Sensational Sappho

This page summarises my chapter entitled ‘Love’s Battlefield: Rethinking Sappho fr.31′ in Erôs in Ancient Greece, eds. Ed Sanders, Chiara Thumiger, Christopher Carey and Nick Lowe (Oxford 2013).

He seems just like the gods in heaven,
that man who sits across from you
and bends his head to listen to
your lovely voice

and charming laugh – which sets my heart
aflutter in my breast, for when
I catch the merest glimpse of you,
my voice is gone,

my tongue’s congealed, a subtle fire
runs flickering beneath my frame,
my eyes see blank, a buzzing noise
assails my ears,

my sweat runs cold, my body’s gripped
by shivers, my skin’s sallower
than grass, it seems as if I’m just
an inch from death.

But all is worth the risk since, Love,
you time again crush lord and serf:
you who of old brought down great kings
and cities proud –

yes, holy Troy for Helen’s sake,
and Peleus’ son, and all the Greeks;
but Menelaus, he once more
gazed on his wife.

He left the boulevards of Troy
and homeward made his sweet return,
and laid his golden head to rest
on Helen’s lap.

But, Cypris, let me love again –
now leave the battlefield behind;
so may I prove that all my pain
is nothing worth.

Putting the pieces together

Everyone knows the Aphrodite of Melos, the so-called Venus de Milo – an ancient statue, the arms of which have broken off. The statue could perhaps be restored to wholeness with reasonable fidelity using the evidence of later copies or versions, or of other statues by the same sculptor. So what about Sappho’s equally famous fragment, Poem 31, which breaks off in the fifth stanza? The text above gives the fragment completed by four final final stanzas, for whose content I argue for below.  From where the font style changes from bold to clear, it is my own reconstruction of the song Sappho may once have sung.

I think this speculative exercise is worth doing because 1) there is new evidence, as I suggest below, that merits consideration 2) it potentially enlarges our understanding of both Sappho’s and Catullus’s poetry and compositional practice 3) it shows how  fragment 31 could easily have been part of a much longer (and poetically more satisfactory) composition, and 4) the effort of writing Sapphic verses in Greek is very instructive about Sappho’s style, as her directness and economy of expression are very hard to emulate.

The following outlines the argument I have made for the reconstruction.

1]   The surviving fragment of poem 31 may be translated as follows:

He seems just like the gods in heaven,
that man who sits across from you
and bends his head to listen to
your lovely voice

and charming laugh – which sets my heart
aflutter in my breast, for when
I catch the merest glimpse of you,
my voice is gone,

my tongue’s congealed, a subtle fire
runs flickering beneath my frame,
my eyes see blank, a buzzing noise
assails my ears,

my sweat runs cold, my body’s gripped
by shivers, my skin’s sallower
than grass, it seems as if I’m just
an inch from death.

But all is worth the risk since…
…and serf

2]   Our evidence for restoring the remainder of the poem includes not only other poems and fragments of Sappho’s poetry, but above all the version in Latin composed by Catullus in the 1st century BC. It’s a version rather than a translation, since Catullus uses the poem for his own purposes, arguably to hint at his feelings for another man’s wife, the woman he calls by the pseudonym ‘Lesbia’ (which is clearly intended to allude in some way to Sappho, the poet of Lesbos). Catullus renders Sappho’s first three stanzas with reasonable fidelity. He then appears to break off and has a final stanza about otium (idleness), which has usually been taken to be his own wholly personal comment on his predicament:

otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est;
otio exultas nimiumque gestis.
otium et reges prius et beatas
perdidit urbes.

What irks you, Catullus, is idleness,
in idleness you become restless and hyperactive.
Idleness destroyed of old even kings
and blessed cities.

3]  In 2006 I published an article (in Classical Quarterly 56.1) in which I disputed the assumption that the final stanza of Catullus 51 wholly diverges from Sappho’s original stanza. I noted the obscurity of its final two lines in the context of otium: how did ‘idleness’ destroy kings and cities?  The lines must allude to the Trojan War, since Troy was the most famous of ‘blessed’ cities to be destroyed; so I proposed that Sappho’s poem was the original source of these last two lines, but that in her case the agent of destruction was not otium but Love. The goddess Aphrodite or Kupris is addressed in the 2nd person as elsewhere in Sappho. Integrating these observations with the few remaining words of the fragment (in bold print below) I reconstructed in Greek a ‘final’ stanza as follows:

But all is worth the risk since, Love,
you’d ruin lord and serf alike:
you who of old brought down great kings
and cities proud.

