Grasp eagerly, girls, for fine gifts of crimson-bodiced
Muses, for the sweet peal of lyre.

My own once tender flesh has fallen into clutch
Of age, once dark hair turned leper white.

My heart plumbed by time, knees unfit for my own weight,
Which once sprang to fawn-like dance.

Oh I do go on about these things, but what to do?
Eternal youth is no human’s birthright.

For Tithonus of the tale, kidnapped by love-struck,
Rose-armed Dawn, and taken to world’s end,

Despite his immortal mate, and all his fine youth,
Could not outstrip white-haired age.

 

Translated by Uche Ogbuji

 

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Sappho was an Ancient Greek poetess, born on the island of Lesbos. Later Greeks included her in the canonical list of nine lyric poets. Her birth was sometime between 630 and 612 BC, and it is said that she died around 570 BC, but little is known for certain about her life. The bulk of her poetry, which was well-known and greatly admired throughout antiquity, has been lost, but her immense reputation has endured through surviving fragments. The adjectives deriving from her name and place of birth (sapphic and lesbian) came to be associated with the love of one woman for another.

Plato honored her as the tenth Muse, and the great Solon of Athens upon hearing one of her songs, asked his nephew to teach it to him, saying, "I just want to learn it and die."

31 responses to “Sappho and Old Age”

  1. Paul Clayton says:

    Good job, Uche,

    I’m beginning to feel that way a little myself, but only when I forget to take my vitamins. I went to a dance lesson last night where I had an equal chance of getting struck by lightning, being attacked by a great white shark, or meeting a nice woman and getting her phone number. I won’t tell you which happened. Anyway, getting old… yeah. But better than the alternative.

  2. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Thanks, Paul. We all feel like that sometimes, I think, which is why it’s nice to have Sappho put it all in such a lively but straight manner. If you can’t enjoy anything else about against, at least enjoy the art of complaining about aging. You can clearly sense the twinkle in the old girl’s eye. Compare that to T.S. Eliot’s sour grunting in “Prufrock” (where he truly must be taking the piss) or “Gerontion”.

    Anyway, keep going to those dance lessons and I bet before long some nice woman, lightning struck, will set upon you like a great white shark, with her phone number in hand.

  3. Mary says:

    Oh, Uche, I love Sappho so much. Really glad you posted this.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      It was my absolute, iridescent pleasure to work on it. For one thing, I had the pleasure of re-reading all the fragments a few times over. Is it really too much to dream that one day we’ll actually recover all her wonderful work? If there were to be only one reason for a time machine to be invented, it would have to be to make such a recovery.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Man..aging is a bitch.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      True, but it could be worse. Tithonus gets to age forever. At least we have an eventual end to the decline.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        This puts me in mind of the end of the odd sci-fi movie Zardoz, in which the old continue to age without being able to die. Eventually they hurl themselves at gun-wielding assassins, ecstatically crying “Death!” as they’re mowed down.

        Like others elsewhere on this board, Uche, I love Sappho, and I love the English tongue, so to speak, you’ve given her.

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Thanks Duke, and I hadn’t watched that movie, but it does give me a mental composite image, of a dozen aged Tithonides, all turned grotesque cicada-men, running into the banks of the river Styx yelling “Thalatta!” “Thalatta!” In other words a hybrid of the Anabasis and Tithonus myth. I suppose it’s too much to believe that’s what the Zardoz writers were going for, but it’s cool to think.

  5. Anon says:

    Excellent stuff, Uche. Thank you for posting it. As much as I love Sappho, Solon’s quote has now set the standard for the perfect comment on a piece.

    Zara, while I have only recently started aging (having remained – ahem – perfectly preserved in my early twenties for nearly two decades), I’ve found the process to be slowed by a combination of denial, irreverence and a healthy layer of arrogance. Try it when you start aging – in another twenty years or so – and see if you don’t have equal success.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Yeah, Solon knows how to give a damn compliment!

      But to be fair, what can you do but pour out your best wine for perhaps the greatest poet in recorded history.

  6. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh I do go on about these things, but what to do?
    Eternal youth is no human’s birthright.

    Unless…

  7. Judy Prince says:

    Lovely work, Uche!

    Your fresh flavour of images, strength of alliteration (“Grasp eagerly, girls, for fine gifts of crimson-bodiced
    Muses”); your emotional precipice of Sappho’s casual regret (“Oh I do go on about these things, but what to do?
    Eternal youth is no human’s birthright”); your effortless time signals (“My own once tender flesh”, “all his fine youth,
    Could not outstrip white-haired age”); and your basso ostinato, rocking, word-jazzed music—-rebirths Sappho.

    BTW, I love the way you settled the “blossom/bosom” conundrum.

    Translating’s compelling work because we crave the sounds and feel of unknown pasts fast-forwarded and re-freshed.

    As with any other poem-writing, the rare translator who succeeds has “heard” a mute divination, claimed it jealously—-then released the singular bird to others’ sight.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Thanks, Judy, especially since you clearly have a strong background on this topic. You’re exactly the sort I had in mind writing my translation notes:

      http://copia.posterous.com/notes-on-my-sappho-translation

      Once I gave up on classical meter, I knew I was going to rely on my entire bag of tricks to avoid throwing out her music. I was also determined to try to let it flow naturally, though, so I’m glad you caught some of the resulting flourishes.

      For me it had to be purple-bosomed. It makes me think of an exaggerated flush of excitement from Muses as representation of immortal youth that eludes humans. Sappho constantly surpasses convention, so that reading seemed the utter poetic truth.

