|Sappho and Alcaeus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1881).|
Sappho is a Greek lyrical poet, born after 630 BC. Little is known about her, much of her work is lost, and some surviving parts found in rather odd places, like on a piece of papyrus from a mummy wrapping. These poems were sang during symposiums, and it's suggested that these symposiums were an all-female group. It is very difficult to get further into the context of her poems: there's an excellent introduction in Stung with Love (published by Penguin, 2009), but as this information is entirely new to me and it is so sparing I'm going to demure from writing any more about Sappho herself!
What I read in Stung with Love was absolute vibrant beauty. The fragments are divided into six sections:
- Desire and death-longing
- Her girls and family
- Maidens and Marriages
- The Wisdom of Sappho
In these poems Sappho writes about her life and experiences, from the everyday to the divine. Some are so short the entire meaning of the poem is obviously lost, but the fragment itself is still beautiful. One of my favourites:
Like a gale smiting an oakOther poems are more of a mystery, such as:
On mountainous terrain,
Eros, with a stroke,
Shattered my brain.
Peace, you never seemed so tediousAnd -
As now - no, never quite like this.
Neither the honey nor the bee,With these and other tiny fragments the mystery is exciting, adding to the beauty, even the harsh "But when you lie dead":
For me ....
But when you lie dead
No one will notice later or feel sad
Because you gathered no sprays from the roses
Of the Pierian Muses.
Once lost in Hades' hallSappho sings songs of nature, such as 'Nightingale' -
You will be homeless and invisible -
Another shadow flittering back and forth
With shadows of no worth.
Nightingale,And she sings of the planets, such as to Hesperus, the evening star:
All you sing
You are the crier
Of coming spring.
Hesperus, you are
The most fetching star.
What Dawn flings afield
You bring back together -
Sheep to the fold, goats to the pen,
And the child to his mother again.
Her poems are stirring, and she reminds me a little of Chaucer in simplicity and clarity. Only a few words are needed from her to invoke some of her richest images of goddesses, love, nature, and the universe. These are enchanting poems, and it isn't just the mystery of them that makes them what they are: what has survived is radiant. This collection is very short, but one I'll certainly be reading again, and hopefully when I've learned a little more I can do them slightly more justice!