What are Sappho's greatest poems

Wilfried Straw

Sappho: an introduction

For the concert of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts on April 15, 2002


There are three women of ancient Greece, whose fame and name lives on in the general consciousness to this day: The Spartan Queen Helena is said to have caused a world war in an unbelievably early time thanks to her beauty; More than a millennium later, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra turned her head, first Julius Caesar, then Antonius so spectacularly that Augustus was able to become world ruler over her and his rival's corpse; the third, however, the lesbian poet Sappho, to whom we pay homage today, and which lies roughly in the middle between the two, had neither beauty nor power to show; of inconspicuous shape, as it is said, she has gained her fame only through the power of the spirit: through her poetry and - this connects her to a certain extent with the other two - through the unheard-of power of love that she has breathed into her songs. Her Roman admirer Horace, a contemporary and diatribe of Cleopatra, praises Sappho:

Love still breathes

the fires that the Aeolian girl still live

has entrusted her strings.

... spirat adhuc amor,

uiuuntque cmomissi calores

What Horace says here about love and strings is by the way not a figurative expression: Sappho's poems, especially her love poems, did not only live in books, they were still sung to the lyre by the Romans six centuries later at symposia, as they are today evening, after more than two and a half millennia, should sound again: as "lyric poetry" in the truest ancient sense, as a song to the lyre or - because the piano also has its strings - to other, contemporary string playing.

The chorus of Sappho's admirers begins with her contemporary Alkaios, who is said to have addressed her in verse and is represented with her on a famous vase in our Munich antiquities collection; it goes through Plato, the Hellenistic and Roman poets up to modern times and the present, whereby the praise often has something downright excessive: Many consider Sappho a new, tenth muse; the geographer Strabo (also a contemporary of Horace and Cleopatra) says that it is a wonderful thing (thaumaston chrema) and "in the long time since living memory there has not been a woman who could have rivaled her even a little"; and finally for the English romantic Swinburne she is "nothing less than ..." - not just: the greatest poet !, no: "nothing less than the greatest poet who ever existed." The enthusiastic words of Marie Luise Kaschnitz, which you read on your program slip, are almost restrained.

Of course, when the poet Kaschnitz calls on us to use the poetry of her famous colleague Sappho as a bridge to step back into a "shining world of the early days", a world "in which women still waved wreaths, sang celebratory songs, of the scent of violets and the sea wind blows around "- and:" If we open up to her poetry, we are as young as we were then "- then it easily gives the impression that we can reach into the abundance here, as if such judgments were drawn from a rich knowledge of Sappho's poetry. But unfortunately this is not the case!

Woman was half goddess, she wrote nine full books,

As beautiful as if they were written by Apollo.

And oh! of all that you wrote beautifully,

Is only a little bit left for our time.

(I owe this quote to the Sappho book by Munich's best connoisseur, Marion Giebel.)

The fame of Sapphos and our image of Sappho is still essentially based today on the one and a half poems mentioned, but they are in fact astonishing enough: An ancient woman dares to speak in public of her own hot love - that is in itself Already as good as unique in Greek and Roman antiquity -; and, as far as we can see, she speaks exclusively of her love for other women - which was not unobjectionable in antiquity and which has always cast a certain twilight on Sappho's reputation - again no different from Helena and Cleopatra. Our concept of "lesbian love", which is unknown in antiquity, is based solely on the fact that Sappho was a lesbian, i.e. lived by chance on the island of Lesbos. Interestingly enough, the gossip of ancient posterity has largely disregarded this erotic lesbianism of her - what we now call bisexuality is, to put it simply, in ancient times considered almost normal - and has ascribed various love relationships with male poets to her, from which the later controversial issue arose, whether she was a "prostitute" (to Sappho publica fuerit ); The Attic comedy then brought her to the stage as a lovable woman - also something unique, since historical figures of the past usually appear in tragedy but not in comedy -: This is where the legend of her unhappy love for the beautiful Phaon evidently originated, for the sake of which Sappho is said to have died by falling from the Leucadian rock: Ovid in particular made it known in his heroine epistles, and so it has become the basis of Grillparzer's "Sappho", one of the most beautiful artistic tragedies of modern times.

What we know about the historical Sappho, on the other hand, is not much and results essentially from the remnants of poems and some ancient news mostly connected with them. She was born in the second half of the 7th century BC as a lady of the lesbian nobility, she then mostly lived in Mytilene, interrupted by an apparently politically motivated emigration to Sicily, which began around the turn of the century, i.e. around 600 BC. She does not seem to speak of a husband anywhere, but, even if the formulation is not entirely clear, of a daughter named Kleis, of whom she says she is as beautiful as golden flowers and does not want her to swap away the wealth of all of Lydia (you hear this as No. 7 in the setting by Alfred Müller-Kranich); What is more clear is that she has brothers, one of whom, Charaxos, seems to have been a brother Lüderli: Sappho reproaches him for his relationship with a hetaera, to whom he is said to have sacrificed a whole fortune (relationships with viable women are according to the moral code of classical antiquity, to which Sappho also pays homage, as long as the financial expenditure for it is limited). It is unclear and still controversial today in which external, social relationship

she stands by the women she loves and sings about; a late ancient tradition differentiates between "girlfriends" (hetairai) and "schoolgirls" (mathetriai), which is the most informal interpretation of music lessons; Today, both groups are usually thrown together and it is assumed that Sappho ran a kind of boarding school for noble daughters, in which they were prepared for marriage and marriage through all sorts of musical, domestic and perhaps other arts. We'll have to talk about that right afterwards.

But first let's look at the two poems on which Sappho's fame is based. Both deal with love, but in very different ways, as it is given with the two love deities of antiquity, Aphrodite and Eros. Let's start with the older of the two: Aphrodite, who is called to help Sappho in love needs. We hear that she did not fail to help - the memory of it makes up the main part of the poem - so she should be there personally now:

Poikilothron ’athanat’ Aphrodita ...

As the following shows, this means that Aphrodite should stand by her in such sorrows and fears that are already there:

..... but come here if you've ever been before

hearing my voice from afar too

Aphrodite, as a distinguished goddess, of course does not come on foot and does not fly herself, but appropriately uses an air car, which is appropriately pulled by sparrows,

because this bird is, as we know, sexually particularly active, fertile and therefore also sacred to Aphrodite. The magic of the verses is also based on the splendor of the colors (which often play an important role in Sappho and, luckily, can also be reproduced in German): the colorful throne of the goddess, with which the poem begins, and the golden palace of the Zeus contrasts the black earth and the blue celestial ether through which the goddess makes her journey:

quickly to the goal; you, blessed, asked

smiling as the immortal face smiles,

what I'm going to suffer again, what I am

call you again ...

Aphrodite, the always smiling one, is apparently particularly amused here that Sappho has troubles in love once again. And before Sappho expresses her request, she indicates that she knows what it is about and already agrees to help:

... and what I want in my heart

wild madness: "Tell me, Sappho, who should

Peitho join you in love who does

Peitho, the goddess of persuasion, belongs to Aphrodite's entourage and ensures that her protégés do not remain in love without success. Aphrodite now describes this early success drastically:

If she flees now, too, she will soon follow you;

if she disdains presents now, she will soon give;

even if she doesn't want to! "

Aphrodite, who is so kind to her favorites, can also be relentlessly cruel in their interests. Just as in a famous scene from Homer's Iliad she forces Helena into bed in Paris against her will, so she promises to do everything for Sappho to make her beloved willing.

All this was spoken from Sappho's memory, should the goddess remind of earlier help. Only at the end of the poem does Sappho come to her current request, which she herself formulates much more discreetly than the goddess when she granted:

Come to me now, too, and get out of trouble

Worry my heart; what I long for

o fulfill this longing and be myself

Helpers in the fight!

