Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics

June 6, 2014

saphoWe all know that time makes us grow old, heals some of our wounds and helps us become wiser. Unfortunately, we are not the only ones who suffer because of time; Ancient texts do, as well. Most of the Ancient texts — whether plays or poetry — were erased, burnt or lost because of wars, religious dogmatism or ignorance. This also happened with the majority of Sappho’s poems. However, a Canadian poet took the matter in his own hands and rewrote one hundred poems by adding them to the few existing Ancient fragments.

Sappho was a Greek poetess born in Lesbos and her poetry was well-known and greatly praised throughout antiquity. We hardly know anything precisely about her life, because Ancient chronicles and scholars cannot decide upon the year of her birth or with whom she was contemporary. They estimated her birth year somewhere between 630 and 612 BC and her death around 570 BC. According to the chronology inscribed on the Parian Marble, at some point in her life, Sappho was exiled to Sicily because of political tumult.

Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics is a book of poems written by the Canadian poet Bliss Carman, first published in 1904.  In the introduction to the 1907 edition, Charles G. D. Roberts says that the most plausible theory for the disappearance of Sappho’s poems was that they were burnt in Byzantium in 380 AD by Gregory Nazianzen, the Archbishop of Constantinople, who wanted his poems to be studied instead, because they were more moral. Roberts praises Carman’s initiative to reconstruct Sappho’s poems with the help of the remaining fragments, saying that his task is based more on imagination and interpretation than on translation and paraphrasing. “Mr Carman’s method apparently has been to imagine each last lyric discovered, and then to translate it (…) accompanied by the fluidity and freedom of purely original work” (Loc. 52).

The themes of these 100 poems are usually concerned with love, beauty, death, nature, divinity and time. The sapho (2)gods most invoked and praised in these poetic works are Aphrodite, Pan, Hermes and sometimes Poseidon. But the persona doesn’t speak only to divinity, but most of the time to a lover. It’s a bit confusing to figure out who is the voice behind the persona, because Carman reconstructed the poems trying to get under Sappho’s skin. Most of the time, Sappho loves or longs for the love of another woman, whether it is something platonic or passionate. The word Lesbian, due to its ethnology, refers to an inhabitant of Lesbos, while the not so politically correct term we know today was invented in the 19th century.

I’m sure that Sappho’s original poems were much naughtier than those of Carman, because the Greeks were not ashamed of anything physiologic or natural. On the other hand, Carman poems are beautiful and very deep, they are like a balm for your heart. For me, these reconstructed poems of Sappho are like strolling during a starry night in an oleander garden.

by Alina Andreea Cătărău


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