Sappho

Sappho (c.630–c.570 BC) was an Archaic Greek poet from the island of Lesbos. Sappho is known for her lyric poetry, written to be sung while accompanied by a lyre. On thi page, you’ll find all of Sappho’s poems. Remember, there aren’s survivcing written copies (1) and (2) sometimes, some things are lost in translation…

1877_Charles_Mengin_-_Sappho

In ancient times, Sappho was widely regarded as one of the greatest lyric poets and was given names such as the “Tenth Muse” and “The Poetess”. Most of Sappho’s poetry is now lost, and what remains today has survived only in fragmentary form, except for one complete poem, the “Ode to Aphrodite”:

Aphrodite, subtle of soul and deathless,
Daughter of God, weaver of wiles, I pray thee
Neither with care, dread Mistress, nor with anguish,
Slay thou my spirit!

But in pity hasten, come now if ever
From afar of old when my voice implored thee,
Thou hast deigned to listen, leaving the golden
House of thy father

With thy chariot yoked; and with doves that drew thee,
Fair and fleet around the dark earth from heaven,
Dipping vibrant wings down he azure distance,
Through the mid-ether;

Very swift they came; and thou, gracious Vision,
Leaned with face that smiled in immortal beauty,
Leaned to me and asked, “What misfortune threatened?
Why I had called thee?”

“What my frenzied heart craved in utter yearning,
Whom its wild desire would persuade to passion?
What disdainful charms, madly worshipped, slight thee?
Who wrongs thee, Sappho?”

“She that fain would fly, she shall quickly follow,
She that now rejects, yet with gifts shall woo thee,
She that heeds thee not, soon shall love to madness,
Love thee, the loth one!”

Come to me now thus, Goddess, and release me
From distress and pain; and all my distracted
Heart would seek, do thou, once again fulfilling,
Still be my ally!

In The Ode to Aphrodite the speaker calls on the help of Aphrodite in the pursuit of a beloved. The seriousness with which Sappho intended the poem is disputed, though at least parts of the work appear to be intentionally humorous. The poem makes use of Homeric language, and alludes to episodes from the Iliad.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 by Simeon Solomon 1840-1905
Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 Simeon Solomon 1840-1905 Purchased 1980 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03063

The Poems of Sappho

John Myers O’Hara (1910)
An Interpretative Rendition into English

((Scanned, Proofed and Formatted by John Bruno Hare at sacred-texts.com, June 2008. This text is in the public domain in the US because it was published prior to 1923.))

Who shall strike the wax of mystery from those priceless amphora, and give to the unsophisticated nostrils of the average reader the ravishing bouquet of wine pressed in a garden in Mitylene, twenty-five centuries ago?
–MAURICE THOMPSON.

THEN to me so lying awake a vision
Came without sleep over the seas and touched me,
Softly touched mine eyelids and lips; and I, too,
Full of the vision,

Saw the white implacable Aphrodite,
Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled
Shine as fire of sunset on western waters;
Saw the reluctant

Feet, the straining plumes of the doves that drew her,
Looking always, looking with necks reverted
Back to Lesbos, back to the hills whereunder
Shone Mitylene
.
–SWINBURNE.

THE MUSES
HITHER now, O Muses, leaving the golden
House of God unseen in the azure spaces,
Come and breathe on bosom and brow and kindle
Song like the sunglow;

Come and lift my shaken soul to the sacred
Shadow cast by Helicon’s rustling forests;
Sweep on wings of flame from the middle ether,
Seize and uplift me;

Thrill my heart that throbs with unwonted fervor,
Chasten mouth and throat with immortal kisses,
Till I yield on maddening heights the very
Breath of my body.


MUSAGETES

COME with Musagetes, ye Hours and Graces,
Dance around the team of swans that attend him
Up Parnassian heights, to his holy temple
High on the hill-top;

Come, ye Muses, too, from the shades of Pindus,
Let your songs, that echo on winds of rapture,
Wake the lyre he tunes to the sweet inspiring
Sound of your voices.

LOVE’S BANQUET

IF Panormus, Cyprus or Paphos hold thee,
Either home of Gods or the island temple,
Hark again and come at my invocation,
Goddess benefic;

Come thou, foam-born Kypris, and pour in dainty
Cups of amber gold thy delicate nectar,
Subtly mixed with fire that will swiftly kindle
Love in our bosoms;

Thus the bowl ambrosial was stirred in Paphos
For the feast, and taking the burnished ladle,
Hermes poured the wine for the Gods who lifted
Reverent beakers;

High they held their goblets and made libation,
Spilling wine as pledge to the Fates and Hades,
Quaffing deep and binding their hearts to Eros,
Lauding thy servant.

So to me and my Lesbians round me gathered,
Each made mine, an amphor of love long tasted,
Bid us drink, who sigh for thy thrill ecstatic,
Passion’s full goblet;

Grant me this, O Kypris, and on thy altar
Dawn will see a goat of the breed of Naxos,
Snowy doves from Cos and the drip of rarest
Lesbian vintage;

For a regal taste is mine and the glowing
Zenith-lure and beauty of suns must brighten
Love for me, that ever upon perfection
Trembles elusive.


MOON AND STARS

WHEN the moon at full on the sill of heaven
Lights her beacon, flooding the earth with silver,
All the shining stars that about her cluster
Hide their fair faces;

So when Anactoria’s beauty dazzles
Sight of mine, grown dim with the joy it gives me,
Gorgo, Atthis, Gyrinno, all the others
Fade from my vision.

ODE TO ANACTORIA
PEER of Gods to me is the man thy presence
Crowns with joy; who hears, as he sits beside thee,
Accents sweet of thy lips the silence breaking,
With lovely laughter;

Tones that make the heart in my bosom flutter,
For if I, the space of a moment even,
Near to thee come, any word I would utter
Instantly fails me;

Vain my stricken tongue would a whisper fashion,
Subtly under my skin runs fire ecstatic;
Straightway mists surge dim to my eyes and leave them
Reft of their vision;

Echoes ring in my ears; a trembling seizes
All my body bathed in soft perspiration;
Pale as grass I grow in my passion’s madness,
Like one insensate;

But must I dare all, since to me unworthy,
Bliss thy beauty brings that a God might envy;
Never yet was fervid woman a fairer
Image of Kypris.

Ah! undying Daughter of God, befriend me!
Calm my blood that thrills with impending transport;
Feed my lips the murmur of words to stir her
Bosom to pity;

Overcome with kisses her faintest protest,
Melt her mood to mine with amorous couches,–
Till her low assent and her sigh’s abandon
Lure me to rapture.

THE ROSE
IF it pleased the whim of Zeus in an idle
Hour to choose a king for the flowers, he surely
Would have crowned the rose for its regal beauty,
Deeming it peerless;

By its grace is valley and hill embellished,
Earth is made a shrine for the lover’s ardor;
Dear it is to flowers as the charm of lovely
Eyes are to mortals;

Joy and pride of plants, and the garden’s glory,
Beauty’s blush it brings to the cheek of meadows;
Draining fire and dew from the dawn for rarest
Color and odor;

Softly breathed, its scent is a plea for passion,
When it blooms to welcome the kiss of Kypris;
Sheathed in fragrant leaves its tremulous petals
Laugh in the zephyr.

Sappho
Sappho SoGood

SUMMER
SLUMBER streams from quivering leaves that listless
Bask in heat and stillness of Lesbian summer;
Breathless swoons the air with the apple-blossoms’
Delicate odor;

From the shade of branches that droop and cover
Shallow trenches winding about the orchard,
Restful comes, and cool to the sense, the flowing
Murmur of water.

THE GARDEN OF THE NYMPHS
ALL around through the apple boughs in blossom
Murmur cool the breezes of early summer,
And from leaves that quiver above me gently
Slumber is shaken;

Glades of poppies swoon in the drowsy languor,
Dreaming roses bend, and the oleanders
Bask and nod to drone of bees in the silent
Fervor of noontide;

Myrtle coverts hedging the open vista,
Dear to nightly frolic of Nymph and Satyr,
Yield a mossy bed for the brown and weary
Limbs of the shepherd.

Echo ever wafts through the drooping frondage,
Ceaseless silver murmur of water falling
In the grotto cool of the Nymphs, the sacred
Haunt of Immortals;

Down the sides of rocks that are gray and lichened
Trickle tiny rills, whose expectant tinkle
Drips with gurgle hushed in the clear glimmering
Depths of the basin.

Fair on royal couches of leaves recumbent,
Interspersed with languor of waxen lilies,
Lotus flowers empurple the pool whose edge is
Cushioned with mosses;

Here recline the Nymphs at the hour of twilight,
Back in shadows dim of the cave, their golden
Sea-green eyes half lidded, up to their supple
Waists in the water.

Sheltered once by ferns I espied them binding
Tresses long, the tint of lilac and orange;
Just beyond the shimmer of light their bodies
Roseate glistened;

Deftly, then, they girdled their loins with garlands,
Linked with leaves luxuriant limb and shoulder;
On their breasts they bruised the red blood of roses
Fresh from the garden.

She of orange hair was the Nymph Euxanthis,
And the lilac-tressed were Iphis and Io;
How they laughed, relating at length their ease in
Evading the Satyr.

APHRODITE’S DOVES
WHEN the drifting gray of the vesper shadow
Dimmed their upward path through the midmost azure,
And the length of night overtook them distant
Far from Olympus;

Far away from splendor and joy of Paphos,
From the voice and smile of their peerless Mistress,
Back to whom their truant wings were in rapture
Speeding belated;

Chilled at heart and grieving they drooped their pinions,
Circled slowly, dipping in flight toward Lesbos,
Down through dusk that darkened on Mitylene’s
Columns of marble;

Down through glory wan of the fading sunset,
Veering ever toward the abode of Sappho,
Toward my home, the fane of the glad devoted
Slave of the Goddess;

Soon they gained the tile of my roof and rested,
Slipped their heads beneath their wings while I watched them
Sink to sleep and dreams, in the warm and drowsy
Night of midsummer.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 14]

ANACREON’S SONG

GOLDEN-THRONED Muse, sing the song that in olden
Days was sung of love and delight in Teos,
In the goodly land of the lovely women:
Strains that in other

Years the hoary bard with the youthful fancy
Set to mirthful stir of flutes, when the dancing
Nymphs that poured the wine for the poet’s banquet
Mixed it with kisses;

Sing the song while I, in the arms of Atthis,
Seal her lips to mine with a lover’s fervor,
Breathe her breath and drink her sighs to the honeyed
Lull of the melics.

