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from the March 2020 issue

Sappho’s Ephemera

Urdu modernist poet Miraji celebrates Sappho and blends his lyric voice with hers in the essay excerpted below.

Translator's Note: Miraji (1912–49), the preeminent Urdu modernist lyric poet, who often wrote in women’s voices, was also an avid translator/transcreator and poignant, nuanced essayist. Many of those essays tussled with issues that would be seen now as strongly feminist; in them Miraji ventured profoundly political analyses on the nature of composition, on violence, on grief, on women poets whose gender and the fissures of their desire rendered them outcastes. One such essay, titled “Saffo,” is on the poet Sappho. Over of the course of the essay, Sappho’s voice bleeds into Miraji’s and Miraji’s lyric tones become Sappho’s as well. I have translated excerpts and poems from Miraji's essay (with elided sections summarized) to show how the two poets folding into one another proffer the lineaments of feminist lyric.


It is said that only nine divine muses exist, but one forgets
that Sappho from Lesbos was the tenth.

—Plato


Sappho was not just, in her time, the most renowned woman poet of Greece; in scanning the past, rummaging for someone whose imagination was pure, unfettered, unflinching, one finds that she was the most notable poet in that category to date. Her lyrics were animated by two especially alluring qualities. The first: her pen was singular even as it was exemplary. Up to now, approximately sixty fragments of her poetry have been unearthed; and only one poem among them can be considered complete. There are two or three longer pieces. All the rest are two or three lines long—jewel shards—many made up of merely a few words. However, even these shredded bits and pieces glow, light up magical, captivating, dreamy, and kindle embers. The second: the vibrant, piquant events of her life.

 [Miraji begins his foray into Sappho’s own writing with a short poem that presages what he is about to embark upon.]

Perhaps Sappho sensed that her poems would garner fame. She writes somewhere:

Prophecy

After my life has come and gone, perhaps
A spring flurry may waft in, so
A voice rebounds, echoing
My songs heard the world over.

The tale of Sappho’s life commences at the very end of the seventh century before Christ. This era has garnered a certain notoriety. It was the time when earlier civilizations were beginning to decay, fade away, and new powers began establishing themselves. Fair-skinned Westerners were preparing to test themselves against the darker communities of the East. The center of civilization was slipping away from Greece and moving westward. . . .

The delicacy, elegance, subtle sophistication of Sappho’s verse and her unencumbered social life appear to bring her close to our own time. Yet, as we speak about her contemporaries, we also come to comprehend our distance from her more clearly. She lived at a time when the Buddha’s nonviolent religion was on the cusp of being established in India, and in the wilderness of Israel the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel were spreading miracles with fiery words. At that time, Sappho was composing love lyric in the Lesbos region of Greece.

Born in 612 BCE, Sappho was the woman the world saw as its greatest poet, whom Plato anointed “divine muse” and Socrates called “beauty incarnate,” and whose entire oeuvre the earliest proponents of Christianity—those who defended and advocated rigid ways of looking at things and had cramped ideas—deemed so immoral, so ruinous to morals that it was desecrated and destroyed. . . . We estimate that Sappho was probably alive until 558 BCE. Historical authorities have established the dates of the various events of her life. Based on this, we presume that Sappho was born in 612 BCE. At seventeen, her extraordinary gravitas led her to begin focusing on poetry. She was only twenty-nine in about 591 BCE, when she was exiled. And when she was fifty-five years old, in 558 BCE, she committed suicide.

Sappho’s birthplace was Aryos. Her mother’s name was Calys [Calyx/Kleis]. What we know of her father, we can only suppose—he died young. Experts have gathered eight different possible names for him. But now, so many years later, it’s hard to divine which of the eight was his real name. The circumstances in which Sappho's parents lived, and the details of their lives, are shrouded in mystery. We can only guess that they belonged to the upper crust of Lesbos. This is also just based on surmise: that Sappho was born when her mother was young. Three boys followed. In 606 BCE, when the youngest was still in his mother’s arms and Sappho merely six years old, Lesbos’s established order began to fall apart; it was such a turbulent time that it set the stage for seemingly permanent tribulations for ten years in all the five cities of Lesbos. We assume that Sappho’s father was involved in some way at the beginning of what came to be almost unending warfare. After her husband’s death, Sappho’s mother probably realized that she and her children should travel to Mythilene, at the other end of the island of Lesbos, for their own safety.

