June 27, 2005
With only three previously known, scientists unearth fourth poem by Sappho . . .
by Dennis Johnson
“A love poem written 2,600 years ago by Sappho, the greatest female poet of ancient Greece, was published on Friday for the first time” since it was rediscovered as part of the “papyrus wrapped around an Egyptian mummy” last year, reports a Reuters wire story by Tim Castle. A more detailed report by John Ezard for The Guardian notes “The poem is the rarest of discoveries. Sappho’s pre-eminent reputation as an artist of lyricism and love is based on only three complete poems, 63 complete single lines and up to 264 fragments.” The poem itself appears embedded in a Times Literary Supplement essay by Sappho expert Martin West, who explains and contextualizes his translation, and gives some background to the discovery, noting that the papyrus dates to the third century BC, meaning it was copied “not much more than 300 years after she wrote.” In the poem, he says, “she addresses a group of younger women or girls, whom she calls (to translate literally) ‘children’, contrasting their blithe singing and dancing with her own heaviness of heart and limb”: “You for the fragrant-blossomed Muses¹ lovely gifts / be zealous, girls, and the clear melodious lyre: // but my once tender body old age now / has seized; my hair’s turned white instead of dark; // my heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me, / that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.”
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives