BOOKS AND ARTS MAY 23, 1994
Sappho: A Garland
The Poems and Fragments of Sappho
Translated by Jim Powell
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 65 pp., $15)
The Laughter of Aphrodite:
A Novel about Sappho of Lesbos
By Peter Green
(University of California Press, 274 pp., $22)
The "garland" of Jim Powell's felicitous translation of Sappho is a tattered remnant. It might well have been subtitled The Poem and Fragments of Sappho, for there is only one poem in the book that we can be reasonably sure is complete, the playful summons to Aphrodite that stands at its head. There is one other poem—the famous description of the physical symptoms of Sappho's desire and jealousy as she watches a young woman charm a man with the sweetness of her voice and laughter ("… a subtle fire races inside my skin, my/eyes can't see a thing…")—that we would have thought complete if our source, the treatise On the Sublime, had not gone on to quote the beginning of another stanza. Most of our texts, like these two, are quotations that appear in the work of men writing many centuries after Sappho's time, but unlike these two, they are for the most part distressingly short—phrases with little or no context, a few lines offered to illustrate a discussion of meter, dialect, style or grammar, single words cited by lexicographers.
Since the final decades of the nineteenth century, our knowledge of Sappho's poetry has been significantly enriched by fragments that come directly from ancient editions of her work. They are not written on the parchment used by medieval scribes, but on what were once papyrus scrolls and are now holed and ragged scraps found in archaeological digs in Egypt, most of them in the rubbish heaps of a provincial city called Oxyrhynchus.
These new texts have brought us great riches, but also problems and frustrations. Even the longest consecutive manuscripts have gaps. Some of these gaps occur in the middle of a poem, as in the famous poem about the host of cavalry, infantry and ships—or fade off inconclusively and tantalizingly at the end, like the poem of yearning and regret that begins: "Honest, I wish I were dead." Many have only the ends or the beginnings of lines, like the one that Ezra Pound printed under the title "Papyrus" in his Lustra (though it is actually, for once, a parchment, not a papyrus fragment):
Sometimes, however, the new fragments add to passages preserved in the medieval manuscript tradition. For example, fifteen lines written on a potsherd of the third century B.C. transform two separate quotations from writers of the second century A.D.—Athenaeus of Alexandria and Hermogenes of Tarsus—into a solid remnant of a hymn to Aphrodite, summoning her to Lesbos from Crete. And one small scrap, published in 1965, completed the final line of Sappho's description of her jealous frenzy as she watched a man and a young woman intent on each other. The text in On the Sublime—"I seem to be little short of dying"—has two syllables, or perhaps three syllables, missing after the word phainomai, "I seem." Scholars tried to fill the gap by various expedients. The papyrus, a torn scrap from a commentary on Sappho, quotes the passage as phainom' emautai—"I seem to myself…"—a solution that now seems obvious, but occurred to no one.
Even with the papyrus finds, the total number of intelligible verses that we have is small. Powell's Garland, a translation of "all the surviving poems and fragments … that make consecutive sense, however brief, torn or abruptly interrupted," offers us no more than some 500 lines. The loss has been enormous. We know that the library in Alexandria, in the third century B.C., possessed a complete text of Sappho in nine papyrus rolls; the first and largest of them contained a total of 1,320 lines, arranged in the four-line stanza that still bears her name.
Papyrus book-rolls, especially if shielded from the effects of damp, and if not read too often (constant unrolling weakens the fibers), can last a long time; we have accounts of readers consulting papyrus books that were 300 years old. But such occasions must have been rare, otherwise we would not have accounts of them. Texts not transferred to hardier but more expensive parchment, which became the standard medium for book production in the fourth century A.D., were hardly likely to survive the millennium that elapsed before the first printing of ancient Greek texts in Venice during the last quarter of the fifteenth century. And even those so transferred might be erased to make the expensive parchment available for material considered more desirable.
