In a fragment of a Hellenistic elegy called “Loves, or the Beautiful Boys,” by a certain Phanocles, we are told that after the legendary poet Orpheus was torn to pieces by the women of Thrace, his head and his lyre—the instrument from which lyric poetry derives its name—were borne by the waves to the island of Lesbos, where they were subsequently buried. This geography was hardly casual. By Phanocles’ time, Lesbos had long been associated with exceptional achievement in the lyric arts. The reputation of a poet called Terpander, for instance, who came from the Lesbian city of Antissa and is listed on an extant monument as the winner of a song competition that occurred in the 670s BC, was such that he was credited—apocryphally, undoubtedly—with having invented the seven-stringed lyre. (He is also said to have founded music schools in Sparta.)

Two generations later, Arion, another Lesbian poet, served as a kind of artist-in-residence at the court of the Corinthian tyrant Periander, where he was responsible for raising the genre known as dithyramb to new expressive heights. It is this same Arion, as Herodotus charmingly relates, who is said to have been rescued by a dolphin after being mugged and thrown overboard by hooligans during a voyage home from Syracuse.

But no Lesbian poets were more famous or influential in antiquity than two who, of Arion’s contemporaries, were most renowned for their lyric songs: Alcaeus and Sappho. Both came from the hothouse social milieu of the Lesbian aristocracy, which was known as much for its political intrigues as for its love of pleasure and beauty, a love that in the classical Greek imagination was associated with the slightly decadent cultures that flourished in the coastal cities of Asia Minor, just across a narrow strip of water from Lesbos. The two poets, not surprisingly, seem to have known each other. (There is a fragment of Sappho, quoted by Aristotle, which has often been taken to be a playful dialogue between the two.)

And yet the surviving poems and fragments of these two bespeak wildly divergent interests. Those of Alcaeus suggest a person, or at least a poetic persona, along the lines of an Elizabethan rake: there are drinking songs, war songs, and quite a few verses, often bitter ones, about the tumultuous political situation in Mytilene, Lesbos’s largest city and the two poets’ hometown. The first-century-BC scholar and critic Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who taught Greek to Romans, dryly noted that without the meter, certain of Alcaeus’ poems read like political speeches.

The poems of Sappho, whose reputation a scant century after her death was such that Plato could refer to her as “the Tenth Muse,” are famously preoccupied, on the other hand, almost solely by erotic yearning for young women. If Sappho’s extraordinary gifts bring to mind the rich lyric tradition of her homeland, and thus suggest why Phanocles had Orpheus end up there, it is her subject matter that explains why the place name “Lesbos” has come to have connotations somewhat different from those it had for Phanocles and his readers.

But if the fanciful tale told in “Loves, or the Beautiful Boys” inevitably calls to mind the traditional association of Lesbos with great poetry, and particularly erotic poetry—for Phanocles’ poem, as its name suggests, was a catalog of loves of various gods and heroes for beautiful young boys—that story of the severed head also introduces another element that becomes crucial in any consideration of Sappho’s verse: fragments.

We learn from (of all people) a freed slave once belonging to Cicero that the library at Alexandria possessed nine volumes—which is to say, rolled papyrus scrolls—of Sappho’s verses; the first book alone contained 1,320 lines. These books were arranged primarily by meter. The first was a collection of poems composed in the distinctive four-line stanza known as the Sapphic strophe (a complicated and exacting meter later brilliantly adapted by Catullus into Latin); the second featured verses in something called Aeolic dactylic pentameter, composed in two-line stanzas; the third showcased the meter called the Asclepiad; and so forth. It is likely that the ninth book was a collection of poems known as Epithalamia, songs to be sung during various stages of the wedding ritual; to this book belongs the fragment made famous as the title of a book by J.D. Salinger, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters—written, perhaps, on the occasion of a girl’s wedding toa rather tall man. (“The humour,” as Sappho’s greatest twentieth-century editor, Denys Page, grumpily noted in his definitive 1955 edition of the poems, “not for the last time in the history of weddings, is heavy and flat.”) Even if we grant that not every one of the nine books contained as many verses as did the first, the foregoing catalog should suffice to provide an idea of the extent of the original Sapphic corpus.


