Sappho, pt 2: Comparing Translations

October 24, 2022


As promised, this week’s post continues our discussion of Sappho.  I’ve included her three versions of the almost complete fragment #1, along with several others, translated by Carson, Barnard, and others.

There seems to be wide agreement that Mary Barnard’s were a revelation when they came out in 1958–clean and simple, without the flowery ornamentation, accretions, and completely unsupported elaborations of earlier versions.  Barnard’s are the ones I first knew, and I still find them very readable and moving.  The only caveat I have is that she’s added first lines not in the text that serve as titles/ context.  I find that unnecessary and intrusive, and one of them (you’ll see) is cringe-worthy.  But I think her translations are indeed a gift.

Barnard translated a hundred, but since then more have been found–Carson’s If Not, Winter, published in 2002, includes 192 fragments.  And once again, more have been found since then, including two substantial ones–all included in Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works, by Diane Rayor, published in 2014.  But this volume doesn’t include the original Greek, as Carson’s does.

Other contemporary translators of some Sappho fragments include Guy Davenport and Richmond Lattimore–I’ve included one of Lattimore’s here.  I also highly recommend the book I mentioned last time, The Sappho Companion, by Margaret Reynolds.  She includes a wide range of translations over time and interesting contemporary examples.  This is where I found versions of fragment #32 by William Carlos Williams and Robert Lowell.

Sappho’s poems were composed (not written) in 4-line stanzas, now called sapphics.  The first three lines have 11 syllables, and the 4th 5 syllables.  Ancient Greek measured length of syllables rather than stress, which is very difficult for us to hear, so long and short are converted into stressed and unstressed in English.  The feet are a combination of trochees and dactyls:/- /- /- – /- /- for the first three lines, a dactyl sandwiched between two trochees on either side; the third is a dactyl followed by a trochee.  Some versions try to carry over elements of that form.

Please post your comments, and any other versions you come across that you find compelling.  As always, I hope to see you at this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.


FRAGMENT #1  (Hymn to Aphrodite; the most complete fragment)

trans. Anne Carson

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind
child of Zeus, who twists lures, I beg you
do not break with hard pains

O lady, my heart!

but come here if ever before
you caught my voice far off
and listening left your father’s

golden house and came,

yoking your car. And fine birds brought you
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky

through midair—

they arrived. But you, O blessed one,
smiled in your deathless face
and asked what (now again) I have suffered and why

(now again) I am calling out

and what I want to happen most of all
in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O

Sappho, is wronging you?

For if she flies, soon she will pursue.
If she refuses gifts, rather she will give them.
If she does not love, soon she will love

even unwilling.

Come to me now: loose me from hard
care and all my heart longs
to accomplish, accomplish. You

be my ally.


fragment #1

trans. Mary Barnard

[Prayer to my lady of paphos]

Dapple-throned Aphrodite,
eternal daughter of God,
snare-knitter!  Don’t, I beg you,

cow my heart with grief!
Come, as once when you heard my
far-off cry and, listening, stepped

from your father’s house to your
gold car, to yoke the pair whose
beautiful thick-feathered wings

oaring down mid-air from heaven
carried you to light swiftly
on dark earth; then, blissful one,

smiling your immortal smile
you asked, What ailed me now that
made me call you again?  What

was it that my distracted
heart most wanted?  “Whom has
Persuasion to bring round now

to your love? Who, Sappho, is
unfair to you?  For, let her
run, she will soon run after;

if she won’t accept gifts, she
will one day give them; and if
she won’t love you–she soon will

love, although unwillingly….”
If ever–come now!  Relieve
this intolerable pain!

What my heart most hopes will
happen, make happen; you your-
self join forces on my side!


fragment #1

trans. Willis Barnstone

On your dappled throne, Aphrodite,
sly eternal daughter of Zeus,
I beg you: do not crush me with grief,

but come to me now—as once
you heard my far cry, and yielded,
slipping from your father’s house

to yoke the birds to your gold
chariot, and came. Handsome swallows
brought you swiftly to the dark earth,

their wings whipping the middle sky.
Happy, with deathless lips, you smiled:
“What is wrong, why have you called me?”…

God’s wildering daughter deathless Aphrodita,
A whittled perplexity your bright abstruse chair,
With heartbreak, lady, and breathlessness
Tame not my heart.

But come down to me, as you came before,
For if ever I cried, and you heard and came,
Come now, of all times, leaving
Your father’s golden house

In that chariot pulled by sparrows reined and bitted,
Swift in their flying, a quick blur aquiver,
Beautiful, high. They drew you across steep air
Down to the black earth;

Fast they came, and you behind them, O
Hilarious heart, your face all laughter,
Asking, What troubles you this time, why again
Do you call me down?


fragment #104A

trans. Anne Carson


you gather back

all that dazzling dawn has put asunder:

you gather a lamb

gather a kid

gather a child to its mother


fragment 104A

trans. Mary Barnard

[You are the herdsmen of


Hesperus, you herd
homeward whatever
Dawn’s light dispersed

You herd sheep–herd
goats–herd children
home to their mothers


fragment #105 a, c

trans. Anne Carson

as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch

high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot–
no, not forgot: you were unable to reach

like the hyacinth in the mountains that shepherd men
with their feet trample down and on the ground the purple flower


fragment #105

trans. Mary Barnard

[Lament for a maidenhead]

Like a quince-apple
ripening on a top
branch in a tree top

not once noticed by
harvesters or if
not unnoticed, not reached

Like a hyacinth in
the mountains, trampled
by shepherds until
only a purple stain
remains on the ground.


fragment #31

trans. Anne Carson

he seems to me equal to gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close

to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing–oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking

is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming

fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, green than grass
I am and dead–or almost

I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty



fragment #31

trans. W. C. Williams

Peer of the gods is that man, who
face to face, sits listening
to your sweet speech and lovely

It is this that rouses a tumult
in my breast.  At mere sight of you
my voice falters, my tongue
is broken.

Straightway, a delicate fire runs in
my limbs; my eyes
are blinded and my ears

Sweat pours out: a trembling hunts
me down.  I grow paler
than dry grass and lack little
of dying.


fragment #31

trans. Robert Lowell

I set that man above the gods and heroes–
all day he sits before you face to face,
like a cardplayer.  Your elbow brushes his elbow–
if you should speak, he hears.

The touched heart madly stirs,
your laughter is water hurrying over pebbles–
every gesture is a proclamation,
every sound is speech….

Refining fire purifies my flesh!
I hear you: a hollowness in my ears
thunders and stuns me.  I cannot speak.
I cannot see.

I shiver.  A dead whiteness spreads over
my body, trickling pinpricks of sweat.
I am greener than the greenest green grass–
I die!


fragment #132

trans. Anne Carson

I have a beautiful child who is like golden flowers
in form, darling Kleis
in exchanged for who I would not

all Lydia as lovely



fragment #132

trans. Mary Barnard

[Sleep, darling]

I have a small
daughter called
Cleis, who is

like a golden
I wouldn’t

take all Croesus’
kingdom with love
thrown in for her






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Sappho part 1: Accidental Silences

October 18, 2022

    Our recent discussions of silences in poetry brought to mind Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter, her 2002 translation of 189 Sappho fragments, with the Greek on facing pages.  What most struck me when I opened it the first time was all the white space–most pages are white with a sprinkling of brackets and a few words.  I was surprised at first, because other versions I’d read filled in the blanks.  But almost immediately Carson’s translations–which look like lace on the page in imitation of the papyrus fragments–felt more compelling, more accurate in their rendering of what’s been lost as well as the little that’s left.   According to Anne Carson’s introduction, Sappho lived in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos from about 630 bc on.  She describes her first as a musician–a prolific musician.  But none of her music survived.  She was also a poet.  Carson: “Of the nine books of lyrics that Sappho is said to have composed, one poem has survived complete.  All the rest are fragments.”

