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Wharton's Life of Sappho

Part 5, Sappho 's beauty in modern writers

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Modern writers are not less unanimous than the ancients in their praise of Sappho. Addison prefixes this quotation from Phaedrus (iii. 1, 5), to his first essay on her (Spectator, No. 223): 'O sweet soul, how good must you have been heretofore, when your remains are so delicious!' 'Her soul,' he says, 'seems to have been made up of love and poetry. She felt the passion in all its warmth, and described it in all its symptoms.... I do not know,' he goes on, 'by the character that is given of her works, whether it is not for the benefit of mankind that they are lost. They are filled with such bewitching tenderness and rapture, that it might have been dangerous to have given them a reading.'

Mr. J. Addington Symonds says: 'The world has suffered no greater literary loss than the loss of Sappho's poems. So perfect are the smallest fragments preserved . . . that we muse in a sad rapture of astonishment to think what the complete poems must have been. ... Of all the poets of the world, of all the illustrious artists of all literatures, Sappho is the one whose every word has a peculiar and unmistakable perfume, a seal of absolute perfection and illimitable grace. In her art she was unerring. Even Archilochus seems commonplace when compared with her exquisite rarity of phrase. . . . Whether addressing the maidens, whom even in Elysium, as Horace says, Sappho could not forget; or embodying the profounder yearnings of an intense soul after beauty which has never on earth existed, but which inflames the hearts of noblest poets, robbing their eyes of sleep, and giving them the bitterness of tears to drink--these dazzling fragments

Which still, like sparkles of Greek fire,
Burn on through Time, and ne'er expire,

are the ultimate and finished forms of passionate utterance, diamonds, topazes, and blazing rubies, in which the fire of the soul is crystallised for ever.... In Sappho and Catullus ... we meet with richer and more ardent natures [than those of Horace and Alcaeus]: they are endowed with keener sensibilities, with a sensuality more noble because of its intensity, with emotions more profound, with a deeper faculty of thought, that never loses itself in the shallows of "Stoic-Epicurean acceptance," but simply and exquisitely apprehends the facts of human life.'

And some passages from Swinburne's Notes on Poems and Reviews, showing a modern poet's endeavour to familiarise his readers with Sappho's spirit, can hardly be omitted. Speaking of his poem Anactoria, he says: 'In this poem I have simply expressed, or tried to express, that violence of affection between one and another which hardens into rage and deepens into despair. The keynote which I have here touched,' he continues, 'was struck long since by Sappho. We in England are taught, are compelled under penalties to learn, to construe, and to repeat, as schoolboys, the imperishable and incomparable verses of that supreme poet; and I at least am grateful for the training. I have wished, and I have even ventured to hope, that I might be in time competent to translate into a baser and later language the divine words which even when a boy I could not but recognise as divine. That hope, if indeed I dared ever entertain such a hope, I soon found fallacious. To translate the two odes and the remaining fragments of Sappho is the one impossible task; and as witness of this I will call up one of the greatest among poets. Catullus "translated"--or as his countrymen would now say "traduced"-- the Ode to Anactoria--Eis Erômenan: a more beautiful translation there never was and will never be; but compared with the Greek, it is colourless and bloodless, puffed out by additions and enfeebled by alterations. Let any one set against each other the two first stanzas, Latin and Greek, and pronounce.... Where Catullus failed, I could not hope to succeed; I tried instead to reproduce in a diluted and dilated form the spirit of a poem which could not be reproduced in the body.

'Now the ode Eis Erômenan--the "Ode to Anactoria" (as it is named by tradition)--the poem . . . which has in the whole world of verse no companion and no rival but the Ode to Aphrodite, has been twice at least translated or traduced.... To the best (and bad is the best) of their ability, they [Nicholas Boileau-Despréaux and Ambrose Philips] have "done into" bad French and bad English the very words of Sappho. Feeling that although I might do it better I could not do it well, I abandoned the idea of translation--hekôn aikonti ge thymô. I tried then to write some paraphrase of the fragments which the Fates and the Christians have spared us. I have not said, as Boileau and Philips have, that the speaker sweats and swoons at sight of her favourite by the side of a man. I have abstained from touching on such details, for this reason: that I felt myself incompetent to give adequate expression in English to the literal and absolute words of Sappho; and would not debase and degrade them into a viler form. No one can feel more deeply than I do the inadequacy of my work. "That is not Sappho," a friend once said to me. I could only reply, "It is as near as I can come; and no man can come close to her." Her remaining verses are the supreme success, the final achievement, of the poetic art.... I have striven to cast my spirit into the mould of hers, to express and represent not the poem but the poet. I did not think it requisite to disfigure the page with a footnote wherever I had fallen back upon the original text. Here and there, I need not say, I have rendered into English the very words of Sappho. I have tried also to work into words of my own some expression of their effect: to bear witness how, more than any other's, her verses strike and sting the memory in lonely places, or at sea, among all loftier sights and sounds--how they seem akin to fire and air, being themselves "all air and fire"; other element there is none in them. As to the angry appeal against the supreme mystery of oppressive heaven, which I have ventured to put into her mouth at that point only where pleasure culminates in pain, affection in anger, and desire in despair--they are to be taken as the first outcome or outburst of foiled and fruitless passion recoiling on itself. After this, the spirit finds time to breathe and repose above all vexed senses of the weary body, all bitter labours of the revolted soul; the poet's pride of place is resumed, the lofty conscience of invincible immortality in the memories and the mouths of men.' No one who wishes to understand Sappho can afford to neglect a study of the poem thus annotated by its author. As Professor F. T. Palgrave justly says, 'Sappho is truly pictorial in the ancient sense: the image always simply presented; the sentiment left to our sensibility.'

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