Of that extensive output, we possess precisely one complete poem. Generally referred to as “fragment 1” in the standard editions of Sappho’s works, this seven-stanza lyric, composed in Sapphic strophes, is a self-deprecatingly humorous request for assistance by the lovelorn Sappho to Aphrodite, goddess of love. (“Come to me now…be my ally.”) The reason it has survived, however, has nothing to do with love and everything to do with literature: the poem was quoted in full by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in an essay on literary composition; he admired its polish and intensity. It is, indeed, odd to contemporary readers, who are likely to value Sappho for those traits of emotional intensity, self-reflection, and subjective expressiveness which we see as fundamental to lyric poetry, that this most famous of all the ancient lyricists has survived primarily because of what seem to us today to be the dry preoccupations of long-dead pedants.

One lovely fragment (“I would not think it right to touch the sky with my two arms”) comes to us because it contained a spelling of the Greek word for “sky” that interested the second-century-AD grammarian Herodian in his treatise “On Anomalous Words.” (Lest one conclude too hastily that Herodian’s interests were overly narrow, it should be noted that his other works included a study of the accentuation of the Iliad and Odyssey.) Some of the most emotionally stark snippets—“you’ve forgotten me/or you love some man more than me”—or those that seem most tantalizing (“as long as you are willing…”) occur in a treatise by Herodian’s equally learned father, Apollonius Dyscolus, a book that even in antiquity was unlikely to have been a page-turner: On Pronouns.

It is safe to say that none of these fragments (or those additional verses that over the course of the past century have been found, written on scraps of papyri that ended up in a trash heap from a Hellenistic city in Egypt) would arouse a great deal of excitement were it not for the fact that Sappho was a woman, and—even more, I suspect—that she wrote about desire. The first fact is a fascinating anomaly, given what we know of the often oppressive grip of Greek patriarchy, even in the comparatively relaxed milieu of the Lesbian elite. (Aristotle remarks, in the Rhetoric, that Sappho was honored “even though she was a woman.”)

The second fact dovetails with certain ideas we have that are central not only to our understanding of lyric poetry but, indeed, to our conception of selfhood in general, desire and sexuality being so crucial to our contemporary understanding of personality. With a directness seemingly unmediated by vast stretches of time, Sappho seems to speak to us quite clearly today, no matter what the form our desire takes. “No one who has been in love,” the poet and classics scholar Anne Carson wrote at the beginning of her brilliant and idiosyncratic 1986 study of Greek erotic poetry, “disputes her”—that is, argues with Sappho’s definition of eros as “bittersweet,” a word that Sappho in fact coined.1

Hence our hunger for those paltry fragments. And yet what if Sappho’s poems meant something wholly different to her and her original audience from what their partial remains mean to us? What, for instance, if those intense expressions of individual subjective yearning were written—as their frequent use of the first-person-plural pronoun has suggested to some—for performance by large choruses of young girls who sang Sappho’s songs at public occasions? We know that such choruses were a fact of cultural life in Archaic Greece, just as we know of choruses of men and boys who sang other formalized songs, such as the dithyramb, at civic festivals—the origin, so Aristotle tells us, of tragedy.

How do we read those frequent addresses to Aphrodite if Sappho was, in fact, not an erotomane but the leader of a thiasos, a formal cult association that met to honor the goddess—or even of a school for girls at which she officiated as a kind of headmistress? What if Sappho was the head of one of several informal associations of young women—her poems mention, with amusing tartness, the leaders of other such groups, as far as we can tell—to whose members, preparing for their inevitable destinies as females in Greek society, Sappho’s yearning lyrics were meant to provide a kind of emotional “instruction leading to marriage”?2 What if the lyrics were meant not to provide a voice to private yearning, nor to emphasize in the public eye the desirability of her young female subjects on the occasion of their nuptials (another theory), but to mediate in a yet more subtle fashion between private and public—to “lift the daimonic power of eros out of the realm of the formless and terrible, bring it into the light of form, make it visible to the individual poet and, by extension, to his or her society”?3


The foregoing catalog is intended merely to suggest the range and variety of explanations—given over the years and centuries—of the meaning of Sappho’s lyrics. To be sure, some of these explanations were motivated by distaste for the possibility that Sappho was homosexual in the way we understand that word. Yet some are sensitive and informed attempts to understand Sappho’s verse in a fashion that takes into account what we know of Archaic Greek culture—not only that it was patriarchal, and therefore unlikely to tolerate unbridled expressions of lesbian desire (as we understand it to be, at least), but also that the contexts for lyric performance were, like so many other aspects of Greek culture, likely to be much more public than the contemporary poetry-reading audience might imagine. “There seems to be a contradiction,” as one scholar has succinctly put it, “between these singular love protestations and the collective character of the education given to the girls in Sappho’s circle.”4

