BMCR 2008.01.19

The Poetry of Sappho

, , The poetry of Sappho. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (53 pages). ISBN 9780198043782 $13.95 (pb).

The publication of the ‘New Sappho’ has been cause for much excitement. This translated collection of Sappho’s poetry is clearly an attempt to extend this excitement to a wider readership than just Classical scholars; the book is not aimed at specialists. To the Greekless reader with a curiosity about Sappho, the back-cover blurb will sound enticing: ‘This book is the only available edition that includes the new poem in English translation, and thus offers the most complete introduction to this most remarkable poet.’ Yet blurb-readers interested to learn more about Sappho and the new poem would do better to trawl the internet than flick through these pages. In all fairness to the Greekless enthusiast spurred on to buy this volume by the promising-sounding back cover, more in the way of introductory and supplementary comment should have been included. Contrary to the blurb’s claim, this is far from being ‘the most complete introduction’ to Sappho available, and certainly a reading list for a university class on Sappho could omit this book. That said, many of Jim Powell’s translations read well and they are, on the whole, fairly faithful to the Greek. For some, the book’s portability thanks to its compact size may recommend it.

A brief ‘Translator’s Note’ begins the volume: here Powell explains only that, with a few exceptions, he has followed the text of Lobel and Page (why not Voigt?)1 and that square brackets and gaps indicate the original is in fragmentary state. Next are the translations themselves: Powell has included a large selection of Sappho’s fragments in English translation (113 in all, if I count correctly). These will be discussed in more detail below.

The next section, ‘Sappho of Lesbos’ (just over one page), includes a few details from the biographical tradition; a caveat for the Sappho neophyte is brief, but there: ‘Surviving biographical facts are few and are transmitted to us mixed up with the lore of fables and with bits of dramatic fiction’ (p.43). Another short section (under three pages) on ‘The Text of Sappho’s Poems’ looks at the transmission of Sappho’s poetry down to the modern day. Here Powell touches on the extent of Sappho’s work that is lost, her ‘obscure Aeolic’ as a reason for this great loss, the increase in our knowledge of her poetry since the early twentieth century through papyrus finds and through recent advances in photographic imaging techniques, and the recent publication of LP 58.

Finally, there is a brief bibliography of editions and commentaries and a very short section (three pages) of ‘Textual Notes’, where Powell sometimes justifies a particular translation, or indicates which editor’s conjecture he is following at a given point. These notes are sparse. To give an idea of their scope, for LP 1 the single comment is on his interpretation of the word ποικιλόθρον’, about which he says that he accepts Michael Putnam’s argument that it derives ‘not from thronos (‘throne’) but from throna (a ‘love charm’ attached to dress, perhaps embroidered)’ (p.51).2 Many fragments receive no comment in the ‘Textual Notes’ at all.

In his task of translating, Powell is fairly successful. The poems are idiomatic, often elegant, and usually stick closely but not obsessively to the Greek in meaning. When freedoms are taken, these are not always readily explicable, however. Nevertheless, the criticisms below should not obscure the fact that there are some nice translations in this volume.

A couple of examples by way of illustration will have to suffice. LP 16.17-20 he translates as follows: ‘and I’d rather see her lovely / step, her sparkling glance and her face than gaze on / all the troops in Lydia in their chariots and / glittering armor’. Powell adds ‘glittering’ to the description of the armour, where the Greek lacks an adjective, and this brings out well the point of the comparison: λάμπρον, which here describes κἀμάρυγμα … προσώπω, is normally used of armour, fire and heavenly bodies in non-dramatic poetry. However, Powell’s decision to translate κἀμάρυγμα λάμπρον … προσώπω as ‘her sparkling glance and her face’ instead of (say) ‘the sparkling glance of her face’ is less pleasing: the use of the abstract verbal nouns ( βᾶμα / κἀμάρυγμα) is, as Hutchinson has remarked, a striking way of drawing attention to Anactoria’s features, rather than her person, but with ‘and her face’ this abstraction immediately breaks down since face and person are so intimately entwined.3 For LP 31 the emphasis on the poet’s personal experience is forcefully conveyed with the opening ‘In my eyes he matches the gods’, which makes Campbell’s Loeb version, ‘He seems as fortunate as the gods to me’, ring rather lamely in comparison.4 At other times Powell is less successful, for instance with ‘the musk roses have overshadowed / all this ground and out of the flickering leafage / settles entrancement’ for LP 2.6-8.