The ancient philologists, as we know, placed this poem at the head of Sappho's Collected Works; the poet shows herself in him as a lover in a unique close relationship to her goddess, Aphrodite, who, as in older Greek poetry, appears as a deity above all of the fulfillment of love and as a protector. Through the splendor of its pictures, the poem almost suggests that Sappho could see the helpful goddess, whose voice she at least hears - something that is otherwise denied to mortal people.

Aphrodite's son Eros, the god especially of confusion of love, who plays a cruel game with human hearts, is of a completely different kind. Sappho compares its effect elsewhere with the wind that falls into the oaks on the mountain; in a phrase that has become almost proverbial to this day, she calls him a "bittersweet" monster, against which there is no help. The second larger piece of text that we have from Sappho (and which as a whole was perhaps the most famous love poem of antiquity) speaks of Eros, the desire for love and madness of love, even if his name does not come up: a description of the primarily physical symptoms of love The interpretation is highly controversial, right down to the details of the wording - wrongly, in my opinion: Sappho clearly says what she wants, and I immediately translate in the way that seems only possible to me (this time in prose) :

The man (or: man) seems to me to the gods

how you talk sweetly

talk no more,

the ears roar

me that I am dying ...

As was correctly understood in ancient times, this is nothing other than the description of the erotikai maniai, the madness of love, in the sense that love robs people of their senses and reflection: when the beloved is seen closely, language fails, then face and hearing also fail; with hot flashes and cold sweats, the lover comes close to death, or more precisely, to fainting. (Both Sappho elsewhere and older Greek poetry speak of the Eros lysimeles, the "limb-loosing Eros", which does not mean something comfortably relaxed, but precisely that man loses physical strength under the action of the desire for love, that here, as Homer says, his knees go weak.) That is why Sappho declares that those who manage to be close to their loved ones, to hear their smiles and sweet chats, are godlike - not because they enjoy godlike happiness, but because they must have superhuman abilities: at least Sappho, she says, is unable to do so, she cannot stand the sight (any more than she could stand the sight of a deity). And since she addresses the beloved in this poem, speaks to her, this should ultimately be meant as a courtship of love - but that is not certain, because we are missing the end.

On the other hand, it seems certain to me that nothing in the poem indicates that Sappho, as is often believed today, would say goodbye to a girl or even feel jealousy towards a competitor or bridegroom of the girl (unbelievably, our poem is already used as a wedding poem want to interpret). Such interpretations, which I cannot describe in more detail here, do not result from the wording, of course, but from very specific ideas that one has of Sappho and the women she sings about and beloved. As mentioned before, today she is widely regarded as a pedagogue who educates young girls in civil marriage and family; and her passion for love is accordingly seen as a kind of pedagogical eros (which one then naturally imagines very differently). Such a conception arose to some extent in antiquity with the unmistakable effort to absolve Sappho of the charge of female homosexuality: a late antique rhetor, Maximus Tyrius, compared the Eros of Sappho with that of the famous pedagogue Socrates too beautiful boys (Socrates was famous for the nonsensical of its eroticism that we mutatis mutandis now referred to as "platonic love".). In modern times, such an opinion was mainly justified by the famous German Graecist Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker, who published a booklet in 1816 which clearly reveals his intention with the title: "Sappho freed from a prevailing prejudice". The prevailing prejudice was, of course, that Sappho, as they said at the time, was a "tribade", that is to say, a practicing lesbian. On the other hand, Welcker appealed primarily to the aforementioned Maximus Tyrius; he went beyond this by making Sappho the head of a formal "Musenschule", a school that was later referred to in research as a "cult association" or "Thiasos", although the general idea is that instruction is there Serve to prepare for the marriage and thus ideally end with the student's wedding (that so many wedding songs, epithalamies, were written by Sappho - you will hear some of them tonight in the setting by Wilhelm Killmayer - naturally seemed to go well with it ). There were no parallels for such an institution in Greece, but at least in Liberia in Africa; And that in Sappho's poems there was so much talk of painful farewell, of being separated and of remembering beautiful days with music and wreath-making, seemed to fit well with the idea of ​​a pedagogue who, of course, falls in love with her young women with a very moral tendency This love was often imagined as a kind of ritualized game in which Sappho would have recited her poems. Sappho's fragments, of course, hardly point in this direction. There is never any talk of a circle or a community, Sappho never speaks to a large number of possible educators, there is never any talk of teaching and instruction; she never speaks of a future marriage or marriage; their inclination is towards individual friends, admittedly, as we have seen, changing friends, whereby the relationship is seen as partnership, not in any way pedagogical or hierarchical; not even that the beloved are younger than Sappho is pronounced:

If she flees now, too, she will soon follow you;

if she disdains presents now, she will soon give;

if she doesn't love now, she'll love quickly after all,

even if she doesn't want to!

I freely admit that I would not send my daughter to boarding school where Aphrodite made such promises to the headmistress. Any pedagogical interpretation finally seems to me to fail because of the poem in which Sappho describes the physical symptoms of their love.Or what should one say when Sappho explains the idea that for her the most beautiful thing is what she loves, using the example of the adulteress Helena, who left her husband and child for love? Can this be a role model for the female youth of Lesbos? You have to be a die-hard German professor to see such confessions as part of Sappho's educational task.

The attempt to absolve Sappho of accusations of sexual aberration, which was still an urgent need around 1900, is no longer necessary in 2002, as you know: since our permissivive society has been preaching sexual tolerance everywhere, since pink city council lists and lesbian clubs were the last Fighting for the remainder of equality, it might seem time to read Sappho again freely and to free her from the now prevailing prejudice, the condemnation of a teacher. There are scholars, especially in the Anglo-Saxon field, who have done this; But sapphophilology has recently taken a completely different direction: If the sensuality in Sappho's love is so unmistakable and Sappho is still, as we all know, a teacher, what prevents her from including sex education with practical exercises in the curriculum of her boarding school? So today many assume that in Sapphos musenschule or cult association the students were erotically connected with their master and that this connection led to physical devotion: part of the so-called "initiation" through which the girl in her profession as a woman and finally Wife had been introduced (a parallel to the Greek love for boys, which is also, and here with better right, ascribed a pedagogical function).

How little that goes with Sappho's real poems is obvious. Today a younger Graecist understands Sappho's prayer to Aphrodite as a reminder to her students not to "resist the natural law of love"; and from the gripping description of her love symptoms he reads "Naming and Expression of Loss" when one of the girls said goodbye to her initiation group. Also through these obvious reinterpretations, misinterpretations, as I think, Sappho is deprived of her best and most genuine: the spontaneous, hot-blooded love. Passion becomes a ritual, the goddess of love Aphrodite becomes a preceptor for willing wives - who now have to be introduced to certain secrets of physical love through intercourse. I believe that a recent American scholar is right when he asserts that such ideas are more likely to stem from male fantasies and pornographic novels like the famous "Fanny Hill" ill "than reality on Lesbos - a reality we do not know, but rather Can only guess: When Sappho speaks of the beautiful experienced together with the lover, of dances, parties, music and time and again about wreaths - wreaths, flowers and especially roses were considered the scent marks of her poetry - then we do not know whether and how far we should think of institutions here. Perhaps it was a group of men, hetairies, corresponding aristocratic ladies' circle, in which Sappho frequented and where she probably sang her songs; perhaps it was not a circle at all, but Sappho, the one of beauty so easily inflamed, was just alternately in love with Agallis, Anaktoria, Atthis, (to name just three names we know m to call it A); and she may have sung her poems to the chosen person or sent them through mail carriers - for we also hear from foreigners. It is very likely to me that the poetry was also intended as a lure of love. When Sappho, in one of her most famous fragments, speaks of the fact that whoever has no part in the roses of the Muses must pass away namelessly, then this can easily be related to the eternal power of her poetry, which also perpetuates the beloved; I quote:

But if you died, there will be no memories later

It has usually been said that Sappho is comparing herself with a woman who is not a poet and therefore does not wear an immortal wreath of muses; but the Greek poets do not speak of their own immortality until a later period, but always only of that which they in turn give to the subject of their song; and so the poet is more likely to address a woman who had forfeited it to live on in her songs as the object of Sappho's love. This is what Sappho has indeed achieved: Although her poems are lost to their precious remains, we know a wealth of names of the women whom Sappho once loved.

The tradition of singing Sappho's verses, these roses from Pierien, as to read, naturally breaks down with the loss of her poems in the Byzantine Middle Ages; It was not until the 18th century that musicians seemed to be interested again in the remains of the poet, who was also a musician. A deserving, hard-working Heidelberg doctoral student collected the relevant grades over twenty years ago and even published a number of important things on a record. After that it was first John Blow who composed Sappho's hymn to Aphrodite in free English translation. The same poem was set to music by none other than Carl Maria von Weber (as stage music, with harp, for the aforementioned tragedy by Grillparzer); He was followed by the famous ballad composer Carl Loewe, who was not only a music teacher but also a Greek teacher (a real counterpart to Sappho!), and so cleverly arranged his composition metrically that it could be sung in both Greek and German. The other large fragment, the description of the symptoms of love, is taken care of by the French Gaspare Spontini, the Pole Stanislaw Moniuszko and - now in the 20th century - the famous Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly. Incidentally, the musicians of this past century also discovered the fragments of Sapphos, on the one hand certainly stimulated by the new discoveries, on the other hand by the open form of the fragment itself, which is more inspiring than captivating the imagination. I mention about - think! - Fifty names only the best known (with the exception of those listed today): Luigi Dallapiccola, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Hermann Reuter and above all Carl Orff in his famous "Trionfo di Afrodite" (from 1951).

Also tonight, when the latest compositions are presented as testimony to Sappho's enduring magic, the fragments are typically in the foreground, often only very short but suggestive pieces (sometimes of little more than one verse). To the delight of the classical philologist, both Alfred Müller-Kranich and Wilhelm Killmayer use the original Greek text (Killmayer is a special friend of the poet, whom he has repeatedly made the basis of compositions since 1960); Jürgen von Bose is based on the beautiful metric translation by Joachim Schickel. The only exception as far as the choice of text is concerned is made by the Czech Jan Novák (who died almost eighteen years ago in Neu-Ulm): He set the famous large fragment on the symptoms of love to music in a very simple strophic form, although he is less interested in expressive music Interpretation came down to making the sheer beauty of the Sapphic meter audible:

Phainetai moi kenos isos theoisin ...

If you set this to music exactly according to the metrical specifications, the result is a swaying, sloping rhythm according to our standards, which consists of a sequence of 3 + 4 + 6 + 5 time units: - v / - - / - vv - / v - - thus resists the division into a modern clock scheme, but at the same time appears extremely simple and natural. I also mention that this "Sapphic stanza", the poet's favorite measure and therefore named after her, had an incomparable worldwide success. Not only the Roman poets, Catullus and Horace, used it, the Latin Middle Ages and the early modern period also wrote their Marian hymns in it; Brahms paid homage to him in the "Sapphic Ode", and to this day there are poets who try to adapt this measure to different languages. It fits in with the fact that Xenakis, the great Greek composer who died two years ago, is said to have been inspired by this meter for his percussion composition "Psappha" - with this name form Sappho called himself.

So this evening is a complete homage to Sappho, the greatest of all Greek women, to her few, precious words and to her immortal rhythm.