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Sappho and Alcaeus: Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry Hardcover – Dec 1955


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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry 18 Oct 2001
By William X Betsch - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
[As that is the subtitle of this book. (Take note "Lesbian" is a historical and geographical appellation, not a sexual one.)]
There is an anecdote that the aging Solon, upon hearing his nephew perform one of Sappho's poems, became desparate to learn it for himself on the spot. When asked why he is so eager to learn the song, he supposedly replied, "So that I may die knowing it."
In the ancient world Sappho was considered to be a writer of the highest order; a genius of the Greek culture nearly on par with Homer. Like Homer she exists on the shadowy margins of history. Little is known of her life during the 6th century B.C. on the island of Lesbos. And yet the classical historian Sir Maurice Bowra tells us, "Sappho cast such a spell on Greece and Rome that even now it is hard to distinguish fact from fiction in her story or to see clearly how she lived and worked."
Denys Page (a good name for him, no?) is also classical scholar and this is a scholarly work. It is a dry, and one is tempted to say, ironically, dispassionate book, chock full of discursive analyses, endless footnotes, and other literary apparatus. Yet as one who feels passionate about the genius of Sappho, I rank this as one of the most valuble books on my shelf.
Page deals only with twelve of Sappho's best-preserved poems (much of her other work is known to us only as short passages or fragments) as well as the more extensive oeuvre of her contempory and countryman Alcaeus (Industrious students of ancient poetry may find something of interest here.) Each poem is presented in the original greek text, followed by Page's translation, a "commentary" explaining and exploring the ambiguous facets of interpretation out of the ancient greek, and an "interpretation" of the meaning of the poem. Page makes little effort, as most translators do, to aestheticize the verse. He is more concerned with conveying the best possible approximation of the literal meaning of each line. As a result the poetry has a rambling, perhaps overly-long line, intercut with much punctuation. While this may do little to conserve the elegant music and economy of Sappho's lyric sensibility, it is a brave attempt to protect her literary intent.
Everyone seems to have their own ideas about Sappho and the significance of her poetry. At one time in history the Catholic Church had her on the list of books to be burned. Both the sexual orientation of the author and the powerful sensual tone that exists in her writing have chaffed against the moralistic sensibilities of the illiberal critic through the centuries, just as she has become something of a cause celebre for some modern readers. There are many examples of translation that have been made in the service of a particular translator's interpretive agenda (Classicist, 19th C. Romantic, modern lesbian readings, etc.) I enjoy Mary Barnard's 1958 version of Sappho, although it is certainly inaccurate. It may well be that there is no such thing as a perfect translation, which is to say nothing about the possibility of an accurate apprehension of the poet's intellect. We can only do our best.
Ambiguity is with us always. It lives in the heart, and Sappho obviously knew this. Her most powerful poems spring from an an attempt to give voice to the unknowable in ourselves. As in Billy Holiday's best songs, the magic exists in the gaps between what is being said and the emotions that give voice to it. One can intuit the truth in the narrow gap that exist between the two, and great beauty too.
I remember having had a big disagreement with my Lit. Prof. who thouroghly dissed Page's work, saying, "There are much better translations of Sappho available." This may well be the case, yet her writing presents fundamental problems of scholarship associated with an incomplete survival of ancient texts. We would like to find the earliest and most accurate documents possible to obtain an accurate appreciation of Sappho's voice and mind. I still cannot imagine a serious investigation of Sappho without this book, short of embarking on a post-graduate course of study in ancient Greek myself. Until the day that a more complete text of Sappho's poetry is offered up by the sands of Egypt, Denys Page's effort may provide our best resource.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Brilliant papyrologist, Not as brilliant a literary critic. 6 May 2006
By T. Miller - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
The late D.L. Page's talents were certainly in creating solid, serviceable texts, such as his work with Aeschylus, the Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta, etc. His exegesis of textual problems in this text is still remarkably useful, and provides the scholar with adequate information to proceed in an informed manner when working with the text. As far as a literary critic, Page has always been less than creative, looking at things with a rather prosaic lense. His interpretation of Alcaeus fr. 357 (LP Z34, V 140) is foolishly literal, and fails to contribute anything to the understanding of the piece. His wide reading and abilities with the language itself more than make up for his shortcomings, making this an essential book to have for suggestions that point the reader towards parallel passages, and as survey of the textual corruption/emendation in the selection of poems contained within.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Grecia 15 Aug 2001
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Excellent for both those who have studied the ancient Greek language, and for the serious scholar of archaic lyric poetry. Page is one of the leading contemporary experts in this field, and discusses the Greek in-depth. Provides a rational (rather than hysterical) account of Sappho, and discusses some of the politics of Alcaeus. This book is not filled with the endless speculation that so often accompanies works on Sappho.
