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Check-in for Let’s Write Like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Just for Fun

Dear Common Readers,

Did you attempt to write like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz? Which of her many forms did you choose for your piece — a ballad, décima, epigram, redondilla, silva, sonnet, prologue to a (real or imaginary) play or a spirited response to a real or imaginary open letter? What was the experience like? Did you enjoy it?

I stumbled around with this and gained an even greater appreciation for Sor Juana’s talent and skill. She wrote in her famous Respuesta that writing verses came naturally to her. Alas, it does not for me.

I tried to write a redondilla. The results were woefully bad. I ended up with awkward phrasing, wrenched accents, and clumsy rhymes. Now I understand why Edith Grossman sacrificed rhyme for rhythm in her translations.

Before I share my poem, I must ask you to remember that our purpose here is to learn by doing. For that, we agree to suspend aesthetic judgements about the results. I offer you my redondilla in that spirit.

 

Redondilla - Copy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please post your piece or a link to your blog post about your attempts to write like Sor Juana in the comments below. I hope to hear from you.

 

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Fawning for Sor Juana

Dear Common Readers,

That’s right, I am fawning like a fan girl over Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Go borrow or buy a copy of her Selected Works at once. I can’t believe it has taken me so long to finally read Sor Juana’s work but I am grateful that I did. I only wish I had known about Sor Juana’s writings when I was in high school.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works translated by Edith Grossman (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014) is worth the price for the Respuesta alone, but the entire book is a gem. Sor Juana’s poetry is witty, clever, imaginative, and often deeply moving. Her spirited, pointed arguments are thought-provoking and inspiring.

As I was reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking what a shame it was that Virginia Woolf did not have access to an English translation of Sor Juana’s writing. Sor Juana’s work embodies so many qualities that Ms. Woolf longed to see from women writers.

Indeed novelist Julia Alvarez compared Sor Juana with Ms. Woolf’s fictional Judith Shakespeare in her introduction to Sor Juana’s Selected Works. This is a fitting comparison since Sor Juana was born just forty years after William Shakespeare’s death. Ms. Woolf imagines Judith Shakespeare, William’s fictional sister, ran away to London but, though a gifted writer, could not find a place in the London theatre. Instead Judith found herself seduced, pregnant, and abandoned. Finally, driven mad by gifts she could not put to use, Judith killed herself in Ms. Woolf’s account. In contrast

…Sor Juana managed to get herself to Mexico City, be invited into the viceroyal court, pursue her studies, and write works celebrated throughout the Spanish–speaking empire, a big part of the world back then…Hers was the astonishing case of a poor, illegitimate, colonial female, to boot, who turned around the meanness of her situation and became the literary star of her time. (p. xi-xii)

Female lineage was as important to Sor Juana as it was to Ms. Woolf. In her defense of her studies, Sor Juana made a list of learned women from the Bible, Ancient Greece and Rome, and the early Christian Church who were revered and respected. This list runs for three pages and Sor Juana referred to even more learned women later in the letter. Contrasting this with Ms. Woolf’s longing for a missing tradition of women writers nearly 300 years later makes me see a new value in education. Highly-educated Sor Juana was completely aware of her place in a long line of educated women thinkers and writers and used that lineage to claim legitimacy for her own studies and writings. Meanwhile Ms. Woolf, who was denied formal higher education, was unaware of the rich history of literary women who proceed her. Both Sor Juana and Ms. Woolf seemed to be aware of the importance of predecessors to show us what is possible. Is this why women were denied education for so many centuries in so many parts of the world — to keep them in a subservient position by denying them knowledge that women have always contributed more to the world than just housework?

Not that Sor Juana would disparage housework. Indeed, in her Respuesta a Sor Filotea, Sor Juana states

…but what can we women know but kitchen philosophies? As Lupercio Leonardo so wisely said, one can philosophize very well and prepare supper. And seeing minor details, I say that if Aristotle had cooked, he would have written a great deal more. (p. 185)

(Perhaps 21st-century feminists should use this argument to persuade men to take on an equal share of the housework.)

Like that of Sappho before her, much of Sor Juana’s writings center on women’s culture. Sor Juana painted a vivid picture of the friendships and camaraderie among women in her convent in the Respuesta. Also like Sappho, Sor Juana often wrote about unrequited love for a woman. In both cases it is difficult to know whether this is purely poetic convention or an expression of the poet’s own personal emotions. Either way, the result is witty, beautiful, often moving poetry. I especially liked the wordplay in Décima 102 in which the poet speaks in the voice of a portrait:

She who is my original
has forwarded me to you
and although you see her drawn,
you will never see her withdrawn…

and these moving lines from Sonnet 186:

…know that no one but Laura commands here;
and she, abashed, departed and sped away,
leaving me to die for you, no one but you.

It is evident even in the Selected Works that Sor Juana wrote in many styles and on many subjects. She wrote not just love poetry and religious poems, but poems in honor of births, christenings, deaths, and public figures whom she admired. Sor Juana’s work is witty and often moving. She made clever use of mythological, historical, and religious symbolism and allusions in her work.

It’s important to remember that Sor Juana was probably the first internationally famous Mexican woman writer. Mexican national pride is a recurring theme in her work. In Ballad 24, written for the christening of the vicereine’s son, Sor Juana spoke of the glory and ascendancy Mexico would achieve over Europe when the boy grew up to rule the country. She spoke again of Mexican national pride in the prologue to her allegorical religious play Divine Narcissus in which the characters Occident and America are depicted as Aztecs in ceremonial clothing.