The distance from Aryos to Mythilene is thirty-five miles and pine forests swathe the route. Harried by war, Sappho’s mother arrived in Mythilene with her children. It’s very possible that they lived with relatives in Mythilene right after they arrived. In any case, Sappho’s youth was spent in a time of strife, but it was in the calm of Mythilene that she matured enough to begin feeling and composing.

[Sappho comes into her own, surrounded by conclaves of poets, at a time when wine and love were among the four topics lyricists sang.]

Sappho didn’t have the sort of appearance that would make an ordinary person, on glimpsing her, want to marry her. One traditional account even intimates that not only was she not beautiful, she was actually ugly. Her eyes and hair were too dark to conform to the extant standards of Greek beauty. She was believed to be too skinny for the social expectations of that time. . . . But a courtier writing about her dusky complexion portrays her as the sort of bulbul whose tiny body was cloaked in hair and feathers. . . .

She had a formidable intellect and an exquisite being. In her ugliness lay a remarkable beauty. . . . People not endowed with physical assets are often compensated in other ways. . . . Her sweet smile was so enchantingly flirtatious that anyone gazing at her would immediately become hers, fall hard. A faint blue lit up, tinted, her raven, sable hair. Besides these . . . she was refined, had a pure disposition, and was graced with elegance. And one can throw in a natural blend compounded from profound and smoldering passion, which glimmered in her eyes. Of her poetry Plutarch says: "Her pen was wreathed in flames."

Because Sappho’s temperament was so unusual, people were taken by her plainness. Her everyday behavior was so phenomenally charismatic and captivating that an ardent poet, Alcaeus, wrote her the following letter in verse:

Your tender humor, violet blossoms, Sappho of the flowing hair. My heart longs to speak [to you], but shyness stays my voice.

Perhaps Sappho was accustomed to getting letters such as this from the fickle man, and she responded in verse:

If you had wanted to write something worthwhile, and your tongue wished to absolve itself of some poison, shyness and shame wouldn’t stop you from speaking and you’d say precisely what you needed.

But Alcaeus was undaunted and continued to shower her with his love in verse. . . . Despite all Alcaeus’s seductive wiles, Sappho was not interested in him, nor was she in any man in this way.

[Description of Sappho’s contemporaries and a long exegesis about the Cambridge scholar of classics, J. W. Mackail, whose published lectures on Greek literature had a wide circulation.]

Mackail writes:

We rarely read words so simple, which are given to us so straightforwardly. We praise them as we read on, as our understanding grows, and suddenly feel the magic in the poet we have just read, it ravages us and leaves us helpless when we return to it. We turn back and go on, but its charming allure ferries us right there, right back—can we even discern what special quality this ceaseless, unguarded enchantment may have?

Literary adepts of the past did not count Sappho among the poets. Rather they thought of her as the goddess of love (Rati) and the daughter of Eros (Kama Dev), the tenth muse.

[Lesbos is taken over by a dictator, Pittacus. He is both revered and fought. Sappho is eventually exiled by him and returns home in about 592 BCE.]

[Miraji speaks of Sappho as a model for our time, living as we do with dictators. Sappho continues confronting Pittacus and is exiled once more.]

This second exile must have been a huge shock to Sappho, because she was just twenty years old, and she’d never left Lesbos’s shore. [During her first exile Sappho was asked to leave Mythilene but not Lesbos.] And she was extremely attached to her country, her homeland. Many of her friends did not support, comfort, or champion her during these difficult times, during her tribulations. Their faithlessness and disloyalty are described in the two poems below:

In world of sorrow dusted with agony
I live, subsist in a semblance of loss
as though the wind’s lament hurries my tale of love onward
and callous malice bequeaths no traces.

and

When I bestowed solicitude,                                                   
Those who received my kindness
granted anguish in return.

[Miraji pairs the above verse with this one, which may or may not have belonged to the same time and tone:]

Despite this, the angels flowing from my voice confer such unfeigned delight
that when I pass away, people won’t forsake me.

