Tag Archives: Sappho

De Senectute: Sappho, Ovid, Tennyson, Musil and Cicero

Aurora Taking Leave of Tithonus. Francesco Solimena. 1704

In classical mythology Tithonus was a Trojan prince with whom Eos (Aurora to the Romans), goddess of the dawn, falls in love.  This deity, whom Homer calls “rosy-fingered,” captures Tithonus and sweeps him off to the home of the gods and asks Zeus to grant Tithonus immortality.  Eos, however, forgets to also ask for eternal youth.  Even though Tithonus is immortal, he grows old and frail.  Sappho, in her “Tithonus” or “Old Age” poem uses him as a metaphor to illustrate the effects of her own aging (translation is my own):

Old age has already taken from me my once soft skin,
and my hair, at one time so dark, has grown white.
My spirit has grown heavy, my knees, which used to be
nimble enough to dance like fawns, no longer carry me.
I mourn these things but what can I do about it?
It is not possible for men to be ageless. For at one time
they say that Eos, smitten by love, carried off Tithonus in her
rosy arms to the edge of the earth, he who was handsome
and young; but in time gray old-age took hold of him who
was a still a husband to an immortal wife.

In Ovid there is a brief mention of Tithonus as Aurora and some of the other goddesses complain that they cannot stop the aging of their mortal lovers )trans. my own): “Aurora, daughter of Pallas, mourned the old age of her own husband.”  But, as Sappho says, what could she do?

What is missing in these myths is Tithonus’s own words.  Tennyson’s brilliant poem about the Trojan prince gives him that voice: “Let me go: take back thy gift,” Tithonus begs her.  He laments his inevitable aging, recognizes that as humans we must accept this fate, and pleads with Eos to release him from his immortality. I offer here one of my favorite stanzas, but please do read the entire poem:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.
Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man—

So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seem’d
To his great heart none other than a God!
I ask’d thee, ‘Give me immortality.’
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men, who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant work’d their wills,
And beat me down and marr’d and wasted me,
And tho’ they could not end me, left me maim’d
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes. Can thy love,
Thy beauty, make amends, tho’ even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go: take back thy gift:
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?

I was also reading Robert Musil’s Thought Flights over the weekend and one of his short narratives struck me as a similar commentary on aging, how we see ourselves and how others see us.  In “Susanna’s Letter,” a married woman is writing to a friend about a train journey during which she reflects on her changing body as she ages.  Her chin was “once energetic” she notices, and her neck used to be straight.  But despite these physical reminders of her age, “It is all downward going from here on out, but every step becomes calmer and more secure.”  And my favorite passage, bitter sweet—both hopeful yet sad—from the story is the one in which she connects her aging body to her spouse (trans. Genese Grill):

My husband much have seen every details of my body by now, and he loves me anyway; he loves me as I am.  Sometimes that makes him unbearable to me.  For it takes all my power from me.  I should say, it takes all the fantasizing out of my body.  Then I am like a finished book, one that has already been declared to be very beautiful; for, the fact that a book is beautiful is no consolation for its having already been read.

On one final, positive note, in Cicero’s philosophical treaty De Senectute (On Old Age), he writes (trans. my own):

I follow and obey nature who is the best guide as if she were a divinity; it cannot be true that she has arranged well the other parts of our lives but then, like a bad poet,  neglected the final act of the drama.  It is necessary, however, that there be a certain kind of end, frail and withered with a timely maturity,  just as the berries on the trees and the fruits of earth, which wise men must gently endure.  To fight against nature would be as useless as the giants rebeling against the gods.

