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Wharton's Life of Sappho

Part 7, Sappho's works and meters

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Although so little of Sappho remains, her complete works must have been considerable. She seems to have been the chief acknowledged writer of 'Wedding-Songs,' if we may believe Himerius (cf. fr. 93); and there is little doubt that Catullus' Epithalamia were copied, if not actually translated, from hers. Menander the Rhetorician praises her 'Invocatory Hymns,' in which he says she called upon Artemis and Aphrodite from a thousand hills; perhaps fr. 6 is taken out of one of these. Her hymn to Artemis is said to have been imitated by Damophyla (cf. p. 24). She was on all sides regarded as the greatest erotic poet of antiquity; as Swinburne makes her sing of herself--

My blood was hot wan wine of love,
And my song's sound the sound thereof,
       The sound of the delight of it.

Epigrams and Elegies, Iambics and Monodies, she is also reported to have written. Nine books of her lyric Odes are said to have existed, but it is uncertain how they were composed. The imitations of her style and metre made by Horace are too well known to require more than a passing reference. Some of his odes have been regarded as direct translations from Sappho; notably his Carm. iii. 12, Miserarum est neque amori dare ludum neque dulci, which Volger compares to her fr. 90. Horace looked forward to hearing her in Hades singing plaintively to the girls of her own country (Carm. ii. 13, 146), and in his time

Still breathed the love, still lived the fire
To which the Lesbian tuned her lyre.
            (Carm. iv. 9. 10.)

Athenaeus says that Chamaeleon, one of the disciples of Aristotle, wrote a book about Sappho; and Strabo says Callias of Lesbos interpreted her songs. Alexander the Sophist used to lecture on her; and Dracon of Stratonica, in the reign of Hadrian, wrote a commentary on her metres.

She wrote in the Aeolic dialect, the form of which Bergk has restored in almost every instance. The absence of rough breathings, the throwing back of the accent, and the use of the digamma and of many forms and words unknown to ordinary Attic Greek, all testify to this. Three idyls ascribed to Theocritus (cf. fr. 65) are imitations of the dialect, metre, and manner of the old Aeolic poets; and the 28th, says Professor Mahaffy, 'is an elegant little address to an ivory spindle which the poet was sending as a present to the wife of his physician friend, Nikias of Cos, and was probably composed on the model of a poem of Sappho.'

Her poems or melÍ were undoubtedly written for recitation with the aid of music; 'they were, in fact,' to quote Professor Mahaffy again, 'the earliest specimens of what is called in modern days the Song or Ballad, in which the repetition of short rhythms produces a certain pleasant monotony, easy to remember and easy to understand.'

What Melic poetry like Sappho's actually was is best comprehended in the light of Plato's definition of melos, that it is 'compounded out of three things, speech, music, and rhythm.'

Aristoxenus, as quoted by Plutarch, ascribes to her the invention of the Mixo-Lydian mode. Mr. William Chappell thinks the plain meaning of Aristoxenus' assertion is merely that she sang softly and plaintively, and at a higher pitch than any of her predecessors. All Greek modes can be exhibited by means of our diatonic scale--by the white keys, for example, omitting the black ones, of our modern pianofortes; the various modes having been merely divisions of the diatonic scale into certain regions each consisting of one octave. The ecclesiastical Mixo-Lydian mode, supposed to be similar to the Greek mode of the same name, is the scale of our G major without the F# or leading note. It was called in the early Christian Church 'the angelic mode,' and is now known as the Seventh of the ecclesiastical or Gregorian modes. The more celebrated instances of the use of this mode in modern church music are Palestrina's four-part motet Dies sanctificatus, the Antiphon Asperges me as given in the Roman Gradual, and the Sarum melody of Sanctorum meritis printed in the Rev. T. Helmore's Hymnal Noted. The subjoined example of it is given in Sir George Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians:--

Mixo-Lydian mode

together with a technical description of its construction.

Sappho is said by Athenaeus, quoting Menaechmus and Aristoxenus, to have been the first of the Greek poets to use the PÍktis (pÍktis), a foreign instrument of uncertain form, a kind of harp (cf. fr. 122), which was played by the fingers without a plectrum. Athenaeus says the Pektis was identical with the Magadis, but in this he was plainly wrong, for Mr. William Chappell has shown that any instrument which was played in octaves was called a Magadis, and when it was in the form of a lyre it had a bridge to divide the strings into two parts, in the ratio of 2 to 1, so that the short part of each string gave a sound just one octave higher than the other. Sappho also mentions (in fr. 154) the Baromos or Barmos, and the Sarbitos or Barbitos, kinds of many-stringed Lesbian lyres which cannot now be identified.

As to the metres in which Sappho wrote, it is unnecessary to describe them elaborately here. They are discussed in all treatises on Greek or Latin metres, and Neue has treated of them at great length in his edition of Sappho. Suffice it to say that Bergk has as far as possible arranged the fragments according to their metres, of which I have given indications --often purposely general--in the headings to the various divisions. The metre commonly called after her name was probably not invented by her; it was only called Sapphic because of her frequent use of it. Its strophe is made up thus:

Sapphic strophe

Professor Robinson Ellis, in the preface to his translation of Catullus, gives some examples of Elizabethan renderings of the Sapphic stanza into English; but nothing repeats its rhythm to my ear so well as Swinburne's Sapphics:

All the night sleep came not upon my eyelids,
Shed not dew, nor shook nor unclosed a feather,
Yet with lips shut close and with eyes of iron
        Stood and beheld me.

With such lines as these ringing in the reader's ears, he can almost hear Sappho herself singing

Songs that move the heart of the shaken heaven,
Songs that break the heart of the earth with pity,
        Hearing, to hear them.

In the face of so much testimony to Sappho's genius, and in the presence of every glowing word of hers that has been spared to us, those 'grains of golden sand which the torrent of Time has carried down to us,' as Professor F. T. Palgrave says, there is no need for me to panegyrise the poetess whom the whole world has been long since contented to hold without a parallel. What Sappho wrote, to earn such unchallenged fame, we can only vainly long to know; what still remains for us to judge her by, I am willing to leave my readers to estimate.



6.A quaint medieval commentator on Horace, quoted by Professor Comparetti, says this passage (querentem Sappho puellis de popularibus) refers to Sappho's complaining, even in Hades, of her Lesbian fellow-maidens for not loving the youth with whom she was herself so much in love.

Peitho's Web note: From Henry Thornton Wharton's Sappho, 3rd edition (London: John Lane), 1895, pp. 1-48.



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