I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.


Lost Poets’ Society

Peter Sirr

I teach a class in Irish poetry a couple of times a year and I always begin with Sappho, fragment 31, chanted in a YouTube video by a chorus of voices in the original Aeolic Greek. It causes confusion: at least two students in every group begin their weekly journal with ‘My favourite Irish poet that we studied this week was Sappho.’ And why not? Sadhbh O’Reilly, Sadhbh Dhubh Ní Chonaill, Sappho from Lettermore …

Listen, I begin the following week’s class, I was trying to explore what we mean by lyric, I wanted to begin with something passionate and awkward, the seething rage at the no-account man blocking the poet’s access to the beloved, the heart-thumping speechlessness at the sight of her lapping up the man’s patter and laughing conspiratorially, the burning sensation under the skin. The sense that this is something new in the world, something that Homer, for instance, would have a hard time relating to.

At least I’ve always assumed the speaker is raging with jealousy but Anne Carson, for one, disagrees:

Were she to change places with the man who listens closely, it seems likely she would be entirely destroyed. She does not covet the man’s place nor fear usurpation of her own. She directs no resentment at him. She is simply amazed at his intrepidity. This man’s role in the poetic structure reflects that of jealousy within Sappho’s feelings. Neither is named. It is the beloved’s beauty that affects Sappho; the man’s presence is somehow necessary to delineation of that emotional event.

Sappho does say the man is godlike to be in his privileged position, but I’d always assumed her contempt for him. After all, in Carson’s own translation, he’s ‘that man / whoever he is’, seemingly dismissed. Nameless, faceless, peripheral for all his seeming centrality. For Carson, though, the assumption of the speaker’s jealousy of the man is a trivialisation:

Jealousy is beside the point; the normal world of erotic responses is beside the point; praise is beside the point. It is a poem about the lover’s mind in the act of constructing desire for itself. Sappho’s subject is eros as it appears to her; she makes no claim beyond that. A single consciousness represents itself; one mental state is exposed to view.

The lover’s mind in the act of constructing desire for itself. Brilliant, I think: the taut drama from sixth century BC Lesbos continues to yield up its treasures, the arguments go on long into the night. Some even say we’ve got the first line wrong, that the phainetai moi (‘it seems to me’) is a corruption, a false perspective shift, and that the actual sense is that the man seems godlike to himself to be in the sight of the beloved. I’m not qualified to enter that debate, and I won’t be mentioning it to anyone any time soon. Or indeed any of the other debates: was it a wedding song? Is the man the bridegroom? Are they brother and sister? Is the speaker the headmistress of a boarding school for girls, dedicated to Aphrodite, as the Edwardians liked to think? Does the man have the same function as the army in the opening of fragment 16 – ‘some say an army of horsemen, others say foot soldiers, still others say a fleet’ – introduced only to be dismissed in favour of the real point, the passion for what’s desired. Can we be sure of the gender of the addressee, given that the Greek text doesn’t specify it?

Early translators in English had few doubts: this was a love triangle and it was personal:

Mine eys be dym, my lymbs shake,
My voice is hoarse, my throte scorcht,
My tong to this roofe cleaves,
My fancy amazde, my thoughtes dull’d,
My head doth ake, my life faints
My sowle begins to take leave,
So greate a passion all feele,
To think a soare so deadly
I should so rashly ripp up.

That was Philip Sydney, sometime in the late sixteenth century. Here’s Ambrose Philips in 1711:

Bles’t as th’Immortal Gods is he,
The Youth who fondly sits by thee,
And hears and sees thee all the while
Softly speak and sweetly smile.

