Sappho: An evocative fragment

Fresco associated with Sappho (from Pompeii, first century CE)

Dropping out of sight go the moon  
and the Pleiades. Midnight slides
by me, then hour on hour.
I lie here awake and alone.

Anne Carson says, "Sappho is a musician," and her own Sappho translations are some of the most musical English versions of Classical Greek poetry I've ever read (see the first link below). Many translators simply put the poet's thoughts into modern English, without trying to reproduce Sappho's music. 

In this translation of one of the best known fragments attributed to Sappho (no. 168b), I've maintained the eight-syllable count of the Greek lines and echoed the meter as closely as I could. I've also been mindful of the caesura (the mid-line pause in Classical verse): in lines 2, 3 and 4, it falls in the same place as in the Greek.


I have also matched the position of key vowels, although I had to juggle the four long vowels in the last line that give the poem's closing its plaintive feeling in Greek. (Note that I intend "Pleiades" to be spoken with the accent on the second syllable, as in Greek, not on the first syllable, as in English.) 

In order to replicate Sappho's meter, I've altered a few line-to-line meanings. For example, the phrase that runs over from line 2 to line 3 means, "It is the middle of the night". I've changed that to "Midnight slides by me" to meet the needs of the meter.

Anyone who reads Greek can judge how faithful I've been to Sappho's music and where I've strayed from her literal meaning:

Δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληίαδες· μέσαι δὲ
νύκτες, παρὰ δ᾽ ἔρχετ᾽ ὤρα·
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.

"Sappho and Alcaeus" by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1881 (click to enlarge)

"Aeolian song is suddenly revealed as a mature work of art in the spirited stanzas of Alcaeus. It is raised to a supreme excellence by his younger contemporary, Sappho, whose melody is unsurpassed, perhaps unequalled, among all the relics of Greek verse." 

                                    British classicist Richard Claverhouse Jebb (1841-1905)


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