(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Anne Carson’s new translation of Sappho’s poetry focuses on the theme of fragmentation. Although Sappho was one of the ancient world’s most influential and celebrated poets, only one of her works has survived intact. The rest of her poetry is known only from the merest fragments. Ancient authors will sometimes quote a stanza, line, or individual word and identify it as appearing in one of the books of Sappho. In addition, a few dried bits of papyrus have survived bearing several words that can be identified—certainly or at least plausibly—as coming from the lost poems of Sappho. Other than these scattered remains, however, all of Sappho’s nine books of lyric poems, wedding songs, and odes on various topics have vanished, apparently forever.

To convey this fragmentary nature of Sappho’s surviving works, Carson and her publishers have given If Not, Winter a feel of torn scraps and remnants. The dust jacket is barren white, broken only by a thin strip of papyrus, laced with gaping holes. In the text itself, square brackets indicate lost characters, and broad spacing reinforces the sense that the reader has been handed mere shards. In most cases, only the residue of a single poem—even if this is no more than a few words—stands alone on each page, surrounded by a vast border of empty space. The Greek text, based on a 1971 transcription by the scholar Eva-Maria Voigt, appears on each left-hand page, attractively set in a Greek font tinted the same sienna-colored hue as the papyrus fragment on the cover. The English translation appears, broadly spaced, on the right-hand side of the page. As a result, the sheer emptiness of the book serves as a silent commentary on how much of Sappho’s work has been lost or destroyed throughout the ages.

Carson takes her title for the work from fragment 22 of Sappho, a highly incomplete poem that contains the words “If not, winter . . . no pain.” These particular lines are emblematic of what much of Sappho’s poetry has become today: a promise of great beauty that must ultimately remain elusive. It is impossible to know with any certainty the original context of these few puzzling words or to understand how the ancient author developed this image of winter. Nevertheless, the remainder of fragment 22 chronicles many of the recurrent themes of Sappho’s work: song, the lyre, longing, unfulfilled desire, the goddess Aphrodite, happiness, the beauty of a gown, and a friend (Abanthis) whose relationship with Sappho is never satisfactorily revealed.

Since antiquity, both the meaning of Sappho’s poetry and the sexual orientation of its author have been subject to widely divergent interpretations. Born on the Aegean island of Lesbos and composing her works in the Lesbian form of the Aeolic dialect, Sappho gave the English adjective “lesbian” its connotation of female homosexuality. Writing what appear to be frankly amorous or erotic poems to several companions or girls in her charge, Sappho is commonly assumed by modern readers to have been herself homosexual or at least bisexual. Nevertheless, the evidence to support this assumption is, like Sappho’s poetry, fragmentary at best. While it must be understood that ancient biographies are notoriously unreliable, it is significant that very few early accounts of Sappho’s life associate her with homoeroticism. She is said to have married a man named Kerkylas and to have given birth to a daughter, Kleis, who was perhaps named after the poet’s own mother. Whatever doubts there may be about other aspects of Sappho’s life, Kleis certainly existed, called the poet’s “beautiful child” in fragment 32. Other ancient sources describe Sappho as committing suicide because her love for another man, Phaon, went unrequited. Nowadays, however, it is generally accepted that the legend of Phaon, like many stories pertaining to the deaths of Greek literary figures, was the invention of some late comic author. On the other hand, it is probably important that Sappho’s poetry was intimately known by many ancient readers who found her passionate attraction, first to a husband and then to a male lover, not at all unbelievable. It may be significant, too, that the Roman poet Catullus, who was influenced by Sappho in writing his own heterosexual love poetry, could address his beloved as “Lesbia” and raise no eyebrows.

The uncertainty about Sappho’s sexual orientation derives from the frank passion with which she frequently addresses the women of her circle. As...

(The entire section is 1832 words.)