’Twas this depriv’d my Soul of Rest,
And raised such Tumults in my Breast;
For while I gaz’d, in Transport tost,
My Breath was gone, my Voice was lost …

This hadn’t changed by the time we get to the nineteenth century; the poem is by now effectively an English standard, the greatest love triangle song of them all, validated, don’t forget, by Catullus in his Carmen 51. And along comes Byron, sometime around 1820:

            Equal to Jove that youth must be –
Greater than Jove he seems to me –
Who, free from Jealousy’s alarms,
Securely views thy matchless charms.
Ah! Lesbia! though ’tis death to me,
I cannot choose but look on thee;
But, at the sight, my senses fly,
I needs must gaze, but, gazing, die …

Jove might be free from jealousy, but the watching speaker certainly isn’t. Jealousy and broken-spiritedness persist well into the twentieth century. One version that strikes a new note and removes the third person, the lucky man, from the triangle altogether is Basil Bunting’s – actually of Catullus’s Ille mi par esse deo videtur – given whole here since I couldn’t resist it:

O, it is godlike to sit selfpossessed
when her chin rises and she turns to smile;
but my tongue thickens, my ears ring,
what I see is hazy.

I tremble. Walls sink in night, voices
unmeaning as wind. She only
a clear note, dazzle of light, fills
furlongs and hours

so that my limbs stir without will, lame,
I a ghost, powerless,
treading air, drowning, sucked
back into dark

unless, rafted on light or music,
drawn into her radiance, I dissolve
when her chin rises and she turns to smile.

O, it is godlike!

See what happened there? It’s just the two of them now, no interference, just the speaker’s pure helplessness in the face of crippling desire, removed into ghostliness. ‘Read her in the Greek with a crib, that’s the way,’ he enjoins us. ‘There is no other poet who has left such a single, definite mark as Sappho, all with one poem …’

φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν
ἔμμεν᾽ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-
σας ὐπακούει …

phainetai moi kênos îsos theoisin
emmen’ ônêr ottis enantios toi
isdanei kai plâsion âdu phonei-
sâs upakouei

What must it have been like to hear those words, that metre? I look up sites and videos where scholars reconstruct the sound of Sappho’s Greek, relying on the metre for the pitch of their voices. I listen to lectures on Sapphic metre, recreations of the barbiton lyre such as Sappho might have used, I read multiple translations:

oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me

… my tongue is struck silent, a delicate fire
suddenly races underneath my skin,
my eyes see nothing, my ears whistle like
the whirling of a top

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 …

Then I go back to Basil Bunting’s music, listen again to

                      …   sucked

back into dark
unless, rafted on light or music,
drawn into her radiance, I dissolve
when her chin rises and she turns to smile …

He never forgets the music, either in his own work or Sappho’s:

It is obvious from the fragments of Sappho that she wrote to be sung. Her barbitos, whatever kind of instrument it was, was intimately connected with the effect, and took perhaps as big a part in the poem as the words themselves.

We would expect no less from Bunting, who also says in the same interview:

… a poem is a series of sounds in the air, just as music. Other things can be included or loaded on to it, but the essential thing is just the noise.

Modern readings veer away from specific circumstances to the wide application of emotion and desire, as in Anne Carson’s comments, or Josephine Balmer’s:

… in my version, as well as highlighting the dramatic, almost violent effect of her passion, I followed more recent readings which prefer to see the focal point of the poem not as the man or even the woman, the object of desire, but the generic emotions aroused by the physical presence of that object. Such readings emphasise the indefinite, illusory, quality of Sappho’s desire; she is not describing any particular event, any particular man. The result is unspecific, timeless, which must surely account for the popularity of the poem through the ages.

We’ll never know; we’re entirely free to take it whatever way we wish. There’s 2,600 years between the poem and us after all. And we remember too that the poem seems to be incomplete, that maybe the most heart-breaking line is the last we know of: ‘but everything must be dared / endured, since (? even a poor man) …’ Is this the beginning of a new stanza, or the first line of a completely different poem? We don’t know. Some translators leave it out; others run with it and invent a new conclusion, but what actually comes after that line is speculation and silence, her reputation among the ancients, her face on coins and vases, her body in statues. We have one complete poem, the prayer to Aphrodite, and a lot of fragments. Some maintain that there are actually four texts we can take as whole. Whatever the number, it’s not a lot. But those poems and fragments are eloquent, whole worlds of feeling and experience gather around them. Sappho may not have been a polemicist or activist for the overturning of the patriarchal order, Josephine Balmer has argued:

Sappho does not reject or even criticise the accepted place of women within her society. But the tension between male and female experience implicit in her poems reflects the changing status of women … Sappho’s poetry creates an alternative world in which aspects of women’s lives are celebrated and a preference for their concerns is expressed.

