New poem of Sappho

What we have is just a selection of works from antiquity. Time has acted as a sieve and given us the vey best – the more so the further back we go. Although we could wish for more, we should on the whole be satisfied with what we’ve got. Another play by Sophocles or a lost epic would be very welcome if it turned up in the sands of Egypt but its loss is not devastating.

There is one author however where we do seem to be genuinely missing something. I have always thought that if something were to turn up then let it be Sappho. We only have fragments of her works and everyone of these is an absolute gem. The main theme in the works we have is passionate love and longing told in a way that seems surprisingly modern and are easy to relate to.

There are other themes. In the words of Edwin Marion Cox in 1925 “so much attention has been lavished on these poems which contain descriptions of some sort of passionate devotion or invocation that the nature poems and some of those which evidently had a wonderful, wistful, and haunting quality of reminiscence, of hope, and of friendship have not been accorded to them the importance to which they are entitled”

Well my wish for more Sappho apparently became true at the beginning of this year. Two poems turned up on a fragment of papyrus from an unknown provenance and were given for inspection to Professor Obbink at Oxford University. He was satisfied with their genuineness and wrote this article which contains the full text of the first fragment for the “Times Literary Supplement”

New poems by Sappho

I have only looked at the first poem but am I happy with it? Is this the sort of poem that is not only nice to have but one that can really affect us? The poem is about the expectation that her brother, Charaxos will soon return from a trip and her hope that her other brother will become a man.

My answer has to be non-committal. At first reading I was disappointed. It was not a poem about passion or longing but more to do with hope and friendship. However I have to say that it does grow on me the more I read it and there may be subtleties that I have not yet got.

The other point that at which I was initially disappointed was that the one point were she refers to nature seems to be rather flat.

εὐδίαι γὰρ ἐκ μεγάλαν ἀήταν
αἶψα πέλονται.

Calm weather comes straight after strong winds.

It sounds rather like a banal proverb. But here again the more I read it the better it seems.

So my general conclusion is that this poem while obviously being nice to have and pleasant to read does not tug at the heart strings like some of her others. It does have a subtlety and a slight element of wistfulness that I think will grow on me.

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3 Responses to New poem of Sappho

  1. I bow to your sincerity; and to Sappho’s simplicity.
    There is something inherently exciting about a phrase and its analysis. I can’t really tell why, but I just love the cultural and psychological mysteries they contain.
    Just looking at this the dichotomy is most interesting, between the strong winds (the storm per se) and the good weather. The contrast between the nominative and the accusative is strong, making the concepts truly opposed; each other’s antitheses. Also, the use of the preposition to indicate the latter comes out from the former is telling of Sappho’s mood at the time of writing; suffering first, calmness later. Further, these concepts are not foreign to our own understanding of ‘the calm before the storm,’ Sappho is just approaching it from the ‘it is darkest before dawn’ perspective; saying that the storm is always followed by calmness.
    I love, love, love, the use of the Middle/Passive verb here. Calm Weather is either coming of its own prerogative or made to come, but not naturally; it is a process by which it is made to act. Both the Middle and the Passive denote obligation (by ones own will if we think of the good weather as personified or by force because nature is full of such ying-yang scenarios). Sappho tells us things will pass because they have to. The strong winds never last forever and, when they end, calmness will come.
    Seven words…and just as many ideas. I’m a sucker for a well-written line.


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