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 September 4, 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.
Ignatius smiles throughout the day
to keep his white teeth on display.
A lawyer pleading at a trial
to spare his client makes him smile.
A grieving mother’s quite undone.
It seems she’s lost her only son.
Here’s Ignatius drawing near.
He has a grin from ear to ear.
Ignatius, take advice from me.
If you were from (say) Tivoli
or any other Roman town,
I’d still suggest you try a frown.
Of all the faux-pas people make
untimely smiling takes the cake.
What makes it worse is you’re from Spain.
As seasoned travelers explain,
the nursling of the Pyrenees
removes his plaque with what he pees.
Your brilliant smile just makes us think
how much urine you must drink.
Because he has white teeth, Egnatius
smiles constantly everywhere. If it’s a matter of going to the defendant’s
bench, when the orator stirs weeping,
that man smiles. If at the pyre of a pious son
there is mourning, when the bereft mother weeps for her only son,
that man smiles. Whatever it is, wherever it is,
whatever he is doing, he smiles. He has that disease,
neither elegant, in my opinion, nor urbane.
Wherefore, I must warn you, good Egnatius.
If you were urban or a Sabine or Tiburtan
or a thrifty Umbrian or a fat Etruscan
or a dark, toothy Lanuvian
or Transpadane (so that I might touch on my own people)
or anyone who cleans his teeth in a wholesome way,
I would still not want you to smile constantly, everywhere,
for nothing is more inept than an inept smile.
Now you are Celtiberian. In the Celtiberian land,
Everyone is accustomed to use in the morning that which he has peed
to brush his teeth and rosy-red gum,
so that the more polished those teeth of yours are
they more urine they declare that you have drunk.
Egnatius, quod candidos habet dentes,
Renidet usque quaque. Si ad rei ventum est
Subsellium, cum orator excitat fletum,
Renidet ille. Si ad pii rogum fili
Lugetur, orba cum flet unicum mater,
Renidet ille. Quidquid est, ubicumque est,
Quodcumque agit, renidet. Hunc habet morbum
Neque elegantem, ut arbitror, neque urbanum.
Quare monendum est te mihi, bone Egnati.
Si urbanus esses aut Sabinus aut Tiburs
Aut parcus Umber aut obesus Etruscus
Aut Lanuvinus ater atque dentatus
Aut Transpadanus, ut meos quoque attingam,
Aut qui libet qui puriter lavit dentes,
Tamen renidere usque quaque te nollem;
Nam risu inepto res ineptior nulla est.
Nunc Celtiber es. Celtiberia in terra,
Quod quisque minxit, hoc sibi solet mane
Dentem atque russam defricare gingivam,
Ut quo iste vester expolitior dens est,
Hoc te amplius bibisse praedicet loti.
Track Name: Catullus 45: Acme and Septimius
Septimius hugging his Acme proclaims,
“I am terribly smitten, devoured by flames!
I’m as dead as the world’s greatest expert in dying!
You can send me to Libya if I am lying
or to India’s desert (a horrible place)
and show me a lion. I’ll spit in his face.”
Depositing kisses on both of his eyes,
rosy-lipped Acme leans back and replies:
“Septimius darling, my love, let’s obey
Venus and Cupid whatever they say,
for a fire consumes my interior too
and it’s hotter by far than the fire in you.”
Cupid was listening mightily pleased
and to show his approval his majesty sneezed.1
The omens are good as they start their advance
loving and loved down the road of romance.
Septimius views other girls with disdain.
Arab and British are equally plain.
And Acme is faithful. There’s no other boy.
Only Septimius fills her with joy.
If you are lovers as happy as these,
when you’re together you’ll hear Cupid sneeze.
Septimius holding his love Acme
in his lap says, “My Acme,
if I don’t love you to death and am not prepared
furthermore to love you
assiduously through all the years
as much as he who is able to die the most,
My I come face-to-face a tawny lion
alone in Libya or scorched India.”
When he said this, Love, as he had done previously on the left,
sneezed his approval on the right.
But Acme lightly bending her head back
and kissing her sweet boy’s drunken eyes
with her purple mouth
says, “Thus my life, my little Septimius,
let us constantly serve this one master,
since a much bigger and sharper
flame burns in my soft bones.”
