By Meryl Altman
Women’s Review of Books readers who follow Sappho will want to know that Oxford’s Dirk Obbink is publishing two newly discovered fragments from her poems, which have surfaced from a privately owned papyrus, previously unknown to researchers. If your Greek is good, or if like me you’re fascinated by the artisanal scholarship that deciphers, authenticates, and dates such things, you’ll want to read the draft version of Obbink’s article for the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (ZPE); for a more accessible account, see his article in the Times Literary Supplement (February 15, 2014).
Like the previous “new Sappho,” which I wrote about for WRB in 2006, these fragments aren’t really new: the classicist Edith Hall aptly calls them “newly outed.” Where they’ve been hiding since the third century CE, when this particular manuscript copy was made, remains mysterious, and some scholars are impatient to learn more about the provenance of the papyrus, which itself (like most surviving copies of her work) came into existence centuries after her death. But the new lines, which overlap with some bits we already had, really do seem to be Sappho’s, for both technical and aesthetic reasons. English versions of the first poem are sprouting like dragon’s teeth—here’s the first one, by Tim Whitmarsh , here’s another from Edith Hall —and here, for whatever it may be worth, is mine:
You’re always harping on Charaxos
coming in “with a full ship,” which, to my mind,
Zeus knows (like all gods); but such thoughts
are not for you.
Instead, send me: I’ll set myself,
over and over, entreating
“Hera, Queen, may Charaxos return here,
leading his ship,
and find us, safe.” The rest, let’s
turn over to the gods: out of
great storms the calmest sailing
Those from whom Zeus on Olympus
chooses to turn away fated
sorrows, they are the blessèd,
rich in all ways.
And for us: if only Larichos would
one day lift up his head and become a
man, then from heavy thoughts we’d be
(There’s a textual problem in line fourteen: I’ve left out a word or two.)
Obbink is calling this the “Brothers Poem,” even though it doesn’t say “brother” or “sister,” because both Charaxos and Larichos are given as the names of Sappho’s brothers in other ancient sources: Herodotus, Athenaeus, Ovid, some anonymous scraps. The “Brothers Poem” can be seen to dovetail with those stories, which had Sappho rebuking her brother Charaxos for wasting money on an Egyptian sex worker (sometimes called Rhodopis, elsewhere Doricha). It also fits with several of Sappho’s other fragments (#5, #15, maybe #3), which have themselves traditionally been read in terms of that Herodotean story about Charaxos—although in those poems she never calls her brother by that name (or any other), and no poem that mentions Larichos has survived. (Until now, all we knew about the poor kid was one sentence from Athenaeus: “The lovely Sappho often praises her brother Larichus because he poured the wine for the Mytilineans in the town hall.”) Radical skeptics may remain unconvinced: Herodotus usually has some good evidence for what he says, but that doesn’t mean he’s always right; he and the others may well have been basing their stories, set down hundreds of years later, on this poem, but who’s to say they weren’t misreading or over-reading it in the light of their own preoccupations? 1 But those who find that story credible, and especially those who want us to see Sappho’s poems as significantly concerned with public matters—factional power struggles between the elite families of Lesbos—now have another puzzle piece to play with. Any way you look at it, it’s pretty exciting.
The second “newly outed” fragment is extremely “lacunose” (a lovely word that means “full of holes”), but it is certainly about love, and has a very different tone from the first. It seems to be addressed to Kupris (Aphrodite), like some of Sappho’s best-known poems. I think it might begin something like
and if someone were never yet satiated,
lady Kupris, whatever things she loved
and most wished to call back again,
you would have [longing?]
but there are other things that last word could be—and probably I’m barking up the wrong moon entirely, since Obbink suggests this translation:
How could one indeed not repeatedly feel anguish, Queen Kypris, over whomever one really wanted to make one’s own?
and Matt Scarborough of Cambridge has hazarded, rather differently,
How could someone possibly not be often satiated now, Lady Kypris? How could someone now love another and be willing to call again?
