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Sappho Herself

In response to:

Prima Donna from the March 3, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. Carne-Ross’s review of the poems and texts in my Sappho volume reveal a disregard of the clearly stated nature of the book, of the introduction, concordance, notes, and texts. But while he condemns, he gives no examples, and though he speaks at length of the longer poems, of the famous ode to Aphrodite, he doesn’t quote a line. Because of my own admiration of Davenport’s Sappho, a difficult task well handled, I cite his work alongside mine, in the spirit of varied praise to Sappho. Let the reader at least have a glance at the poems:

On your dappled throne, Aphrodite,
sly eternal daughter of Zeus,
I beg you: do not crush me with grief,

but come to me now—as once
you heard my far cry, and yielded,
slipping from your father’s house

to yoke the birds to your gold
chariot, and came. Handsome swallows
brought you swiftly to the dark earth,

their wings whipping the middle sky.
Happy, with deathless lips, you smiled:
“What is wrong, why have you called me?”…
—Willis Barnstone God’s wildering daughter deathless Aphrodita,
A whittled perplexity your bright abstruse chair,
With heartbreak, lady, and breathlessness
Tame not my heart.

But come down to me, as you came before,
For if ever I cried, and you heard and came,
Come now, of all times, leaving
Your father’s golden house

In that chariot pulled by sparrows reined and bitted,
Swift in their flying, a quick blur aquiver,
Beautiful, high. They drew you across steep air
Down to the black earth;

Fast they came, and you behind them, O
Hilarious heart, your face all laughter,
Asking, What troubles you this time, why again
Do you call me down?
—Guy Davenport

Mr. Carne-Ross’s review also lacks a simple description of the contents of my Sappho volume: its metrical tables and metrical index, the inclusion of all main Latin and Greek testimonia to Sappho, newly translated, a prose translation of all principal Greek and Latin poems to Sappho.

In the introduction to my book I devote four pages to a summary of the difficult textual problems. Mr. Carne-Ross writes inaccurately that I base the volume (and should not have) on the Harvard University Loeb Library Greek texts of Edmonds. In the University of California publication of Sappho’s poems, introduced by Dudley Fitts, the almost miraculous beauty of Miss Barnard’s poems from Sappho—Miss Barnard was the first to capture Sappho for a modern reader—appeared before the Lobel and Page Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta and is based on Edmonds’s Loeb texts. Mr. Paul Roche’s exquisite versions of Sappho, which have appeared in the Greek Heritage and are announced as part of a forthcoming New American Library publication, are also based on the Loeb edition. Mr. Davenport as well follows Edmonds’s and Page’s conjectural reconstructions of poem 106 in his volume in two versions he includes.

I have followed Lobel and Page, Diehl and Treu in most cases, and gone to Edmonds for serious emendations only when the alternative was the complete loss of the poem. These few cases are poems after Sappho as the text clearly states.

A hint of the complexity of the problems in choosing adequate texts, when the originals are highly mutilated, is well expressed by Richard Lattimore in Greek Lyrics, Chicago, 1960: “For restorations to fill out the text of Bacchylides. I am indebted to the editions of Blass, Jebb, Kenyon, Snell, and particularly Edmonds. I also take this occasion to acknowledge my gratitude to the great company of true scholars who have collected, edited, pieced out, and interpreted all the texts which have been used in these translations.”

In the now standard Lobel and Page, the emendations are rightly kept to an obvious minimum. When, however, Page in his Sappho and Alcacus and Bowra in Greek Lyric Poetry present Greek texts along with their own translations, then they do restore the texts considerably. They are not being inconsistent. They are simply unwilling to throw away much of Greek lyric poetry because of the condition of the basic fragmentary texts they themselves, with the greatest authority, have edited.

We are fortunate to have their translations, as well as those of Miss Barnard who gave us Sappho for the first time—in her fearless renditions—beautiful and blind to pedantry.

D.S. Carne-Ross has written model articles on the theory of poetry translation. I do not believe he could have written the review he did had he read the texts with any care.

Willis Barnstone

D. S Carne-Ross replies:

Replying is going to make me sound like an anti-Barnstone man, which I’m not, but perhaps something should be said. The two relevant points in my review were:

(1) That Mr. Barnstone’s translations, though sometimes attractive, were not up to Sappho. This is not an insult. She is one of the best lyric poets in the world. As to his parallel version (yes, I should have quoted more), let the reader decide. One comment: Davenport’s “bright abstruse chair,” in line two, may not be perfect, but it does try to jolt one into vision. What was the goddess sitting on? A “dappled throne,” Barnstone replies. I find the diction trite; and I don’t get a picture.

(2) That his Greek text leaned too heavily on Edmonds’s Loeb edition. (When the Greek is seriously damaged, that is; when it is fairly secure, it does not much matter whose text is used.) His letter manages to confuse the charge against Edmonds’s methods. Certainly it is only sensible to accept the work of scholars who have patched battered passages into coherence, but Edmonds often goes far beyond this, creating out of a few words what is virtually a new poem or restoring almost obliterated stanzas into specious integrity. (E.g., 22, 23, 24, 27, 69, 110, 133, 134—in Barnstone’s numbering.) We should accept a scholar’s scholarship; it is wiser to refuse his poetry. Incidentally, Mr. Barnstone is sometimes less respectful to scholarship than his letter suggests. Near the middle of the most beautiful of the partially recovered poems, “Some say a host of horsemen,” his version contains these words: “the very scourge/of Trojan honor.” Of the Greek which this represents, Professor Denys Page (whose competence here I assume we both accept) comments: “Before the true reading was known it was fashionable to write [Barnstone’s Greek follows] despite the fact that—“ that, briefly, it isn’t Greek. Why does Barnstone print this reading? Because Edmonds prints it.

I am sorry I didn’t mention his useful metrical tables and the like. I supposed this could be left to more specialized journals, and that what readers of the Review wanted was some account of Mr. Barnstone as a translator of poetry.

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