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Joseph Addison


No. 229.             Thursday             November 22, 1711

--Spirat adhuc amor,
Vivuntque commissi calores
Aeolioe fidibus puelloe.
          HOR. CAR. iv. 9. 10.

Nor Sappho's amorous flames decay;
Her living songs preserve their charming art,
Her verse still breathes the passions of her heart.

AMONG the many famous pieces of antiquity which are still to be seen at Rome, there is the trunk of a statue which has lost the arms, legs, and head; but discovers such an exquisite workmanship in what remains of it, that Michael Angelo declared he had learned his whole art from it. Indeed, he studied it so attentively, that he made most of his statues, and even his pictures in that gusto, to make use of the Italian phrase; for which reason this maimed statue is still called Michael Angelo's school.

A fragment of Sappho, which I design for the subject of this paper, is in as great reputation among the poets and critics, as the mutilated figure above mentioned is among the statuaries and painters. Several of our countrymen, and Mr. Dryden in particular, seem very often to have copied after it in their dramatic writings, and in their poems upon love.

Whatever might have been the occasion of this ode, the English reader will enter into the beauties of it, if he supposes it to have been written in the person of a lover sitting by his mistress. I shall set to view three different translations of this beautiful original; the first is a translation by Catullus, the second by Monsieur Boileau, and the last by a gentleman whose translation of the Hymn to Venus has been so deservedly admired.*


Ille mi par esse deo videtur,
Ille, si fas est, superare divos,
Qui sedens adversus identidem te,
         Spectat, et audit

Dulce ridentem; misero quod omnis
Eripit sensas mihi, nam simul te,
Lesbia, adspexi, nihil est super mi

         Quod loquar amens.

Lingua sed torpet, tenues sub artus
Flamma dimanat, sonitu suopte
Tinniunt aures, gemina teguntur
          Lumina nocte.

My learn'ed reader will know very well the reason why one of these verses is printed in Roman letters,** and if he compares this translation with the original, will find that the three first stanzas are rendered almost word for word, and not only with the same elegance, but with the same short turn of expression which is so remarkable in the Greek, and so peculiar to the Sapphic ode. I cannot imagine for what reason Madam Dacier has told us, that this ode of Sappho is preserved entire in Longinus, since it is manifest to any one who looks into that author's quotation of it, that there must at least have been another stanza, which is not transmitted to us.

The second translation of this fragment which I shall here cite, is that of Monsieur Boileau.

Heureux! qui pré de toi, pour toi seule soûpire;
Qui jouït du plaiser de t' entendre parler:
Qui te voit quelquefois doucement lui soûrire.
Les dieux, dans som bonheur, peuvent-ils l' égaler?

Je sens de veine en veine une subtile flamme
Courir par tout mon corps, si-tôt que je te vois:
Et dans les doux transports, où s' egare mon ame,
Je ne sçaurois trouver de langue, ni de voix.

Un nuage confus se répand sur ma vuë,
Je n'entens plus, je tombe en lu douces languers;
Et pâle, sans haleine, interdite, esperduë,
Un frisson me saisit, je tremble, je me meurs.

The reader will see that this is rather an imitation than a translation. The circumstances do not lie so thick together, and follow one another with that vehemence and emotion as in the original. In short, Monsieur Boileau has given us all the poetry, but not all the passion of the famous fragment. I shall, in the last place, present my reader with the English translation

Blest as th' 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 deprived my soul of rest,
And raised such tumults in my breast:
For while I gazed, in transport tost,
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 died away.

Instead of giving any character of this last translation, I shall desire my learned reader to look into the criticisms which Longinus has made upon the original. By that means he will know to which of the translations he ought to give the preference. I shall only add, that this translation is written in the very spirit of Sappho, and as near the Greek as the genius of our language will possibly suffer.

Longinus has observed, that this description of love in Sappho is an exact copy of nature, and that all the circumstances, which follow one another in such a hurry of sentiments, notwithstanding they appear repugnant to each other, are really such as happen in the frenzies of love.

I wonder, that not one of the critics or editors through whose hands this ode has passed, has taken occasion from it to mention a circumstance related by Plutarch. That author, in the famous story of Antiochus, who fell in love with Stratonice, his mother-in-law, and, not daring to discover his passion, pretended to be confined to his bed by sickness, tells us, that Erasistratus, the physician, found out the nature of his distemper by those symptoms of love which he had learnt from Sappho's writings. Stratonice was in the room of the love-sick prince, when these symptoms discovered themselves to his physician; and it is probable, that they were not very different from those which Sappho here describes in a lover sitting by his mistress. The story of Antiochus is so well known, that I need not add the sequel of it which has no relation to my present subject.

* Ambrose Philips

** It is wanting in the old copies, and has been supplied by conjecture as above. But in a curious edition of Catullus, published at Venice in 1738 [sic.], said to be printed from an ancient MS. newly discovered, this line is given thus:--'voce loquendum.'


Scanned by Agathon (RSB) from British Essayists: with Prefaces Historical and Biographical, by A. Chalmers, F.S.A. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1855. vol. 7. Indexed as: "Addison, Fragment of Sappho."