Obbink says the new bit augments and corrects Sappho 26, which until now has included the line, “for those whom I treat well harm me most of all”—which I’d be sorry to lose (it comes in handy rather often, sadly). But I’ll wait for further details and wiser heads.
Back to the “Brothers Poem”: the beginning is missing, and we can’t tell whom the poet is talking (back) to in the first line we do have. In his article in the TLS, Obbink suggests that it’s her mother, and that had occurred to me (“Mom, quit bugging me!”); but that only works for the very beginning, and the tone of other poems that mention Sappho’s mother, or someone’s mother (#98, #102) is comparatively tender. The use of “us” and “we” implies that the “you” must be someone with whom Sappho generally, despite some tension, feels kinship, or makes common cause—but does that have to be a family member?
What people bring to Sappho is always interesting. Edith Hall says:
As a woman with an elder and a younger brother myself, I am particularly pleased that the new poem shows the poet most famous for her erotic love of other women in a completely different light—as the responsible sister of two men, one a business traveler and the other still a youngster.
I can see that, but in other poems, when Sappho says “us,” it almost always means, well, us: a loosely affiliated group of women, interested passionately in writing and in each other, some of whom perhaps are or have been students of some of the others, not all of whom always get along especially well either personally, professionally, or in that delicate space between the two, and who have been getting together to dance, sing, eat, etc. since they were young—and a shockingly long time ago that was, but “you will remember … for we too … did these things in our … youth….”
Well, I admit I always over-react defensively to any attempt to resurrect the “family values” Sappho, or to explain away the emotions and the erotics as really about something else.2 But to be fair, in fragment #5, the one that’s closest thematically to the “Brothers Poem,” Sappho says, “[M]ay no one ever again be a grief to us,” after praying that her brother arrive unharmed, “atone for his past mistakes,” and become “a joy to his friends and a bane to his enemies.” This last bit especially has an unmistakable epic, competitive tone to it, and the later part of the papyrus, which is too torn to be intelligible, seems to have included the word “citizens”: that does suggest some political context. I just think it’s worth exploring a fuller range of possible meanings than just “hurray for our side, let’s whup the Joneselids.”
What it means to “become a man” might also be worth discussing. Obbink says in his ZPE piece, “The poem closes with well-wishing for Larichos, that he grow up to be a settled member of the leisured, aristocratic class and so ‘release us from many sufferings.’” And later: “[T]he point is not that Larichos should survive and grow up: he should become an ἄνηρ [man] in all senses. Presumably this would include aristocratic demeanour, noble marriage, transfer of wealth, and production of legitimate offspring, all of which could be threatened by Charaxos’ not arriving “with a full ship.” (There’s another way of construing the last word of line 17 to be, not a verb that means “lift up,” but an adjective that means “doing no work,” which Obbink is here taking in a positive sense, as “leisure”; but “lazyhead Larichos” might also be plausible.) Obbink notes too that the word for “man” is rare in Sappho, but is very common in Alcaeus, the other lyric poet from Lesbos and Sappho’s contemporary. It’s standard operating procedure to read them together, for clues about context and diction, but here it is perhaps misleading: compare the use of “us” in Alcaeus #6:
This wave in turn comes (like?) the previous one, and it will give us much trouble to bail out when it enters the ship’s…Let us strengthen (the ship’s sides) as quickly as possible, and let us race into a secure harbor; and let soft fear not seize any of us; for a great (ordeal) stands clear before us. Remember the previous (hardship): now let every man show himself steadfast. And let us not disgrace (by cowardice) our noble fathers lying beneath the earth, [etc.]3
There’s nothing like this in Sappho anywhere at all.4
Brothers too are extremely interesting—and more problematic than might at first appear. Women in ancient texts often appear as objects in marriage exchange, and Herodotus shows (centuries before Gayle Rubin’s essay “The Traffic in Women”) how women in many cultural contexts, caught between loyalty to husbands and loyalty to brothers and fathers, can show a built-in strain between their families of origin and the families they join when they marry, belonging in some ways to both, but fully to neither. Is it safe to assume that if Sappho had said “my family” (which she never does), she would have meant her birth family, in an uncomplicated way? And what if a woman took herself out of that economy entirely? Most modern classicists would find that unthinkable. But Herodotus might not have.
