“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