I didn’t know that when I first read her work in translation, in Mary Barnard’s versions.  I loved them at the time, and also some other versions I read over the years–single poems or a few, nothing complete.  As soon as I began to read Carson’s, I was shocked by how much those other versions (I wouldn’t call them translations anymore) made out of so little.  In many cases the originals seem to have been treated more as writing prompts than as fragments of powerful poems on their own–they seem presumptuous to me now, however well written they might be as poems of their own. In Carson’s versions, I can feel the time that has passed since Sappho wrote them, eating away.  The words that are there arrive over all that distance, and I feel enormous gratitude that they traveled so far to reach me–almost like light from a dead star.  The emptiness reminds me as I read how much of the context has been lost, and cautions me against treating them as if they were contemporary.

My sense of the great distance only grew as I turned to a book by Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho Companion, which immediately strips away layer after layer of the false intimacy that puts images labeled “Sappho” on coffee mugs and calendars.  To begin with, the name we pronounce softly, almost in a whisper, Saffo, would have originally been pronounced  more like psappho, full of p‘s “spitting and popping.”  We know very little about her life, beyond tiny hints in the fragments and later stories about her.  Most of us are reading the fragments in English, not Greek, another step removed.  And back beyond that, even those who can read the precious fragments  aren’t face to face with Sappho.  Her poetry was oral, and first written down from handed on memory roughly two hundred years after her death.  That’s how wispy the connection is.  As Reynolds says: “‘Sappho'” is not a name, much less a person.  It is, rather, a space.  A space for filling in the gaps, joining up the dots, making something out of nothing.”

And yet, somehow, the few words speak to us, as they did to those who first wrote them down.  How is that?  This week I’d like to talk about the silences, and then next week compare some translations.

Please post your own thoughts about the silences and about translating.  And if you want to try filling in any of the blanks, post that too.  I’m looking forward to our Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.


fragment #23 Original Greek


]ἔρωτος ήλ̣π̣[


ὠς γὰρ ἄν]τιον εἰσίδω σ[ε,

4.φαίνεταί μ᾿ οὐδ᾿] Ἐρμιόνα τεαύ[τα

ἔμμεναι,] ξάνθαι δ᾿ Ἐλέναι σ᾿ ἐίσ[κ]ην

οὐδ᾿ ἒν ἄει]κες

] . ις θνάταις, τόδε δ᾿ ἴσ[θι] τὰι σᾶι

8.]παίσαν κέ με τὰν μερίμναν

]λ̣αισ᾿ ἀντιδ[ .. ]´[ . ]α̣θοις δὲ̣


δροσόεν]τας ὄχθοις





from Anne Carson, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho

fragment #23


] of desire


] for when I look at you

] such a Hermione

] and to yellowhaired Helen I liken you


] among mortal women, know this

] from every care

] you could release me


dewy riverbanks

] to last all night long

]    [




fragment #21



] pity

] trembling


] flesh by now old age

] covers

] flies in pursuit


] noble

] taking

] sing to us

the one with violets in her lap

] mostly

] goes astray



fragment # 4

] heart

] absolutely

] I can


] would be for me

] to shine in answer

] face


] having been stained




fragment #26


] frequently

]for those

I treat well are the ones who most of all

] harm me

] crazy




] you, I want

] to suffer

] in myself I am

aware of this






fragment # 16

Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot

and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing

on the black earth.  But I say it is

what you love.


Easy to make this understood by all.

For she who overcame everyone

in beauty (Helen)

left her fine husband


behind and went sailing to Troy.

Not for her children nor her dear parents

had she a thought, no–

] led her astray


] for

] lightly

] reminded me now of Anaktoria

who is gone.


I would rather see her lovely step

and the motion of light on her face

than the chariots of Lydians or ranks

of footsoldiers in arms.


]not possible to happen

]to pray for a share






toward [





out of the unexpected




fragment #105 a, c


as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch

high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot–

no, not forgot: you were unable to reach


like the hyacinth in the mountains that shepherd men

with their feet trample down and on the ground the purple flower



fragment #105 a, c

trans. Anita George


You: an Achilles’ apple

Blushing sweet on a high branch

At the tip of the tallest tree.

You escaped those who would pluck your fruit.