Like most of the lyric poets of archaic Greece, Sappho was passed over as the canon of ancient writers who were judged essential for educational purposes came into being. In addition to the classic authors, however, the scribes of Byzantium copied and preserved for us such second- if not third-rate poets as Oppian, whose verse treatise on hunting was so admired by the Roman emperor Caracalla that he rewarded the poet with a gold piece for every one of its 2,100 lines. Meanwhile the last remaining texts of Sappho crumbled on disintegrating papyrus or were scrubbed off parchment to make room for what the Byzantine authorities considered higher things.
John Tzetzes, an erratic but voluminously productive Byzantine scholar of the twelfth century, describes "Sappho, her lyre and her songs" with a phrase that means something like "accidental victims of the passage of time." A scholarly churchman known as Michael of Italy, writing in the first half of the twelfth century, refers to Sappho's wedding songs in terms that suggest an acquaintance with a text. But if there was a text still available, it must have perished, together with so much else, in 1204, when the Christian city of Byzantium surrendered to a besieging army of Venetians, Franks and Flemings, in a piratical expedition known as the Fourth Crusade. The victorious commanders gave their troops carte blanche to rob, rape, burn and kill for three days; and in the massacres and destruction that followed, churches were desecrated and libraries were burned.
It is not hard to understand the Byzantine lack of interest in Sappho's poetry. She wrote, like her contemporary, Alcaeus, in the Aeolic dialect of her native island, and this was no recommendation in a culture that was trying desperately, as the spoken language changed with the passing of the centuries, to maintain, at least in written documents, the purity of the Attic prose of Plato and Demosthenes. Worse still, her principal theme, one might almost say her obsessive theme, was passionate love—"Eros the Limb-loosener … sweet, bitter, impossible creature"—and this was anathema to a culture dominated by monastic ideals, especially since the love of which Sappho sings so graphically and so forcefully is not the love of women for men, but the love of women for women.
Sappho's songs are full of women's names: Gongyla, Anaktoria, Athis, Abanthis, Dika, Irana, Gorgo, Andromeda, Mnasidika, Gyrinno, Mika, Megara, Doricha, Archeanassa. This creates an atmosphere worlds apart from that of classical fifth-century Athens, where even in lawsuits, in which their property might be the issue, women's names were never mentioned. In democratic Athens the tone was set by Pericles' advice to the widows and the mothers of the men whose glorious death in battle he was celebrating: that they should be "least the subject of report among men, for good or evil." The less said about them, in other words, the better.
Still, women on Lesbos in the sixth century, at least the women of the aristocratic families that governed the island, seem to have made their voices clearly heard and their persons visible. Alcaeus, in exile from the capital city of Mitylene during one of the political upheavals of the time, bewails his isolation in the country and misses the sight of "the women of Lesbos going to and fro in their trailing robes in a contest of beauty" in the precinct of the goddess Hera. And Sappho's conception of women's place in society is the exact opposite of the Periclean ideal of silence and anonymity. She threatens a rich, uncultured woman with precisely the limbo Athenian women were consigned to—"When you lie dead there will be no memory of you…"—and expects her poetic celebration of her loves to keep her name alive for future generations: "I think that someone will remember us in another time."
Except for the epithalamia, which were songs written for the celebration of a marriage, the fragments locate us in a strictly female world, a world in which Sappho sings "to delight my women friends," in which female alliances form and dissolve—"But Attis, to you the thought of me grows/hateful, and you fly off to Andromeda"—and in which, time and again, Sappho longingly remembers an absent love—"Always her thoughts turn, longing to come where we/also think of her…." The women addressed, praised or longed for in these fragments seem to belong to some kind of association; and the implied context often suggests some form of communal living:
Please, Abanthis, your Sappho calls you: won't you take this Lydian lyre and play another song to Gongyla while desire still flutters your heart-strings for that girl, that beautiful girl, her dress's clinging makes you shake when you see it ….
