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June 23, 1991|Charles Solomon

THE LOVE SONGS OF SAPPHO, translated, with an essay by Paul Roche (Signet: $4.95, illustrated). A vivid new translation of the work of the 7th-Century BC poet, whom classical authors praised as "the tenth muse," but whose name is synonymous only with lesbianism to modern readers. Sadly, only a few of her verses exist intact: Most of her known work survives on scraps of papyrus, gleaned from papier-mache excavated at the Greco-Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. Sappho's greatest contribution to poetry appears to have been the introduction to the first-person voice. She described what she felt as an individual, rather than portraying herself as a passive vessel for the words of the gods. The extant fragments of her songs display a delicate, almost breathless beauty: "When the gentle feet of the Cretan girls/ Danced in tune round some intimate shrine/ Treading the smooth soft bloom of the lawn." As though anticipating the survival of her work, Sappho seems to have written her own epitaph in the fragmentary valediction: "Yes/ they gave me success/ the golden/ Muses/ And once dead/ I shall not be forgotten."

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