February 12, 2014, by Richard Rawles
New Sappho: not for Valentine’s Day!
So: new Sappho! Actually, there are two new Sappho papyri coming up; the one we know about has two fragments, but the most comprehensible is the one which its editor, Dirk Obbink, has called the ‘Brothers poem’, and that’s what I’ll talk about here.
The best place to read about it, to see a (tidied up) Greek text and to read the excellent translation by Christopher Pelling is now here. The scholarly edition will be published in the next issue of my favourite magazine: Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.
This means that we all have to stop calling the poem about Tithonus the “New Sappho” (it is now the “Old New Sappho”). In Greek poetry, new discoveries are more common than you might think: the last Sappho find is only ten years old. I’m looking forward to teaching both the Old New Sappho and the New New Sappho in my module on Greek lyric next year!
One of the things which has struck me about early reactions is that they are, in many cases, unenthusiastic about the quality of the poetry. (I have not spent as much time with the new material as I would have liked, but I find it is growing on me.)
Why is this? After all, it is one thing to say ‘not as good as Sappho 1’ (the ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’): but this is a silly comparison. Nothing is as good as Sappho 1: it is the Best Poem In The World (along with the Iliad, obviously… and quite a lot of other Best Poems In The World, but you see what I mean). Is it just not well-expressed? For me there are perhaps a couple of bits which feel slightly clunky, but that may be to do with minor textual problems (or maybe it’s taking me time to get my head around the Greek properly). Part of the reason, perhaps, is that it takes time: we want to live with a poem for a bit before we come to love it. I wonder whether another reason is to do with the subject matter. The big fragment – the ‘Brothers Poem’ – is about the (female) speaker’s concern for her brothers, and the speaker will probably have been identifiable as Sappho. Do we want Sappho to be ‘about’ sexuality and beauty, so that we find a poem about other important relationships disappointing? Is it even that we are really happy to find female voices from antiquity – but a bit less happy when they appear in a context where eroticism is irrelevant?
In the longer term, I think this will be an especially interesting and exciting feature of this fragment. It will bring to the foreground that neither women’s lives nor Sappho’s poetry were all about love or sexuality. We will ask questions like: what did it mean in archaic Lesbos for Sappho to compose a song about her family in this way? what kind of authority and voice does she claim for herself? who was supposed to hear it? how did it travel through time, and what does it mean to re-perform a song like this?
So: the New Sappho ‘Brothers Poem’ is not one for Valentine’s Day: and let’s decide that that is a Good Thing! I never liked Valentine’s Day much anyway: my partner and I can be as sloppy as we like every other day, and all those cards block up my pigeon-hole and make me worry I might miss an important scholarly offprint…
Picture credit: http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/sir-lawrence-alma-tadema/sappho-and-alcaeus-1881
Reminds me of the discovery of the Milan Papyrus and the new, disappointingly bad Posidippus – it turns out the reason that the good stuff was preserved was that it was good, and the reason that the other stuff was lost was that people didn’t like it as much.
I agree with you about the disappointment at a Sappho poem that isn’t about sexuality. One of the reasons that Sappho became so popular was the way in which she seemed to fit the modern zeitgeist for female (and non-heteronormative) sexuality. A poem could be perfectly ‘good’ for its original audience, but if it doesn’t fit into our own expectations and demands, well…