The nature of this community has been the subject of much speculation. Some have imagined it as a religious cult devoted to the worship of Aphrodite, who is summoned, in one of the fragments, to leave Crete and join in "the gladness of our festivities." Others, particularly German scholars who took their cue from the passionate defense of Sappho as a virtuous wife and mother developed by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf in his denunciation of Pierre Louys's sapphic fiction Les Chansons de Bilitis, saw it as a sort of school for young ladies: Sappho as the teacher of young girls, training them in music and poetry and the graces that would make them desirable brides.
For this prim scenario Denys Page, the Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge and an acidulous critic, had nothing but contempt. Sappho's feeling for her younger companions, he insisted in 1955, was "a lover's passion, not sisterly affection or maternal benevolence" and the "union of cult-association and girls' academy under the presidency of Sappho" was a fiction that found no support either in the fragments or in the external sources. The first of these two statements—"a lover's passion"—is now generally accepted, but the second—"no support … in the external evidence"—has been undermined by the appearance of a papyrus dated to the middle years of the second century A.D. It is a fragment of a commentary on Sappho. "…But she," it says, "educating in peace and quiet the noblest girls not only from the local families but also from families in Ionia. And [she was] so highly regarded among her fellow citizens that Callias of Mitylene said in…" This Callias, as we know from other sources, wrote a commentary on Sappho in the second century B.C., and the appearance of his name in this context lends a certain respectability to the statement about Sappho's activity as a teacher.
Whatever the social context may have been, it fostered a passionate intensity in Sappho's relations with her female companions. And she gave voice to this passion in a language that has no parallel in Greek literature in its frankness, its declarative simplicity and its melody and subtle rhythmic effects."The euphony and charm of this passage," says Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a literary critic of the first century B.C., citing the hymn to Aphrodite, "lies in the cohesion and smoothness of the joinery.Words are juxtaposed and interwoven according to certain natural affinities and groupings of the letters…." The Sapphic impression of emotion poured out in unpremeditated speech is the product of sophisticated art.
Such poetry confronts the translator with a formidable challenge. The charm of the Aeolic dialect, of course, has to be written off as a loss at once; we are fortunate that no one has tried to give us a Sappho singing in the Lowland Scots of Robert Burns or the rustic Dorset sometimes indulged by Thomas Hardy. Sappho's lyric meters, however, are another matter. The stunning impact of her poetic statement depends in large part on her manipulation of the constraints imposed by strict metrical patterns. The most famous of these patterns is the one named after her: the Sapphic stanza.It is a sequence of three eleven-syllable lines. Each line is built around a choriamb, a foot consisting of two long syllables enclosing two short ones (the English schoolboy's mnemonic is "mother-in-law"), followed by a dactylic-spondaic close ("shave and a haircut"). In ancient Greek the patterns are based on the time it takes to pronounce each syllable; the schoolboy mnemonics, as is the way of English verse, depend on stress, which played no role in ancient Greek speech. A Sapphic stanza based on stress has often been tried by poets writing in English. Swinburne came close to reproducing the effect but, as so often, the content of his lines was insubstantial and sometimes close to nonsense.
In any case, a complicated and tightly organized stress pattern repeated in a sequence is a form alien to English verse. English Sapphics tend to sound monotonous, even slightly comic. One of the most successful sets of English Sapphics, in fact, is the satiric dialogue entitled The Needy Knife-Grinder, which George Canning published in The Anti-Jacobin in 1797. (It was a parody of a sentimental poem in the same meter, The Widow, by Robert Southey.) In Canning's dialogue, The Friend of Humanity addresses the needy knife-grinder:
Needy Knife-grinder! whither are you going? Rough is the road, your wheel is out of order—Bleak blows the blast; your hat has got a hole in't, So have your breeches.
