Saturday, March 17, 2007

if not, winter

Sappho lived in the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos in about 630 B.C. She was called the "tenth muse," but of the nine books of lyrics she is reported to have written, none have survived.

What we know of Sappho's poetry comes mostly from partially destroyed pieces of papyrus or short quotations of her work in books written by other ancient authors, usually as illustrations of grammatical or metrical points. Many of her poems seem to have been about love -- of women as well as men -- and it is said that she killed herself by jumping from a cliff into the sea.

In one fragment, Sappho says "Leto and Niobe were beloved friends." Because we know how that particular story ends, we can feel the pathos that resonates in that single statement.

And in a line remaining from another of Sappho's lost poems, she described a rival as "fonder of children than Gello." You can't sense the sting in that unless you know that Gello was a ghost, said to be responsible for the deaths of babies and small children. In life, Gello had been a young woman who had died childless, and, after death, hoping to assuage her grief, spent her nights in an endless, hungry search, gathering other women' s children into the darkness of her arms.

The title of this post is not only a part of one of Sappho's lyrics, but also the name of a book by Anne Carson , translating all the known fragments of Sappho's poetry, with brackets and blanks in place of the lines that have not come down to us. The right hand pages give the English version, the facing pages provide the Greek. If you read it, the empty spaces, the incompletions, will come to haunt you, as you begin to realize just how much we have lost.


delphi said...

You obviously have a wealth of knowledge of history, mythology, philosophy, and literature - thank you so much for sharing that with us. My educational background is in practical sciences and I missed out on so much in school. Please keep posting on these subjects! I find these quotations and stories incredibly meaningful.

Isis said...

I came across that book recently, and immediately I was absorbed into its world. Like many people before me, I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where Sappho's poetry was whole, but as I can't, I have come to love what the holes say.

Thanks for mentioning this, and for your blog, which is a potent thing.