I didn’t intend to review out-of-print books, but the other day I picked up Sappho of Lesbos: Her Life and Times, by Arthur Weigall, at my favorite used book store (Fahrenheit’s), and from the moment I looked into it I couldn’t put it down. The book came out in 193, and Weigall was already an old man. His style reminds me a bit of what little I’ve read of William Dean Howells—clean, willowy, quietly witty. No great genius in it, but what fun to read! Here’s a taste:
In the year 591 B.C. Pittakos caused himself to be proclaimed Tyrant [over Lesbos], this full sovereignty superseding the office of Dictator which he already held; and it seems to have been at this time that he strengthened his position by contracting a marriage with the sitter of that same Drakon who in 606 B.C. had influenced the nobles to appoint him commander-in-chief in the war against Athens. The lady, being a member of the old aristocracy, is said to have given herself great airs, and to have treated her plebeian husband as somebody quite beneath her; but he was mightily proud of his nobel bride, in spite of the fact that she was already advanced in years, was overdressed and painted up to hide her wrinkles, and had once been so notorious for the number of her lovers and the abnormalities of their behavior that the ribald Alkaios could jokingly say of her that she had been as hammered hard and polished smooth by them as any old ship’s bottom by the carpenters.
The majority of the book consists of this mix of history, anecdote, biography—and all the (in 1932) known fragments of Sappho’s poetry, translated into prose, but a very fine prose: “As for me, love has shaken my mind as a down-rushing wind that falls upon the oak-trees,” for example, and: “Death is a misfortune: the gods at least think it so, or they would have died.”
Looking into Weigall and Sappho on the Internet as I was reading, I ran across what for me is an evocative painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema
This captures the spirit of Weigall’s lyrical descriptions of a wide variety of ancient sites, such as this passage about Sappho’s home city, Mitylene:
Away to the south the seashore was dotted with the houses of the well-to-do, each standing in its own luxuriant garden, and each having its own well from which the water was drawn up by a chain of earthenware pots connected with a large wooden cog-wheel pulled round and round by a donkey or an ox. The creaking of these wheels, like a wandering song without end, was carried on the breeze to the city, where it blended in a drifting undertone with the murmur of the sea and the louder noises of the streets.
There were tree-shaded houses, too, upon the slopes which passed up to the rugged screen of the high hills behind; and from the ravines near the summit little streams of water in winter-time ran splashing down amongst the rocks, discharging themselves at last into the sea below, while in summer their dry beds of white bowlders and gravel, bordered by oleanders in full flower in May and June, could be traced in their devious courses down the hillsides, now passing along beside the steep bridle-paths, now losing themselves amongst the silver-pale foliage of the olive groves or the denser growth of private gardens, and now crossing the open spaces where dark cypresses stood here and there like sentinels amongst the scattered fig-trees, the pomegranates, the myrtle, and the bay. Higher up, where these torrents began their downward rush, the rocky ground was rich in mountain shrubs and flowers and aromatic plants; and the scent of them was like incense upon the delicate air of the uplands.
Weigall’s writing has something of a purple tinge, but it succeeds in making me wish I could have walked those winding paths in the days of Sappho, which after all were the days of Buddha, Nebuchadnezzar, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichos, and Cyrus the Great, who founded the Persian Empire and began his rise to power when Sappho was in her forties. Weigall avoids detailed discussion of the slavery upon which the life of Sappho’s class was based, which is unsurprising for a book published in 1932. But I didn’t mind the near absence of that bitter reality. Sappho of Lesbos is, after all, a romance, full of history but not about history. Weigall brings us close to Sappho, but not nearly as close as her poems and fragments do. By way of illustration, here is a complete poem from Jim Powell’s 1993 book of luminous translations, Sappho: A Garland (recently reissued by Oxford as The Poetry of Sappho and which would get three thumbs up from The Perpetual Bird if I were rating it):
Artfully adorned Aphrodite, deathless
child of Zeus and weaver of wiles I beg you
please don’t hurt me, don’t overcome my spirit,
goddess, with longing,
but come here, if ever at other moments
hearing these my words from afar you listened
and responded: leaving your father’s house, all
golden, you came then,
hitching up your chariot: lovely sparrows
drew you quickly over the dark earth, whirling
on fine beating wings from the heights of heaven
down through the sky and
instantly arrived—and then O my blessed
goddess with a smile on your deathless face you
asked me what the matter was this time, what I
called you for this time,
what I now most wanted to happen in my
raving heart: “Whom this time should I persuade to
lead you back again to her love? Who now, oh
Sappho, who wrongs you?
If she flees you now, she will soon pursue you;
if she won’t accept what you give, she’ll give it;
if she doesn’t love you, she’ll love you soon now,
Come to me again, and release me from this
want past bearing. All that my heart desires to
happen—make it happen. And stand beside me,
goddess, my ally.