THE DAUGHTER OF CYPRUS
DREAMING I spake with the Daughter of Cyprus,
Heard the languor soft of her voice, the blended
Suave accord of tones interfused with laughter
Low and desireful;

Dreaming saw her dread ineffable beauty,
Saw through texture fine of her clinging tunic
Blush the fire of flesh, the rose of her body,
Radiant, blinding;

Saw through filmy meshes the melting lovely
Flow of line, the exquisite curves, whence piercing
Rapture reached with tangible touch to thrill me,
Almost to slay me;

Saw the gleaming foot, and the golden sandal
Held by straps of Lydian work thrice doubled
Over the instep’s arch, and up the rounded
Dazzling ankle;

Saw the charms that shimmered from knee to shoulder,
Hint of hues, than milk or the snowdrift whiter;
Secret grace, the shrine of the soul of passion,
Glows that consumed me;

Saw the gathered mass of her xanthic tresses,
Mitra-bound, escape from the clasping fillet,
Float and shine as clouds in the sunset splendor,
Mists in the dawn-fire;

Saw the face immortal, and daring greatly,
Raised my eyes to hers of unfathomed azure,
Drank their world’s desire, their limitless longing,
Swooned and was nothing.

THE DISTAFF

COME, ye dainty Graces and lovely Muses,
Rosy-armed and pure and with fairest tresses,
Come from groves on Helicon’s hill where murmur
Founts that are holy;

Come with dancing step and with lips harmonic,
Gather near and view my ivory distaff,
Gift from Cos my brother Charaxus brought me,
Sailing from Egypt;

Sailing back to Lesbos from far Naucratis,
From the seven mouths of the Nile and Egypt
Up the blue Aegean, the island-dotted
Ocean of Hellas;

Choicest wool alone will I spin for fabrics,
Winding reel with threads for the cloths as fleecy,
Soft and fine as they bring from far Phocea,
Sidon or Sardis;

While I weave my thought shall engird the giver,
Whether here, or far on the sea, or resting
Couched in shady courts with the lovely garland
Girls of Naucratis.

THE SLEEP WIND

SOFTER than mists o’er the pale green of waters,
O’er the charmed sea, shod with sandals of shadow
Comes the warm sleep wind of Argolis, floating
Garlands of fragrance;

Comes the sweet wind by the still hours attended,
Touching tired lids on the shores dim with distance,
Ever its way toward the headland of Lesbos,
Toward Mitylene.

Faintly one fair star of evening enkindles
On the dusk afar its lone fire Oetean,
Shining serene till the darkness will deepen
Others to splendor;

Bringing ineffable peace, and the gladsome
Return with the night of all things that morning
Ruthlessly parted, the child to its mother,
Lover to lover.

From the marble court of rose-crowned companions,
All alone my feet again seek the little
Theatre pledged to the Muse, now deserted,
Facing the surges;

Where the carved Pan-heads that laugh down the gentle
Slope of broad steps to the refluent ripple,
Flute from their thin pipes the dithyrambs deathless,
Songs all unuttered.

Empty each seat where my girl friends acclaimed me,
Poets with names on the tiered stone engraven,
Over whose verge blooms the apple tree, drifting
Perfume and petals;

Gone Telesippa and tender Gyrinno,
Anactoria, woman divine; Atthis,
Subtlest of soul, fair Damophyla, Dica,
Maids of the Muses.

[p. 18]

Here an hour past soul-enravished they listened
While my rapt heart breathed its paean impassioned,
Chanted its wild prayer to thee, Aphrodite,
Daughter of Cyprus;

Now to their homes are they gone in the city,
Pensive to dream limb-relaxed while the languid
Slaves come and lift from the tresses they loosen,
Flowers that have faded.

Thou alone, Sappho, art sole with the silence,
Sole with night and dreams that are darkness, weaving
Thoughts that are sighs from the heart and their meaning
Vague as the shadow;

When the great silence shall come to thee, sad one,
Men that forget shall remember thy music,
Murmur thy name that shall steal on their passion
Soft as the sleep wind.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 19]

THE REPROACH

KYPRIS, hear my prayer to thee and the Nereids!
Safely bring the ship of my brother homewards,
Bring him back unharmed to the heart that loves him,
Throbbing remorseful;

Fair Immortal, banish from mind, I pray thee,
Every discord’s hint that of yore estranged us;
Grant that never again dissension’s hateful
Wrangle shall part us;

May he never in days to come remember
Keen reproach of mine that had grieved him sorely;
Words that broke my very heart when I heard them
Uttered by others;

Words that wounded deep and recurring often,
Bowed his head with shame at the public banquet;
Where my scorn, amid festal joy and laughter,
Sharpened the covert

Jests that stung his pride and assailed his folly,
Slave-espoused when he, a Lesbian noble,
Might have won the fairest in Mitylene,
Virgins the noblest;

Open slurs that linked his name with Doricha,
Lovely slave that Xanthes had sold in Egypt;
She whose wondrous charms the wealth of Charaxus
Ransomed from bondage.

Now that he is gone and my anger vanished,
Keen regret and grief for the pain I gave him
Pierce my heart, and fear of loss that is anguish
Darkens the daylight.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 20]

LONG AGO

LONG ago beloved, thy memory, Atthis,
Saddens still my heart as the soft Aeolic
Twilight deepens down on the sea, and fitful
Winds that have wandered

Over groves of myrtle at Amathonte
Waft forgotten passion on breaths of perfume.
Long ago, how madly I loved thee, Atthis!
Faithless, light-hearted

Loved one, mine no more, who lovest another
More than me; the silent flute and the faded
Garlands haunt the heart of me thou forgettest,
Long since thy lover.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 21]

EPITHALAMIA

THRENODES

[p. 22] [p. 23]

HYMENAIOS

ARTISANS, raise high the roof beam!
Tall is the bridegroom as Ares,
Taller by far than the tallest,
O Hymenaeus!

Ay! towering over his fellows,
As over men of all other
Lands towers the Lesbian singer,
O Hymenaeus!

Well-favored, too, is the maiden,
Eyes that are sweeter than honey,
Fair both in face and in figure,
O Hymenaeus!

For there was never another
Virgin in loveliness like her,
By Aphrodite so honored,
O Hymenaeus!

O happy bridegroom, the wedding
Comes to the point of completion;
Thou hast the maid of thy choosing,
O Hymenaeus!

See how a paleness suffuses
Soft o’er her exquisite features,
Passion’s benign premonition,
O Hymenaeus!

Go to the couch unreluctant,
Rejoicing and sweet to the bridegroom;
He in his turn is rejoicing,
O Hymenaeus!

May Hesperus lead thee, and Hera,
She whom to-night that ye honor,
Silver-throned Goddess of marriage,
O Hymenaeus!

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 24]

BRIDAL SONG

BRIDE, that goest to the bridal chamber
In the dove-drawn car of Aphrodite,
By a band of dimpled
Loves surrounded;

Bride, of maidens all the fairest image
Mitylene treasures of the Goddess,
Rosy-ankled Graces
Are thy playmates;

Bride, O fair and lovely, thy companions
Are the gracious hours that onward passing
For thy gladsome footsteps
Scatter garlands.

Bride, that blushing like the sweetest apple
On the very branch’s end, so strangely
Overlooked, ungathered
By the gleaners;

Bride, that like the apple that was never
Overlooked but out of reach so plainly,
Only one thy rarest
Fruit may gather;

Bride, that into womanhood has ripened
For the harvest of the bridegroom only,
He alone shall taste thy
Hoarded sweetness.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 25]

EPITHALAMIUM

VESPER is here! behold
Faint gleams that welcome shine!
Rise from the feast, O youths,
And chant the fescennine!

Before the porch we sing
The hymeneal song;
Vesper is here, O youths!
The star we waited long.

We lead the festal groups
Across the bridegroom’s porch;
Vesper is here, O youths!
Wave high the bridal torch.

Hail, noble bridegroom, hail!
The virgin fair has come;
Unlatch the door and lead
Her timid footsteps home.

Hail, noble bridegroom, hail!
Straight as a tender tree;
Fond as a folding vine
Thy bride will cling to thee.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 26]

PIERIA’S ROSE

PALE death shall come, and thou and thine shall be,
Then and thereafter, to all memory
Forgotten as the wind that yesterday
Blew the last lingering apple buds away;

For thou hadst never that undying rose
To grace the brow and shed immortal glows;
Pieria’s fadeless flower that few may claim
To wreathe and save thy unremembered name.

Ay! even on the fields of Dis unknown,
Obscure among the shadows and alone,
Thy flitting shade shall pass uncomforted
Of any heed from all the flitting dead.

But no one maid, I think, beneath the skies,
At any time shall live and be as wise,
In sooth, as I am; for the Muses Nine
Have made me honored and their gifts are mine;

And men, I think, will never quite forget
My songs or me; so long as stars shall set
Or sun shall rise, or hearts feel love’s desire,
My voice shall cross their dreams, a sigh of fire.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 27]

LAMENT FOR ADONIS

AH, for Adonis!
See, he is dying,
Delicate, lovely,
Slender Adonis.

Ah, for Adonis!
Weep, O ye maidens,
Beating your bosoms,
Rending your tunics.

O Cytherea,
Hasten, for never
Loved thou another
As thy Adonis.

See, on the rosy
Cheek with its dimple,
Blushing no longer,
Thanatos’ shadow.

Save him, O Goddess!
Thou, the beguiler,
All-powerful, holy,
Stay the dread evil.

Ah, for Adonis!
No more at vintage
Time will he come with
Bloom of the meadows.

Ah, for Adonis!
See, he is dying,
Fading as flowers
With the lost summer.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 28]

THE STRICKEN FLOWER

THINK not to ever look as once of yore,
Atthis, upon my love; for thou no more
Wilt find intact upon its stem the flower
Thy guile left slain and bleeding in that hour.