This was as astonishing to the ancients as it was to successive generations of classicists and critics. There was nothing else like it. ‘This preoccupation with women, which has so troubled so many scholars, is unique in classical literature.’

She continues to speak to, and to obsess us. She is part of our constant moment. New biographies appear, poems and plays inspired by her life and work. I take the dog to the Iveagh Gardens, listening as I walk to Sappho in Fragments by Hattie Naylor on BBC Radio 4. Naylor’s Sappho is a kind of Taylor Swift, a superstar performing her work to large crowds, but she’s bothered by her fairly annoying brothers. Larichus is a drunk. Charaxus is obsessed with a woman he met in Egypt, the Pharaoh’s concubine. He wants to buy her with the family’s business funds and bring her back to Lesbos, a story also told by Herodotus. Sappho, apart from her poetic talents, is also the main figure behind the business, and is outraged by this waste of business capital, not to mention the disgrace the courtesan will bring to high society Mytilene. It’s embarrassing, especially for a superstar. She excoriates him in a poem, as Herodotus also tells us:

Kharaxus, after giving Rhodopis her freedom, returned to Mytilene. He is bitterly attacked by Sappho in one of her poems. This is enough about Rhodopis.

Clearly, Herodotus has more on his mind. I’m walking around the park, half an eye on the dog, entranced by Thalissa Teixeira’s voice. At one point, the family disgraced, at war with her mother, her devoted servant Timas forced to accompany the love trip to Egypt, the invitations dry up, and when a small scale gig does appear she finds she can’t perform any more. I’m enjoying the drama of it all, the car crash readings, the idea of Sappho as Beyoncé or Taylor Swift, the emotion of Timas who’s in love with her mistress and who is rewarded with immortality in the end. But I won’t say how, exactly. You need to listen. Sappho lives!

The play makes use of some recent poems, which, when you think about it, is pretty astonishing. It’s one thing for Taylor Swift to rerelease her old albums, but new poems from 600 BC? In 2004 two scholars, Michael Gronewald and Robert Daniel, announced that a recovered papyrus in the archives of Cologne University had been identified as part of a roll containing poems by Sappho. The papyrus, which, like many papyri, was used as wrapping for a mummy, contained a new section of what’s known as the Tithonus or ‘old age’ poem. It’s the earliest Sappho manuscript in existence, copied around 300 BC, around three centuries after it was written. The first version that we know of was found in an Egyptian dump in 1896 by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, two Oxford-educated students of the then new science of archaeology. The fragment was part of book 4 of Sappho’s poetry, and the papyrus was dated to the third century AD. The fragment was published in 1922 and the poem as we now know is a reconstruction by the scholar Martin West. Appropriately enough, since we’ve talking about time and survival, fragment 58 or ‘The Tithonus Poem’ is very much about time:

[For you] the fragrant-blossomed Muses’ lovely gifts
[be zealous] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre.

[but my once tender] body old age now
[has seized] my hair’s turned [white] instead of dark.

My heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

This state I bemoan, but what’s to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way.

Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn
love smitten, carried him off to the world’s end

handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o’ertook him, husband of immortal wife.

