The sinking moon has left the sky,
The Pleiades have also gone.
comes—and goes, the hours fly
And solitary still, I lie.
The Moon has left the sky;
Lost is the Pleiads’ light;
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 ,
the time is going by, and I sleep alone. [H. T. Wharton]
Δέδυκε, the verb δύω, it means it dove, it foundered. In
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 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
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 , 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 · 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 . 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 · 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
See also an excellent page about Sappho: The Divine Sappho