Since classical times, Sappho has been a source of fascination and romantic construction. The ancients, who had nine books of her poems at their disposal, were unstinting in their admiration. Some called her a tenth Muse. Strabo, writing in the time of Augustus, calls her a wonder, “for in this whole span of recorded time we know of no woman to challenge her as a poet even in the slightest degree”. In modern times, with only fragments of her poetry remaining, she has remained one of the most famous and evocative names from antiquity, a figure viewed by some with narrowed, by others with widened eyes; a socio-historical enigma, a littérateurs’ Lorelei, a feminist icon, a scholars’ maypole.
It is difficult to judge her for ourselves when so little of her work remains. What we have
consists on the one hand of quotations and more general references in ancient authors, and on the other hand of torn scraps from ancient papyrus and parchment copies, mostly from the Roman period and, more often than not, so tattered that they yield only a few words or letters from any given line of verse. In modern editions the fragments are numbered up to 264. But many of these do not contain a single original word. Only sixty-three contain any complete lines; only twenty-one contain any complete stanzas; and only three – till now – gave us poems near enough complete to appreciate as literary structures.
A recent find enables us to raise this number to four. In 2004, Michael Gronewald and
Robert Daniel announced the identification of a papyrus in the University of Cologne as part of a roll containing poems of Sappho. This text, recovered from Egyptian mummy cartonnage, is the earliest manuscript of her work so far known. It was copied early in the third century bc, not much more than 300 years after she wrote.
Parts of three of her poems are represented. As usual, all are in a fragmentary state. But the second one, it turned out, had been partially known since 1922 from an Oxyrhynchus papyrus of the third century ad, and by combining the two texts we now obtain an almost complete poem.
When we had only the Oxyrhynchus portion, we had only line-ends, preceded and followed by line-ends of other poems, and it was not clear where one poem ended and the next began; the left-hand margin, where this would have been signalled, was missing. That question is now settled. We have a poem of twelve lines, made up of six two-line stanzas. The last eight lines are virtually complete. The first four are still lacking two or three words each at their beginnings. But we can make out the sentence structure and restore the sense of what is lost, if not the exact words.
Here is the poem in my own restoration and translation. The words in square brackets are supplied by conjecture.
"[You for] the fragrant-blossomed Muses’ lovely gifts
[be zealous,] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre:
[but my once tender] body old age now
[has seized;] my hair’s turned [white] instead of dark;
my heart’s grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.
This state I oft bemoan; but what’s to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there’s no way.
Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
love-smitten, carried off to the world’s end,
handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o’ertook him, husband of immortal wife."
It's probably worth tracking down the print version of this one if you want the Greek text ... more coverage of this in the Guardian.