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The Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast: Episode 11 - Sappho, the Translations

Friday, June 23, 2017 - 21:25

It's been a lot of fun doing a themed set of blogs and podcasts this month focusing on Sappho. The new episode is out, talking about the transmissiong of Sappho's body of work down the centuries, with examples of translations and works inspired by her poetry. I'm looking for other topics where I can coordinate publications and podcasts. And look for some changes coming to the LHMPodcast in August, with an expanded schedule and new types of content. Just as a hint: one of the new features will be interviews with authors of historically-based fiction featuring queer female characters. If there's an author you'd like to see us feature, let me know. (I can't promise anything specific, since I'm looking to create a balance of topics and representations, but I'm definitely looking for ideas.)

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(Transcript added on 2018/09/26)

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 11 - Sappho: The Translations - transcript

(Originally aired 2017/06/24 - listen here)

One of the bright spots in the history of lesbian desire in history and literature is the ancient Greek poet Sappho. When you think about the erasure of women from history and the even greater erasure of queer sexuality, it’s so amazing that we have an icon like Sappho whose presence and genius were so powerful that they could only be dimmed and distorted and not entirely erased.

I like to try to do some sort of special feature in the Lesbian Historic Motif Project to celebrate Pride Month. This time I’ve been covering several books about Sappho from my to-do list, and have bracketed the month with two special podcasts.

The first one was about the historic Sappho and the beginnings of the myths that ancient Greek and Roman writers created about her.

This time we’ll look at the legacy of Sappho from the Middle Ages up through the 19th century. The various images people had of her. How people used her as a symbol. And the way those images affected how her poetry was translated into everyday languages, and how poets used her themes and imagery in their own work.

Sappho lived in the 7th century BC and it’s a testament to her reputation among other classical writers that we know anything about her at all. Early references to her works indicate that her poetry was collected into 8 volumes, representing perhaps 10 thousand lines of verse, of which 650 lines survive. That’s a small fraction, even considering that new fragments of her poetry are still being discovered today. One of the largest modern discoveries was on scraps of papyrus excavated from a rubbish dump in Oxyrhynchus Egypt at the end of the 19th century.

But for much of history before that, the only way that Sappho’s poems survived was when they were quoted by other authors--sometimes only a few words or a line, used to illustrate some point of poetics or grammar, or simply to gain the cachet of quoting the renowned poet. When literature was disseminated only by laboriously writing each copy out by hand, to cease to be re-copied was to be forgotten. And some time around the 6th or 7th century AD, the full collections of Sappho’s work stopped being of interest to copyists, and thus never made the transition from papyrus scrolls to parchment books, except second-hand when quoted by others.

Only one complete poem survives: her Ode to the goddess Aphrodite, where she begs Aphrodite to help her win the love of a woman who spurns her. But another nearly-complete song, known as “Fragment 31”, is the one that most caught the imagination of translators and imitators. The following translations are from Jane McIntosh Snyder’s book Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho and are literal renderings of the original meaning, rather than being works of poetry in themselves. They will serve as a foundation for the other versions I’ll be presenting. In fragment #1, known as the Ode to Aphrodite, Sappho names herself as the speaker and begs the goddess Aphrodite for aid in her romantic disappointment.

#1 Ode to Aphrodite

O immortal Aphrodite of the many-colored throne,
child of Zeus, weaver of wiles, I beseech you,
do not overwhelm me in my heart
with anguish and pain, O Mistress

But come hither, if ever at another time
hearing my cries from afar
you heeded them, and leaving the home of your father
came, yoking your golden

Chariot: beautiful, swift sparrows
drew you above the black earth
whirling their wings thick and fast,
from heaven’s ether through mid-air.

Suddenly they had arrived; but you, O Blessed Lady,
with a smile on your immortal face,
asked what I had suffered again and
why I was calling again

And what I was most wanting to happen for me
in my frenzied heart: “Whom again shall I persuade
to come back into friendship with you? Who,
O Sappho, does you injustice?

“For if indeed she flees, soon will she pursue,
and though she receives not your gifts, she will give them,
and if she loves not now, soon she will love,
even against her will.”

Come to me now also, release me from
harsh cares; accomplish as many things as my heart desires
to accomplish; and you yourself
be my fellow soldier.

The second poem, fragment 31, is incomplete at the end, but enough survives that it has been a favorite for translation and imitation, expressing the physical experience of desire and jealousy.