4]  I might have stopped there, but it seemed unlikely that Sappho’s agonised outpourings in stanzas 2-4 were capped off by a single self-consolatory stanza. Such an abrupt, generalised ending would be uncharacteristic. Sappho’s poems often work round towards a final, personal comment, as in her poems 1, 16 and 58. At the point where poem 31 here changes tack, the opening ‘But…’ feels like a fulcrum on which the poem balances. To pursue the visual analogy, one would expect a beam to extend to roughly the same length on either side of the point: so one might expect the poem to have continued for roughly the same length after this juncture. Alan Griffiths also observes that had the poem ended after only 5 stanzas Longinus would not have stopped the quote short after one line of that stanza, but continued to the end; he only cuts off because his analysis of Sappho’s style does not extend to the second half of the poem that begins with alla.

5] But if the poem had continued for, say, another three or four stanzas — the only complete Sappho poem in this metre that survives, poem 1, has seven stanzas (and the newly discovered Sappho ‘Brothers’ poem had at least six) — where could one find evidence for what it might have said? In 2007 it struck me that the fact that Catullus had written not one but two (and only two) poems in Sapphic metre, poems 51 and 11, had been overlooked. Although only poem 51 uses Sappho as a direct model and poem 11, with its very Roman context, the mere fact of composing poem 11 in Sapphic metre might have prompted Catullus to use material or elements consciously or unconsciously derived from his engagement with Sappho poem 31.

6]  This proposition is supported by the way Catullus’s two Sapphic poems are similar in structure. Both devote several stanzas to a catalogue.  Poem 51 lists the symptoms of the poet in love, poem 11 gives a list of faraway places to which Catullus’s loyal comrades will be prepared to accompany him. At the climax of each list, the poet ‘wraps up’ and moves on. Here are the first four stanzas of poem 11:

Furi et Aureli comites Catulli,
sive in extremos penetrabit Indos,
litus ut longe resonante Eoa
tunditur unda,

sive in Hyrcanos Arabesue molles,
seu Sagas sagittiferosue Parthos,
sive quae septemgeminus colorat
aequora Nilus,

sive trans altas gradietur Alpes,
Caesaris visens monimenta magni,
Gallicum Rhenum horribiles vitro ulti-
mosque Britannos,

omnia haec, quaecumque feret voluntas
caelitum, temptare simul parati,
pauca nuntiate meae puellae
non bona dicta…

Furius and Aurelius, chums of Catullus –
whether he travels to remotest India
where the shore is buffeted by echoing Eastern
waves,

or to Hyrcania or luxuriant Arabia,
to the Sagae or the arrow-bearing Parthians,
or to the desert plains stained by the seven-
mouthed Nile,

or whether he crosses the high Alps
to visit the monuments of great Caesar,
or the Gaulish Rhine, or rough woad-dyed Britons
at the ends of the earth –

all this, whatever the will of the gods
brings, you are prepared to venture together with me:
but all I ask you is to say a few words to my girl,
not pleasant words…

The words in bold print above create an unmistakeable resonance. Where Sappho 31 wraps up with the comment ‘But all can be ventured…’, Catullus has written something strikingly similar ‘All these things…you are prepared to venture together with me’. The Latin omnia haec temptare simul parati makes a perfect line in Sapphic metre. These words, and in particular the phrase underlined, read like a residue of Catullus’s translation of the expression that opened the fifth stanza of Sappho’s poem 31.

