The Trouble with Sappho: A Preamble

Dear Common Readers,

The trouble with Sappho is that it is nearly impossible to say anything definitive about her or her work. This makes it difficult to discuss Sappho and her work in the usual ways that we talk about literature.

Almost everything we know about Sappho’s life comes from gossip reported centuries after her death.

Most of Sappho’s songs are lost to us. One song and many fragments are all that remain to us. Some of the fragments are nearly complete songs, but most consist of only a few lines or even just a few words. Even that is estimated to be only about 10 percent of her entire body of work.

We know that Sappho’s poems were originally songs set to music. Musicians performed her songs with choirs or soloists at weddings, religious ceremonies, and other public events. Despite recent attempts by scholars to reconstruct Ancient Greek music, there are no remaining records of Sappho’s melodies. Thus we can only read the lyrics as poems out of their original context. (If you want to hear how Fragment #1, the only complete song, might have sounded in performance, check out “Hearing Sappho” by David Mendelsohn at The New Yorker‘s website.)

We don’t know whether these fragments are early or later works. We don’t know in what order they were composed or performed. We don’t know if the existing fragments represent the full range of Sappho’s use of styles, forms, and themes. It is impossible to trace Sappho’s development as a lyricist or composer.

Then there is the additional problem for me of reading English translations of the lyrics rather than the original Ancient Greek. It’s difficult for me to know if a given translation truly captures not just the literal meaning of the words but also the poet’s voice and style and the spirit of the songs.

Yet as H.D. put it in “The Wise Sappho,”

The roses Meleager saw as “little” have become in the history not only of literature but of nations (Greece and Rome and medieval town and Tuscan city) a great power, roses, but many, many roses, each fragment witness to the love of some scholar or hectic antiquary searching to find a precious inch of palimpsest among the funereal glories of the sand-strewn Pharaohs.

So how does one properly discuss Sappho and her songs? Having acknowledged the difficulties, one can only set them all aside and focus on what is most important: the actual lyrics that remain. That’s exactly what I’ll do in my next post.