Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Read-Along

Dear Common Readers,

You are enthusiastically invited to join Juliana of the [blank] garden and me in a read-along of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works. We are reading the 2014 translation by Edith Grossman, but feel free to read another translation if you prefer. Our target date for reading and reviewing Sor Juana’s Selected Works is May 31, 2016.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born in Mexico on November 12, 1651. At sixteen, she entered the convent so that she could continue her studies without interruption. She wrote and published poetry in many forms, dramas, comedies, and scholarly works.

In 1690 “Sor Filotea” published without her permission a letter written by Sor Juana criticizing the well-known sermon of Jesuit priest. Sor Filotea further admonished Sor Juana to concentrate on religious studies rather than on secular subjects. In response, Sor Juana wrote “Respuesta a Sor Filotea” (“Answer to Sister Philotea”), a letter in which she defended the right of women to education.  “Sor Filotea” was actually the Bishop of Puebla and the letter was something of a set-up. Sor Juana’s response — and her growing fame — caused a great deal of controversy and landed her in trouble with the Archbishop of Mexico among others. They demanded that Sor Juana give up her secular studies and writings.

In 1695 she died of the plague at the age of 44. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is believed to be the first published feminist writer in the New World.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works includes many of her poems, the prologue to one of her plays, Sor Filotea’s letter and Sor Juana’s response. I’ve wanted to read more of Sor Juana’s work since I first encountered a few of her poems at university. I’m really looking forward to reading and discussing her Selected Works.

I hope you’ll join us, dear Common Readers!

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Nine (and More) Earthly Muses: “Classical Women Poets”

Corinna, Telesilla, Praxilla, Erinna, Moero, Anyte, Nossis, Sappho, Hedyle,  Melinno, Sulpicia, Sulpicia the Satirist, Julia Balbilla, Proba, and Eudocia. These are the poets included in the small anthology Classical Women Poets translated and introduced by Josephine Balmer (Bloodaxe Books, 1996).

Why haven’t I heard of any of these poets (except Sappho) before reading this book? This vexes me. None of these poets except Sappho was ever mentioned when I was in school. In fact, none of my teachers or professors even alluded to their existence. Granted it has been decades since I graduated from university so I can only hope this is no longer the case. That won’t prevent me from complaining about what I missed, though.

It is true that there are few surviving poems from any one of these women poets. As with that of Sappho, these poets’ work survives mostly in fragments. This makes it nearly impossible to accurate assess or to teach their work. I understand this. However, failing to mention that scholars have found at least the names of 27 Ancient Greek and Roman women poets, 16 of whom have extant work, creates another problem. It creates the false impression that there were no female writers except Sappho for centuries. It creates false gaps in the Western literary history of women writers.

Several of these women received literary acclaim that lasted at least as long as that of William Shakespeare in more recent history yet they have vanished from mainstream knowledge. Ms. Balmer’s anthology serves as an introduction to these neglected women poets for general readers.

One of the best things about Classical Women Poets — aside from the poems themselves — is the introduction written by Ms. Balmer. She takes great care to explain at length her strategies for translating these poems and fragments both in the introduction and in the footnotes to the poems. As she states in the introduction,

Here, I have also included a commentary on many of the processes of translating, recording the original’s textual strategies alongside those of my translation, wherever possible, on the basis that if different strategies were being employed the reader should be kept as informed as possible. My purpose was to help monolingual as well as bilingual readers, to give them the experience of comparison, of judgement more normally reserved for the scholar.

(Classical Women Poets, p. 22)

As a monolingual reader of these poems, I greatly appreciate this.

Ms. Balmer makes a controversial decision here, though. In her own words,

Even more subjectively, I strung together stray words or quotations into a single piece, as for example Corinna No. 25 or Telesilla No. 35. Here I was often guided by the framing of the texts; by additional information provided by the classical commentators who preserved them, such as poem titles or mythological explanations. Sometimes this frame became part of the poem itself, as in Corinna No. 28, where alternative versions recorded by a grammarian were incorporated within the translation.

(Classical Women Poets, pgs. 20-21)

To her credit, Ms. Balmer indicates in the footnotes when she has done this. Still I really wish she had not done it at all. It seems like overstepping. I’d rather see the unrelated fragments printed as is than read a poem that in fact never existed.

Another perhaps controversial decision is adding the section of women’s work songs, folk songs, and chants from little girls’ games to the anthology. Conscious that, as Virginia Woolf said, Anonymous was often a woman, Ms. Balmer makes the assumption of female authorship for these anonymous traditional songs and chants and so includes them here. I approve of this.

I truly enjoyed this book. My favorite works tend to be those by the poets for whom longer fragments still exist – fragments from poems created by the poets themselves and not by the translator.

