Sappho’s Moon

In an effort to start the week on a positive note, I bring to you a dose of beauty via Sappho. We travel to the island of Lesbos circa the 5th century BCE. Just as Sappho’s readers were enchanted then, we are moved today by her lyrical imagery. Little of Sappho’s poetry has survived, but the fragments of what remains are moving, elegant, and complex. I offer two of my favorite examples, and you can explore Penguin Classics as well as the sources I share below for more of Sappho in English translation.

While Sappho’s poetry is beautiful, it’s not an example of mere escapist pleasure–she lived through much turmoil, having had experienced exile and banishment. The politics of her day were just as unsettling as those of ours. Yet, her poetry uplifts and reminds us to dream, reflect and take joy in beauty.

I hope that you’ll enjoy them as much as I do. Please feel free to share something beautiful with us as well.

Moon

Awed by her splendor
Stars near the lovely
moon cover their own
bright faces
when she
is roundest and lights
earth with her silver
–From Sappho, A New Translation by Mary Barnard, 1958.

Come to me here from Crete

Come to me here from Crete,

To this holy temple, where
Your lovely apple grove stands,
And your altars that flicker
With incense.

And below the apple branches, cold
Clear water sounds, everything shadowed
By roses, and sleep that falls from
Bright shaking leaves.

And a pasture for horses blossoms
With the flowers of spring, and breezes
Are flowing here like honey:

Come to me here,
Here, Cyprian, delicately taking
Nectar in golden cups
Mixed with a festive joy,
And pour.
–Translated by A. S. Kline, via Poetry in Translation.

Sappho (630-570 BCE)

Painting: Moonrise Over the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich, 1822.

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45 Comments

  • Tourmaline: Dear Victoria,

    What a lovely idea – to begin the week on a positive note.

    I like both of those poems. To follow in the vein of the first one, here is a poem about another heavenly body.

    A curious Cloud surprised the Sky

    Emily Dickenson,1710.

    A curious Cloud surprised the Sky,
    ‘Twas like a sheet with Horns;
    The sheet was Blue —
    The Antlers Gray —
    It almost touched the lawns.

    So low it leaned — then statelier drew —
    And trailed like robes away,
    A Queen adown a satin aisle
    Had not the majesty.

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline October 19, 2020 at 7:38am Reply

    • Victoria: So beautiful and uplifting! Thank you so much! October 19, 2020 at 11:35am Reply

      • Tourmaline: You’re welcome! October 20, 2020 at 5:03am Reply

  • Stephanie: This was a joy to receive in my inbox this morning. Thank you! October 19, 2020 at 9:13am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so happy to hear this. 🙂 October 19, 2020 at 11:36am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Three such beautiful poems to read on a Monday during my lunch break. All celebrating and appreciating the joys of nature. Many thanks to Victoria and Tourmaline. The painting is also gorgeous in it tranquility and gentle beauty. A perfect accompaniment to the poems.

    Of course, the first poem directly felt like it called to me. A silver shining face of the moon. My name actually references the beauty of the moon in Persian poetry, but of course the Greeks of Sappho’s time closely interacted with the Persians. Victoria, it felt so personal reading the poem. It has made my day. Special thanks for that too. 😊💕 October 19, 2020 at 9:29am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you. It was such a touching comment.
      The moon-faced one, one of the most beautiful epithets. Among many things I like about Turkish is the fact that in standard Turkish sunflowers are actually moonflowers (ayçiçeği=ay means “moon” and çiçek means “flower”). In other Turkish dialects, the word still references the sun, from günebakan “that which looks at the sun” to gündöndü “that which turns around at the sun.” I do like the moonflower, though, which reminds us that the moon is just as bright, beautiful and important as the sun. October 19, 2020 at 11:44am Reply

      • Silvermoon: Oh how intriguing that some areas of Turkey reference the moon rather than the sun for sunflowers. And yes, the ancient Greeks, Persians and Turks/Asia Minor, all considered the moon very important. The moon tied to monthly cycles and the sun to annual cycles. October 19, 2020 at 1:18pm Reply

        • Victoria: I mean, that’s the standard word for sunflower in Turkish. It’s only in some areas of Turkey (and in other Turkic languages like Azeri, Uzbek, Kazakh, Turkmen) that it really is “sunflower.” October 20, 2020 at 3:48am Reply

  • Marsha: Lovely post Victoria! October 19, 2020 at 9:43am Reply

  • Aurora: I love these posts, I wonder what perfume would go with Sappho’s poetry, No 22 maybe?

