Friday Finds: The Poetry of Sappho

Here in garlands, goddess of love, as a sign

to our own festivities, with a graceful hand

in golden cups pour nectar out like wine.

from Sappho: Songs and Poems, translated from the Greek by Chris Preddle

I must admit: I don’t know much about antiquity. Frequent readers of this blog will know that I’m interested in 18th and 19th century history which – believe it or not – is fairly recent (when we take into account all of human history). But what I do know is that there were many complex and vibrant civilizations long before our own and we can still feel their influence today in our beliefs, our values and our art. And how cool is it that one of the most famous and lasting poets in all of Western literature was a woman?

I’d definitely heard of Sappho, but always wanted to learn more about her. So I was intrigued when The Irish Pages Press reached out to see if I’d be interested in reviewing another of their books (I previously reviewed their wonderful Ben Dorain by Garry MacKenzie) and I spotted this book – Sappho: Songs and Poems – on their list. It drew me in because it’s Sappho’s poetry translated into English by a poet: Chris Preddle. Poetry is such a tricky thing to translate. I imagine poetry from 2,500 years ago is even more so! But this book seemed like it would be a perfect introduction. It’s written for a general audience, not just scholars, and I hoped it would give me a good sense of her life and work.

And I’m delighted to report that it did all that and more! Along with translating the bulk of Sappho’s surviving poetry into English, Preddle also provided a concise and handy introduction and afterword which contextualized Sappho, her life and times, and some of the challenges in translating this ancient poet’s work.

Sappho was a wealthy and educated woman on an island called Lesbos around 600 BCE. There’s not a lot that is definitively known about her, but we know she was a poet and musician who was both famous in her lifetime and remains famous even now. She had a circle of educated women around her and she often wrote about them: their lives, their relationships with the Greek Gods and Goddesses, and their love affairs with her and with each other.

A lot of Sappho’s poetry is about her love for women. Preddle explains in the Afterword that it was considered very normal in ancient Greece for men to be attracted to women and men and for women to love women. According to Preddle ‘there is no sign in the songs that Sappho and her companions felt inhibited in their homoeroticism or suffered disapproval or discrimination (…) Both she and her society simply accepted that women may love each other.’

Something that I noticed as I was reading her poems is that they are often sensuous and full of emotion without being explicit. Preddle himself makes note of the fact that she almost never mentions specific body parts, rather, she depicts the women she loves as either talking or laughing or singing. Which I found very endearing and sweet!

Amanda Brewster Sewell, Sappho, 1891, via Wikimedia

But don’t think that her poetry isn’t full of passion too:

(…) I look

for a moment at you and cannot speak,

my tongue’s broken, a quick thin

fire’s run under my skin,

my eyes see nothing, my ears whirr

Sappho, Poem 31

I love this! I also loved how, in many of her poems, she talks about how blessed she is by the muses and how she’ll be remembered after she’s dead. I loved her boldness and confidence and you know what: she was right!

However, being such a history enthusiast, my favorite poems of hers were ones that really gave a snapshot of her physical, as well as emotional, environment. My favorite poem was the second one in the collection with lines like:

Here are the sounds of water running

cold under the apple branches. Roses shade

the ground. Sleep comes down from the

flickering leaves.

Poem 2

It was also interesting to think about the fact that her poems would have been spoken aloud and accompanied by music! As a spoken word poet, I found this especially interesting and would love to hear versions of them read aloud with a guitar.

I also liked reading about the difficult process of actually finding the poems themselves. They were written down on papyri (ancient paper) but lost over time. So we had to rely on other writers quoting her! However, since 1898, many papyrus fragments have been discovered in the sands of Egypt.

Fragment of papyrus preserving two poems by Sappho. Image via Wikimedia.

A lot of these aren’t even whole poems though but fragments. I actually really liked reading some of those poem fragments translated here, which read like small ‘found poems‘. Here are three fragments which Preddle provides on the same page. Don’t they almost seem like a surrealist poem?

You roast us.

And colorful

sandals covered her feet, beautiful

Lydian work.

To you I…of a white goat.

Poems 38-40

Overall, I enjoyed this book a lot. I think what I liked most was Preddle’s clear affection for Sappho’s poetry. You can feel that in all of his notes and even in the translations themselves, which are lovely as poems in their own right. It says in his bio that this book ‘comes from 27 years of research, writing and thought’. I think that shows. In one note, on Poem 96, he tells us that: ‘Sappho is a poet; she does not point a moral or tell us what to feel’. And I think Preddle is like that too. He gives us enough context, but doesn’t over-explain the poems or guide our readings of them too much.

One thing to keep in mind is that this is for a general audience so the original Greek words aren’t here – it’s just Preddle’s translations. So if you happen to know ancient Greek (which, surprisingly, some people do! My partner learned some in school in Italy) and you’re wanting that too, then you’d need to find the originals elsewhere.

But I was really pleased with this book as a first introduction to Sappho. It’s accessible and lovingly created. I think it would be a really thoughtful gift for a poet in your life, especially a female poet or a queer poet. But honestly, it’s an enjoyable read for anyone who loves literature and wants to learn more about one of the most enduring poets of all time.

You can find a copy of the book here.

Thanks to The Irish Pages Press, and in particular to Managing Editor Milena Williamson, for providing me with a copy for review.

Today’s Featured Image is a painting titled Sappho and Alcaeus from 1881 by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, via Wikimedia.

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Thanks for reading and see you next time! x

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