These lines from a poem of Sappho speak to us across the millennium. It’s been twenty-six centuries since this intriguing and unforgettable woman lived on an island on the seam between ancient Greece and Asia. Her poetry and fame is transmitted to us in tantalizing fragments, in commentaries by admiring poets, writers, and scholars from near her own time and up through the millennia. Classicists are still finding, translating, puzzling over, and debating fragments today. In her insightful Introduction, Paige duBois says
In any case, for the classical Greeks, Sappho’s desire seems to have been a matter of some interest, but no of negative judgment.
Her name and her island, Lesbos, evoke homoerotic or homophobic reactions. The Roman Republic poet Catullus, 600 years after her life, felt the need to translate her amazing Poem 31 into a heterosexual encounter. Why? Is her sexual orientation important when taken hundreds or thousands of years out of context? I don’t think so, although I don’t begrudge her as an empowering inspiration to feminism. I’m smitten with her poetry whether she is speaking of love for a woman or a man. Her lines are beautiful and evocative, tantalizing in their incompleteness and teasing me with their lacunas even as they mesmerize me with their power.
Surpasses all the stars.
Thinking about the odds that we get to read Sappho boggles my mind. None of the nine books that her poetry was collected into in antiquity have survived. Fire, water, bugs, conquest, neglect, censorship, and deliberate destruction took their toll over the millennia it seems. You can’t help but wonder what else was lost. But the little glimpses of her (work) that do survive are like the rays of sun breaking through the clouds. They are beautiful in their own right even as we might wish to see the sun in its entirety.
…Beautiful they brought you,
quick sparrows over black earth,
densely whirring wings from heaven
For T. H. Rearden, as for other lovers of Sappho, the fragmentary quality of Sappho’s lines has haunting aesthetic value; it marks the distance between the sixth century BCE and our own time, and stands emblematic of the silences, all that we cannot know of this great poet of the past.
Sappho is in love with beauty. That’s the main thing I get from her poetry. Not just the beauty of a finely formed body but also a love of nature, the natural world, and the luxuries of this life. This comes across repeatedly in her fragments:
For you my beauties, my thought
is beyond expression.
As, the sun plunging down,
the rose-fingered moon
Some men say an army of cavalry, others, a mass of foot soldiers,
and still others claim a host of ships to be the most beautiful thing
upon the black earth. But I say that thing is
Whatever one loves.
This Arion Press edition is one of the treasures of my library. Mainly because I feel the poet deserves a fine press edition that is as beautiful as her poetry. The vellum spine is quite elegant, as is the nice design touch of the vellum tape laced through the joints of the spine. The stamped titling on the spine of both the book and the slipcase evoke the ancient world from which these whispers of Sappho reach out to us across the millennium. Finally, printing the Greek en face to the translation with generous page margins honors the poet and gives the edition the elegance that Sappho deserves.
Like so many efforts to honor the poet over the millennium, the Arion Press edition is not perfect. Perfection in this case is subjective, and maybe that would be too much to expect anyway. With many previous editions, the problems lay in some of the issues alluded to above: censorship, disapproval of the author’s lifestyle or orientation, ignorance, etc. I’m relieved to say that Arion did not fail in any of these areas. They failed in maybe the most subjective of areas that (thankfully) have nothing to do with Sappho herself or her work: the choice of illustrations.
I try to understand how book designers choose an illustrator to pair with a piece of literature and the book as an object. And maybe it’s just that I prefer “book” illustrations over “art book” illustrations. Julie Mehretu’s art just leaves me cold; but more importantly, I can’t reconcile it with what I see and feel in reading Sappho. I’m a reader first; I’m not really a collector and I’m definitely not an investor. So picking an illustrator because of their reputation or “value” doesn’t really do anything for me. I want to see a connection between the literature and the art. I tried really hard to reconcile this. For instance, the illustration following fragment 16 could be a robed person [Helen?] standing on a bluff and watching a host of [Greek?] ships approaching upon the sparkling surface of the sea below. And the Illustration following fragment 41 could be a battle raging around a mountain. The Arion Press website states that “the theme of lost civilizations implicit in Sappho made the ancient Greek poet a fruitful subject for Mehretu,” I suppose because she is “interested in lost cultures.” Ok, but…that’s just a correlation that I don’t see in this edition.
On the other hand, I like the wood engravings by Anita Cowles Rearden that adorn the Title Page, Introduction, and Colophon. These were created in the 1880s and intended as illustrations for a book on Sappho by her husband, San Francisco Judge Timothy Reardon, but were never published due to his untimely death. And I do like the Mehretu scribbles printed on the binding cloth.
I’ve been making a point of reading more women writers. Recently, in a book I read by the Catalan writer Mercé Rodoreda, the translator called Rodoreda “quite possibly the best Mediterranean woman author since Sappho.” That high praise immediately sent me to this edition of Sappho for a re-read and motivated me to write this review. I’ve returned again for a couple of re-reads in the last few weeks and feel I will be doing so many times in the future.