Sappho: Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Sappho. "Hymn to Aphrodite." In The Sappho Companion, edited by Margaret Reynolds, p. 29. London: Chatto and Windus, 2000.

In the following poem, one of her best known and most complete, Sappho displays her characteristic yearning. The translation is by John Addington Symonds (1883).

Star-throned incorruptible Aphrodite,
Child of Zeus, wile-weaving, I supplicate thee,
Tame not me with pangs of the heart, dread mistress,
Nay, nor with anguish.
But come thou, if erst in the days departed
Thou didst lend thine ear to my lamentation,
And from far, the house of thy sire deserting,
Camest with golden
Car yoked: thee thy beautiful sparrows hurried
Swift with multitudinous pinions fluttering
Round black earth, adown from the height of heaven
Through middle ether:
Quickly journeyed they; and, O thou, blest Lady,
Smiling with those brows of undying lustre,
Asked me what new grief at my heart lay, wherefore
Now I had called thee,
What I fain would have to assuage the torment
Of my frenzied soul; and whom now, to please thee,
Must persuasion lure to thy love, and who now,
Sappho, hath wronged thee?
Yea, for though she flies, she shall quickly chase thee;
Yea, though gifts she spurns, she shall soon bestow them;
Yea, though now she loves not, she soon shall love thee,
Yea, though she will not!
Come, come now too! Come, and from heavy heart-ache
Free my soul, and all that my longing yearns to
Have done, do thou; be thou for me thyself too
Help in the battle.

OVID (POEM DATE C. 43 B.C.-18 A.D.)

SOURCE: Ovid. "Sappho to Phaon." In The Sappho Companion, edited by Margaret Reynolds, pp. 77-78. London: Chatto and Windus, 2000.

In the following poem, the Roman poet Ovid speaks in the voice of Sappho, thereby commenting on Sappho's passion, her lyric mode of writing, her appearance, and her lasting reputation.

So, when you inspected this elegant letter composed by my right hand
Did your eye know at once that this was mine?
Or, if you hadn't read my signature, Sappho,
Would you not have known whence this brief word came?
Perhaps you will ask why I resort to couplets
When I am better suited to the lyric mode?
Well, I must weep for my love—and elegy is the weeping style …
I cannot make my lyre adjust to my tears.
I burn,—as fierce flames fanned by winds,
Scorch the fertile plains with their ardour.
The fields where Phaon lives are far away by Typhoean Aetna
But my heat is like Aetna's and no less a fire consumes me.
Nor am I capable of arranging a well-ordered poem;
an empty head is the thing for poetry!
Neither the girls of Pyrrha or Methymna
Nor the Lesbian maids, nor all the rest arouse me.
Vile is Anactoria, vile to me now is blonde Cydro,
Atthis delights not my eyes as she once did,
Nor any of the other hundred that I loved without crime.
Unworthy One! what the many once had, is now yours alone.
Beauty is in you, your youth is apt for delight and makes
A beauty which fascinates my eyes!
Take up the lyre and shine—then you are Apollo;
Grow horns on your head—behold, you are Bacchus!
And Phoebus Apollo loved Daphne, and Bacchus, Ariadne of Knossis,
Yet neither the one nor the other knew the lyric mode.
While, for me, the Muses, daughters of Pegasus, dictate delightful verses,
So that my name is praised throughout the world.
Not even Alcaeus, who shares my country and career,
Has more praise, though he does sing more grandly.
If, to me, nature was unkind and denied me beauty
I am recompensed with genius.
If I am short, an illustrious name, known throughout the world
Is mine; take the measure of me from my fame.