Not that they didn’t try.  No,

They could not forget you

Poised beyond their reach.


O my mountain hyacinth

What shepherds trod upon you

With clumsy, rustic foot?

Now you are a broken seal:

A scarlet stain upon the earth.



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Poetry: Sounds and Silence

October 11, 2022

There’s a lot to say about silence.

In broad terms, silence has two meanings: the absence of any sound, and the absence of human speech.  There’s no total silence in the natural world, except in the vacuum of outer space, but there are many poems that capture deep stillness in an actual scene–“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and Transtromer’s poem “The Couple,” below.

Given the number of poems about silence and the essays written about it, the two seem to go hand in hand.  If you search for it, dozens of poems about silence will pop up–ironically, many of them quite long.  Billy Collins’ poem “Silence” lays out examples of it.  Robert Bly titled a book of prose poems Silence in the Snowy Fields, and I’ve included his translation of Tomas Tranströmer’s poem “The Couple,” that vibrates with silence.

 What I’m most interested in, though, is how poems contain and convey their own silences, and I don’t think that’s possible without white space.  Most early Roman texts didn’t include spacing between words, and in those days (around the 5th century), people only read texts aloud.  When Irish monks translated those texts in the 7th and 8th centuries, they began to add spaces between words.  One author ties this to the shift to people reading silently, to themselves.  But white space isn’t the only element of a poem that creates silence–what are some others?

My first thoughts about silence have to do with its mystery and power:

Wisława Szymborska; “When I pronounce the word Silence, I destroy it.”

Spanish proverb: “Open your mouth only if what you are going to say is more beautiful than the silence.”

Bob Dylan: “Sometimes the silence can be like thunder.”

Stanislaw Jerzy Lec: “There are grammatical errors even in his silence.”

Allen Grossman: “Every poem is spoken into a silence that precedes it.”  I’d also say the silence that follows a poem is worth thinking about.

Glynn Maxwell: “Poets work with two materials…sound and silence.”

Someone once said Merwin’s poems seemed to have been written by a man walking across a glacier, sweeping away his footprints behind him as he went.

But of course there are also all the terrible silences–omission, suppression.  Silencings.  How do we speak of the unspeakable? One of the most exciting things to me about contemporary poetry is how much of it is speaking directly to and out of those silencings.

One of the poets most associated with silence is the German-speaking Romanian poet, Paul Celan, whose parents both died during the Holocaust.  His best-known poem is “Todesfugue.”  Over time, his poems got shorter, and filled more and more with silences and enigmatic, paradoxical imagery, before his ultimate silence, his suicide in 1970.  One of his poems is below.

Look back through some earlier posts: Bishop’s “Sestina,” Simic’s prose poems, Kay Ryan’s poems, many others.  I’m reposting Sylvia Plath’s poem “Axes” as an example.  It’s particularly striking to me, because many of her poems are almost desperately talky, and though this one is about words it also feels full of silence.  It’s one of the last poems she wrote.

Please add your own thoughts in Comments, and poems where silence is prominent.



Billy Collins

There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.

The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the floor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.

The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.

The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.

And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night

like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.



Tomas Tranströmer

They turn the light off, and its white globe glows
an instant and then dissolves, like a tablet
in a glass of darkness. Then a rising.
The hotel walls shoot up into heaven’s darkness.

Their movements have grown softer, and they sleep,
but their most secret thoughts begin to meet
like two colors that meet and run together
on the wet paper in a schoolboy’s painting.

It is dark and silent. The city however has come nearer
tonight. With its windows turned off. Houses have come.
They stand packed and waiting very near,
a mob of people with blank faces.

trans. Robert Bly


W. S. Merwin, from ASIAN FIGURES (versions of Asian short poems, riddles, and proverbs)

All dressed up
walking in the dark

Even if the sky falls
there will be a little hole
to get out through

Iron hinge
straw door

Clever hands
can’t hold water



Emily Dickinson

A not admitting of the wound
Until it grew so wide
That all my Life had entered it
And there were troughs beside –

A closing of the simple lid that opened to the sun
Until the tender Carpenter
Perpetual nail it down –



Sylvia Plath

After whose stroke the wood rings,
And the echoes!
Echoes traveling
Off from the center like horses.

