Dawn, a dress, a voice like honey

“Stand face to face, my love, unveil your grace before my eyes!”  (frag. 138)

 When I first heard of the author who seems to have been to the poetry circles of the ancient world what Andrea Gibson is to the modern world of spoken word, I was intrigued, and eager to begin my search for her. However, as I looked for her, she tantalized me. At first she happily handed me details of her life, but soon one source began to contradict the other, and the clear picture of herself she had offered was quickly clouded by centuries of speculation in place of hard and fast literary resources. She was slipping away from me. Then, after a search for her fragment 31 on AcademicIndex, I found an introduction to a collection of essays, Re-Reading Sappho: Reception and Transmission by Ellen Greene (a classics professor at the University of Oklahoma with a distinguished career). In this introduction I found that I am not alone in my frustration and fascination with the elusiveness of Plato’s tenth muse. She was referenced by many of the great names in ancient poetry, from Ovid in his fictitious letter from Sappho to Phaon, to Catullus in his poem that famously mimics what we know as fragment 31 of Sappho’s works. These references do give us more insight to her character, but I wasn’t quite satisfied with them. After all, these authors came after she did, meaning time had already begun to transform her into legend. The stuff of legend makes for wonderful reading, but just like “Idylls of the King” doesn’t make you feel like King Arthur’s close friend, I wasn’t feeling as close to Sappho as I wanted to.

Left unsatisfied by viewing her through the lenses of other authors and scholars, I finally turned to the fragments themselves. Since I regrettably can’t read the Greek myself, I decided to rely on translations by Jim Powell, Mary Barnard, and Susy Groden (the latter two I actually found hard copies of in the library. There’s something so authentic about actually holding the pages in your hands). While I had originally planned on delving into the more complete fragments (such as 1, 2, 16, and 31) what really caught my attention was the works of which we have nothing more than a word or phrase. Dawn, a dress, a voice like honey (fragments 175, 177, and 185 respectively). It’s like holding the shattered finger of marble goddess. This idea is so tantalizing and beautiful all at once. Look at fragment 149, “When nightlong slumber overtakes their eyes”. Knowing nothing of who they may be or what their night held before they fell asleep, this sliver leaves us to fill our own imaginations with stories of entwined lovers, victorious soldiers, or maybe even weary young scholars like us. I am left overwhelmed by the thought of the works that have been forever lost to us, and the echoes that have been left, almost as if to tease us. Perhaps this is what has keep Sappho burning in our minds 

-Elaina D.

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2 thoughts on “Dawn, a dress, a voice like honey

  1. hopeadvancedlatin Post author

    Wow! Great post, Elaina!

    I really like the ways you talk about the enigmas which draw us closer to the subject. I have always felt the same way, and I talked a little bit about it in my post on maps. Similar to Sappho, most of what we know about ancient maps comes to us indirectly (in what would be the most expansive infinitive phrase ever) in prose and poetry. We may not have the actual map on Aristagoras’ shield, but we have his speech describing it! (see page two of this: http://www.penn.museum/documents/publications/expedition/PDFs/20-2/Ancient%20Cartography.pdf). We may not have all of Sappho’s poetry, or even a few complete poems, but we have the interpretations and inventions of other authors. While this can be problematic in terms of the “real” Sappho, which aspect of the past, or the present for that matter, should we focus on? Should we focus on getting the actual facts and context and developing our own responses to it? Or is having only a few snippets and a plethora of speculations better in some ways? As you said, the mystery is often what draws us closer to the subject. And the written or spoken word (rather than actual experiences and images) has a terribly firm grasp on this incredible power. Hooray for books! Perhaps the reason we all love Harry Potter so much is precisely this; we only have whatever J.K. Rowling decided to share with us, the film interpretations, and the myriad fan websites and clubs. The rest is left up to our imaginations. Also like Catullus 43 (Salve, nec minimo puella naso…http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Catul.+43&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0003), where the reader is allowed to consider their own perspective on sexiness.

    I look forward to your next post! -Isabel

    Reply

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