Peter Jay and Caroline Lewis (edd.), Sappho Through English Poetry. London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1996. Pp. 144. ISBN 0-85646-273-X. UKú7.95.
Department of English, University of Natal, Durban.
Peter Jay and Caroline Lewis explain in the introduction to this anthology of poems translated from, inspired by and on the subject of Sappho of Lesbos, how little can be known about the woman poet of the seventh century BC, and how much of the 'common knowledge' about her is legend (pp. 11-14). What we can be sure of is that the poems and fragments which remain formed a small part of the large body of her verse. Her works in their entirety remained current throughout the classical era, and were read by Horace and Catullus, amongst many others. Sometime in the Christian era, perhaps as late as the eleventh century, most of Sappho's poetry disappeared. Enough remains to inspire Ezra Pound to claim that she, together with Catullus and Villon, is one of the touchstones by which lyric poetry should be judged.[]
The book is divided into two sections: 'Versions' (pp. 33- 82), that is to say, free translations, often with the translator/adaptor's own additions, and 'Representations' (pp. 85-143), which are poems on the subject of, or in the vein of Sappho. The line of demarcation between these sections is by no means absolute: those who write about Sappho feel free to incorporate translations of her verse within their own. The selection from Bliss Carman's Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics, classed as a representation, is largely excellent translation, the praise poem to Cleis being a particularly beautiful example. Similarly, those who produce free translations often extend and modify her lines, or like Byron in Don Juan, influence their meaning by incorporating them in a matrix of their own poetry (p. 51). This, at least until the end of the nineteenth century, is partly because of the prevalent sense that classical literature is a source available to all educated men (the gender specificity is deliberate). And the fact that much of the poetry survives in fragments invites the translator to make additions.
The 'Index to Sappho's Poems' (p. 144) allows the reader to compare different versions and adaptations: Byron's translation of 104(LP), referred to above, may, for example, be read alongside Michael Longley's The Evening Star, in which the same poem is evoked, rather than translated. The order of the poems in both sections is chronological by date of birth of the poet, and although this system is adequate for the needs of a reader who systematically goes through the volume from Sidney (b. 1554) to Miller (b. 1949), a date, however approximate, attached to each poem would have been helpful for the browser.
As a prelude to the versions, the editors offer one of the most frequently translated of the lyrics in the original Greek (31[LP]), faced by a transcription into the Roman alphabet and a literal translation. Overleaf is a version made by Catullus (51, p. 30), which might better be called an appropriation: the last stanza brings the sentiments of the earlier ones into the speaker/translator's own life. The original breaks off just as such an application is about to be made -- an invitation to the later poet to site himself within the poem.
The 'Versions' section, juxtaposing as it does the sensibility of the Renaissance and the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, demonstrates the ways in which lyric intensity was thought to be produced in different ages. The 'given' in each case has been what remains of Sappho's poetry and the contradictory legends of her life. The editors remark 'to our ears Sappho sounds faintly ridiculous in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century garb' (p. 19), and whilst it is difficult to disagree with them after reading Ambrose Philip's 'An Hymn to Venus' (p. 38), Anne Finch, in her 'Melinda on an Insipid Beauty' on the preceding page achieves a sincerity and clarity which seems to imply an identification with the ancient poet and her claims. A slighter doubt about the present-day belief that versions should be 'level and plain' is also expressed (p. 19): I am not sure what is meant by 'level', but William Carlos Williams's version of 31 satisfies me in its plainness. Mary Barnard's poetry (pp. 61-65) is a lesser but pleasing find. No doubt many a version which had descended from plainness to banality was omitted from the volume.
Reading the 'representations' in which poets construct their own Sappho, it is difficult to avoid the recognition that some are rendering their own attitudes, rather than anything derived from the surviving poems: Alexander Radcliffe's 'Sapho to Phaon' (p. 87) seems compounded out of the misogyny of his age and his own fear of creative women; it is interesting only as a precursor of Swift's 'A Beautful Young Nymph, Going to Bed'. The same focus on themselves is evident in Felicia Hemans's 'The Last Song of Sappho' (p. 107) and LEL's (Laetitia Elizabeth Landon's) 'Sappho's Song' (p. 109), both of which reflect the woman artist's retreat into self-indulgent masochism. Charming, though a little comic, is John Donne's handy explanation/justification of homosexual love in 'Sappho to Philaenis' (p. 85) -- the style is reminscent of 'Sweetest Love, I do not goe . . . ' and the matter rather different. Elizabeth Moody's 'Sappho Burns Her Books and Cultivates the Culinary Arts' (p. 98) is overtly comic, envisaging the death of the poems and the survival of recipes, the proper woman's artefact. And Honor Moore's 'Cleis' (p. 126) links the beauty and sexiness of a twentieth century young woman to Sappho's subjects.
Finally, the volume is a selective survey of the influence of an ancient author on the literature of the past four hundred years, as well as an introduction of some of the poets who have responded to (or betrayed) that influence. The key to the valuable responses, from Catullus to Longley, from translation to citation, is the poets' admiration for Sappho's mastery of the lyric, which survives, at least vestigially, translation and cultural change.
[] Ezra Pound (tr. J. Drummond), 'A Visiting Card' in William Cookson (ed.), Ezra Pound: Selected Prose 1909-1965 (London 1973) 273: 'Unless you know Homer, Sappho, Ovid, Catullus, Propertius, Dante, Cavalcanti, a few songs of the troubadours together with a few of von der Vogelweide or Hans Sachs, Villon, and Gautier, you won't know European poetry.'