The sap
Wells like tears, like the
Water striving
To re-establish its mirror
Over the rock

That drops and turns,
A white skull,
Eaten by weedy greens.
Years later I
Encounter them on the road-

Words dry and riderless,
The indefatigable hoof-taps.
From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars
Govern a life.


by Paul Celan:


into the thorn-covered
rock recess.  (Get drunk
and call it

My shoulder frost-sealed;
rubble owls perched on it;
letters between my toes;


in which
I shall have been a guest, a name
sweated down from the wall
a wound licks up


with its mouldering crusts
of delusion bread.

from my mouth.






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The Order of Things

October 4, 2022

  Since last week’s audience participation with translation worked so well, I thought I’d try another interactive post.  This time I want to look at the order of poems as they unfold and reveal themselves. The examples that follow are all published poems that might or might not be in their original order.  For those that are only three stanzas, I think you could try all six possibilities (poet’s math, correct me if I’m wrong) to see which you prefer.  For the five-stanza poem, there are many more (again, poet’s math) possibilities, and for longer than that….

Post your thoughts here–your order, and any comments you want to add–by Thursday, so that we’ll all have a chance to read them before this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.  The point is to see how a poem’s meaning and impact can be changed simply by changing the order of the stanzas.  You might also come up with your own titles, since I haven’t included them.



Then the keeper threw a stick
And the dog went after it
On four legs, the other two flapping behind,
Which made one girl shriek with laughter.

She was drunk and so was the man
Who kept kissing her neck.
The dog got the stick and looked back at us
And that was the whole show.

If you didn’t see the six-legged dog,
It doesn’t matter.
We did, and he mostly lay in the corner.
As for the extra legs,

One got used to them quickly
And thought of other things.
Like, what a cold, dark night
To be out at the fair.




Let it come as it will, and don’t
be afraid.  God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to the air in the lung
let evening come.

Let the dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass.  Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down.  Let the shed
go black inside.  Let evening come.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn.  Let evening come.

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.



The sleep of novels as they are read is soundless
Like the sleep of dresses on the warm bodies of women.
And the sleep of thunder gathering dust on sunny days
and the sleep of ashes long after.

The sleep of wind has been known to fill the sky.
The long sleep of air locked in the lungs of the dead.
The sleep of a room with someone inside it.
Even the wooden sleep of the moon is possible.

There is the sleep of one moment
inside the next, lengthening the night,
and the sleep of the window
turning the tall sleep of the trees into glass.

There is the sleep of my tongue
speaking a language I can never remember–
words that enter the sleep of words
once they are spoken.

And there is the sleep that demands I lie down
and be fitted to the dark that comes upon me
like another skin in which I shall never be found,
out of which I shall never appear.



The man who stands down at the dock screws up his eyes against the water.
Docks get old faster than men.
They have silver-gray posts and boulders in their gut.
The dazzling light drives straight in.

The man who spends the whole day in an open boat
moving over the luminous bays
will fall asleep at last inside the shade of his blue lamp
as the islands crawl like huge moths over the globe.

The man who lies on his back under huge trees
is also up in them.  He branches out into thousands of tiny branches.
He sways back and forth,
he sits in a catapult chair that hurtles forward in slow motion.




One soft foot at a time,
She climbed on my chest,
Looked through the blank
Lid of my face, made
The faintest cry, then
Curled over my heart
And slept, so that I could,
For three nights in a row–
Visitations like belief,
Unreal, against all odds.

Back home at last
After seeing my mother
Lowered into frozen earth,
I couldn’t find sleep
With wine or even pills,
When our calico, as if
Called, came to the sofa
And did something
Never repeated since–



When I forget to weep,
I hear the peeping tree toads
creeping up the bark.
Love lies asleep
and dreams that everything
is in its golden net;
and I am caught there, too,
when I forget.

When I am sad
I sing, remembering
the redwing blackbird’s clack.
Then I want no thing
except to turn time back
to what I had
before love made me sad.









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