BMCR 1997.01.04

1997.01.04, Classical Women Poets

, Classical women poets. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1996. 158 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 9781852243425. £7.95.

“As women, you will be highly regarded if you fulfil the role nature has intended for you and attract the least possible notice, whether in praise or criticism, from men” (Thuc. 2.45.2). With words such as these, the Thucydidean Pericles might hope to encourage the women of classical Athens to be content with honorable obscurity: acceptable enough advice from a political leader in a society where women had no vote, no political or public role, and were with few exceptions uneducated and illiterate. Even in a community as traditionally patriarchal as fifth-century Athens, some women, including Pericles’ own companion Aspasia, claimed the right to more than a dignified silence; but if they tried to make their voices heard, they were likely to be censured, derided, or ignored. Other periods of antiquity, such as the Hellenistic age, were more favorable to women’s literary self-expression. But not significantly: on the whole we must glean what classical women themselves thought or said through a filter of male judgements and perceptions.

Women’s poetic utterances are the apparent exception. Apart from some private letters on papyrus from Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, scraps of poetry are the only surviving record of classical women speaking in their own voice. In the first century AD, Antipater of Thessalonica could list the names of nine women honoured as poets: “Heaven created the nine Muses, but earth has raised nine more for her own”. Their slight and scattered remains are thus an obvious place for feminists and social historians to begin the quest to reclaim the authentic voices of ancient women. 1 In Classical Women Poets, Josephine Balmer gathers up most of the scraps and provides annotated translations of every woman poet of whose work at least one word in Greek or Latin survives from antiquity, from Sappho in c.600 BC to the Christian empress Eudocia in the fifth century AD. The survivors comprise a mere sixteen out of a meagre total of twenty-nine women poets whose names are recorded in the course of a thousand years of classical antiquity. Each poetess (B. largely avoids, though not entirely, this gendering usage) is accorded a chapter, and the translations are prefaced with a note about their lives and the reception of their work. The format of the book, together with the presentation of the translated fragments under their own titles, lend the disiecta membra a deceptively familiar appearance, inviting the reader to consider even disconnected relics as if they were intended to be read in their extant form. Sappho herself, the earliest and by far the best known, is represented by a small selection to avoid overlap with B.’s own earlier translation of her collected poems and fragments. 2 The result is a slim volume, which serves as an accessible and lively introduction to the general reader of some rarely noticed fragments of Greek and Roman literature, and succeeds in calling for a wider and more respectful attention to the works of classical women poets whose efforts are almost wholly obscured both by their fragmentary condition and by the shadow of their great forerunner.

In her introductory essay, B. discusses her aims and methods as a translator as well as the wider assumptions inherent in her project. The collection embraces widely different styles and genres, from Sappho’s passionate love-songs to the unctuous graffiti of Julia Balbilla. The original texts are both in Greek and Latin, spanning a period of over a thousand years. Apart from being the work of women, is there any unity to be found in such a collection? It might seem rash to generalise about the literary sensibility of women composing under such diverse social and historical conditions as Corinna, composing for girl’s choruses in (most probably) archaic Boeotia, Anyte crafting epigrams in Hellenistic Arcadia, and the upper-class Christian housewife Proba creating a pastiche of Virgil in 4th-century Rome. B., however, accepts the challenge, arguing that certain recurring themes and “functional similarities” distinctively link the work of all classical women poets, and identifying linguistic usages and strategies which in her view constitute “the conscious creation of a parallel literary tradition, appropriating male literary forms, and investing Sappho as a female Homer”.

B. aims to offer scholarly support for these claims in her introduction and footnotes. While her broad intention is the imaginative re-creation of the poets’ utterances, the sketchy nature of her arguments (directed at specialist and non-specialist alike) and some inaccuracies of detail invite caution in accepting her wider conclusions. Thus Greek words, transliterated without indications of vowel-length, are occasionally given incorrectly e.g. meilicios for meilichiws, Iadontos for Ladontos; and B. does not distinguish digamma from gamma in transliterating the title of Corinna’s fragment Geroia rather than Weroia despite referring to the suggested derivation from (w)eirein (a suggestion made in Page’s apparatus to PMG, though B. attributes it to D.L. Clayman). Although she draws attention to repeated elements in the poems, her case for the use of “key words” and “conscious reference points” in classical women’s poetry remains suggestive rather than convincing. For example, she notes the use of ἐβάς, “left, sailed away” by Sappho (following Homer) to describe Helen’s desertion of Menelaus, suggesting that the occurrence of the word in Anyte and Erinna are deliberate echoes of that context. Bainein is a very common Greek word (as are her other examples tiktein and teuchein), and such a resonance may seem far-fetched, particularly as in Anyte’s epigram on Philainis the context is death, while in Erinna’s “Distaff” the word has been introduced by conjecture. However, B. might have noted that in Stesichorus’ “palinode” ( PMG 192) oud’ ebas en nousin euselmois echoes both Homer and presumably his own earlier (lost) poem about Helen. The word’s occurrence in Corinna’s “Myrtis” (B. no. 17, PMG 664a) also merits a mention, especially as B.’s translation avoids the straightforward interpretation “I myself blame Myrtis in that, a woman, she entered into competition with Pindar”. Instead,

Myrtis is to blame
Myrtis I say—
she strayed into Pindar’s strife-torn songs

Hints at the possibility that eba is used with ironic associations to subvert the common Greek assumption of women’s culpability in “straying” into men’s territory.

