Sappho in English Rhyming Verse,
from The Lyric Songs of the Greeks***
By Walter Petersen
Then Professor of Classics at Bethany College
(Jump to translations)
By far the greatest of the Greek monodic lyric poets, and, together with her contemporary Alcaeus, the earliest, was Sappho, who lived in Lesbos (Mitylene or, according to others, Eresos) at the end of the seventh and the beginning of the sixth century B.C. She was the daughter of Scamandronymus, and had a brother named Charaxus, of whom Herodotus tells us that he fell under the influence of the famous courtesan Rhodopis, whose real name was Doricha. He went to Naucratis in Egypt and ransomed her, and on his return was met by the barbed shafts of the poetry of his sister, who earlier had composed a prayer for his repentance and return (see no. 8 below), and on another occasion (no. 7) lamented that he fell into the clutches of the fair lady a second time after having once escaped. Other data as to Sappho's family are more or less uncertain. Her mother is said to have been named Cleis, and, to judge from fragment no. 9, she appears to have had a daughter of the same name. However, she may here not be speaking in her own person, and it is also possible that by "child" she did not mean a daughter, but a girl friend. That her husband, if she had one, was Cercylas from Andros, is most certainly a fiction of the comedians.
Of the events of her life we know nothing more except that she was exiled from Lesbos and went to Sicily about 596 B. C. Since she belonged to the old aristocratic families of Lesbos, the ascendancy of the tyrants, whom her party had fought so bitterly, resulted in banishment for her even though she evidently did not actively lend the service of her poetry to the side on which her sympathies lay. Later she was permitted to return, like Alcaeus, no doubt, through the generosity of the tyrant Pittacus.
After her return all her poetic activity was connected with the "Home of the Muses," as she called her abode, in which she must have lived at the time of her death (cf. no. 68). Here she gathered around her a group of younger women whom she instructed in the arts of poetry and song, and whose beauty and friendship inspired her Muse. Among the names of such companions which occur in her fragments, may be mentioned: Hero, Mnesidice, Anactoria, Gongyle, and above all, the lovely Atthis, whose desertion for her rival Andromeda caused her such sorrow (no. 16). Many of these girl friends stayed, it seems, till their marriage, and were then rewarded by a beautiful epithalamium or marriage hymn (nos. 26-39).
The case of Atthis shows that Sappho was by no means the only competitor for the companionship of the beautiful and gifted young women of her community, and in addition to Andromeda we hear of a rival Gorgo, on whom, as on the former, Sappho poured out the vials of her contempt (nos. 53-55). Her "Home of the Muses," then, represented a regular Lesbian institution; for at Lesbos women were not restricted as at Attica, but were allowed to move around freely and to be as liberally educated as the men. In fact, were this not the case, the genius of Sappho herself could not have unfolded unhampered.
The passionate language which our poetess uses of her girl friends, otherwise only the language of a lover to his mistress, gave rise to scandalous gossip among the comedians as to her alleged immorality, and to the fantastic story of her unrequited love for the youth Phaon, which, it is said, induced her to end her life by throwing herself down from the lofty Leucadian Cliff. But even if the untrustworthiness of Comedy as a source for the history of literature were not evident on the surface, the mythical nature of their stories could be gathered from the fact that the comedians represent as lovers of Sappho: Archilochus, who lived a century earlier, as well as Anacreon, who lived over a half century later.
The most outstanding feature of Sappho is that passionate love, that worship of beauty, which, though a characteristic of the Aeolians in general, finds its most perfect expression in her poetry, which "stands highest in the passionate lyric of all times and ages." It is a poetry pervaded by such love and sympathy for nature as is otherwise unknown to the ancient world (cf. e.g. nos. 12, 29, 77, 79). It is a poetry of the most exquisite melody, of the most enchanting images, which may reveal in the smallest and apparently most insignificant fragments the magic touch of her genius.
The meager remnants of Sappho which have come down to us through quotation by ancient writers are gradually being supplemented by others from the papyrus finds in Egypt, nos. 3, 4, 6-8, 10-13, 40, and 41 being translations of such modern accessions. Though they are usually in such a bad state of preservation that complete and certain restoration is impossible, they have added considerably to our knowledge of her poetry, and, above all, raise the hope that some time practically complete copies of larger parts of her work will be found. For, although she wrote in the Aeolic dialect, and therefore would not be universally understood, it is now evident that she, as well as Alcaeus, was still popular in Egypt many centuries after her death.
