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.