The Divine Madness of Love – Stanley Lombardo’s Sappho

For me, Stanley Lombardo’s translations of Sappho are a fire-new revelation[1]. Not reading any dialect of Ancient Greek, I’ve been wholly dependent on translations for my sense of her work. Several have moved me over the years, of course – haunting versions of fragments 16, 31, and 168 in particular. Apart from these, and Michael Longley’s lovely incorporation of Fragment 104(a) into his elegy “Evening Star”, I’ve read her as if through distorting glass. I’d admired the intricacy of Poem 1 in a cerebral way but it never came alive for me as poetry. Then I read this:

Mind shimmering, deathless Aphrodite,
child of Zeus, weaver of wiles,
I beg you, do not crush my spirit
with anguish, Lady,

but come here now, if ever before
you heard my voice in the distance
and heeded my prayer, left your father’s
golden house,

yoked your chariot pulled by sparrows
swift and beautiful over the black earth,
their wings a blur as they streaked from heaven
through the middle air –

and then you were with me, a smile
playing about your immortal lips
as you asked what was it this time …

“Mind shimmering” – so much more arresting and alive than traditional openings along the lines of the Loeb “Ornate throned” – depends on a variant reading of the Greek[2]. At the same time it shows Lombardo’s ability to combine subtlety with explosive force. We register the intense ambiguity of “mind shimmering” in a general way – how the first word sweeps together Aphrodite’s mind and the minds of her subjects[3], how “shimmering” combines suggestions of blazing beauty, inconstancy and deceit – even as we’re hurried on to what comes next. Powerful, driving stresses, especially those in initial position, the sharp contrast between stressed and unstressed syllables and smooth phonetic transitions from one word to another give the first two lines a headlong momentum. The rhetorical magniloquence of the apostrophe makes us look forward in anticipation of a resounding statement to come. Then in the third line the abrupt change of register and tone to the intimate intensity of “I beg you, do not crush my spirit” brings a kind of transformative shock, the imagined voice suddenly dropping from declamation to a murmur or whisper made urgent by strong stresses on “beg”, “do”, “crush” and “spirit” with their plosive b, p, d and the /k/ of “crush”. This forward drive and starkly emphatic manner sweeps us on even as we register contradictions and ambiguities that make us feel the ground unstable under our feet, keeping us off balance and keeping our responses unsettled and alive.

The second stanza brings new transformations of key and viewpoint. The use of the conditional and the vagueness of the timescale (“if ever before”) creates an imaginative distance even before the startling change from Sappho’s viewpoint to that of Aphrodite who hears her calling from far off in the mortal world:

but come here now if ever before
you heard my voice in the distance

The clarity with which Lombardo presents this shift can be seen by comparing M. L. West’s rhythmically lame version of the same lines:

but come, if ever in the past you
heard my voice from afar and hearkened.

Stanza three brings another electrifying change of gear. Though we’re theoretically inside the hypothesis of if ever before, there’s nothing distant or hypothetical about the manner of narration: Aphrodite’s flight is shown with god’s eye immediacy. The energy and exuberant beauty of lines 10 and 11 triumphantly override any incongruity in the image of a chariot drawn through the air by sparrows. “Swift” and “beautiful” explode out of the line with careless absoluteness. As everywhere, rhythm makes a powerful contribution: this line, like so many of them, kicks off with a strong stress[4]. But the end is equally important – the alliterative contrast of  brightness and power with the blackness of the earth (some versions have the much weaker “dark” instead of “black”).

The most startling shift comes in stanza four, with the face to face presence of the goddess. There she suddenly is, or rather there she’s suddenly remembered as having been, laughter-loving Aphrodite in all her vivid indeterminacy, her smile shimmering between tender amusement, motherly indulgence, mockery and triumph, bringer of joy or anguish as she wills, an irresistible power that the speaker in her love-struck madness can only pray to get on her side. At one moment it seems to me that Aphrodite’s imagined speech sounds as gently and indulgently teasing as Sappho could wish; the next, spoken in a way that goes equally well with the grain of the brilliantly realised speech cadences, it sounds exasperated. Remembering that Sappho’s love-struck madness itself comes from Aphrodite, I even find myself thinking of the blitheness of Homer’s gods in face of human misery or of the lines of Racine’s Phèdre, “Ce n’est plus une ardeur dans mes veines cachée: / C’est Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée”.  Such ambiguities dramatise the confusion of the speaker’s own feelings. Even more, they present the helplessness of a mortal’s dependence on the gods. The more you look at this poem in Lombardo’s version the more you realise how packed with power it is, how much it’s the vividness with which it presents a single living voice and situation that makes its implications ripple so widely. There’s humour and self-directed irony (“What was it this time”) and as the poem develops in stanzas I haven’t quoted we’re invited to look at Sappho’s reactions and behaviour critically as well as with sympathy.

I think all these are true responses, yet everything I’ve said is a kind of betrayal of my reasons for saying it. What excited me about the poem in Lombardo’s translation was how fast it made my mind move, what diverse thoughts and feelings it crowded together in its headlong course, how it seemed to set my imagination leaping in many different directions at once. All this was both a joy in itself and, more specifically, a potent implicit dramatization of the speaker’s feelings and situation. Laboriously analytical prose can’t in its nature capture the speed and shimmering lightness with which thoughts and impressions play into each other in a poem like this.

Poem 1 is at one extreme of completeness (28 continuous lines). At the other extreme, Sapphic fragments preserved as quotations in the writing of much later classical authors may be as short as a single word, perhaps no more than a place name (“Aega”), a personal name, or a bare noun like “dawn”. Whatever such may mean to the scholar, on their own they don’t offer much foothold to the simple lover of poetry. I’m glad they’re here though: reading through the volume as a whole, even very short fragments, perhaps only two or three words long, can incandesce imaginatively, their own light fed by that of the others around them. Fragments as short as one or two complete lines long often have considerable beauty on their own, and more quite lengthy passages have survived than I’d realised. Translating both, Lombardo achieves a striking combination of polish with freshness and natural vigour.

I would like to thank Hackett Publishing for permission to quote the first thirteen and a half lines of Lombardo’s translation of Sappho’s Poem 1.


[1] Sappho, Complete Poems and Fragments, translated by Stanley Lombardo, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., , 2016. This is an expanded version of his 2002 Sappho, Poems and Fragments.

[2] One source quoting the poem – Dionysius of Halicarnassus – gives its first word as poikiloTHron’. The Oxyrhynchus papyrus gives it as poikiloFron’. “Thron’” gives “chair” or “throne”, “fron’” gives “mind”. “Poikilo” has a wide range of meanings, covering purely physical applications to fabrics, metal-work etc, like “many-coloured” or “cunningly wrought”, and also more abstract senses such as “intricate”, “complicated”, “changeable”, “diverse”, “abstruse”, “subtle”, “artful”, “wily”, applied by classical authors to such things as the structure of a labyrinth, abstruse knowledge, the song of the sirens, the wiles of Odysseus and Prometheus, doubtful hopes … I’m indebted to Liddell and Scott’s Greek dictionary for these meanings and contexts. I have no idea whether “thron’” or “fron’” is more likely to represent what Sappho originally wrote, but I’m sure that “mind” gives the richer sense.

[3] Aphrodite’s mind shimmers. Her shimmering dazzles the minds of those she makes fall in love.

[4] Strong initial stresses seem to give a particularly driving start to four beat lines like these.

2 Responses to “The Divine Madness of Love – Stanley Lombardo’s Sappho”

  1. Tom D’Evelyn said:

    Sep 27, 19 at 2:53 pm

    Great review. You noted one of the excellences of her poetry and of lyric in general —speed. I will get a copy!

  2. edmund said:

    Sep 27, 19 at 3:06 pm

    Thank you, Tom. It’s a brilliant book. Now I must get the Carson. I’ve only read a couple in her versions.

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