Sunday, 14 June 2009

Bibliotherapy: what to read when you’re lost for words


If Sappho has come to be seen as one of the great poets of female desire, then she is also the embodiment of silence; for all but a few tantalising fragments remain of the writer described by Plato as ‘the tenth Muse’. There is only one complete poem (the ‘Ode to Aphrodite’), as much of her work was lost in the ninth century, with just the occasional scrap of papyrus subsequently unearthed to supplement the surviving texts quoted by other ancient authors. The most famous is Fragment 31, a poem that gives word to the wordlessness of love, and shape to a state of speechless incoherence.

Sappho’s inability to speak in the presence of her beloved has been translated in a number of different ways from the original Greek text – “I have no longer power to speak”; “no speaking is left in me”; “my tongue keeps silence” – and there are numerous interpretations of who, and how, Sappho loved. Inevitably, her gender and sexuality has absorbed critics, despite the attempts of Victorian classicists to explain away her relationships with other women as that of the sensible headmistress of a girls’ school (although Queen Victoria’s sketch of Sappho poised to leap from a cliff top is an intriguing expression of passion and loss, particularly as the face in the drawing looks rather like Her Majesty). But perhaps it is Sappho’s mysteriousness – the manner in which she has become emblematic of the unknown -- that continues to speak to us, because, like love, she defies understanding.

The final line of Fragment 31 is not the last line – it breaks off, and is lost, just as the speaker in the poem disintegrates, as if she is losing her self. This is both tormenting and enticing for the reader; emotions that are integral to the subject of the poem, and to the human capacity to yearn for what we cannot have, to possess that which eludes us.

In an era when we are bombarded with speech – it buzzes around us, filling our ears and eyes – and constant instructions that it is ‘good to talk’, Sappho’s poetry survives as evidence, however fragmentary, that silence is powerful, even if it feels unbearable, nor should it be feared in a quest to find the right words.

16 comments:

Rob Hardy said...

My favorite fragment is the single word selinon. "Celery." To me it's quite poignant, the survival for millennia of something so ordinary.

Speaking of fragments and the sensible mistresses of girls' schools, I often think of the fragments of Sappho when I pick up my wife's copy of A Passage to India, which she read for A-levels at a girls' school in Gloucestershire in 1979. Full of marginal notes. Usually things like, "The cave is symbolic." But occasionally something like, "I'm so sleepy." I had to buy a new copy of the novel to read, because the marginal notes were so distracting. I kept trying to imagine the girl's life in the margins.

Justine Picardie said...

I like the idea of you reading your wife's thoughts before you met her. Could you tell from the margins that you would one day fall in love with her?

Knitting Out Loud said...

This puts me in mind of Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading. Is there a general history of physical texts?

enid said...

Please please give me a few recommendations of what to read when all new books are getting tiresome- I need favourites that you remember and love. Thanks

Justine Picardie said...

The expert on texts is Prof Kathryn Sutherland (see earlier blogs).
As for good books when you're fed up with everything else: my favourite is I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith. It never fails to cheer me up.

Josephine Tale Peddler said...

I've never read Sappho but I have read I Capture the Castle several times and it is a good cheer up book!

enid said...

Yes I Capture the Castle did indeed cheer me up - now any more reading recommendations.

Lazywell said...

With regard to Rob Hardy's single word fragment, my favourite is olisb' (meaning dildo). Its discovery dealt a serious blow to the desperate attempts of more prudish Classical scholars to avoid any acknowledgment of Sappho's true sexuality.

Justine, I am one of your biggest fans, but I have never plucked up courage to contribute to your blog. I just wanted you to know how evocative, insightful and uplifting I found this piece; I could really identify with it.

I seem to remember reading somewhere that you're a Gemini. If your birthday is any time around now I wish you many happy returns.

Justine Picardie said...

Lazywell, it is indeed my birthday today, and your message is a welcome one. I look forward to your return, in between the Sapphic silences.

Justine Picardie said...

Incidentally (or not), here is the fragment, appropriately, hidden away in the depths of the blog, for anyone who wants to search it out.

Fortunate as the gods he seems to me, that man who sits
opposite you, and listens nearby to your sweet voice

And your lovely laughter; that, I vow, has set my heart
within my breast a-flutter. For when I look at you a
moment, then I have no longer power to speak,

But my tongue keeps silence, straightway a subtle flame has
stolen beneath my flesh, with my eyes I see nothing, my
ears are humming,

A cold sweat covers me, and a trembling seizes me all over,
I am paler than grass, I seem to be not far short of death...

But all must be endured, since....

Sappho, Fr. 31

kairu said...

How beautiful that fragment is. Thank you for sharing it.

Justine Picardie said...

Glad you found it here...

kevinhil123 said...

im lost for words all the time :)

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