Friday, September 1, 2017

The Living Dead

~ Honouring our poetic ancestors ~

Selections from Sappho
(c. 630 – c. 570 BC)

Supreme Sight on the Black Earth

Some say cavalry and others claim
infantry or a fleet of long oars
is the supreme sight on the black earth
              I say it is

the one you love. And easily proved.
Didn't Helen, who far surpassed
all in beauty, desert the best of men
              her husband and king

and sail off to Troy and forget
her daughter and dear parents? Merely
love's gaze made her bend

              and led her

from her path.
These tales
remind me now of Anaktoria
              who is gone.

And I would rather see her supple step
and motion of light on her face
than chariots of the Lydians or ranks
              of foot soldiers in bronze.

Now this is impossible
yet among the living I pray for a share



To me he seems equal to the gods,

the man who sits facing you
and hears you speak
        softly and laugh

in a sweet echo that jolts
the heart in my ribs. Now
when I look at you a moment
         my voice is empty

and can say nothing as my tongue
cracks and slender fire races
under my skin. My eyes are dead

         to light, my ears

pound, and sweat pours over me.
I convulse, greener than grass
and feel my mind slip as I go
         close to death.

Yet I must suffer, even poor

Behind a Laurel Tree

You lay in wait
behind a laurel tree

and everything

was sweeter


I barely heard
darling soul

such as I now am
you came

in your garments

These poems are all from this book which I found in my local library. (My photo shows the title page.) I like these translations better than others I've seen. The Greek is also given, but as I never learned that language I can't tell how well the poems have been translated. However we are told in the Introduction that music was preferred over faithfulness to the most literal meaning – a choice I think most poets would approve.

Wikipedia tells us that, although she used a number of metrical forms in her poetry, she gave her name to the Sapphic stanza, albeit it is not certain that she invented it as it was used by other poets of her time too. This is how it goes:
The form is two hendecasyllabic verses, and a third verse beginning the same way and continuing with five additional syllables (given as the stanza's fourth verse in ancient and modern editions, and known as the Adonic or adonean line).
Using "-" for a long syllable, "u" for a short and "x" for an "anceps" (or free syllable), and displaying the Adonic as a fourth line:
- u -  x  - u u -   u - -
- u -  x  - u u -   u - -
- u -  x  - u u -   u - -
- u u - u
Apparently it was difficult, in the Greek, to keep to this form and still create a smooth flow of language, yet (we are told) that was exactly where Sappho excelled.

I'm sure we've all heard of Sappho and know at least a little about her. Don't feel ignorant if you don't know much; even her Wikipedia entry  gives only a brief account of her life and work. In fact, although we know from ancient sources that she was a famous lyric poet of her time, only fragments of the poetry have survived and very little is known about her life.

She lived on the island of Lesbos, from which we get the word lesbian. She wrote love poems about both men and women, but those which survive were more often, and more intensely, about women. This translator, in his extensive and scholarly Introduction, rejects the attempts by many writers in earlier centuries to explain away her sexuality by supposing that she was the head of a priestess cult and that the passionate texts were symbolic. Instead, he asks us to look at the poems themselves to discern their meaning.

She certainly does address some poems to the goddess Aphrodite, in which she sounds like a worshipper. I don't find this surprising in a poet who celebrated love and beauty. Aphrodite is the goddess of love and beauty, and their gods were real to the people of ancient Greece. There are also some poems to Eros, another god of romantic love. And she has many poems which are not addressed to deities but clearly refer to human loves. How beautifully they stand the test of time!

Many of us around the world are affected at this time by disastrous wars and floods. I thought it might be nice to escape, if only for a few moments, into some beautiful poems about love.

Material shared in 'The Living Dead' is presented for study and review. Poems, photos and other writings and images remain the property of the copyright owners, where applicable (older poems may be out of copyright).

The image of the bust of Sappho, above, is in the Public Domain. The bust is a 
Roman copy of a Greek original of the 5th century BC.


  1. Oh, lovely! And I thank you for the escape--or the reminder to carry what we know of love with us in hard times and good. The Sappho verse is new to me, but I love how with her last line, Sappho tends to leave the poem in action--that is, we get a sense that the action is present and unfinished. So, here's something I learned in a linguistic course and have no source to back up: Sappho was the first to attribute this love to "I" as opposed to being in the power of Aphrodite. This is a huge change, and from the info you give, I suppose it is a change she grew into experientially.

  2. I so wish that I could read her work in the original Greek!

  3. I've never really read her poetry but have come across some quotes here and there. These poems did help me focus for a moment on the beauty of love. Thank you for sharing them.

  4. Yes, one might forget, watching the daily news, that love stories continue on, no matter what. Thank you, Rosemary. I would be interested in knowing more about that island named Lesbo.....I wonder if only women lived there? A rather cool idea, to think how peaceful and respectful an island of women would be.

    1. It's pretty clear from her poetry and other evidence that men lived there too. But yes, I have often observed that groups of women tend to be respectful and considerate – and that children of lesbian couples are beautifully behaved in a way that seems to be natural to them, so I assume they come from homes where adult interactions are invariably kind and thoughtful.

  5. Thank you for your post and share, Rosemary. I savor the fragments of Sappho that are available. They leave us craving more.

  6. These poems are just beautiful - all of them so exquisite, I really couldn't pick a favorite. And your narrative was fascinating, Rosemary. I, of course, had heard of the poet Sappho, but had never taken the time to follow-up. So thank YOU, for taking the time (as we approach the end of this heart wrenching, disastrous week) to share a little bit of beauty and edification.

  7. Thank you, Rosemary. for bringing us this touch of the past.

  8. I am familiar with Sappho but had never read those particular poems. I also like the thought of the translator that one should look at the poems themselves to discern their meaning. To me this means one should not pay attention to someone else's interpretation or someone else's meaning but just to listen to the poem itself!! I would guess that if more women of that time wrote poetry, a most did not survive. So I AM glad that we have poems of Sappho. Thank you for this interesting feature, Rosemary.

  9. Thank you Rose Mary for the "little recess" from the woes of the world. A woman of "words", love and beauty!

  10. Ah yes loves does lift the spirits. Thanks for this Glimpse of Sappho

    Much love...


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