Arion Lyre

93. Poetry of Sappho, in Greek with English translation by John Daley with Page duBois, with twenty prints by Julie Mehretu

Poetry of Sappho, introduction by Page duBois, with wood engravings by Anita Cowles Rearden, in Greek with English translation by John Daley with Page duBois, interspersed with twenty prints by Julie Mehretu, November 2011.


Sappho was born in the seventh century before the common era (B.C.E.) on the island of Lesbos, in the city of Mytilene. She resided in an archaic world, on an island nearer to Asia than to modern Greece. A member of the aristocracy, she was a prolific poet whose work was sung, performed, and recorded in nine volumes. The mere two thousand lines we know today have been culled from later authors who quoted her or painstakingly reconstructed from papyri exhumed from the sands of Egypt. As scholar Page duBois writes, “Against all odds, her poetry has survived, overcoming millennia of destruction and loss, misunderstanding and censorship.” Such was Sappho’s stature that she was ubiquitously cited by the authors who followed a century and more after her. For Ovid, Horace, Catullus, and Longinus, she embodied a legacy – a voice of wisdom and an exemplar of poetic technique, to be either embraced or rejected, but nonetheless a cultural given. In the next millennium, however, her works fell victim to the destruction of the library at Alexandria, the pillages of Constantinople, the ire of puritanical Christians, and a decline in literacy and in the use of the Æolian Greek dialect. No collection of her poems survived the Middle Ages. Then her voice was heard again in the nineteenth century. In England, such writers as Keats, Swinburne, and Oscar Wilde, among many others, echoed Sappho’s themes, techniques, and voice. Her voice was amplified in the twentieth century and is again in the twenty-first century by numerous scholars and talented translators. As duBois explains, “The precision and clarity of her images, the power of her desire, the intensity of her invocations of women’s pleasures and yearning, have won her the love of readers across continents and centuries.”


Julie MehretuIn 2007, Arion’s senior editor Diana Ketcham met Julie Mehretu in New York at an event for the American Academy in Berlin, where both of them had been Fellows. The following year, Arion publisher Andrew Hoyem met with Mehretu in Berlin, where she was working on “Grey Area”, a series of seven large paintings for the Deutsche Guggenheim, shown also at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2010. The concept for the book was laid out by Andrew Hoyem in a letter in August 2009, but the artist could not start until she finished her commission for an enormous painting in a corporate headquarters in lower Manhattan, entitled “Mural”. Calvin Tompkins described this eighty by twenty-three foot work in his profile of Julie Mehretu in the New Yorker (March 2010), calling it “the most ambitious painting I’ve seen in a dozen years”:

“Hundreds of precisely defined abstract shapes in saturated colors—small dots and squares, straight and curving lines, larger geometric or free-form shapes ranging from several inches to several feet in length—move across it in an oceanic sweep, from left to right. Areas of dense activity give way here and there to more open sections, and the flow is interrupted by vertical or diagonal elements, but the sense of movement is constant and enveloping, and orchestrated with bravura authority. [ . . . . ] We moved closer to the painting. From here, I could see what I had missed from father back: a vast network of highly realistic architectural drawings underlying the abstract surface elements.”


“It may seem pure hubris to translate Sappho again, “duBois writes, “when there is such an abundance of translations. Yet even with such bounty, to read Sappho through the eyes of a new poet can reveal something new. Each of the older translations has its virtues and defects; Mary Barnard’s translation, for example, so influential to many readers, unfortunately prefaces some of the poems with titles that confusingly merge with the poems themselves, as with fragment 16, which bears the title ‘To an army wife, in Sardis’, an implicit interpretation that inappropriately affects the reader’s experience of this poem. There is no wife, no army wife, no Sardis, in the poem itself.

“We have chosen to translate those poems most nearly whole, as well as many of the fragments that offer vivid, striking language, a image, or something not imbedded in the narrative of a poem that yet gives a sense of Sappho’s gifts. We have sought to stay close to the Greek, to translate as accurately as possible both the words we have still remaining in the various sources, as passed on by textual scholars, and to approximate the elegancies of Sappho’s verse in Greek, which like Latin, marks the relationship of words by case instead of their order in the sentence. And we have attempted to render Sappho’s language, which is, in our view, sometimes intimate, but rarely casual, colloquial or idiomatic. So we have wanted to preserve the ceremonial formality of some poems, the tender intimacy of others, without imagining that they are necessarily private communications between lovers.

“We have marked the places where papyri or manuscripts fall into illegibility with the conventional sign of the ‘lacuna’, the lack, that is, an ellipsis. Fragments that seemed too illegible, too fragmentary to communicate, we have left aside, in the hopes that further discoveries will give us more words.”


In the introduction, Page duBois reexamines the legends attached to Sappho’s life, such as her being a prostitute, a teacher of girls, a political exile, a suicide, a victim of mistaken identity (the “two Sappho” theory), establishing what contemporary historians believe to be the biography. Professor duBois explains the factors that made the unthinkable possible – for a literary legacy revered throughout the Hellenistic and Roman worlds to have almost perished by the end of the Middle Ages. She retells the chapters in the drama of its partial recovery, through translations in the Renaissance, and, in the twentieth century, from a new harvest of fragments on papyri in Egypt, preserved in a drier climate than the author’s native island culture. In taking up the most recent of these, the astonishing 2004 discovery of the “Cologne” papyri, accidentally found while unrolling the wrappings of a mummy in a German archive, duBois considers the changed meanings of the now fuller version of one of Sappho’s most wrenching verses, fragment 58, with its white-haired narrator lamenting the onset of age and the loss of beauty, yet posing, some say, the possibility of consolation. Now that more of this crucial Sappho poem is available to us, new translations are required. Daley and duBois’s translation is an important contribution, providing an artistic and scholarly rendition of the expanded poem.

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