The apparent passion of the words that have been thus preserved, and the pedantic dryness of the contexts in which those words have survived, may thus be said to represent two poles in a controversy about Sappho and her work that has raged since the beginning of modern classical scholarship: Is the “real” Sappho the one we seem to recognize, the intensely private singer of unique songs about forbidden desire; or do she and her work belong—somehow—to the public world of civic and social practices in a way that is difficult for us today to apprehend? That the stakes in this debate are more than merely academic will be evident in the following appraisal of some recent criticism:

The increasing empowerment of women, with the resultant interest in women’s history, women’s writing, and women’s “ways of knowing,” has accounted for the focus on Sappho as the first female writer in the Western tradition whose works have survived in any quantity.5

The same may be said for the focus on Sappho by queer theorists, and indeed by any number of critics—and their constituencies in the larger world—who wish to claim her as a forebear who could lend ancient and powerful cultural authority to marginalized identities.

The problem, alas, is that Sappho has not, in fact, survived “in any quantity.” Indeed, the reason that there seems no satisfactory way to resolve that controversy about the “real” Sappho and her circle and the “real” meaning of her poems is precisely because so much of the evidence we possess is fragmentary: what we know for certain about Sappho is that she did (or did not?) lead a circle of women who were (or were not?) lesbians in the contemporary sense of that word; that she did compose songs (for public performance? for private delectation?) about young girls (who were students? lovers? disciples? fellow cultists?). And, in what is surely an unproductive circularity, our fragmentary knowledge comes from the precious fragments themselves.


One way to deal with the problems that arise from the desperately incomplete state in which we find the Sapphic corpus is to forgo entirely any thought of reconstruction, of interpretation: to take the beautiful fragments, in other words, at face value. The idea that fragments of ancient culture—not only poems, but vases and statues as well—can be beautiful despite their incompleteness has, of course, considerable allure and a distinguished Romantic pedigree (“the pleasure in ruins”); during the past century, we have indeed found a certain appeal in the notion that fragments are beautiful because they are incomplete. One need only think of Rilke’s famous lyric “Archaïscher Torso Apollos” to be reminded of the hold that the notions of incompleteness or fragmentation, and indeed a kind of wholeness-in-fragmentation, had on the twentieth-century artistic imagination. This is, if anything, even more true for our present postmodern imagination, with its obsession with fragmentation, allusiveness, quotation, and reconfiguration of elements of the past.

The cultural climate of postmodernism helps to account for the attitudes of Sappho’s most recent generation of translators and interpreters. The classicist Page duBois, for instance, prefers to see the tattered corpus of Sappho as a Lacanian “body in pieces,” and hence forgoes traditional attempts at reconstructing Sappho’s work and context in favor of a meditation on “the aesthetics of the fragment,” and on our own fleeting relationship to the fragments of the past.6 Another classicist has recently observed that for some,

the fragmentary nature of the surviving texts…has meant the opportunity to create whatever Sappho they need. For others, the his-torical irony implicit in the fragmentary preservation of poems of yearning and separation serves as a reminder of the inevitable incompleteness of human knowledge and affection.7

And yet as alluring and provocative to us today as the notion of “the fragmentary” may be, it must be said that it has no meaningful relation to the presumed object of serious scholarly and translational energies, which is some kind of responsible representation of Sappho herself to the wider world—even if that representation must remain partial and unsatisfying to that world, eager as it is to see in her its own reflection. We may not know a great deal about Sappho, but we do know that she wrote whole poems, not fragments. The resemblance between the shattered state of the Sapphic texts and the shattered state of the broken hearts that are sometimes described in those texts is purely coincidental; the use of such resemblance as an element in the criticism of Sappho’s work is, ultimately, as sentimental as any of the theories advanced by the Victorian critics of yore.

When we bear in mind the vexed questions about Sappho’s original context, and the subtle problems associated with a “straight” approach to her works, it seems to be a problem that the contemporary critical penchant for fragmentation as an aesthetic mode of its own invariably colors new translations of the poems themselves. Stanley Lombardo, a classicist and translator who produced a remarkably fresh and distinctive new version of the Iliad in 1997, writes in the preface to his recent Sappho translation of the “gaps in the text that often leave us with only these beautiful, isolated limbs.” “Beautiful, isolated limbs” brings us back full circle to old Phanocles and that disembodied head of Orpheus, washed up on the shore of Lesbos—a fable that now seems to take on additional overtones, suggesting as it does the way in which poetry can enjoy sentimentalizing and idealizing the fragmentary body (as Rilke would do millennia after Phanocles). And indeed, for Lombardo, the allure of gaps and fragments dictates a philosophy of translation that affects even intact passages: “I sometimes deliberately treat a more or less intact passage as if composed of fragments that reduce to rhythmic phrases. I have made no attempt to follow, although I do sometimes suggest, Sap-

pho’s various lyric meters.”8 Here, preference for fragmentation actually erases what is, in fact, recoverable and intact in the original.

