Sappho Lobel-Page Fragment 94 (Harris trans. and discussion)

(excerpt from Harris, W. "Sappho and the World of Lesbian Poetry")

The next poem is also from a highly damaged papyrus sheet, in which there are as many lacunae as words; so I won't print the transliterated Greek, which you can find laid out as it stands with breaks and conjectures, in the longer .pdf paper noted at the top. This halting and broken translation still gives much of the sense of what Sappho was saying, in one of her most delicate poems:

I just really want to die.

She, crying many tears, left me

And said to me:

"Oh, how terribly we have suffered, we two,

Sappho, really I don't want to go away."

And I said to her this:

Go and be happy, remembering me,

For you know how we cared for you.

And if you don't I want to remind you

.............and the lovely things we felt

with many wreathes of violets

and ro(ses and cro)cuses

and.............. and you sat next to me

and threw around your delicate neck

garlands fashioned of many woven flowers

and with much...............costly myrrh

..............and you anointed yourself with royal.....

and on soft couches.......(your) tender.......

fulfilled your longing..........

Looking past the gaps and bug-eaten holes in the papyrus original, we see an absolutely remarkable micro-interplay of emotions. The first line is spoken in the persona of the poet Sappho, "I just want to die.". But we turn immediately to the girl who is crying hopelessly, sad and torn by her parting from the happiness with Sappho her friend and teacher. "How we have suffered, the both of us, Sappho . . . "

Note that the word "suffered", in Greek 'peponthamen' , is more complex than it seems. All the translations settle for "how we have suffered", which in English refers to sheer pain. But the Greek verb 'pascho' has many meanings, of which the most basic is "feel, have a feeling, have an emotion". Thus in Greek usage the verb 'kako-paschein' means to feel bad or suffer, but 'eu-paschein' is the opposite, to feel fine, be well off. In standard usage the present participle "ho paschon" refers to a man of feeling and sensitivity. In this pasage in the poem we find the common and basic meaning of this word: "to feel an emotion". So I have a double meaning to convey in the translation:

A: "Oh how terribly we have suffered...."

B: "Oh what terrible-deep feelings we have had..".

Now consider at the adjective "terrible" in Greek 'deina'. Here again there are multiple meanings:

a) terrible, even as in our word Dino-saur or Awful Lizard, and

b) clever, sharp, tricky as used by Socrates defending himself as not a "clever speaker" or 'deinos legein'and

c) 'deinos' as marvelous, wondrous.

So if we want to explore all the possibilities there is one more possible translation:

The girls says: "What wonderfully deep feelings we have had", with real tears in great sadness.

These three meanings are here superimposed, they are all here as mixed emotions at this compressed moment, and there is no way to separate out a single"right" meaning. This is part of the subtlety of Greek in general, used here with obvious intent, and a special turn of Sappho's poetic montage.

Back again to the poem: The girl has been speaking a complex message in a flood of tears. But now Sappho, with the stance of a mature woman taking up this virtual poetic dialog, answers her with her best possible counsel :

"Think of all the wonderful love we had, of scenes with beds of flowers, the richness of scent, and color, and garlands on your neck, and couch and love. This has been, and is your comfort for what we had, think of this and not of what you lose....."

Sappho changes the tone from the girls's tearful emotional burst, to a tapestry of mixed lovingness, flowers' hues, the setting of love . . . . this is what you have to remember. Think not of an unknown future, but a beautiful past, which is good psychological counseling indeed. The tuning of this personal interchange between the two women, so simply put in direct quoted speech fragments, gives not only a sense of reality of a living moment; but also marks the closeness between the two women. Directly quoted speech is always alive, something Sappho had also learned from Homer, whose epics are more than half in direct speech.

Williamson's study makes a good point in her analysis of women on the Greek vases. Whereas the male homosexual portrayals have a young boy approached by a clearly older man, indicating a rite of subordination even more than sexual pleasure, the women portrayed are always shown as equals, similar in figure, age and action. Dominated by a sense of power the men act out what the society does in large, while the women attend to their own personalities, their own individual woman-ness. So in this poem Sappho and the girl are shown as equals in spirit, both sad but in a closely knit emotional bond. Again a difference between the nature of the men and the women.