Ancient Greek bust of Sappho the Eresian

Sappho was arguably the greatest poet of the Classical period. Plato hailed her as the Tenth Muse. She instituted a poetry of human emotions and introspection when hitherto, Greek poetry had concentrated on the deeds of the gods and of mythic heroes. In so doing, she may be said to be the founder of modern Western poetry and the first Rajasic poet of the Kali Yuga.

She was the head of a female academy, and wrote with great affection of the young girl-scholars who surrounded her, and particularly her intimate inner circle. Her house was known as a house of moisopoloi, or “servants of the Muses”.

It is a fascinating thought that the individualistic, romantic, lyric verse, which in the West is what is most commonly understood by the term “poetry” was, in fact, originally female in orientation, born in an all-female setting and centred on the theme of divine affection between maid and maid.

Very little of Sappho’s work now survives, largely owing to the arson attack made on the great library at Alexandria by members of a militant sect known as Christians. Many of the literary treasures of the ancient world were lost forever in the great fire that ensued, including most of the works of Sappho.

Only three complete poems remained to the world, and even they had to be conjecturally reconstructed in parts.

In the year twenty-oh-five, that number increased to four, owing to the discovery, in an ancient Egyptian tomb of the earliest manuscript of her work so far known. It was copied early in the third century B.C., a little over 300 years after she wrote. This manuscript contained three of her poems, all in fragmentary states, as is usually the case. However one of them had been known since 1922 from an Oxyrhynchus papyrus of the third century A.D., and by combining the two fragmentary texts, the complete poem could be reconstructed.

Sappho's new poem

The poem was written in Sappho’s old age. She watches her young scholars, her moisopoloi, dancing and singing, and recalls the days of her own youth and gracefulness. She laments her lot, and then speaks of the folly of lamenting, recalling the legend of Tithonus, who, beloved of Eos, goddess of the dawn, was carried off by her. The goddess asked Zeus for the boon of eternal life for her mortal spouse, which was granted; but she forgot to ask for eternal youth, and so Tithonus grew older and older without ever dying, until finally he was confined to his room, chattering endlessly but unable to move.

The parallel with Sappho, whose young protégées, to whom she has devoted her life and given her deepest affections, are eternally young, because new girls continually arrive at her academy, while time relentlessly drains her strength and beauty, is deeply poignant.

The original poem is in six couplets and is very economically written. Classical Greek grammar, being older and purer than that of our modern languages, is more tightly structured and complex. Consequently, like other ancient languages, it is capable of expressing more in fewer words. It also makes references that have little or no immediate emotional resonance with a modern reader unless they are expanded. For this reason we have elaborated the verse slightly, adopting the romantic, rather than the terse, “modernist”, style.

We have, however, interpolated very little and have stayed very close to the text. Our aim has been to present the poem in a translation that will have the same emotional effect upon a modern hearer as the original poem would have had upon its earliest audiences.

We have used the familiar iambic pentameter to represent Sappho’s meter.

The Poetess Laments her Old Age

O, maidens, tend and guard those precious gifts
Granted ye by the fragrant-blossomed muses
And the sweet music of the pure-toned lyre.

My sometime-tender body now declines,
Seized by old age; my raven-hair is whitened.

My heart is weighted down; my supple knees,
Once nimble for the dance as woodland fawns,
Will scarcely bear me as I walk a pace.

And often I give tongue to my complaint
That all my youthful joy should end in this.
But wherefore murmur? I am but a maid.
Can one avoid the fate of all our kind?

Tithonus, so the tale has long been told,
Was carried to the edges of the world
In the caress of rosy-armèd Dawn,
That goddess being overcome with love.

Comely he was and young upon that day;
Yet time wore on and grizzled age o’ertook
The mortal husband of immortal wife.