The fragment from Corinna’s poem about the singing contest between the mountains Cithaeron and Helicon, both reputedly sacred to the Muses, is one of my favorites from this anthology. Corinna imagines a ring of pines near the crest of Cithaeron as a prize wreath for winning the contest. Meanwhile, Helicon pouts over his loss by creating a rock slide of “a thousand pebbles” to mock the judges’ way of casting their votes with pebbles. Corinna’s gift for bringing myth to life made me wish that more of her work still existed.

Another poet who creates imaginative, humorous portraits of her subjects is Anyte. She wrote poems and epigraphs on many subjects, but her animal poems were among my favorites, especially No. 59, No. 60, No. 61, and No. 63. I love this line from No. 61, an epitaph for a dog named Loci: “… swiftest of pups — especially to bark …” and these lines from No. 59, an epigram for a picture or relief of a goat:

… — how haughtily
he looks down on us, transfixed by his own shaggy locks…

On a more somber note, the elegies of Erinna for her late friend Baucis are heartbreaking and deeply moving. Erinna brings their childhood games so vividly to life and skillfully describes her sense of hurt betrayal when Baucis drops their friendship to focus on her new husband:

…no, never forgot; that thief
Desire stole all memory away…

Meanwhile, Sulpicia’s poems perfectly capture a young woman’s desire for her lover, her disappointment at being taken away on a family vacation to the country for her birthday (No. 86) and her joy when the cancelled trip means she can spend the day with her boyfriend (No. 87). She echoes the influence of Sappho with her humor and her depictions of intense desire.

Another conscious heiress of Sappho is Nossis. She also writes passionate love poetry, celebrates women’s beauty, and praises female deities in her work as does Sappho. In No. 79 she writes of herself, her mother, and her grandmother, much as Sappho writes of her mother, herself, and her daughter in Fragments No. 98a and No. 98b (No. 3 in Classical Women Poets). I really enjoyed the wordplay and alliteration in No. 81 such as

Bruttian shields from brutish shoulders
of soldiers slain by Locri’s heroes…

One striking feature of many of these poems is how often the poets include their names in their poems. It is a way of establishing a poetic persona, of course, but also a way of making escaping anonymity, of making sure that their names stay attached to their work. I especially admire the boldness of Julia Balbilla, perhaps our first female graffiti poet, in writing her poems on public monuments, even though the poems themselves sometimes seem like the equivalent of saying “Hadrian and Sabina (and I) were here.” For ancient women writers even saying “I was here” becomes significant in light of their subsequent neglect.

All in all, this is an enjoyable introduction to these neglected women poets, but for accuracy’s sake it might be best to read another translation of these writers.

In closing, I’ll leave you with my favorite poem fragment by Nossis (No. 83):

Stranger, if you should sail to Mytilene, city of fair song,
enticed by Sappho’s fragrant garland, its heady bloom,
say only this: that the land of Locri gave me life,
long-treasured by the Muses and by Her.
One more thing: My name is Nossis.

Let’s Write a Sapphic Stanza Just for Fun

Dear Common Readers,

Just for fun let’s try to write a Sapphic stanza.

This is just an experiment to see how it’s done. One doesn’t need to be a poet or a lyricist. I’m certainly neither at heart as will soon be obvious. The point is just to see what we learn from making the attempt. Let’s suspend any aesthetic judgements about the results and focus on the process. If some of you make great art while you’re at it, bravo!

Unfortunately the differences in how poetic meter is determined in Ancient Greek and English mean that we can only approximate the original form of Sappho’s odes. But why let that stop us?

Now for the technical part. A Sapphic stanza is made up of three lines in Sapphic meter followed by one Adonic line.

Sapphic meter, reportedly invented by Sappho, is made up of eleven syllables as follows: a trochee, an anceps, a dactyl, a trochee, and a spondee.

An Adonic line is made up of two metric feet: a dactyl and a trochee. It takes its name from Sappho’s lyric “O for Adonis.”

(I’m heavily indebted to Stephen Fry’s excellent book The Ode Less Traveled: Unlocking the Poet Within for an explanation of these terms.)

I confess I found this really difficult. I had intended to play with an allusion to Athena as Little Miss Muffet sitting beside her spider (Arachne) but couldn’t make it work with the meter. Still, I enjoyed the challenge. And, purely for authenticity’s sake, one line is cut short to make it more like a nearly complete stanza of a “lost” ode. (It’s also possible that I couldn’t come up with a good final spondee.)

If you’re truly ambitious, try to write an entire ode. If you are musical, try to compose a tune to accompany your lyrics. Please share your verses in the comments section.

