Searching for Sappho

New poems by a woman who died over two millennia ago – of course I was interested. And this book does get off to a cracking detective-like start, which reminded me of a book I loved, Sisters of Sinai:


What happens after that?

Searching for Sappho  has the ambitious aim of “introducing new translations of all Sappho’s surviving poetry”. This means a new book this year, because more new poems have come to light in both 2004 and 2014, including this one:


Phillip Freeman does a great job of telling the story of how these works were found, and of putting Sappho in her social, spiritual and historical context. He cuts through the contortions that later interpreters went through to try and present her as a sort of Victorian governess figure. She is the world’s original Lesbian, after all, but she was also a mother and a member of a wealthy ruling family in a time of conflict. It was entrancing to learn that Sappho’s most complete love poem was actually casting a sort of love spell, getting Aphrodite to help her catch the woman she adores:


The fascinating and frustrating thing about Sappho is that almost all we have is really just fragments – a word, a line, a couple of stanzas – which leaves lots of room for wondering as to what might fill the gaps:


As to the actual translation of the poems; this was a great introduction if you’re new to Sappho, but there is a lot more out there to choose from. I’m going to read Anne Carson’s If not, Winter next, as I loved her interpretation of Antigone.

The image is of the fragments of Sappho’s poems in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. On the link you can hear one being read in the original and another “new” English translation, Mary Barnard’s from 1958.


Fragments of Sappho (c) Bodleian Libraries 2016

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Posted in books, gender, history, poetry, Uncategorized

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