True poetry is a separate language, and it has from earliest times been the twin of magic, born in the shadow of love.
Robert Graves, one of the few true poets of our time, believed that “Poems must be bounced off the moon”. He was also of the opinion that there was no perfect poem. What Graves meant by “ Bounced of the moon” was that poems should speak to us in the language of lunar wisdom, as opposed to solar intellect, and that they should appeal to the element in our psyches that bestrides the magical realm between the knowable and expressible, and the inexpressibly known and un-sayable.
What Graves alluded to when he said there was no perfect poem, was the taint of contemporaneity that all poems suffer, unless they are stripped of all contextual clues unique to their age and time, and thereby reduced to pure abstractions. This of course reduces a poem to its skeletal form, and leaves it as merely a suggestion of what it might have been.
However, we know from experience that contemporaneousness ipso facto is not a flaw. Besides the obvious fact that some elements of human nature are timeless, human beings of all epochs posses a degree of atavism which poetry and art have the ability to instantly, powerfully and effortlessly resurrect. When we come into full mind and body contact with these psychic artifacts, we are made to plunge like divers into the deep waters, which are the realms of our wordless selves, and transcend the limitations of tired, everyday consciousness. We then may make our way into what Vladimir Nabokov called “The unreal estate of memory and Art”
Twenty six hundred years ago, in a small peninsula far away from the Greek mainland, across the Aegean sea, during a little remarked upon period of Greek history, prior to the better-known historical periods of the classical age and the Peloponnesian wars, four lines of poetry were “bounced off the moon”, and the result was a poem which has never been surpassed for its compressed beauty, clarity, brevity, perfection and poignancy: the moon-born echo of a plangent cry.
This was the world of ancient Greece, immediately before the classical age, when the Greek expansion was hitting its stride, and Sicily a Greek colony. The first Greek coins were being minted, the Etruscans were devising a script derived from the Greek, in which they wrote their still undecipherable language, Rome was just beginning to be an urban center, and developing her own alphabet, Nikosthenes was painting his wine cups in the renowned red and black slipware still admired today, The prophet Jeremiah was fulminating in far away Judea, and his opposite, the compassionate Buddha was proclaiming his timeless precepts in Bodh Gaya.
Far north of the Cyclades, in the city of Mytilene, on the eastern coast of Lesbos, around 600 BCE, the woman whom Plato called the tenth muse was writing her extensive canon of poetry: nine books each consisting of 330 four line stanzas: 1320 lines each. From twelve thousand lines of poetry, 700 intelligible lines exist today. Among those 700 lines is this poem:
The moon has set, and the Pleiades:
The hours pass, and yet –
I lie alone.
The writer of the poem wrote her name in the Mytilenian way as Psappfo, but the world knows her as Sappho.
Could anything be simpler! A poem with no adjectives, no emotions named, one image, two tenses, three simple declarative sentences, and four lines, which take about five seconds to read. Yet, an interminable age of waiting, and the passing of the whole gamut of emotions from expectancy to disappointment is suggested.
The form is as terse as an epitaph; the feelings as stoical as a soul awaiting judgement; the poet an anguished lover wrung out by disappointment. The whole night has passed – the ancient night of a world now no more, which we can hardly now imagine; with no visible light except for the moon and the faint blue stars, which now having set, leave behind them a near palpable darkness. The lover awaiting her beloved has watched the moon’s progress as it rose over the narrow strip of peninsular land, and traversed the whole of the night sky before setting over the western horizon of the Aegean Sea, its waters now transformed from their daytime cerulean to the unrelieved blackness of midnight. From the persistent ache of love, and the deep cup of her loneliness Sappho pours out this poem.
The translator has been sensitive and adept. She has chosen her words and selected one internal rhyme and one paired set of vowels to place this jewel for the inward eye – this indelible image, in a setting of sounds, which fall like pure music on both the inner and outer ear.
This poem seems to me like a drop of dark ink, which when dropped in a bowl of water, spreads itself to the very rim and then pushes at it, while the central threads and swirls of colour undulate until the colourless water is completely transformed to a tint by that single drop of pigment. For me, this single instant seems to colour eternity.
