Week 2: Sappho


The second week looks at Sappho as the beginning of the personal lyric, and the introduction of both personal relationships and of the physical body to the poem. It looks to Sapphic form as another model that students can draw on and adapt in their own work, as well as the thematic elements of Sappho, and how these might translate to a contemporary setting.

Teachers can begin with a history of Sappho’s work, its loss and revival, as a way of connecting the beginning of the class back to ideas from the previous Gilgamesh week on loss and recovery, time and permanence. Much of Sappho’s work was burnt or otherwise destroyed, due to its erotic and particularly its non-heteronormative content, with little of it surviving into the Renaissance. For a long time, our knowledge of Sappho’s work was dependant on the three volumes discussed by Catullus. It wasn’t until the 19th century that more originals started turning up, often on papyrus in Egyptian funeral sites. There was a great collection of Sapphic fragments throughout the 19th century, something which is still going on today, with new fragments discovered as recently as the last few years. This interesting history of literary survival can be used to reintroduce ideas from Week 1 about poetry as something which records, which strives for permanence, which behaves as a monument.

Students should also be introduced, at the beginning of the class, to the idea of the Sapphic form: the use of three long lines of 11 syllables, followed by a shorter line of 5 syllables called the ‘Adonic’ line, to make up a four-line stanza. More advanced students can be led through the exact syllabic patterns of dactyls and trochees that would have made up each line. For a detailed description of Sapphic form, see here.

The main exercise this week is to track through different translations and rewritings of one Sapphic fragment, Fragment 31, exploring with students how different poets across time have adapted both the form and content of Sappho’s work to new contexts, developing and evolving it as they do so. But first, begin with another Sappho poem, the Anactoria poem…



Translated by Aaron Poochigan

Some there are who say that the fairest thing seen
on the black earth is an array of horsemen;
some, men marching; some would say ships; but I say
she whom one loves best

is the loveliest. Light were the work to make this
plain to all, since she, who surpassed in beauty
all mortality, Helen, once forsaking
her lordly husband,

fled away to Troy—land across the water.
Not the thought of child nor beloved parents
was remembered, after the Queen of Cyprus
won her at first sight.

Since young brides have hearts that can be persuaded
easily, light things, palpitant to passion
as am I, remembering Anaktória
who has gone from me

and whose lovely walk and the shining pallor
of her face I would rather see before my
eyes than Lydia’s chariots in all their glory
armored for battle.

This poem works well as an example of both Sapphic subject and Sapphic form. Students can be introduced to the formal technique of following three long lines with a single short line; they can then be asked to think about what the emotional effect of this formal pattern is. They can consider the language of love in the poem, and how this transforms the mythic content (Helen fleeing to Troy for example) by bringing it into the realm of the personal.

The poem also connects nicely back to Gilgamesh, particularly to the sense of poetry as praise which we found there. Here, though, that praise is connected to personal relationships, and to personal loss: ‘I, remembering Anaktória who has gone from me’. We see here how Sappho is the beginning of the personal lyric.

Another interesting connection with Gilgamesh can be found by examining the form of the two poems. In Sappho’s poem we again find the rhetorical pattern of listing: ‘some there are who say…’, ‘some men…’, ‘some would say…’). Students can be asked to think about how this compares with the parallelism in Gilgamesh and the Psalms.


Translated by Aaron Poochigan

to me he seems to be equal to the gods,
that man who sits near you, facing you
and hears you
speaking sweetly

laughing delightfully, and this actually
makes my heart tremble within my breast;
for whenever I look at you – even a glance! –
no words come to me,

but my tongue is snapped
and fine flames run through my body instantly
and I see nothing with my eyes
and my ears ring

and sweat pours down me,
and all of me is trembling,
and I am paler green than grass
and I seem to lack but little of dying.

but all should be risked! since even a poor person –

φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν
ἔμμεν’ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-
σας ὐπακούει

καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ’ ἦ μὰν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν·
ὠς γὰρ <ἔς> σ’ ἴδω βρόχε’ ὤς με φώνη-
σ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ἔτ’ εἴκει,

ἀλλά καμ μὲν γλῶσσα ἔαγε, λέπτον
δ’ αὔτικα χρῷι πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμακεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ’ οὐδ’ ἒν ὄρημμ’, ἐπιρρόμ-
μεισι δ’ ἄκουαι,

έκαδέ μ’ ἴδρως κακχέεται, τρόμος δὲ
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ’ ὀλίγω ‘πιδεύης
φαίνομ’ ἔμ’ αὔται.

ἀλλὰ τὰν τόλματον, ἐπεὶ καὶ πένητα

phainetai moi kênos îsos theoisin
emmen’ ônêr ottis enantios toi
isdanei kai plâsion âdu phonei-
sâs upakouei

kai gelaisâs îmeroen to m’ êmân
kardiân en stêthesin eptoaisen
ôs gar es s’ idô brokhe’ os me phônai-
s’ oud’ en et’ eikei

alla kam men glôssa eâge lepton
d’ autika khrôi pur upadedromâken
oppatessi d’ oud’en orêmm’ epirom-
beisi d’ akouai

kad de m’ idrôs kakkheetai tromos de
paisan agrei khlôrotera de poiâs
emmi tethnakên d’ oligô ‘pideuês
phainom’ em’ autai.

Alla pan tomaton . . .

This is the original version in Greek (middle), along with a transliteration of the Greek into the Roman alphabet (right), and a translation into English by Aaron Poochigan (left), from his edition of Sappho’s poems, Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments. Although introduced to students as the ‘original’ poem, it is of course worth noting that this, too, is a translation – though teachers can also ask if any students can read the original Greek!

In Sappho’s poem, students can identify a shift away from the ‘hero’ narratives of Gilgamesh and other early poems towards a new focus on individual feelings and individual bodies. Fragment 31 is suffused with the physiology of love, its physical symptoms: ‘my tongue is snapped’, ‘sweat pours down me, and all of me is trembling’). This is a new note in poetry, the idea of an individual expressing their internal experience and condition in this way. It is the beginning of the poem of personal vulnerability, eventually leading to the whole tradition of the Romantic complaint.

Adaptions and Translations Through Time

By working through the following versions and translations of Sappho’s ‘Fragment 31’, students can see how this tradition of poetry as something bodily and vulnerable develops, and how different poets in different eras have either stressed it (as in Byron, for example) or diminished it (as in Catullus). They can gain an idea of how a trope can run through literary history, changing and adapting to different contexts. For many more translations of the poem, see the Bureau of Public Secrets.

Catullus 51

he seems to me to be equal to the gods
he – if I may utter it – surpasses the gods,
he who sits facing you always
and sees and hears you

sweetly laughing, and this steals
all my senses from me and I am lost:
for as soon as I see you
no words remain in my mouth for me

but my tongue is paralyzed
and fine flames run through my body
and my ears ring with their own sound
and my eyes are doubly covered with shadows.

Leisure, Catullus, is not good for you:
Leisure you relish, and you act too unrestrainedly:
leisure has destroyed past kings
and happy cities.

Ille mi par esse deo videtur,
ille, si fas est, superare divos
qui sedens adversus identidem te
spectat et audit

dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis
eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,
Lesbia, adspexi, nihil est super mi
vocis in ore

lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
tintinant aures, gemina teguntur
lumina nocte.

Otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:
otium et reges prius et beatas
perdidit urbes.

Catullus’s version plays down the physical aspects and adds a more moral, and more Roman, ending: ‘leisure has destroyed past kings and happy cities’. He suggests that the erotic is an enemy of the state and of the city, thus putting the needs of the state above those of the individual. This does not seem to be where Sappho was going – she ends, after all, by declaring that ‘all should be risked’. Students can be asked to consider why Catullus might have changed the poem in this way, and what the effects of that change are. They can also be pointed to elements of the Sappho which Catullus does keep, such as traces of the Sapphic meter, which gives the poem a more musical feeling than many of his other poems.

Byron’s ‘Translation from Catullus – Ad Lesbiam’

Equal to Jove that youth must be —
Greater than Jove he seems to me —
Who, free from Jealousy’s alarms,
Securely views thy matchless charms.
Ah! Lesbia! though ’tis death to me,
I cannot choose but look on thee;
But, at the sight, my senses fly,
I needs must gaze, but, gazing, die;
Whilst trembling with a thousand fears,
Parch’d to the throat my tongue adheres,
My pulse beats quick, my breath heaves short,
My limbs deny their slight support;
Cold dews my pallid face o’erspread,
With deadly languor droops my head,
My ears with tingling echoes ring,
And life itself is on the wing,
My eyes refuse the cheering light,
Their orbs are veil’d in starless night:
Such pangs my nature sinks beneath,
And feels a temporary death.

Byron’s version is titled ‘Translation from Catullus’, suggesting Catullus is his source rather than Sappho. Yet there are elements which suggest that he has seen the original Sappho as well: the ‘pallid face’, for example, comes out of the ‘paler green’ face of Sappho’s original, which is absent from Catullus’s version. Byron picks up on the physiological focus of Sappho’s original (‘my ears with tingling echoes ring’), which would have surely appealed to Byron’s Romantic sensibility, but abandons the Sapphic meter, writing instead in a consistent tetrameter. Students can be asked which of the two versions – Byron’s and Catullus’s – they feel is closest to the original Sappho, which in turn leads to a question about what is most important to a poem’s essential identity: its content or its form.

from Bob Dylan’s ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’

Now the place is ringed with countless foes
Some of them may be deaf and dumb
No man, no woman knows
The hour that sorrow will come
In the dark I hear the night birds call
I can hear a lover’s breath
I sleep in the kitchen with my feet in the hall
Sleep is like a temporary death

These lines in Dylan’s ‘Workingman’s Blues #2’, from his 2006 album Modern Times, seem to pick up elements from the Byron poem: both ending, for example, with the ‘temporary death’. It’s a good example of how ideas mutate and crop up in new places across the history of poetry, of how students can steal and adapt ideas from the deep well of poetic history. Poetry here behaves like a relay race, with each poet picking up and developing ideas from their poetic ancestors.

from Tennyson’s ‘Eleanore’


I watch thy grace; and in its place
My heart a charmed slumber keeps,
While I muse upon thy face;
And a languid fire creeps
Thro’ my veins to all my frame,
Dissolvingly and slowly: soon
From thy rose-red lips my name
Floweth; and then, as in a swoon,
With dinning sound my ears are rife,
My tremulous tongue faltereth,
I lose my colour, I lose my breath,
I drink the cup of a costly death,
Brimm’d with delirious draughts of warmest life.
I die with my delight, before
I hear what I would hear from thee.

Tennyson’s version of Fragment 31 is included in a longer early poem, ‘Eleanore’. His version is more a paraphrase than a translation – a looser, freer adaptation of the Sapphic original. Students can be asked to think about what the difference between a translation and a paraphrase or tribute is, and where the exact point is that the former tips over into the latter. Tennyson again stresses the physical symptoms of love, showing the Keatsian side of his work: ‘I lose my colour, I lose my breath, I drink the cup of a costly death’.

William Carlos Williams’s translation (1958)

That man is peer of the gods, who
face to face sits listening
to your sweet speech and lovely

It is this that rouses a tumult
in my breast. At mere sight of you
my voice falters, my tongue
is broken.

Straightway, a delicate fire runs in
my limbs; my eyes
are blinded and my ears

Sweat pours out: a trembling hunts
me down. I grow
paler than grass and lack little
of dying.

Although writing in American free verse, Williams here is closer here to the original Sapphic meter than any of the other translations so far. Each stanza has three longer lines followed by a shorter one. Yet Williams adapts the Sapphic form by using his line breaks in a more modern way: making greater use of enjambment, for example, to interrupt the sentence. Students can see how the ‘stamp’ of a form can be kept, its basic idea and shape, even as it is adapted into a more modern style.

Robert Lowell’s translation (1962)

I set that man above the gods and heroes —
all day, he sits before you face to face,
like a cardplayer. Your elbow brushes his elbow —
if you should speak, he hears.

The touched heart madly stirs,
your laughter is water hurrying over pebbles —
every gesture is a proclamation,
every sound is speech…

Refining fire purifies my flesh!
I hear you: a hollowness in my ears
thunders and stuns me. I cannot speak.
I cannot see.

I shiver. A dead whiteness spreads over
my body, trickling pinpricks of sweat.
I am greener than the greenest green grass —
I die!

Lowell’s version again tries to recreate the Sapphic form, though in a looser way than the strict syllabic counting of the original; as such it makes an interesting comparison to Williams’s poem. The pointedness and finality of the ending – ‘I die!’ – can be compared with the endings of the other versions, many of which are also pointed. By contrast, the original Sappho fragment seems to cut off mid-way, most likely before the poem was meant to finish: ‘since even a poor person – ’. Students can be asked: why do the other poets try and round off their poems in a way in which the original does not? What is the effect of this?

Anne Carson’s translation (2002)

He seems to me equal to the gods that man
whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing — oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead — or almost
I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty…

Carson’s version brings students full circle back to original Sappho: more than the freer and looser translations of Williams and Lowell, it is an attempt by Carson at accurately translating the original poem. For more advanced students you could also bring in Carson’s extensive scholarship on Sappho, for example comparing her translation to her ideas about this poem in Eros the Bittersweet, in which it is a central text.

Once all the translations have been worked through, a discussion can be had with students about which of the translations they are most drawn to, and which they feel would make the most satisfactory model for their own work.



Ask students to write a poem which adapts the Sapphic form, either strictly by following the exact syllabic pattern (11 syllables in the long lines, 5 in the short) or more loosely, by following the stanza’s shape. Students may want to think about changing the trochaic and dactylic rhythms of the original to iambic or anapaestic ones, which tend to sound more natural in modern English.


Ask students to write a poem which comes from the body, from their physiology. Students should think about a moment from their past which had a powerful physical effect on them, and then try to describe, in as much detail as possible, what this effect was, focussing on the physical symptoms they experienced. These notes can then form the basis of a poem.


Ask students to write a poem which comes from the body, from their physiology. Students should think about a moment from their past which had a powerful physical effect on them, and then try to describe, in as much detail as possible, what this effect was, focussing on the physical symptoms they experienced. These notes can then form the basis of a poem.


Compare Sappho’s work to other poetry of ‘forbidden love’. One possibility is Edwin Denby’s poem ‘The Subway’, from In Public, In Private (1948): a poem about desiring other bodies on the subway, the sense of being a silent onlooker with a desire which can’t be mentioned.