7]  This leads us to reconsider the words ‘But all can be ventured’ (alla pan tolmaton in Greek). For a long time they were commonly, but incorrectly, translated ‘but all must be endured’, which implies that Sappho was resigned to suffering in the manner she describes. Although Fraenkel had already pointed out in 1956 (following a much earlier scholar, Friedrich Neue in 1827) that tolmaton does not mean ‘must be ventured’  (which in Greek would be tolmateon) but ‘can be ventured’, no one had bothered to work through the implications. But once we take into account the Latin words omnia haec temptare, the implication is clear: just like temptare in Latin, the Greek verb tolman does not principally indicate passive resignation or endurance, but daring. In the Iliad it invariably connotes an active sense of venturesomeness. Just as Catullus’s comrades will bravely ‘venture forth’ with him to the ends of the earth on his behest, so Sappho is not saying that ‘everything must be endured’,  but that everything is able to be ventured. Why? The answer must be that, if one does so venture, there is a possibility of achieving success. Sappho has not died, after all, she is only close to death, so a turnaround is achievable.

8]  How, then, might the poem have continued, so as to demonstrate why everything can, after all, be ventured for love? Who might have exemplified the notion that one can venture in love and succeed? It’s a reasonable assumption that Sappho, having first named the ‘kings and cities’ destroyed by Aphrodite’s agency (e.g. Achilles, Troy — the latter city containing both ‘nobles’ and ‘serfs’, as did the army of the Greeks) will then have offered a specific instance of an individual who had ‘ventured everything’ and won through for love. Sappho regularly takes her exempla from the Trojan War story, and there is enough battlefield imagery already in fragment 31 (as elsewhere in her oeuvre) for us to expect this practice to be demonstrated here: the poem begins by comparing ‘that man’ to someone with the epithet appropriate to a Homeric hero — ‘equal to gods’. Which hero, then? In the context of the Trojan War, there are few individuals 1) who are associated with a woman of mind-numbing beauty and 2) whose heroic venturing leads to a successful outcome in love and war. The one clear exception is Menelaus. His participation in the Trojan War for the sake of restoring Helen as his queen was resoundingly successful. If anyone, then, should be a model for ‘venturing all’ at the behest of Aphrodite and winning through, it is Menelaus.

9] There are possible indications that Menelaus was in the frame of the poem by Sappho that was available for Catullus to read. In the last stanza of poem 11, when Catullus asks that ‘Lesbia’ should not ‘look for the passion we had before’, the sentiment reminds us that Helen and Menelaus did resume their earlier relationship i.e. the love they ‘had before’ Helen abandoned ‘the best of husbands’ for Paris (fr. 16.7-8 is plausibly — perhaps inescapably — restored andra ton [panar]iston]). Catullus warns Lesbia that, by contrast, she cannot expect to enjoy a happy marital reunion of the kind that, as Homer depicts in Odyssey Book 4, Helen and Menelaus eventually resumed. Secondly, when Catullus goes on to compare his dying passion to a poppy cut down by a passing plough (an image taken from Iliad 8.306-8), the note of pathos recalls the scene, with its equally famous simile, in which Menelaus receives a bloody wound that ‘stains’ his thigh just as a woman stains a piece of ivory (Iliad 4.127-97). There is ‘staining’ in Catullus’s poem 11 as well:  the waters of the Nile ‘stain’ (colorat) the desert sands of Egypt. If these images arose in Catullus’ mind when he composed poem 11, it may be because Menelaus had featured in the original poem by Sappho.

10]  What form, then, might Sappho’s poem 31 have had in the version Catullus found in his scroll-box (capsula, poem 68.36) when he wrote poem 51 and (perhaps not long afterwards) his only other extant poem in Sapphics, poem 11?

I imagine it had a more full and satisfying poetic trajectory than a five-stanza poem could have, and that it read something like this. Note that at the end Sappho would have reverted to commenting on her own situation, as she does in poem 1, frag. 16,  the recently restored frag. 58 (where the final four lines were known about from an earlier papyrus), and the new Brothers poem. My own conjectures are given in square brackets, and to corroborate their viability (I make no greater claim for my own Greek composition) I have translated them into Sappho’s dialect, metre and idiom:

He seems just like the gods in heaven,
that man who sits across from you
and bends his head to listen to
your lovely voice

and charming laugh – which sets my heart
aflutter in my breast, for when
I catch the merest glimpse of you,
my voice is gone,

my tongue’s congealed, a subtle fire
runs flickering beneath my frame,
my eyes see blank, a buzzing noise
assails my ears,

my sweat runs cold, my body’s gripped
by shivers, my skin’s sallower
than grass, it seems as if I’m just
an inch from death.

