Thursday, July 12, 2012

You Burn Me






The tea-rose, tea-gown, etc.
Supplants the mousseline of Cos,
The pianola "replaces"
Sappho's barbitos.
Ezra Pound - Hugh Selwyn Mauberly

Fragment 38:
You burn me.

What are we to make of such a fragment? A fragment with so little information. We know very little about Sappho. We do not even write her name in her dialect. Psappha would be more correct. Even her name is mediated by years of eroding and mutating tradition. All that we accurately know about her life could easily fit into a single tweet.

She was born on the island of Lesbos, but was she a lesbian? Or was she, as the Victorians affirmed, a teacher, the head mistress of a finsishing school? We do not know. A priest in a cult of Adonis? A sacred prostitute at the temple of Aphrodite? How much does it matter? So much of what we think we know is just guesswork based on scattered ashes of the body of her works.

She seems to have been born as early as 630BC, and may have died in 570BC. One of the entries in a Byzantine encyclopaedia, the Suda, dates her to the 42nd Olympiad (612-608BC). Even this simple date is ambiguous,  tantalizing. Was she born in 612 or is this date her floruit, her time of flourishing?

Even straight forward and to our minds basic facts are open to argument. Did she marry and have children? An entry in the Suda suggests she married the wealthy Kerkylas from Andros, but this may be bawdy Attic punning propaganda, as the name could be taken to mean the she married 'Dick Allcock from the island of Man'. Possibly this came from one of the many Athenian comedies which used Sappho as a figure of ridicule. As the political climate in Athens became less tolerant of the noisy, boisterous democracy of the rowers, of the assembly, and the theatre; and as those who had been lampooned turned more and more to the law courts for compensation, the Middle Comedy period arose. In this style of comedy stock characters were used as cover for political critique, until the characters took on a life of their own, and became an end in themselves controlling the poets more than being controlled. Apparently Sappho was one of these characters, sexually promiscuous and often portrayed as a lesbian, and so fiction and biography became intertwined. 

As an aside it is interesting to note that Athens, the cradle of democracy for the modern West, was one of the more sexist communities in Ancient Greece. Women could not own property, and if the husband died the wife was often married off to her uncle. She was described as being 'of the land'. Marry the widow to get the farm. In our modern contract of falsehood Sparta represents a militarised Socialism similar to the collective of the Borg or the unfeeling Cybermen of Doctor Who. In reality compared to Athens Spartan women were accorded greater freedoms. This may have been because of the practical problems caused by the men spending most of their time in the regimental mess. In Laconia the young women exercised naked, as only Spartan women could give birth to Spartan warriors.

In the barbarous eastern frontier, where Sappho was from, women had various rights. This goes a long way to explaining the misunderstandings between Troy and the Achaeans, which led to the long cruel war. In the mind of Paris if Helen wanted to leave her husband she was free to do so, and was also free to take her dowry with her when she left. In the mind of Menalaus Alexander had violated an oath, had committed sacrilege

It is probably too much to assert that this middle comedy characterisation of Sappho as promiscuous and a lesbian was the deciding factor in Pope Gregory ordering the burning of her books. We do not know what was in the nine lost books. But we can assume that the lies generated about Sappho some two centuries after her death and the legend of insatiable sexual hunger that was created around her tempered the views of the Pope. In 1072 the Papacy ordered her books burnt. These perfect songs had survived some 1500 years of natural and man made disasters, the numerous wars and upheavals of the lived history of the Mediterranean. Did not Plato suggest that the comedies of Aristophanes played no vain part in bringing into being the mood of hostility towards Socrates? And that these distortions of the thoughts of Socrates acted upon the minds of the Athenian jurymen. In the Republic Plato suggests banning comics such as Aristophanes. The ones who earn their dinner ridiculing actual persons. For as we know only too well from our daily going about our business that the spreading of falsehood and rumour in the public culture takes on a life of it's own and that these lies confront us as an alien force. If, as is said in the old proverb, ‘a lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on’ how many times will the lie circle our networked globe? Will it race round the world even to the extent that, like Superman flying so fast and so often around the world, time stops and then moves backwards. And so the electron fast lie is able to rewrite history, our shared artificial narrative.