The weakness of B.’s polemical stance is often apparent from her own efforts to maintain it. In her defence of Anyte’s epigrams against what she appears to construe as attacks from all sides, she complains (in terms whose imagery reflects the assumption of aggressive intent) that “Gilbert Highet’s truncated entry in the Oxford Classical Dictionary manages a double-edged “charming””. Another critic who detected “masculine” tendencies in Anyte’s work “finds a surprising ally in the feminist scholar Marilyn Skinner”, while “the ostensibly sympathetic Sylvia Barnard sees the poet primarily as ‘a wife and mother’.” After this build-up, B.’s own view comes as something of a let-down: “Patriarchal lackey or purveyor of domestic whimsy? Interestingly, Anyte’s art lies in her ability to straddle the two”. This unflattering image is hardly redeemed by B.’s subsequent observation that “Anyte’s own poetics, too, are stunning”, where we might expect an acknowledgement of the broader context of Hellenistic literary sophistication in which the devices such as onomatopoeia and alliteration, to which she alludes, were part of the stock-in-trade of poets and epigrammatists.

B. approaches the question of translation from the viewpoint of a contemporary feminist, frequently cross-referencing themes with those of 20th-century female poets and noting correspondences with the methods of the latter and even their linguistic usages. Whilst this has the advantage of extending the scope both for interpreting and translating the poetry, the usefulness of B.’s comparisons is not always clear. We learn, for example, in connection with Erinna’s “Distaff”, that “memories of childhood are also used by many modern women poets, for example, Carolyn Forche’s ‘As Children Together'”. Assuming that the latter is not deliberately recalling Erinna (or Sappho), is B. implying that the recall of childhood has particular significance for women rather than men, or that certain themes may be specific poetic archetypes for women writers? Childhood memories is one of the recurring themes and images B. lists in her introduction as constituting women’s distinctive voice in classical poetry, themes which include the Muses, deities such as Artemis or Aphrodite, laments, and “last, but by no means least, love”. One might suppose these themes to be central to classical poetry as a whole (and to the subsequent tradition), not only or even especially to women’s poetic concerns. B.’s choice of contemporary women’s poetry as a point of reference also raises the question whether the gulf in socio-political and literary contexts between ancient and (post)modern times undermines the appropriateness of the parallel (a comparison with the preoccupations of female poets of the 18th and 19th centuries might be more illuminating).

B. asks “How far should accepted judgements of relative literary worth be considered, judgements which place Sappho at the top of the literary pantheon, and Julia Balbilla or Melinno firmly at its base?” (p. 21). In attempting to provide the basis for the literary rehabilitation of Sappho’s poetic successors and potentially raise them to a status equivalent to their role-model, B. has taken on an ambitious task. Even in translation, Sappho’s poetry seems to outshine all the others in originality, depth and directness. In developing the idea of a poetic sisterhood spanning millennia, B. feels the need to contest the less favorable assessments of classical scholars (both male and female), some of whom she accuses of “seeking to devalue women’s poetry”. Such critics have detected, often in comparison with Sappho’s brilliance and originality, a lack of skill or imagination in the way women poets are seen to handle traditional forms and subjects. B., however, seeks to characterise all the poetesses’ efforts in positive and even defiant terms, consistently crediting them with “revisionist myth-making” and the “subversion of male literary forms”. This view verges on attributing an implausibly uniform proto-feminist consciousness to the disparate women poets, in contrast to other feminist interpreters who, as B. notes, prefer to stress the inescapability of ‘phallogocentric’ structures ( sic, the word is a Derridean coinage combining “phallocentric” and “logocentric”) and find in the use of traditional myths or male-oriented themes evidence for the absence or suppression of women’s own forms of discourse in their poetry.