During her second exile, Sappho chose to conform to Pittacus’s order and travel quietly to Sicily. She may have wanted to find a place among nobles from Greece who had settled there. . . . She must have recognized that Sicily would not give her the same social freedom that she had had in Lesbos. [A description of life and literary circles in Sicily.]

 [Sappho finds herself in a situation of having to be married, perhaps, Miraji suggests, because she needed support.]

It’s possible that Sappho, concerned about her security and safety, felt that the shackles of marriage might provide her what she needed. Someone in the know suggested that she marry a “rich merchant trader, Kerklas [Cercylas].” In one of the fragments, she talks about the night of her marriage: “It was a night of joy that vanished quickly.” Poems written from that time:

 Is it possible that even now I sit, holding on to a deep longing for virginity in my heart?

 I will always remain a young girl.

 “A tender-voiced virgin,” “sweet-toned virgins,” “the virgin with slender ankles,” “virgins from Mythilene,” “virgins like rosebuds,” “virgins singing songs of desire,” “virgins beyond compare,” “virgins who fire longing”: these slivers expose the attachments that caught her heart.

“Where I can never return, never come back to you.”

From the queries and the answers Sappho ventures, we can surmise that she had been damaged in some way that she couldn’t quite voice clearly.  

[Pittacus changes his mind and recalls those in exile. Sappho returns and sets up a conclave of young women, a school.]

This was a gathering of women who shared each other’s lives and secrets, who loved each other. It’s more than likely that Sappho’s relationship with them was personal. But to try to explain what underpinned their patterns and routines would be simply wrongheaded. . . . Sappho found pleasure in the fact that this crowd of young women could live freely in her home. Stroll in her gardens. Be ready to converse with her about the smallest things. And like exemplary women, adore her. . . .

Among them was a poet from Sappho’s time—Erenis. Besides being a poet, she was a beautiful girl with a delicate, frail physique. She wrote a long, warlike poem of which only a few lines now survive. Sappho writes about her, “I don’t think that any virgin in the entire world can compare to you in skill.” Sappho grew really attached to her. Such a deep fondness that it slowly, step by step, turned romantic. But sadly, this young woman died young. Besides her, there was another poet, Dimophila, who composed love lyric. Her nature, like Sappho’s, veered toward same-sex desire. Dimophila went on to found her own group. Besides them, there were four other women whose names we know of. This fragment from Sappho speaks about one of them:

The virgin whose gait flows.

Many of these young women, drawn by Sappho’s brilliance, flocked to Mythilene from other places. The rest came from Lesbos. Among them was one called Atthis. Authorities are familiar with her and her circumstances. About her, Sappho writes:

At one time
Once upon a time I loved you,
In a time long gone by.  

Four other girls came from Lesbos. Sappho evinced deep feelings for them, as she did for Atthis. But her frenzied romantic infatuation was focused more clearly on Atthis. The events of Sappho’s anguished, sorrowing love were marked by a few truly brutal occasions. From them we glimpse a typhoon, the storm of a river in spate, and sweet sadness weighed down by love’s gloom. Here we get a sense, even begin to feel a little suspicious, that if we look at these circumstances in a certain light we may be able to prove that thorns live alongside blossoms. To incite compassion in ordinary people, to allow them the opportunity to feel some empathy, we too should gaze upon these happenings with sympathy.

When all of this began, Atthis was merely a girl and Sappho was at least twenty-five. During that time, such an emotionally charged yet nourishing bond was established between them that people who noticed it immediately shook their heads at it; it’s possible that based on false accusations, slander, and disgrace, people later consigned Sappho’s entire oeuvre to flames. Atthis was the subject of many of Sappho’s better-known lyrics. But now, coming upon the shards and slips of reduced and often unavailable poems and scrutinizing them judiciously and candidly, who can rightly say that the world would be a better place if these slivered gems had been wasted or destroyed? We’ll say only this much: that uptight dignitaries deprived the generations that followed them of these extraordinarily valuable and gorgeous samples of literary creativity. Because what is essential for creating beauty is rarely to be found budding in tumultuous completeness. Its cause or motive lies almost always in rejection, exception, setting something aside. Moral codes and standards change daily. They are birthed over and over as time passes. But creative exquisiteness cannot be found easily. When Sappho and Atthis first met, Atthis was an unexperienced young woman. Proof of this can be seen in the lyric Sappho penned under the title “In Atthis’s name”:

For Atthis

Once upon a time I too loved you passionately
A time long gone by
When I was young, ripening
And the world called you naive, an unassuming child.

