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The Beat Goes On

This translation of a poem by Sappho is based on a new text of fragment 58, made possible, as the article by Martin West in the TLS of June 24, 2005, put it, by “the identification of a papyrus in the University of Cologne as part of a roll containing poems of Sappho. This text, recovered from Egyptian mummy cartonnage, is the earliest manuscript of her work so far known. It was copied early in the third century BC, not much more than 300 years after she wrote.” The second of the three fragments found “had been partially known since 1922 from an Oxyrhynchus papyrus of the third century AD, and by combining the two texts we now attain an almost complete poem.” The TLS published the Greek text. My translation follows.

THE BEAT GOES ON[“fragment 58”]

You, children, be zealous for the beautiful gifts of the violetlapped Muses

and for the clear songloving lyre.

But my skin once soft is now taken by old age,

my hair turns white from black.

And my heart is weighed down and my knees do not lift,

that once were light to dance as fawns.

I groan for this. But what can I do?

A human being without old age is not a possibility.

There is the story of Tithonos, loved by Dawn with her arms of roses

and she carried him off to the ends of the earth

when he was beautiful and young. Even so was he gripped

by white old age. He still has his deathless wife.

—Sappho

* * *

I’m a Fawn!,” it cried out in a voice of delight, “and, dear me! you’re a human child!”

—Through the Looking-Glass

I confess I used to like fragment 58 in its incorrect form. It had fawns wandering through the middle and an uncontainable ending so packed with abstract words it read like Wittgenstein on one of his hooligan days. I made a little book about it once years ago, with paintings of fawns and much analysis of the ending, now obsolete. Funny how time carries things out of sight.

The text printed in the TLS by Martin West is not exactly a “new Sappho” but a more nearly complete and more correct version of a text that had been numbered fragment 58 in most editions. By collating the old and new versions of this fragment, scholars are able to say for sure where the poem begins and ends, what almost all the words are, how to understand its metrical form, and how to read its mythical exemplum. Now the fawns are relegated to a simile and the flash ending belongs to a different poem. It is a quieter composition. But poetically indisputable in the way that Sappho’s poems are.

Being astonished by time is a mood not unknown to most of us. Sappho allows this mood to flare around herself in the first four stanzas of the poem and then settle on a single mythic point: Tithonos. Hard to grow old amid fawns, or the memory of fawns. Infinitely harder when the aging process is one that will never end. Poor Tithonos, beloved of the Dawn, was given immortality by his goddess but she forgot to ask Zeus to grant him immortal youth. He is still locked in a room somewhere, withering away.

Sappho’s language is plain. Adjectives are concrete and not many—only the lyre gets two. The stunning compound “with arms of roses” (of the Dawn) is Homeric; the other two compounds, “songloving” (of the lyre) and “violetlapped” (of the Muses), come from the tradition of archaic lyric poetry. Sappho is not trying to startle her audience with inventions semantic or figural. Her material is facts (Tithonos is a mythic fact), not metaphor, not décor, not afterthought. More than any other writer’s, Sappho’s use of language makes me appreciate what RuPaul said about clothes: “We’re born naked, all the rest is drag.”

Sappho’s is a naked dress. She simply inserts us into a problem of life and then opens it, on a single mythic turn, to time. Time, as metrical pattern, holds the poem perfectly and eternally in place. Sappho’s chops as a composer and player of the “clear songloving lyre” were legendary in antiquity; she is alleged to have invented the plectrum, the Mixolydian mode (an emotional mode used also by tragic poets who learned it from Sappho), as well as a certain type of lyre. And perhaps she awards two adjectives to the “clear songloving lyre” because this beloved instrument can win the contest that boys, girls, fawns, and flesh will certainly lose. Time, as grammatical substance, pours out the end of the poem. The participial phrase which forms the last three words in the fragment (literally “having/ holding/keeping an immortal wife”) describes Tithonos and sums up, in an endless present participle, the exorbitance of his terrific little life that will never stop.*

  1. *

    Gratitude is owed to Yopie Prins and to Will Aitken for their clarifying remarks.

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