Aug 4, 2008

SAPPHO: A poem (c. 580 b.c.)

The sinking moon has left the sky,
The Pleiades have also gone.
Midnight comes—and goes, the hours fly
And solitary still, I lie.

The Moon has left the sky;
Lost is the Pleiads’ light;
It is midnight
And time slips by;
But on my couch alone I lie.
Translated by J. A. Symonds, 1883.

There is no download in this post, here you can only find a dive; a dive into an ancient poet’s marvellous world. Listen carefully to this exceptionally beautiful poem, delivered to us through a distance of 2600 years, yet still surprisingly modern. Sappho in a few verses is talking about light and shadows, desire and loneliness, youth and spring’s beauty, love and (temporary or permanent) death. As a small help here is Kastoriadis short notes about the poem:

« Certain translational difficulties lead us to the ascertainment that the ancient Greek poets did often rely on a characteristic trait of Greek language, probably common with other primary languages, trait that we can call indivisible polysemy of words and grammatical cases. The newer European languages do not anymore have this characteristic trait, and the poets have resorted in other roads in order to create a comparable expressive intensity.

These ascertainments lead us to an examination of roads of poetic expressiveness and particularly her semantic musicality.

Let us begin with Sappho’s eminent verses (ed. Bergk 52):

Δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα
καὶ πληΐαδες: μέσαι δε
νÚκτες, παρ¦ δ' œρχετ' êρα,
œγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.

A word by word translation could be the following:

 The moon has set, and the Pleiades; it is midnight,
the time is going by, and I sleep alone. [H. T. Wharton]

Δέδυκε, the verb δύω, it means it dove, it foundered. In Greece of two hundred inhibited islands and roughly ten thousands kilometres of coasts the sun, the moon and the stars do not lie down, they dive in the sea, they sunk. Σελάννα is the moon, and we cannot attribute the word differently. For one ancient Greek however, the word Σελάννα refers immediately in σέλας, the light· Σελάννα is the luminous, the φωστήρ. Πληιάδες is Pleiades, the constellation; [the word can literally be translated as Many]. …[For contemporary people Pleiades may mean something else or nothing]….But for the Greek farmer, craftsman, or mariner of Antiquity (and still until recently), it is about a stellar cloud –at least seven stars would be distinguished via naked eye - that a current astronomer would call a star cluster of some millions of stars, a splendid constellation in the most beautiful shaping of nightly sky, into an enormous arc of circle which covers more from the half of sky dome, beginning from Pleiades, passing from Orion and terminating in Sirius. When by the end of summertime Sirius is appearing, just before the sunrise, the pale henceforth Pleiades have already cross the zenith, going west. The moment that Sappfo is speaking, the Pleiades have already set, a clue precise and precious, in which I will come back.

Sappho, by Charles Mengin (1877)

Μέσαι δε νύκτες, by word: the nights are into their middle, it is midnight. In the middle of that night, in the midnight of that day, the Moon and the Pleiades have already set. Let us suppose provisionally that the end of poem could be attributed somehow in this way:

… time is going by, and I sleep alone.

Here, Sappfo herself is speaking, Sappfo who was born around 612 in Lesvos. We can suppose that the poem was written round 580, perhaps maybe earlier. A lyric poem, as we were saying, that expresses the sentiments, the mental situation of poet, and however, the myth - the narration, the history - is present, nostalgic and splendid. Without particular effort, we see the nightly sky be described, the Moon and the Pleiades already set, and this woman, maybe in love with somebody who is not there, maybe not, however full of desires, which, in the middle of the night cannot sleep and says her sadness; that in her bed she is alone.

Reading an ancient poem means that we recover a lost world, a world now covered from the indifference of “civilization” towards the elementary and fundamental. It is already the middle of the night and the Moon has set. Contemporary people do not see what this means. We do not imagine that, because the Moon has set before the midnight, we are between the new Moon and the first fourth, in the beginning hence of a lunar month (a means of time measurement for all ancient people). But the Pleiades have set. This precision of ancient poets we only seldom find in the newest, taking as fact that having as starting line this clue we could almost define the season of the poem’s composition.

We are in spring, because in spring - and in particular in its beginning - the Pleiades set before midnight· as more the year advances, so much they set later. Sappfo is laid down, and time passes by.

What is ώρα? The translator will attribute the word “effortlessly” as [hour in English and] heure in French (via the Latin loan hora). Hour however in ancient Greek means also the season, already in Homer, and this significance lasts until today via the Alexandrian and Byzantine years· αι ώραι (hours) of the year are the seasons. It is of course also the hour, with the usual significance of term, not the hour of clocks, but the hour as subdivision of day’s duration. One of the eminent poems that the later Antiquity attributed in the lyric poet Anakreonta begins as follows: μεσονύκτιος ποτ' ώραις”; in the hours of midnight. Hour however is also the moment at which a thing “it’s on time”, when it is really good and “ωραίο” [nice], it is therefore for humans the flower of youth. In the Symposium when Alcibiades recounts that he tried to sleep with Socrates, but was raised the morning without having suffered nothing (καταδε-δαρθηκώς...) as if he had slept with his father or his brother, he concludes: Socrates is an abuser, so much he despised my “hour”, my youth, my beauty, the fact that I was mature to collect me as a beautiful erotic fruit.

I should also make mention of conjunction “δε”, that it means equally “and” but also “but”. Here the choice is inevitable and I will translate simply “and”. What does therefore Sappfo says?

The moon and the Pleiades have set

It is midnight· season, hour, youth

Are going by and I sleep alone.

No newer translator, as long as I know, has dared to translate the unique word hour with three words. However the climaxing of intensity of the poem is precisely this word that combines more of one importance, without wanting or having to select one between them: the season of the year, the spring - the new beginning of time afterwards the winter, the season of loves - the time that goes by and the youth of Sapfo that is spent uselessly, since there is no one in her bed. Sappfo’s genius lies also in the choice of precisely this word, the spectrum of importance of which is enlightened and enriched by the rest of the poem (without the indication of the set of Pleiades, the significance season/spring of the word hour would be much less imperative).»

K. Kastoriadis, Expressive means of poetry. Some notes.
Translated by begemot

Sappho in Wikipedia

See also an excellent page about Sappho: The Divine Sappho


Anonymous said...

I have found myself stepping out of this world for some moments during the working hours in the middle of the day... It's probably odd to add something; that would be just pointless. A thank you, indeed... and let us get away again from this idiotic world we came to live in - on some other ocasion, soon enough.

norsborgsbloggen said...

i just wanna thank you for making this post on Sappho.

begemot said...

Thank you!! Finding out that some people can communicate with certain deffinetly encouranging....

Bruxelles ma belle said...

Nice post! For those who like it i can recommand the wonderfull book of Marguerite Yourcenar "La Couronne et la Lyre" (The Crown and the Lyre), an anthology of ancient greek poetry, but i don't know if this book exist in english translation.

begemot said...

Bruxelles ma belle, after a quick search i didn't find it translated in English. It has been translated, though, in Greek, by Χατζηνικολής editions, under the title "Το στεφάνι και η λύρα", in 1985 (a second edition, in 1986, is bilingual). For those who might be interested.

Selanna said...

I had to memorize this poem as a college student more than 30 years ago. It has been in my head ever since. I found this post while I was discussing the lyric with my daughter. It provided a depth of understanding I had missed all these years as well as a great introduction for my poetic daughter.

Sydney said...

I first encountered this poem in first year Greek and have loved it and Ancient Greek ever since. Thanks for this!