‘Little, but all roses’ is the dictate of the Alexandrine poet, yet I am inclined to disagree. I would not bring roses, nor yet the great shaft of scarlet lilies. I would bring orange blossoms, implacable flowerings made to seduce the sense when every other means has failed, poignard that glints, fresh sharpened steel: after the red heart, red lilies, impassioned roses are dead.
‘Little, but all roses’ – true there is a tint of rich colour (invariably we find it), violets, purple woof of cloth, scarlet garments, dyed fastening of a sandal, the lurid, crushed and perished hyacinth, stains on cloth and flesh and parchment.
There is gold too. Was it a gold rose the poet meant? But the gold of a girl-child’s head, the gold of an embroidered garment hem, the rare gold of sea-grass or meadow-pulse does not seem to evoke in our thought the vision of roses, heavy in a scented garden.
‘Little, but all roses.’ I think, though the stains are deep on the red and scarlet cushions, on the flaming cloak of love, it is not warmth we look for in these poems, not fire nor sunlight, not heat in the ordinary sense, diffused, and comforting (nor is it light, day or dawn or light of sun-setting), but another element containing all these, magnetic, vibrant; not the lightning as it falls from the thunder cloud, yet lightning in a sense: white, unhuman element, containing fire and light and warmth, yet in its essence differing from all these, as if the brittle crescent-moon gave heat to us, or some splendid scintillating star turned warm suddenly in our hand like a jewel, sent by the beloved.
I think of the words of Sappho as these colours, or states rather, transcending colour yet containing (as great heat the compass of the spectrum) all colour. And perhaps the most obvious is this rose colour, merging to richer shades of scarlet, purple or Phoenician purple. To the superficial lover – truly -roses!
Yet not all roses – not roses at all, not orange blossoms even, but reading deeper we are inclined to visualize these broken sentences and unfinished rhythms as rocks – perfect rock shelves and layers of rock between which flowers by some chance may grow but which endure when the staunch blossoms have perished.
Not flowers at all, but an island with innumerable, tiny, irregular bays and fiords and little straits between which the sun lies clear (fragments cut from a perfect mirror of iridescent polished silver or of the bronze reflecting richer tints) or breaks, wave upon destructive passionate wave.
Not roses, but an island, a country, a continent, a planet, a world of emotion, differing entirely from any present-day imaginable world of emotion; a world of emotion that could only be imagined by the greatest of her own countrymen in the greatest period of that country’s glamour, who themselves confessed her
beyond their reach, beyond their song, not a woman, not a goddess even, but a song or the spirit of a song. A song, a spirit, a white star that moves across the heaven to mark the end of a world epoch or to presage some coming glory.
Yet she is embodied – terribly a human being, a woman, a personality as the most impersonal become when they confront their fellow beings.
The under-lip curls out in the white face, she has twisted her two eyes unevenly, the brows break the perfect line of the white forehead, her expression is not exactly sinister (sinister and dead), the spark of mockery beneath the half-closed lids is, rather, living, destructive irony.
Aristocratic – indifferent – full of caprice – full of imperfection – intolerant.
High in the mountains, the wind may break the trees, as love the lover, but this was before the days of Theocritus, before the destructive Athenian satyric drama – we girls hear no praise of country girls nor mountain goats. This woman has still the flawless tradition to maintain.
Her bitterness was on the whole the bitterness of the sweat of Eros. Had she burned to destroy she had spent her flawless talent to destroy custom and mob-thought with serpent-tongue before the great Athenian era.
Black and burnt are the cheeks of the girl of the late Sicilian Theocritus, for, says he, black is the hyacinth and the myrtle-berry.
But Sappho has no praise for mountain girls. She protrudes a little her under-lip, twists her eyes, screws her face out of proportion as she searches for the most telling phrase; this girl who bewitches you, my friend, does not even know how to draw her skirts about her feet.
Sophisticated, ironical, bitter jeer. Not her hands, her feet, her hair, or her features resemble in any way those of the country- bred among the thickets; not her garments even, are ill-fitting or ill-cut, but her manners, her gestures are crude, the bitterest of all destructive gibes of one sensitive woman at the favourite of another, sensitive, high-strung, autocratic as herself.
The gods, it is true, Aphrodite, Hermes, Ares, Hephaistos, Adonis, beloved of the mother of loves, the Graces, Zeus himself, Eros in all his attributes, great, potent, the Muses, mythical being and half-god, the Kyprian again and again are mentioned in these poems but at the end, it is for the strange almost petulant little phrases that we value this woman, this cry (against some simple unknown girl) of skirts and ankles we might think unnecessarily pretty, yet are pleased in the thinking of it, or else the outbreak against her own intimate companions brings her nearer our own over-sophisticated, nerve-wracked era: ‘The people I help most are the most unkind,’ ‘O you forget me’ or ‘You love someone better,’ You are nothing to me,’ nervous, trivial tirades. Or we have in sweetened mood so simple a phrase ‘I sing’ – not to please any god, goddess, creed or votary of religious rite – I sing not even in abstract contemplation, trance-like, remote from life, to please myself, but says this most delightful and friendly woman, ‘I sing and I sing beautifully like this, in order to please my friends – my girl-friends.’
