The Paths of Survival

– the poetry of history –

Tag: Sappho

Destruction Horizon

romanboudicaIn 60 CE, nearly twenty years after the Roman emperor Claudius had annexed Britain, British tribes led by the Iceni Queen Boudica revolted against their Roman conquerors. In his account of the rebellion, the Roman historian Tacitus describes how the British first turned their attention to the city of Camulodunum, modern Colchester, razing it to the ground, before marching on Londinium or London.

Perhaps surprisingly, in the face of this threat, the then governor of Britain, Suetonius Paulinus, decided to retreat from the city and leave London to its fate; as the Roman historian Tacitus explains, he “abandoned a city to save the province”. With nothing standing in the way of her forces, Boudica’s sack of London was so savage that even now archaeologists refer to her ‘destruction horizon’ a layer of earth containing ash, soot and burnt artefacts denoting that past, catastrophic event.

boudica-town-hall-stain-glass-window-320-458The following poem, first published in the New Statesman earlier this year (18th April) is written in the voice of Suetonius Paulinus. It follows firstly Greek historian Cassius Dio’s description (63) of the portents that preceded Boudica’s attack and then Tacitus’s own account in his Annals (14.33) which pinpoints the human cost of Suetonius’s decision:


Destruction Horizon

Walbrook, London, 60 CE

On the streets, priests spoke of omens,
babbling voices in the lock-down Basilica,
laughter rattling out from empty theatres,
a twin city reflected in the rising Thames.

I didn’t waver. We didn’t have the numbers.
I gave the command to march on. Some came.
Most were trapped by age or sex, a strange
allegiance to this border post, a tenderness
for hovels they somehow held as home.
They saw the dust storm spinning nearer,
carrying their own deaths – and the British.
A tally of thousands for that bitch Boudica.

But we left them a marker in memorial,
our destruction horizon: impacted soil,
a trickle of red ash like dried-up blood.
Dig down. Dig deep. It’s soaked in the mud.

                         Josephine Balmer

destruction Horizon (2)

Revisiting Sappho

Sappho coverAs a translator, revisiting a text or series of texts you first worked on many years ago is always a fascinating – and daunting – task. This week Bloodaxe Books publish a new, revised edition of my Sappho: Poems and Fragments, which initially appeared with Brilliance Books in 1984, followed in 1992 by its first Bloodaxe edition. The new volume contains translations of several recent discoveries of fragments by the Greek poet, some of which offer rewritings and re-readings of previously known fragmentary poems. Others provide tantalising glimpses of  hitherto unknown fragments.

One of the new fragments in this latter group, fragment 16a (No. 124 in Sappho: Poems and Fragments), derives from a series of papyri acquired by the private Green Collection in Oklahoma City, and later published by Sappho textual scholar Dirk Obbink in 2014.  Its sparse eight lines could represent the opening stanzas of a new poem that followed fragment 16, the Ode to Anactoria, in textual editions. Alternatively, in his latest textual edition of the new fragments, Obbink has argued that this new piece might instead constitute a continuation of fragment 16 itself, a poem many editors had previously thought complete.

Whatever the truth, the new fragment’s opening stanza appears to chime with the theme and concerns of much of Sappho’s love poetry; the nature of desire and the ways in which the lover might find happiness. As Obbink has noted, it also features a typically Sapphic progression from generalised experience (‘No, it is not possible for anyone/to be completely happy…’) to that of the individual, whether or not identified as the poet herself.

kairosThe fragment’s second stanza is far more incomplete but nevertheless contains some startling images. In line 6 of the fragment the words ep’akras, or literally ‘on the edges’, could refer to a Greek expression for ‘on tiptoes’. The following line appears to have an equally arresting reference to chion, in Homer used of fallen snow. This could evoke the figure of Kairos or ‘Opportunity’, the concept of acting at the correct time or seizing the day, which in Greek art and mythology was often portrayed as a young man running on tiptoes. But ep’akras was also used of being ‘on the edge’ of a changing season, particularly spring, which chimed with the later mention of (perhaps melting) snow. In addition, the verb which Obbink reads as ebas, or ‘you went’ echoes the eba (‘she went’) used of Helen’s desertion of Paris in fragment 16. And so I added in some conjectures here to include the image of a lover leaving like fleeting snow in the spring:


No, it is not possible for anyone
to be completely happy. And so we pray
that we might have our own small share. I myself
bear witness to this…                                                                       

[Seize the fleeting moment as it] comes to pass…  
… you went away on the brink [of spring]….
….[vanished like the melting] snow. But she…
…many things….




A New Fragment – And a New Translation: Sappho, The Cologne Fragment

220px-Tithonos_Eos_Louvre_G438_detailWhen a hitherto unknown Sappho papyrus was discovered at the University of Cologne in 2004 – and later published by Martin West in 2005 – there was huge media interest in the ‘new’ Sappho poem. However, as Sappho scholars soon recognised, most of this ‘new’ work was actually another piece of the puzzle from an existing piece of papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, fragment 58. With tattered, disputed text, scholars have had to become inured to the fact that not just their interpretation but their very content might constantly be shifting.

This means, of course, that the text we appear to have now is not the same one I translated for Sappho: Poems and Fragments thirty years ago. Nevertheless, when I was working on my, then much more incomplete poem, I felt a strong affinity to the fragment from the start; it became the one exception to my rule of not filling in the gaps, although I dutifully added a page note to the effect that ‘most of this translation is conjecture’.

Such conjecture was, of course, aided by the poem’s reference to the myth of Tithonus and Eös, the immortal Dawn who gave her lover eternal life but forgot to give him eternal youth until he was transformed into a shrivelled cicada:

…already old age is wrinkling my skin
and my hair is turning from black
to grey; my knees begin to tremble
and my legs no longer carry me…
oh, but once, once we were like young deer
…what can I do?…

                                    …it is not possible
to return to my youth; for even
Eös, the dawn, whose arms are roses,
who brings light to the end of the earth –
found that old age embraced Tithonus,
her immortal lover…
                                      …I know I must die
yet I love the intensity of life
and this, and desire, keep me here in
the brightness and beauty of the sun
[and not with Hades…]

When West’s new, more complete, text appeared in 2005, it was very gratifying to discover that, by coincidence, my conjectures followed this quite closely. If translation is an activity that occupies the realms of inspiration and creativity, as well as the pages of the dictionary, then it was also cheering to find that it embraced serendipity as well. For this reason, when I was recently asked by Peggy Reynolds to provide a version of the West’s new text for Poet in the City’s ‘Sappho…Fragments’ event at the Bloomsbury Theatre London on October 31st, so entwined were the two texts in my mind, they proved harder to disentangle than I might have thought.

In the end, to distinguish this new version from my earlier reconstruction, I decided to use rather more formal, less conversational semantics in English. But despite all efforts, I found it hard to keep to the six couplets of West’s reconstruction without writing prose lines. And so the text was transmuted into an almost-sonnet of fourteen lines. Nevertheless, thirty years – and two millennia later – it still felt as if Sappho was at my shoulder as I wrote:

The gifts of the Muses are violet-threaded,
rare: follow their path, my daughters, pursue
the lyre’s clear-voiced, enthralling song.
Once I, too, was in tender bud. Now old age
is wrinkling my skin and my hair is turning
from black to grey; my heart is weighted,
knees buckle where I danced like a deer.

Yet what else can I do but complain?
To be human is to grow old. They say
Eös, the rosy-fingered dawn, whispered,
of love to Tithonus, whirled him away
to the very edge of the world, beguiled
by his youth and beauty. Yet still he aged,
still he withered, despite his immortal wife.

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