top of page


#101: ESCAPING THE CROCODILE: TWO GREEK POETS. The more I read of what’s written of Sappho, the more she slips away from me, the more invisible and irretrievable she becomes. What we know of her really amounts to astonishingly little: there are many modern prefaces and essays, full of woulds and coulds and must haves and we-are-tolds; a few verifiable details; a fog of legends, including six possible names for her father and an unconvincing attributed suicide; the received notion, rather more convincing, that she was, sexually as well as geographically, a Lesbian; and a recent compendium, The Sappho Companion (edited by Margaret Reynolds, Saint Martin’s Press, 2000), by the end of which we have been buried in everyone’s version of Sappho except Sappho’s. Her survival as a writer has been even more fragmentary and tantalizing than that of Petronius, preserved in a stanza here and a phrase there on tatters of papyrus, other lines preserved in works on Greek poetic meters and grammar; one fragment was pulled out of a mummified crocodile. So “survival” in Sappho’s case is a very generous word, and the condition of Sappho’s text gives what does survive a rather special and strange existence. The captions in James Thurber’s cartoons—pardon the comparison—are often the end point of a conversation we immediately and imaginatively reconstruct; we focus on Sappho’s fragments with similar attention but immeasurably deeper response. They speak always at the precise point when the heart breaks, when the cry is uttered; or, more lightly, when the patience breaks, the eyebrow is arched and the dagger of sarcasm is deftly thrown. (She must have been one tough lady.) For the little there is of her work, there is great variety, of humor, of joy, of grief, but always at the flame point of intensity; very little in the whole canon of poetry is more arresting, more entrancing. These few poems and fragments rank with the greatest treasures of the classical past.

Aaron Poochigian has done a new translation (Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments, Penguin, 2009), with excellent notes; but he is determined to rhyme, determined to make an English poem, which to my ears has the effect of closing the fragments off and losing the elliptical quality. Far more successful, I would suggest, is Anne Carson’s 2002 collection If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, published by Knopf. Here we have the entirety of the surviving fragments, in Greek text and translation, even those that are mere bits and phrases, with excellent and helpful notes. The unexpected effect of going through the pages which are stray and contextless survivals--rather like the phrases and flashes you see while channel surfing--is that when you hit a piece in which situation and intention can be understood, it hits you with special, unearthly force and pleasure. Maybe it’s the grace of Carson’s renderings (I’m no judge of the Greek), but here are the lightning bolts, the electrical shocks that Sappho gives us with almost unique intensity. This puts Carson's work neck-and-neck in my affection with my long-favorite version, by Mary Barnard (University of California Press, 1958), whose lead-ins, lineation and cadences make it a classic of our own poetry as well as one of the great translations from the Greek. Unbelievably, fragments of Sappho are still surfacing. In 2004, two pieces of papyri, one in Cologne and one in Oxford, a hundred years different in age, were found to make the left and right halves of a single poem, a jigsaw puzzle twenty-six hundred years in the completion. And as recently as February, 2014, German scholars unearthed two new fragments of nearly-complete poems, which are now being studied and verified.

The now-standard collection of the lyric Greek poetry from classical and Byzantine times is the Greek Anthology: currently five volumes in the Loeb Classical Library, it was taken from tenth- and fourteenth-century manuscript sources, themselves spun out from an original gathering made by Meleager in the first century B.C. Here are, again, the survivals of Greek non-epic poetry--meaning, more simply, some of the most moving and beautiful poetry in the entire canon of literature, of any language or country, based on love, loss, the sadness of aging, the separations and mystery of death, the savoring of everyday experience, the bitter and snorting satire of human folly. “Say goodbye to the island of Paros, farewell to its figs and the seafaring life.” “The fox knows many tricks, the hedgehog only one. A good one.” “I pray to you, Hera, and bring you as my offering a delicate garland of marigold and galingale.” (Those are Archilochos and Alkman, translated by Willis Barnstone.) “About the cool water / the wind sounds through sprays / of apple, and from the quivering leaves / slumber pours down.” (Sappho, translated by Kenneth Rexroth.) Because of their directness and simplicity, they have survived with remarkably little need of explication or annotation; if you have some slight background in the names of the Greek gods and goddesses, you have what you need; for the rest, all you need to do is show up and be a human being.