1. TO APHRODITE
Ah! gold-enthroned immortal Aphrodite,
Daughter of Zeus, through wily cunning mighty,
Goddess revered, to thee I pray:
My soul-subduing griefs allay.
And hither come thou, if before this ever
Thou didst my distant voice to hear endeavor,
Leaving thy father's house of gold,
If e'er thou camest to me of old.
Upon thy radiant chariot thee ascending
Thy beauteous sparrows, across the earth contending,
Carried thee down from heaven on high,
And busily their wings did ply.
Scarce had they passed, O goddess, earth's wide portal,
When thou, with smiling countenance immortal,
Didst ask concerning my distress,
What misfortune did me oppress:
"Why call'st thou me, what all-consuming passion
Devoureth thee? The Goddess of Persuasion
Shall whom constrain to do thy will?
Who, Sappho, dares to do thee ill?
"Though now she spurns thee, soon she'll friendship proffer;
Gifts which she now refuses soon she'll offer;
Though now thy love she from her fling,
Soon 'gainst thy will her love she'll bring."
And now again come to me, cares dispelling,
My soul's tempestuous fiery passion quelling.
My heart's desire for me fulfill,
And be my friend and ally still.
2. TO A BELOVED MAIDEN
That man who sits before thy face,
Godlike he seems to me.
He hears thy words' sweet charming grace,
Thou laugh'st a laugh of pure delight;
But in my breast my heart
Violently flutters at thy sight
No sound from me will start.
My tongue is lamed, a fiery glow
My limbs completely sears;
My eyes see nothing, rumblings low
Play havoc in my ears.
Hot perspiration downward drops,
And trembling seizes me.
I am ghastly pale, my life-blood stops,
Near death I seem to be.
3. A VISION OF HERA
Thy beauteous form before me, it did seem,
Appeared, O mistress Hera, in a dream,
As first, by fervent prayers called,
To Atreus' royal sons of old.
For when they Ares' work completed had,
From where the streams of the Scamander sped
They started hither for their home,
But first to Argos could not come,
Until they prayed to thee and Zeus thy lord,
And also Thyone's lovely child implored--
With incense-offerings even now
Their townsmen keep their ancient vow.
4. "DEATH IS ALL I WISH FOR ME"
Some god hath charmed us, Gongyle.
The children saw him visibly:
Hermes himself did to me come.
I saw him not, yet said: "Ah, lord!
No pleasure can my wealth afford,
By the blessed mistress of my home.
"For death is all I wish for me,
And the dewy lotus-fields to see,
The meadows of Elysium."
You have come, you have come, to my great delight;
For I have longed for your welcome sight.
In my heart you have kindled again love's flame,
Which was burning even before you came.
So I wish you welcome and welcome once more,
And I wish you welcome o'er and o'er,
As long as the time you were absent before.
6. A REBUKE
To show me gratitude thou e'er refusest;
From beauteous words with seven-stringed lyres allied,
From noble words to keep thy friends thou choosest,
And me reproachfully to aggrieve and chide.
Well, be it so! With insolence be sated.
Thou mayest allow with rage to swell thy heart.
But my contempt can never be abated
To fear the wrath of such as thou now art.
7. CHARAXUS AND DORICHA
Cypris! he found thee all too bitter,
And many a noisy taunt he earned
"Him Doricha once more doth fetter,
And hath his love, for which she yearned."
8. PRAYER FOR THE RETURN OF CHARAXUS
Ye Nereids, nymphs revered, my brother,
I pray you, safely let return.
Grant also any wishes other,
All that for which his heart may yearn.
May all his old shortcomings leave him.
A joy unto his friends be he,
A terror unto those who grieve him,
No more a saddening care to me.
To honor his sister be he willing,
That she with grief be not imbued,
E'en now my shameful sorrows stilling,
With which my heart he had subdued.
For his disgrace had penetrated
Far into me, my soul to blight:
To see my townsmen so elated
At intermittent gossip's spite.