But all is worth the risk since, [Love,
you time again crush lord and] serf:
[you who of old brought down great kings
and cities proud:

yes, holy Troy for Helen’s sake,
and Peleus’ son, and all the Greeks;
but Menelaus, he once more
gazed on his wife.

He left the boulevards of Troy
and homeward made his sweet return,
and laid his golden head to rest
on Helen’s lap.

But, Cypris, let me love again --
now leave the battlefield behind;
so may I prove that all my pain
is nothing worth.]

φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν
ἔμμεν’ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-
σας ὐπακούει

καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ’ ἦ μὰν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν·
ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ’ ἴδω βρόχε’, ὤς με φώναί-
σ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ἔτ’ εἴκει,

ἀλλά κὰμ μὲν γλῶσσα πέπαγε, λέπτον
δ’ αὔτικα χρῷ πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ὄρημμ’, ἐπιρρόμ-
βεισι δ’ ἄκουαι,

κὰδ’ δέ μ᾽ ἴδρως ψῦχρος ἔχει, τρόμος δὲ
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ’ ὀλίγω ‘πιδεύης
φαίνομ’ ἔμ’ αὔτᾳ.

ἀλλὰ πὰν τόλματον, ἐπεὶ [κὰτ᾽ ἔσλον,
Κύπρι, δηὖτ᾽ ἄγρησθ᾽ ἄμα] καὶ πένητα·
[καί ποτ᾽ ὀλβίαις πόλιας κατῆλες
καὶ βασίληας,

῎Ιλιόν τ᾽ ἴραν, ᾽Ελένας ἔκατι
Πήλεός τ᾽ υἴον Δανάων τε λᾶον·
ἀλλὰ δηὖτ᾽ αὖτος Μενέλαος ἄβραν
εἶδεν ἄκοιτιν.

Ἰλίω γὰρ εὐρυχόροις ἀγυίαις
καλλίπων ἦχ᾽ ἰμερόεντα νόστον,
καὶ τέλος ξάνθαν κεφάλαν ἔθηκ᾽ αὔ-
τας ἐνὶ κόλπῳ.

ἀλλά, Κύπρι, δός μ᾽ ἐπ´ ἔρον πελάσθην
καλλίποισ᾽ ἄχος στονόεντά τ᾽ ἄλγεα,
καὶ γὰρ αὔτικ᾽ ὄσσα πέπονθα δείξαιμ᾽
οὐδ᾽ ἒν ἔοντα.]

I make a detailed scholarly argument for this (or a closely similar) reconstruction, and for elements used in the Greek version, in Chapter 5 (‘Love’s Battlefield’) of Eros in Ancient Greece, eds. Ed Sanders, Chiara Thumiger, Christopher Carey and Nick Lowe (OUP 2013). I end that chapter by quoting the famous refrain of the 4th-century AD poem Pervigilium Veneris (‘Love’s Vigil’), because it seems to make an apt comment on the ultimately optimistic message of Sappho’s restored poem: cras amet qui numquam amavit, quique amavit cras amet – ‘tomorrow s/he shall love who has never loved, and s/he who has loved shall tomorrow love again’.

My attention was subsequently drawn by Alan Griffiths to a striking parallel with the Sapphic list of symptoms in the Indian epic Bhagavad Gita (dating to 5th-2nd cent. BC, so postdating Sappho), precisely relating to battlefield emotions. Arjuna is about to join battle (v. 25 following):

And Krishna said, “Arjuna, behold
The Kurus gathered here.”

And Arjuna beheld
Fathers, grandfathers
Venerable teachers, uncles, brothers, sons,
Grandsons and comrades,

Fathers-in-law and friends
Standing there in either host.
And the son of Kuntī, seeing them,
All his kinsmen thus arrayed,

Was filled with deep compassion,
And, desponding, spake these words:
“Krishna, when these mine own folk I see
Standing before me, spoiling for the fight,

My limbs give way (beneath me)
My mouth dries up, and trembling
Takes hold upon my frame:
My body’s hairs stand up (in dread).

(My bow) Gandiva, slips from my hand,
My very skin is all ablaze;
I cannot stand, my mind
seems to wander (all distraught).”

(tr. R. C. Zaehner, Everyman Hindu Scriptures)

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