A young girl, waits throughout a lonely night, for a lover who is still expected, though perhaps beyond recall. Still, it is a poem so modern it could have been written today, were the poet, like Sappho the beloved of her Muse, Cyprian Aphrodite arising from the sea of desire.
A perfect poem, like a perfect gem, is precious, unflawed, brilliantly cut, glittering, achingly beautiful, and unforgettable. Time and memory become visible in its depths.
Perhaps the reason for its unforgetableness is explained in this observation by Milan Kundera: “In existential mathematics… experience takes the form of two basic equations: the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory. The degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting”
This next poem, also by Sappho, is her most celebrated, and one of the very few to have survived in its entirety. I have chosen three translations of it, plus the version by Catullus, and its translation.
Godlike the one who
watches and catches
which (softly) tears me
to tatters: nothing is
left of me: each time
I see her
…tongue numbed: arms, legs
melting, on fire: drum
drumming in ears head –
lights gone black.
To me he seems as a god
as he sits facing you and
hears you near as you speak
softly and laugh
in a sweet echo that jolts
the heart in my ribs. For now
as I look at you, my voice
is empty and
can say nothing as my tongue
cracks and slender fire is quick
under my skin. My eyes are dead
to light. My ears
pound, and sweat pours over me.
I convulse greener than grass
and feel my mind slip, as I
go close to death.
Blest beyond earth’s bliss, with heaven I deem him
Blest the one that in your presence near you
Face to face may sit and while you speak,
Listening may hear you.
And your sweet-voiced laughter – in my bosom
The rapt heart trembles, wildly stirred:
Let me see you, but a glimpse – and straightaway
Utterance of word
Fails me; no voice comes; my tongue is palsied;
Thrilling fire all through my flesh has run;
My eyes cannot see, my ears make dinning
Noises that stun.
The sweat streams down, – my whole frame seized with
Shivering – and wan paleness over me has spread
Greener than grass; I seem with faintness
Almost as dead.
Before going to the next version, it might be useful to include a little aside on the Sapphic stanza. Using ‘s’ for stressed and ‘u’ for unstressed syllables, and x for the caesura: it is as follows:
s u s x s u u s u s s
s u s x s u u s u s s
s u s x s u u s u s s
s u u s s u u
The Roman poets Horace and Catullus both attempted this metre.
As poets such as Alexander Pope discovered, when they attempted to endow their own poetry with the gloss of Virgilian hexameters, it is nearly impossible to adapt classical poetical meters of one language to conform to the poetry of other languages. This is particularly true of a language like English, thickly strewn as it is with irregular stresses. Nonetheless, the next two versions of the poem reach a creditably high standard of success, despite the added burden involved in their translation.
Ille mi par esse deo uidetur
Ille si fas est superare diuos
Qui sedens aduersus identidem te
Spectat et audit
Dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis
Eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te
Lesbia aspexi, nihil est super mi
Lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
Flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
Tintinant aures, gemina teguntur
And its translation…
He is changed to a god, he who looks on her
Godlike he shines when he’s seated beside her
Immortal joy to gaze and hear the fall of
Her sweet laughter.
All of my senses are lost and confounded;
Lesbia rises before me and trembling
I sink, into the earth and swift dissolution
Seizes my body.
Limbs are pierced with fire and the heavy tongue fails.
Ears resound with the noise of distant storms and shaking
This earth, eyes gaze on stars that fall forever
Into deep midnight.
The condition Sappho documents in this poem is uniquely described in poetic terms. Why unique? Because she is relating to us the same mystical transformation told of by St John of the Cross, Rumi, Ramakrishna, St Teresa of Avila and many others, but to Sappho, disclosure comes in poetic form. True poetry, which is mystical to its core, does not shy away from bringing our reluctant awareness to bear upon the realization that love and death lie but a hair’s breath apart from each other. Intense love, and the entrancement it engenders, brings about the mystical transformation wherein one dies to the former self.