But, if my song delighted ever
Thy heart, O goddess, hear my prayer:
From griefs, from evils us deliver;
Give them to Night away to bear.
9. SAPPHO'S DAUGHTER CLEIS
For me a pretty child I claim,
With form like flowers of gold.
Beloved Cleis is her name,
Admired by young and old.
Were lovely Lydia all my own,
It could not for her loss atone.
10. THE FAIREST THING IN ALL CREATION
Some think the fairest thing in all creation
To be of horse or foot an armed host;
For battle-ships some have most admiration,
But I my heart's beloved do cherish most.
And 'tis not hard to follow me for any;
For queenly Helen, fairest of the fair,
Although surveying mortal beauties many,
Did most of all for her famed lover care.
Forgetting her dear parents and her daughter,
She followed him who glorious Troy destroyed.
Far from her friends and native land he brought her,
By vanity and passionate love decoyed.
For easily is woman tempted ever
When lightly she considers what is near.
E'en so, my Anactoria, you never
Remember her who still today is here.
But I her lovely foot-fall hear more gladly,
Prefer the brightness of her gleaming eye
To all the din of chariots rushing madly,
To Lydian armoured foot-men's battle-cry.
I know to men the best cannot be granted
'Tis better far to ask a share of that
Which once was shared, to be with this contented,
Than, vainly reaching higher, to forget.
11. PARTING FROM A GIRL FRIEND
My heart is broken, silent my song,
In sad dejection for death I long:
She, mournfully weeping, did from me part.
And often thus she me would address:
"Ah, me! what misery does us oppress!
To leave thee, my Sappho, it breaks my heart."
Then her I answered, gently caressing:
"Depart from me with my heart-felt blessing.
Remember me kindly, thou knowest my love.
"Far more than of parting think thou rather
Of the beautiful hours we have spent together.
Remember these aye, by the gods above.
"For many wreaths of violets blue,
Of basil-thyme, and of roses too,
Thy tokens of love, hast thou given to me.
"And fragrant garlands of flowers of spring
Thou wovest and to me often didst bring,
About me entwining them tenderly.
"And costly salves of sweet fragrance rare,
And royal balsam, to soften thy hair,
Didst thou on thy head pour frequently."
12. THE BRIDE OF SARDIS
In Lydia's golden city, gleaming Sardis,
With beauteous Arignota e'er my heart is,
And Atthis, oft she thinks of thee.
She thinks of us of old together living,
Of how she, godlike honor to thee giving,
Did hear thy song with greatest glee.
But now among the Lydians she dwelleth,
And, like the moon at night, she there excelleth,
Aye, like the rosy-fingered queen,
Which conquers all the stars, in radiance gleaming,
Across the briny Ocean brightly beaming,
And o'er the flowery meadow green.
Refreshing dew-drops leaves and flowers cover;
The gorgeous roses and the honeyed clover,
Anthriscus too is now in bloom.
But when she thinks of Atthis, gentle maiden,
Her heart with longing and with sorrow laden,
She anxiously about doth roam.
She loudly calls to us to follow thither.
In vain-for Night of Thousand Ears lets hither
No sound across the waters come.
13. TO GONGYLE
Ah, Gongyle! come here to me,
Clad in thy milk-white dress.
Now Love again doth flit near thee,
And showeth thy loveliness.
The very sight of the splendor bright
Of thy robe brought a thrill to thee;
But Cypris herself to my great delight
Is distraught with jealousy.
LESSER FRAGMENTS RELATING TO SAPPHO'S GIRL FRIENDS
'Twas very, very long ago,
O Atthis, thou my love didst know.
A little child thou seemedst to me;
In thee could I no graces see.
To think of me, Atthis, is hateful to thee:
To Andromeda now hast thou flitted from me.
Hero, runner fleet, I taught,
Who from Gyara was brought.
Eranna, never yet, wherever I have been,
Have I than thee a more disdainful woman seen.
19. A COMPARISON
Though fair Gyrinno gentle be,
Far lovelier is Mnesidice.
20. TO DICE (MNESIDICE)
Put, O Dice, a wreath on thy beautiful tresses;
With thy delicate hands shoots of anise plait;
For a flower-covered maid by the blessed Graces
Is favored, but those without garlands they hate.
21. TO AN UNKNOWN FRIEND
Gently, gently mayest thou rest
On thy dear companion's breast.
22. IN THE BLOOM OF HER YOUTH
She now has reached her youthful bloom;
Her time for plaiting wreaths has come.
23. A GIFTED PUPIL
Of all the maidens fair for whom the sun doth rise,
Now and in times to come not one will be so wise.
24. A LOST PUPIL
Far more than I 'tis some one else
Whose love thy heart at present thrills.
Forget'st thou me.
26. THE BRIDEGROOM
Lift high the roof to give him room--
Ye workmen, lift again--
Like mighty Ares now doth come
The bridegroom taller than tall men.
His rivals he outstrips with ease,
Like Lesbian bards those of all Greece.
To what, dear bridegroom, should I most rightly thee compare?
I thee would best compare to a slender sapling fair.
29. THE BRIDE
Like the sweet apple which reddens, far up on the high tree-top growing,
Up on the loftiest branch, scarce itself to the gatherers showing--
They rathermore could not reach it, e'en though of it easily knowing.
Thy form, thy eyes are full of grace.
Thy honey-sweet, thy lovely face,
Of Aphrodite's love a token,
Hath to me of her favor spoken.
In all the world thou wouldst ne'er discover
Another maid like this, O lover.
"Does it appear to thee
That I still a maid would be?"
"O maidenhood! O maidenhood! where hast thou gone from me?"
"I nevermore, I nevermore, shall e'er come back to thee."
34. THE BRIDAL DAY
The marriage thou hast desired
Is performed, O happy bridegroom;
The bride which thou hast admired,
Thine own has she now become.
Good wishes give we to the bride,
And to the bridegroom at her side.
36. THE FATHER
The father said " We give this maid."
Seven fathoms long, the porter's feet
Five ox-hides for his shoes did need.
Ten cobblers worked them to complete.
38. THE UNWOOED MAIDEN
Just as the hyacinth purple, whose flowers on the mountain are blooming,
Down on the ground is trod by the feet of the shepherds home-coming.
Evening, which bringest all things which the gleaming Aurora has scattered,
The sheep and the goats thou bring'st home;
Thou the son to his mother let'st come.
40-41. ANDROMACHE'S WEDDING
"Now Hector and his comrades bring home Andromache,
The bright-eyed beauteous lady, across the briny sea
Upon their ships from Thebe, from Placia's gushing streams.
Now gold in many a bracelet, now purple in raiments gleams;
Now many treasures bring they of fine embroidery,
And countless silver vessels, and cups and ivory."
He spoke, and his dear father arose in breathless haste,
And through the spacious city the tidings traveled fast.
Straightway their mules the Trojans to wagons swift and strong
Yoked, as on them ascended the festive women's throng.
The slender-footed maidens all followed, while aside
Were seated Priam's daughters, on pompous cars to ride.
The men yoked to the chariots the steeds, aye, all young men;
And then, while shouting loudly, the charioteers gave rein.
The elder women, shouting, did loudly all rejoice,
And in the sweet clear paean the men poured out their voice.
They called on the far-darter, whose lyre sounds gloriously,
To sing of god-like Hector and of Andromache.
42. A DIVINE WEDDING FESTIVAL
With ambrosia the mixer was filled to the brim.
With a flask to the immortals did Hermes pour in,
And they all from their goblets were pouring libations.
To the bridegroom they proffered their felicitations.
43. LOVE'S TEMPEST
Like the tempest which falls on the mountain oaks,
So Love stirs our hearts with violent strokes.
44. LOVE'S ATTACK
The bitter-sweet creature, invincible Love,
My limbs set a-trembling, my heart doth move.
45. RESTLESS THROUGH LOVE
No longer, mother dear, can I
Endure to work my wheel.
Through Aphrodite for that boy
Such longing do I feel.
46. MIDNIGHT SOLITUDE
The moon has left the heavens;
"The Pleiades have set;
And at the hour of midnight
In solitude I fret.
47. TO A FRIEND
Come, my friend, before my face;
Show thine eyes' engaging grace.