The way in which male-oriented subjects are handled by women poets might provide a basis for judgements about their subversive poetic intentions. B. interprets the fragment of Corinna on the abduction of Asopus’ daughters as “emphasising his grief and sense of loss like Sappho’s wedding poems, insisting on the emotional value women might hold in a society in which they were often indispensable bartering tools”. For this reading B. must depend heavily on the sense derived from a brief lacunose phrase ( kh lou[pas appaue] phrenas), for which she proposes the dramatic translation “let your mind lie fallow from its scything grief.” This overtranslation is perhaps in line with B.’s determination to throw off what she describes as “the shackles of feminine ‘fidelity'”. She also instils a high emotional tone into contexts where it seems alien to the spirit of the original, as in the case of some of the epigrams of Moero, Anyte, and Nossis (whose work B. considers to be “poetry of the highest seriousness”). Where Moero addresses a cluster of plucked grapes “No more shall your mother put forth a honeyed leaf above your head”, B. wrings out the pathetic fallacy with her translation “Your mother-vine … won’t hold your head again between her scented leaves”. Similarly, Erinna’s simple rebuke baskanos eis, Aidos hardly seems to merit the portentous “Hades, you sell your souls to envy”. However, it is a pleasure to savour her strikingly effective expansion of the pregnant epithets kalligenethle philoxene mesophileite in Corinna’s invocation to Thespeia:

your daughters are fair
your lovers, strangers
and your strangers, loved;
the Muses hold you in their hearts

As this example shows, B. makes good use of contemporary typographical strategies, which can also have a marked effect on the tone of her translations. Thus, for a single line from Praxilla’s Achilles, which echoes Homer verbatim and translates literally as “but I [or they] never swayed the spirit within your breast”, we are given

an anger in your heart
beyond entreaty, beyond hope

The staggered lines on the page and the repeated “beyond” add a sense of despairing pathos that adds life and individuality to the quotation. A similar aim is evident in B.’s ingenious juxtaposition of fragments and testimonia (why is there no chapter on Myrtis, for whom a substantial testimonium exists?), a technique which adds interest and readability to scraps with little or no context, even if the implication of continuity is misleading and possibly tendentious. From the following sequence of unrelated fragments, a reader might be expected to infer that Corinna sought to make a positive poetic statement regarding her feminine subject-matter by contrast with her contemporary Pindar:

As for you Pindar,/ you spoke the Greek/ of city and state:/ the language of the market-place ( PMG 688) But I sang the glory of local heroes/ hurrahed in our heroines: (PMG 664b) [of] Metioche and Menippe/ [great Orion’s fearless daughters/ shooting stars across the skies] ( PMG 656) [or of Antiope] of Hyria/ daughter of this earth/ a land fit for dances ( PMG 669) etc.

Intimacy with the poets’ words might help the translator achieve a fidelity to sensibility and nuance rather than to sense alone. B acknowledges that it can also distort a more balanced assessment. She writes “I found qualities to admire even in the most derided of writers”—qualities which she seeks to emphasise both in her translations and her comments on the authors. Whilst this approach has the advantage of urging readers in turn to re-assess each of the poems and authors for a literary merit often denied them, B. risks subordinating critical opinion to her attempt to find in all the poets’ work qualities that might be judged on the same level as Sappho’s. Her desire to see them all “in the best possible light” not only results in a clear reluctance to voice any criticisms of her own, but occasionally in an unnecessary rejection of others’ (including feminist scholars’) attempts to do so. When she singles out for praise poetic strategies which are found (and might merit praise) in poets of both sexes, her insistence on the poets’ quasi-feminist credentials leads to claims about their poetic intentions for which the poetry itself offers dubious support. She also employs the strange device of repeating criticisms which she proceeds, sometimes half-heartedly, to contest or reject on other grounds. Of Melinno’s Hymn to Roma we learn “Even Melinno’s apologists point to her lack of poetic distinction, detailing her turgid style and epic stiffness. Yet, if stilted, her poem is more complex than might at first appear…” The effect, unfortunate if unintended, is to damn with faint praise those she seeks to defend.

In translating classical women’s poems and fragments, B.’s declared aim is “to make it work as poetry”. While she is keen to avoid giving the impression of an “ineptitude based on gender”, B. is clearly aware that the impact of the original can also be disguised or obscured in English. The specialist alone is likely to be alert to some of the subtle and not so subtle ways in which B.’s translations support the position she holds regarding the intentions and literary qualities of her subjects. Even those sympathetic to her general aim may feel that translator’s license is taken to the limit in pursuit of that objective. But it is undeniable that the cumulative effect of her often over-generous translations, combined with her lively observations and insights into both the poetry and her own efforts, will encourage readers to look further than they previously might have done, and to re-assess for themselves the merits of classical women’s poetry. Mindful that women poets might choose to speak in voices that were neither Sappho’s nor even (like the Pythia herself, whose utterances are not included here) truly their own, classical scholars will undoubtedly take issue both with B.s conclusions and with the details and general tenor of her translations. But in seeking to recover the voices of classical women, the first requirement, ably accomplished by this volume, is to recall them from the obscurity in which throughout history they have been allowed to languish, and to take a stand against their continued marginalisation by reasserting, in B.’s words, their very presence.

1. As in, for example, Women’s Life in Greece & Rome by M.R. Lefkowitz and M. B. Fant (London 1982).

2. Sappho: Poems and Fragments, Josephine Balmer (Bloodaxe Books 1992).