When a hitherto unknown Sappho papyrus was discovered at the University of Cologne in 2004 – and later published by Martin West in 2005 – there was huge media interest in the ‘new’ Sappho poem. However, as Sappho scholars soon recognised, most of this ‘new’ work was actually another piece of the puzzle from an existing piece of papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, fragment 58. With tattered, disputed text, scholars have had to become inured to the fact that not just their interpretation but their very content might constantly be shifting.
This means, of course, that the text we appear to have now is not the same one I translated for Sappho: Poems and Fragments thirty years ago. Nevertheless, when I was working on my, then much more incomplete poem, I felt a strong affinity to the fragment from the start; it became the one exception to my rule of not filling in the gaps, although I dutifully added a page note to the effect that ‘most of this translation is conjecture’.
Such conjecture was, of course, aided by the poem’s reference to the myth of Tithonus and Eös, the immortal Dawn who gave her lover eternal life but forgot to give him eternal youth until he was transformed into a shrivelled cicada:
…already old age is wrinkling my skin
and my hair is turning from black
to grey; my knees begin to tremble
and my legs no longer carry me…
oh, but once, once we were like young deer
…what can I do?…
…it is not possible
to return to my youth; for even
Eös, the dawn, whose arms are roses,
who brings light to the end of the earth –
found that old age embraced Tithonus,
her immortal lover…
…I know I must die
yet I love the intensity of life
and this, and desire, keep me here in
the brightness and beauty of the sun
[and not with Hades...]
When West’s new, more complete, text appeared in 2005, it was very gratifying to discover that, by coincidence, my conjectures followed this quite closely. If translation is an activity that occupies the realms of inspiration and creativity, as well as the pages of the dictionary, then it was also cheering to find that it embraced serendipity as well. For this reason, when I was recently asked by Peggy Reynolds to provide a version of the West’s new text for Poet in the City’s ‘Sappho…Fragments’ event at the Bloomsbury Theatre London on October 31st, so entwined were the two texts in my mind, they proved harder to disentangle than I might have thought.
In the end, to distinguish this new version from my earlier reconstruction, I decided to use rather more formal, less conversational semantics in English. But despite all efforts, I found it hard to keep to the six couplets of West’s reconstruction without writing prose lines. And so the text was transmuted into an almost-sonnet of fourteen lines. Nevertheless, thirty years – and two millennia later – it still felt as if Sappho was at my shoulder as I wrote:
The gifts of the Muses are violet-threaded,
rare: follow their path, my daughters, pursue
the lyre’s clear-voiced, enthralling song.
Once I, too, was in tender bud. Now old age
is wrinkling my skin and my hair is turning
from black to grey; my heart is weighted,
knees buckle where I danced like a deer.
Yet what else can I do but complain?
To be human is to grow old. They say
Eös, the rosy-fingered dawn, whispered,
of love to Tithonus, whirled him away
to the very edge of the world, beguiled
by his youth and beauty. Yet still he aged,
still he withered, despite his immortal wife.