As time went by, Atthis grew into a gorgeous young woman and came to be seen as the most accomplished in that charming gathering of women poets and writers. Sappho’s passion matured into care. Atthis began to forget Sappho. We can see this from a letter. To find some respite from the summer heat, Sappho had gone with her daughter Calyx, Atthis, and a few other girls to a place in the mountains close by. But even though the weather had broken, Sappho showed no signs of moving or leaving, didn’t bring up the possibility of going back, though her young companions had tired of the spot and wanted to return to Mythilene. Eventually Sappho promised them that they would return the next day. But the next morning, Sappho lolled about in her bed. Atthis penned a note to Sappho and sent it off with a servant so that she would quickly get ready to leave. In it she wrote:

Sappho, on my word, I promise, I swear that I won’t desire you anymore. Come back, if only for me. And unglue the sweet weight of your body from your bed. And on the very edge of the lake, like a blameless, unblemished lotus opening, slip out of night’s dreams in which you are clothed, bathe in the water and Calyx will bring you a saffron dress and a rose robe and a black wool cloak from your bags. We’ll crown you with flowers. And you’ll glow so much that I’ll see you as divine. And then all nine of us will have breakfast ready for everyone. The gods look kindly upon us today. Today, O Sappho who we love best, gather us together like your children and escort us back to Mythilene. To the city, which is the most beloved of all cities.

After they reached the city, many of her young companions began to look up to Atthis, and noticing this, Sappho started to burn with jealousy. Her passion turned stormy. During that time, she wrote the songs for which she is famous:

Like a god manifesting before me
he gazes endlessly
upon you,
attends to the luscious timbre of your voice
heeds the racy tones of your laughter
my heart precipitously jolts awake
and stuns me in how it longs for sacrifice
words fade to quiet there
were I to glimpse you
it’s as though
my tongue would hitch to silence, language empty in my mouth
fire mortify my flesh
blind when I turn to look
monstrous noise scrambles my hearing
but “no” is scripted into fate’s remorse
I endure grief as I wait, so it’s written:
my life cannot deliver me from anguish, offers no solace
I search far and wide, and can’t unearth death,
It refuses to reveal its presence.

A literary adept says that in this poem Sappho marshals an extraordinary assembly of emotions. Flesh and spirit; sound, voice, and conversation; vision and insight; sexual, subjective, and mental feelings; she has poured all these disparate elements into one jar, she has sensed them all, they are thoughtful and perceptive but also wild and intoxicating, her heart is on fire, but it is also bathed in the icy coolness of death.

At this time, Atthis was the glory of Sappho’s gatherings. Another school of music and poetry had been set up in Mythilene. Its teacher was called Andromeda. She enticed Atthis, suggested that Atthis abandon Sappho’s assembly and join her school instead. When Sappho learned of this, she wrote several poems “in Atthis’s name”—we find these fragments among them:

Who is the magician
Who captivated you?
The young girl draped in a child’s dress.
She who doesn’t even have the courtesy to clothe her legs.

But Atthis had been ensnared by seduction and was about to leave Sappho when Sappho wrote to her:

Beloved, Atthis, will you then forsake all the tender back-and-forth we once shared?

And elsewhere:

When I gaze at you, I dream you as Hermione (Helen’s child), you were never this way.
You aren’t merely mortal, you are Helen’s match
I say this to you:
My offering lays my most treasured thoughts before your beauty
And I beg you with every feeling I cherish.

Hailed by these intercessions, Atthis returned to Sappho for a short while.

You’ve come. No words knock at me anymore.
Now love’s cinders flame in my heart.

Here is another:

You! I tore myself away, now I fold into you anew.
As though the anguish once-faithful kin can bring comes back
and one loses the comfort one has in one’s skin.