Was Sappho a lesbian, or was she married? Again the poems seem to point to both of these possibilities. Of course one can be married and have children and at the same time be a lesbian. They are not mutually
exclusive. Indeed we all have different modes of existing at different times of our lives. As it seems fairly certain that she was an aristocrat, it could be that she entered into an arranged marriage. Nobles have had arranged marriages for as long as they have wanted power.

One poem refers to Cleis, her 'kala pais', but does this mean beautiful daughter, or beautiful slave? The Greeks used the word pais to mean child. In the same way that rednecks in southern states of America would call black men boy, pais can also mean slave. This idea of the slave as childlike can be seen in French which still uses Garcon to mean boy, servant or even waiter. Obviously the language of domination. Most commentators seem to agree that it was her daughter, and I am not in a position to argue, but after almost 3000 years of time, writing as she did in an obscure dialect, how can we be sure what we know.

We can be pretty sure that she had to flee Lesbos and spent some time in Sicily, then a Greek colony. We know this as Cicero tells us a statue was erected in her honour in Syracuse. She may have been exiled for political activity, or the activity of her family. We do know she came back to Lesbos.

The one thing that we do know, and the only thing I feel we can truly focus on, is the fact that she was greatly admired as a poet. We know that she invented new forms of metre, notably the aptly named Sapphic stanza. Three lines of eleven syllables, with a fourth line of only five syllables. The Greeks, like the Latins based a line of poetry on alternating vowel sounds; not as in English poetry on stresses. In the following model:
- is a short vowel sound,
u is a long vowel,
x means the author could use either long of short.
The line would look like this:

- x -  x  - u u -  u - -  

An example in English by Alan Ginsberg

    Red cheeked boyfriends tenderly kiss me sweet mouthed
    under Boulder coverlets winter springtime
    hug me naked laughing & telling girl friends
        gossip til autumn


We also know that her poems were meant to be sung, accompanied by the lyre. The barbitos that Pound mentioned in our opening quote. Plato, among others, spoke of her as the tenth muse. Many poets including the Roman Ovid and Catullus greatly admired her work, even if they had muddle headed views about the woman herself. In another confusion of history we do not know if Sappho invented the plectrum, what we would call the pick for playing the lyre or if she invented the pectis, another type of stringed instrument. Both, neither? The truth does not really matter. For these legends show the esteem the ancients felt for her as a lyric poet. If alive today would Sappho be an example of what we would call a singer songwriter?

How much can we deduce of her character from the poems that have come down to us? I do not think we can place too much value on the remaining  fragments in giving us a clear answer. Often the poet will write a work from a specific point of view, will try on different voices and personas, which may or may not agree with the inner-held views and feelings of the maker. This is even more true in any analysis of Sappho, as we have many fragments but only a few completed poems. I do not think we can view her poetry as confessional in the same way that we can with the works of Sylvia Plath. As we can be no more that transitory confused visitors into her world, obscured as it is, as we are, by the fog and shadows of the past. We can only admire her work. We must refrain from using as a reinforcing mortar our bias and feelings in an attempt to support and add form to the crumbling walls of her often very sparse words.

The Middle Comedy Athenian playwrights, Victor Frankenstein like tried to reanimate Sappho, but with no understanding of electricity it seems they were left with the frail expedient of rubbing amber over her dried bones. Our modern artists attempt to energise Sappho. As so little is known, Sappho is one of those compelling figures of history who seem to work like a magnet on the razor sharp minds of our poets. Over the generations she has been stripped of her actuality. The dry brittle turning into dust bones of Sappho have been dug up and fashioned into a type of skeleton for both ancient and modern critics to try to reanimate. Attempts have been made by these thinkers of thoughts to bring her back to life in their own zombie image. Cutting and pasting great slabs of fleshy meat lies and transplanting the bloody vital organs of ideological contradiction; emotional, political and psycho-sexual.

As we have no real basis for raising Sappho from the dead, it is my feeling that we should let the poems stand, as best we can, on their own and admire their diamond sharp neatness.

Maybe she was 'looking small and dark, and exactly like a nightingale with misshapen wings enfolding a tiny body' as a scholiast to Lucian said, or maybe she was violet-haired and honey smiling, as a contemporary said.

Did she threw herself into the sea from the cliff of Leukates for love of Phaon of Mytilene, as some attest? Did she die at home in her bed, surrounded by loved ones and family?

So little actual knowledge so much ink spilled.

Sadly the ravages of time, the hostility of those who opposed paganism, the hostility of generations of misogynists, have left us only torn faint smouldering embers dug from out long buried garbage heaps. These embers are still bright, and are still able to burn under the skin of the reader after over 2500 years.

I have translated, in no particular order, some bits and pieces below. I have not even tried to reproduce the metre of her work, as the gap between modern English and the obscure inflected Aeolian tonal dialect is too great for us to safely jump over.

Fragment 16 - Is this a critique of Homer's hymn to violence?

Some they say the prancing cavalry
Others an army with banners
Still others the ships under sail
Are the most beautiful
Upon this black dismal earth.

But I say it is the loved one...

Fragment 31 - Something is happening here. This piece is full of sexual tension and energy. Is she lusting after the man or the woman? Is she behind the bushes spying on young lovers and bringing herself to orgasm. It seems that way to me. As green as grass could also mean as fresh as grass. Which makes me wonder; could Sappho be thought of as an Ancient Madonna?
Like a virgin? This fragment falls apart at the end, and we are not sure if the last line is meant for this poem.

He appears to me, this man,
As lucky as the gods. The one
Sitting cheek to cheek close to you.
You sweetly speak, he answers, obeys.

And your laughter excites desire.
In my breast my heart quivers.
The merest glance on you
And my voice fails.
My words break into pieces.
Fire burns under my delicate skin.
My eyes blind, a roaring fills my ears.

And sweat pours down, a trembling
Takes hold of me, as green as grass
I am. And a little death appears to me. 

But all can be dared.

Fragment 36, - in love in life, in all things this should be our motto.

I yearn after, I strive for...

Fragment 38 - simple, opens the door to the room of many questions.

optais ammi.
You burn me.

Fragment 47 - universal and timeless, who of us has not felt this?

As the winds shakes and bends the mountain oaks,
So love has disturbed my purpose...

Fragment 52 - simple, clear, almost Zen like. Also a fine example of the very literal style of the Ancient Greeks noted by Robert Browning.

The moon is setting
The Pleiades as well.
In the middle of the night
The hours pass.
Alone I sleep.

Fragment 54 - no context here, have no idea what she meant, but it
sounds nice. I think it could be Adonis again.

Down out of heaven he came,
All dressed in purple.

Fragment 82 - the Kleis fragment mentioned above

I have a lovely daughter
Formed like golden flowers.
Beloved Kleis.
Not the wealth of Lydia
Nor lovely...


Fragment 138 - A lovely image, note that Sappho uses the masculine
form of my love, filos, as opposed to feminine file.

Stand before me love, face to face
Let your beauty pour into my eyes

Fragment 140 - Adonis, the beloved of Aphrodite was a complex
character in Greek mythology. When the spring rains come and the snow
melts the rivers of Lebanon run red (with the rusty red earth) and the
ancients used to say that this was the blood of the dieing Adonis. The
cult of Adonis seems to have been secret women's business, and during
his yearly festival women would plant seeds in a small thin bowl of
dirt, the plants would grown quickly, and as quickly they would die
off. Adonis is one of the models of Frazer's ideal of the dieing
God. I tried to capture the alliteration of this verse. Kuthera being
another name for Aphrodite.

He is dieing, O Kuthera,
Your darling Adonis
What is to be done?
Beat your breasts daughters,
Rend your dresses.


If I was to reanimate Sappho I would imagine her running her own symposium. Vast drinking and dinner parties with gorgeous young things as sharp as they were beautiful lounging languid on pillows stuffed with rose flowers, and hurling copper eyed ladles across the room, trying to make the most satisfying clatter as the ladle hit the wine jug. A delicate wine splatter following. The room would be abuzz with conversation and bon mots and perfumes and flirtations and the sound of the lyre would announce a new song from the Divine hostess Psappha of Mytilene.

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