#31 He seems as a god to me

He seems to me to be like the gods
--whatever man sits opposite you
and close by hears you
talking sweetly

And laughing charmingly; which
makes the heart within my breast take flight;
for the instant I look upon you, I cannot anymore
speak one word,

But in silence my tongue is broken, a fine
fire at once runs under my skin,
with my eyes I see not one thing, my ears
buzz,

Cold sweat covers me, trembling
seizes my whole body, I am more moist than grass;
I seem to be little short
of dying...

But all must be ventured...

To understand the context of how Sappho’s poetry was understood and translated, we need to have a sense of how Sappho herself was viewed in later ages.

Classical writers like Ovid and some medieval writers held Sappho up as a model of education and erudition. Giovanni Bocaccio (who is most famous for his Decameron) wrote a celebration of famous (and some infamous) women that included her. And Christine de Pisan includes Sappho among the intellectual women praised in her work The City of Ladies.

In parallel with her reputation as a poet, Sappho was also associated with sex between women, whether as an example of a woman with lesbian desires, or to refute that accusation.

The Italian writer Bartolommeo della Rocca, writing around 1500, uses Sappho as an example of “morally offensive lust” between women.

In the mid 16th century, Italian writer Agnolo Firenzuola, when writing of the love that women could have for each other said, “Some love each other’s beauty in purity and holiness, as the elegant Laudomia Forteguerra loves the most illustrious Margaret of Austria, some lasciviously, as in ancient times Sappho from Lesbos, and in our own times in Rome the great prostitute Cecilia Venetiana. This type of woman by nature spurns marriage and flees from intimate conversation with men.”

Around the same date, the Swiss encyclopedist Theodor Zwinger included a list of Sappho’s female lovers in his entry for “tribades”.

The French aristocratic gossip-monger Brantôme, writing around 1600, was more interested in Sappho as an early proponent of what he called “donna con donna” -- woman with woman--than as a poet. Citing Roman authors he notes, “It is said that Sappho of Lesbos was a very good mistress in this art. Indeed, they say she invented it, and that the ladies of Lesbos have imitated her in this since and continued down to today. As Lucian says, such women are women of Lesbos, who will not tolerate men, but approach other women as men themselves do.”

During the 16th and 17th centuries, an increasing desire to distinguish acceptable forms of romantic attraction between women, versus unacceptably physical forms, led to a divergence between the images of Sappho as romantic poet and Sappho as unnatural deviant. This conflict plays out repeatedly over the following centuries with Sappho’s admirers feeling they needed to de-sexualize her work and life, and her detractors using the example of her fabled sexuality to attack learned women of their own time as inherently deviant.

Both sides used the classical poem “Sappho to Phaon” --now associated with Ovid, but at the time considered to have been written by Sappho herself--as evidence either of her repudiating the love of women, or of the tragic fate of one who had previously dared to embrace it. Translations of this poem appeared somewhat earlier than those of Sappho’s own poetry, as in Thomas Heywood’s 1624 edition.

Some responded to the conflict between the poetic and sexual Sapphos by inventing a second Sappho, to whom the objectionable material could be attributed. Others dealt with the dilemma by interpreting her poems as being written from a fictional masculine point of view. Male poets sometimes used Sappho as an alter ego, expressing their own heterosexual desire for women through her voice.

It is in this context that the renewed interest in Sappho’s poetry (as opposed to her personal life) led to publication, translation, and imitation of her works. Sappho’s poetry itself had previously only accessible to those who could read the original Greek--as well as having access to the older manuscripts that included it. In the mid 16th century, her work began being collected up and published either in the original Greek or with Latin translations.  Perhaps the earliest of these is the 1556 publication by Henri Estienne, which includes poems 1 and 31. Following soon after, were translations into everyday language.  But even before vernacular translations appeared, poets were referencing Sappho’s works and loves in their own poetry.

English poet John Donne, in 1600, wrote an original poem in Sappho’s voice entitled “Sappho to Philaenis” which acknowledges her homoeroticism and treats it positively.

