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Channeling Sappho By Bill Donahue Calligraphy by Carol Erickson DuBosch
How Mary Barnard ’32 Liberated the Ancient Greek Poet from a Prison of Rhymes
She was a tall woman, maybe, and a sultry beauty. In the paintings we have of Sappho, the lyric poet who lived circa 600 BC, her eyes are often soft and beguiling. Her robes are loose and flowing in the warm island breezes of her native Lesbos, and her skin is alabaster and tender—painted with a sweet affection reminiscent of Caravaggio.
Usually, she is carrying a lyre, for in her largely preliterate culture, Sappho was a singer-songwriter—a feminist voice, and a sort of Ani DiFranco of her day. She performed at weddings and funerals, sometimes alone, and sometimes with a chorus of teenage girls. Some believe that she ran a finishing school for the wealthy young debutantes of her day, tutoring them in fashion and the arts. Others contend that Sappho’s school was secular, and cultlike in its embrace of homosexual love. This latter theory has a certain seamy marketability today (your alumni magazine herewith directs you to sapphosflame.com), but in truth Sappho’s poems are not raw anatomy lessons. They tend, instead, to be pain-acquainted notes on Eros’ sting. Consider this poem, as rendered in a famous American translation:
With his venom
For several centuries, Sappho was venerated. In his first- century-AD treatise, “On The Sublime,” the Greek critic Longinus reveled, “Are you not amazed at how she evokes soul, body, hearing, tongue, sight, skin, as though they were external and belonged to someone else? And how at one and the same moment she both freezes and burns?”
But just a few years later, in 180 AD, the theologian Tatian dissed Sappho as a “pornikon erotomanes”—and Christianity was only beginning its purifying ascent. In 1073, according to one Renaissance writer, Pope Gregory VII coordinated the burning of Sappho’s work in both Rome and Constantinople.
The bonfires may be apocryphal. What matters is that Sappho’s poems went out of vogue. The pottery bearing her words turned into dust. The papyrus got tossed, mostly, and all that remains is a few fragments—a line here, a word there: a corpus so scant that it instills longing. It’s as though we can hear Sappho’s voice, just barely, calling out of the past, asking to be heard and deciphered.
Let me tell you this:
It is strange how things happen. You have a poet who stood on a Greek isle singing into the wind, and then 25 centuries later, in about 1930, here at Reed, a young woman from Vancouver, Washington, tunes into Sappho—and goes on, in 1958, to publish what many regard as the definitive English language translation of literature’s first significant female voice. Mary Barnard ’32 was an established poet by the 1950s, celebrated for her spare evocations of the Northwest landscape. Her slender book, Sappho: A New Translation, excerpted throughout this piece, is lucid and lean, delivering around 100 of the 200-odd extant Sappho fragments in free verse, in plainspoken American idiom. For example:
If you are squeamish
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