We have no definite portraits from her hands of these young women of Mitylene. They are left to our imagination, though only the most ardent heart, the most intense spirit and the most wary and subtle intellect can hope even in moments of ardent imagination to fill in these broken couplets. One reads simply this ‘My darling,’ or again ‘You burn me.’ To a bride’s lover she says, ‘Ah there never was a girl like her.’ She speaks of the light spread across a lovely face, of the garment wrapped about a lovely body; she addresses by name two of these young women comparing one to another’s disadvantage (though even here she temporizes her judgement with an endearing adjective), ‘Mnasidika is more shapely than tender Gyrinno.’ We hear of Eranna too. ‘Eranna, there never was a girl more spiteful than you.’
Another girl she praises, not for beauty. Though they stand among tall spotted lilies and the cup of jacynth and the Lesbian iris, she yet extolls beyond Kypris and the feet of Eros, wisdom. ‘Ah,’ she says of this one, beloved for another beauty than that of perfect waist and throat and close-bound cap of hair and level brows, ‘I think no girl can ever stand beneath the sun or ever will again and be as wise as you are.’
Wisdom – this is all we know of the girl: that though she stood in the heavy Graeco-Asiatic sunlight, the wind from Asia, heavy with ardent myrrh and Persian spices, was yet tempered with a Western gale, bearing in its strength and its salt sting, the image of another, tall, with eyes shadowed by the helmet rim, the goddess, indomitable.
This is her strength – Sappho of Mitylene was a Greek. And in all her ecstasies, her burnings, her Asiatic riot of colour, her cry to that Phoenician deity, ‘Adonis, Adonis – ‘her phrases, so simple yet in any but her hands in danger of overpowering sensuousness, her touches of Oriental realism, ‘purple napkins’ and ‘soft cushions’ are yet tempered, moderated by a craft never surpassed in literature. The beauty of Aphrodite it is true is the constant, reiterated subject of her singing. But she is called by a late scholiast who knew more of her than we can hope to learn from these brief fragments,’The Wise Sappho’.
We need the testimony of no Alexandrian or late Roman scholiast to assure us of the artistic wisdom, the scientific precision of metre and musical notation, the finely tempered intellect of this woman. Yet for all her artistic moderation, what is the personal, the emotional quality of her wisdom? This woman whom love paralysed till she seemed to herself a dead body, yet burnt, as the desert grass is burnt, white by the desert heat; she who trembled and was sick and sweated at the mere presence of another, a person, doubtless of charm, of grace, but of no extraordinary gifts perhaps of mind or feature – was she moderate, was she wise? Savonarola standing in the courtyard of the Medici (some two thousand years later) proclaimed her openly to the assembled youthful laity and priests of Florence – a devil.
If moderation is wisdom, if constancy in love is wisdom, was she wise? We read even in these few existing fragments, name upon curious, exotic, fragrant name: Atthis – Andromeda – Mnasidika – Eranna – Gyrinno – more, many more than these tradition tells were praised in the lost fragments. The name of muse and goddess and of human woman merge, interspersed among these verses. ‘Niobe and Leda were friends – ‘ it is a simple statement – for the moment, Niobe and Leda are nearer, more human, than the Atthis, the Eranna who strike and burn and break like Love himself.
The wise Sappho! She was wise, emotionally wise, we suspect with wisdom of simplicity, the blindness of genius. She constructed from the simple gesture of a half-grown awkward girl, a being, a companion, an equal. She imagined, for a moment, as the white bird wrinkled a pink foot, clutching to obtain balance at the too smooth ivory of the wrist of the same Atthis, that Atthis had a mind, that Atthis was a goddess. Because the sun made a momentary circlet of strange rust-coloured hair, she saw in all her fragrance, Aphrodite, violet-crowned, or better still a sister, a muse, one of the violet wreathing. She imagined because the girl’s shoulders seemed almost too fragile, too frail, to support the vestment, dragging a little heavily because of the gold-binding, that the same shoulders were the shoulders of a being, an almost disembodied spirit. She constructed perfect and flawless (as in her verse, she carved from current Aeolic dialect, immortal phrases) the whole, the perfection, the undying spirit of goddess, muse or sacred being from the simple grace of some tall, half-developed girl. The very skies open, were opened by these light fingers, fluffing out the under-feathers of the pigeon’s throat. Then the wise Sappho clamours aloud against that bitter, bitter creature, Eros, who has once more betrayed her. ‘Ah, Atthis, you hate even to think of me – you have gone to Andromeda.’
