Come Close – Sappho

Sappho died over 2,500 years ago and in the intervening millennia almost all of her poetry has been lost. That she was highly regarded in her time can be seen from contemporaneous sources some of which regard her as the tenth muse ranking her amongst the gods themselves. But sadly she was neglected during the medieval period possibly due to the interpretation of the subject matter of much of her verse which didn’t fit into the strict moral compass of the catholic church and it was the church which performed much of the transcription from ancient texts to works that have lasted into our modern era. However excavations have uncovered fragments of her work even as recently as the last decade and we now have 650 lines of the estimated over 10000 she wrote. Apparently there were nine papyrus rolls of Sappho’s works held in the great library of Alexandria, the first one alone represented twice as much verse as we have available in the present day but those would have been lost in the fire and subsequent neglect whilst controlled by the Roman empire. That this book has roughly 450 lines makes it a positive bargain as it only cost 80p when first published in 2015 and now retails at £2 but still as it represents over two thirds of her extant output this is still money well spent. It is taken from the 2009 Penguin Classic book ‘Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments’ translated by Aaron Poochigian and simply collates the poems without any biographical information or analysis of the works which is the feature of the longer book.

Sappho wrote mainly lyric poetry, that is words designed to be accompanied by music, not songs as such but embellished by a tune, they tend to be in praise of heroic deeds of men and gods along with love songs praising a partner, or potential partner. It is her love poetry that is most famous and was most admired in antiquity but it is the belief that it specifically praises love of a woman for another woman that has given us the word sapphic for women attracted to women and also from her nationality as a resident of the Greek island Lesbos the word lesbian. Having said that this is not a collection of erotic verse, far from it, the lines are expected to be performed, these are expressions of love but nothing more explicit and make for a pleasant afternoon’s reading. It should be borne in mind as well that for the most part these are just fragments of poems, only two works are believed to be complete, so there may be much context that is lost. However I am in danger of writing a review that is longer than the entire book I have just read so let me finish with all we have left of one of the poems.

Stand and face me, dear; release
That fineness in your irises

May you bed down,
Head to breast, upon
The flesh
Of a plush
Companion

Daphnis and Chloe – Longus

It wasn’t long after starting reading this short book that I really wanted to slap both the protagonists. It’s a love story starting with two orphan babies that are separately found on the island of Lesbos with mysterious items that imply some history or maybe a fate from the gods for them however this seems to be largely forgotten as the story progresses. The two children are raised by families a short distance apart and Daphnis ends up as a goatherd whilst Chloe is a shepherdess and they grow up looking after their flocks together and slowly fall in love. What made them so frustrating though was their total naivety regarding sex, they look after goats and sheep for goodness sake surely they have noticed something over the years?

The book was written around 200AD, presumably on Lesbos, by a writer called Longus about whom nothing at all is known. There appear to be no other works by him and he has left no trace in history other than this short novel. Nobody even knows if Longus was his name or a even a real person or just something that has become attributed to the story. Through the tale the two of them suffer various calamities from being abducted by an invading army (Chloe) to falling in a pit dug to catch wolves (Daphnis) as they slowly progress from looking at the other one naked and getting all soppy (both of them) to trying kissing (oh this takes them ages to get round to) and very slowly finding out about sex (again both as it’s that sort of book)

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The main reason that I chose to read this though was to look again at translation and how styles have changed over the decades and this book is the only one where I have two different translations both printed by Penguin books but 55 years apart and where both translations are still in print. Above is the cover of the 2011 translation by Phiroze Vasunia when it was separated out as a single book in 2016 and below the original 1956 translation by Paul Turner.

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In ‘The Penguin Classics Book’ by Henry Elliot (review to come later) he writes

The 1968 reprint of Turner’s translation carried a notice “Former Penguin editions of this third century Greek novel, the prototype for all Arcadian love stories were we regret to say bowdlerised. Paul Turner has added the missing passages for this new edition on which the text is unexpurgated”

Now as I only have the 1956 original I cannot say what was put back in for the edition of 1968 but frankly the tale is not exactly controversial, certainly by today’s standards. In stating that I have to assume that the 2011 edition is not similarly censored but I cannot imagine that it would be. As I said at the start the story is so unrelated to sex that it defies belief for a large part of the book.

Along the way through the story they get increasing bad relationship advice, partly from men who want to have Chloe themselves and would be very happy to see Daphnis out of the way. It’s not really a give away to tell you that they do eventually get together, in the last few pages of the book and even their original parents are also revealed at this time. It is almost certainly the first example of a romance story and something that Mills and Boon would be very happy with nowadays, there are even pirates…