Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Sappho: On What is Best

Some celebrate the beauty
of knights, or infantry,
or billowing flotillas
at battle on the sea.
Warfare has its glory,
but I place far above
these military splendors
the one thing that you love.

For proof of this contention
examine history:
we all remember Helen,
who left her family,
her child, and royal husband,
to take a stranger's hand:
her beauty had no equal,
but bowed to love's command.

As love then is the power
that none can disobey,
so too my thoughts must follow
my darling far away:
the sparkle of her laughter
would give me greater joy
than all the bronze-clad heroes

This poem (translation, such as it is) comes down to us Sappho. It came into my mailbox via PoemHunter.com (Poem Copyright Raider.com?), and typical of selections to be found in that ill-lustrious site, there is no acknowlegement of the translator nor the publication it was found in. At least there are no obvious typos or omissions, but as to the latter it's hard to be sure.  I like the way the poem combines rational argumentation, imagery, and sensuality. Reminds me of what comes down to us from Cavafy. My friend Raphael responded this way, and I second him: "Beautiful poem of longing. I like the way she contrasts the bravado of armed men, the image of heroic war with the sparkling laughter of her absent lover as she uses Helen of Troy as an example of the power of love...talk about opposing camps. Can we ever be happy?"


Pris said...

I really like this, Brian. Thanks for posting it.

Zachariah Wells said...

Additions/interpolations tend to be more the textual issue with Sappho poems than omissions, since her extant oeuvre is quite fragmentary. This is one of the lovely things about Anne Carson's versions of Sappho: she presents the poems as fragmentarily as she found them.

Brian Campbell said...

Yes, you're likely right, Zach. And thanks for the reminder to check out Anne Carson's versions.