So ruthless shepherds crush beneath their feet
The hill flower blooming in the summer heat;
The hyacinth whose purple heart is found
Left bruised and dead, to darken on the ground.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 29]

DEATH

DEATH is an evil; so the Gods decree,
So they have judged, and such must rightly be
Our mortal view; for they who dwell on high
Had never lived, had it been good to die.

And so the poet’s house should never know
Of tears and lamentations any show;
Such things befit not us who deathless sing
Of love and beauty, gladness and the spring.

No hint of grief should mar the features of
Our dreams of endless beauty, lasting love;
For they reflect the joy inviolate,
Eternal calm that fronts whatever fate.

Cleis, my darling, grieve no more, I pray!
Let wandering winds thy sorrow bear away,
And all our care; my daughter, let thy smile
Shine through thy tears and gladden me the while.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 30]

PERSEPHONE

I SAW a tender maiden plucking flowers
Once, long ago, in the bright morning hours;
And then from heaven I saw a sudden cloud
Fall swift and dark, and heard her cry aloud.

Again I looked, but from my open door
My anxious eyes espied the maid no more;
The cloud had vanished, bearing her away
To underlands beyond the smiling day.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 31]

PARTHENEIA

DIDAKTIKA

[p. 32] [p. 33]

MAIDENHOOD

DO I long for maidenhood?
Do I long for days
When upon the mountain slope
I would stand and gaze
Over the Aegean’s blue
Melting into mist,
Ere with love my virgin lips
Cercolas had kissed?

Maidenhood, O maidenhood,
Whither hast thou flown?
To a land beyond the sea
Thou hast never known.
Maidenhood, O maidenhood,
Wilt return to me?
Never will my bloom again
Give its grace to thee.

Now the autumn skies are low,
Youth and summer sped;
Shepherd hills are far away,
Cercolas is dead.
Mitylene’s marble courts
Echo with my name;–
Maidenhood, we never dreamed,
Long ago of fame.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 34]

EVER MAIDEN

I SHALL be ever maiden,
Ever the little child,
In my passionate quest for the lovely,
By earth’s glad wonder beguiled.

I shall be ever maiden,
Standing in soul apart,
For the Gods give the secret of beauty
Alone to the virgin heart.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 35]

CLEIS

DAUGHTER of mine, so fair,
With a form like a golden flower,
Wherefore thy pensive air
And the dreams in the myrtle bower?

Cleis, beloved, thy eyes
That are turned from my gaze, thy hand
That trembles so, I prize
More than all the Lydian land;

More than the lovely hills
With the Lesbian olive crowned;–
Tell me, darling, what ills
In the gloom of thy thought are found?

Daughter of mine, come near
And thy head on my knees recline;
Whisper and never fear,
For the beat of thy heart is mine.

Sweet mother, I can turn
With content to my loom no more;
My bosom throbs, I yearn
For a youth that my eyes adore;

Lykas of Eresus,
Whom I knew when a little child;
My heart by Love is thus
With the sweetest of pain beguiled.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 36]

ASPIRATION

I DO not think with my two arms to touch the sky,
I do not dream to do almighty things;
So small a singing bird may never soar so high,
To beat the sapphire fire with baffled wings.

I do not think with my two arms to touch the sky,
I do not dream by any chance to share
With deathless Gods the bliss of Paphos they deny
To men behind the azure veil of air.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 37]

HERO, OF GYARA

I TAUGHT Hero, of Gyara, the swift runner;
Swifter far was she than Atalanta,
When through clinging fleece of her wind-rippled
Garments blushed the glimmer of her limbs.

I taught Hero, of Gyara, the swift runner;
Lovelier was she than Atalanta,
When the straining vision of the suitor
Saw her beauty mock impending death.

I taught Hero, of Gyara, the swift runner,
All the singing numbers of Terpander,
Metres of Archilochus and Alcman,
And my melic verse that glows supreme.

I taught Hero, of Gyara, the swift runner,
Sapphics with their triple surge of music
Melting in the final verse Adonic,
Like the foam fall of a spended wave.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 38]

COURAGE

FAINT not in thy strong heart!
Nor downcast stand apart;
Beyond the reach of daring will there lies
No beauty’s prize.

Faint not in thy strong heart!
Through temple, field and mart,
Courage alone the guerdon from the fray
May bear away.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 39]

THE BOAST OF ARES

ARES said he would drag
Hephestus by force
From Poseidon’s palace
Deep down in the sea;
Where he had fashioned
The cunning throne
With the secret chains.

He presented the throne,
Forsooth, as a gift
To the queen of heaven;
But Hera soon found
For revenge on her
Who had him cast
From the home of Gods.

For secure in its clasp
Of adamant gold
She was held imprisoned,
The prey of his guile;
And Hephestus knew
By him alone
Could the queen be freed.

But the great God of war
Made boast of his strength;
He would bring the forger
Of metals and tricks
On high to release
Hera, and end
Her enraged despair.

Ares said he would drag
Hephestus by force,
But was made to waver
And flee when assailed
With a blazing brand
By the dark God
Of the underworld.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 40]

GOLD

GOLD is the son of Zeus,
Immortal, bright;
Nor moth nor worm may eat it,
Nor rust tarnish.

So are the Muse’s gifts
The offspring fair,
That merit from high heaven
Youth eternal.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 41]

GNOMICS

I

MY ways are quiet, none may find
My temper of malignant kind;
For one should check the words that start
When anger spreads within the heart.

II

Who from my hands what I can spare
Of gifts accept the largest share,
Those are the very ones who boast
No gratitude and wrong me most.

III

He who in face and form is fair
Must needs be good, the Gods declare;
But he whose thought and act are right
Will soon be equal fair to sight.

IV

Beauty of youth is but the flower
Of spring, whose pleasure lasts an hour;
While worth that knows no mortal doom
Is like the amaranthine bloom.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 42]

PRIDE

PRIDE not thyself upon a ring,
Or any trinket thing
Of fleeting value, dross or gold.

Wealth, lacking worth, is no safe friend,
Though both to life may lend,
In just proportion, joy untold.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 43]

LETO AND NIOBE

LETO and Niobe were friends full dear,
The Goddess’ heart and woman’s heart were one
In that maternal love that men revere,
Love that endures when other loves are done.

But Niobe with all a mother’s pride,
Artless and foolish, would not be denied;
And boasted that her children were more fair
Than Leto’s lovely children of the air.

The proud Olympians vowed revenge for this,
Irate Apollo, angered Artemis;
They slew her children, heedless of her moan,
And with the last her heart was turned to stone.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 44]

THE DYE

FROM Scythian wood they brew
The dye whose yellow hue
Turns gold the lovely hair
Of Lesbians fair.

So, Zanthis, slave of mine,
Shall dip the fleeces fine,
And dye the robes I made
A saffron shade.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 45]

EROTIKA

DITHYRAMBS

[p. 46] [p. 47]

HYMN TO PAPHIA

IMMORTAL Paphia! have I earned thy hate,
That I should burn in passion’s fatal flame?
Is not my constant service thine to claim,
My prayer’s appeal with praise of thee elate?

Has not my life been one sole hymn of thee,
One quivering chord on Love’s harp overwrought?
My soul has trembled up to thee in thought,
Probed to its depth thy every ecstasy.

Are not my countless heart-beats each a vow,
Of tribute throbs a garland? For thy gain
The Fates have drenched my soul in passion’s rain,
Pieria’s roses twined about my brow.

The virgin harvest of my heart was thine,
I shuddered in the joy that half consumed;
The votive garlands on thy altar bloomed,
My days were songs to nights of bliss divine.

Why try me, then, with torture, gracious Queen?
Why verge me on this rapture’s dread abyss,
Hold breast from breast and stay the yearning kiss?
Ah, couldst thou fashion pain that stung less keen?

The throe of Tantalus is mine to bear,
Beauty that Thetis-like eludes my clasp;
Glances that lure, that make each breath a gasp,
And then disdainful gloat at my despair.

Scornful she dwells beyond my ardor’s clutch,
Bathed in an aureole of carnal fire;–
O bind her equal slave to fond desire,
Let passion’s tingling warmth her being touch!

Come to me, Goddess, come as once of old,
Hearing my voice implore thee from afar,
I drew to earth thy dazzling avatar;
Accord the smile of piercing bliss untold.

[p. 48]

Ask me the dear suave question phrased of yore;
“Sappho, who grieveth now thy mad fond heart?
Wouldst win her beauty, she who frowns apart?
Wild as thou lovest, she soon shall love thee more.”

O fair Olympian, answer thus, I pray!
Release me from this torment, yield my arms
The transport thirsted of her folded charms,
In glow that welds her heart to mine for aye.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 49]

EROS

FROM the gnarled branches of the apple trees
The heavy petals, lifted by the breeze,
Fluttered on puffs of odor fine and fell
In the clear water of the garden well;

And some a bolder zephyr blew in sport
Across the marble reaches of my court,
And some by sudden gusts were wafted wide
Toward sea and city, down the mountain side.

Lesbos seemed Paphos, isled in rosy glow,
Green olive hills, the violet vale below;
The air was azure fire and o’er the blue
Still sea the doves of Aphrodite flew.

My dreaming eyes saw Eros from afar
Coming from heaven in his mother’s car,
In purple tunic clad; and at my heart
The God-was aiming his relentless dart.

He whom fair Aphrodite called her son,
She, the adored, she, the imperial One;
He passed as winds that shake the soul, as pains
Sweet to the heart, as fire that warms the veins;

He passed and left my limbs dissolved in dew,
Relaxed and faint, with passion quivered through;
Exhausted with spent thrills of dread delight,
A sudden darkness rushing on my sight.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 50]

PASSION

NOW Love shakes my soul, a mighty
Wind from the high mountain falling
Full on the oaks of the forest;

Now, limb-relaxing, it masters
My life and implacable thrills me,
Rending with anguish and rapture.

Now my heart, paining my bosom,
Pants with desire as a maenad
Mad for the orgiac revel.