I love to think of Atthis and Andromeda curled on a sun-baked marble bench like the familiar Tanagra group, talking it over. What did they say? What did they think? Doubtless, they thought little or nothing and said much.
There is another girl, a little girl. Her name is Cleis. It is reported that the mother of Sappho was named Cleis. It is said that Sappho had a daughter whom she called Cleis.
Cleis was golden. No doubt Cleis was perfect. Cleis was a beautiful baby, looking exactly like a yellow flower (so her mother tells us). She was so extraordinarily beautiful, Lydia had nothing so sweet, so spiced; greatness, wealth, power, nothing in all Lydia could be exchanged for Cleis.
So in the realm of the living, we know there was a Cleis. I see her heaping shells, purple and rose-edged, stained here and there with saffron colours, shells from Adriatic waters heaped in her own little painted bowl and poured out again and gathered up only to be spilt once more across the sands. We have seen Atthis of yester-year; Andromeda of ‘fair requital’, Mnasidika with provoking length of over-shapely limbs; Gyrinno, loved for some appealing gesture or strange resonance of voice or skill of finger-tips, though failing in the essential and more obvious qualities of beauty; Eranna with lips curved contemptuously over slightly irregular though white and perfect teeth; angry Eranna who refused everyone and bound white violets only for the straight hair she herself braided with precision and cruel self-torturing neatness about her own head. We know of Gorgo, over-riotous, too heavy, with special intoxicating sweetness, but exhausting, a girl to weary of, no companion, her over- soft curves presaging early development of heavy womanhood.
Among the living there are these and others. Timas, dead among the living, lying with lily wreath and funeral torch, a golden little bride, lives though sleeping more poignantly even than the famous Graeco-Egyptian beauty the poet’s brother married at Naucratis. Rhodope, a name redolent (even though we may no longer read the tribute of the bridegroom’s sister) of the heavy out-curling, over-lapping petals of the peerless flower.
Little – not little – but all, all roses! So at the last, we are forced to accept the often quoted tribute of Meleager, late Alexandrian, half Jew, half Grecian poet. Little but all roses!
True, Sappho has become for us a name, an abstraction as well as a pseudonym for poignant human feeling, she is indeed rocks set in a blue sea, she is the sea itself, breaking and tortured and torturing, but never broken. She is the island of artistic perfection where the lover of ancient beauty (shipwrecked in the modern world) may yet find foothold and take breath and gain courage for new adventures and dream of yet unexplored continents and realms of future artistic achievement. She is the wise Sappho.
Plato, poet and philosopher in the most formidable period of Athenian culture, looking back some centuries toward Mitylene, having perspective and a rare standard of comparison, too, speaks of this woman as among the wise.
You were the morning star among the living (the young Plato, poet and Athenian, wrote of a friend he had lost), you were the morning star before you died; now you are ‘as Hesperus, giving new splendour to the dead’. Plato lives as a poet, as a lover, though the Republic seems but a ponderous tome and the mysteries of the Dialogues verge often on the didactic and artificial. So Sappho must live, roses, but many roses, for tradition has set flower upon flower about her name and would continue to do so though her last line were lost.
Perhaps to Meleager, having access to the numberless scrolls of Alexandria, there seemed ‘but little’ though to us, in a cheerless and more barren age, there seems much. Legend upon legend has grown up, adding curious documents to each precious fragment; the history of the preservation of each line is in itself a most fascinating and bewildering romance.
Courtesan and woman of fashion were rebuked at one time for not knowing ‘even the works of Sappho’. Sophocles cried out in despair before some inimitable couplet, ‘gods – what impassioned heart and longing made this rhythm’. The Roman Emperor, weary to death, left his wreathed drinking cup and said, ‘It is worth living yet to hear another of this woman’s songs.’ Catullus, impassioned lyrist, left off recounting the imperfections of his Lesbia to enter a fair paradisal world, to forge silver Latin from imperishable Greek, to marvel at the praises of this perfect lover who needed no interim of hatred to repossess the loved one. Monk and scholar, grey recluse of Byzantium or Roman or medieval monastery, flamed to new birth of intellectual passion at discovery of some fatal relic until the Vatican itself was moved and deemed this woman fit rival to the seductions of another Poet and destroyed her verses.
The roses Meleager saw as ‘little’ have become in the history not only of literature but of nations (Greece and Rome and medieval town and Tuscan city) a great power, roses, but many, many roses, each fragment witness to the love of some scholar or hectic antiquary searching to find a precious inch of palimpsest among the funereal glories of the sand-strewn Pharaohs.