Friday, October 02, 2015

Erica Jong - Sappho's Leap

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Sappho lived in Lesbos, Greece in 320 BCE and precious little is known about her life.  Very little of her work has survived.  Most of her poems come down to us in fragments, bits of papyrus that survived somehow the ravages of time.  Whatever that has survived, however, has amazed many of the poetry aficionados of this era.

stars around the beautiful moon

hide back  their luminous form
whenever all full she shines

on the earth


-translated by Anne Carson in If not, winter


Precious little is known about the life of Sappho.  What survives from all those ages ago is more legend than certified truth.  Erica Jong calls it a blessing, as it allows her to weave a story more imaginatively.

In her tale, Sappho is the daughter of a soldier, Scamandronymus and Cleis.  She has three younger brothers, all fine lads.  Her father dies in a battle when Sappho is still a child.  Her mother becomes the mistress of Pittacus, their ruler.

When grown, Sappho finds love in the arms of Alcaeus, a poet philosopher and a soldier who has lost favor with Pittacus.  Sappho runs away with him, but is brought back and married to an older man.  Her mother says it will keep her safe.  A rich older man will not worry her much for sex and be pliant to her wishes.  Sappho finds herself pregnant and is sure that the child is Alcaeus's.

Sappho has a merry time in Syracuse with her husband, enjoying riches and freedom.  She is very attached to her slave Praxinoa and often makes love to her, to compensate for her loveless marriage.
She is sought after greatly as a poetess and performs often at symposia.

Her husband's death jolts her out of her complacency and she finds all the riches slipping away from her hands.  She follows her brothers to Egypt along with Praxinoa.  There she meets and befriends Aesop who is famed at coining fables.

In short, she meets every famous name of her day.

Erica Jong also has her go on a very Odysseus like journey, fraught with dangers and visits to islands filled with fantastic people, centaurs, amazons, snake goddesses etc.

It is this part of the book that made me weary.  An account of Sappho's everyday life is lovely.  When Sappho returns from her journey back to Lesbos, the island of her birth, the story becomes a little better.  

I found the first few chapters quite engrossing and unputdownable. The later parts not so much.

If you want to read Sappho's poetry, the best place to look is Anne Carson's translations of her fragments, "If not, Winter".  They are simply fabulous.  Anne Carson does not try to embellish or interpret the fragments into something more.  She is lyrical and faithful to the original.


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