These selections are excellent: Poems from the Greek Anthology, by Dudley Fitts (New Directions, 1938); Greek Lyrics, by Richmond Lattimore (Chicago, 1960); Poems from the Greek Anthology, by Kenneth Rexroth (Michigan, 1999); The Greek Anthology and Other Ancient Greek Epigrams, edited by Peter Jay (Penguin, 1982); Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets, by Willis Barnstone (Schocken, 1988). And recently, two more: Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments, by Burton Raffel (Modern Library, 2004), and Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation, by Sherod Santos (Norton, 2005). In Puerilities: Erotic Epigrams from the Greek Anthology (Princeton, 2001) Daryl Hine has translated the infamous twelfth book of pederastic verse with an appropriate rude wit and puckish invention.

From the fourth century B.C., a poem by Asclepiades, translated by Santos:

Hurry to market, Demetrius, and purchase

from Amyntas three salted herring,

ten nicely trimmed filets of sole, and have him shell

a large handful of his freshest prawns.

After that, rush of to Thauborius’s stall,

pick up one of those incense-scented

barberry wreaths he loops around with bands of silk.

I’ll be pouring the wine by then

and lighting lamps and candles, so hurry back home

as fast as you can. And, since you’ll pass

his doorway anyhow, why don’t you stop and ask

Tryphera to come and join us too?

Forward to the twentieth century, when Giorgos Seferis and Odysseas Elytis were getting Nobels, and Greek poetry was happening again, and C.P. Cavafy was working in Alexandria as an office functionary, picking up boys after work and not telling his mother, circulating his poems quietly to friends, and living in an obscurity as reptilian as any that has faced Sappho. Eventually, his work was noised around to English readers by E. M. Forster (who described Cavafy, famously, as “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe”) and to the French by Marguerite Yourcenar, whose fames his own came to equal. What is noticeable in Cavafy’s verse is its division—poems about figures in the Hellenic and Alexandrian past, on the one hand, and poems of passionate remembrance of clandestine homosexual experience. What is extraordinary is the unornamented directness of speech and style which can encompass and blend his two subjects, to the point where the once-obviously distinct halves of the work begin to blend and melt. What you come to realize, reading the poems, is that for Cavafy all is past—how far past makes little difference; and that strange style, of simplicity mixed with an almost paralyzing voluptuousness of regret, is the common factor. He has been called the greatest Greek poet since the classical past, and no one seems to be disputing it.

Compared to the vigor and liveliness of Sappho, Cavafy is an old man. He loved French poetry, and there is something of Mallarme both in his disappointment and his fastidiousness. The forbidden quality of homosexual experience at the time generated a kind of compensatory snobbery, in which passions are “choice” or “select”—not for the common mob. But in the starkness of his grief and the passion of his remembering he is entirely Greek. Translators, bringing him into English, complain of losing the elegance of his meters and his distinctive blend of demotic and literary Greek; but what you get in English is more than powerful enough. I’ve always liked Rae Dalven’s translation (Harcourt Brace, 1961), but Daniel Mendelsohn, in his very fine new two-volume edition (Collected Poems and The Unfinished Poems, Knopf, 2009) offers not only the fullest text of Cavafy to date but an excellent translation with extensive and intelligent annotation. The accuracy of the complex historical backgrounds of some of the poems was of great importance to him: one stretch of Cavafy’s correspondence argues about whether or not roses could be had in December in second-century B.C. Italy (they could). But, as often with Thomas Hardy’s verse, Cavafy’s poems profit from annotation but do not require it, the dramatic situation being so perfectly set out. We may not know the dates and details of who the historic characters are, but the intensity of what they feel roots us to the spot. Reading these poems, as with hearing the great arias, we catch our breath; at the end of them it is us, as well as Cavafy, rendered motionless.


Recent Posts

See All


#239:  LIKE A SMALL BIRD SEALED OFF FROM DAYLIGHT.  Reading about Louise Gluck, you hit these words repeatedly: trauma, depression, illness, dark.  Her first collection was described as “hard, artful,


#238: SENDAK IN BLACK AND WHITE.  We speak of early or mid-career Picassos; late Celan or Yeats; later Beethoven, early or later Sondheim.  Maurice Sendak published his first illustrations as far back


bottom of page