But Atthis no longer loved Sappho. It’s also possible that her parents, guardians, and patrons wanted to separate her from Sappho. Sappho reveals her sorrow to us in the following lines:

Love’s shackles
Passion tethered me
Rebellious terror brought me to my knees
Bitterness steeped in the clarity of milk
Tyranny escorted by kindness
I come to see love’s respite in every heart’s ordeal
Atthis has left me
bound her soul to a stranger.

Sappho was furious at Andromeda; we see the rage she felt in the following fragment:

For Andromeda

When you die no one will recall you,
You’ve never tended a rose to life
You’ll wander lost, nameless, traceless, decaying, infirm in death’s home.

But that mourning, those laments were of no use. In the end, Atthis, at the behest of another, left Sappho forever. The poet’s plaint is preserved in these phrases: “now I’ll never see Atthis again, better if I had died.”

But the divine muses had given the poet a gift that would enable her to find solace in her grieving. Poetry laid her feelings before the world, and in doing so, eased the wounds she concealed. Sappho learned from her deeply futile love, which births such sympathy, what triggered the passion that had burned away her soul’s repose.

Turbulence

We see in love’s remains
Flesh and spirit flinching in terror
As though the whorls of a tempest
Were shrubs,
Juddering, tucked deep in hill groves.

Sappho was now thirty. Pittacus had discharged his obligations with distinction and abnegated his rule. Sappho whiled away her life absorbed in domestic routines.

At the end of 557 BCE, Sappho was fifty-five. We may be able to visualize her as a tiny, dark woman, the delicate wrinkles across her face evident only to someone with a discerning eye. Any ordinary person would have been taken in by the makeup and rouge that concealed them, and Sappho’s smile still stole one’s heart and her eyes still had that sparkle that couldn’t be wiped away. There are few women who, when they age, have the sort of beauty that not even much younger women can access. Even at fifty-five, Sappho’s appearance was animated by that same stunning quality.

In her younger days, Sappho’s attention had been corralled by etiquette and social status. But now, as she matured and aged, her gaze grown and expanded, she would have found it repugnant to socialize with Pittacus’s associates and family. Sappho would have once poked fun at Andromeda, calling her a rustic, an uncouth woman. But now, more magnanimous, Sappho found herself netted by her love for a very ordinary fisherman named Phalagon—but he died quite young. 

At that time, another young boatman called Phaon, renowned for his beauty, lived in Mythilene; many women had fallen hard for him. Sappho chanced upon him. And she too succumbed to his grace. We are told that it was bruited about that Phaon was in fact an astoundingly beautiful youth. Many stories have been circulated about him. The historical record does give us some clues as to how Sappho might have first encountered him. It’s possible that Sappho hired this astonishingly graceful young man to row her in his river barge. And perhaps when, on the water’s surface lit up by the full moon, under the stars’ shadows, the flat-bottomed barge flowed toward her and she saw Phaon standing by his oar, his beauty and grace made flesh, this poet, so overflowing with feeling, may have reached for love. Her saga of intoxicated desire began here, with this revelatory moment. It is said that Sappho went on to compose quite a few songs about Phaon. However, in the few bits and bobs left of her work, we don’t find many verses that we can say with any degree of confidence were about him. But perhaps we can surmise that the fragment below is a plaint to her passion for him:

Lover

Raise your eyes
let them surge into mine
take a step off that lane into my heart
drown your flesh and mind in beauty.

We know or can assume that at its inception, the vehemence of Sappho’s desire drew the young boatman to her. Perhaps his narcissism was assuaged by the attention of the most famous woman of his era.

Wrapped in a cloak, Sappho would sneak out to meet her young lover in the night’s darkness, in the caves tucked into the hills behind Mythilene. The poet gave her heart to the boatman. And as for the boatman, the poet’s music, her tongue that voiced her despairing adoration so mellifluously, whatever the words that may have been spoken then, were after all merely another song. Because once again that same love burned away the soul’s repose, subjugating Sappho’s body and spirit. That dream lasted only a short while. Phaon’s spirit was sated, or perhaps he began to think that he could not hold his own against the scorching kisses of this fiery, fierce-souled poet. So Phaon found a boat going to Sicily and fled Mythilene. It’s been said that when Sappho learned what had happened, she was struck senseless. She paled and turned mute. She couldn’t comprehend why her dream had been thwarted so. But when she came to her senses, the full bitterness of that truth overwhelmed her. And unable to hold on, she wept uncontrollably. She tore out her hair and began to hit herself. When her relatives found out, they reproached her, scolded her, and exacerbated the problems she faced.