The intense, suffused and unfettered consciousness, which blossoms in the presence of the beloved (St John’s ‘la noche dischosa’) brings in its wake a unique unphysical death, which begins when the night has ended. Then lover and beloved are torn apart.
This singular death, this sundering, the passing away of familiar awareness, is the entire, and undeniable, – though completely unspoken subscript of the poem.
And who is the woman who makes as a god the one admitted to her presence?
She is the Immortal Muse.
Consider the setting of this poem. ‘He’ sits passive, and receptive before her (in Catullus’s poem ‘aduersus’, which carries the connotation of ‘paying attention to’).
She speaks and laughs, and he listens. He is not sitting next to her, or lying beside her as a lover, but across from her as a votary, worshipper or supplicant.
He is not permitted to touch her. The two senses permitted him are sight and hearing.
If this ‘god’ is satisfied at being granted the bliss of his beloved’s physical and erotic embrace, he will be less fortunate than Sappho, because the swiftly passing bliss of carnality might be all he is allowed to have. Then, unlike Sappho, he will not drown in the deep waters of persistent ecstatic love, die to his gross nature in the searing flame of separation, and experience the transformation of self, which accompanies the sacramental baptism into the poetic element.
I am led to inquire of this man, even in the direct presence of the Goddess, is he aware of his privilege? I ask if he could ever love his muse as does Sappho, for whom love is an intense affliction, and therefore for her, a true passion.
As Sappho observes the spectacle before her, she does not express the least trace of invidiousness or jealousy. She does not question or challenge the other’s right to access. We can feel that the sharp edge of longing in her has not ceased to bite, and feel as well that the dagger of this relinquishment hurts just as much coming out as it did going in, but if she is witnessing a rival enjoying the favours which once were hers, she shows no hatred or bitterness towards him. She simply takes us into her confidence, and relates her painful predicament, without any self – pity and with all the brutal honesty that only an unflinching dedication to the ‘way of the poet’ can evince.
One of the many remarkable things about this starkly, and even pitilessly self – observant second poem, is the almost clinically described progression, in the third and fourth verses, of the transformative events culminating in trance/seizure. Beyond question we have here a disclosure of the gripping sequence in which ordinary consciousness is transformed to poetical and mystical consciousness. This is a description of the physiological and psychological changes experienced when the outer physical world slips into the inner mystical realm. Sappho takes us as far as she can, to the very threshold of the mystery, and then draws the veil, for, what follows is surely beyond the scope of language to encompass.
There is one thing here of which we may be certain: The man in this poem, whom Sappho views as being ‘greater than a god’, derives his greatness solely in relation to the intimacy he is given to share with the beloved. Sappho is describing a state of grace, yet, this too will end, because soon even this man, who is now elevated to the level of a god, will fall victim to the phenomenon saint John of the Cross describes as “withdrawal ecstasy”, and this is the suffering embodied in ‘passion’: It is a thundering echo of the first poem: It is ‘the dark night of the soul’.
For mystics, the propinquity of love and death, is viewed with a sense of familiarity and even friendliness. Even St Paul, whom we can hardly accuse of being a poet, said “ I die daily”. In part XII of the Iliad where Sarpedon courageously and unflinchingly urges Glaucus to battle, he does so by expressing sentiments that the Muse poet and mystic find to be equally apt in the context of confronting their own mortality. Since death is inevitable, it is better that we face it bravely rather than running away.
Sarpedon says, “Man, could we survive this war and live forever deathless and strong, I would not be fighting out in front, nor would I urge you to this fray which gives us glory. But death in myriad forms is closing in – no matter if another may boast over us or we over him”
We are familiar with the word ‘passion’ as used in a religious context to describe intense suffering willingly and deliberately undertaken, and this is yet another juncture at which poetry and mysticism unite. Ecstasy cannot be bought at the price of cowardice. Sarpedon seems to suggest that only cowards return from battle in the same guise as they entered it, nor do the brave and glorious dead return to boast of victory. One cannot gaze into the face of passion without also gazing at the face of death.. Freud was not the first to observe that eros and thanatos were opposite facets of the same coin. Sappho beat him to it by about two and a half millennia!