    El Desdichado

    Je suis le ténébreux, le veuf, l’inconsolé
    Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
    Ma seule étoile est morte et mon luth constellé
    Porte le soleil noir de la mélancholie

    Gérard de Nerval October 19, 2020 at 10:36am Reply

    • Sandra: I translated this, how beautiful October 19, 2020 at 10:47am Reply

      • Aurora: I’m very impressed. October 20, 2020 at 2:08pm Reply

    • Victoria: Splendide! October 19, 2020 at 11:44am Reply

  • Sandra: Thank you V! which perfume would you match with that photo?

    I finished my coffee this morning now brewing some tea, wishing I had something to dip into it I remembered Proust:

    “…And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”

    This is my form of poetry! October 19, 2020 at 10:46am Reply

    • Victoria: Off the top of my head, I thought of Serge Lutens De Profundis. It has that kind of aura to me. What about you?

      I enjoy this quote very much! October 19, 2020 at 11:45am Reply

      • Sandra: I was thinking Guerlain when I saw that image, maybe sous le vent.

        Thank you for starting this Monday on a poetic note for all your readers. October 19, 2020 at 1:08pm Reply

        • Victoria: Oh, that would be perfect! October 20, 2020 at 3:44am Reply

  • delia jean adkins: oh, i swoon with her words! thank you. this summer i spent most of my time working outside in my yard. with nature. i felt healed. calm. optimistic, enthusiastic.
    what a difference instead of focusing on the turmoil engulfing the u.s. these years.
    i’m guessing sapho benefitted from turning her attention to nature. October 19, 2020 at 10:52am Reply

    • Victoria: You must be right. Nature, even something as simple as growing a pot of basil, has been very important to me too. October 19, 2020 at 11:46am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: How very uplifting!

    Here a verse from Goethe, reflecting upon Greece. In Germany, these lines became the signal call during the classical Enlightenment period, conjuring everything noble and beauteous which ancient Greece symbolised, i.e. seeking the land of the Greeks with your soul. It is from “Iphigenie auf Tauris”, and expressly from her entrance monologue:

    “(…) Denn ach! mich trennt das Meer von den Geliebten,
    Und an dem Ufer steh ich lange Tage,
    Das Land der Griechen mit der Seele suchend;
    Und gegen meine Seufzer bringt die Welle
    Nur dumpfe Töne brausend mir herüber.”

    “(…) For the sea
    Doth sever me, alas! from those I love,
    And day by day upon the shore I stand,
    My soul still seeking for the land of Greece.
    But to my sighs, the hollow-sounding waves
    Bring, save their own hoarse murmurs, no reply. October 19, 2020 at 1:04pm Reply

    • Silvermoon: Oh so very beautiful! And perfectly matching the poetry, and Victoria’s words and image.

      Also lovely citations posted by Aurora and Sandra. Thanks to all. October 19, 2020 at 1:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! German poetry in general has such a beautiful melody, and Goethe’s even more so. October 20, 2020 at 3:44am Reply

  • Christine Funt: Thank you so much for these beautiful poems to start the week. I’ll have to look for more Sappho’s poems. October 19, 2020 at 1:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m glad that you liked it! October 20, 2020 at 3:44am Reply

  • Gabriela: Thank you Victoria. Your article about colors the other day…My little daughter said she does an activity with her teacher every Friday where the
    children have to pick a color related to how they feel that week and explain it! Wonderful, isn’t it?

    A poem by Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Louise Gluck

    Snowdrops
    I did not expect to survive,
    earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
    to waken again, to feel
    in damp earth my body
    able to respond again, remembering
    after so long how to open again
    in the cold light
    of earliest spring –

    afraid, yes, but among you again
    crying yes risk joy

    in the raw wind of the new world. October 19, 2020 at 4:23pm Reply

    • Victoria: That’s such a great activity! And so creative.

      Thank you for the poem. I’ve never read anything by Louise Gluck before, so it’s time I take a look at her writing. October 20, 2020 at 3:50am Reply

  • Old Herbaceous: Lovely! If anyone wants to read more translations of Sappho, I highly recommend a book by my former professor Anne Carson, “If Not, Winter.” NY Times review is here: https://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/26/books/books-of-the-times-the-mystery-of-sappho-and-her-erotic-legacy.html October 19, 2020 at 8:32pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much! October 20, 2020 at 3:50am Reply

    • Karen A: Your comment inspired me to buy the book and it is amazing. Thank you for mentioning it! October 23, 2020 at 9:20am Reply

  • Peter: Mahalo Victoria and Readers, for sharing the beauty of words. My contribution is from the Eastern side of the World:

    Evening orchid—
    the white of its flower
    hidden in its scent

    Buson October 19, 2020 at 10:39pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you! One can’t have enough of Buson. October 20, 2020 at 3:51am Reply

