Two Poems by Sappho

Sappho was born somewhere around 630 bc on the Greek island Lesbos.  She wrote many volumes of poetry that were admired throughout the ancient Greek world.  Plato once suggested that she should be added to the list of muses said to inspire artists.  Her home island even minted a coin with her likeness in her lifetime.  Sappho had both male and female lovers, and it is her island which gave its name to the love between women.  She is said to have committed suicide by leaping off of a high cliff, because of a broken heart.

Her poetry usually concerned love, and often refers to the goddess of love, Aphrodite.  It was accompanied by simple music, played on the lyre, the small harp you see her holding in the painting below.  Because her poetry only survives in fragments, modern translators have the difficult task of reconstructing her poetry on the basis of the bits and pieces.

Below are two such poems.  The first is Sappho remembering a lost love;  the second is an ode to her daughter, Cleis.


an 1877 painting by
Charles-August Mengin

I have not had one word from her

Frankly I wish I were dead
When she left, she wept
a great deal; she said to me, "This parting must be
endured, Sappho. I go unwillingly."

I said, "Go, and be happy
but remember (you know
well) whom you leave shackled by love

"If you forget me, think
of our gifts to Aphrodite
and all the loveliness that we shared

"all the violet tiaras,
braided rosebuds, dill and
crocus twined around your young neck

"myrrh poured on your head
and on soft mats girls with
all that they most wished for beside them

"while no voices chanted
choruses without ours,
no woodlot bloomed in spring without song..."

  --Translated by Mary Barnard


Sleep, darling
I have a small
daughter called
Cleis, who is
like a golden
I wouldn't
take all Croesus'
kingdom with love
thrown in, for her

Don't ask me what to wear
I have no embroidered
headband from Sardis to
give you, Cleis, such as
I wore
and my mother
always said that in her
day a purple ribbon
looped in the hair was thought
to be high style indeed

but we were dark:
a girl
whose hair is yellower than
torchlight should wear no
headdress but fresh flowers

--Translated by Mary Barnard

Source:  gopher://gopher.OCF.Berkeley.EDU:70/

Papyrus Fragment

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