The problems inherent in the sentimental “fragmentist” approach to Sappho are even more evident in the new translation of Sappho’s poems with a commentary by Anne Carson, who is not only a serious scholar of Greek poetry but also a serious poet whose oeuvre thus far represents, to my mind, the most distinguished, original, and successful adaptation and reconfiguration of classical models produced in the past generation. (Mimnermos is the subject of part of the mosaic-like Plainwater; the Greek lyric genius Simonides of Keos meets Paul Celan in the essay Economy of the Unlost; Aristotle and the choral lyricist Alkman appear meaningfully in Men in the Off Hours; Autobiography of Red is a verse novel that reimagines the myth of Geryon as narrated in the poetry of Stesichorus.9 ) For Carson as a translator of Sappho, the absence, the gaps—the lack of what Sappho actually wrote—become an “exciting” presence:

When translating texts read from papyri, I have used a single square bracket to give an impression of missing matter, so that ] or [ indicates destroyed papyrus or the presence of letters not quite legible somewhere in the line. It is not the case that every gap or illegibility is specifically indicated: this would render the page a blizzard of marks and inhibit reading. Brackets are an aesthetic gesture toward the papyrological event rather than an accurate record of it…. Brackets are exciting. Even though you are approaching Sappho in translation, that is no reason you should miss the drama of trying to read a papyrus torn in half or riddled with holes or smaller than a postage stamp—brackets imply a free space of imaginal adventure.

To get a sense of what such adventures entail, we might look at Carson’s translation of the poem known as fragment 22, a partial line of which lends her new book its title. Here are the first few lines:

if not, winter
] no pain
]I bid you sing
of Gongyla, Abanthis, taking up
your lyre as (now again) longing
floats around you…

It should be noted that Carson has taken liberties here—as she warns in her preface that she would. “Gongyla,” for instance, appears in the Greek text as the headless fragment (more body parts, alas) “…gyla,” the rest of the name having been quite rightly supplied from other verses elsewhere in the corpus. Likewise, a more accurate representation of “Abanthis” would be “[…]anthis”; there is, presumably, only so much drama to which the lay reader may safely be exposed. And Carson has also neglected to represent the brackets that, in fact, mar the fifth line of the Greek text. (But then, who would buy a book called “]f not, winter[“?)

I harp on Carson’s selective application of her principles of representation because it seems to me symbolic of the strange waffling that characterizes her new book itself, which, like so much about Sappho, has ended up stranded between the scholarly and the impressionistic—between an attempt to recover something concrete of Sappho’s meanings and the desire to make Sappho reflect our own preoccupations. (In this case—as Carson’s subtitle, to say nothing of her prefatory remarks, indicates—preoccupations with the beauty and “excitement” of fragments and the fragmentary.) Like Sappho’s songs, indeed, Carson’s translation raises a difficult question of audience: Just who is this book for? To the lay eye, at least, If Not, Winter presents itself as an authoritative new Sappho: it accounts for every one of the nearly two hundred fragments of which at least one legible word survives, and provides the Greek text, brackets and all, on the page facing each translation. There are, too, notes in back which contain many references to and citations of ancient authors.

And yet an intelligent reader not familiar with the controversies raging around Sappho and her work, and trusting in the amplitude of Carson’s book, in the scholarly-looking apparatus of notes and Greek citations and, indeed, the scarifying Greek on those facing pages, is likely to take away from this new translation, and from what can best be described as the fragments of information to be gleaned from its notes, a picture of the poet and her corpus that is disingenuously taciturn at best, and misleading at worst.

