XV: Sappho to Phaon
When these letters, from my eager hand, are examined
are any of them known to your eyes, straight away, as mine?
Or would you not know where this work came from
in short, unless you’d read the name of its author, Sappho?
Indeed, perhaps you ask why my lines alternate,
when I’m more suited to the lyric mode:
my love is weeping: it’s elegiac verse that weeps:
I don’t set any of my tears to the lyre.
I’m scorched, as a cornfield burns, its rich crop set alight
by a wild south-easterly, bringing lightning.
Phaon frequents the far fields of Typhoeus’s Etna:
passion grips me no less fiercely than Etna’s fire.
Songs to the well-tuned strings don’t rise in me:
song is the work of a mind at leisure.
Nor do the girls of Pyrrha, or Methymna delight me,
nor the rest of the Lesbian throng.
Worthless is Anactoria, lovely Cydro’s worthless, to me,
while Atthis isn’t pleasing to my eyes,
nor a hundred others that I’ve loved guiltily.
Cruel man, one alone has what was a multitude’s!
Beauty is yours, years suited to loving,
oh, treacherous beauty to my eyes!
Take up the lyre, and archery – you’ll surely become Apollo:
add horns to your head – it’s Bacchus that you’ll be.
And Phoebus loved Daphne: Bacchus loved Ariadne,
neither she nor she knew the lyric mode.
But the Muses compose the sweetest songs for me:
now, my name is sung throughout the world:
Alcaeus is not more praised, who shares the lyre
and my country, even though he may sound more grand.
If nature, being difficult, denies me beauty,
my genius repays beauty’s loss.
I’m small. But mine’s a name that fills every country:
I reveal the measure of the name itself.
If I’m not pale, Andromeda pleased Perseus,
dark with the colour of her father Cepheus’s land.
and often white pigeons mate with other hues,
and the dark turtledove’s loved by emerald birds.
If nothing but what’s possessed by beauty will seem worthy to you,
none will be yours in future, none will be yours in future!
But when I read my poems, I seemed beautiful enough, indeed
you swore I was the only one, fit to speak for ever.
I sang, I remember (lovers remember everything),
and, while I sang, you gave me stolen kisses.
Those too you praised, I pleased you in all ways
but especially there, where Love’s work was done.
Then you enjoyed my playfulness more than ever
and endless teasing, appropriate laughing words,
and when we were both abandoned to pleasure, that deepest languor of our weary bodies.
Now Sicilian girls come to you as new prizes.
What is Lesbos to me? I wish I were Sicilian.
Oh you Nisean mothers, and Nisean daughters,
send back the wanderer from your shores!
Don’t let the lying endearments of his tongue deceive you:
what he says to you, he said before to me.
You also Venus, Erycina, who frequents Sicilian hills
(since I am yours) look to your poet, goddess!
Or must my painful fate fulfil its tender beginning,
and always be bitter in its course.
Six birthdays had gone when my father’s bones, gathered
before his time, drank of my tears.
Helplessly, Charaxus, my brother, captivated, burnt with love
of a whore, and suffered disgraceful losses, mixed with shame.
He wanders, poverty stricken, over the blue sea, with fast oars,
and sinfully seeks now, the wealth he sinfully lost.
He hates me too, because, from great loyalty, I warned him, clearly:
that’s what frankness, and conscientiousness brought me.
And just as what I miss torments me, endlessly,
so a young daughter adds to my cares.
You give me a final reason for complaint:
our ship’s not driven by favourable winds.
Look, my scattered hair lies lawlessly about by neck,
no bright jewels clasp my fingers.
I’m covered by cheap cloth, no gold’s in my hair,
my tresses hold no perfumed gifts of Araby.
Unhappy, for whom should I dress, for whom labour to please?
The sole author of my adornments has gone.
My heart’s easily vulnerable, and to slender weapons,
and often the cause is that I often love,
Either the Fatal Sisters uttered it as a law, at my birth,
and no thread of discipline was granted to my life,
or inclination becomes habit, and my muse Thalia,
my instructress in art, made my genius prone to love.
Why wonder if men in their first youth captivated me
and those years in which a man’s first able to love?
I should fear lest you steal him away, Aurora, in place of Cephalus!
(and you would, but your first love holds you!)
If the Moon goddess should see him, she who sees everything,
it’s Phaon, not Endymion, who’ll be ordered to remain asleep.
Venus might have carried him off into the sky, in her ivory chariot,
but she might think he’d please Mars, himself.
Oh lovely years: not yet a man, nor still a boy,
Oh honour and great glory of your age,
come to me, handsome one, sink into my arms again:
I don’t ask you should love, only let yourself be loved!
I write, and my eyes are wet with rising tears:
look at the many blots here in this place.
If you were so certain of leaving, you might have behaved better,
and at least have said: ‘Woman of Lesbos, farewell!’ You carried away no tears, no kisses of mine:
in short I felt no fear of the pain that was.
Nothing of you is left me, only injury. Nor have you
any token of love to remind you.
I gave you no requests. Nor truly should I have given any,
except that you should not be unmindful of me.
I swear, by Love who is never far from you,
and by the Nine Muses, my divinities,
when whoever it might be said to me: ‘Your joys depart’,
I couldn’t cry for ages, nor could I speak:
tears indeed failed my eyes, words failed my tongue,
my heart was frozen by a