Here’s the “recovered fragment” of my Sapphic stanza:

Ode Fragment - Copy











Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Extra Treats: Sappho, H.D., and Erica Jong

Dear Common Readers,

Do yourself a favor and read “The Wise Sappho” by poet H.D. This essay begins as a meditation on Meleager of Gadara’s description of his anthology selection of Sappho’s songs as “little, but all roses” but evolves into much more. H.D. explores the impact of Sappho’s work with vivid imagery and a poet’s gift for metaphor. Even if (like me) one has not read H.D.’s poetry yet, one can tell from this essay that H.D. feels a profound connection with Sappho’s songs. This essay is intimidatingly good. It makes one wish to throw away one’s pen and never attempt to write about poetry again.

For example, H.D. writes,

Yet not all roses —not roses at all, not orange blossoms even, but reading deeper we are inclined to visualize these broken sentences and unfinished rhythms as rocks — perfect rock shelves and layers of rock between which flowers by some chance may grow but which endure when the staunch blossoms have perished.

This is how one should write about Sappho.

For a fictional take on Sappho’s life, I recommend Sappho’s Leap by Erica Jong. Ms. Jong puts her own spin on each of the legends and bits of gossip about Sappho’s life. Best of all is Ms. Jong’s take on the infamous legend that Sappho threw herself off a cliff over unrequited love for a younger man. I won’t spoil it for you. It’s that good.

This book is a near-perfect fit between writer and subject matter. Ms. Jong is a natural heiress to Sappho. Sappho’s themes have always been Ms. Jong’s themes, too: romantic love, sexuality, creativity, motherhood. However, Ms. Jong brings to those themes a Baby Boomer’s conflicted anxiety about combining creative work and motherhood that is never apparent in Sappho’s fragments.

I first read this novel during a period in which I had just read Homer, Aeschylus, and Sappho (for the first time). I could tell that Ms. Jong had been reading and absorbing these same works as she wrote. Something in her prose echoed the rhythms of these Ancient Greek works (or at least those of the English translations).

The real treats, though, are the original poems by Ms. Jong in a section called “Talking to Aphrodite” that follows the afterword. Ms. Jong is first and foremost a poet at heart and it shows in these provocative poems. Take these lines from “Sappho: A Footnote” for example:

Sappho burned
& Christians burned
her words.

The poems are written in the voices of Sappho, Aphrodite, and the poet herself. One can hear in them echoes of Sappho, of course, but also of Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and even of Ms. Jong’s earlier work. There are many passages I could quote, but I’ll close with my favorite stanza of “Conjuring Her.”

Before I curl
Like incense to the sky
Before I study how to die,
Drizzle the honey
Of my wishes
On my waiting tongue…
teach me how to fly


I hope you enjoy these works as much as I do.

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Sappho’s Lyrics, Modern Melodies: A Musical Interlude

While there is no record of Sappho’s melodies, many others have since set her lyrics to music. A simple internet search will turn up many selections. Some have set Sappho’s lyrics to attempted recreations of Ancient Greek music. Others have used more contemporary musical styles. Mark Jickling and Chris Mason have even set their own translations of Sappho’s fragments to tunes inspired by Appalachian folk music.

I found two selections that I particularly enjoyed.

First is a video of Fragment #31 set to music by Eve Beglarian and performed by Andrea Goodman. Ms. Goodman plays the melody on a 7-string lyre and sings the lyrics in Ancient Greek. (There are English subtitles on the screen of the video.) It is simple yet moving. You can see the video here.

Second is Sappho: Nine Fragments for Contralto, which was composed in 1906. The music was written by Sir Granville Bantock with lyrics by Helen Bantock. Brown University posted this video on YouTube of a performance there of this piece on October 30, 2015. The performance features pianist Irina Nuzova and mezzo-soprano Kirsten Kane with narration by Jeffrey M. Duban.

Mr. Duban’s narration gives an excellent background to Sappho’s poetry and Bantock’s composition. He also recites several fragments both in English and in Ancient Greek.

Sir Granville Bantock’s music is dramatic, sweeping, moody, and intense as befits his subject.

Helen Bantock often combines several of Sappho’s fragments into each of the nine musical “fragments.” Ms. Bantock grouped Sappho’s fragments by theme in several instances. In one instance, though, Ms. Bantock combined several unrelated fragments to create a story of a failed love affair between “Sappho” and “Atthis.” Nevertheless, the story is very much in Sappho’s spirit. Overall the groupings are wisely chosen and very effective.

The piece is beautifully played and sung by Ms. Nuzova and Ms. Kane respectively. I would really like to hear a live performance of this someday.


Starting with Sappho

What if Western literature began not with Homer but with Sappho?

Sappho is the first known woman writer in Western literature whose work still survives. Thus the Western literary tradition of women writers starts with Sappho and her songs.

