Over at The Guardian, Charlotte Higgins ponders introducing her poetry group to the pleasures and challenges of reading the fragmentary poems of Sappho, the most famous woman poet of Classical antiquity:
What will I be saying about her? Well, to me one of the most interesting things about Sappho is the way she’s been read: the transmission of her works, and her reception. She was massively admired in antiquity, and her works were edited into nine books (ie papyrus rolls) in the great library at Alexandria. She was known variously as “the tenth muse” and “the female Homer”. She was a huge influence on Roman lyric poets: Catullus famously translated a poem of hers, Horace wrote in her distinctive “Sapphic” stanzas, and Ovid in his Heroides (a collection of poems purporting to be love letters by jilted lovers to their ex-boyfriends) has one by Sappho to her certainly apocryphal lover, Phaon, on account of whom she was legendarily supposed to have killed herself.
Now, hardly any of Sappho’s work remains.
There’s the rub. Yet, the careful work of papyrologists continues to bring more Sappho to light, as in 2004 when a new, perhaps complete, poem emerged:
In 2004, Michael Gronewald and Robert Daniel announced the identification of a papyrus in the University of Cologne as part of a roll containing poems of Sappho. This text, recovered from Egyptian mummy cartonnage, is the earliest manuscript of her work so far known. It was copied early in the third century bc, not much more than 300 years after she wrote (M.W. West. “A New Sappho Poem” TLS 6/21/2005).
Click here for more on the “New Sappho”.
A recent article in The Economist (“Tongue Twisters,” Dec 17 2009) recently tackled the question, “what is the world’s most difficult language?” English, despite its admittedly insane orthography, is quickly dismissed as “pretty simple: verbs hardly conjugate; nouns pluralise easily (just add “s”, mostly) and there are no genders to remember… English is a relatively simple language, absurdly spelled.” The complexity of Latin and Greek, although possessing more challenging morphology than English, likewise pale in comparison to other languages.
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1563). Wikipedia.
What follows is a whirlwind tour of the complexity and diversity of human speech: the tonal system of Chinese, the sonic complexity of !Xóõ, a “click” language spoken in Botswana, Estonian’s 14 (!) cases, or the 50-140 declensions (!!) of Tuyuca, a language spoken in the eastern Amazon basin.
All these delicious linguistic details, however, point to a more fundamental question: does one’s language shape and constrict one’s thought, or are the observable complexities simply superficial variance over deep structural similarity? I lean strongly towards the former, but read the rest of the article and decide for yourself.
Herodotus and Robert Strassler’s new Landmark Herodotus took center stage yesterday on NPR’s “On Point with Tom Ashbrook” (program available in archive). No word on whether that inveterate Herodotus-hater Plutarch, author of “On the Malice of Herodotus”, was available for comment.
From Michael Gilleland comes word that knowledge of Greek particles can save you from an unwelcome engagement:
Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Blood for the Ghosts: Classical Influences in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), p. 82:
We are told that when Gaisford said to his pretty daughter ‘You can’t turn down Jelf; he knows more about Î³Îµ than any man in Oxford’, Miss Gaisford is said to have replied that she knew something about Î¼á½³Î½.
Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti posts several translations of Homer’s meditation on the vicissitudes of life in Odyssey 18.130-137. Among other insights, we can see how true Richard Bentley’s comment on Pope’s Iliad is: “it is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.”
Homer, Odyssey 18.130-137 (tr. Richmond Lattimore):
Of all creatures that breathe and walk on the earth there is nothing
more helpless than a man is, of all that the earth fosters;
for he thinks that he will never suffer misfortune in future
days, while the gods grant him courage, and his knees have spring
in them. But when the blessed gods bring sad days upon him,
against his will he must suffer it with enduring spirit.
For the mind in men upon earth goes according to the fortunes
the Father of Gods and Men, day by day, bestows upon them.
The same, tr. William Cowper:
Earth nourishes, of all that breathe or creep,
No creature weak as man; for while the Gods
Grant him prosperity and health, no fear
Hath he, or thought, that he shall ever mourn;
But when the Gods with evils unforeseen
Smite him, he bears them with a grudging mind;
For such as the complexion of his lot
By the appointment of the Sire of all,
Such is the colour of the mind of man.
The same, tr. Alexander Pope:
Of all that breathes, or grovelling creeps on earth,
Most man in vain! calamitous by birth:
To-day, with power elate, in strength he blooms;
The haughty creature on that power presumes:
Anon from Heaven a sad reverse he feels:
Untaught to bear, ‘gainst Heaven the wretch rebels.
For man is changeful, as his bliss or woe!
Too high when prosperous, when distress’d too low.