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Special Note:  The Poet Sappho

Sappho is one of the most renowned of the ancient Greek poets, and the most admired female poet of her time. Today, only a few fragments of her poetry remain and these are known mostly through second-hand accounts of her contemporaries and those who were familiar with her work during the years that it did survive.  Renowned philosopher Plato, nearly two centuries after her death, refers to Sappho as the “Tenth Muse” – a ringing endorsement indeed.

The “Sapphic Strophe” or “Sapphics” is a formal poetical style that consists of 4-line stanzas, the first three of which consists of 11 syllables (or beats), with the fourth consisting of 5 syllables – a form invented by Sappho.  This form can be seen in two translations of Sappho by
John Myers O'Hara:  Love's Banquet and To Alcaeus.

What we do know of her life is very sketchy.  She lived on the Greek island of Lesbos (now Lésvos), where she apparently taught poetry to women, constructing “wedding odes” for them when they left to be married.  Nearly a century later, Greek poet (and famed wine poet) Anacreon referred to Lesbos as being a center for female homosexuality, and thus we have the modern terms lesbianism and sapphism.  Tradition, however, has that Sappho was in relationship with Alcaeus, another poet of her day (and the subject the wine poem To Alcaeus
).  Legend also has it that her death was a suicide, plummeting from a cliff over the unrequited love of a boatman named Phaon.  Gay, heterosexual, or bi- ?  It really doesn't matter, but of such “tabloid fodder” legends are made.

The wine poems presented here as being translations of Sappho, are creative reconstructions from the fragments that history has left us of her work.  Some introductory remarks to Bliss Carman's Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics, applies to all the translators of Sappho to be found here, and to some degree to all translators of poetry.   C. G. D. Roberts observes:

     Perhaps the most perilous and the most alluring venture in the whole field of poetry is that which Mr. Carman has undertaken in attempting to give us in English verse those lost poems of Sappho of which fragments have survived. The task is obviously not one of translation or of paraphrasing, but of imaginative and, at the same time, interpretive construction.  It is as if a sculptor of today were to set himself, with reverence, and trained craftsmanship, and studious familiarity with the spirit, technique, and atmosphere of his subject, to restore some statues of Polyclitus or Praxiteles of which he had but a broken arm, a foot, a knee, a finger upon which to build. Mr. Carman's method, apparently, has been to imagine each lost lyric as discovered, and then to translate it; for the indefinable flavor of the translation is maintained throughout, though accompanied by the fluidity and freedom of purely original work.  

- S. H. Bass    
The Rhyme Maker
Sappho circa 7th Century bce.
c. 7th Century bce

SAPPHO at Amazon:

If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho
translated by Anne Carson

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