The Friend of Humanity asks the knife- grinder how he came to such poverty. Was he a victim of oppression, by a rich man, the squire, the parson or an attorney? Has he not "read The Rights of Man by Tom Paine?" He prepares to shed floods of tears as he listens to the knife-grinder's "pitiful story." But the knife-grinder disappoints him. "Story? God bless you! I have none to tell, sir…." He got into an argument and a fight at the local pub, was arrested and put in the stocks. He will be glad to drink to the Philanthropist's health if given sixpence, "But for my part, I never love to meddle/with politics, sir." The Friend of Humanity is outraged.
I give thee sixpence! I will see thee damn'd first—Wretch! whom no sense of wrongs can rouse to vengeance; Sordid, unfeeling, reprobate, degraded, Spiritless outcast! (Kicks the knife-grinder, overturns his wheel and exits in a transport of Republican enthusiasm and universal philanthropy.)
This comic example of Sappho's metric adapted for the English ear highlights the problem facing the translator who uses the verse form and hopes to preserve the lyric tone of the original: the strict pattern is so different from the norms of English versification that he has to steer a difficult course between overemphasis, with a resultant jigging and potentially comic effect, and oversubtlety, which may produce lines where the pattern is hardly perceptible, even for those familiar with it in Greek. Jim Powell is fully aware of the dangers, and in an afterword he speaks of the "fluidity, ease, grace and melodic variety" of Sappho's measures and identifies her "secret" as "keeping her caesura moving"; in her lines the caesura, a pause in midverse, "seldom falls in the same place in two consecutive lines."
Powell has tried to reproduce the effect in such stanzas as:
She's not here, 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.
Here he also follows Sappho's practice of frequent enjambment that converts the separate line units into an unbroken flow of discourse. This is a feature of her style that was praised, as Powell points out, by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in his discussion of the "polished style," in which "the words … keep on the move, swept forward … like the current of a stream that never rests," a style that "sets out to … interweave its component parts and to make them convey, as far as possible, the effect of a single utterance."
Dionysius also speaks of the euphony of the verses he quotes—the juxtaposition and interweaving of words "according to certain natural affinities and groupings of the letters." The translator must contrive to create the euphony using the resources of his or her own language, but Powell occasionally gives us an approximation to Sappho's own sound, as in the first line of the hymn:
Artfully adorned Aphrodite, deathless child of Zeus and weaver of wiles I beg you…
The repeated a sounds of athanat' Aphrodita in the first line are reproduced and the alliteration in the second line gives us a faint echo of the patterns of p, d and l in Sappho's pai Dios doloploke lissomai se.
Scholarly editions of Sappho's poems usually arrange them in the books to which they were assigned in the Alexandrian library, but how Sappho may have arranged them we cannot guess. Like many translators before him, Powell has devised his own pattern:
an integrated collage or mosaic, playing off modernist techniques of poetic sequence, fragmentary montage and stream of consciousness to create a cumulative movement that points to the integrity of her work as the surviving fragments disclose it. By allowing the briefer fragments to create contexts for one another, this permits them to convey more poetic sense than they can in isolation or at random….
The resulting book is a brilliant success. Powell has shored her fragments against her ruins to give us a garland in which the flowers, though tattered, have not faded.
One of Powell's afterwords is a short account of what we know about Sappho's life. The ancient sources provide little information. Of that little information, some is suspect, some is contradictory, some of it is fiction and some is the product of desperate confusion, like the eight different names suggested for her father in the late Byzantine encyclopedia, the Suda. In the fragments of her poems she mentions two brothers, Charaxus and Larichus, as well as her daughter, Kleis, named after Sappho's mother. For the name of her husband we have to fall back on the Suda, which supplies us with the name Kerkylos and identifies him as a merchant from the island of Andros. The name occurs nowhere else, and kerkos is a coarse Greek term, (one of many) for the male member; since Andros, besides being the name of an island is also the genitive case of the Greek word for "man," the combination sounds like an off-color joke—"Mr. Prick from the Isle of Man," as D.A. Campbell deftly translates it in the new Loeb Library edition of Sappho and Alcaeus. Since we know of six Athenian comedies titled Sappho, in one of which the poets Archilochus of Paros and Hipponax of Ephesus, in defiance of topography, chronology and sexual preference, were presented as lovers of Sappho, it seems more than possible that the name Kerkylos may be the invention of an Athenian comic poet of the fourth century B.C. From a much more reliable source, an inscription from the island of Paros dated to 263 B.C., we learn that at some point in her life (the date is missing on the stone) Sappho took ship and went into exile at Syracuse in Sicily.