48. TO ALCAEUS
If aught for honor or for right thou hadst cared,
Nor by thy tongue to ill hadst been constrained,
For modesty thou wouldst not have refrained,
But openly to speak for right thou hadst dared.
49. A REFUSAL
A friend of thee I'll ever be,
But win thyself a younger bride.
My greater age refuses me
That always I with thee abide.
I'll marry never,
A maid be ever.
51. SAPPHO'S FALSE FRIENDS
Those whom I serve with all my might
With base deception me requite.
52. SAPPHO'S ENEMIES AND RIVALS: A CURSE
Far from his course may winds him bear,
And may he be oppressed with care.
What boorish creature see I there,
With finery her rudeness veiling,
Who doesn't e'en know how to wear
Her robe behind her ankles trailing?
A glorious return
Andromeda did earn.
She who Gorgo once did love
Has of her more than enough.
56. THE CHILD OF POLYANAX
To the child of Polyanax I
Bid a hearty and long good-bye.
57. TO A RICH BUT UNEDUCATED WOMAN
When grim death thy eyelids closes,
Then shall no one for thee care;
For of the Pierian roses
Thou hast failed to earn a share.
No, for thee there will be no wailing:
Unbeloved and unknown,
Wilt thou go to Hades' dwelling
When thy shade has downward flown.
58. SAPPHO TO HER LYRE
Come now, tortoise-shell divine,
Tuneful powers of speech be thine.
59. SPURIOUS FRAGMENT TO THE MUSE
Teach me, I pray, O Muse enthroned in gold,
Delightful songs like that famed singer old,
The bard of Teos, sang, whose lyre
Fair Tean women did inspire.
60. SAPPHO THE PUPIL OF THE MUSES
To me they bounteous honor brought;
To me their heavenly arts they taught.
61. SAPPHO ON HER GENIUS
It seems to me, it would not lack much
But that the heavens I would touch.
62. HER HOPE OF IMMORTALITY
In future ages, I am sure,
Our memory will still endure.
63. SAPPHO'S SONG FOR HER GIRL FRIENDS
For the maidens to whom I'm by friendship bound,
For their pleasure this beautiful song shall resound.
64. HER LOYALTY TO HER GIRL FRIENDS
Whose honor e'er is steadfast found,
To you by eternal ties I am bound.
65. SAPPHO'S TEMPERAMENT
I have not a malignant mind,
But gentle as a child and kind.
In me doth burn the fire
Of longing and desire.
67. SAPPHO'S TASTES
In dainty luxury I delight;
I love the beauteous sun-beam bright.
68. SAPPHO ON HER DEATH-BED TO HER DAUGHTER
Nay, uttering dirges in the Muses' seat
We suffer not; for us that were not meet.
GNOMAE AND PROVERBIAL EXPRESSIONS
69. KEEP GUARD ON THY TONGUE
When seized by passion's angry lure,
A chattering tongue do not endure.
The fair are beautiful alone for sight;
But beauteous too are those who follow right.
Mere wealth with virtue not allied
I scarce would welcome at my side.
72. EMPTY PRIDE
Don't plume thyself upon a thing
Of no more worth than is a ring.
73. THE RUBBLE-STONE
Leave thou alone.
74. NO HONEY FOR ME
No honey be for me;
For me no honey-bee.
75. OVERFOND MOTHERS
Though Gello children doth adore,
Yet loveth she them even more.
76. DEATH AN EVIL
The gods have judged: an evil 'tis to die.
If good it were, Death would not pass them by.
SAPPHO'S LOVE OF NATURE
77. THE MOON AND THE STARS
Around the full moon's silver face,
When brightest it doth beam,
And when its orb is all ablaze,
The stars conceal their gleam.
78. THE EVENING-STAR
Of all the stars this star
Most beauteous is by far.
79. A DELIGHTFUL SPOT
Cool water trickles from above
Sleep stealeth from their leaves, which move
In the murmuring breeze.
Golden chickpeas, brightly glowing,
On the sandy shore were growing.
At ebbtide is their life's chilled flow;
Their feathered wings are drooping low.
82. THE NIGHTINGALE
The lovely harbinger of spring,
The nightingale, sweet strains doth sing.