When she said this, Love, as he had done previously on the left,
sneezed his approval on the right.
Having now set forth under good auspices,
they love, are loved with mutual passion.
Poor little Septimius prefers Acme alone
to Syrian and British girls.
Faithful Acme finds delight
and pleasure in Septimius alone.
Who has seen any happier
people? Who has seen a more fortunate Venus?
Acmen Septimius suos amores
Tenens in gremio, “Mea,” inquit, “Acme,
Ni te perdite amo atque amare porro
Omnes sum adsidue paratus annos
Quantum qui pote plurimum perire,
Solus in Libya Indiaque tosta
Caesio veniam obvius leoni.”
Hoc ut dixit, Amor, sinistra ut ante,
Dextra sternuit adprobationem.
At Acme leviter caput reflectens
Et dulcis pueri ebrios ocellos
Illo purpureo ore saviata
“Sic,” inquit, “mea vita, Septimille,
Huic uni domino usque serviamus,
Ut multo mihi major acriorque
Ignis mollibus ardet in medullis.”
Hoc ut dixit, Amor, sinistra ut ante,
Dexrtra sternuit adprobationem.
Nunc ab auspicio bono profecti
Mutuis animis amant amantur.
Unam Sep[timius misellus Acmen
Mavult quam Syrias Britanniasque:
Uno in Septimio fidelis Acme
Facit delicias libidinesque.
Quis ullos homines beatiores
Vidit, quis Venerem auspicatiorem?
Track Name: Catullus 11: To His Faithful Companions
Suppose I reached the distant land
where Indians have settled and
the eastern waves’ assault on sand
is heard for miles away,
saw Arabs with their double chins,
the Hyrcani and Scythians
or went to where the Nile begins
discoloring the sea
or crossed the Alps without a top
to see where Caesar set up shop,
the Gallic Rhine, the ocean’s chop,
the British last of all,
I know that you’d be there as well.
You’d follow me, my friends, to hell,
but would you also dare to tell
my girl a thing or two.
Bid farewell to her and hers,
three-hundred swell adulterers,
the men she mounts with yips and purrs
and bursts their genitalia.
Then add this is my last goodbye.
She’s dead to me. Her guilt is why.
It was a passing plough and my
true love a broken flower.
Furius and Aurelius, Catullus’ companions
whether he will go among the most remote
where the shore is beaten by the far-resounding eastern wave
by the far-resounding eastern
wave is beaten,
or among the Hyrcani or soft Arabs,
or the Scythians or arrow-bearing Parthians
or the seas which the seven-mouthed
or walk across the high Alps
seeing the monuments of great Caesar,
the Gallic Rhine, the bristling sea
the British last of all,
prepared to try all these thing together
whatever the will of the heavenly ones
announce a few things to my girl,
not good wishes.
Let her live and farewell with her adulterers,
whom she holds in her embrace three-
hundred at a time,
loving none truly repeatedly bursting
the genitals of them all;
and let her not look back as before for my
which has fallen by her guilt like a flower
on the edge of a meadow after it has been
by a passing plough.
Furi et Aureli, comites Catulli,
sive in extremos penetrabit Indos,
litus ut longe resonante Eoa
Sive in Hyrcanos Arabasve molles,
seu Sagas sagittiferosve Parthos,
sive quae septemgeminus colorat
sive trans altas gradietur Alpes,
Caesaris visens monimenta magni,
Gallicum Rhenum horribile aequor ulti-
omnia haec, quaecumeque feret voluntas
caelitum, temptare simul parati,
pauca nuntiate meae puellae
non bona dictea.
Cum suis vaivat valeatque moechis,
quos simul complexa tenet trecentos
nullum mans vere, sed identidem omnium
nec meum respectet, ut ante, amorem
qui illius culpa cecidit velut prati
ultimi flos, praetereunte postquam
tactus aratro est.
Track Name: Catullus 31: Sirmio
Sirmio, isles and peninsulas’ gem,
in Neptune’s domain you’re the creme de la creme.
How simply delightful to see you again!
