
Whose cry was but of Spring.

A. C. Swinburne

***

THE NIGHTINGALE

Spring’s messenger, the sweet-voiced nightingale.

Edward Storer

***

The Herald

Nightingale, with your
lovely voice, you are
the herald of Spring.

Willis Barnstone

***

Nightingale, herald of spring
With a voice of longing…

A. S. Kline

***

The messenger of spring, the sweet-toned nightingale.

Peter Russell

***

messenger of spring
nightingale with a voice of longing

Anne Carson

 

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Γλύκεια μᾶτερ, οὔτοι δύναμαι κρέκην τὸν ἴστον,
πόθῳ δάμεισα παῖδος βραδίναν δι’ Ἀφρόδιταν

Sweet Mother, I cannot weave my web, broken as I am by longing for a boy, at soft Aphrodite’s will.

H. T. Wharton

***

‘Oh, my sweet mother, ’tis in vain,
I cannot weave as once I wove,
So wildered is my heart and brain
With thinking of that youth I love.’

Thomas Moore

***

Mother, I cannot mind my wheel;
My fingers ache, my lips are dry:
Oh, if you felt the pain I feel!
But oh, whoever felt as I ?

W. S. Landor

***

Sweet mother, I can spin no more,
Nor ply the loom as heretofore,
For love of him.

Frederick Tennyson

***

Sweet mother, I the web
Can weave no more;
Keen yearning for my love
Subdues me sore,
And tender Aphrodite
Thrills my heart’s core.

M. J. Walhouse

***

My sweet mother! Fair Aphrodite’s spell
Has from me sense and reason all bereft,
And, yearning for that dear beloved youth,
No longer can I see the warp or weft.

E. M. Cox

***

Paralysis

Mother darling, I cannot work the loom
for sweet Kypris has almost crushed me,
broken me with love for a slender boy,

Willis Barnstone

***

Dear mother, I cannot work the loom
Filled, by Aphrodite, with love for a slender boy…

A. S. Kline

***

Mother, how can I weave,
so overwhelmed by love?

Michael R. Burch

***

“Sweet mother, I can’t weave my web
overcome with longing for a boy
because of slender Aphrodite.”

Jim Powell

***

sweet mother I cannot work the loom
I am broken with longing for a boy by slender Aphrodite

Anne Carson

 

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Δαύοις ἀπάλας ἐτάρας
ἐν στήθεσιν …

Sleep thou in the bosom of thy tender girlfriend.

H. T. Wharton

***

Sleep thou, in the bosom of thy sweetheart.

E. M. Cox

***

Sleep in the bosom of
Your tender friend.

Edward Storer

***

TO AN UNKNOWN FRIEND

Gently, gently mayest thou rest
On thy dear companion’s breast.

Walter Petersen

***

May you sleep on your tender girlfriend’s breast.

Willis Barnstone

***

May you sleep on the breasts
Of your tender companion ….

D. W. Myatt

***

May you sleep upon your gentle companion’s breast.

Jim Powell

***

May you bed down,
Head to breast, upon
The flesh
Of a plush
Companion.

Aaron Poochigian

***

may you sleep on the breast of your delicate friend

Anne Carson

 

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Μνάσεσθαί τινά φαμι καὶ ὔστερον ἄμμεων

Men I think will remember us even hereafter.

H. T. Wharton

***

HER HOPE OF IMMORTALITY

In future ages, I am sure,
Our memory will still endure.

Walter Petersen

***

Someone, I Tell You

Someone, I tell you
will remember us.

We are oppressed by
fears of oblivion

yet are always saved
by judgement of good men.

Willis Barnstone

***

I tell you
someone will remember us
in the future.

Julia Dubnoff

***

Someone I tell you will remember us.

J V Cunningham

***

I think that someone will remember us in another time.

Jim Powell

***

I believe men will remember us in the future.

Peter Russell

***

Let me tell you this:
someone in some future time
will think of us

Mary Barnard

***

Believe me, in the future someone
Will remember us …..

D. W. Myatt

***

someone will remember us
I say
even in another time

Anne Carson

***

I declare
That later on,
Even in an age unlike our own,
Someone will remember who we are.

