An event organised by Poet in the City explored the ancient Greek female poet and icon, Sappho. To an auditorium of Classcitsts and non-Classicists, experts spoke of their interaction with Sappho and served to unlock some of the magic with which her poetry enchants audience and readers of all time.
Tony Harrison, poet, verse translator and the author of Trackers of Oxyrinchus, told those present about how he was exposed to Sappho when he was drawn to a beautifully bound edition of Sappho, embossed with a lyre towards the end of his school career. Though Harrison had not studied Sappho, Harrison was drawn by the rhythm and metres of her work.
Josephine Balmer, whose translation of Sappho’s poetry was used throughout the evening, explained that some of Sappho’s work was preserved in quotations by grammarians and linguists who had no interest in the work of Sappho. As a result unique, obscure words quoted on its own appear with some form of definition in disinterested works long after Sappho’s time. Not only does such singular appearances illustrate the difficulty in translating single phrases or words without context; the way these later authors give definition to the words also give us hints of the contemporary perception (something that is difficult to explain here).
The words and phrases quoted may not be long, but it may be enough to give us a hint of the emotions and themes that Sappho was illustrating through that poem. Balmer explained that she grouped poems, including these phrases and words, thematically.
Richard Parkinson, an Egyptologist at the British Museum, explained to us the process of making papyri and how these might then be preserved through the ages under specific condition. Aside from quotations, papyri such as the ones alluded to in Harrison’s Trackers of Oxyrinchus is another medium through which Sappho’s poetry is preserved. Papyri is not a material that naturally preserves well but the dry, arid condition in parts of Egypt (particularly ones further away from the Nile) can preserve them. Parkinson demonstrated the brittleness of the papyri and how easy it is to tear them apart to the gasps of the audience, though Parkinson reassured us that the papyri in his hands were only fac simile.
Archaeologists often find papyri in rubbish heaps or wrapped around mummies. In the case of the latter papyri is used in a way similar to papier mâché as a case around the mummy; the mummy is often then painted, and the literary-minded may often have to convince the material-minded that they really should consider the text that may be hidden. The content of reused or refused papyri depends on the luck of the draw and it can be dispiriting to ruin a mummy case (or dig through a rubbish pile) just to find another shopping list.
Edith Hall, professor at King’s College, London, lit up the room first with her defence of Ancient Greek in the education system and the state of Higher Education. Hall lamented that Ancient Greek is far from a school’s normal curriculum, stating that she was educating on public money and studied Ancient Greek at every step of her education, but is not now able to offer Greek to students studying on public money since higher education has been privatised. Nor is Ancient Greek widespread in the school system.
Hall, extremely passionately, recited Sappho fragment 1 in the original and wished the hall would be able to enjoy Sappho in the original just as Hall can. Hall expanded on Dionysus of Halicarnassus suggestion that fragment 1 was a battle between sounds where the initial domination of “d” and “p” gave way to the “s” sound, just as Sappho’s invocation to Aphrodite became a firmer battle-call. Hall also explained a little about the metre and the dialect, explaining that Sappho uses Aeolic and favours “alpha” over “eta” because the rounded “a” produces a better sound musically. As a Classicist I would love to hear her say more on the poetry, the Greek and the music yet, alas, there was not to be enough time.
The whole evening was introduced by Peggy Reynolds, an expert in poetry and author on Sappho. Reynolds managed the proceedings expertly, as befitting someone with experience in presenting radio show, yet she also contributed much information on Sappho’s theme.
The event was greatly enhanced by the presence of Sian Thomas, an actress who has appeared in the Harry Potter films and Merlin. Thomas’s reading of Sappho as translated by Balmer allowed the audience to enjoy Sappho’s poetry in a manner that is nearer to its original performance. Such rendition requires an interpretation of Sappho’s words and feelings and there were a few points where I disagreed with Thomas’s interpretation, but her appearance and reading did bring Sappho’s poetry to life and Thomas deserved the warm gratitude that she received.
It was a wonderful evening at Bloomsbury Theatre and Poet in the City has done a terrific job, assembling a very suitable cast of speakers and reader for introducing many to Sappho. I believe that members of an audience unfamiliar with Sappho would leave the theatre inspired to discover the works and settings of Sappho and, as a fan of Greek lyric, I hope their audience would go on to discover other great works of Greek poets. For a seasoned Classicists the event was able to bring to life Sappho’s work and return our focue to how simply beautiful Sappho’s poetry are. This was a thoroughly enjoyable event and a great format; perhaps there may be potential for another such event on another Greek or Roman poet?
You can find Edith Hall on Twitter.
You can read another view of the Sappho event here.
This post was last edited at 3:34pm on 1st November, where a link was added and typographical errors were corrected.