How happy I am to be home!
Bithynia’s landscape was hard to endure.
The rest of my travels are only a blur.
Now looking at you I feel safe and secure.
I hardly believe my own eyes!
What can compare with forgetting your cares
when one is exhausted by foreign affairs
and climbs to the top of his creaky old stairs
and sinks in the bed of his dreams?
For labor so hard that’s the only reward.
Now beautiful, Sirmio, smile for your lord,
releasing your laughter wherever it’s stored
across your Tyrrhenian waves.
Sirmio, almost-islands and islands’
jewel, whichever either Neptune supports
in still waters or the vast sea,
how gladly and how happy I see you,
hardly believing it myself that I have left Thynia
and the fields of Bithynia and see you in safety!
O what is more blessed than loosened cares,
when the mind sets its burden down and worn
out from foreign labor we come to our household god
and lie down in our longed-for bed?
This is the one thing that we get in return for such great labors.
Hail, O lovely Sirmio, and rejoice for your master.
And you rejoice, O Lydian waves of the lake.
Laugh whatever guffaws are at home.
Paene insularum, Sirmio, insularumque
Ocelle, quascumque in liquentibus stagnis
Marique vasto fert uterque Neptunus,
Quam te libenter quamque laetus inviso,
Vix mi ipse credens Thyniam atque Bithynos
Liquisse campos et videre te in tuto!
o quid solutis est beatius curis,
Cum mens onus reponit, ac peregrino
Labore fessi venimus larem ad nostrum
Desideratoque adquiescimus lecto?
Hoc est quod unum est pro laboribus tantis.
Salve, o venusta Sirmio, atque ero gaude;
Gaudete vosque, o Lydiae lacus undae;
Ridete, quidquid est domi cachinnorum.
Track Name: Catullus 32: Ipsithilla
Be a sweety, Ipsithilla,
my delicious macaroon,
let me join you at your villa
for a nap this afternoon.
Please say yes for love or pity,
doing just a few things more.
Don’t go walking in the city,
see that no one locks your door.
Don your darling little teddy.
Stoke the fires down below.
Spend the morning getting ready
for nine orgasms in a row.
Answer quickly, Ipsithilla.
Skip the girly song and dance.
Action’s needed else I’ll drill a
tunnel through my coat and pants.
Please, my sweet Iphsithilla,
my delight, my charm,
command that I come to you for a mid-day rest.
And if you are going to give this command, provide additional help,
seeing that no one block the doorway
and that you do not decide to go out.
Rather stay at home and prepare for us
nine continuous copulations.
If indeed you are going to do anything, give the order at once.
For I have dined and am lying on my back, full,
and am piercing my tunic and cloak.
Amabo, mea dulcis, Ipsithilla,
Meae deliciae, mei lepores,
Jube ad te veniam meridiatum.
Et si jusseris illud, adjuvato,
Ne quis liminis obseret tabellam,
Neu tibi libeat foras abire;
Sed domi maneas pareque nobis
Novem continuas fututiones.
Verum si quid ages, statim jubeto;
Nam pransus jaceo et satur supinus
Pertundo tunicamque palliumque.
Track Name: Catullus 101: Ave atque Vale
Through many lands and many seas
I come to these sad obsequies,
Day and night full speed ahead
to do my duty to the dead
and talk to ashes on a shelf
since death has taken you yourself
leaving me an empty shell.
Forever hail and fare thee well!
Accept the presents that I bring,
the customary offering,
tokens that our parents said
would please the spirits of the dead
and help discharge the mourner's debt.
I'm sorry if they're a little wet.
I couldn't help the tears that fell.
Now brother, hail and fare thee well.
Carried through many races and many seas
I come to these sad funeral rites, brother,
that I might confer on you the final service of death
and address your mute ashes in vain,
since fortune has taken you yourself from me,
Heu! poor brother unworthily taken from me!
Still now meanwhile these gifts, which by the ancient rites of parents
are given as a sad duty at funeral rites,
take them though dripping with fraternal tears
and into eternity brother hail and farewell!
Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus
Advenio has miseras, frater, ad inferias,
Ut te postremo donarem munere mortis
Et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem,