Philobiblon: Going back 1,600 years from my last post/poet

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Going back 1,600 years from my last post/poet

... takes me to Greece, and Sappho.

She was one of the many women of the past about whom I knew disgracefully little, but a bit of academic remaindering should help to sort that out. A lot in Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches (ed. E. Greene, 1996, Uni of California Press) is too technical for my non-knowledge of Greek, or my interest in the finer points of poetry, but some chapters are brilliant, for example "Sappho and Helen," by P. duBois (p. 79-88)

It concentrates on one fragment, as reconstructed:

Some say a host of horsemen, others of infantry,
and others of ships, is the most beautiful thing
on the dark earth: but I say, it is what you love.

Full easy it is to make this understood of one and all;
for she that far surpassed all mortals in beauty,
Helen, her most noble husband

Deserted, and went sailing to Troy, with never a
though for her daughter and dear parents. The ...
(Cyprian goddess) led her from the path ...
... Which now has put me in mind of Anaktoria far away;

Her lovely way of walking, and the bright radiance
of her changing face, would I rather see than
your Lydian chariots and infantry full-armed.

It is a beautiful piece of poetry. Some expert comments:
"The poem works on the tension between desire, love, presence, and absence, and on the threat of war outside, the drama of pursuit of love. In each of the three parts of the lyrics Sappho refers to the world of war, the world of men and heroes ..." (P. 82)

"Much of the energy of the poem comes from the force of her personal preference, her ability to make Anaktoria walk before us, but Anaktoria's presence is straining to break out of a structure which gives her existence wider meaning.... Helen is an element of the old epic vocabulary, yet she means something new here.

"Sappho subverts the transitional interpretation of her journey to Troy. And in doing so she speaks of desire in new terms, circling down on a definition of the abstract force. Eros is a term insufficiently abstract; Eros is a god, Aphrodite a personification. Sappho moves towards the abstract by employing the substitutability of things, people, shops. She achieves a representation of desire by the accumulation of details, examples, personal testimony." (p. 83)

Sappho is writing at a time of transition from myth to rationality, DuBois says. In nearby Lydia money was being invented at the same time, which Aristotle saw as allowing abstract thought, through the creation of abstract values. So Sappho is ranking by value.

In oral literatures women are usually described as objects, things to be exchanged - e.g The Iliad starts with the return of Chryseis and the seizure of Briseis - or as fixed markers that men move past, e.g. Odysseus leaving Kalypso's island.

"Sappho, however, acts, as did Helen, in loving Anaktoria, in following her in her poem, in attempting to think beyond the terms of the epic vocabulary. Her action is possible because the world of oral culture, of a certain type of exchange, a type of marriage characteristic of such societies, is no longer dominant. ... The institutions of the democratic cities have not yet evolved. The lyric age, the age of the tyrants, is a period of confusion, turbulence, and conflict; it is from this moment, this break, that Sappho speaks."( p. 87)

6 Comments:

Blogger Ronnie Smartt said...

In case you have not yet found them, there are a couple more discussions of this fragment at p.221 and p.259. I too bought the book cheaply along with its companion "Re-reading Sappho". I do feel sometimes that a terrible burden of significance is laid on Sappho and the quite small collections of her poems, especiaslly if we exclude the tinier crumbs. Still she is at the beginning of lyric not epic, and love not war. Her evocation of Anactoria is at once both lovely and passionate. But Anactoria is not present, is possibly "far away", and I wonder why Sappho does not do as Helen and go after her. And then I think that perhaps Anactoria was the actant - I've just learnt that word - and like Helen and Menelaus left Sappho for someone more lovely, probably a husband. I don't find this poem as coherent as it might be. perhaps it is a slightly half-hearted attempt to hold on to a memory beginning to fade.

10/20/2004 10:39:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Rats, I obviously arrived at the bookshop too late for the remainder copies of the companion volume. But thanks for the heads-up on the extra references; I'd only got into this chapter so far, but was so excited I had to share.
I think you're a bit hard on the quality of the fragment - if you compare it for pure language qualities (in so far as you can in translations) - I think it certainly takes you on from Homer a long way, but I do agree that a vast weight is laid on pretty slender shoulders.

10/21/2004 01:02:00 am  
Blogger Ronnie Smartt said...

Why this Homerphobia?

10/21/2004 10:49:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Not Homerphobia :-) just the limitations and framework of the oral tradition. I tried to reread the Iliad recently and got very bogged down in the long lists of the contingents of soldiers.

10/21/2004 11:17:00 am  
Blogger Ronnie Smartt said...

Yes, I know, and soldiers tend to carry the Iliad in their knapsack rather than Sappho. But let me recall as best I can not a translation but Michael Longley revisiting Priam's clandestine visit to the Greek camp to seek Hector's corpse:

I go down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss the hand of Achilles, the murderer of my son.

Persevere'

(This corre3spondence is now closed. Ed.)

10/21/2004 10:57:00 pm  
Blogger Ronnie Smartt said...

Yes, I know, and soldiers tend to carry the Iliad in their knapsack rather than Sappho. But let me recall as best I can not a translation but Michael Longley revisiting Priam's clandestine visit to the Greek camp to seek Hector's corpse:

I go down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss the hand of Achilles, the murderer of my son.

Persevere'

(This corre3spondence is now closed. Ed.)

10/21/2004 10:57:00 pm  

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