  • John Luna: These are lovely, thank you! I seen a have a couple of translations of Sappho, and one real curiosity (I have it somewhere around my place) is the one produced by the Canadian poet and classicist Rachel Carson…The way she deals with the fragmentation of so much of Sappho’s work is to isolate the fragments in their space with empty brackets implying an otherwise absent text in a way that almost turns the negative space into an extension of the poetic voice. While I think it is important to underscore that Sappho’s surviving fragments (as beautiful as they might become when viewed romantically as lone things unto themselves) were part of a more consonant body, I still appreciate Carson’s approach, which somehow offers both positions simultaneously:

    Fragment 22

    ]
    ]work
    ]face
    ]
    ]
    if not, winter
    ]no pain
    ]]I bid you sing
    of Gongyla, Abanthis, taking up
    your lyre as (now again) longing
    floats around you,

    you beauty. For her dress when you saw it
    stirred you. And I rejoice.
    In fact she herself once blamed me
    Kyprogeneia

    because I prayed
    this word:
    I want October 20, 2020 at 1:04am Reply

    • Victoria: I very much enjoyed reading this, and you highlight a very important point about Sappho’s work. The fragments were part of a much larger edifice. One is grateful for what remains, but how I wish we could read more. October 20, 2020 at 3:53am Reply

  • rainboweyes: A wonderful poem, thank you…
    My favourite moon-themed poem is “Die Welt, die monden ist” by Rainer Maria Rilke:

    Vergiss, vergiss und lass uns jetzt nur dies
    erleben, wie die Sterne durch geklärten
    Nachthimmel dringen; wie der Mond die Gärten
    voll übersteigt. Wir fühlten längst schon, wie’s
    spiegelnder wird im Dunkeln; wie ein Schein
    entsteht, ein weißer Schatten in dem Glanz
    der Dunkelheit. Nun aber lass uns ganz
    hinübertreten in die Welt hinein
    die monden ist –

    (Die Gedichte 1906 bis 1910 – Paris, vor dem 7. Februar 1909)

    ——-

    Forget, forget, and let us live now
    only this, how the stars pierce through
    cleared nocturnal sky; how the moon’s whole disk
    surmounts the gardens. We’ve sensed so long already
    how the darkness breeds many mirrors: how a gleam
    takes shape, a white shadow in the radiance
    of night. But now let us cross over
    and invest this world where
    everything is lunar —

    (Translation by Edward Snow) October 20, 2020 at 6:50am Reply

    • Victoria: So beautiful! Thank you very much. October 20, 2020 at 8:30am Reply

  • Maria: These poems remind me of the beauties of the natural world and how grateful I am to be joyously insignificant—-just another bit of stardust. I am propelled out of bed to get outside now that it is dawn and to walk in all that sensate beauty, which, miracle of miracles, exists and delights all of our insignificant selves. October 20, 2020 at 7:19am Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve started waking up very early this spring, mostly because I couldn’t sleep well at that time. So, I began getting up to watch the sunrise. It was so uplifting! October 20, 2020 at 8:31am Reply

  • Wara: Victoria and Community, thank you for this most lovely of refuges from the turmoil of our days….the moon is all we have….mama Killa as we know her in Andean regions…and even those of us that live far away from our original cradle….look to her for love and peace…enjoy this beauty from one of our great young leaders

    https://nsadvocate.org/2018/06/09/remembering-a-poem-by-killa-ch%E2%80%B2aska-mitchell-atencio/ October 20, 2020 at 11:37pm Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: Indeed! Goethe writes about Iphigenia standing on the beach and yearning for her country/culture beyond the sea—ultra mare—and all she gets is wave upon wave of despair crashing in onto her. The rhythm of the words mirrors that flow precisely: it‘s a crescendo/decrescendo, and thereby the language somehow „feeling“ the image: sublime! October 21, 2020 at 3:50pm Reply

    • OnWingsofSaffron: Sorry, this reply to your comment, Victoria, dropped to the bottom! October 21, 2020 at 3:51pm Reply

  • Karen A: Wonderful post and love reading everyone’s comments. I highly recommend Anne Carson’s book mentioned above, If Not, Winter. Bought it after seeing the two comments and her translations are beautiful. October 23, 2020 at 9:22am Reply

  • JulienFromDijon: By serendipity, this poem has been my soundtrack during the whole lock-up period 🙂

    Layne Redmond made a music out of it, where the lyrics are sung, first in english, then in what I believe to be old greek.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejoh0_jvLQo October 24, 2020 at 3:27pm Reply

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