Essay: Sappho's Lost Session


Sappho's Lost Sessions

By Meryl Altman

Sappho has come out with a new poem: not bad for someone who's been dead for about 2600 years.


A little over a year ago, Martin L. West, an emeritus fellow of All Souls College Oxford, announced in the Times Literary Supplement (June 24, 2005) a discovery that has raised goosebumps on the arms of classicists and lovers of poetry worldwide. Two scholars at the University of Köln, Michael Grönewald and Robert Daniel, had deciphered part of a papyrus roll, dating from the third century BC, which had been thriftily recycled, soaked with water, and used to wrap a mummy. Some of what they found was by Sappho.


West published a reconstruction of the Greek with his own translation in the TLS; since then, a number of versions have appeared in print, and WRB readers with even a little Greek may want to try making their own from the helpfully annotated text William Annis has made available at Here's mine:


you, who still have the lovely gifts of the violet Muses,
apply yourselves, girls! and the song-loving
clearsounding lyre.

as for me: already age has taken
my once-soft skin, turned dark hairs white,
made my heart heavy. Knees
which once danced quick as deer,
can't carry me.

often I sigh, but what can I do?
a human being who never ages,
that's not possible.

for even Tithonus, they say,
who rosearmed Dawn loved
and carried off
to the ends of the earth

when he was lovely and young,
all the same in time
gray age overcame him,
holding his deathless wife.

In fact the poem is not entirely new. The recently deciphered papyrus overlaps significantly with what has been called Sappho 58, already known from a papyrus two Oxford undergraduates dug out of a rubbish trench at Oxyrhynchus in the 1920s (and which dates to a later period in antiquity). Also, the "new Sappho" is not quite 100 percent Sappho, because the beginnings of the first four lines (of the original twelve) are missing. West has filled these in by erudite "conjecture," and competing erudite conjectures are beginning to appear.


But it is still a very significant find. It clarifies many of the gaps in the Oxyrhynchus version. The discovery also seems to show that other lines from the Oxyrhynchus papyrus, which until now have stood at the beginning and end of 58, in fact belong to other poems instead. If this is right, we now know the shape of the whole poem and can draw some conclusions about form, which is especially exciting since only three other near-complete Sappho poems are known to have survived, among the many fragments.


Sappho's voice seems to speak to us so directly that we have to resist the temptation to immediately cover the text with our own preoccupations--in my case, those of a second wave feminist with a pronounced limp who, much as she appreciates the invitations of her colleagues to join their kickboxing class, is beginning to wonder whether it might be more graceful to retire and raise sheep. But the poem is much less simple than it looks.


The opening apostrophe is not quite a hymn or invocation, but it clearly alludes to a public ritual or festival in which the poem may have been performed. A few words of direct personal address are then capped by a general universal statement, whose proverb-like, epigrammatic force is especially difficult to render in English; and the poem concludes with a mythological parallel to the story of Eos and Tithonos, of which Sappho almost certainly knew the version found in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite.


The story of Tithonos is hardly a happy one. Eos asked Zeus to make her lover immortal, and Zeus agreed, but she forgot to ask that Tithonos be granted eternal youth as well. When the hair and beard of the beautiful youth started to turn grey, she turned away from his bed, and when he became "fully repulsive" (in the words of the Loeb Classical Library Edition) she shut him up in her room, where "his voice runs unceasingly, but there is no strength in his limbs." Other versions specify that Tithonos turns into a cicada, which has enabled Richard Janko, also in the TLS, to read the end of the new Sappho as optimistic, invoking the redemptive gift of eternal song.


Feminists will be particularly interested by the way Sappho reverses gender roles in picking up that story. As elsewhere, she seems here to feature the active desire of a sexually powerful woman (Dawn "went...carrying him off"). Yet Sappho seems to be identifying with the male, Tithonos--perhaps suggesting that age class runs deeper than gender?


My translation of the ending may actually sound a little more positive, and a little more heteronormative, than warranted. Does Tithonus have Eos, or is it the other way around, and what has either of them really got? The Homeric Hymns are full of abductions and hijackings -- the rape of Persephone by Hades in the Hymn to Demeter is only the most familiar--and it is also clear that, god or mortal, female or male, one can be "seized" by desire at any moment. The new poem, I think, reflects delicately on the ambiguities and power plays around "having" and "taking," which include both erotic pursuit and the deprivations that result from age. The word that I've translated as "overcame" also means "seize" or "hold," so Tithonus has actually been snatched twice--once by Eos, and a second time by Age. And where I've put "taken my soft skin," the word for "skin" can mean more generally
"body," which would deepen the undertone of aging as a kind of abduction or rape.


The body, struck by age, comes apart into its components--skin, hair, knees--in much the way that "limb-loosening Eros" can bring: for instance, in the famous catalogue in Sappho 31, where "my tongue is broken, at once a subtle fire has stolen beneath my flesh, I see nothing with my eyes, my ears hum, sweat pours from me, a trembling seizes me," and so forth. Scholar Helene Foley has noted (about Sappho 31) that "when Sappho records raw emotion and bodily symptoms...she the process of objectifying (her gaze depersonalizes her own body) and regaining some control over them." Physical debility or disability can signal the presence of desire, not its absence, and the "body in pieces" is not necessarily a bad sign.