Now under my skin run subtle
Arrows of flame, and my body
Quivers with surge of emotion.

Now long importunate yearnings
Vanquish with surfeit my reason;
Fainting my senses forsake me.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 51]

APHRODITE’S PRAISE

O SAPPHO, why art thou ever
Singing with praises the blessed
Queen of the heaven?

Why does the heart in thy bosom
Ever revert in its yearning
Throb to the Goddess?

Why are thy senses unsated
Ever in quest of elusive
Love that is deathless?

Ah, gracious Daughter of Cyprus,
Never can I as a mortal
Tire of thy service.

Thou art the breath of my body,
The blood in my veins, and the glowing
Pulse of my bosom.

Omnipotent, burning, resistless,
Thou art the passion that shaking
Masters me ever.

Thou art the crisis of rapture
Relaxing my limbs, and the melting
Ebb of emotion;

Bringing the tears to my lashes,
Sighs to my lips, in the swooning
Excess of passion.

O golden-crowned Aphrodite,
Grant I shall ever be grateful,
Sure of thy favor;

Worthy the lot of thy priestess,
Supreme in the song that forever
Rings with thy praises.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 52]

THE FIRST KISS

AND down I set the cushion
Upon the couch that she,
Relaxed supine upon it,
Might give her lips to me.

As some enamored priestess
At Aphrodite’s shrine,
Entranced I bent above her
With sense of the divine.

She had, by nature nubile,
In years a child, no hint
Of any secret knowledge
Of passion’s least intent.

Her mouth for immolation
Was ripe, and mine the art;
And one long kiss of passion
Deflowered her virgin heart.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 53]

ODE TO ATTHIS

I LOVED you, Atthis, once, long years ago!
My blood was flame that thrilled to passion’s throe;
Now long neglect has quenched the olden fire,
And blight of drifting years effaced desire.

I loved you, Atthis–joy of long ago–
Love shook my soul as winds on forests blow;
This lawless heart that dared exhaust delight,
Unsated strove and maddened through the night.

I loved you, Atthis, once, long years ago!
With pain whose surge I felt to anguish grow;
Suffered the storms that waste the heart and leave
A desert shore where seas but break to grieve.

I loved you, Atthis–spring of long ago–
Watched you depart, to Andromeda go;
Then I, as keen despair its shadow cast,
O’er my deserted threshold, sobbing, passed.

I loved you, Atthis, once, long years ago!
The thought of me is hateful now, I know;
And all the lavish tenderness of old
Has gone from me and left my bosom cold.

I loved you, Atthis–dream of long ago–
. . . . . . . . . . . .
How the fond words, impassioned music low,
Sustain the sigh of love’s divine regret
No length of time may bid the heart forget.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 54]

COMPARISON

LESS soft a Tyrian robe
Of texture fine,
Less delicate a rose
Than flesh of thine.

Whiter thy breast than snow
That virgin lies,
And deeper than the blue
Of seas thy eyes.

More golden than the fruit
Of orange trees,
Thy locks that floating lure
The satyr breeze.

Less fine of silver string
An Orphic lyre,
Less sweet than thy low laugh
That wakes desire.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 55]

THE SACRIFICE

UPON a cushion soft
My limbs I place,
My every garment doffed
For deeper grace;
From burning doves embalmed
In baccharis,
The scented fumes have calmed
Me like a kiss.

Beyond the phallic shrine
That tripods light,
I pledge with holy wine
An image white;
Anadyomene,
Than foam more fair,
When from the ravished sea
She rose to air.

Daughter of God, accept
These gifts of mine!
Last night my body slept
In arms divine.
These sated lips and eyes
That erstwhile sued,
Accord this sacrifice
In gratitude.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 56]

LEDA

ONCE on a time
They say that Leda found
Beneath the thyme
An egg upon the ground;

And yet the swan
She fondled long ago
Was whiter than
Its shell of peeping snow.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 57]

AMOeBEUM: ALCAeUS AND SAPPHO

ALCAeUS

VIOLET-weaving Sappho, pure and lovely,
Softly-smiling Sappho, I would utter
Something that my secret hope has cherished,
Did no painful sense of shame deter me.

SAPPHO

Had the impulse of thy heart been honest,
It had urged no evil supplication;
Shame had not abashed thy eyes before me,
And thy words had done thee no dishonor.

ALCAeUS

Softly-smiling Sappho, longing bids me
Tell thee all that in my heart lies hidden.

SAPPHO

Have no fear, Alcaeus, to offend me!
Thy emotion stirs my heart to pity.

ALCAeUS

I desire thee, violet-weaving Sappho!
Love thee madly, softly-smiling Sappho!

SAPPHO

Hush, Alcaeus! thou must choose a younger
Comrade for thy couch, for I would never
Join thy years to mine–the Gods forbid it–
Youth and ardent fire to age and ashes.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 58]

THE LOVE OF SELENE

ACROSS the still sea’s moonlit wave
Selene came
Softly to seek the Latmian cave,
Her breast aflame

With secret passion’s ruthless throe,
Her scruples done,
And burning with desire to know
Endymion.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 59]

THE CRETAN DANCE

AS the moon in all her splendor
Slowly rose above the forest,
Silent stood the Cretan women
Round the altar.

Girdled close their clinging tunics,
Made of some transparent fabric,
Traced the every curve and lissome
Of their bodies.

With revering eyes uplifted
To the round and rising planet,
Soon its drifting beams of silver
Lit their faces.

Soft and clear its sphere effulgent,
Full defined above the treetops,
Steeped in pale unearthly glamor
All the landscape.

When the argent glimmer rested
On the altar piled with garlands,
And its glow unveiled the marble
Aphrodite;

Linking hands, the Cretan women
Moving gracefully with metric
Steps began to dance a measure
To the Goddess.

All so light their feet unsandalled
Pressed the velvet grass in treading,
That they scarcely bruised its tender
Blooming verdure.

Slowly turning in a circle
To the east, their voices chanted
In a plaintive note the sacred
Ithyphallics;

[p. 60]

Then they paused, their steps retracing
Toward the west, and answered strophe
By antistrophe with choric
Tones accordant;

With the aftersong epodic,
Standing all before the altar,
Lo! the hymn in praise of Paphos
Was completed.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 61]

TO ALCAeUS

COUNTLESS are the cups thou drainest
In thy hymns to Dionysos,
O Alcaeus!

War and wine alone thou singest;–
Wherefore not of Aphrodite,
O Alcaeus!

Spacious halls are thine where many
Trophies hang in Ares’ honor,
O Alcaeus!

Brazen shields and shining helmets,
Plates of brass, Chalcidian broad-swords,
O Alcaeus!

When with winter roars the Thracian
North wind through the leafless forest,
O Alcaeus!

Thou dost heap the fire and banish
Care with many a tawny goblet,
O Alcaeus!

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 62]

HYPORCHEME

THUS contend the maidens
In the cretic dance,
Rosy arms that glisten,
Eyes that glance;

Cheeks as fair as blossoms,
Parted lips that glow,
With their honeyed voices
Chanting low;

With their plastic bodies
Swaying to the flute,
Moving with the music
Never mute;

Graceful the orchestric
Figures they unfold,
While the vesper heaven
Turns to gold.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 63]

LARICHUS

WHILE charming maids plait garlands for thy brows,
Larichus, bring the pledge for this carouse
Like lovely Ganymede, brother mine,
And cool from thy patera pour the wine.

Thy slender limbs have all a Satyr’s grace,
Hylas, the Wood-God, dimples in thy face;
These maids of mine, beloved and loving me,
My dreams have made thy Nymphs to sport with thee.

I heard fair Mitylene’s plaudits cease
O’er Lykas, Menon and Dinnomenes;
And hail thy beauty worthy of the prize,
Cupbearer to the council of the wise.

No noble youth the prytaneum holds,
Whose graceful form the purple tunic folds
Can match with thee, when on affairs of state
All Lesbos gathers with the wise and great.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 64]

SPRING

COME, shell divine, be vocal now for me,
As when the Hebrus river and the sea
To Lesbos bore, on waves harmonious,
The head and golden lyre of Orpheus.

Calliope, queen of the tuneful throng,
Descend and be the Muse of melic song;
For through my frame life’s tides renewing bring
The glad vein-warming vigor of the spring.

The skies that dome the earth with far blue fire
Make the wide land one temple of desire;–
Just now across my cheek I felt a God,
In the enraptured breeze, pass zephyr-shod.

Was that Pan’s flute, O Atthis, that we heard,
Or the soft love-note of a woodland bird?
That flame a scarlet wing that skimmed the stream,
Or the red flash of our impassioned dream?

Ah, soon again we two shall gather fair
Garlands of dill and rose to deck our bare
White arms that cling, white breast that burns to breast,
When the long night of love shall banish rest.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 65]

GIRL FRIENDS

[p. 66] [p. 67]

PRELUDE

DEFTLY on my little
Seven-stringed barbitos,
Now to please my girl friends
Songs I set to music.

Maidens fair, companions
Of the Muses, never
Toward you shall my feelings
Undergo a change.

Chanted in a plaintive
Old Ionic measure,
All the songs I give you
Are the songs of love.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 68]

ANDROMEDA

WHAT bucolic maiden
Now thy heart bewitches,
O my Andromeda
Of the strange amours?

Round her awkward ankles
She has not the faintest
Sense of art to draw her
Long ungraceful tunic.

Yet she surely makes thee,
O my Andromeda,
For thy sweet unlawful
Love a fair requital.

Joy and praise attend thee,
In thy keen perceptive
Taste for beauty, daughter
Of Polyanax!

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 69]

EUNEICA

APHRODITE’S handmaid,
Bright as gold thou camest,
Tender woven garlands
Round thy tender neck;

Sweet as soft Persuasion,
Lissome as the Graces,
Shy Euneica, lovely
Girl from Salamis.

Slender thou as Syrinx,
As the waving reed-nymph,
Once by Pan, the god of
Summer winds, deflowered.

On thy lips whose quiver
Seems to plead for pity,
Mine shall rest and linger
Like the mouth of Pan

On the mouth of Syrinx,
When his breath that filled her
Blew through all her body
Music of his love.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 70]

GORGO

GORGO, I am weary
Of thy love’s insistence,
Thou to me appearest
An ill-favored child.

