[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.