Out of this potpourri of gossip and truth, of ignorant guesswork and satirical invention, Peter Green has fashioned a novel, The Laughter of Aphrodite, that takes the form of an autobiographical memoir written by Sappho in the last months of her life. He is not the first writer to have used Sappho's life as material for fiction. Jean Dejean's Fictions of Sappho, 1548-1937 is an absorbing exploration of the fantastic visions, ranging from the hilarious to the appalling, that the subject has generated in the minds of dramatists, poets, novelists and scholars over the years. What is perhaps Dejean's prize exhibit, La Derniere Journee de Sappho, a novel by Gabriel Faure (not the composer) published in 1901, has the heroine in a bed with posts that are "sculptures of oversized male organs," dressed in a tunic with "three openings" that "leave naked points where Sappho desires lips to linger…." She is dressing for a festival of Aphrodite where she will recite an ode to the goddess "as a prelude to the festival's opening ritual, the deflowering of six Lesbian virgins."
But Green is a noted historian. He is the author of a biography of Alexander that has the pace and the excitement of a novel but draws on great learning and acute source criticism to present a much darker picture of the great Macedonian conqueror than the mildly critical panegyrics to which we have become accustomed. He has also written Alexander to Actium, a brilliant re-creation of the whole range of Hellenistic civilization, the 300 years in which the Greeks ruled the Near East until Cleopatra's Egypt, the last holdout, fell to the Romans. Green is also a brilliant translator of Greek and Latin poetry—Ovid, Juvenal, Apollonius Rhodius—and a provocative and witty essayist on classical themes; readers in search of lively reassessments of ancient authors and their modern interpreters should try his Essays in Antiquity (1960), The Shadow of the Parthenon (1972) and Classical Bearings (1989).And he has had the good fortune (or the good judgment) to have lived for several years on Lesbos in the days before the arrival of the fleets of jumbo jets that now, all summer long, fill the hotels and the beaches with northern tourists in search of a sunburn.
Green's novel about Sappho, first published in England in 1965 and now reissued by the University of California Press, is a splendidly imagined re-creation of the historical context of Sappho's life on Lesbos around the turn of the sixth century B.C. He compares his task to that of "an archaeologist reassembling some amphora from hundreds of shards—of which more than half are missing." Perhaps a better comparison would be to a person trying to reconstitute a jigsaw puzzle out of a pile of pieces containing only a quarter of the right ones and more than a few that may belong to a different puzzle. We have ancient notices, for example, of "another Sappho" on Lesbos, who was not a poet but a courtesan.
Sappho's fragments give no hint of the fact, but she lived in an age of social and political turmoil. The poems of her fellow citizen, Alcaeus, resound with the clash of arms raised in civil war, and with the strident hatreds of factional strife. The issues and even the line-up of the contestants are far from clear in our meager sources: fragments of Alcaeus's partisan lyrics (stasiotica); historical details, often without context, cited in Aristotle's Politics; and papyrus fragments of commentaries on Alcaeus's poems. Popular agitation against the oppressive rule of aristocratic clans, probably backed by an increasingly wealthy merchant class excluded from power, seems to have resulted in civil war. This war ended only after the citizens of Mitylene, weary of the incessant turmoil, elected a man named Pittacus to an office Aristotle calls a "dictatorship over willing people." Pittacus sent Alcaeus and his associates into exile.