Still, Sappho is of course right in terms of the human world. Love might make us feel younger for a while, but we'd better not kid ourselves. This reading might deepen a sense of the last line as ironic, even sarcastic, like the end of The Sun Also Rises : "[I]sn't it pretty to think that now." Some commentators have found the ending to be unsatisfying or inconclusive, and papyrologists are bringing physical and textual evidence to bear on the question of where the poem ends; but what seems plausible and what seems too abrupt must rest also on the reader’s own aesthetic, and on her or his views about life and love.


The newly reconstructed poem will undoubtedly reanimate, but will definitively not resolve, a number of other classic questions, including whether Sappho wrote monody or choral poems; whether her poems were performed in public or private; and what exactly was the nature of the group of girls she gathered around her (religious, erotic, pedagogical, therapeutic preparation for marriage, etc.) We are free, at least, to imagine this poem being sung and danced by group and soloist, perhaps as part of a coming-of-age ritual or other rite of passage.


But we should be wary of seeing a separate "female world of love and ritual" here, or a refuge from patriarchal culture, or (especially) a critique or challenge to the male world of war and force. Epithets like "the dark earth" are drawn from epic, and many terms have a martial flavor. For instance, in my translation I've chosen the word "heart," but equally good alternatives would include "spirit," "soul, "mind," "courage," "desire," "purpose," or even "energy," as when the "heart" of the warrior gives way in the course of battle (or doesn't), and the word for "sigh," "groan," "moan" may also have some connotation of the winded fighter (or horse) breathing heavily as the battle turns against him.


In fact, here as elsewhere in Sappho, epic themes and terms are combined, or perhaps balanced, with more lyric conventions. Knees are particularly interesting, as they can point in several directions: the epic warrior whose knees are unstrung in battle; the supplicant, who embraces the knees of the god or more powerful person in begging for his or her life; the knees that give way in the face of desire, "limb-loosening Eros"; even a more maternal image, as in the Hymn to Demeter, where a baby climbs onto the goddess's knees. Becoming aware of connections between Sappho's diction and other texts, both epic and lyric, does nothing (in my opinion) to diminish her originality or her achievement. Looking at this poem now, I realize that in my own youth, when Sappho's were the only Greek poems I knew, I might have been tempted to say, for instance, that worry about gray hairs and dry skin was a "woman's theme"--but now I am aware of close analogues in Alcaeus and Anacreon. Or, I might have made much of the erotic feeling in the ritual dance of the young women, as a sign of a "different voice"--but Alcman, too, wrote of a lovely chorus leader from the point of view of another dancer who admires her. It now seems better to me to talk about this poem as showing not a "reversal" of gender roles or positioning, but a surprising irrelevance of gender. The question of who "takes" versus who is "taken" is certainly salient in most cultures, and in the Homeric Hymns as well, so a poem like this one that makes nothing of it is actually saying something fairly significant through its silence. What do these discoveries contribute to discussions about Sappho's "sexual identity"? Perhaps not much, except to confirm the insight of a "queer" approach that the sex of the beloved may not matter as much as centuries of debate would suggest, and that other things, such as ageing, or the shifting, ambiguous dynamics of power between the "taker" and the "taken," might matter more.


So could we stop arguing about this? picking up the TLS report of the discovery, the London Guardian remarks that "Ostensibly at least, the craving in the final image of the new poem is for love from young men." (What? where?) The Daily Telegraph explains who Sappho was thus: "Heroine of feminists and homosexuals." A TLS report of a public lecture by Germaine Greer suggest that at least one feminist public intellectual has simply been hostile to the new discovery: "Professor Greer soon makes clear her dim view of male professors in ancient universities who think they know who Sappho was, what she might have written and why she might have written....As for the TLS poem, attributed to the 'middle aged Sappho,' it is an implausible mixture of different fragments, assembled according to no logic that she can see, and wholly unworthy in any case."


Certainly the use of Sappho over the ages to support various strange agendas might make one hang back, or at least side with Barbara Johnson, who in 2003 tried to conceive of Sappho's texts as coming from an absence, from no point of origin. My own hope is different. The tools of philology, used with humility and restraint, can lead us to see Sappho's legacy as an intriguing puzzle, a mystery for which we hold, after all, some real clues, rather than as a blank space. The paradoxes with which we are left may indeed be signs of her art. In any case, the new poem seems destined to provide delight and provoke debate, for experts and others, including among feminists, for many years to come. Let the games begin. Meryl Altman wishes to thank her Greek teachers, Keith Nightenhelser, Carl Huffman, Nancy Worman, and Dirk Obbink. A fuller and more scholarly version of this discussion, including footnotes, can be found online at under the title, "Sappho's Knees."

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