Last week I suggested to my fellow TNB poetry editors a lark: I would post a Sappho poem for the week's feature, and a faux-self-interview as the poetess. April Fool's week might have been best for that, but I figured, what the heck, and my other editors liked the idea, so I set to work.
I had decided from the start that I would work on my own translation, and I thought it would be best to take on the Tithonus lyric, woefully incomplete until archaeologists found that famous strip from an Egyptian mummy wrapping in 2004. Based on the translations I'd seen so far, I thought it was perhaps worth it to go for a fresh take.
I spent some time feverishly revising my Homeric Greek
, knowing full well that even brushed-up Homeric or Attic comprehension would struggle with Sappho's Aeolic, but I had the Perseus on-line word study tool to get me further, and Google when I really needed a sniper shot. The result is "Sappho and Old Age"
The meter gave me a good bit of pause. The poem is not in her eponymous sapphics, but a hexameter with some Aeolic flourishes, including usually a couple of choriambs per line, and her typical art of teasing us with shifting caesura. It's a very lively music, and very difficult to get into English, of course. Considering my own love of form, I wanted to try rendering it into a variation of metrical feet, but that tended to wash out the tautness of Sapphos expressions, so I let it flow, and ended up with what's been coming most naturally to me lately: an accentual line influenced by sprung rhythm, but relaxing the requirement to spring from stress. I suppose I'd call it a sequence of hendeca-accentual stanzas, but such supposed freedom left me with a lot of work in fine-tuning natural speech quantity and other metrical cues.
Of course the work of translation and my research took me into fairly deep classicist territory, and sometimes perhaps rather too deep for safety. Prof. West reconstructed the bit about Eos's capture of Tithonus as "ερωι φ..αθεισαν", an elaboration of what I rendered as "love-struck." I've seen at least one commentator
who suggests this might be better reconstructed as "ἔρῳ δέπα θεῖσαν", or in his words, "placing / dedicating cups to Eros." I'm hardly qualified to wade into such an arch-classicist conundrum, so I instead claimed exigency of the poetry of the translation. The "cups to Eros" metaphor would have been clumsy in my treatment.
On another, more well-known dispute, I claimed a bit more poetic authority. I went with the "ἰ
ο κόλπον" of Prof. West's own reconstruction, rather than the "ἰ
ο πλόκων" or "violet-wreathed" that West swapped in for his translation. The latter is a more conventional epithet, but as others have pointed out with the famous modulation of the Homeric "Ἠὼς ῥοδοδάκτυλος" ("rosy-fingered Eos/dawn") to the Sapphic "βροδοδάκτυλος σελάννα", ("rosy-fingered Selene/moon",) Sappho has always infused such allusions with her own originality.
Like everyone, I've heard before that Plato lauded Sappho the tenth Muse, but I went looking for the citation, and all I could find was the mention I already knew, put by Plato into Socrates mouth in Phaedrus 235c
νῦν μὲν οὕτως οὐκ ἔχω εἰπεῖν: δῆλον δὲ ὅτι τινῶν ἀκήκοα, ἤ που Σαπφοῦς τῆς καλῆς ἢ Ἀνακρέοντος τοῦ σοφοῦ...
I cannot say, just at this moment; but I certainly must have heard something, either from the lovely Sappho or the wise Anacreon... (Fowler translation)
It was fun revising that bit, though, as it led me to Prof. Pender's Sappho and Anacreon in Plato’s Phaedrus, but that can't be it. Can anyone shed better light on the "tenth Muse" laud?
I also put together a faux-self-Interview with Sappho
to meet TNB feature convention. The second and third question (on general preference for women), and the last two (on "lyric" versus "poetry") were contributed, with answers by Milo Martin, which I edited for flow, and to match the voice I'd established for Sappho. The question "So which contemporary woman best embodies the idea of love, and why?" and the two following that were contributed by Rich Ferguson, to which I wrote the answers.