This is essential reading for anyone with a serious interest in Sappho. The widely publicized discovery and publication a few years ago of a 12 line poem by Sappho has by now led to a plethora of translations of it on the internet. Yet, quite literally lost in translation is the fact that many of the words in at least 5 of the lines of that poem are based on conjectures that remain open to debate. Furthermore, there are 8 more lines, albeit fragmentary, discovered above that 12 line poem that may constitute a prelude to it. In addition, there are 4 more lines from an even earlier discovery that many scholars continue to argue relate to the 12 line poem, if not as a continuation, at least as an alternate ending. We have then, not a 12 line poem, but 24 lines of poetry. If you care about Sappho you are going to want to know as much about all 24 lines as possible. This book is for now the only place to start.
According to the publisher there will be online access to this book as well as updates to it, but as of the date of this review access to that site appears to be restricted. Once available perhaps that site will allow for some clarification of what unfortunately makes this book difficult to work with, especially for the "wider audience" the publisher intends to reach. The chapter where one would expect to find a translation of each of the 24 lines (the title of the chapter indicates as much) fails to provide any translation for the fragmentary 8 line prelude (the essay on p.126 provides a translation but it is partial and based on conjectured language not in the authoritative text) or the 4 line continuation/alternate ending (a number of the essays provide translations but it should be emphasized that the reading of the 4th line is problematic). If the publisher intended to reach a wider audience it would seem that the Greek would have been better presented in romanized text. With so many contributors it is entirely understandable that there will be differences in terminology but the variations in how the relevant sections of the 24 lines of Sappho are referred to are bewildering. The first 8 lines are labeled the "New Fragment" and printed separately from fragment 58 on p.10, only to reappear under fragment 58 on p.14, while in other essays these same lines are referred to as "poem 1", "Passage A" or the "Thalia poem." The editors should have provided an explanatory note or table. What is most impressive about the interpretive essays is how the various distinguished scholars seem to converge on similar conclusions regarding the significance of the performance context for appreciating these lines of poetry, yet by deploying very different lines of argument buttressed by very different evidence. What is most disappointing is that only one barely 13 page essay directly addresses the "philosophical issues" referred to in the subtitle to this book. The philosophical import of what Sappho is doing here deserves more attention but because philosophers do not usually read Sappho (or readers of Sappho, philosophy) it is a challenge even to broach the subject. An ostensibly improbable starting point would be a consideration of the intersection of what we now see as the distinct disciplines of poetry and philosophy in the thought of Parmenides. Bowra's appreciation of Parmenides as a poet has been for the most part overlooked. Yet, it was Gadamer who, in a lecture where he frequently refers to Parmenides' poetry, bore down on Parmenides' use of the Greek word "chroa" (the same word as used by Sappho in the lines analyzed in this book) and, perhaps sensitive to his own time in life (the lecture was given as he was about to begin what was to be a long retirement), thought he could detect a "call into consciousness the anxiety that mortals feel . . . that everything born must die" (p.121/The Beginning of Philosophy). It is uncanny how he seems almost to be quoting Sappho even though the lines of hers we now have had yet to be discovered. There is more than enough in the association of those thoughts not only with how philosophy began but also on where it is going today to start a dialog. Such a dialog, however, would now need to begin not with the purported "father" of western philosophy but with the voice of a woman, the voice of Sappho.