“What is beautiful is good, and who is good will soon be beautiful.” …
“You came and I was longing for you”….
Sappho (630 BC – 580 BC)
Poem of Jealousy
Translated by William Carlos Williams
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
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
Very little of Sappho’s writing survives in its entirety, what does remain are broken fragments, like ancient pottery shards, which have to be pieced together with jagged holes remaining to see a glimpse of the form of the original vessel. Much has been written about how in the blank spaces of Sappho’s poetry is formed her greatness, the reader left to fill in the holes from their own lives, envision their own connections.
Sappho is known as the first great lesbian writer, but to characterize her as strictly a lesbian or feminist does not impart the complexity of her life in my opinion and unfairly pigeon holes her, when she should be just called a great writer. She was likely bi-sexual, having married a wealthy man and raised a daughter. She came from a large family and was richly involved in the lives of her brothers, their children and her community. She was not the standard-bearer of the LBGT community in her lifetime. She was herself, with the courage to love completely, from her heart, the people in her life worthy of her love.
In the Library of Congress is a wonderful 4 page document that has the original translation of this poem by William Carlos Williams, published in 1957 by Grabhorn Press in San Francisco. I have included an image of the footnote below, in which he writes:
“I’m 73 years old. I’ve gone on living as I could as a doctor and writing poetry on the side. I practiced to get money to live as I please, and what pleases me is to write poetry.
“I don’t speak English, but the American idiom. I don’t know how to write anything else, and I refuse to learn. I’m writing and planning something all the time. I have nothing to do – a retired doctor who can’t use his right hand anymore. But my core (my head, you know) goes on spinning and maybe occasionally I work it pretty hard. It goes on day and night. All my life I’ve never stopped thinking. I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it.
“I have worked with two or three friends in making the translation for I am no Greek scholar but have been veritably shocked by the official British translations of a marvelous poem by one of the greatest poets of all time. How their ears could have sanctioned the enormities they produced is more than I can understand. American scholars must have been scared off by the difficulties of the job to not have done better. Their prosy versions were little better – to my taste. It may be that I have also failed but all I can say is that as far as I have been able to do I have been as accurate as the meanings of the words permitted – always with a sense of our own American idioms to instruct me.
There is so much in both the translation and the footnote that I relate, that it is awe-inspiring to realize how much in common I have with humanity, going back a century, going back millenia. The human need to be in service to love hasn’t changed. We are attracted to whom we are attracted, mind, body and scent. And if we are lucky, we are allowed to love and be loved, by the same.
Sonnet In Search Of An Author
By William Carlos Williams
Nude bodies like peeled logs
sometimes give off a sweetest
odor, man and woman
under the trees in full excess
matching the cushion of
aromatic pine-drift fallen
threaded with trailing woodbine
a sonnet might be made of it
Might be made of it! odor of excess
odor of pine needles, odor of
peeled logs, odor of no odor
other than trailing woodbine that
has no odor, odor of a nude woman
sometimes, odor of a man