Aaron Poochigian

 

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Οἶον τὸ γλυκύμαλον ἐρεύθεται ἄκρῳ ἐπ’ ὔσδῳ
ἄκρον ἐπ’ ἀκροτάτῳ· λελάθοντο δὲ μαλοδρόπηες,
οὐ μὰν ἐκλελάθοντ’, ἀλλ’ οὐκ ἐδύναντ’ ἐπίκεσθαι.

As the sweet-apple blushes on the end of the bough, the very end of the bough, which the gatherers overlooked, nay overlooked not but could not reach.

H. T. Wharton

–O fair–O sweet!
As the sweet apple blooms high on the bough,
High as the highest, forgot of the gatherers:
So thou:–
Yet not so: nor forgot of the gatherers;
High o’er their reach in the golden air,
–O sweet–O fair!

F. T. Palgrave

***

Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
A-top on the topmost twig,–which the pluckers forgot, somehow,–
Forgot it not, nay, but got it not, for none could get it till now.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

***

Like – – – the honeyapple turning red on the high branch,
High on the highest, but the apple pickers missed it.
Oh no, they did not miss it, they could not reach it.

William Harris

***

As the apple ripening on the bough, the furthermost
Bough of all the tree, is never noticed by the gatherers,
Or, being out of reach, is never plucked at all.

Edward Storer

**

Like the sweet apple turning red on the branch top, on the
top of the topmost branch, and the gatherers did not notice it,
rather, they did notice, but could not reach up to take it.

Richard Lattimore

***

Like the sweet-apple reddening high on the branch,
High on the highest, the apple-pickers forgot,
Or not forgotten, but one they couldn’t reach…

A. S. Kline

***

Like a sweet-apple
turning red
high
on the tip
of the topmost branch.
Forgotten by pickers.

Not forgotten—
they couldn’t reach it.

Julia Dubnoff

***

Like a tasty little apple you are getting ripe on a branch
Missed by the gardeners, no, not missed …
There’s many a slip … .

Andrew Alexandre Owie

***

Like the sweet apple reddening on the topmost branch,
the topmost apple on the tip of the branch,
and the pickers forgot it,
well no, they didn’t forget, they just couldn’t reach it.

Stanley Lombardo

***

As a sweet apple reddens
on a high branch

at the tip of the topmost bough:
The apple-pickers missed it.

No, they didn’t miss it:
They couldn’t reach it.

Jim Powell

***

Like the sweet apple reddening on the highest bough,
on the topmost twig,
which the harvesters missed, or forgot somehow—
oh no, I’m mistaken; they just couldn’t reach it!

Michael R. Burch

***

as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch
high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot—
no, not forgot: were unable to reach

Anne Carson

 

 

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Μήτ’ ἔμοι μέλι μήτε μέλισσα.

Neither honey nor bee for me.

H. T. Wharton

***

Having Refused to Accept the Bitter with the Sweet

I will never find again
honey or the honey bees.

Willis Barstone

***

Neither for me the honey
Nor the honeybee…

A. S. Kline

***

It is clear now:
Neither honey nor
the honey bee is
to be mine again.

Mary Barnard

***

I have neither the honey nor the bee.

Guy Davenport

***

No droning bee,
nor even the bearer of honey
for me!

Michael R. Burch

***

For me
neither the honey
nor the bee.

Jim Powell

 

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LINKS

The Divine Sappho contains original fragments and some translations.

The Sappho page with numerous translations on the HyperTexts site.

Channeling Sappho: on Mary Bernard’s  translations.

The Poems of Sappho (Greek and English) by Edwin Marion Cox. (1925)

The Poetry of Sappho: Translated by Edwin Marion Cox.

The Translations of Sappho by Walter Petersen.

Sappho: Selected Poems and Fragments by A. S. Kline

Poems of Sappho translated by Julia Dubnoff.

Greek originals, translations and some commentary.

The Poems of Sappho: An Interpretative Interpretation into English by John Myers O’Hara.

Sappho translated by Edward Storer.

Josephine Balmer on translating fragments of Sappho.

The Poetry of Sappho – Translation and Notes by Jim Powell.

Sappho: Poems and Fragments – Translated by Stanley Lombardo.

If Not Winter, Fragments of Sappho by Anne Carson.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s interesting article in The New Yorker.

 

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2 thoughts on “Windfalls – Fragments of Sappho

  1. Pingback: Pearls – Brief Poems by Michael R. Burch | Brief Poems

  2. Pingback: Blue Aerogrammes – Brief Poems by Cid Corman | Brief Poems

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