There is, still, a great deal to be admired here, not least because as a scholar Carson has special insight into the elaborate rhetorical strategies at play in the few substantial fragments we do have. Perhaps the most famous poem by Sappho—sufficiently influential in antiquity to have been translated by Catullus—is fragment 31 in the standard edition, four complete Sapphic stanzas and a single additional line from the fifth, that survive because it was quoted (rightly) in Longinus’ treatise On the Sublime:

He seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking
and lovely laughing—oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me
no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears
and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead—or almost
I seem to me.
But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty

Longinus admired the way in which the contradictory symptoms of the lover’s passion, as she watches her beloved talk easily to a third party, a man, come together to form a persuasive whole; more contemporary interpreters have admired the way in which it introduces the imagination into lyric utterance for the first time, as the poem engages in a complex discourse about “seeming”—about perceptions of phenomena both exterior and interior to oneself. The new translation conveys the real drama of this remarkable lyric, which is the way that the speaker becomes both increasingly aware of, and yet increasingly detached from, her own body, whose various members—eyes, tongue, skin—take on lives of their own.

Carson allows us to hear how the first four stanzas are framed by words of seeming: the Greek phainetai, “he seems,” and phainomai, “I seem”; her exact translation places the reader in the slightly echoing inner world of perception which is the special achievement of the poem, and which is not well conveyed, for instance, by Lombardo’s “Look at him…Look at me,” which has the unfortunate effect, because of the implied apostrophe to the reader, of introducing into this work’s much-commented-on perfect triangle (Sappho, the girl, the man) an extraneous fourth person.

Some scholars have felt in this poem a subtly implicit martial vocabulary not at all foreign to Sappho’s poetic vision: from what we can tell she of-ten likes to compare her world of terrifying encounters with desire to the military exploits of men, as for instance in fragment 16 with its famous opening:

Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot
and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing
on the black earth. But I say it is
what you love.

Not the sexless “some say,” as Lombardo has it, but some men say: Sappho uses the masculine article. Armies and fleets represent the world of men; Sappho has other concerns. In light of this particular preoccupation, “greener than grass” helps to recall, as the Greek is surely meant to, the “green fear” that seizes hold of Homer’s warriors during battle encounters. (Lombardo gives “paler,” which apart from being meaningless—is grass pale?—loses the allusion.) There are other details in Carson’s rendering of fragment 31 that show a praiseworthy sensitivity to the original: “puts the heart in my chest on wings” is a stunning solution for the Greek eptoaisen, a word that for the Greek speaker conveys both a fearful shuddering and wings; and “drumming” successfully brings across the almost onomatopoetic force of the Greek verb epibromeisi, which Lombardo’s “my ears ring” fails to suggest.

But the best and most persuasive aspect of Carson’s rendering is to convey the odd, stilted quality of the Greek when it describes the symptoms that make Sappho not the subject but the object of the phenomena she describes: the Greek literally says “Nothing any longer comes to me to speak,” which is brought across much better here than in Lombardo’s “I can’t get any words out.” It is the poem’s complex play of subject and object, perceiving and suffering, detachment and involvement, that accounts for its privileged place in the Western lyric tradition, and this elaborate play is what Carson beautifully renders.10

And yet as persuasive as much of the translation is, there are odd lapses and strange inconsistencies. A distinctive aspect of Sappho’s verse is that unquantifiable element, voice: in Sappho’s case, forthright and plain, however artful the rhetorical strategies may be. Carson admirably recreates the directness of Sappho’s voice, explaining her choices thus: “In translating I tried to put down all that can be read of each poem in the plainest language I could find, using where possible the same order of words and thoughts as Sappho did. I like to think that, the more I stand out of the way, the more Sappho shows through.” Still, there are places in which this ostensibly laudable approach isn’t necessarily appropriate; it isn’t clear that to mimic the word order of a highly inflected language like Greek results, in fact, in an “accurate” representation of the words. (Any more than, say, to postpone the verb to the end of a sentence in a translation from the German would be an accurate or appropriate translation of the German.) One result is a certain stiffness in Carson which you don’t find in Sappho.

As it happens, there are times when Carson most decidedly stands in the way of Sappho: as with those “dramatic” brackets, the rigor and exactitude I’ve remarked on above are not consistent throughout. Sometimes, there’s a tone-deafness that deprives the verses of their vivid meaning. Certain fragments indicate that a rival of Sappho’s—the leader of another band of women and girls, perhaps—was called Andromeda, and one fragment in particular seems to rejoice in some defeat of this woman, perhaps an erotic one: “Andromeda’s certainly gotten hers,” would be one translation of the Greek, in which the word amoiban, literally “exchange,” indicates something that one had coming. Carson gives her readers the characterless “Andromeda has a fine exchange,” which conveys none of the gleeful derision of the original—and also stifles the emotional content, slim as it is, of the verse.