 

 

 

 

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Sappho Fragment 16

Sappho Fragment 16 (translation is my own):

Some men say that the best thing on this black earth is
a column of horses, others say it is an army of foot
soldiers, and still others say it is a fleet of ships.
But I say that the Best thing on this black
earth is to love someone. It is wholly easy to make this
idea understandable to everyone. For Helen, surpassing
all others in beauty, chose for herself the best man—
he who destroyed all the Majesty of Troy—and she made that
choice without consideration of her child or her beloved parents,
but she was swayed by Love and carried this love far away.
It always seems like a female trait to turn away or to
be light in one’s thoughts. And so now you do not
remember Anaktoria, or so it seems; she whose lovely steps and
whose bright radiance in her face you would like to behold
more than the armies or the hoplites of Lydia. We know that it
is not possible for men on this earth to be completely happy;
We must, however, pray to hold onto our shared memories rather
than to completely forget those experiences.

I have immersed myself in this beautiful and, at times, maddening Ancient Greek fragment for the last two days. I used the longer version of the Ancient Greek text with the last few lines, in particular, reconstructed. I realize this isn’t the standard version with which most are familiar. I see in this poem a stark contrast between male and female, which begins in the first three lines with a primael. Men choose war—cavalries, armies and ships, but women choose love. The best example of this is Helen—she chooses Love in the form of Paris, because, to her,  he is the best (aristov).

As the poem concludes, Sappho turns to Anaktoria who left her (some speculate to marry). Sappho, unlike Helen, doesn’t have a choice. But as memory fades the one option for her is to remember their shared experiences. Her beloved, no longer present, can quickly become a case of “out of sight, out of mind”; the poet must make a conscience choice to remember their time together. But as her memories fade and her lover is no longer present, she can just as easily choose to let her go.

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Living Poetic Matter: Catullus Carmen 51

Catullus at Lesbia’s. by Sir Laurence Alma Tadema. 1865

It has been argued that Catullus translates and borrows Sappho Poem 31 to describe the first time he sees his lover Clodia (pseudonym Lesbia) at a party.  In Carmen 51, the Roman poet describes Clodia sitting by an unidentified man (perhaps her husband?) talking and laughing and Catullus is captivated by her presence and experiences what many might call love at first sight (translation is my own):

That man seems to me to be just like a god,
or, if I can get away with saying it,  he is even
better than a god, because of the fact that he
gets to sit near you, and watch you, and continually
listen to your sweet laughter.  But the sight of you and
the sound of your voice destroys all of my miserable
senses; for whenever I lay eyes upon you, Lesbia,
everything else in the world ceases to exist—my
tongue is tied, a delicate flame burns beneath my
limbs, my ears start ringing with a strange sound,
and both of my eyes are covered in complete
darkness.

Louis Zukofsky, in A Test of Poetry, dedicates a chapter of his fascinating little book to presenting different translations of the same passage of an ancient author—Homer, Ovid, Catullus—and provides a brief analysis and commentary on these translations.  For a comparison of different translations of Catullus 51 he presents first Lord Byron’s rendition (1807):

Ah! Lesbia! Though tis death to me,
I cannot choose but look on thee;
But, at the sight, my senses fly,
I needs must gaze, but, gazing, die;
Whilst trembling with a thousand fears,
Parch’d to the throat my tongue adheres,
My pulse beats quick, my breath heaves short,
My limbs deny their slight support;
Cold dews my pallid face o’erspread,
With deadly languor droops my head,
My ears with tingling echoes ring,
And life itself is on the wing,
My eyes refuse the cheering light,
Their orbs are veil’d in starless night:
Such pangs my nature sinks beneath,
And feels a temporary death.

And then Sir Philip Sidney’s translation (1579):

My muse, what ails this ardour?
Mine eyes be dim, my limbs shake,
My voice is hoarse, my throat scorched
My tongue to this my roof cleaves
My fancy amazed, my thoughts dulled
My hearth doth ache, my life faints
My soul begins to take leave.

Zukofsky comments, “Evidently there must be some living poetic matter in the poem of Sappho which has attracted the attention of other poets.” It’s interesting to me that both Byron and Sidney’s poems veer into hyperbole by equating love with death. I don’t think that Catullus meant to push the limits of his metaphor quite that far. His focus on the loss of his senses suggest that love, for him, is a disease, and he is fainting from his symptoms. He’s not dead yet, he’s just “sick!” I also prefer the brevity and repetition of Sidney’s version over Byron’s expanded, rhyming verses.

