“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.
Who was 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. They did not simply read poetry, they performed and set it 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.
Experts have tried to reconstruct one of her pieces, rather dryly referred to as Fragment 1, along with others. But few believe they’ll ever experience her lyric poetry. The performances that made Plato himself deem Sappho the “tenth Muse” might be lost to history.
To make matters worse, those of us who aren’t well-versed in Classical Greek are left with mere translations. And we may well refer to that as the third loss. 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 Sappho’s poetry mystified artists and philosophers. They lived in her wake for hundreds of years. And she’s played out in our collective imagination for two thousand more.
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 glean from her otherworldly praise, reveals more about her art than any tablet or script ever could.
About the Author
Brian Geiger is the founder and editor of Vita Brevis, a popular online poetry magazine, and Mental Life, a humanistic publication that merges psychology and philosophy. He’s currently studying to become a psychotherapist.