A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
[For you] the fragrant-blossomed Muses’ lovely gifts
[be zealous] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre.
[but my once tender] body old age now
[has seized] my hair’s turned [white] instead of dark.
My heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.
This state I bemoan, but what’s to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way.
Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn
love smitten, carried him off to the world’s end
handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o’ertook him, husband of immortal wife.
Trans. By Martin West
I teach an evening class in Western Civilization at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. I like the intimacy. My students are mostly older adults – this one had her babies first, that one did two tours in Iraq – who usually come to class straight from work.
Recently we discussed the Greek poet Sappho. Part of the lesson was to show how many of her lyrics are reconstructions, and how scholars create these reconstructions. I spent a great deal of time looking for a Sappho poem that was largely intact, not an easy task. On a web page from Middlebury College, I finally found the fragment above, as well as Martin West’s translation.
As I expected, the lesson went well. My students are diligent and bright. But something else happened that I didn’t expect: I actually heard the poem. I’m not talking about the artifact or the art. I’m saying that an old woman in Ancient Greece spoke to a 66 year old man in Post-Modern Missouri. And I answered her in the one language we have in common.
after reading Sappho
I kissed Colleen Finnegan
during the Our Lady Of Perpetual Help dance
that summer in ’64 when I was waiting
to be a man
now my knees feel heavy
though the women of my youth
still ask me to dance
that fantasy every night
an old man wed to an immortal youth
This fresco, thought to be of Sappho, was found at Pompeii.