French poet Anne de Rohan was clearly familiar with Sappho’s homoerotic reputation, and in her 1617 poem “On a lady named beloved” makes direct allusion to fragment 31 in a work that is clearly a love poem from one woman to another. She would have had access to Sappho’s works via publications such as those mentioned. You can see the echoes of Sappho’s themes in this English translation of de Rohan’s poem, though it is not a direct counterpart to a specific poem:

Beauty, it would be a great wrong,
If, for your worthy graces,
I had been dealt the lover’s fate;
For anyone but you, my dear Beloved,

All the Olympic torches,
Illuminated in their course,
Are not lovelier ornaments
Than the eyes of my beautiful Beloved.

Cupid, delighted with those eyes,
His right hand armed with an arrow
Shot into my troubled heart
The ardent desire to love my Beloved.

I know not whether they be heavens or gods
Whose power from me is hidden
And compels me, both near and far,
To die so as to love my Beloved.

To see them, they seem like the heavens,
Of azure color are they,
But by their effects they’re like gods,
Forcing me yet to love that Beloved.

For me, then, they’re both heavens and gods,
Because of their hidden power
And luminous appearance,
For I hold nothing dearer than my Beloved.

Anne Dacier’s French edition of Sappho’s work published in 1681 was important for the spread of familiarity with Sappho’s work thoughout Europe. However Dacier considered the homoerotic interpretation of Sappho to be slander, in her edition, Sappho’s fragments are reinterpreted to create a virtual male figure around whom Sappho’s life revolves.

Slightly earlier than Dacier, in 1652, the English translator John Hall included a version of fragment 31 in his edition of the classical Greek poetic manual that it is quoted in. Perhaps it is this context that inspired his choice of poetic meter. Unlike many translations, he retains the final surviving line that shows the incomplete nature of what we have.

Fragment 31 (John Hall)

He that sits next to thee now and hears
Thy charming voice, to me appears
Beauteous as any deity
That rules the sky

How did his pleasing glances dart
Sweet langors to my ravish’d heart
At the first sight though so prevailed
That my voice fail’d

I’m speechles, fev’rish, fires assail
My fainting flesh, my sight doth fail
Whilst to my restless mind my ears
Still hum new fears.

Cold sweats and tremblings so invade
That like a wither’d flower I fade
So that my life being almost lost,
I seem a ghost

Yet since I’m wretched must I dare...

17th century English poet Katherine Phillips was compared to Sappho by her friends. Although the intention may have been simply to praise Phillips’ poetry, the two bodies of work share the characteristic of using the structures and tropes of heterosexual love poetry in contexts where both the lover and beloved are unmistakably female.

Alexander Pope, perhaps best known for his mock-heroic poem “The Rape of the Lock”, turned his translating talents in 1712, not to Sappho’s work itself, but to Ovid’s poem “Sappho to Phaon”. Unlike some other translations of this work, Pope’s  version includes the acknowledgement that Sappho did originally love women--a topic that others had simply glossed over in translating the poem, turning Sappho entirely heterosexual.

The early 18th century English writer and politician Joseph Addison wrote a number of works inspired by classical authors. He wasn’t as proficient in Greek as Anne Dacier had been with her French edition. In 1735, Addison translated a number of Sappho’s works into rather forgettable rhymed couplets, including Fragment 31 “Happy as a god is he”. The first-person voice of the poem, combined with an absence of any specific reference to the person addressed (and the lack of grammatical gender markers in English) mean that little trace of homoerotic sentiment remains.

Fragment 31 (Joseph Addison)

Happy as a God is he,
That fond Youth, who plac’d by thee
Hears and sees thee sweetly gay,
Talk and smile his Soul away.

That it was alarm’d my breast,
And depriv’ed my heart of rest
For in speechless Raptures toss’d
While I gaz’d my voice was lost.

The soft Fire with flowing rein,
Glided swift through ev’ry vein
Darkness o’er my eyelids hung
In my ears faint murmurs rung

Chilling damps my limbs bedew’d
Gentle tremors thrill’d my blood
Life from my pale cheeks retir’d
Breathless, I almost expir’d

Some somewhat more poetic--if less faithful--versions were published by Ambrose Philips in 1748 including the Hymn to Aphrodite (Fragment 1), and Fragment 31. In The first, Philips had changed to gender of Sappho’s beloved to male.

Fragment 1 (Ambrose Philips)

O Venus, beauty of the skies,
To whom a thousand temples rise,
Gayly false in gentle smiles,
Full of love-perplexing wiles, ⁠
O goddess! from my heart remove
The wasting cares and pains of love.

If ever thou hast kindly hear'd
A song in soft distress prefer'd, ⁠
Propitious to my tuneful vow,
O gentle goddess! hear me now.
Descend thou bright, immortal, guest,
In all thy radiant charms confess'd. ⁠

Thou once didst leave almighty Jove,
And all the golden roofs above:
The car thy wanton sparrows drew;
Hov'ring in air they lightly flew; ⁠
As to my bower they wing'd their way,
I saw their quiv'ring pinions play.

The birds dismiss'd (while you remain)
Bore back their empty car again: ⁠
Then you, with looks divinely mild,
In ev'ry heav'nly feature smil'd,
And ask'd, what new complaints I made,
And why I call'd you to my aid? ⁠

What frenzy in my bosom rag'd,
And by what care to be asswag'd?
What gentle youth I would allure,
Whom in my artful toils secure? ⁠
Who does thy tender heart subdue,
Tell me, my Sappho, tell me who?

Tho now he shuns thy longing arms,
He soon shall court thy slighted charms; ⁠
Tho now thy offerings he despise,
He soon to thee shall sacrifice;
Tho now he freez, he soon shall burn,
And be thy victim in his turn. ⁠

Celestial visitant, once more
Thy needful presence I implore!
In pity come and ease my grief,
Bring my distemper'd soul relief: ⁠
Favour thy suppliant's hidden fires, 
And give me all my heart desires.

In Philips’ translation of fragment 31, there is no need to make pronoun changes, but a subtle shift in the emphasis of the poem can make it appear that the speaker’s love-sickness is caused by the man referenced in the first line. Alternately, the absence of an identification for the poem’s speaker leaves one free to imagine it in the male translator’s voice.

Fragment 31 (Ambrose Philips)

Bless’d as the immortal gods is he,
The youth who fondly sits by thee,
And hears and sees thee all the while
Softly speak and sweetly smile. ⁠

'Twas this depriv'd my soul of rest,
And rais'd such tumults in my breast;
For while I gaz'd, in transport toss'd,
My breath was gone, my voice was lost. ⁠

My bosom glow'd; the subtle flame
Ran quick through all my vital frame;
O'er my dim eyes a darkness hung,
My ears with hollow murmurs rung. ⁠

In dewy damps my limbs were chill'd,
My blood with gentle horrors thrill'd;
My feeble pulse forgot to play,
I fainted, sunk, and dy'd away. ⁠

Despite the best efforts of these gender-swapped translations, knowledge about Sappho’s work and reputation provided a “conceptual community” for women who loved women in the 18th century. The terms “lesbian” and “sapphic” were coming into common use in a sexual sense, and even superficially innocent references to the poet could be used as a sort of secret password to refer to lesbian desire.

For intellectual and literary women of the time, there was a complication. In addition to her sexual reputation, Sappho stood in for the idea of intellectual and literary women in general. So it sometimes happened that female scholars, even more than male ones, found themselves straining to discount the “taint” of lesbianism for the most famous Lesbian.

Sappho’s mere existence entered into the tension between several framings of same-sex passions. One position othered lesbianism by placing it elsewhere in space or time: in ancient Greece, or in foreign countries. Another view saw lesbianism as a brand new decadent phenomenon. A sort of “kids these days” approach. The classical Sappho could be used to imply lesbianism was something of the past, no longer practiced, and perhaps conceptually divorced from affections between 18th century women. But those educated enough to have access to literature of the previous century, such as John Donne’s “Sapho to Philaenis” (1633) or Brantôme’s Lives of Gallant Ladies would find it harder to dismiss lesbianism as a longstanding tradition.

It was during this era that accusations of lesbianism became a regular part of social and political attacks on prominent women. Sappho was a useful symbol to use in such attacks that would carry a weight of symbolism with an economy of reference. An anonymous poet in 1735 wrote a long mock-heroic poem entitled “The Sappho-an” satirically attributing to Sappho the origin of lesbianism in general and certain sexual practices in particular.

In the 19th century, the academic approach to Sappho’s poetry might be summed up by the opinion of Henry Thornton Wharton, whose 1887 edition of Sappho’s work attempted to produce a comprehensive bibliography of published editions starting in the mid-16th century, as well as materials relating to her life. Wharton discusses the passion and skill of Sappho’s poetry, but almost entirely sidesteps the issue of her sexuality, even when citing works that address it. He concludes, “whether the pure think her emotion pure or impure, whether the impure appreciate it rightly, or misinterpret it, whether, finally, it was platonic or not, seems to me to matter nothing.”