It may have been at this time that Sappho set sail for Syracuse. There is no hint in her fragments of any political activity, or of any interest in politics. It was probably through the involvement of members of her family that she was "caught," in Louis MacNeice's phrase, "in the eternal factions and reactions/of the city-state." Pittacus turned out to be a benevolent despot. Despite the personal insults Alcaeus hurled at him in song—"pot-belly, low-born"—he spared the poet's life when he was captured in a fruitless attempt to overthrow the regime. Pittacus resigned his office at the end of his appointed term and was later numbered among the Seven Wise Men of Greece.
Out of this unpromising material Green has constructed a convincing and fascinating tale of intrigue, conspiracy and war. As a historian he bases his narrative on what facts are certain or probable, but as a novelist he makes connections and invents characters that have no authority except his own imagination. Where Clio leaves him in the lurch, he has recourse to Calliope, the epic muse. The result is irresistible. The figures that emerge dimly from the papyrus scraps come vibrantly to life: a cynical, knowing Alcaeus; his tough brother Antimenidas; a Pittacus whose outward bluff honesty masks a subtle, if well-intentioned, conspirator. Kerkylos, of whom we know nothing except his suspicious name, is introduced late in the story and soon polished off, killed in an ambush. There are also some invented characters who are as large as life. One of them, Sappho's aunt Helen, is billed as a "historical character with fictitious name (real name unknown)" and provided with a "fictitious relationship," namely a marriage to Pittacus, who is even larger, a brilliant creation and a dominating figure in the tangled skein of Sappho's destiny.
All these figures are seen through Sappho's eyes, as, facing her end, she tries to make sense of her life. Like many successful historical novelists of recent years, Green assumes the persona of his protagonist: Wilder as Julius Caesar, Graves as Claudius, Yourcenar as Hadrian, Vidal as Julian the Apostate. Like Yourcenar, Green assumes the mask of the opposite sex, but Green has taken much greater risks. Yourcenar's Hadrian relives in his memoirs a life of imperial power, and sometimes the record of administrative problems and architectural projects is heavy going for the reader. The one real passion of his life, his love for the young Bithynian Antinous, whose death in the Nile he commemorated by establishing Antinous's worship as a god, is disposed of in a few short chapters that give barely a hint that the relationship was physical as well as emotional. But Green has a much more difficult role to play: Byron's "burning Sappho" ("my heart is burning with desire" she wrote, and "a subtle fire races inside my skin") is especially complicated since the fire that races under the skin of this wife and mother is passion for younger women.
With all the deference proper for a mere male assessing the success of such an endeavor in this era of gender sensitivity, it seems to me that Green has given us moving and convincing images of Sappho's loves and hates, her victories and defeats in the service of Aphrodite, the goddess whom she summons to her aid as an ally in what we know was the first poem in the Alexandrian edition. The physical aspect of these love affairs is not avoided, but it is handled with a grace and a discretion that give it a kind of purity. For the emotions, Green has Sappho herself to draw on; he weaves phrases from the fragments into Sappho's prose account of her life. He brilliantly evokes a phase of Greek civilization that was unique in the freedom of action and expression that it allowed to women, and he nostalgically re-creates the sights, scents and sounds of Lesbos, a place that was still, when he lived there, "of all the Aegean islands" the one that "has perhaps changed least since ancient times."
The most controversial item in the novel is the manner of Sappho's death. It is based on the only ancient account that we have, which tells us that Sappho killed herself in spectacular fashion for the love of a young man called Phaon. This story has been almost unanimously rejected by the scholarly world. (It can be traced back as far as the Athenian comic dramatist Menander of the fourth century B.C., and it is discussed by Strabo, the geographer of the Roman Empire, who quotes the Menander passage in his description of the white cliff at Leucas, on the west coast of Greece.) A leap into the sea from this cliff was supposed to "put an end to love," and Sappho was, according to Menander, the first to take it: "in her pursuit of haughty Phaon she threw herself, tormented by desire, from the cliff."