The hardest question facing the translator is one of tone. Several people have already drawn attention to the poem’s Homeric echoes (think of Penelope waiting for Odysseus to come home, and also waiting for Telemachus to grow up). Sappho had a sharp voice: “Having never yet found you more annoying, Irana”; and a funny one: “the door-keeper’s feet are seven fathoms long”; and at times a sarcastic one: “I wish the daughter of the house of Polyanax a very good day”—along with the bittersweet longing she’s best known for. But which of her many voices was she using here?
As I read it, what we have of this poem begins with a realistic, no-nonsense piece of dialogue, then moves inward, toward a deeply felt, intense emotion. Then the description of how the poet would (if in future sent to do so) call on, invoke, pray to the goddess for mercy and help turns into a performance of that very invocation. The second and third strophes appear to be preaching resignation and a mature, sensible if sad withdrawal of desire—and end with a sort of proverb or maxim, culturally familiar without being clichéd. The final strophe returns to the (supposedly renounced) object of desire and amplifies the longing as a wish expressed in the optative mode, but also returning to the pragmatic terrain of the first lines: “yes, it’s useless, and maybe even unlucky and impious, to dwell on good fortune before it is secure—but I can’t help thinking about it, either.” If that’s right, then the last strophe (and we know it’s the end, because there’s a little thingie5 after it on the papyrus) creates an irony and closes a ring. Or perhaps there’s an ascending ladder: “It’s no good you daydreaming about things getting better; it’s some use for me to call on the patronage of Hera; but what would really help would be if Larichos would bestir himself and do something.”
I suspect I didn’t capture this very well in my version, but it’s precisely these quick, yet smooth and economical, shifts between the registers of various genres (conversation, hymn, gnomos, epic, conversation) that trigger shifts of emotional ground, plus the way the metrical stresses move (this I know I failed to capture), that makes the poem seem so much Sappho’s, at least to me.
In any case, as Roberto Rossi comments, “il tutto è molto incerto. Insomma: tanto lavoro per i filologi!” “The whole thing is quite uncertain: in short, lots of work for philologists!” And for feminists, too.
1Herodotus was in earnest search of the right answer to an empirical question about Rhodopis: could she, in fact, have afforded to pay for the building of a certain Egyptian pyramid, “as some Greeks say”? (The answer is No.) And the characters in Athenaeus’s Scholars at Dinner—a weird and rather wonderful book—seem to be animated by sheer verbal delight: that their stories point affectively in all directions at once never seems to bother them.)
2I find Franco Ferrari’s recent attempt, in Sappho’s Gift: The Poet and Her Community (2010), to explain Sappho’s expressions of sadness about desertion and disloyalty as impersonal, coded references to political rivalries between aristocratic family factions especially unconvincing.
3I’m using Campbell’s translation from the Loeb Classical edition here. For Alcaeus’s use of “us” in the sense of “our political faction,” see also #69: “the Lydians, indignant at the turn of events, gave us two thousand staters in the hope that we could enter the holy city, although they had never received any benefit from us and did not know us.”
4And then, even within an Alcaean paradigm, why would Larichos have to be her brother, rather than a younger member of the ruling faction, or a possible claimant whose coming to power would make things better for Sappho and her group, whether the group is her family, her circle of friends, the “aristocracy,” or even the polis as a whole?
5“a decorated (i.e., ‘forked’) paragraphus or diple obelismene (functioning as a coronis)”
Meryl Altman usually teaches English and Women's Studies at DePauw University in Indiana. This spring she's a visiting fellow of Mansfield College, Oxford, finishing her book, "Beauvoir in Time."