83. THE SWALLOW
What is the message with which thou dost come,
O lovely swallow, daughter of Pandion?
84. SAPPHO AND APHRODITE INVOCATION
Come, Cypris, to our banquet,
With golden cups come here;
Pour out the gleaming nectar,
Bring us luxuriant cheer.
85. "COME TO THY WORSHIPPERS"
To Cyprus now do thou thy presence give;
May Paphus or Panormus thee receive.
86. A SACRIFICE
Accept upon thy altar a snow-white goat from me.
Upon it a libation of wine I'll pour to thee.
87. A PRAYER
O Aphrodite, crowned with gold,
May I this glorious lot behold.
88. "LISTEN TO MY DREAM"
Her who was in Cyprus born,
Of our dream did we inform.
89. APHRODITE TO SAPPHO
Why, O Sappho, call'st thou ever
Sappho, 'tis not only you,
But my servant Eros too.
91. TO APHRODITE'S STATUE
The purple scarf wilt thou dishonor,
Which ornaments thy comely hair;
Which from Phocaea sent its donor,
To thee a costly present rare.
92. APHRODITE'S MAID
Aphrodite's maid behold,
Gleaming brightly, just as gold.
93. ADONIS IS DEAD
Beauteous Adonis is dead.
Cytherea, what shall we do?
"Maidens, beat wildly your breasts, and your garments be rent in two."
94. TO THE MUSES
Muses, hither come;
Leave your golden home.
95. TO THE MUSES AND THE GRACES
Fair-haired Muses, beauteous Graces,
Hither come, accept my praises.
96. TO THE GRACES
Ye with arms of rosy bloom,
Beauteous Graces, hither come.
Hither come, ye Graces, know:
My heart fluttered long ago.
To me the golden-sandalled Dawn
Just now her glorious light has shown.
An egg with hyacinth twined around,
'Tis said, by Leda once was found.
100. ARES AND HEPHAESTUS
By his own might could he, Ares doth say,
Easily carry Hephaestus away.
101. HERMES (?)
Downward from the heavens he sped,
In a purple mantle clad.
102. NIGHTLY WORSHIPPERS
The women, while brightly the full moon gleamed,
As though standing around an altar seemed.
103. CRETAN DANCES
Around the altar the maidens of Crete
In their graceful dances time did beat.
104. A DANCE ON THE LAWN
Upon the soft bloom of the sod
And delicate flowers the maidens trod.
105. A FAIR LITTLE MAID
A fair little maiden, as fair as can be,
A-gathering flowers one day I did see.
106. A COMPARISON
The harp can ne'er so sweetly sound,
Nor gold can thus in gold abound.
107. LYDIAN DYES
Her feet fine leather, richly dyed,
The work of Lydia, did hide.
108. A SOFT CUSHION
Upon a cushion velvety
My limbs I lay down wearily.
109. FINE COVERS
Covers rough though delicate
Over him with care he laid.
110. THE GLOOM OF NIGHT
Upon their eyes did now alight,
Black and ugly gloom of night.
No inkling have I what to do;
My thoughts are surely cleft in two.
112. I FLUTTER LIKE A CHILD
Like a child behind its mother,
Even so do I now flutter.
113. I NEED NO ADVICE
This I myself
Know without help.
EPIGRAMS ATTRIBUTED TO SAPPHO
Children, if some one should ask,
though speechless, thus should I answer,
Through an untiring speech, written in front of my feet:
I am to Leto's maiden, Aethopia, set up by Arista,
Hermoclides' child, son of Sayna´ades.
Be thou, O mistress of women, propitious to her, thy true servant,
And on those of our blood do thou thy praises bestow.
This is the dust of Timas, who died before she was married,
And by Persephone was in her dark chamber received;
But even though she was dead, with iron recently whetted,
All her companions her hair made a delight to behold.
Basket and oar by his father Meniskus is here dedicated,
Showing how Pelagon lived, wretched like all fisherman.
From The Lyric Songs of the Greeks; the extant fragments of Sappho, Alcaeus, Anacreon, and the minor Greek monodists; tr. into English verse
by Walter Petersen (Boston: Badger [c1918]), pp. 13-50.