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Poem I -- Sappho

Guest poem sent in by Emlen Smith

I just realized there was no Sappho on the Minstrels site, and I think that
needs to be fixed. (I couldn't find a translation I liked online, so this is
mine; I tried to stay as close to the literal meaning as possible, in
something vaguely resembling the original meter):
(Poem #1791) Poem I
 Immortal Aphrodite of the beautiful throne,
 Guile-weaving child of Zeus, I pray you,
 Do not oppress with pain and sorrow
 (O queen) my heart.

 But come here, if ever another time,
 Noticing my prayers from far away,
 You heard, and leaving your father's house
 Of gold, you came,

 Your chariot under you, driven by fair
 Swift doves flying over the black earth,
 With their strong wings, fluttering down
 Straight from the sky,

 And soon they arrived; and you, o blessed one,
 A smile upon your immortal face,
 Asked what was wrong this time, and why
 I called you this time,

 And what I wanted most of all to happen,
 In my mad heart; "Who shall I persuade this time
 To bring you back into her favor? Who, O
 Sappho, has hurt you?

 And if now she flees, she soon will chase you;
 If now she refuses gifts, she will give them;
 If now she does not love, soon she will love,
 Though against her will."

 Come to me now, too, and set me free
 From bitter cares, and do everything
 That my heart wishes done; and you yourself
 Become my ally.
-- Sappho
This is one of the only complete poems of Sappho that we have; another was
dug up recently, and there's a chance that 31 is complete (but it's probably
missing at least a full stanza), but the rest are all fragments, quoted
(like this one) by other authors, or found on scraps of papyrus in ancient
garbage heaps. You can go crazy thinking either about what treasures are
lost forever, or how lucky we are that Dionysius of Halicarnassus happened
to use this one as an example of something.

The poem starts off sounding like a traditional hymn, with several names of
the goddess, and then a request for help. Recalling help given in the past
is also traditional in Greek prayer. But the tone of intimacy, and
Aphrodite's (the goddess of love) indulgent attitude, as if toward a
favorite child, are just about unique. The changes in perspective are
wonderful, too: For the first few stanzas, Aphrodite seems to be constantly
coming closer, until we get her own words spoken in her own person.

Sappho lived on the Greek island of Lesbos (whence the word "Lesbian")
around the end of the 7th century BC. We know very little about her life,
though since antiquity people have eagerly made things up (there's a famous,
and utterly unfounded, story of her throwing herself off a cliff after an
unhappy love affair). Her poetry, like all Greek poetry until long after
Sappho, would have been performed to some sort of musical accompaniment, but
the exact circumstances of the performance are a matter for speculation: did
she sing her poems herself? Were some or all of them accompanied by a
dancing chorus? Did she run some sort of pre-marriage school for young
women? Were her poems performed at religious festivals (some, at least, seem
designed for weddings)? At small gatherings of women? Of men? We know so
little, and we've lost so much context (and so much actual poetry), that
it's really incredible how clearly Sappho can speak to us.

-Emlen Smith


Greek text, and a recording of someone reading it (I don't have Real Player,
so I couldn't listen to it, but how bad could it be?) at:

And if you don't read Greek, but want to know how this should sound, there's
a transliteration (and another translation) at:

Some translations of Sappho's poems:

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