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Alan Jacobs

The Re-Invention of Love

Piecing together the ancient poetic fragments of Sappho

Anne Carson's new translation of the poetry of Sappho seems an act of veneration. Sappho is the most archaic and mysterious, and probably the most celebrated, of ancient lyric poets; later Greeks would call her the "tenth Muse." She lived in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. on the island of Lesbos, off the coast of Asia Minor, not far south of Troy. Most of her poems, which were always set to music, describe erotic passion and its consequences; many of those poems concern desire for other women. There is a legend that Sappho, desperately in (unrequited) love with the "most beautiful of men," a dashing sailor named Phaon, threw herself from the cliff of Leukas, on which stood a temple to Apollo, though the great Byzantine scholar Photios claims that this happened to "another Lesbian woman" named Sappho, not the poet. Various sources supply her with various family members, including a husband and children; one of those sources says she was short, dark, and "most ill-favored."

These are tiny shards of data, and no one will ever know whether they offer us knowledge. Similar doubts haunt Sappho's very language: in one of the poems, for instance, Sappho uses a puzzling word that, Carson tells us, is elucidated by a lexicographer named Pollux: "a word beudos found in Sappho is the same as the word kimberikon which means a short transparent dress." Undoubtedly any translator or editor is thankful for Pollux's help—sufficiently so, perhaps, to refrain from wondering how trustworthy this claim is, given that the scholar worked some 800 years after Sappho and hundreds of miles from Lesbos, in Egypt. And the music Sappho wrote, and to which she set her verses, has been wholly and irretrievably lost.

The poems themselves, moreover, survive chiefly in fragments, and strangely enough—or so I contend—their shreds and patches contribute to their fascination, and to the reverence which I have identified as a feature of Carson's edition. If this is true of a single word like beudos—"Who ...

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