Prima Donna

Sappho: Lyrics in the Original Greek with Translations

by Willis Barnstone
Doubleday (Anchor Books), 208 pp., $1.25

Sappho: Poems and Fragments

translated, with an Introduction and Guy Davenport
Michigan, 140 pp., $3.95

At Covent Garden there used to be (perhaps there still are) two kinds of performance. There were the smart evenings when the opera was sung in the original language by a strong cast sprinkled with distinguished visitors. And there were the dowdy evenings when the resident second eleven sang in English to an audience which spent Act III looking at its watch to make sure of catching the last bus home. Something of the same atmospheric difference distinguishes the Greeks in Greek from the Greeks in translation. When one first stumbled ignorantly through the remains of Sappho there was, even before the aesthetic shock (“Can it really be as good as this?”), the snobbish first-night thing: “Am I really reading Sappho in the original?” There one sat, in the stalls, with Ben Johnson and Socrates and Swinburne and Professor Wilamowitz, as the prima donna of poetry lifted up her faultless head. In translation this glamor goes. No doubt it is improving to encounter, even at several snarled removes, the first lyric poet of the West, yet one can hardly not be conscious that one’s betters had a much braver time of it the night before.

However, a strong if vaguely focused interest in Greek civilization, coupled with a pervasive ignorance of the Greek language, has made classical translation a thriving industry. The demand is apparently so strong that the products are hustled to their market without benefit of criticism. Classical translation is not much reviewed; it relies rather on pre-publication blurbs from classical professors who are in the business themselves and suffer from a vocational prejudice against anything that could be construed as rocking the boat. In spite of occasional master pieces like Fitzgerald’s Odyssey, the level, predictably, is low. one sometimes wonders how long our “Greek revival” can survive so much verse footage from men with no pretensious to poetry. A first step towards establishing critical standards would be to distinguish between versions designed to give you the sense (they should be in prose) and those which have sprung from the chance encounter between a Greek poem and an English—or more often an American—poet.

On the whole Greece is much more fashionable than Rome. The corpus is somewhat restricted, though. I know of only one poet who is drawn to the Egyptian splendors of Nonnus, and it takes a serious-minded man like Robert Fagles to attempt the formidable muse of Pindar. The monodists seem easier of access, and many young writers have fancied their chance with Sappho. Theoretically, it might appear that unless you are convinced you can write as well as, say, Leopardi, you had best steer clear of the Lesbian, but in practice it does not work out like this. Two new Sapphos demand our attention.

WILLIS BARNSTONE’S Sappho is by no means distinguished, but this is not necessarily to say that it serves no purpose. His diction is clean, if unambitious, his treatment of the minor pieces is often pleasant. It is his versions of…

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