By Page duBois
I.B. Tauris (2015) p/b 192pp £12.99 (ISBN 9781784533618)
This is one of the latest offerings from I.B. Tauris’ ‘Understanding Classics’ series, designed to ‘introduce the outstanding authors and thinkers of antiquity to a wide audience’, teachers, academics and the generalist alike. dB.’s task might well be considered the most challenging of the series, since Sappho’s reputation and influence far exceed the fragmentary remains of her work. Her lyric recitals, her innovations of traditional songs, her standing within Lesbian society were so highly regarded in antiquity that the great Athenian sage and law-giver Solon proclaimed that he would die happy, if he could learn a song of Sappho. Such was Sappho’s pre-eminence for Plato that he declared her the tenth Muse. Across the years and into the twenty first century Sappho lives on, now the focal point for the study of homoeroticism and ‘queer theory’. Peeling back the layers of understandings which have accumulated around Sappho is the process upon which dB. embarks in this book; it is a process which illuminates both its subject and the ‘archaeology’ of the method.
The first chapter offers a detailed reading of one of the most complete of Sappho’s poems; the invocation of Aphrodite (fragment 1). dB.’s reading serves as a model of literary criticism, but also begins ‘the process of understanding’ with reference to the poem which arguably is where the process of creating ‘Sappho’ began. If students read only one chapter and one poem, this would serve them well, since it provides a most useful guide to a close literary critical reading of a text.
In subsequent chapters, dB. offers help in understanding the historical and political contexts of the seventh and sixth centuries (chapter 2, ‘Sappho of Lesbos’), and Sappho’s later classical reception (chapter 3, ‘Sappho in ancient Greece and Rome’), from Herodotus’ Histories to Ovid’s Heroides. In ‘Trying to translate Sappho’ (chapter 4), dB. examines how translators have appropriated Sappho to their time and culture; making reference, for example, to Sappho becoming a girls’ school headmistress in Victorian times and to how she is made a champion of lesbian and feminist writers in the 20th and 21st centuries. Finally, with reference to the newly discovered ‘Brothers Poem’ and the ‘Old Age Poem’, she examines the effect such findings have had upon our understanding of Sappho. The final chapter ‘Queer Sappho’ considers how ‘queer theory’ has influenced our readings of Sappho, and how new understandings have been created.
dB.’s guidance over the journey of understanding Sappho began with the first line of Fragment 1 and the ambiguous poikilothron’, which allows ‘for the beginning of the poem to refer not only to the attributes of the goddess but also to the rich variety of language that will follow’ (p. 10). After a wide ranging survey of Sappho’s reception through more than two thousand five hundred years, dB. returns to the latest discoveries, which modify again our understanding of Sappho. After discussing ‘The Brothers’ poem and its confirmation of Herodotus’ anecdote about Sappho’s brother Kharaxos, she considers again the complexities of translation, noting this time the last words of the poem, aipsa lutheimen. Various renderings are considered before dB. comments: ‘Once again we see how much individual choices of translators, close to the Greek or veering far, determine the reader’s sense of Sappho’s voice’ (p. 152). From first to last, understanding Sappho, as dB. concludes, requires a readiness to accept that there is no fixed translation: ‘no stable Sappho’ (p. 152). Our open-mindedness to the intricate poems and lives of Sappho is facilitated by dB.’s work.
Throughout, dB. guides our understanding with close reference to the surviving fragments of Sappho. Her analysis of the historical reception of Sappho, as well as the predilections of readers and admirers, enables us to appreciate and better understand not just the author, but the tradition which has grown around her. The scholarship which dB. offers is knowledgeable and keenly focused, and is always accessible and informative. This is a book which offers significant help to anyone wishing to better understand Sappho and her reception, but also informs our engagement with classical authors in accordance with the aims of the series.