Tag Archives: greek

Sappho 31

My God, how incredible is it that we get to simply pick up a pen, or click open a file, and out of nothing but hubris and time create something that didn’t exist just a few hours, or days, or months before? How fantastic is this soul that hums along beneath the surface of our human machine!

But enough of that crap. Yes, I’m composing again. Or still. Whatever. I am making notes go. I am writing for a young (Ha!) composers competition, where the prize is cash money and a debut of the piece by a pretty kick-ass professional choir.

The theme is “Romantic Love”, and I thought, what better place to start than with the dawning of fiercely bitter lesbian political love-hate poetry, Sappho. If you don’t know about her, go check it out. Awesome stuff. If you really want to get into it, check out Anne Carson’s fantastic new translation, “If Not, Winter“.

So, I settled on one of the best known fragments from Sappho, Parchment 31, sometimes called the Poem of Jealousy. Sappho is watching another man woo her beloved, and she is jealous not of her attention to him (much), but of his ability to just sit calmly in her beloved’s presence, just sit! and not be utterly consumed with desire.

The last line of the poem is tantalizing – it is cutoff, but the fragment that remains seems oddly appropriate. It is, in various versions, either “But I endure” or “But even in poverty” … you can see below how I chose to render it, but that’s almost certainly not what was intended. As I said, tantalizing.

If you’d like to see just a sampling of how people have reconstructed this poem, you can check it out here. Below is my own translation, with little attempt to be literal to the original:

Sappho 31:
He is as a god to me
That man
who sits to face you and
simply listens to
your sweet speaking

and your sweet laughter
makes my heart pound
hovering in my chest
for when I look at you
my words are fleet and away
and away

my tongue breaks
and thin fire runs beneath my skin
and eyes lose sight
and I hear nothing but
pounding heart

and cold sweat grips
and shaking grips
and pale as the summer grass
I pass
from life
to death

bereft of you
I endure