After Phaon left, Sappho was bedeviled by thoughts of him when she was awake and whenever she tried to sleep. When she could no longer bear her misery, she resolved to go after him; after all, what pleasures remained for her in Mythilene?

The gathering of the women who were her soul mates had fallen apart. She detested her brother intensely. Her daughter had no sympathy for her, and her friends began to loathe her. She saw only old age and loneliness stretching into her future. She left Mythilene, skirted southern Italy, and traveled toward Corinth. We don’t have any of the particulars of her journey, but we can certainly guess at her deep grief, her indecision and apprehension.

Over the course of her long journey, it’s possible that she came to understand that pursuing Phaon was fruitless. Having closed in on Sicily, she may have begun to ask herself whether she would have a chance to begin her relationship afresh or not. Would Phaon care to meet her again? She was so much older than the young boatman. And the shock of Phaon’s faithlessness had wrecked her being and appearance. So when she saw an opening for some respite from her unforeseen blow, she cleared a pathway to it. She must’ve become aware that she had no other possibility left for finding joy. In the deep gloom of despair and bleakness and futility, she made a hasty resolve. Wandering onto a rocky promontory, she ran and leaped and the waves that washed the pounding endless sea gathered her into their embrace. We find a few verses about Sappho’s death in an unfinished poem by Alcaeus [her old friend]:

Ill-fated . . . I am a star-crossed woman
Whose life is anguish
Bound to the house, housebound
Agony swamps my fate
Tarnished
Life’s impossible cure comes to me as I decline
Dread wakes my terrified heart
Madness
Loneliness, desolation
And the ocean’s wintry, generous, tender wash.

In the end, Sappho’s broken corpse was salvaged from the ocean, and after she was burned, her ashes were carried onward to be buried in Mythilene. We know this because of allusions to her tomb being in Lesbos.

Earlier and contemporary authorities agree on Sappho’s suicide, her divine immolation. We can surmise it from the comings and goings, the birthing and deaths, of her poems; there is enchantment in her disparate reflections, as in the following fragment:

I sacrifice my most cherished thoughts on the altar of your beauty
And worship you with my deeply treasured feelings.

In one or two places she compares a virgin to an apple:

Dangling from the tip of a shrub
A fruit beyond the imagining of someone going to pluck it
No, not really concealed but far beyond their grasp
Never in their power, it exceeds their reach.

Sappho has said: “Desire can morph even a hapless boy into a poet.” She was a religious and educated woman who could stretch poetics to its very limits when describing love. The amorous ambience of her love for Phaon and their assignations can be seen in the verses below:

When Phaon’s boat comes flowing over the surface of the water’s skin
Impish gusts flood in from the west
I sing melodies of desire on my beguiling lute
And songs of love flourish breath
But nothing moves that saucy tyrant.

Oh, love’s anguish, leave it alone, don’t steal my delight, don’t lay it waste.
When I have no chance, don’t slake me with sighs, don’t mourn, don’t complain.

In a world suffused with anguish and pain I drift aimless, as though mislaid
and send my tale of love on the sorrowing winds
But nothing moves that saucy tyrant.

Akhtar Shirani [a contemporary of Miraji’s who was renowned for his love lyric] says:

Who do I glimpse in the feast of life?
Whoever catches my glance appears so flawless.

This, after all, is love, which enhances everything, shines it up. Sappho wasn’t just drunk on love; she was hooked on the splendors of nature. She fancied rose blooms, compared a virgin to roses: “Her arms are elegant, elusive, the fragrance of rose petals falling.”

Mirabai from Mewar, rapt by the glories of nature, sings:

The earth is flushed anew, I picket in the hope of chancing on Krishna, my lover.

Sappho writes:

The earth sits, garlanded in color

And to the bulbul, the nightingale calls: Spring’s aching voice blends every reproach.

And about the dove closing in on her nest:

My destination lies before me as she shakes her wings loose.