Though I am than Gello
Fonder still of virgins,
Toward thee I have never
Felt the least desire.

Yesternight I knew not
What to do, for pity
Moved my bosom deeply,
Seeing thee implore.

Harassed by alternate
Yielding and refusal,
I was half persuaded
Then to grant thy prayer.

At my door thy presence
Lingers like a shadow;
Vain wouldst thou reproach me
With appealing eyes.

Dost thou think by constant
Proofs of lasting passion,
Slowly my obdurate
Will to wear away?

Gorgo, I am weary
Of thy love’s insistence,
And my strength exhausted
Grants thy wish at last.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 71]

MNASIDICA

SET, O Dica, garlands on thy lovely
Glinting mass of fine and golden tresses,
Sprays of dill with fingers soft entwining
While I stand apart to better judge.

Those who have fair wreaths about the forehead,
Breathing brentheian odor to the senses,
Ever first find favor with the Graces
Who from wreathless suppliants turn away.

Dica, Mnasidica, thou art shapely
With the flowing curves of Aphrodite;
Eyes the color of her azure ocean
Washing wide on Cyprus’ languid shore.

In thy every movement grace unconscious
Sways the rhythmic poem of thy body,
Charming with elusive undulation
Like a splendid lily in the wind.

As I stand apart to judge the better
Fair effects that roses add to beauty,
All thy rays of loveliness concentered
Sun me till I swoon with swift desire.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 72]

TELESIPPA

SLEEP thou in the bosom
Of thy tender girl friend,
Telesippa, gentle
Maiden from Miletus.

Like twin petals shyly
Closing to the darkness,
Dewy on your drooping
Lids shall fall her kisses.

While her arms enfold you,
On your drowsy senses
Shall her soft caresses
Seal delicious languor.

Warm from her desireful
Heart the flush of passion
On your cheek unconscious,
With her sighs shall deepen.

All the long sweet night-time,
Sleepless while you slumber,
She shall lie and quiver
With her love’s mad longing.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 73]

GYRINNO

NOW the silver crescent
Of the moon has vanished,
With the golden Pleiads
Drifting down the west.

It is after midnight
And the time is passing,
Hours we pledged to passion
And I sleep alone.

Anger ill becomes thee,
Tender-souled Gyrinno,
Shapelier is Dica
But less loved by me.

Art thou still relentless,
Wilful one, annulling
All thy protestations
In the fervid past?

Can it, O Charites,
Be thou hast forgotten?
Dost thou love another,
Even now, perchance?

Ah, my tears are falling,
Yet in my despairing
Mood I lie and listen
For thy furtive step;

For the lightest rustle
Of thy flowing garment,
For thy sweet and panting
Whisper at the door.

Now the moon has vanished
With the golden Pleiads;
It is after midnight
And I sleep alone.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 74]

MEGARA

THOU burnest us, Megara,
With thy passions wild;
Bringing from Panormus
Such unbridled fires.

Thou burnest us, a supple
Flow of tortured flame,
Raging, biting, searing,
Lawless of the will.

Thou burnest us, Megara,
Love must know reserve,
Curbing power to keep it
Keener for restraint.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 75]

ERINNA

HAUGHTIER than thou, O fair Erinna,
I have never met with any maiden.

Such a careless scorn as thine for passion
Proves a dire affront to Aphrodite.

When with soft desire she wounds thy bosom,
Thou shalt know love’s pain and doubly suffer.

Keep the gifts I gave thee, long rejected;
Fabrics for thy lap from far Phocea,

Babylonian unguents, scented sandals,
And the costly mitra for thy tresses;

Tripods worked in brass to flank the altar
With the ivory figure of the Goddess;

Where the sacrificial fumes from sacred
Flames shall rise to gladden and appease her,

In the hour when at her call thy fervid
Breast and mouth to mine shall be relinquished.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 76]

GONGYLA

IT was when the sunset
Burned with saffron fire,
And Apollo’s coursers
Turned below the hills,

That on Mitylene’s
Marble bridge we met,
Gongyla, thou golden
Maid of Colophon.

Like the breath of morning
Or a breeze from sea,
Fresh thy beauty smote me,
Virile of the north.

Startled by thy vision,
Transports half divine
Flooded veins and bosom,
Shook me with desire.

Soon the kinder sunglow
Of Aeolic lands
Melted all the futile
Snows about thy heart.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 77]

DAMOPHYLA

COLD of heart and strangely
Uninclined to passion,
Wisdom’s vigil leaves thee,
Proud Damophyla.

Sapphics thou hast written,
Verses in my metre,
With a skill surpassing
In the melic art.

Love’s superb enchantment
Thou art fain to banish,
Like the virgin Huntress
Long by thee adored.

Molded by thy tunic,
Every arching contour
Of her chaste and noble
Form I dream to see;

Even view her stepping
From the leafy covert
Down the dawn-white valley,
Stately as a stag.

Long I sued but found thee
Deaf to all entreaty,
Till one summer twilight
Listless in the heat;

Soothed by slumber’s languor,
And my low monodic
Voice that hymned a paean
In the praise of love;

Loth to yield yet vanquished,
As I knelt beside thee,
All thy long resistance
To my kiss succumbed.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 78]

ANAGORA

ANAGORA, fairest
Spoil of fateful battle,
Babylonian temples
Knew thy luring song.

Wrested from barbaric
Captors for thy beauty,
Thou wert made a priestess
At Mylitta’s shrine.

Once these flexile fingers
Clasped in mine so closely,
Neath the temple’s arches
Thrummed the tabor soft.

Thou hast taught me secrets
Of the cryptic chambers,
How the zonahs worship
In the burning East;

Raptures that my wildest
Dreaming never pictured,
Arts of love that charmed me,
Subtle, new and strange.

Hearken to my earnest
Prayer, O Aphrodite!
May the night be doubled
Now for our delight.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 79]

PHAON

[p. 80] [p. 81]

PHILOMEL

PHILOMEL in my garden,
Messenger sweet of springtide,
From the bough of the olive tree utter
Tidings ecstatic.

Linger long on thy olden
Note as in days remembered;
Ere the Boatman that knew Aphrodite
Ravished my vision.

Fatal glamor of beauty,
Beauty of Gods made mortal;
Ah, before its delight I am ever
Fearful of heaven.

Spring in breeze and the blossom,
Grasses and leaves and odors,
On my heart with the breath of a vanished
April is shaken;

Shaken with thrill and regret of
Lost caresses and kisses;
Anactoria’s memory, Atthis
Never forgotten.

Philomel in my garden,
Messenger sweet of springtide,
From the bough of the olive tree utter
Tidings ecstatic.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 82]

GOLDEN PULSE

GOLDEN pulse grew on the shore,
Ferns along the hill,
And the red cliff roses bore
Bees to drink their fill;

Bees that from the meadows bring
Wine of melilot,
Honey-sups on golden wing
To the garden grot.

But to me, neglected flower,
Phaon will not see,
Passion brings no crowning hour,
Honey nor the bee.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 83]

THE SWALLOW

DAUGHTER of Pandion, lovely
Swallow that veers at my window,
Swift on the flood of the sunshine
Darting thy shadow;

What is thy innocent purpose,
Why dost thou hover and haunt me?
Is it a kinship of sorrow
Brings thee anear me?

Must thou forever be tongueless,
Flying in fear of Tereus?
Must he for Itys pursue thee,
Changed to a lapwing?

Tireless of pinion and never
Resting on bush or the branches,
Close to the earth, up the azure,
Over the treetops;

After thy wing in its madness
Follows my glance, as a flitting
Child on the track of its mother
Hastens in silence.

Daughter of Pandion, lovely
Swallow that veers at my window,
Hast thou a message from Cyprus
Telling of Phaon?

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 84]

TIDINGS

SHE wrapped herself in linen woven close,
Stuffs delicate and texture-fine as those
The dark Nile traders for our bartering
From Egypt, Crete and far Phocea bring.

Love lent her feet the wings of winds to reach
(Whose steps stir not the shingle of the beach)
My marble court and, breathless, bid me know
My lover’s sails across the harbor blow.

He seemed to her, as to himself he seems,
Like some bright God long treasured in her dreams;
She saw him standing at his galley’s prow–
My Phaon, mine, in Mitylene now!

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 85]

HESPERUS

HESPERUS shines
Low on the eastern wave,
Off toward the Asian shore;

Over faint lines
Whose grays and purples pave
Where seas night-calmed adore.

Fair vesper fire,
Fairest of stars, the light
Benign of secret bliss

Star of desire,
Bringing to me with night
Dreams and my Phaon’s kiss.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 86]

DAWN

JUST now the golden-sandalled Dawn
Peered through the lattice of my room;
Why must thou fare so soon, my Phaon?

Last night I met thee at the shore,
A thousand hues were in the sky;
The breeze from Cyprus blew, my Phaon!

I drew, to lave thy heated brow,
My kerchief dripping from the sea;
Why hadst thou sailed so far, my Phaon?

Far up the narrow mountain paths
We heard the shepherds fluting home;
Like some white God thou seemed, my Phaon!

And through the olive trees we saw
The twinkle of my vesper lamp;
Wilt kiss me now as then, my Phaon?

Nay, loosen not with gentle force
The clasp of my restraining arms;
I will not let thee go, my Phaon!

See, deftly in my trailing robe
I spring and draw the lattice close;
Is it not night again, my Phaon?

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 87]

THE FAREWELL

BELOVED, stand face to face,
And, lifting lids, disclose to me the grace,
The Paphic fire that lingers yet and lies
Reflected in thy eyes.

Phaon, my sole beloved,
Stand not to my mad passion all unmoved;
O let, ere thou to far Panormus sail,
One hour of love prevail.

Dear ingrate, come and let
Thy breath like odor from a cassolet,
Thy smile, the clinging touch of lips and heart
Anoint me, ere we part.

Phaon, I yearn and seek
But thee alone; and what I feel must speak
In all these fond and wilful ways of mine,
O mortal, made divine!

