Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Sappho, who lived in the 7th century B.C., made poems that continue to influence Western love poetry. Her work, surviving mostly in fragments, inspired the Greek and Roman poets who came after her. Remarkably enough, in 2004, the scholars Michael Gronewald and Robert Daniel discovered parts of what appears to be a previously unknown poem by Sappho, on papyrus in the University of Cologne. Combining that material with other existing fragments, Martin West presented a reconstruction and translation of the poem in the London-based Times Literary Supplement last year.

Here is another translation of the new Sappho poem by the young poet Mary Maxwell:

It is you who must pursue the violet-scented Muse with her gifts of beauty,

my young students, as well as continue to play a clear and melodious lyre.

I was lithesome once, but time and age have taken my body in their grasp,

and from glossy blackness my hair has been turned by them to brittle white.

Heavy my heart has become; my knees no longer can carry me; nor do I

dance as I did, in my once upon a time, as quick and supple as a fawn.

These things I bewail with every groaning breath, but what is there to do?

Agelessness is not a fate that comes to humans. Even, they say, the rosy arms

of goddess Dawn stretched to embrace handsome Tithonus. Madly

in love, she carried the virile young man all the way back to her home

at the edge of the world. Yet old age managed to get hold of him even there;

zealous, hoary-bearded Time finds even the bed partners of the immortals.

Even the goddess of the dawn, that symbol of renewal, could not protect beautiful young Tithonus from the devastating effects of time. That this poem has survived so many dawns and outlived not only individuals but also languages and civilizations adds to its emotional force. Sappho's "young students" are now dust, as ancient as the dust of their teacher, but in some other sense every reader of this poem becomes one of Sappho's students. Those opening lines suggest how the lyre and the dance, all the arts of making beauty, are passed from generation to generation. In that process, the phrase "it is you" is addressed to each new reader.

Translated, reconstructed, across tens of centuries, the longing for escape from time, as expressed and shaped by a mortal woman, keeps its freshness.

(Translation copyright © 2006 by Mary Maxwell.)

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