In another place, Sappho speaks concisely, precisely, and unpretentiously about an evening scene:

Children clamber onto their mother’s laps                
crowds fold into their lanes
Goats herd to their keepers—the forlorn voice of crimson twilight
Charmed seraphs strew
Those flecks from gilded hands
You live in those shadows, Oh dusk
Your charms so familiar

And elsewhere, night’s scenery:

When the sun’s fiery streams blaze the world awake
Chaperoning the moon, the stars’ luster pales, dulls to ash.

Another lyric:

The garden of earth’s messengers
Sap floods from the branches of apple groves, singing
On the earth: supple leaves frolic, pirouette
Unforeseen sensual gusts shadow forgiving surges, and
their magic sways my heart.

Sappho’s absorption in the natural shows up in the charismatic force of passion:

Night

Night has wandered away
The stars as well, and
Step by step
Time exits
but why do I care?
I lie here,
Quiet, flesh forsaken, forlorn.

She notices unusual features in the guise of the everyday:

Sleep

Oh, your eyes darken
Sleep, daughter of the night

And in another place, rustic hues. This fragment is probably from those songs that were composed to commemorate weddings:

O mother, my breath catches
how will I spin thread out?
My hands fail me
Cupid’s arrow has lacerated my heart,
befuddled by madness
I vanish into my young lover’s yearning hunger.

Wherever Sappho has been confirmed as a respected versifier, she has no peer. Her sagacity immortalized even her scattered, sporadic axioms. Socrates counted her as a sage. But uptight, pious folk who overwhelmed people’s perception with demons, dimming their ability to discern, lost the ability to see the luster of Sappho’s music. I will conclude this essay with her generous verses on “virtue,” which reveal the tenor of her wisdom to us, but repeating one of her sayings first would not be untoward.

Bhartrihari writes:

The petals of a flower can slice through even the heart of a diamond
Though compassionate and understated expression
Can leave an artless, naive person unmoved.

These same sentiments were expressed by Sappho before Christ was born. Lines like “An inflexible mind cannot be bent” are an homage to her acumen.

“Elderly birds cannot be trapped in a net,” “When anger floods your heart, keep a tight rein on your tongue,” “Where do we find flawlessness in this world?”

But these adages only verify her perspicacity. We see the real culmination of her ideas in her love lyric; through it we are moved, fall under the spell of her exquisitely nuanced feelings.

Mirabai imagines her lover’s bed as the amphitheater of the skies: “Who is bound to me?” And Sappho asks, “How can my two arms feel the skies?”

Listen to a song:

When night’s hours have slipped away, morning’s flame about to dawn
when fickle sleep tests one’s eyes, a god brings dreaming
these words so grim, can I withstand the sorrow and calamity they convey
Can I let my soul’s hope persist, unfinished
euphoria sates my thoughts; grief will not slip in unheeded
the sky’s poignant elation engulfs my heart
when I was young and guileless, my mother offered me playthings
I opened my hands to accept them, it wasn’t as though I could refuse
the heavens bestow rapture upon those who chance hope
And these I offer truly: my sacrifice of melody and dance.  

We see her restless, troubled spirit in this song; during a time of leave-taking she tosses and turns on her bed. And in a dream, she senses in that slight haze the slow cessation of her trials, and the fresh joy that will ensue, which she then does not want to let go of.  

In yet another place, Sappho gauges virtue and beauty:

Virtue-Beauty

One who is fetching is virtuous as well
A fetish, that is also exquisite
Someone who has no beauty
however
becomes virtuous, and so also exquisite.

And Sappho’s being, too, measures up to her own yardstick.


Translator's Note: I would like to thank Neloufer de Mel, Kath Weston, my sustaining soul, along with Devi, Meghan Hartman, Pervin Chhapkhanawala, Anil Menon for suggestions and thoughts on lines, moments in the text. I would also like to thank Haider Shahbaz and Susan Harris for encouraging me to translate more than just the poems in the Miraji essay on Sappho. 


Abridged from Mīrājī, “Saifo,” pp. 321–56 in Mashriq o Maghrib ke Naghmen. Published 1958 by Akādamī Panjāb. Translation © 2020 by Geeta Patel. All rights reserved.

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