Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Tenth Muse

The Favourite Poet by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1888

Some thoughtlessly proclaim the Muses nine ;
A tenth is Lesbian Sappho, maid divine.
- Plato

Plato called Sappho the tenth muse and never was a poet more deserving of deification. In Sappho's poetry the emotions of the individual found their first true expression. Sappho is the poet of love and the pure beauty of her verse remains unsurpassed even to this day.

Although highly revered in classical times, Sappho's works were widely burned in the middle ages along with those of the other lyric poets because of their paganism. Her work has been condemned, censored, and suppressed ever since because of the love for other women expressed in many of her poems. Only one complete poem and a few fragments remain. It's speaks of the power and beauty of her words that some of them have survived to be admired by us today.

I am currently reading Sappho: Memoirs, Text, Selected Renderings, and a Literal Translation by Henry Thornton Wharton. First published in 1895, Wharton nobly endevoured in this book to collect and translate all the known extant fragments attributed to Sappho. He also collected and analysed all the biographical information from the classical sources and included the best of earlier translations. New translations were contributed by such notables as Charles Algernon Swinburne and John Addington Symonds.

In the 1880's Renee Vivien had published the first uncensored french translation of Sappho inspiring popular interest in Sappho's poetry. Wharton sought to provide as reliable and complete a translation and biography as possible for english readers.

The book itself is very beautiful, featuring a frontispiece by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and a gilt decorated cover with a lyre motif designed by Aubrey Beardsley for the third edition.

Here is my current favorite of the translations.

Blest as the 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 glowed; 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 chilled;
My blood with gentle horror thrilled;
My feeble pulse forgot to play;
I fainted, sank, and died away.

Translation by Ambrose Phillips, 1711

And John Addington Symond's version.

Peer of gods he seemeth to me, the blissful
Man who sits and gazes at thee before him,
Close beside thee sits, and in silence hears thee
Silverly speaking, Laughing love's low laughter.
Oh this, this only
Stirs the troubled heart in my breast to tremble!
For should I but see thee a little moment,
Straight is my voice hushed;
Yea, my tongue is broken, and through and through me
'Neath the flesh impalpable fire runs tingling;
Nothing see mine eyes, and a noise of roaring
Waves in my ear sounds;
Sweat runs down in rivers, a tremor seizes
All my limbs, and paler than grass in autumn,
Caught by pains of menacing death, I falter,
Lost in the love-trance.

Translation by John Addington Symonds, 1883

Some Sapphic sources:

Sappho: Memoir, text, selected renderings, and a literal translation by Henry Thornton Wharton, 1895

The Sappho Page, Department of Greek and Roman Classics, Temple University

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