My girl friends now no more
Hang their sweet gifts of garlands at my door;
Dear maids, with all your vanished empery
Ye now are naught to me.

Phaon, thy galley rides
Within the harbor’s mouth and waits the tides
And favoring winds, far to the west to fly
And leave me here to die.

The brawny rowers lean
To bend long-stroking oars; and changing scene
And fairer loves than mine shall soon efface
This last divine embrace.

Phaon, the lifting breeze!
See, at thy feet I kneel and clasp thy knees!
Go not, go not! O hear my sobbing prayer,
And yield to my despair!

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 88]

DARK-EYED SLEEP

DARK-EYED Sleep, child of Night,
Come in thy shadow garment to my couch,
And with thy soothing touch,
Cool as the vesper breeze,
Grant that I may forget;

Bestow condign release,
A taste of rest that comes with endless sleep;
Lure off the haunting dreams,
The dire Eumenides
That torture my repose.

For I would live a space
Though Phaon has forsaken me, nor yet
Be found on shadow fields
Among the lilies tall
Of pale Persephone.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 89]

THE CLIFF OF LEUCAS

A FAR-SEEN cliff
Stands in the western sea
Toward Cephallenian lands.

Apollo’s temple crowns
Its whitened crest,
And at its base
The waves eternal beat.

Its leap has power
To cure the pangs
Of unrequited love.

Thither pale lovers go
With anguished hearts
To dare the deep and quench
Love’s slow consuming flame.

Urged to the edge
By maddening desire,
I, too, shall fling myself
Imploring thee,
Apollo, lord and king!

Into the chill
Embraces of the sea,
Less cold than thine, O Phaon,
I shall fall–
Fall with the flutter of a wounded dove;

And I shall rise
Indifferent forever to love’s dream,
Or find below
The sea’s eternal voice,
Eternal peace.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 90] [p. 91]

EPIGRAMS

[p. 92] [p. 93]

THE DUST OF TIMAS

THIS is the dust of Timas! Here inurned
Rest the dear ashes where so late had burned
Her spirit’s flame. She perished, gentle maid,
Before her bridal day and now a shade,
Silent and sad, she evermore must be
In the dark chamber of Persephone.
When life had faded with the flower and leaf,
Each girl friend sweet, in token of her grief,
Resigned her severed locks with bended head,
Beauty’s fair tribute to the lovely dead.

The Poems of Sappho, by John Myers O’Hara, [1910], at sacred-texts.com

[p. 94]

THE PRIESTESS OF ARTEMIS

MAIDENS, that pass my tomb with laughter sweet,
A voice unresting echoes at your feet;
Pause, and if any would my story seek,
Dumb as I am, these graven words will speak;
Once in the vanished years it chanced to please
Arista, daughter of Hermocleides,
To dedicate my life in virgin bliss
To thee, revered of women, Artemis!
O Goddess, deign to bless my grandsire’s line,
For Saon was a temple priest of thine;
And grant, O Queen, in thy benefic grace,
Unending fame and fortune to his race.

[p. 95]

PELAGON

ABOVE the lowly grave of Pelagon,
Ill-fated fisher lad, Meniscus’ son,
His father placed as sign of storm and strife
The weel and oar, memorial of his life.

[p. 96]

FINIS


=============================================

Who was Sappho?
By Daniel Mendelsohn, New Yorker (2015)

New papyrus finds are refining our idea of Sappho. Some scholars question how personal her erotic poems actually are.Manchester Art Gallery, UK / Bridgeman
One day not long after New Year’s, 2012, an antiquities collector approached an eminent Oxford scholar for his opinion about some brownish, tattered scraps of writing. The collector’s identity has never been revealed, but the scholar was Dirk Obbink, a MacArthur-winning classicist whose specialty is the study of texts written on papyrus—the material, made of plant fibres, that was the paper of the ancient world. When pieced together, the scraps that the collector showed Obbink formed a fragment about seven inches long and four inches wide: a little larger than a woman’s hand. Densely covered with lines of black Greek characters, they had been extracted from a piece of desiccated cartonnage, a papier-mâché-like plaster that the Egyptians and Greeks used for everything from mummy cases to bookbindings. After acquiring the cartonnage at a Christie’s auction, the collector soaked it in a warm water solution to free up the precious bits of papyrus.

Judging from the style of the handwriting, Obbink estimated that it dated to around 200 A.D. But, as he looked at the curious pattern of the lines—repeated sequences of three long lines followed by a short fourth—he saw that the text, a poem whose beginning had disappeared but of which five stanzas were still intact, had to be older.

Much older: about a thousand years more ancient than the papyrus itself. The dialect, diction, and metre of these Greek verses were all typical of the work of Sappho, the seventh-century-B.C. lyric genius whose sometimes playful, sometimes anguished songs about her susceptibility to the graces of younger women bequeathed us the adjectives “sapphic” and “lesbian” (from the island of Lesbos, where she lived). The four-line stanzas were in fact part of a schema she is said to have invented, called the “sapphic stanza.” To clinch the identification, two names mentioned in the poem were ones that several ancient sources attribute to Sappho’s brothers. The text is now known as the “Brothers Poem.”

Remarkably enough, this was the second major Sappho find in a decade: another nearly complete poem, about the deprivations of old age, came to light in 2004. The new additions to the extant corpus of antiquity’s greatest female artist were reported in papers around the world, leaving scholars gratified and a bit dazzled. “Papyrological finds,” as one classicist put it, “ordinarily do not make international headlines.”

But then Sappho is no ordinary poet. For the better part of three millennia, she has been the subject of furious controversies—about her work, her family life, and, above all, her sexuality. In antiquity, literary critics praised her “sublime” style, even as comic playwrights ridiculed her allegedly loose morals. Legend has it that the early Church burned her works. (“A sex-crazed whore who sings of her own wantonness,” one theologian wrote, just as a scribe was meticulously copying out the lines that Obbink deciphered.) A millennium passed, and Byzantine grammarians were regretting that so little of her poetry had survived. Seven centuries later, Victorian scholars were doing their best to explain away her erotic predilections, while their literary contemporaries, the Decadents and the Aesthetes, seized on her verses for inspiration. Even today, experts can’t agree on whether the poems were performed in private or in public, by soloists or by choruses, or, indeed, whether they were meant to celebrate or to subvert the conventions of love and marriage. The last is a particularly loaded issue, given that, for many readers and scholars, Sappho has been a feminist heroine or a gay role model, or both. “As far as I knew, there was only me and a woman called Sappho,” the critic Judith Butler once remarked.

Now the first English translation of Sappho’s works to include the recent finds has appeared: “Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works” (Cambridge), with renderings by Diane J. Rayor and a thoroughgoing introduction by André Lardinois, a Sappho specialist who teaches in the Netherlands. (Publication of the book was delayed by several months to accommodate the “Brothers Poem.”) It will come as no surprise to those who have followed the Sappho wars that the new poems have created new controversies.

The greatest problem for Sappho studies is that there’s so little Sappho to study. It would be hard to think of another poet whose status is so disproportionate to the size of her surviving body of work.

We don’t even know how much of her poetry Sappho actually wrote down. The ancients referred to her works as melê, “songs.” Composed to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre—this is what “lyric” poetry meant for the Greeks—they may well have been passed down from memory by her admirers and other poets before being committed at last to paper. (Or whatever. One fragment, in which the poet calls on Aphrodite, the goddess of love, to come into a charming shrine “where cold water ripples through apple branches, the whole place shadowed in roses,” was scribbled onto a broken clay pot.) Like other great poets of the time, she would have been a musician and a performer as well as a lyricist. She was credited with having invented a certain kind of lyre and the plectrum.

VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER

Four centuries after her death, scholars at the Library of Alexandria catalogued nine “books”—papyrus scrolls—of Sappho’s poems, organized primarily by metre. Book 1, for instance, gathered all the poems that had been composed in the sapphic stanza—the verse form Obbink recognized in the “Brothers Poem.” This book alone reportedly contained thirteen hundred and twenty lines of verse; the contents of all nine volumes may have amounted to some ten thousand lines. So much of Sappho was circulating in antiquity that one Greek author, writing three centuries after her death, confidently predicted that “the white columns of Sappho’s lovely song endure / and will endure, speaking out loud . . . as long as ships sail from the Nile.”

By the Middle Ages, nearly everything had disappeared. As with much of classical literature, texts of her work existed in relatively few copies, all painstakingly transcribed by hand. Over time, fire, flood, neglect, and bookworms—to say nothing of disapproving Church Fathers—took their devastating toll. Market forces were also at work: as the centuries passed, fewer readers—and fewer scribes—understood Aeolic, the dialect in which Sappho composed, and so demand for new copies diminished. A twelfth-century Byzantine scholar who had hoped to write about Sappho grumbled that “both Sappho and her works, the lyrics and the songs, have been trashed by time.”

Until a hundred years ago or so, when papyrus fragments of her poems started turning up, all that remained of those “white columns of Sappho’s song” was a handful of lines quoted in the works of later Greek and Roman authors. Some of these writers were interested in Lesbos’s most famous daughter for reasons that can strike us as comically arcane: the only poem that has survived in its entirety—a playful hymn to Aphrodite in which the poet calls upon the goddess to be her “comrade in arms” in an erotic escapade—was saved for posterity because the author of a first-century-B.C. treatise called “On the Arrangement of Words” admired her handling of vowels. At present, scholars have catalogued around two hundred and fifty fragments, of which fewer than seventy contain complete lines. A great many consist of just a few words; some, of a single word.

The common theme of most ancient responses to Sappho’s work is rapturous admiration for her exquisite style or for her searing content, or both. An anecdote from a later classical author about the Athenian legislator Solon, a contemporary of Sappho’s and one of the Seven Sages of Greece, is typical:

Solon of Athens, son of Execestides, after hearing his nephew singing a song of Sappho’s over the wine, liked the song so much that he told the boy to teach it to him. When someone asked him why he was so eager, he replied, “so that I may learn it and then die.”