The translations he collects reflect this insistent side-stepping. Although Wharton’s literal rendering of the Ode to Aphrodite is faithful to the gender of the original without comment: “Who wrongs thee, Sappho? For even if she flies she shall soon follow...and if she loves not shall soon love, however loth.”

Most of the metrical renderings he collects all turn the diffident beloved to “he”. Wharton’s version of fragment 31 is less problematic, given that the original lacks the same overt reference to Sappho as the speaker and clear reference to the gender of the beloved. Thus the metrical versions by male poets that he collects can be received as the jealousy of one man (the poet) for another over the woman they both desire. Rather than a direct translation, here’s a borrowing of the imagery for another context by Lord Tennyson in 1832:

I watch thy grace; and in its place
My heart a charmed slumber keeps,
While I muse upon thy face;
And a languid fire creeps
Through my veins to all my frame,
Dissolvingly and slowly: soon
From thy rose-red lips my name
Floweth; and then, as in a swoon,
With dinning sound my ears are rife,
My tremullous tongue faltereth,
I lose my color, I love my breath,
I drink the cup of a costly death
Brimmed with delicious draughts of warmest life.
I die with my delight, before
I hear what I would hear from thee.

In versions such as this, the male literary establishment claimed Sappho’s poetic legacy for their own and for heterosexual love, by appropriating Sappho’s words and removing them from the context of her own desires.

But while one 19th century movement straight-washed Sappho in order to claim her for Romanticism, Sappho’s transgressive sexuality was enthusiastically embraced by the decadent movement that sprang up in France, who saw in her in icon of everything they considered most outrageous to bourgeois sensibilities: an aggressive and predatory female sexuality that led inevitably to madness and death.

This movement evoked their version if the legendary Sappho in works like Charles Baudelaire’s “Lesbos” (in 1857), and Pierre Louÿs’s The Songs of Bilitis (in 1894)--a cycle of poems in the voice of a fictional member of Sappho’s community.

Rather than end on that note, I’d like to close with two works by the American poet, Mary Hewitt. Her translation of Sappho’s fragment 31 published in 1845 fails somewhat in terms of poetic merit but seems to carry an intensity of emotion that many other translations lack.

Fragment 31 (Mary Hewitt)

Blest as the immortal gods is he
On whom each day thy glances shine
Who hears thy voice of melody
And meets thy smile so all divine

Oh when I list thine accents low
How thrills my breast with tender pain
Fire seems through every vein to glow
And strange confusion whelms my brain

My sight grows dim beneath the glance
Whose ardent rays I may not meet
While swift and wild my pulses dance
Then cease all suddenly to beat

And o’er my cheek with rapid gush
I feel the burning life-tide dart
Then backward like a torrent rush
All icy cold upon my heart

And I am motionless and pale
And silent as an unstrung lyre
And feel, while thus each sense doth fail
Doomed in thy presence to expire

Hewitt was also inspired to write original poetry in the style of Sappho. The following work echoes many of the themes of fragment 31, but rewoven into a new work. If anything, this poem carries a stronger sense of homoeroticism than the original, for instead of simply recording the speaker’s physical reactions, it explicitly attributes those reactions to love. When I looked for further information on Hewitt, I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover her among the literary lifelong spinsters who formed the backbone of the Romantic Friendship phenomenon. Alas, Hewitt was twice married to men--so my fantasies were shattered--but then so were many of the women of this time who wrote of their strong emotional bonds to other women. This poem suggests that at the very least she would have understood such desires.

If to repeat thy name when none may hear me,
To find thy thought with all my thoughts inwove
To languish where thou’rt not -- to sigh when near thee
Oh! If this be to love thee, I do love!

If when thou utterest low words of greeting
To feel through every vein the torrent pour
Then back again the hot tide swift retreating
Leave me all powerless, silent as before

If to list breathless to thine accents failing
Almost to pain, upon my eager ear
And fondly when alone to be recalling
The words that I would die again to hear

If at thy glance my heart all strength forsaking
Pant in my breast as pants the frighted doves
If to think on thee ever, sleeping--waking--
Oh! If this be to love thee, I do love!

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