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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, by 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 the great poem that call in question the propriety of this kind of operation. Take the famous poem which Catullus translated and Robert Lowell paraphrased, Phaienetai moi Kénos isos theoisin. Mr. Barnstone begins:

To me that man equals a god
as he sits before you and listens
closely to your sweet voice
and lovely laughter—

The problem is not that “lyric poetry can’t be translated.” Catullus handled this poem superbly, even if he introduced a note of self-pity alien to Sappho’s clinical precision: Horace went some way towards bringing the girl’s sweet speech and laughter into Latin (“dulce ridentem Lalagen amaboldulce loquentem“); Petrarch, echoing Horace, found a cadence almost as poignant as the unknown Greek (“non sa come Amor sana e come ancide/chi non sa come dolce ella sospirale come dolce parla e dolce ride“); Lowell took two of Sappho’s works, “gelaisas imeroen,” and unfolded them into “your laughter is water hurrying own pebbles.” Lyric poetry can be translated: but the translator can only work within the poetic terms of his own tradition, and the English tradition, for all its richness, is not well equipped to deal with Sappho. At her most intense she writes and kind of poetry that Stevens dreamed of, a poetry that “Without evasion by a single metaphor” sees “the very thing itself and nothing else.” English poetry is, in this special sense, incurably “evasive” and requires a richer medium to achieve equally powerful effects. An English poet would need far more space to do what Sappho here does in sixteen lines. While a poet of genius may one day come up with something comparable, the odds against a lesser writer doing so are as great as those that confront the chimpanzee of the statistical fable typing his long way to Shakespeare’s Sonnets. But what is the matter with prose? A prose translation can very well give you the plot of a poem: without the distortions of second-rate verse. If you want more, learn Greek.

Mr. Barnstone has, nonetheless, made one notable contribution: Somehow he persuaded his publishers to face his translations with the original Greek. There is great value in bilingual editions of poetry and it is a pity we have so few of them in the English-speaking world. They encourage the reader with even a little of the language to pick his way through the original; now and then they presumably persuade someone to learn the original language; and even when the larboard page is voiceless, it still may serve as a reminder of poetic kinds and qualities beyond one’s ken.

One’s respect for Mr. Barnstone’s achievement would have been even greater had he printed a decent Greek text. Much of Sappho’s poetry has reached us in a dreadfully battered state; the older fashion was to fill out her ruined choirs with plausible restorations, but most people now prefer to stick to the words she actually wrote, however few. Not Mr. Barnstone, though. Thus the twenty-third poem in his volume consists of twenty-one English lines (twenty in Greek) in which Sappho is invited to take off her Chian nightgown and bathe and then breakfast off roast nuts. It is chilling to discover that this gay scene derives not from Lesbos in the seventh century B.C. but from twentieth-century Cambridge; and that the author is not Sappho but J.M. Edmonds, late fellow of Jesus College and editor of the Loeb Lyra Graeca. A glance at the great edition of the Lesbian poets by Lobel and Page reveals that only part of the left-hand margin of the papyrus has survived: a total of some seven words. Barnstone brackets a few syllables to show that the reading is doubtful; he fails to indicate, here and too often elsewhere, that most of his text has no authority whatever.

THE PUBLISHERS of Guy Davenport’s Sappho: Poems and Fragments claim that “in this volume the reader who knows no Greek can truly read Sappho’s poetry.” It is pleasant to report that this statement is markedly less fatuous than it-sounds. Davenport starts with two strong advantages: the ability to write poetry and a feeling for the archaic. In addition he shows himself an ingenious man. Realizing that we positively prefer sunlight on a broken column, he decided to collaborate with the Zeitgeist which so cleverly let Egypt start revealing its tattered treasures just at the moment when a taste for the fragmentary was developing in the arts. Open the Lobel and Page Fragmenta almost anywhere (he must have said to himself) and you might be looking at a page of The Cantos. Pound himself, as usual, led the field with his little poem “Papyrus”:

Spring….
Too long….
Congula….

Davenport goes one further by taking us into his confidence on the state of the text:

fragrant—
[five lines indecipherable]
walk
thus see

This might seem no way to treat the “general reader,” but Davenport is counting on the Walter Mitty within us, only too anxious to emerge as a specialist reader. The invitation is not merely to collaborate with Davenport in his translating; we are taken behind the scenes where the text is being deciphered. “Just room for iota adscript, Lobel,” we say, glancing keenly at a brown sliver of papyrus. The distinguished head bows, the neat calligraphy inscribes our reading…

This is good fun, valuable only in so far as it makes the poem open-ended, provisional, and frees it from the gloomy “Don’t Touch” of the marbled classic. It would be worth nothing if Davenport couldn’t write. He can; and he has made out of badly damaged fragments something that we instantly recognize as poetry:

[ ] Mika
[ ] I shall not let you
You have taken Penthilea for your sweetheart,
Treating me with less than kindness
[ ] and a song, sweet
[ ] with low, gentle voice
[ ] crystal clarity in that song
[ ] dewfall upon the world

This may sound unduly Poundian, the meretricious intrusion of a modern accent into an ancient poem. In fact, except for the third line, it keeps pretty close to the original and if the last line in Greek says no more than “dewy,” Davenport has justifiably brought into his version the radiance that can surround Sappho’s single words. His feeling for what he calls her “archaic robustness” has helped him to keep the tone bright and clear, instead of going soggy with reverence as so many translators have done. It is proper that we should feel reverence for this poet, but the translator who lets it color his writing is making Sappho feel reverence for herself. She should sound, surely, like this:

Too much is enough
Of that girl Gorgo

or (the English making one catch one’s breath as the Greek so often does)

Graces O with wrists like the wild rose.

In the brief pieces Davenport’s level seems to me consistently finer than that of any previous translator; and he is the only man who has recreated in English the kind of intense poetry that we find—that we half invent, of course—in the broken fragments. Where he fails is with the longer, with the great, and very great, poems.

God’s wildering daughter deathless Aphródita—

his version of the great initial ode begins. The dubious acute accent tries for the lift of awe and love that carries this poem so high into the heaven of art; and his treatment as a whole is imaginative. Yet it will not do. Nothing will do that does not shake us to the heart, nothing will do that has less than the thrust and the solidity of (say)

Speak ye who best can tell, ye Sons of light.

And his version of Phainetai moi, if it is better than Barnstone’s, is only relatively less inadequate. It would be disrespectful to his successes along the lower reaches of Sappho’s art to imply that he can do more than point to those qualities that the most ignorant Grecian discovers in the original. Yet he does point. And he creates (with the help of a most attractive piece of book production by The University of Michigan Press) the atmosphere of clarity and gaiety and intelligent grace and above all excitement in which Sappho’s words and images can come to life. I can imagine a reader saying to himself, “If she is so good in her slighter pieces, what must she be like at her greatest?” And going out and buying a Greek grammar to do for himself what neither Davenport nor anyone else can do for him.

Letters

Sappho Herself May 26, 1966

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