That was how it appeared when Martin West published his translation in The Times Literary Supplement in 2005. There’s hardly a more pitiable figure in Greek mythology than Tithonus, lover of Eos, goddess of the Dawn. A Trojan prince, he was so beautiful that Eos took him as her husband and sensibly asked Zeus to grant him immortality. She forgot, though, to ask for eternal youth, so he grew old and feeble, and eventually was shut up in his room, where he can still be found chattering and drooling endlessly, barely able to move. A serious oversight, you have to think. But here is this moving poem, possibly written in the poet’s own old age, reflecting on the ravages of mortality with its white-haired figure barely able to walk. This is what it is to be human; if Eos had remembered to ask for eternal youth for her love as well as immortality, who would care about him or be moved by his fate? His inescapable feebleness is human, or an extreme magnification of our fate. ‘A human being without old age is / not a possibility’, as Carson’s version has it.

After West’s translation appeared many poets produced versions of it, notably Edwin Morgan and Anne Carson. Carson’s version is definitely among the most affecting:

… my heart is weighed down
and my knees do not lift,
that once were light to dance as
fawns …

Josephine Balmer had published a version based on the earlier, partial text. She’d felt such a strong affinity with it ‘that it became the one exception to my rule of not filling in the gaps’, and as it turned out her conjectural translation was quite close to the West version above. When she was asked to retranslate it she transmuted the poem into a near sonnet of thirteen lines. ‘Nevertheless, thirty years – and two millennia later – it still felt as if Sappho was at my shoulder as I wrote.’

The gifts of the Muses are violet-threaded,
rare: follow their path, my daughters, pursue
the lyre’s clear-voiced, enthralling song.
Once I, too, was in tender bud. Now old age
is wrinkling my skin and my hair is turning
from black to grey; my heart is weighted,
knees buckle where I danced like a deer.
Yet what else can I do but complain?
To be human is to grow old. They say
Eös, the rosy-fingered dawn, whispered
of love to Tithonus, whirled him away
to the very edge of the world, beguiled
by his youth and beauty. Yet still he aged,
still he withered, despite his immortal wife.

A large part of this poem’s appeal is that its very first gesture is the plea for poetry itself as the only corrective to the old age the succeeding lines so powerfully evoke, and that the poet herself is enduring. Dawn’s doomed love is almost a rebuke to her own beauty. Here, as so often, she is rosy-fingered, as in Homer’s Eos Rhododactylos (Ἠὼς Ῥοδοδάκτυλος), but scholars have fretted much about Sappho’s use of the epithet for the moon in one of the most famous fragments, her intense, erotic song of consolation for Atthis, whose companion or lover is now in Lydia, across the sea from Lesbos:

She held you as a goddess made manifest, and took particular pleasure in your singing. Now she stands out among the women of Lydia, as, when the sun has set, the rose-fingered moon shines forth, surpassing all the stars; it spreads its light over the salt sea and upon fields filled with flowers, and fair dew is shed while roses bloom, and tender chervil, and the melilot with its blossoms. Wandering back and forth, she remembers gentle Atthis, and her heart is heavy.

Generations of critics have frowned, thinking it a bit of a cheek to pinch Homer’s perfectly realistic description of the dawn and apply it to the moon. But it’s a brilliant and powerful image, the moon spreading its light over the sea and the flowers just as the longed-for woman surpasses the women of Lydia, and it’s the kind of fragment that must surely persuade any reader of Sappho’s reach. And in fact, as Peter Green reminds us, despite the assumption by many that Sappho was engaging in a far-fetched literary conceit to make her comparison, actual experience can teach us that she simply opened her eyes and composed:

There is also the island of Lesbos itself: today, as in antiquity, large, variegated and wealthy enough to form an idiosyncratic world of its own. I lived there for more than three years, and kept coming up against things that reminded me of Sappho: above all, one magical evening, at dinner out on our terrace, when the moon that rose behind the wooded Lepetymnos mountain ridge above us was indeed, soon after sunset, as Sappho wrote, rhododaktylos, ‘rosy-fingered’, a curious physical phenomenon never experienced elsewhere, and not – it was suddenly clear – just a literary spin-off from Homer. In that brief moment we shared the unique vision of a poet who had seen, two and a half millennia ago, exactly what we saw now. Here as elsewhere, Sappho, passionate and imaginative, was still writing of what she had actually experienced.

The pull of mortality is strong and ever present, and the pull of what has been lost over time is, sometimes, irresistible. We can’t get enough of Sappho because there just isn’t enough. So you can imagine the excitement that greeted the publication in 2014 in The Times Literary Supplement of ‘Family Love: New Poems by Sappho’ by Dirk Obbink with a translation of one of the poems by Christopher Pelling. The new poems referred to were the so-called ‘Brothers Poem’, featuring Sappho’s brothers Charaxos and Larichos, and ‘The Kypris Poem’, a love poem addressed to Aphrodite, also known as Kypris. The author is quick to raise the issues that everyone reading must have been thinking: ‘why is the discovery important, what do the poems tell us about Sappho, and how do we know they are genuine? He then refers to Herodotus, who, we remember, mentioned the brothers and the annoying (to him) courtesan-slave Rhodopis. The Brothers Poem is presented as confirming the existence of her brothers; the poem is a prayer for safe passage for Charaxos

go and pour out many prayers
To Hera, and beseech the queen
That he should bring his ship back home
Safely to port …

We are told that ‘Metre, language and dialect are all recognisably Sapphic …’ and that ‘The antiquity of the physical fabric of the papyrus is beyond reproach’. We’re also informed that ‘The authenticity of the ancient mummy cartonnage panel, from which the papyrus was extracted, having been recycled in antiquity to accompany a burial, has been established through its documented legal provenance.’ Slightly worryingly, ‘The owner of the papyrus wished to remain anonymous’ but was happy enough to submit the fragment to various tests that yielded a date of 201 AD.’ The concluding paragraph is optimistic and heartening enough to quote in full:

The remarkable thing is that both new texts – damaged as they are – read almost as though they were complete poems today, partly due to the unique qualities of a poet who cannot have foreseen her poetry’s survival in fragmentary form. “The Brothers Poem” may have been intended to be seen or heard by Charaxos and Larichos themselves. But private as it is, it can still welcome and engage the modern reader, and it adds and important piece to the jigsaw that is Sappho and her work.

Except that the jigsaw kept changing. After the above comments appeared, in February 2014, Obbink said the papyrus came from ‘a mummy cartonnage panel’ carbon dated to AD 201 more or less. The only problem with that statement was that mummy cartonnage wasn’t made from papyrus after around 14 AD. The following year brought a different story. Forget the mummies, the Sappho manuscript was in fact found in ‘industrial cartonnage’, the kind used for bookbinding. This, apparently, had been bought at auction in Christie’s in 2011, though Christie’s don’t have images of its auction lot. Mike Sampson, a papyrologist at the University of Manitoba, showed evidence to The Guardian that suggested Obbink’s story of the origin of the manuscript might be a fiction. ‘Perhaps Sampson’s most telling finding, though, is that parts of the Sappho manuscript were shown in public when they were supposedly still undiscovered in a wodge of industrial cartonnage.’

But it was when Obbink, an associate professor in papyrology and Greek literature at Oxford, was suspended in the biggest scandal ever to trouble the department of classics that questions began to be asked about the provenance of the Sappho papyrus. Obbink was accused of selling precious Biblical papyri from the Oxyrhynchus collection to Hobby Lobby, the US chain of art and craft materials stores. In total it turned out that 120 fragments had gone missing from the collection over ten years. In the light of the scandal scholars began to get nervous about the 2014 Sappho find. Was the manuscript legally obtained? Is it authentic? ‘Everything about it seems too good to be true,’ a Cambridge classicist told The Guardian in 2020.

