Friday, July 17, 2009

Sappho to the Moon

I'm reading Sappho's lyrics, attempting the Greek, but being held up by translation. I am simply not used to her 7th century BCE Aeolic dialect. Even so, I can still work it out, and poetry is always best in its original language. I am reading it and the translation given by Willis Barnstone's Sweetbitter Love: Poems of Sappho, who tries to create poetic English cadences. Although her complete poems (there are only two surviving!) are well-known, her fragmentary poems are quite haunting. I was caught by two different fragments about the moon--what is more haunting than the moon?

πλήρης μὲν ἐφαίνετ' ἀ σελάννα
αἰ δ'ὠς περὶ βῶμον ἐστάθησαν

Full the moon appeared
when the women stood about the altar.

(frag. 154; translation mine)

ἄστερες μὲν ἀμφὶ κάλαν σελάνναν
ἂψ άπθκρύπτοισι φάεννον εἶδος,
ὄπποτα πλήθοισα μάλιστα λάμπηι


Stars around the beautiful moon
conceal their luminous form
when in her fullness she greatly shines
on the earth

in silver

(frag. 34; adapted from Barnstone's translation)

The first fragment elusively depicts some sort of night ritual by women illumined only by the full moon; in its fragmentary state, only the shadows of this moonliight ritual activity remain. The second depicts a moon's bright silvery light that, in its fullness, outshines all the stars. This silvery moon may refer to one of her lovers who outshone all others in beauty. Remember these lines when staring at the next full moon.


J. K. Gayle said...

Very nice translation and adaptation of Barnstone's!

Have you seen Anne Carson's, fragmentary, translation of Sappho's fragmented text(s)? Here's hers (which is always, like yours here, beside the Greek):
full appeared the moon
and when they around the altar took their places
stars around the beautiful moon
hide back their luminous form
whenever all full she shines
[...] on the earth [...]
[...] silvery

My favorite Sappho fragment of the moon (a variant of Homer's dawn) is this one:

νῦν δἐ Λύδαισιν ἐμπρέπεται γυναί-
κεσσιν ὤς ποτ’ ἀελίω
δύντος ἀ βροδοδάκτυλος [σελάννα];

which Carson renders so:

But now she is conspicuous among Lydian women
as sometimes at sunset
the rosyfingered moon

Jared Calaway said...

Thanks...and which fragment is the rosy-fingered moon?

J. K. Gayle said...

Isn't it fragment 96?

(as the keeper of the Poetry Notebook blog shows, also an allusion by Ezra Pound in Canto LXXX:

J. K. Gayle said...

In Anne Carson's If not, Winter, coincidentally (very oddly coincidentally) her English translation of this fragment of Sappho is on page 96.

Jared Calaway said...

So it is 96! Very nice. One of the longer surviving fragments. I liked following what you quoted as well. I might post on it once I look at it more closely.