If Not, Winter

by Sappho

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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...

(This entire section contains 1843 words.)

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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 early as the tenth century c.e., the medieval lexicon known as the Suda described Sappho as having had amorous relationships with such female companions as Atthis, Telesippa, and Megara and as having been notorious as a result. Since the Suda was itself a compilation of far earlier material, this image of Sappho’s homosexuality may be nearly as ancient as her poetry itself. While still living on the island of Lesbos, Sappho maintained a thiasos, an establishment attached to the worship of a particular deity, in Sappho’s case Aphrodite and the Muses. Since Sappho’s thiasos seems to have consisted largely of young women, it is sometimes treated by modern authors as though it were some sort of finishing school, salon, or women’s college. Despite the uncertainty of the poet’s actual sexual orientation, it is clear that she was fond of the young women whom she knew. One of Sappho’s nine books consisted entirely of wedding songs composed for these companions. Some scholars believe that each time a member of the thiasos was married, Sappho composed a marriage ode. For this reason, the longing and passion that appears in these poems may have been genuine, may have been conventional, or may simply have seemed an appropriate theme for the occasion. In the end, the question of Sappho’s sexual orientation, like the meaning of many of her poems, will never be settled to each reader’s satisfaction. The evidence is simply too incomplete.

Carson wisely chooses to pass over this vexing issue quickly and to concentrate on the poetry itself. The result is a work in which the words themselves, not the life of the figure who stands behind those words, commands the reader’s attention. Nor does the translator seek to intrude on the power of those words. On the last page of the volume, surrounded by the same white space that encompasses so much of the poetry in If Not, Winter, stands the bare comment, “A note about the translator: Anne Carson lives in Canada.” What is not said here is thus far more significant than what these words reveal. The translator remains faceless, featureless, and figureless. Whoever has translated these words, Carson appears to be saying, should not distract the reader for a moment. It is more important to focus on the words of Sappho. Few though they may be, they are precious.

If the reader heeds Carson’s implicit advice, If Not, Winter will be a genuine delight. Its very sparseness gives the reader time to pause and savor each exquisite drop, like a rich liqueur. A slow and attentive reading of these fragments reveals that, for all their brevity, they contain an extraordinary richness of imagery. Even today, the island of Lesbos is a setting filled with flowers, and floral or botanical imagery recurs in poem after poem. Sappho refers in a large number of fragments to roses, violets, chervil, and clover. When the Hellenistic poet Meleager (c. 100 b.c.e.) called Sappho’s verses “few but roses all,” he was struck not merely by their extraordinary beauty but also by the frequency of their floral imagery. Other repeated images include the dew, the color purple and its many implications, honey, gold, dawn, the goddess Aphrodite (who reappears throughout the fragments under a bewildering variety of names), and song itself.

The latter image is particularly important because all the poet’s fragments were originally parts of songs. Sappho’s poetry was lyric in the truest sense: It was meant to be sung by a solo vocalist to the accompaniment of a lyre. None of Sappho’s original melodies have survived. As a result, there is yet another way in which Sappho’s poetry has been reduced to the merest fragments. Although the author was said by the philosopher Aristoxenus (c. 370 b.c.e.) to have invented the Mixolydian mode, none of her music has endured to the modern day. Although the poet invented the metrical form that remains known today as “Sapphic,” her words are so incomplete that all too few of Sappho’s own Sapphic stanzas can be read in their entirety.

In her translation, Carson seeks to preserve the concrete quality of Sappho’s language. Sappho preferred the vernacular forms of her own Lesbian/Aeolic dialect to many of the more refined literary forms that had already become established in Greek literature by her own day. Carson seeks equivalently colloquial expressions in her translation. In fragment 48, for example, Carson renders an expression that other translators may have set as “I was driven mad for you” or “I was beside myself because of you” with the more conversational phrase “I was crazy for you.” In fragment 179, she translates the word gruta, given in standard lexicons as “dressing-case” or “receptacle for vanities,” simply as “makeup bag.” Only occasionally does Carson’s simplicity of language actually distort Sappho’s text or subvert her meaning. In one such case, Carson translates fragment 145 as “do not move stones,” an intriguing but unnecessarily cryptic injunction. The difficulty is that the Greek wordcherados, which Carson translates as “stones,” is actually an extremely rare word used for silt, rubble, or a heap of pebbles. As a result, Sappho’s original image for futility or long and pointless labor is concealed by the deceptive simplicity of Carson’s translation.

On a few other occasions, too, readers are likely to gloss over some of their favorite passages from Sappho because Carson has rendered them in an unfamiliar or idiosyncratic way. For instance, in fragment 111, the opening of the wedding hymn that is commonly translated as “Raise high the roof beam, carpenters” is rendered by Carson (more accurately but less familiarly) as “up with the roof! Hymenaios—lift it, carpenters!” Perhaps in cases such as this, poetry has been forced to take second place to a more awkward literalism. More frequently, however, Carson’s language captures the very essence of Sappho’s ability to keep the images of her world still vivid more than two millennia after her death. Readers familiar with Greek will continually revert to the left-hand side of the page in order to be reacquainted with the precious fragments of one of the world’s greatest poets; readers who are not will probably view the strange, umber-colored characters scattered across the left-hand pages with awe and wonder, perhaps feeling that their loss is all the greater.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal 127 (June 15, 2002): 70.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 25, 2002, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly 249 (May 27, 2002): 52.