So does all this mean the Sappho is a fake? Is it too much of a good thing that Herodotus, who is the first to tell us about Sappho, mentions that very poem? What it tells us first of all is that we live in a world where precious literary finds are first and foremost items in the capitalist economy, to be traded for vast profit. Not that this should surprise us. The link between colonialism and archaeology is well-established, and the museums of the world are filled with objects extracted from their origins by the rich or powerful. Or think of the looting in Egypt, Syria, Iraq or Libya in recent years, the artefacts often turning up in the hands of ‘private collectors’. Even as I write this there’s a report that a judge has ordered a former curator at the British Museum who stole hundreds of precious Greek and Roman artifacts while he was there to return any ancient gems or jewellery he still possesses. It’s naive if depressing to think that a discussion of Sappho can take place in some protected lyric interstice, safe from the depredations of those whose interest in what she actually said or sung in minimal. But then, she has always been threatened and often marginalised. Her sexuality was elided, obscured, denied – she wasn’t exactly a gay icon for most of the time we have known about her; her work has been and still is disparaged for not being intellectual enough, for being inconsequential or emotional, gossipy and bitchy, yet at the same time she has been recognised from the outset as a supremely gifted lyric poet. We remember the story of Solon, who when asked why he wanted to hear a particular poem by Sappho replied ‘Because once I’ve learned it, I can die.’ And she was, after all, Plato’s Tenth Muse.

The Brothers Poem is now generally accepted as genuine. It’s not, maybe, her finest or most moving poem, but it adds to the sum of our knowledge about her life and circumstances. Her world was as uncertain and fraught with danger as ours. There’s no guarantee her brother Charaxos will make it home, life is in the lap of the gods, but we can hope and pray. Some things, though, we do control, and the final stanza puts it up to the other brother to get his act together:

If Larichus, too, can now raise
his sights and become the man he truly could
then the many great weights dragging at our souls
will suddenly lift.

Anne Carson’s version of this poem is richly comic:

There you go windbagging about Charaxos again – will he waft into port again?
will he not – yawn. Let the gods simplify this. Or send me! I’ve got
the holy socks and tang to bring Hera over to our side: presto
Charaxos, cocktails all round!

We’re in a world run by overbearing men and their big desires, so Carson opens a space for a deliciously subverting voice to prick the bubbles of self-importance:

As for us – if lazyboy Larichos ever lifts his head
and turns into a man who can whistle Dixie,
goodbye family gloom! We’ll run our fingers
through his beard and laugh.

Six different translators, six different Sapphos. Or ten different translators, ten different Sapphos. This is one of the beauties of translation, of course, but it reminds us how much our engagement with the ancient world is inventive, imagined, provisional, unsettled and maybe unsettling. Sometimes I think it’s the very fragmentariness of Sappho that attract us – the gaps in the utterance, the conjectural spaces where we have to supply the possible beginnings or endings.

129A but you have forgotten me

129B or you love another more

133B Sappho, why? Aphrodite is rich in blessings …

151 and on the eyes the black sleep of night

152 mingled with all kinds of colours

169 I would lead

179 purse

182 I might go

191 celery

Celery! Or think of Anne Carson’s flourished square brackets in If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho:

Brackets are exciting. Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp – brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.

I wrote a play once inspired by brackets. It began:

VOICE 1: Bracket bracket bracket desire
bracket bracket bracket sweet thighs
VOICE 2: Bracket bracket I. . .
VOICE 3: Bracket bracket bracket bracket
bracket bracket bracket bracket
thunderbolt bracket bracket now the goatherd …

Well, I was laying it on with a trowel. Appropriately enough given that it was called Oblivion, it almost achieved the fate which its title blazoned, lying lost for some time in the dark recesses of the RTÉ Radio Centre before a producer stumbled on it. ‘Beckett, Beckett, Beckett,’ one of the actors grumbled as I climbed down the stairs to the sound studio to answer queries about obscure references in the script when it was eventually recorded, though ‘Carson, Carson, Carson’ would have been more accurate. Pretty much everyone in the play was dead or forgotten or both or about to be one or both. And it’s full of fragments, lost bits of pottery and papyri, shards of text from vanished poets, dead poets vying to be granted life again. To read Sappho is to read the precariousness as well as the preciousness of the print of imagination on the world, or to read the devastating effect of time and its breakages. Reading these fragments is more satisfying than those attempts by translators to fill in the gaps, to give us Sappho as a fictional whole. Loss speaks to us more eloquently than a fake reconstruction.

