By John Ezard
A newly found poem by Sappho, acknowledged as one of the greatest poets of Greek classical antiquity and seen by some as the finest of any era, is published for the first time today.
Written more than 2,600 years ago, the 101 words of verse deal with a theme timeless in both art and soap operas; the stirrings of an ageing body towards the nimbleness, youth and love it once knew.
The poem is the rarest of discoveries. Sappho’s pre-eminent reputation as an artist of lyricism and love is based on only three complete poems, 63 complete single lines and up to 264 fragments.
These are all that have survived of the writings of a woman who the Greek philosopher Plato said should be honoured not merely as a great lyric poet but as one of the Muses, the goddesses who inspire all art.
On hearing one of Sappho’s poems sung, the sixth century BC Greek ruler Solon, a contemporary of hers, asked for someone to teach him the song “because I want to learn it and die”.
The poem which is now her fourth to survive had a tortuous and not unromantic discovery. It was found in the cartonnage of an Egyptian mummy, the flexible layer of fibre or papyrus which was moulded while wet into a plaster-like surface around the irregular parts of a mummified wrapped body, so that motifs could be painted on.
Last year two scholars, Michael Gronewald and Robert Daniel, announced that a recovered papyrus in the archives of Cologne University had been identified as part of a roll containing poems by Sappho.
Researchers realised that parts of one poem corresponded with fragments found in 1922 in one of the great treasure troves of modern classical scholarship – the ancient rubbish tips of the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus.
The completed jigsaw is today published in an 1,500- word article with commentary and translation in the Times Literary Supplement by Martin West, emeritus fellow of All Souls, Oxford, a renowned translator of Greek lyric poetry, described by the British Academy as “on any reckoning the most brilliant and productive Greek scholar of his generation”.
Sappho – writing on the isle of Lesbos, apparently for a court of younger women – is treated as the patron saint of love between women. She has become “a litterateurs’ Lorelei, a feminist icon, a scholars’ maypole”, writes Dr West.
Ostensibly at least, the craving in the final image of the new poem is for love from young men – with a cautionary note. Tithonus was a youth so beautiful that the dawn-goddess took him as husband. At her request Zeus granted him immortality. But she forgot to ask for eternal youth.
So Tithonus grew old and feeble, having eventually to be shut in his room “where he chatters away endlessly but barely has the strength to move”, Dr West says.
****Friday June 24, 2005