must reading, though outdated 6 May 2013
By Harold Zellner - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a classic commentary, frequently cited in the literature. any serious student of Sappho studies or Alcaeus should read it. That being said, it should be kept in mind that the book is seriously outdated; the "new Sappho" poem in 2004 is part of what I have in mind, but there are also matters such as Page's tendency to treat the poems as though they were excepts from a diary, which was common in the literature at the time. If one has no Greek, it could be argued that a better start for Sappho might be Ann Carson's _If Not, Winter_, or the Camplbell Loeb, though these are now outdated as well. The rate of change in the studies of Sappho has been almost breathtaking.
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry 18 Oct 2001
By William X Betsch - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
[As that is the subtitle of this book. (Take note "Lesbian" is a historical and geographical appellation, not a sexual one.)]
There is an anecdote that the aging Solon, upon hearing his nephew perform one of Sappho's poems, became desparate to learn it for himself on the spot. When asked why he is so eager to learn the song, he supposedly replied, "So that I may die knowing it."
In the ancient world Sappho was considered to be a writer of the highest order; a genius of the Greek culture nearly on par with Homer. Like Homer she exists on the shadowy margins of history. Little is known of her life during the 6th century B.C. on the island of Lesbos. And yet the classical historian Sir Maurice Bowra tells us, "Sappho cast such a spell on Greece and Rome that even now it is hard to distinguish fact from fiction in her story or to see clearly how she lived and worked."
Denys Page is also classical scholar and this is a scholarly work. It is a dry, and one is tempted to say, ironically, dispassionate book, chock full of discursive analyses, endless footnotes, and other literary apparatus. Yet as one who feels passionate about the genius of Sappho, I rank this as one of the most valuble books on my shelf.
Page deals only with twelve of Sappho's best-preserved poems (much of her other work is known to us only as short passages or fragments) as well as the more extensive oeuvre of her contempory and countryman Alcaeus (Industrious students of ancient poetry may find something of interest here.) Each poem is presented in the original greek text, followed by Page's translation, a "commentary" explaining and exploring the ambiguous facets of interpretation out of the ancient greek, and an "interpretation" of the meaning of the poem. Page makes little effort, as most translators do, to aestheticize the verse. He is more concerned with conveying the best possible approximation of the literal meaning of each line. As a result the poetry has a rambling, perhaps overly-long line, intercut with much punctuation. While this may do little to conserve the elegant music and economy of Sappho's lyric sensibility, it is a brave attempt to protect her literary intent.
Everyone seems to have their own ideas about Sappho and the significance of her poetry. At one time in history the Catholic Church had her on the list of books to be burned. Both the sexual orientation of the author and the powerful sensual tone that exists in her writing have chaffed against the moralistic sensibilities of the illiberal critic through the centuries, just as she has become something of a cause celebre for some modern readers. There are many examples of translation that have been made in the service of a particular translator's interpretive agenda (Classicist, 19th C. Romantic, modern lesbian readings, etc.) I enjoy Mary Barnard's 1958 version of Sappho, although it is certainly inaccurate. It may well be that there is no such thing as a perfect translation, which is to say nothing about the possibility of an accurate apprehension of the poet's intellect. We can only do our best.
Ambiguity is with us always. It lives in the heart, and Sappho obviously knew this. Her most powerful poems spring from an an attempt to give voice to the unknowable in ourselves. As in Billy Holiday's best songs, the magic exists in the gaps between what is being said and the emotions that give voice to it. One can intuit the truth in the narrow gap that exist between the two, and great beauty too.
I remember having had a big disagreement with my Lit. Prof. who thouroghly dissed Page's work, saying, "There are much better translations of Sappho available." This may well be the case, yet her writing presents fundamental problems of scholarship associated with an incomplete survival of ancient texts. We would like to find the earliest and most accurate documents possible to obtain an accurate appreciation of Sappho's voice and mind. I still cannot imagine a serious investigation of Sappho without this book, short of embarking on a post-graduate course of study in ancient Greek myself. Until the day that a more complete text of Sappho's poetry is offered up by the sands of Egypt, Page's effort may provide our best resource.
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