We live in hope that her work will continue to appear – that more papyri will turn up in dumps, more heroes scholar do the hard graft of reconstruction. We do know that she was the greatest woman poet of the ancient world, but there’s more to the story:

Sappho was certainly the first and greatest of the women poets in the ancient world, but she was not the only one. We know of about a hundred such women, though their work also survives mostly in fragments. All of these women would have known Sappho’s work, and many were clearly inspired by her example.

Philip Freeman goes on to list Myrtis from Boeotia, Pindar’s teacher, Corinna, who is said to have beaten Pindar five times in poetry competitions – ‘I sing of the great deeds / of heroes, men and women alike’ – and others such as Praxilla from near Corinth, Telesilla from Argos, and Erinna from the fourth century BC, whom many regarded as second only to Sappho. In another example of the eerie persistence of poetry, in 1928 a group of Italian archaeologists excavating at Oxyrhynchus found a 54-line fragment of her poem ‘The Distaff’. To everyone’s great surprise it transpired that this work, too, like Erinna’s extant epigrams, was another lament for her friend Baucis. Three rival editions were subsequently published: Maurice Bowra in 1936, Martin West in 1977 and Hugh Lloyd-Jones in 1983. Again, the question was how should an incomplete text be translated? Josephine Balmer’s answer was to try to replicate in her version precisely the incompleteness and fragmentariness of the original:

as I began to work on the Greek text, it seemed that, by chance, the damaged nature of the surviving poem very neatly echoed its theme – so much so that almost the last word of its most legible section in the Greek text is druptei from the verb druptein ‘to tear’. From this I found the form of my new poem; as I noted in my 1996 volume Classical Women Poets, in which the translation first appeared, it now represented ‘a series of fragmented memories falling across the page; of torn lines, broken conversations and dangling voices, a physical metaphor for the fragmentation of the entire work’.

The result, as with so many transactions of Sappho, is an example of how that very fragmentation can enhance the emotional impact of the poem:

… the rising moon …

… falling leaves …

… waves spinning on a mottled shore …

                                    … and those games, Baucis, remember?
Two white horses, four frenzied feet – and one Tortoise
to your hare: ‘Caught you,’ I cried, ‘You’re Mrs Tortoise now.’
But when your turn came at last to catch the catcher
you raced on far beyond us, out from the great shell
of our smoke-filled yard…

                     … Baucis, these tears are your embers
and my memorial, traces glowing in my heart,
now all that we once shared has turned to ash …

                                                        … as girls
we played weddings with our dolls, brides in our soft beds,
or sometimes I was ‘mother’ allotting dawn wool
to the women, calling for you to help spin out
the thread …

… and our terror (remember?) of Mormo
the monster – big ears, long tongue, forever flapping,
her frenzy on all fours, those changing shapes – a trap
for girls who had lost their way …

                           … But when you set sail
for a man’s bed, Baucis, you let it slip away,
forgot the lessons you had learnt from your ‘mother’
in those far-off days – no, never forgot; that thief
Desire stole all memory away…

                                                   … My lost friend,
here is my lament: I can’t bear that dark death-bed,
can’t bring myself to step outside my door, won’t look
on your stone face, won’t cry or cut my hair for shame …

But Baucis this crimson grief

                                              is tearing me in two …


Peter Sirr’s most recent books are The Swerve (2023) and Intimate City: Dublin Essays (2021), both published by The Gallery Press. The Gravity Wave (2019) was a Poetry Society Recommendation and winner of the Farmgate Café National Poetry Award. He is a member of Aosdána.



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