Zukofsky sums up the reasons why we continue to translation and interpret and identify with poems that are more than 2,0000 years old:

A valuable poetic tradition does not gather mold; it has a continuous life based on work of permanent interest (quality). This tradition involves a knowledge of more than English poetry and the English language. Not all the great poems were written in English. There are other languages.

There are all kinds of measure (metre) in verse. No measure can be bad it if is a true accompaniment of the literal and suggestive sense of the words.

 

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My Pilgrimage from Dante to Catullus to Sappho

The fifth chapter of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage  describes Miriam attending a Dante lecture. As I was reading  Interim I remembered that I had bought a copy of Vita Nuova translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti that was reissued by the NYRB poets series in 2011.  And from Dante I was led to Catullus and then to Sappho.  I am sure that entire dissertations have been written about this topic, but here are my scattered thoughts anyway.

When reading Dante’s Vita Nuova, a comparison between the Italian poet and Catullus immediately comes to mind.  Some of the similarities are so basic and superficial that they can be considered coincidences.  Both poets, for instance, humbly call their collections a “little book” (libello in Italian and libellus in Latin.)  The poetry of both men is deeply personal and autobiographical, although specific details such as dates for events are difficult to glean from their writings.   The Italian and the Roman, both of whom were upper class, wealthy citizens, each fall in love with a woman that is inaccessible and married to another man—Beatrice is for Dante what Clodia (Lesbia) is for Catullus.  And finally, both men are the novi poetae of their respective generations, breaking free from the traditional conventions of their craft (Catullus rejects epic in favor of short, personal poetry; Dante writes in Italian instead of Latin.)

Beginning from the age of nine, Dante writes about each of his encounters with his beloved Beatrice.  On one such occasion, a gathering to celebrate a wedding (some believe it is Beatrice’s own wedding), he sees her with a group of other young women and he is struck dumb by the sight of her.  The loss of all of his senses  is described in a sonnet that was written about this chance meeting with her:

Even as the others mock, thou mockest me;
Not dreaming, noble lady, whence it is
That I am taken with strange semblances,
Seeing thy face which is so fair to see:
For else, compassion would not suffer thee
To grieve my heart with such harsh scoffs as these.
Lo! Love, when thou art present, sits at ease,
And bears his mastership so mightily,
That all my troubled senses he thrusts out,
Sorely tormenting some, and slaying some,
Till none but he is left and has free range
To gaze on thee. This makes my face to change
Into another’s; while I stand all dumb,
And hear my senses clamour in their rout.

The last five lines are similar enough to Catullus Poem #51 to suspect a case of intertextuality. Many scholars have speculated that this poem captures Catullus’ first encounter with Clodia who is sitting with another man at a party while the poet looks on (translation is my own):

This situation steals away all of my senses,
I who am so wretched; For as soon as I looked at you, Lesbia,
nothing else exists for me. But my tongue swells up,
a thin flame simmers beneath my limbs,
my ears are ringing, and darkness covers
both of my eyes.

Catullus 51 is the Roman poet’s translation of Sappho #31 in which poem she is similarly frozen while beholding her lover. Some scholars have speculated that Sappho sees the object of her desire at a wedding, which is an interesting parallel with the setting of Dante’s sonnet (translation is my own):

When I look at you, even for a short time,
I am no longer able to speak.

But my tongue breaks,
and at once a small fire assails me under my skin
my eyes do not see and my ears are ringing.

I am contemplating another reread of Dante’s Divine Comedy and I have Dorothy Richardson to thank for rekindling my interest in the Italian poet and bringing me back to some of my favorite poems from Catullus and Sappho.

For the extra curious here are links to the original languages: Catullus, Sappho, Dante

And here is an abstract of an excellent article about Dante’s influence in Pilgrimage: https://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/dantes-pilgrimage-in-dorothy-richardson(6bff1f93-85f3-4b23-99a1-05ddfef79ef4).html

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