Imagine if the majority of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry had disappeared long ago. It’s not a far-fetched proposition, when you think about it; all of Shakespeare’s personal writing and manuscripts are missing, and several of the plays are missing (Cardenio, Love’s Labors Found, etc). However, a few scraps would inevitably survive as references in noblemen’s letters, maybe a page or two of Hamlet on a quarto used for wrapping paper, or the odd actor’s prompt. Imagine that all we had of the famous Sonnet 18 were the following lines:
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
too short a date:
every fair from fair
summer shall not fade
fair thou ow'st;
or eyes can see,
So long lives this
Would this be great poetry? Would it be widely read and anthologized as the work of one of England’s greatest poets? The first three lines are clever, since at least the idea of reversing the romantic ideal is present, and something of this sense is captured in “too short a date, every fair from fair, summer shall not fade.” But these are only glimpses of the beauty and cleverness of the original, which goes point-by-point why the “my lover is a summer day” is a pathetic—and downright insulting—metaphor. If the manuscript only survived as this, we would have to fill in the blanks and imagine what he might have written, left to scratch our heads at the “or eyes can see,/So long lives this.” We would have lost the priceless ending: “Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade/When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;/So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Here the poet claims that he can rescue the beloved from the cycle of time through verse (his “lines”), which people will read forever—or at least as long as they think and breathe. Even more slyly, the poem not becomes a love song to his poetry, not even bothering to name to beloved. Almost as if it’s saying, “if you love me, I’ll insert your name here...but recognize my power first.”
Imagine, then, that these lines are all that survive of the brilliant cycle of 154 Sonnets. Not a single word or line, other than the few above, escaped the carelessness of man or the ravages of time. What would we think of Shakespeare’s Sonnets? Would we even know he wrote poetry outside of the plays? Indeed, we might assume it was a speech in one of the plays, even a misplaced song from an early comedy. Now let’s pretend all the major tragedies and comedies were gone, leaving only 3 mangled, but roughly complete, works: Titus Andronicus, Pericles, and All’s Well That Ends Well. No Romeo and Juliet, no King Lear, no As You Like It. Just his ghastliest revenge tragedy, a strange late Romance, and one of his most cynical problem plays. Would we still call him the Bard? Would there still be Shakespeare festivals around the world? Would he still form an intractable part of the English canon?
Clearly the answer is no, though even these fragments would afford us glimpses of genius and wonder. So enough with abstractions: now imagine what really did happen to Sappho, greatest poet of the ancient world, called the “Tenth Muse” by her contemporaries. Renowned men of letters, kings, historians, grammarians—all of them quoted Sappho with awe, drawing on a body of knowledge that seemed imperishable. So where did it go? According to the Greeks, there were nine collected volumes of Sappho’s poetry, the first of which boasted approximately a thousand lines of poetry. It’s all gone. All, that is, save a few fragments, barely enough to fill a 30-page book of poetry. One complete poem comes down to us, but the rest is no more than a stanza, a line, a metaphor, and in many cases, only a word. The tragedy is compounded when we realize Sappho was also a musician who composed music to her poetry—indeed, intended her poetry to be sung, often by a chorus. No Greek music of any kind exists. This situation is similar to Shakespeare’s songs, all inserted into his plays to provide musical delight; they merely exist as words now, complete, but oddly silent.
Fans of conspiracy theories will enjoy this next part: what happened to Sappho’s work? We can’t blame time alone, since two complete epics of Homer have come down to us. Many of the Greek tragedies remain, complete, to read and perform thousands of years after their composition (though many, of course, were lost). So why not Sappho? From what we know of her life, she lived on the island of Lesbos where she presided over a close-knit group of women (despite being married herself). There she wrote songs of love in all its forms, though many of them centered on the love between women, and the sadness of watching a lover inevitably married off to a young man. Here the Shakespearean connection is even more apt, since the Sonnets celebrate the poet’s love for a young man, ostensibly convincing him to marry and reproduce, but clearly more interested in that absolute (platonic?) love that they alone can share. Sappho was exiled to Sicily between 604-595 B.C.E., for reasons we can only guess at. After her death, her political disfavor could only have deepened; there seems to have been a concerted effort to make her go away.
While many who appreciated art preserved her work, others would have destroyed her writings, perhaps even her own family who was ashamed by the association. Private copies would survive here and there, but the greatest storehouse of her work—the famed library of Alexandria—was posterity’s last hope. Once that went up in flames, destroying countless literary treasures, Sappho’s legacy was reduced to a footnote. If she had been a man writing of male love (as Plato and many others did), something of her works would remain. But women in general had no voice in the ancient world, surviving as a glimpse here and there in the shadows, given the catch-all name of Anonymous (as Woolf reminds us, “Anonymous was a woman”). In short, her works were simply too dangerous to survive; her beauty touched too many people, enflamed the hearts of men and women alike. Like a sacrifice she was offered to the gods, who (unlike men) gratefully accepted the tribute.
Yet her ghost remained, haunting the peripheries of history and literature. The few hoarded scraps have been collected and translated time and again, some muting the poetry through Victorian prudery. Others, such as Anne Carson’s magnificent translation, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, suggest not only what was lost but what can be found through sensitive reconstruction. The poems she restores to us are bold, sensitive, humorous, yet frustratingly incomplete. Carson purposely uses a lot of negative space on the page, the graphic equivalent of corruption and silence. You can read the entire 396-page book in an hour or two, including the footnotes. However, far from being an artsy gimmick, the space forces us to read even more carefully, and appreciate the poignancy of the voice that was swallowed up by time—yet stubbornly refuses to be silenced. In one of my favorite poems—a mere sentence—the poet writes:
“neither for me honey nor the honey bee” (295).
That’s the only thing printed on the entire page (though the original Greek is printed on the facing page). I can only imagine where the poem went from there (if indeed this is even the first line!) but even without the poem, the line hits its mark. Here is a woman (whether Sappho or a character of her own invention) who has been separated from the joys of life. Perhaps this is Sappho, lamenting the loss of her homeland, and realizing that at her age, love is a distant prospect. This could also be the thoughts of many a young woman, married off to a man she scarcely knew, divorced from her childhood friends (and lovers?) in patriarchal Greek society. We get the same sense from another fragmentary poem, “if only I, O goldcrowned Aprhodite,/could win this lot” (67). The sense of unbearable longing, of tortured waiting and rising jealousy informs almost every poem in the book. Perhaps the best way to read such fragments is to read them one after another, as one great, unfinished epic. Though the poems seem to gravitate around love (often unrequited or lost) and marriage, they have incredible range and retain Shakespeare’s power to invoke just the right image to make even the most cliched sentiment sing.
Another brief example, “Eros shook my/mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees” (99). The metaphor is fresh and evocative: the mind, sprouting leaves and sheltering our emotions (with reason), is shaken to its roots, the shaking leaves becoming a ‘reed’ of love (just as the poem is a song of love). The more of these fragments we read, the more we hear the voice of the poet, building upon and refining earlier ideas until we get to the heart—or the root—of a lover’s experience. In a sense, all of her poems are a variation on this incomplete lyric: “I don’t know what to do/two states of mind in me” (107).
In the more complete poems, Sappho has room to create a more ambiguous experience, with humor creeping in to mock the very emotions that inspire the poem. Take the most famous—and complete—poem of all, “Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,” which spans a remarkable page and a half. In this poem, the speaker—named Sappho—begs Aphrodite to hear her song and strike down her lover with longing. Cleverly, Aphrodite never actually comes, but the poet imagines what will happen when, and if, she arrives:
...And fine birds brought you,
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky
they arrived. But you, O blessed one,
smiled in your deathless face
and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why
(now again) I am calling out (3).
Carson admits that the parenthetical “(now again)” is a slight invention based on the syntax of Sappho’s original. However, the idea is priceless: the pathetic lover sues for Aphrodite’s favor, and when the goddess descends in all her majesty, she is laughing at her. “Who is it now, Sappho—again? Didn’t you just do this last week?” As the poem goes on,
...Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O
Sappho, is wronging you?
For if she flees, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather she will give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love
even unwilling (4).
Aphrodite/Sappho mocks the lover’s apparent ignorance of how love works. Play coy and she will come for you; lovers never say what they feel, never act as they want. Are you really giving up so quickly? Like Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 130 “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun,” Sappho is mocking the very language of love itself. Lovers are forever play acting, comparing their love to the gods or threatening to die of a broken heart. It’s all love play, all nonsense; real love comes with time or not at all. The last stanza of the poem reverts to Sappho, again entreating Aphrodite to be her ally, as if brushing aside what she knows to be true. Like the wind of Eros shaking the oak tress of the mind, love cannot sit still and wait. It knows, yet it despairs. Nothing is rational, nothing makes sense. Only the lover itself makes sense and can restore thought and equilibrium, as a later poem explains: “you came and I was crazy for you/and you cooled my mind that burned with longing” (101).
Also Shakespearean is her belief in the power of words and their bid for immortality. Of course, not everyone was convinced of her place in the literary firmament. In one of the cattiest poems, she strikes down the pretence of a rich woman who (as the notes explain) did not care for art in general.
Dead you will lie and never memory of you
will there be nor desire into the aftertime—for you do not
share in the roses
of Pieria [home of the Muses], but invisible too in Hades’ house
you will go your way among dim shapes. Having been breathed out (115).
Ouch! Yet this resembles so many of Shakespeare’s Sonnets where he threatens the lover with extermination for not returning his love. Yet beyond the jealousy and hurt feelings is something much deeper: an indictment of wealth itself, of the idea that any man or woman can truly be superior to another. “Dead you will lie,” she reminds the noblewoman, and no one will remember you—you’ll just be another shade in Hades. However, without anyone to sing your song, you will be anonymous, unloved in either realm, and thus doubly forgotten. Art, alone, is the source of memory, since it goes far beyond an honor roll of heroes and princesses. It makes these people live in our hearts, makes them us, so we can share in their story. But this woman will fade completely, her last breath extinguished into the ether, never to be reborn on the wings of song. In this poem we hear the anger of Mozart, fighting against the pompous Viennese court or even J.S. Bach writing a pathetic dedication to the Archbishop of Brandenburg (who never even bothered to play the Brandenburg Concertos—the only way we ever remember his existence!). This also suggests a factor in the disappearance of her work; not everyone was a fan, clearly, and some might have been quite offended by her audacious remarks on love and authorship.
Yet Sappho expected to be remembered, even if the honey of authorship would be denied in this life. In yet another fragment, she writes, “someone will remember us/I say/even in another time” (297). As we read these poems, we get a sense of how she wanted to be remembered; less for herself, perhaps, than for all women of her time, whose songs and loves went unrecorded. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf asks us to imagine all of history and literature if men were merely peripheral characters, never the movers and shakers. What if they were merely the lovers of women, the servants, the invisible fathers and brothers? In Sappho’s poems, this is literally true: there are few men, and those that exist, are predatory forces, marrying off the young women of Lesbos and robbing them of friendship and virginity. In these fleeting glances, we see what women experienced among a world of women; how they re-imagined Helen (the epitome of a faithless wife) as a doomed heroine, forsaking home and family for a taste of love. The women of Sappho’s time could not imagine such boldness, and those that did—like Sappho herself—were swiftly exiled. Perhaps this explains one of the most poignant fragments in the book,
“I would not think to touch the sky with two arms” (109).
What woman would dare to reach for the sky—the stars—with her two weak, mortal arms? That was the world set aside for men, for the heroic exploits of kings and conquerors. Yet, in her own quiet way, Sappho touched the sky and hoisted herself into eternity. Though the greater part of her work has been amputated, these few, scattered lines linger in the memory and evoke a world forgotten by literature. A world where women told their own stories and even men stood breathless with wonder.
Given that only something like 500 lines of Sappho's poetry have survived, and much of it damaged or fragmented, finding two whole poems is a huuuuge deal.
ETA: Only one of the poems is reproduced in the link above. The other poem can be found here.