Other lapses seem to be arbitrary. It is strange, given Carson’s alertness to the salient gender issues in these poems, that she would choose to translate fragment 108—at one short line, admittedly not among the most crucial ones—as “O beautiful O graceful one,” when the Greek very explicitly provides a noun for those adjectives: kora, “girl.” On the other hand, it’s all too easy to see why Carson has chosen to render the tiny two-word fragment 38, optais amme, as “you burn me.” What the Greek says is “you burn us”; the pronoun is plural. As Carson acknowledges in her note to this fragment, one reason that Sappho uses the plural is that the poetry was choral in origin—a consideration that brings us back to the vexed question of Sappho’s performance practices and their implications for her meaning.

But Carson goes on to say that she’s chosen to render this fragment the way she has in order to preserve what she calls its “fragile heat.” In other words, she’s chosen to sacrifice what the words actually say—and here it’s worth remembering that, as one scholar has pointed out, “a first person singular can refer to a soloist or a chorus …but a first person plural only to a chorus or a soloist who wants to include others”11—in order to project an image of Sappho as we want her: the private voice of individual erotic yearning. If the fragment is hot enough to translate, it’s hot enough to render accurately—with, of course, the same explanatory note. But then it might not seem so hot, after all.

Equally tendentious, I can’t help feeling, are the introduction at the front and the notes at the back of this book, an array of asides about the sources of the fragments, comments on the meaning of the Greek, and general observations that, while often amusing, fail to provide a consistently informative addendum to the fragments laid out in these pages. You wish that there were either less text—just the significant fragments, say—or more ample notes. Certain issues are illuminated, others not; some choices explained, but not all.

Much of this is most likely a matter of personal quirkiness in an author who can be rather mandarin. (The author’s note at the back of her books famously declares that she “lives in Canada”—and that’s it.) Yet some of Carson’s choices seem to adhere to a subtle agenda. It seems to me that her account of the “marks and lacks” in the extant fragments is not wholly free from playing to the prejudices of her likely audience. “A duller load of silence,” she writes, “surrounds the bits of Sappho cited by ancient scholiasts, grammarians, metricians, etc., who want a dab of poetry to decorate some proposition of their own and so adduce exempla without context.” She then goes on to cite these exempla while dryly chiding those ancient philologues for not giving us more of the precious fragments we want:

It would be nice to know whether this question comes from a wedding song…. Apollonius Dyskolos is not interested in such matters…. And who is this girl? And why is Sappho praising her? Chrysippos is not concerned with anything except Sappho’s sequence of negative adverbs…. Who would not like to know more about this garment? But the curiosity of Pollux is strictly lexical….

Here again, we are confronted, implicitly, with the two poles of the old Sappho debate: on the one side stand the desiccated scholars with their narrow, airless interests, and on the other the sensitive advocates of passionate feeling. There’s little doubt about which group Carson’s readers are meant to identify with.

But it’s surely unjust (although it will just as surely gratify contemporary readers) to deride ancient philologues for not realizing that the poetry they took for granted would eventually vanish, and for merely doing their dry, scholarly jobs; just as it would be unfair for us to expect our contemporary poets to be like second-century Alexandrian scholars with their dry, scholarly concerns. (Concerns, for instance, about the difference between singular and plural pronouns.)

Carson’s goal of letting Sappho “show through” is an admirable one; less admirable, perhaps, is her presentation of this vexed body of poetry as transparent, as being about what most readers are already likely to assume it’s about. That Carson is willing to allow them that snug fantasy is evident in her introduction. Here, in two scant sentences, she breezily dispenses with any discussion of crucial issues of Sappho’s performative context, of the relationship in her work between the personal and the public, which might have profound bearing on how readers of this new translation will understand Sappho. “It seems that she knew and loved women as deeply as she did music. Can we leave the matter there?” Carson asks (and then goes on to quote Gertrude Stein). Well, no, we can’t.

But then, not leaving the matter there would mean getting into a lot of tedious philological fuss, and therefore forsaking the romance of fragments, which are so easily manipulated, for the perhaps disappointing reality of a large and complicated cultural whole. Carson’s new book is as fragmentary and frustrating, ultimately, as the object of its highly idiosyncratic scrutiny. Like so many other products of the recent school of Sappho commentaries, it leaves us with a strange and unsettling feeling that to some, at least, will be familiar: that there, over there, is a woman of beauty, saying enchanting things to someone; but in our excitement at being in her presence, we can’t quite make out her meaning.

This Issue

August 14, 2003