What a spectacular start it is!  Even if Fragment #1, the only existing complete song, were all that remained of Sappho’s work, it would be enough to secure Sappho’s literary immortality. This song paints a comic portrait of the long-suffering relationship between a fondly indulgent Aphrodite and her demanding mortal supplicant in just 28 lines. “Sappho” (a poetic persona in this song) is a woman who is constantly falling in and out of love and constantly beseeches Aphrodite to intercede on her behalf to secure her beloved’s affections. “Once again who must I persuade to turn back to your love?” asks Aphrodite (Rayor translation). The woman assumes Aphrodite will drop everything to speed to her side whenever she calls … because Aphrodite always does. Aphrodite is depicted as amused and a bit exasperated but – as always – willing to help. That’s just the beginning.

The rest are fragments of Sappho’s songs — some substantial, others only a few lines or words — yet these fragments are so evocative that they make one long for more. Fragment #47  “Love shook my heart / like the wind on a mountain / rushing over oak trees” (Balmer translation, No.1) and these lines from Fragment #132 “…beloved Kleïs, / whom I would not trade for all of Lydia” (Rayor) are just two examples. The more substantial Fragment #44 seems to cast the wedding of Hector and Andromache as the beginning of a grand epic. Sappho depicts the people of Troy preparing for the couple’s arrival, but the fragment we have ends there, leaving us to wonder how the story evolved in the complete song. Fragment #166 tantalizes the audience with the mysterious line “They say that once Leda / found hidden / a hyacinth-colored egg” (Rayor), but history denies us the rest of the story.

I read Sappho: Poems & Fragments edited and translated by Josephine Balmer (1988) and Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Work by Diane Rayor and Andre Lardinois (2014). I chose Ms. Rayor’s translation because it includes the new fragments recovered in 2004 and in 2014, including the Brothers Song. It is also more comprehensive because it includes even one-word fragments. I chose Ms. Balmer’s translation for the style. When read side by side, Ms. Balmer makes Ms. Rayor’s translations seem stark and minimalist, almost like haiku. Ms. Rayor makes Ms. Balmer’s translations seem wordy and even flowery by contrast. However, Ms. Balmer organizes the fragments by theme and omits many of the one-word fragments which makes for a smoother reading experience. I’ve indicated Ms. Balmer’s numbering system in parentheses when quoting from her translation.

To return to our original question, how would it change our view of Western literature if it began not with the rage of Achilles but with the unrequited love of “Sappho” for another woman?

If Western literature began with Sappho, women’s experiences would be central to our literary heritage right from the start. Sappho’s fragments vividly depict the intimacy of women’s everyday lives. Her women sing and dance and worship together. They weave wreaths and garlands to adorn themselves and each other. A mother styles her daughter’s hair (#98). A sister worries over her wayward brothers (#5 and Brothers Song). Women fall in and out of love with each other. They marry. They grow old (#58). There are rivalries (#131) and squabbling and sarcastic jibes (#55) and sadness at parting (#94) in these fragments.  Women are subjects as well as objects in Sappho’s songs.

More significantly, “Chloe liked Olivia” both romantically and platonically from the beginning of the Western women’s literary tradition. Female desire holds an important place in Sappho’s work. Fragment #1 explicitly refers to the beloved as “she.” In Fragment #16, Sappho sings of Anactoria “… whose long-desired footstep, whose radiant, sparkling face / I would rather see before me than the chariots / of Lydia or the armor of men …” (Balmer, No. 21). Fragment #31 gives perhaps the best depiction of an erotic crush ever written. “…my voice deserts me / and my tongue is struck silent, a delicate fire / suddenly races underneath my skin / my eyes see nothing…” (Balmer, No.20) That’s just a small sample of the full description. Read the fragment for more. It’s worth it. Meanwhile in Fragment #16 we learn that “Leto and Niobe were the very best of friends.” (Balmer, No. 97) Students of Greek mythology know that things end badly for the two women but it is significant that Sappho depicts them first as friends. I wish we had more of this song so we could see how Sappho developed the story.

Many of the major themes in Western literature are already present in Sappho’s fragments: erotic desire, romantic love, familial love, aging, creativity, spirituality, death, and immortality. As my reading project progresses, I will trace how later women writers develop these and other themes.

Ms. Balmer mentions in a footnote that Sappho was the first poet to speak of attaining immortality through poetry (Balmer, No. 106). Given how little of her work still survives, Sappho could easily have been one about whom Virginia Woolf speculated that “Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” (A Room of One’s Own, p. 49) Instead Sappho is all the more extraordinary because she escaped that anonymity and achieved the immortality she desired.

Sappho is an important precursor for the women writers who follow her. She is the once and future Great Woman Poet that Virginia Woolf anticipated in A Room of One’s Own. In parting, I will allow the poet H.D. to have the final word on Sappho:

She is the island of artistic perfection where the lover of ancient beauty (shipwrecked in the modern world) may yet find foothold and take breath and gain courage for new adventures and dream of yet unexplored continents and realms of future artistic achievement.

(“The Wise Sappho”)