The immortal gods are god-like because they are free of death and decay. Their immortality spares them from the bodily dissolution humans are heir to, and they are thereby removed from the fateful and tragic context of mortality. Wth nothing to either venture or lose, all their desires and conflicts and activities become merely petty and capricious.
Perhaps it is in order to comprehend the vital element missing in their own divine natures that the gods obsessively involve themselves in the affairs of humans, and repeatedly seek to observe how mortal beings handle or mishandle the fragile thread of life, which the fates spin and wind and snip. They know that our worst follies are redeemed and dignified by our inescapable mortality.
Perhaps this is the essence of the dramatic interplay between Muse and poet, that they are caught up together in a dance, which neither can suspend, nor perform alone. This may be why she laughs as she sits facing us in the moments of our lives when she makes us god-like: She is just asking us to dance.
To be a true poet, one has to accept the invitation to dance, and to retain one’s humanity in its entirety. A poet does not surrender to God as the Muslims do, obey God’s law as the Jews do, merge with God as the Hindu Vedantists do, or accept God as a saviour as the Christians do. The poet’s hope is both noble and humble: it is to be inspired by the Muse, and all dedicated poets must worship her in secret, and not in full view of the marketplace as the Pharisee whom Jesus decried. True poems are essentially private acts. There are no easy answers in poetry. There is no beam of light trained to the heavens where the celestial answers to terrestrial conundrums may be found. Instead the beam is directed inwards, and the path to transcendence is shown to lie amidst the tangled thickets of our own interiority. Our willingness to enter into the depths of ourselves, alone, and unaided, and feel and love throughout the length of the journey, is the key with which we can unlock the poetry within ourselves, and to partake and participate in the singular treasure of humanity bequeathed to us by true poets.
Here are some things they have said:
“True love and wisdom spring only from calamity.”
“Now in my
“…never succumb to panic
or miserable flight, but
steel the heart in your
chests with magnificence
and courage. Forget your
“The dice of love are
shouting and madness”
We do not know if Sappho wrote any duds (after all, even Shakespeare did, “And every fair from fair sometimes declines”), but I very much doubt it. She said “The golden Muse gave me true riches: when dead I will not be forgotten” and, “ Someone, I tell you, will remember us”. And after all, such assurance must have an ample justification.
Hundreds of years after her death, the famous personages of classical Greece, and even later the Romans, still talked about Sappho. Plato considered Sappho the tenth muse. Aristotle grudgingly observed, that “The Mytileans honoured Sappho although she was a woman” Ovid wryly commented “Lesbia quid docuit Sappho nisi amare puellas”
The central elements embodied in Sappho’s poems are universal and timeless. All true poems in some sense echo hers, which include every single essential poetic element. Seen in this light, her accomplishments were not merely poetical triumphs, but triumphs in the beautiful and difficult endeavour of being fully human.
The Sapphic stanza.
Faded every violet all the roses;
Gone the promise glorious, and the victim,
broken in this anger of Aphrodite
Yields to the victor.
And so to finish in a slightly lighter vein!
Sappho, poet of the Isle of Lesbos
Shaped a stanza which eschews rhyme but uses
Pairs of trochees sandwiching one gay dactyl
Three times repeated.
Followed by a pithier fourth line, placing
Dactyl, trochee (one of each) riding tandem
Known afar for loving her girl disciples,
Was she a Lesbian,
Or from the tall Ionian cliff top falling,
Did she die a hetero, mad for handsome
Boatman Phaon? Scholars reject this twee too
Though Sappho’s exile in Sicily ( around 604-594 B.C) pre-dated the temples of Agrigento and elsewhere about a hundred and fifty to two hundred years, , I have chosen to sprinkle this post with some contemporary pictures of the Mediterranean and Aegean world that must have been familiar to her. They include pictures of Sardinia, Sicily, Greece the Dalmation coast etc.