Plato, whose attitude toward literature was, to say the least, vexed—he thought most poetry had no place in the ideal state—is said to have called her the “Tenth Muse.” The scholars at the Library of Alexandria enshrined her in their canon of nine lyric geniuses—the only woman to be included. At least two towns on Lesbos vied for the distinction of being her birthplace; Aristotle reports that she “was honored although she was a woman.”

All this buzz is both titillating and frustrating, stoking our appetite for a body of work that we’re unable to read, much less assess critically: imagine what the name Homer would mean to Western civilization if all we had of the Iliad and the Odyssey was their reputations and, say, ninety lines of each poem. The Greeks, in fact, seem to have thought of Sappho as the female counterpart of Homer: he was known as “the Poet,” and they referred to her as “the Poetess.” Many scholars now see her poetry as an attempt to appropriate and “feminize” the diction and subject matter of heroic epic. (For instance, the appeal to Aphrodite to be her “comrade in arms”—in love.)

The good news is that the surviving fragments of Sappho bear out the ancient verdict. One fine example is her best-known verse, known to classicists as Fragment 31, which consists of four sapphic stanzas. (They appear below in my own translation.) These were singled out by the author of a first-century-A.D. literary treatise called “On the Sublime” for the way in which they “select and juxtapose the most striking, intense symptoms of erotic passion.” Here the speaker expresses her envy of the men who, presumably in the course of certain kinds of social occasions, have a chance to talk to the girl she yearns for:

He seems to me an equal of the gods—
whoever gets to sit across from you
and listen to the sound of your sweet speech
so close to him,

to your beguiling laughter: O it makes my
panicked heart go fluttering in my chest,
for the moment I catch sight of you there’s no
speech left in me,

but tongue gags—: all at once a faint
fever courses down beneath the skin,
eyes no longer capable of sight, a thrum-
ming in the ears,

and sweat drips down my body, and the shakes
lay siege to me all over, and I’m greener
than grass, I’m just a little short of dying,
I seem to me;

but all must be endured, since even a pauper . . .

Even without its final lines (which, maddeningly, the author of the treatise didn’t go on to quote), it’s a remarkable work. Slyly, the speaker avoids physical description of the girl, instead evoking her beauty by detailing the effect it has on the beholder; the whole poem is a kind of reaction shot. The verses subtly enact the symptoms they describe: as the poet’s faculties fail one by one in the overpowering presence of her beloved, the outside world—the girl, the man she’s talking to—dissolves and disappears from the poem, too, leaving the speaker in a kind of interior echo chamber. The arc from “he seems to me” in the first line to the solipsistic “I seem to me” at the end says it all.

Even the tiniest scraps can be potent, as Rayor’s lucid and comprehensive translation makes clear. (Until now, the most noteworthy English version to include renderings of virtually every fragment was “If Not, Winter,” the 2002 translation by the poet and classicist Anne Carson.) To flip through these truncated texts is a strangely moving experience, one that has been compared to “reading a note in a bottle”:

You came, I yearned for you,
and you cooled my senses that burned with desire

or

love shook my senses
like wind crashing on mountain oaks

or

Maidenhood, my maidenhood, where have you gone
leaving me behind?
Never again will I come to you, never again

or—the lines in which the notion of desire as “bittersweet” appears for the first time in Western literature—

Once again Love, that loosener of limbs,
bittersweet and inescapable, crawling thing,
seizes me.

The very incompleteness of the verses can heighten the starkness of the emotions—a fact that a number of contemporary classicists and translators have made much of. For Stanley Lombardo, whose “Sappho: Poems and Fragments” (2002) offers a selection of about a quarter of the fragments, the truncated remains are like “beautiful, isolated limbs.” Thomas Habinek, a classicist at the University of Southern California, has nicely summed up this rather postmodern aspect of Sappho’s appeal: “The fragmentary preservation of poems of yearning and separation serves as a reminder of the inevitable incompleteness of human knowledge and affection.”

In Sappho’s biography, as in her work, gaps predominate. A few facts can be inferred by triangulating various sources: the poems themselves, ancient reference works, citations in later classical writers who had access to information that has since been lost. The “Suda,” a tenth-century Byzantine encyclopedia of ancient culture, which is the basis of much of our information, asserts that Sappho “flourished” between 612 and 608 B.C.; from this, scholars have concluded that she was born around 640. She was likely past middle age when she died, since in at least one poem she complains about her graying hair and cranky knees.

Although her birthplace cannot be verified, Sappho seems to have lived mostly in Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos. Just across the strip of water that separates Lesbos from the mainland of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) was the opulent city of Sardis, the capital of Lydia. Some classicists have argued that the proximity of Lesbos to this lush Eastern trading hub helps to explain Sappho’s taste for visual gorgeousness and sensual luxury: the “myrrh, cassia, and frankincense,” the “bracelets, fragrant / purple robes, iridescent trinkets, / countless silver cups, and ivory” that waft and glitter in her lines, often in striking counterpoint to their raw emotionality.

Mytilene was constantly seething with political and social dramas occasioned by rivalries and shifting alliances among aristocratic clans. Sappho belonged to one of these—there’s a fragment in which she chastises a friend “of bad character” for siding with a rival clan—and a famous literary contemporary, a poet called Alcaeus, belonged to another. Alcaeus often refers to the island’s political turbulence in his poems, and it’s possible that at some point Sappho and her family fled, or were exiled, to Southern Italy: Cicero refers in one of his speeches to a statue of the poet that had been erected in the town hall of Syracuse, in Sicily. The Victorian critic John Addington Symonds saw the unstable political milieu of Sappho’s homeland as entwined with the heady erotic climate of her poems. Lesbos, he wrote in an 1872 essay on the poet, was “the island of overmastering passions.”

Some things seem relatively certain, then. But when it comes to Sappho’s personal life—the aspect of her biography that scholars and readers are most eager to know about—the ancient record is confused. What did Sappho look like? A dialogue by Plato, written in the fourth century B.C., refers to her as “beautiful”; a later author insisted that she was “very ugly, being short and swarthy.” Who were her family? The Suda (which gives eight possible names for Sappho’s father) asserts that she had a daughter and a mother both named Kleïs, a gaggle of brothers, and a wealthy husband named Kerkylas, from the island of Andros. But some of these seemingly precious facts merely show that the encyclopedia—which, as old as it is, was compiled fifteen centuries after Sappho lived—could be prone to comic misunderstandings. “Kerkylas,” for instance, looks a lot like kerkos, Greek slang for “penis,” and “Andros” is very close to the word for “man”; and so the encyclopedia turns out to have been unwittingly recycling a tired old joke about oversexed Sappho, who was married to “Dick of Man.”

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

March 16, 2015

Many other alleged facts of Sappho’s biography similarly dissolve on close scrutiny. Was Sappho really a mother? There is indeed a fragment that mentions a girl named Kleïs, “whose form resembles golden blossoms,” but the word that some people have translated as “daughter” can also mean “child,” or even “slave.” (Because Greek children were often named for their grandparents, it’s easy to see how the already wobbly assumption that Kleïs must have been a daughter in turn led to the assertion that Sappho had a mother with the same name.) Who were the members of her circle? The Suda refers by name to three female “students,” and three female companions—Atthis, Telesippa, and Megara—with whom she had “disgraceful friendships.” But much of this is no more than can be reasonably extrapolated from the poems: the extant fragments mention nearly all those names. The compilers of the Suda, like scholars today, may have been making educated guesses.

Even Sappho’s sexuality, which for modern readers is the most famous thing about her, has been controversial from the start. However exalted her reputation among the ancient literati, in Greek popular culture of the Classical period and afterward Sappho was known primarily as an oversexed predator—of men. This, in fact, was the ancient cliché about “Lesbians”: when we hear the word today we think of love between women, but when the ancient Greeks heard the word they thought of blow jobs. In classical Greek, the verb lesbiazein—“to act like someone from Lesbos”—meant performing fellatio, an activity for which inhabitants of the island were thought to have a particular penchant. Comic playwrights and authors of light verse portrayed Sappho as just another daughter of Lesbos, only too happy to fall into bed with her younger male rivals.

For centuries, the most popular story about her love life was one about a hopeless passion for a handsome young boatman called Phaon, which allegedly led her to jump off a cliff. That tale has been embroidered, dramatized, and novelized over the centuries by writers from Ovid—who in one poem has Sappho abjectly renouncing her gay past—to Erica Jong, in her 2003 novel “Sappho’s Leap.” As fanciful as it is, it’s easy to see how this melodrama of heterosexual passion could have been inspired by her verse, which so often describes the anguish of unrequited love. (“You have forgotten me / or you love someone else more.”) The added element of suicide suggests that those who wove this improbable story wanted us to take away a moral: unfettered expressions of great passion will have dire consequences.

As time went on, the fantasies about Sappho’s private life became more extreme. Midway through the first century A.D., the Roman philosopher Seneca, tutor to Nero, was complaining about a Greek scholar who had devoted an entire treatise to the question of whether Sappho was a prostitute. Some ancient writers assumed that there had to have been two Sapphos: one the great poet, the other the notorious slut. There is an entry for each in the Suda.

The uncertainties plaguing the biography of literature’s most famous Lesbian explain why classicists who study Sappho like to cite the entry for her in Monique Wittig and Sande Zeig’s “Lesbian Peoples: Material for a Dictionary” (1979). To honor Sappho’s central position in the history of female homosexuality, the two editors devoted an entire page to her. The page is blank.

The controversies about Sappho’s sexuality have never been far from the center of scholarship about her. Starting in the early nineteenth century, when classics itself was becoming a formal discipline, scholars who were embarrassed by what they found in the fragments worked hard to whitewash Sappho’s reputation. The title of one early work of German scholarship is “Sappho Liberated from a Prevalent Prejudice”: in it, the author acknowledged that what Sappho felt for her female friends was “love” but hastened to insist that it was in no way “objectionable, vulgarly sensual, and illegal,” and that her poems of love were neither “monstrous nor abominable.”

The eagerness to come up with “innocent” explanations for the poet’s attachment to young women persisted through the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The most tenacious theory held that Sappho was the head of a girls’ boarding school, a matron whose interest in her pupils was purely pedagogical. (One scholar claimed to have found evidence that classes were taught on how to apply makeup.) Another theory made her into an august priestess, leading “an association of young women who devoted themselves to the cult of the goddess.”