This book is being marketed as the first collection to include the New Sappho in English translation, so a few comments on Powell’s efforts there are in order. Powell follows West’s text,5 except for in the controversial tenth line, where he retains the original editors’ reading ( ἐρωι δέπας εἰσομβάμεν’).6 Most of the translation is good enough; for instance, lines 5-7: ‘my spirit has grown heavy and my knees too weak / to carry me, that once were quick to dance as fawns. / I grumble at them often but what good is that?’ However, West’s supplementations in lines 1-2 are mistranslated: ‘The violet-lapped Muses’ lovely gifts belong / to you now, children …’ (instead of ‘Hurry/Strive, you, after the lovely gifts’ vel sim.). Powell renders lines 9-10 as follows: ‘They say that once, for love, Dawn of the rosy arms / carried Tithonos aboard her golden bowl to the world’s end …’ Here is one of many places where non-specialists will feel let down by the lack of even brief explanatory notes (‘What is this bowl, and who is Tithonos?’ many will wonder). The preposition ‘aboard’, which will no doubt often be misread as adverbial, does not help: this sounds more like flying-saucer travel than abduction to a love-nest.7

I do not wish to criticise this book for what it is not, but there are a couple more areas where what is omitted needs some comment. The back cover blurb claims that ‘the translations preserve the original meters and stanzas while replicating Sappho’s elegance and passion’, yet the book does not include any discussion of metre, or of the problems of recreating or representing in English the quantitative metres of Greek. The reader is obliged to try to work out for him or herself the nature of the metres and to guess at what Powell’s guiding principles in translating might have been. For instance, Powell translates the opening of LP 1 as follows: ‘Artfully adorned Aphrodite, deathless / child of Zeus and weaver of wiles I beg you / please don’t hurt me, don’t overcome my spirit, / goddess, with longing’. Here and throughout this poem Powell manages to retain the same number of syllables as in the Greek (11, 11, 11, 5). But to claim that the original metre is preserved (either quantitatively or as a stress rhythm in substitution for the quantitative metre of the Greek) is simply not true. Powell’s decision to retain the line lengths of the stanzas is one I like, but the Greekless audience for whom this volume seems intended is left in the dark about the metrical relationship between Powell’s version and the original. Even with strict syllable counts Powell is not altogether consistent: in LP 96, for instance, some lines are too short, and others too long. At other times his zealous attention to the number of syllables results in unfortunate changes in emphasis (e.g. the stanza break in ‘that best of || men’ (for τὸν [πανάριστον] LP 16.8). The unrealistic claim of the blurb might perhaps have been forgotten (for of unrealistic claims many blurbs are made) if only it had been tempered by some discussion explaining the translator’s method of approaching his difficult task.

Powell also never discusses the apparently homoerotic character of some of the poems or possible scenarios for their performance context. This is surprising to say the least, given that most readers new to Sappho, and especially when confronted with Manguin’s frontal nude woman on the cover, will immediately think ‘lesbianism!’. Many newcomers to Sappho will probably also be dissatisfied that a glossary of names is lacking (few non-Classicists nowadays could be expected to understand who is meant by ‘the Atreidai’ and ‘Thyone’s delightful son’ in LP 17, for instance).

The book is attractively presented with only a couple of typographical errors. Oddly, nineteen blank pages end the volume.


1. Lobel, E. and D. Page (eds.), Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta (Oxford, 1955). Voigt, E.-M. (ed.), Sappho et Alcaeus: Fragmenta (Amsterdam, 1971).

2. Putnam, M., ‘ Throna and Sappho 1.1′, CJ 56.2 (1960), 79-83. Putnam was not the first to propose a link between poikilothron’ and throna : for earlier bibliography see Putnam (1960), 82 n.3.

3. Hutchinson, G.O., Greek Lyric Poetry (Oxford, 2001), p.166.

4. Campbell, David A., Greek Lyric I (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982), p.79.

5. West, M.L., ‘The New Sappho’, ZPE 151 (2005), 1-9.

6. Gronewald, M., and R. Daniel, ‘Ein neuer Sappho-Papyrus’, ZPE 147 (2004), 1-8, and ‘Nachtrag zum neuen Sappho-Papyrus’, ZPE 149 (2004), 1-4.

7. For a recent defense of Gronewald and Daniel’s reading of line 10, see Calvert Watkins, ‘The Golden Bowl: Thoughts on the New Sappho and its Asianic Background’, CA 26.2 (2007), 305-325.