Strabo goes on to describe what he calls an "ancestral custom among the Leucadians": at an annual celebration in the temple of Apollo on the cliff top, a criminal was thrown down from the lookout point "in order to turn away evil." All kinds of wings and birds were tied to him to help break his fall by their fluttering action, and men in small boats waited below to try to rescue him and take him safely to foreign soil. Such a scapegoat rite has many parallels in ancient accounts of still earlier times, but it raises doubts about the truth of the Sappho story. As for Phaon, the young sailor with whom Sappho is supposed to have fallen in love late in her life, our few ancient references to him portray a mythological figure rather than a real one: a boatman who in his old age gave Aphrodite, disguised as an old woman, free passage and received in return the gift of renewed youth, or a young man with whom Aphrodite fell in love and, for reasons not explained, hid in a bed of lettuce.
Green accepts the story of Phaon and the fatal leap. Sappho writes the final pages of her memoir at Leucas, where her ship has made a stop on its way to Sicily, where she hopes to see Phaon and to regain his love. But she overhears seamen talking at dockside and learns that Phaon has been killed by the husband of one of the many women he has seduced. She makes her preparations to climb, the next day, to the temple of Apollo on the cliff top. "I have been wary of modern myths," Green writes in an afterword to his novel,
though I hope I have treated ancient ones with respect. For centuries it has been a favorite pastime among scholars and others to prove (to their own if no one else's satisfaction) that Sappho could not have been a lesbian, in the modern sense of the word; could not have committed suicide; and could not, for good measure, have had an affair in late middle-age with a boatman.
Green's most detailed source is the skillful version of the story found in Sappho's letter to Phaon in Ovid's Heroides. It is one of a series of fictional letters written by women (all the others are mythological) to lovers who have abandoned them. What sources Ovid was using we do not know; he may have had evidence, now lost, that went farther back than Menander. (The letter gives one new piece of information, that may be reliable, to the effect that Sappho's father died when she was 6 years old.) It is written with Ovid's usual rhetorical skill and emotional flair, and it creates a convincing psychological portrait of a woman who late in her life has lost her heart to a younger man and has been callously abandoned.
There is no other account of Sappho's death. The historian may prefer silence, but the novelist must invent a fresh one or use what is at hand. We have little of Sappho's poetry, and we know even less about her life, but in the light of what little we do know, the passionate attachment to a younger man and the leap from the cliff seem improbable. Still, Green has made them part of the pattern of Sappho's life, which he sees as one devoted to the goddess Aphrodite. Early in that life Sappho's aunt Helen takes her to a ceremony in the temple of Aphrodite, where she sees for the first time the image of the goddess. In a vision the face smiles at her—"a soft, amused, enigmatic smile"—and calls her by her name. Sappho feels that she has been chosen to serve the goddess, that her acceptance of Aphrodite's service has released in her a gift, "the sacrament of song, the sweet agony of creation."
Her aunt warns her that the gifts of Aphrodite can be dangerous, a warning that Sappho only understands fully forty years later when, deserted by Phaon, she sees, in the little shrine of Aphrodite in her own house, "the smile on the goddess's face … shadowed, foam-cold, with … the cruelty of the sea in it…." Aphrodite has played "her last, most merciless trick" on Sappho, inspiring her middle-aged passion for Phaon and bringing about his departure and death. The smile of the goddess has become the "cold laughter of immortal, devious Aphrodite as she moves her pawn across the board." But the leap from the white cliff is part of Sappho's declaration of independence from the goddess she has served so long.
Green rounds off the document by printing, in the original Greek, the fragment that runs, in Powell's translation, "I think that someone will remember us in another time." Anyone who reads this informed and imaginative re-creation of Sappho and her world will find it hard to forget.
Bernard Knox was an American classicist whose books include The Oldest Dead White European Males: And Other Reflections On The Classics.