Classicists today have no problem with the idea of a gay Sappho. But some have been challenging the interpretation of her work that seems most natural to twenty-first century readers: that the poems are deeply personal expressions of private homoerotic passion. Pointing to the relentlessly public and communitarian character of ancient-Greek society, with its clan allegiances, its endless rounds of athletic games and artistic competitions, its jammed calendar of civic and religious festivals, they wonder whether “personal” poetry, as we understand the term, even existed for someone like Sappho. As André Lardinois, the co-author of the new English edition, has written, “Can we be sure that these are really her own feelings? . . . What is ‘personality’ in such a group-oriented society as archaic Greece?”

Indeed, the vision of Sappho as a solitary figure pouring out her heart in the women’s quarters of a nobleman’s mansion is a sentimental anachronism—a projection, like so much of our thinking about her, of our own habits and institutions onto the past. In “Sappho and Alcaeus,” by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a Victorian painter much given to lush re-creations of scenes from Greek antiquity, the Poetess and four diaphanously clad, flower-wreathed acolytes relax in a charming little performance space, enraptured as the male bard sings and plays, as if he were a Beat poet in a Telegraph Hill café. But Lardinois and others have argued that many, if not most, of Sappho’s poems were written to be performed by choruses on public occasions. In some lyrics, the speaker uses the first-person plural “we”; in others, she uses the plural “you” to address a group—presumably the chorus, who danced as she sang. (Even when Sappho uses the first-person singular, it doesn’t mean she was singing solo: in Greek tragedy the chorus, which numbered fifteen singers, regularly uses “I.”)

This communal voice, which to us seems jarring in lyrics of deep, even erotic feeling—imagine that Shakespeare’s sonnets had been written as choral hymns—is one that some translators today simply ignore, in keeping with the modern interest in individual psychology. But if the proper translation of the sexy little Fragment 38 is not “you scorch me” but “you scorch us,” which is what the Greek actually says, how, exactly, should we interpret it?

To answer that question, classicists lately have been imagining the purposes to which public performance of erotic poems might have been put. Ancient references to the poet’s “companions” and “students” have led one expert to argue that Sappho was the leader of a female collective, whose role was “instruction leading to marriage.” Rather than expressions of individual yearning for a young woman, the poems were, in Lardinois’s view, “public forms of praise of the general attractiveness of the girl,” celebrating her readiness for wedlock and integration into the larger society. The late Harvard classicist Charles Segal made even larger claims. As he saw it, the strongly rhythmic erotic lyrics were “incantatory” in nature; he believed that public performance of poems like Fragment 31 would have served to socialize desire itself for the entire city—to lift sexual yearning “out of the realm of the formless and terrible, bring it into the light of form, make it visible to the individual poet and, by extension, to his or her society.”

Even purely literary issues—for instance, the tendency to think of Sappho as the inventor of “the lyric I,” a single, emotionally naked speaker who becomes a stand-in for the reader—are affected by these new theories. After all, if the “I” who speaks in Sappho’s work is a persona (a “poetic construct rather than a real life figure,” as Lardinois put it) how much does her biography actually matter?

Between the paucity of actual poems and the woeful unreliability of the biographical tradition, these debates are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Indeed, the study of Sappho is beset by a curious circularity. For the better part of a millennium—between the compilation of the Suda and the late nineteenth century—the same bits of poetry and the same biographical gossip were endlessly recycled, the poetic fragments providing the sources for biographies that were then used as the basis for new interpretations of those same fragments. This is why the “new Sappho” has been so galvanizing for classicists: every now and then, the circle expands, letting in a little more light.

Obbink’s revelation last year was, in fact, only the latest in a series of papyrological discoveries that have dramatically enhanced our understanding of Sappho and her work. Until the late nineteenth century, when the papyri started turning up, there were only the ancient quotations. Since then, the amount of Sappho that we have has more than doubled.

In 1897, two young Oxford archeologists started excavating a site in Egypt that had been the municipal dump of a town called Oxyrhynchus—“the City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish.” In ancient times, the place had been home to a large Greek-speaking population. However lowly its original purpose, the dump soon yielded treasures. Papyrus manuscripts dating to the first few centuries A.D., containing both Greek and Roman texts, began to surface. Some were fragments of works long known, such as the Iliad, but even these were of great value, since the Oxyrhynchus papyri were often far older than what had been, until that point, the oldest surviving copies. Others revealed works previously unknown. Among the latter were several exciting new fragments of Sappho, some substantial. From the tattered papyri, the voice came through as distinctive as ever:

Some men say cavalry, some men say infantry,
some men say the navy’s the loveliest thing
on this black earth, but I say it’s what-
ever you love

Over the decades that followed, more of the papyri were deciphered and published. But by 1955, when the British classicist Denys Page published “Sappho and Alcaeus,” a definitive study of the two Lesbian poets, it seemed that even this rich new vein had been exhausted. “There is not at present,” Page declared, “any reason to expect that we shall ever possess much more of the poetry of Sappho and Alcaeus than we do today, and this seems a suitable time to begin the difficult and doubtful task of interpreting.”

Sappho herself, it seems fair to say, would have raised an eyebrow at Page’s confidence in his judgment. Human fortune, she writes, is as variable as the weather at sea, where “fair winds swiftly follow harsh gales.” And, indeed, this verse was unknown to Page, since it comes from the papyrus fragment that Dirk Obbink brought to light last year: the “Brothers Poem.”

For specialists, the most exciting feature of the “Brothers Poem” is that it seems to corroborate the closest thing we have to a contemporary reference to Sappho’s personal life: an oblique mention of her in Herodotus’ Histories, written about a century and a half after her death. During a long discussion of Egyptian society, Herodotus mentions one of Sappho’s brothers, a rather dashing character named Charaxus. A swashbuckling merchant sailor, he supposedly spent a fortune to buy the freedom of a favorite courtesan in Egypt—an act, Herodotus reports, for which Sappho “severely chided” her sibling in verse. Ovid and other later classical authors also refer to some kind of tension between Sappho and this brother, but, in the absence of a surviving poem on the subject by Sappho herself, generations of scholars were unable to verify even the brother’s name.

So it’s easy to imagine Dirk Obbink’s excitement as he worked his way through the first lines of the poem:

but you’re always nattering on that Charaxus must come,
his ship full-laden. That much, I reckon, Zeus knows . . .

The pious thing to do, the speaker says, is to pray to the gods for this brother’s return, since human happiness depends on divine good will. The poem closes with the hope that another, younger brother will grow up honorably and save his family from heartache—presumably, the anxiety caused by their wayward elder sibling. At last, that particular biographical tidbit could be confirmed.

For non-classicists, the “Brothers Poem” may be less enthralling than the other recent Sappho find, the poem that surfaced in 2004, about old age—a bittersweet work indeed. After the University of Cologne acquired some papyri, scholars found that one of the texts overlapped with a poem already known: Fragment 58, one of the Oxyrhynchus papyri. The Oxyrhynchus fragment consisted mostly of the ends of a handful of lines; the new Cologne papyrus filled in the blanks, leaving only a few words missing. Finally, the lines made sense.

As with much Archaic Greek poetry, the newly restored Fragment 58—the “Old Age Poem,” as it is now called—illustrates its theme with an example from myth. Sappho alludes to the story of Eos, the dawn goddess, who wished for, and was granted, eternal life for her mortal lover, Tithonus, but forgot to ask for eternal youth:

[I bring] the beautiful gifts of the violet Muses, girls,
and [I love] that song lover, the sweet-toned lyre.

My skin was [delicate] before, but now old age
[claims it]; my hair turned from black [to white].

My spirit has grown heavy; knees buckle
that once could dance light as fawns.

I often groan, but what can I do?
Impossible for humans not to age.

For they say that rosy-armed Dawn in love
went to the ends of the earth holding Tithonos,

beautiful and young, but in time gray old age
seized even him with an immortal wife.

Here as elsewhere in the new translation, Diane J. Rayor captures the distinctively plainspoken quality of Sappho’s Greek, which, for all the poet’s naked emotionality and love of luxe, is never overwrought or baroque. Every translation is a series of sacrifices; in Rayor’s case, emphasis on plainness of expression sometimes comes at the cost of certain formal elements—not least, metre. The classicist M. L. West, who published a translation in the Times Literary Supplement, took pains to emulate the long line of Sappho’s original:

But me—my skin which once was soft is withered now
by age, my hair has turned to white which once was black . . .

Still, given how disastrously cloying many attempts to re-create Sappho’s verse as “song” have proved to be, you’re grateful for Rayor’s directness. Her notes on the translations are particularly useful, especially when she alerts readers to choices that are left “silent” in other English versions. The last extant line of Fragment 31, for instance, presents a notorious problem: it could mean something like “all must be endured” or, on the other hand, “all must be dared.” Rayor prefers “endured,” and tells you why she thinks it’s the better reading.

In her translation of the “Old Age Poem,” Rayor makes one very interesting choice. The Cologne manuscript dates to the third century B.C., which makes it the oldest and therefore presumably the most reliable manuscript of Sappho that we currently possess. In that text, the poem ends after the sixth couplet, with its glum reference to Tithonus being seized by gray old age. But Rayor has decided to include some additional lines that appear only in the fragmentary Oxyrhynchus papyrus. These give the poem a far more upbeat ending:

Yet I love the finer things . . . this and passion
for the light of life have granted me brilliance and beauty.

The manuscript containing those lines was copied out five hundred years after the newly discovered version—half a millennium further away from the moment when the Poetess first sang this song.

And so the new Sappho raises as many questions as it answers. Did different versions of a single poem coexist in antiquity, and, if so, did ancient audiences know or care? Who in the “Brothers Poem” has been chattering on about Sappho’s brother Charaxus, and why? Where, exactly, does the “Old Age Poem” end? Was it a melancholy testament to the mortifying effects of age or a triumphant assertion of the power of beauty, of the “finer things”—of poetry itself—to redeem the ravages of time? Even as we strain to hear this remarkable woman’s sweet speech, the thrumming in our ears grows louder. ♦