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Thursday, March 01, 2012

For Women’s History Month: Sappho

Sappho was one of a kind, and her poems wield a unique power over their readers, fragments though they may be. Longinus’ treatise On the Sublimedescribed the intense effects of her lyrics in terms of “supreme excellence... the skill with which she selects the most striking and vehement circumstances of the passions and forges them into a coherent whole.” And nearly 2000 years later, Kenneth Rexroth said of her, “There has been no other poet like this. Wherever enough words remain to form a coherent context, they give one another a unique luster, an effulgence found nowhere else. Presentational immediacy of the image, overwhelming urgency of personal involvement—in no other poet are these two prime factors of lyric poetry raised to so great a power.”

Hymn to Aphrodite
Sappho (trans. John Myers O’Hara, 1907)
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Aphrodite, subtle of soul and deathless,
Daughter of God, weaver of wiles, I pray thee
Neither with care, dread Mistress, nor with anguish,
         Slay thou my spirit!

But in pity hasten, come now if ever
From afar of old when my voice implored thee,
Thou hast deigned to listen, leaving the golden
         House of thy father

With thy chariot yoked; and with doves that drew thee,
Fair and fleet around the dark earth from heaven,
Dipping vibrant wings down the azure distance,
         Through the mid-ether;

Very swift they came; and thou, gracious Vision,
Leaned with face that smiled in immortal beauty,
Leaned to me and asked, “What misfortune threatened?
         Why I had called thee?”

“What my frenzied heart craved in utter yearning,
Whom its wild desire would persuade to passion?
What disdainful charms, madly worshipped, slight thee?
         Who wrongs thee, Sappho?”

“She that fain would fly, she shall quickly follow,
She that now rejects, yet with gifts shall woo thee,
She that heeds thee not, soon shall love to madness,
         Love thee, the loth one!”

Come to me now thus, Goddess, and release me
From distress and pain; and all my distracted
Heart would seek, do thou, once again fulfilling,
         Still be my ally!
(from The Poems of Sappho, An Interpretive Rendition into English, by John Myers O’Hara, 1907)

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