  8. Uche Ogbuji says:

    I’ve posted notes on my translation:

    http://copia.posterous.com/notes-on-my-sappho-translation

    It’s probably mostly for classicists (who I hope will be gentle with me) but it also covers some of the thought process of my effort.

  9. Joe Daly says:

    Whoa! Well done, young man! Richmond Lattimore would be proud! So hard to find just the right nuance, but you’ve clearly brought it forth here. Thanks for the hard work!

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Joe, that’s very poignant because Lattimore is one of my favorite classical translators. I’ve always thought his family background and connections to China meant he could hear the tonal pitch in Homeric Greek, and that gave him a leg-up in picking the right sonic landscape in English. Or maybe that’s just my prejudice because I also grew up on tonal languages (such as my native Igbo).

      I heard from a few folks recently that they preferred the Fagles, so I tried those, but I think Fagles strayed too far from Homer in the quest to sound good. Equivalent to the “tarting up Sappho” diss applied to some of her translators (I hope not me!) Lattimore balanced fidelity and enjoyable English better than anyone else, I think.

  10. Joe Daly says:

    Uche-

    As a Classics Major, I should be more prepared to respond to your comments, but sadly, four years of rugby left me with just enough energy to get passing grades in my classes. Greek was my weaker of the two languages, but I do recall Lattimore as presenting the texts in a way that translated the original fairly, while maintaining that lyrical quality that they surely deserve.

    It is refreshing to see what happens to people when they actually apply themselves to their studies. Excelsior! 🙂

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Hah! Maybe my secret weapon was not being a Classics Major. I made my first go at Latin from books my Dad had lying around, with some of his help. I fiddled in Latin and Greek when I should have been studying Electronic Engineering, and nearly flunked out, as a consequence, as I chronicled here:

      http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/uogbuji/2008/10/before-you-mother-idoto-naked-i-stand/

      Yeah. I was kinda applying myself to the completely wrong studies 😉 . I think your Major is often something you end up resenting for the imposition, and you tend to find what you truly love elsewhere.

  11. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    This hits way too close to home this morning.

    Nevertheless, thanks for sharing those beautiful words.

  12. Oh, Sappho. How you slay me. Be still my heart…

  13. Alison Aucoin says:

    Sappho should have adopted a very young child late in life. It’s the only thing I’ve found that allows me to be simultaneously forever young and older than my years.

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      You know, I know Sappho was just *dying* to write:

      …once dark hair turned candy pink…

      But you see they didn’t have the dye back then. That is dye, is it? It certainly pushes age to the furthest recesses of mind.

      It is an interesting question what Sappho’s own Kleis might have thought of an adopted sister.

  14. Alison Aucoin says:

    Ooh Uche, I love the idea of Sappho with a bright pink beehive! Actually it’s a wig but it still puts me in a young frame of mind. Can you just imagine what I’ll look like at 80 with that thing perched on my balding grey head?

  15. […] poetry editor, barefoot runner, resident genius.  Luthor-esque in his understanding of things like poetry in dead languages, metaphysics, and the trade-off between loss of control and extention of […]

  16. Carl D'Agostino says:

    I’ve finally found a poetry translator. Uche how do they get words in another language to rhyme when translated into English? I don’t understand how this can be done. For example in English mother goes with brother but in Spanish it’s madre and hermano which obviously don’t rhyme. They must be editing to a degree that there is no connection to the original text.

    • dwoz says:

      Carl, translation of poetry (or anything, for that matter) from one language to another is always going to be a juggling act.

      Otherwise, google would do a fine job, and we’d be done with the whole mess.

      Poetry isn’t just rhymes, just words. It has meter, cadence or rhythm (or lack thereof);

      There are literal meanings, implied meanings, puns, jokes, colloquialisms, turns-of-phrase, etc. In English vs. Romance there’s a difference of a feminine-masculine, (except in pronouns).

      Thus, it often cannot be a word-for-word translation. Word-for-word is often the WORST translation.

      It may “feel” more important to maintain the cadence (or ‘scansion’) than to preserve the rhyme. It may be more important to preserve a double-entendre than the rhyme. Or, the rhyme may be the most necessary element.

      It’s easier, of course, going between languages that share a common root: Latin into Spanish isn’t so terribly difficult, for example. Sanskrit into English…not so cut-and-dried.

      The thesaurus is your friend, as well!

      When I’m translating “How about THEM apples!” from English (colloquial) into some other language, do I translate it literally “consider the superlative apples,” or is it better translated as ” “what do you think of that?” The phrase may in context be referring to a woman’s breasts, or to a comeuppance someone received, or to some actual tree-borne fruit!

      Just exactly WHAT is the connection to the original text? The word “apple?” or the idea of the phrase?

    • Uche Ogbuji says:

      Hi Carl, this is why translating poetry is one of the most vexing problems of the art. From different philosophies of how to do justice to the original poem as well as readers of the translation to questions of whether the translation is an entirely new poem in its right. And what of no-frills prose translations?

      My philosophy, as it generally is with poetry, is of pragmatism over all. If you really want to get at an essence of a poem, there is no recourse but to read it in its native language. Clearly that is not practical for most folks, so the best course is to read a few translations of the same poem, if available, so that you in effect triangulate the ideas of the original, and maybe some of the sonic ambition. Ideally you find at least one translation that is a fine poem in its own right, and thus you get a little bonus. And even more ideally, you find a recording of the original in its language, or get a friend who knows that language to read it out to you, so you get the original sound.

  17. Eric says:

    Thanks for posting this, Uche. I love this poem. It means more and more to me with each passing year…