Sappho lived on the Aegean island of Lesbos around 600 BCE. She deserves to be remembered primarily as the first great song-writer of western civilization . That's "song-writer," not "poet," if by poet you mean someone who declaims in free verse. The ancient Greeks did not have poetry in that sense, or if they did, they called it oratory.
Sappho wrote songs, compositions in short stanzas meant to be sung to the tune of the lyre, the ancient guitar. She was a lyricist in the original sense of the word.
Little survives of Sappho's work. Her tunes have vanished completely. As far as we know, she never wrote them down. Some of her words are preserved in "fragments," quotations in other authors or literal fragments of ancient papyrus scrolls. There are only four really substantial fragments, ones that could pass for complete songs.
The melodies are gone, but the rhythms survive. Most of her poems were written in Sapphic stanzas: three rhythmically identical eleven-syllable lines followed by a five-syllable coda. Experts disagree on how such lines were meant to be performed – what sort of emphasis was given to which syllables – but it is clear that they were informed by a simple, repetitive rhythm. Furthermore, the words that fell into this rhythm were often interlocked by assonance, alliteration, and contraction. For instance, the first stanza of Sappho's "Hymn to Aphrodite," her longest surviving song, ends like this:
μή μ’ ἅσαισι μηδ’ ὀνίαισι δάμνα,
mê m' asaisi mêd' oniaisi damna,
What this means is, "O mistress (potnia), subdue (damna) me (m') in my spirit (thumon) neither (mê) with discomforts (asaisi) nor (mêd') with pains (oniaisi)." Mê sounds like "may;" mêd' like "made;" the ai diphthong corresponds to English "I." Asaisi and oniaisi both rhyme with "icy,": MAY m'uh SICee MADE o nee ICee DAMnah. It reminds you of lyrics like:
I'm wild again, beguiled again
A simpering, whimpering child again . . .
Sound is as important as meaning. It is what holds the listener's attention and propels it forward. As far as meaning is concerned, Sappho's songs, like most songs, were for everybody. They expressed basic feelings that were instantly recognizable then and still are.
This site contains translations of Sappho's four substantial fragments. Most frequently, these days, they are translated into free-verse poems. For the reasons intimated above, that strikes me as a misrepresentation. The translations that I offer are in the form of songs. I have no delusions about their merit as song lyrics in comparison with Sappho's -- or Hart's. My only hope is that they are more like Sappho's originals than the recent translations that I have seen and will therefore produce a better understanding of her spirit and achievement.
I have adhered as closely as possible to the general contours of Sappho's thought, but condense and pad as needed in the interests of rhythm and rhyme. For those curious about her exact words, I have included the original Greek and literal, prose translations. My translations were designed to be sung to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, to the chord progressions of one's choice.
This site also includes lyrical translations of songs by two Romans who lived centuries after Sappho: Catullus and Horace. To judge by the literature that survives, they were classical antiquity's next best song writers. The four books of Horace's Odes consist almost entirely of songs written in short stanzas and were a self-conscious attempt to produce the Latin equivalent of the Sappho's songs and those of her fellow Lesbian (in a geographical sense) Alcaeus.
The case of Catullus is more complicated. Sappho's works were among his inspirations. His poem 51 is a translation of Sappho 31; his 11 is also written in Sapphic stanzas. The pseudonym that he uses for his mistress and muse was "Lesbia" (girl of Lesbos). On the other hand, most of his poems are in elegiac couplets or in stichic meters, not in stanzas, and such works were mostly recited rhythmically rather than being sung. Hence lyrical-translations of these poems have less formal justification. Still elegiac and stichic compositions were also sometimes set to music and Catullus' works are typically very song-like in spirit -- more so than many of Horace's, which tend to be a little cerebral for singing.
released 04 September 2012
Recorded at Howl Street Recordings in August and November of 2011. Engineered by Shane Hochstetler. Produced by Jeffrey John Loomis. Mixed by Shane Hochstetler and Jeffrey John Loomis at Howl Street Recordings in June of 2012.
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