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”)

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.