I’m afraid I may have made Sor Juana’s work sound stuffy. It is not. She was witty and amusing as well as learned and impassioned. Check out her epigrams. She wrote of a drunken braggart that his royal ancestor “more than the king of swords / must have been the king of cups.” (Epigram 94, p. 39-40) When a hypocrite insulted her over her illegitimate birth, she fired back that her mother didn’t give her as many fathers to choose from as his mother did. (Epigram 95, p. 40)

Sor Juana was also the first published feminist writer in the New World. Women’s education and male double standards are important themes in her poetry and prose. Ballad 2 wrestles with the idea that too much knowledge without understanding is a bad thing for men and women. Redondilla 92 takes on the male sexual double standard for women:

Who carries the greater guilt
in a passion gone astray:
the woman, beseeched, who falls,
or the man who begged her to yield?

or which one merits more blame
although both deserve our censure:
the woman who sins for pay
or the man who pays to sin?

The poet concludes by advising men to “Love them for what you make them / or make them what you can love.” (p. 33-36)

Her feminism found its fullest expression, though, in her Respuesta a Sor Filotea (Answer to Sister Philotea). It is not difficult to see why Sor Juana’s Respuesta got her in trouble with the Catholic Church officials of her day. She wrote this letter in 1691 when the Inquisition was still active. Indeed, Sor Juana mentioned it a few times in her letter. An awareness of the presence of an Inquisitor in Mexico City was clearly in her mind when she stated that she avoided writing on theological subjects to avoid accidentally committing heresy.

This seems to have been the intent of the Bishop of Puebla (Don Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz) when he initiated the correspondence. Sor Juana wrote the initial challenge of Father António Vieira’s sermon at the bishop’s request. He then published it without her permission or even her knowledge. Then, posing as a nun named Sor Filotea, the bishop wrote a letter to Sor Juana to chastise her for her presumption as a woman in writing it and to admonish her to confine her writing and studying to religious subjects.

Sor Juana’s reply is brilliant. She began with flattery and an apology but even within the apology, she turned it around on Sor Filotea, offering as proof of her religious studies and writing the very critique that Sor Filotea found so objectionable. She went further in her defense by pointing out she wrote it at the request of someone else. She drew upon her religious beliefs to support her right to study all subjects, further proving that she has indeed devoted herself to studying sacred as well as secular texts. She also argued that it was her duty to God to use the talents and gifts which had been bestowed upon her. Next she argued that one must study all fields of secular knowledge in order to properly understand the Bible and gave examples of allusions to mathematics, music, and architecture in the Bible. Further she argued that women should be educated so that they can teach their daughters and thereby avoid any overfamiliarity between male tutors and their young female students. She also gave examples of Church approval of learned women in the past.

What probably angered the bishop and other Catholic Church officials were passages like this:

…it is obvious that this does not apply to all women but only to those whom God has favored with special virtue and prudence, who are mature and erudite and have the necessary talent and requisites for so sacred an occupation. And this is true not only for women, who are considered to be so incompetent, but for men as well, who for the simple fact of being men think they are wise… (p. 189)

Then there are the passages in which she put her finger on what was really bothering the bishop: the worldly acclaim that her poetry received in both Spain and Mexico.

In truth, señora, at times I begin to think that the one who excels — or is made to excel by God, Who alone can effect this —is received as a common enemy, because it seems to some that this person usurps the applause they deserve or blocks the admiration to which they aspire, and so this person is persecuted.

That politically barbarous law of Athens, by which whoever excelled in gifts and virtues was exiled from the republic to keep him from tyrannizing public liberty with those gifts, still endures and is still observed in our day, although the motive of the Athenians no longer exists; but there is another one, no less effective although not as well founded, for it seems a maxim of the impious Machiavelli, and that is to despise the one who excels because that person discredits others. This occurs, and has always occurred. (p. 174)

How I wish I had read this letter when I was a bookish honor-roll student. It might have made high school easier to bear.

I enjoyed this translation very much. Edith Grossman explained in her introductory notes that she prefers to sacrifice rhyme to preserve the rhythm and meaning of the original poems. Still, I found myself wishing that she had found a way to make the rhyme schemes work. Any student of sonnets knows that they are supposed to rhyme and I definitely felt that the poems lacked a little something without the rhymes. This is just a quibble, though, as the poems are entirely enjoyable in this English translation. Ms. Grossman also took great care to use her footnotes to explain any puns and wordplay that are dependent on the original Spanish wording to make sense. I only wish I could read Spanish fluently so that I could read Sor Juana’s complete works. For now I hope that someone will translate Sor Juana’s complete works into English.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has at long last taken her rightful place in my own personal canon, but she deserves more. Sor Juana’s writings belong not only in the literary tradition of women writers but in The Canon of Great Literature as well.

 

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Let’s Write Like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Just for Fun

Dear Common Readers,

Just for fun let’s write a poem, a dramatic scene, or a letter in the style of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by June 3.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works includes romances (ballads), redondillas, décimas, epigrams, Petrarchan sonnets, and a silva. (See the website Spanish Metrification for good explanations of Spanish poetic forms with the meter and rhyme scheme for each form.) Selected Works also includes Sor Filotea’s letter and Sor Juana’s Respuesta a Sor Filotea as well as the prologue to one of Sor Juana’s plays.

The experiment is to write a short work using one (or more!) of Sor Juana’s forms and styles. Write a poem, a prologue or scene of a real or imaginary play, or a response to a real or imaginary open letter. Sor Juana gives us so many choices!

Let’s adopt the same reckless DIY spirit in which I earlier attempted to write a Sapphic stanza just to see what I could learn. I’ll put up a check-in post on June 3 so we can discuss our experiments and how they went.

I hope the possibilities inspire you, dear Common Readers. Are you in?

 

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

 

Edited on July 28, 2917: I removed the reference to the Spanish Metrification site because the link no longer works and I could not find the website with an internet search.

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

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”)

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.