by Brian Geiger
“Because once I’ve learned it, I can die.” So said Solon the Wise, the great Athenian lawmaker of the sixth century B.C., when asked why he wanted to be taught a certain poem by Sappho.
This is how Daniel Mendelsohn begins his fascinating New Yorker piece, Hearing Sappho, which chronicles a mysterious woman, her life story lost to time, whose poetry once captivated Ancient Greece.
Though Sappho is a figure of over a thousand years of praise, today we’re left with nothing but fragments of her work, save for a single complete poem. But even that doesn’t do us much good. As Mendelsohn points out, quiet readings of poetry were unheard of for the Ancient Greeks. If it was to be read, it was to be performed and set to music. So, our losses are double: we’ve not only lost the poet’s words but the musician’s melodies, both inseparable from her art.
Work has been done to reconstruct one of her pieces, rather dryly referred to as Fragment 1, along with others. But if anyone hopes to fully experience the lyric poetry that made Plato himself deem Sappho the “tenth Muse,” we’ll all just have to accept that perhaps we never will.
To make matters worse, those of us who aren’t well-versed in Classical Greek are left with only mere translations. And we may well refer to that as the third loss since translation strips the music out of the inherently musical, pitch-accentuated language that is Classical Greek.
But even if our losses are threefold, there’s no doubt that, whatever it was that Sappho performed, it mystified artists and philosophers for hundreds of years, and it played out in our imagination for two thousand more.
And perhaps the mystery that shrouds our “poetess” gives us a clearer picture of her brilliance than any reconstruction ever could. As the great Carl Jung once said, “A symbol…mentions beyond itself, to an even transcendent meaning, inconceivable, dimly sensed, that the words of our current language cannot adequately express.” Perhaps the symbol that Sappho has become, the power that we can only glean from her otherworldly praise, reveals more about her art than any tablet or script ever could.
About the Author
Brian is the editor of Vita Brevis, a popular online literary magazine that he founded in 2017. He’s studying to become a psychotherapist and is a freelance writer for numerous publications and clients. Some of his personal publications can be found here.