Sappho Sings Again

By (Tim Whitmarsh)

The world of classical literature is athrob with excitement. Dr Dirk Obbink of Oxford University has published a draft of a new pair of poems by the famous poet Sappho. Events like this are extraordinarily rare. For classicists it is like finding a new sonnet by Shakespeare or an unknown Michelangelo.

Obbink runs the papyrology unit at Oxford, which specialises in publishing the huge volumes of ancient text found in a rubbish dump at Oxford’s near-namesake, Oxyrhynchus (in southern Egypt). Papyrology is the study of ancient books made from pulped papyrus, the reed that grows plentifully on the banks of the Nile. By a lucky coincidence, the dry soil of southern Egypt is exceptionally well suited to preserving organic matter. The huge trove of ancient papyri at Oxyrhynchus was discovered by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, who began working there in 1896, soon after British occupation. There is plenty of material left, so in principle there are all sorts of opportunities for discovering new texts; only a fraction of the material has been edited over the last century. (For that reason, a crowd-sourcing project has been set up, allowing interested amateurs to contribute to the editing process: do have a look if you are interested.) The vast stores have, however, been filleted by generations of directors looking for exactly this kind of thing: a thrilling discovery of a new poem.

The new Sappho is not actually from the Oxyrhynchus hoard, or at least not directly. The papyrus itself belongs to an anonymous private collector in London; how he or she sourced it is not clear. And it is an extraordinarily impressive piece. Papyri are usually torn exactly where you don’t want them to be, and peppered with holes. Often we are left with frustrating scraps. The Sappho piece, by contrast, gives us a single poem pretty much uninterrupted (although the beginning has, unfortunately, been lost). There are also a few lines of another poem afterwards.

Sappho lived on the island of Lesbos, near the west coast of Turkey, in the 6th century BC. She wrote intensely personal lyric poems about her family, friends and lovers, in a distinctive dialect called Aeolic. Although there is no author named, the new poems are certainly by her. The dialect alone doesn’t guarantee that; there was another Lesbian poet who used the same dialogue, Alcaeus (a man). The verse metre, however, was a favourite of Sappho’s (in fact, it is known as ‘Sapphic’). What clinches it is the reference in the first surviving line to someone called ‘Charaxus’. Other ancient writers, Herodotus and Ovid, tell us that Sappho had a brother by this name, an overseas trader who she chided in a poem. Yet until this publication, Charaxus’ name did not appear at all in Sappho’s surviving poetry.

Sappho’s reputation is as a poet of love, and particularly love of women. The new poem, although it dramatizes familiar themes of longing, imprecation and intense interpersonal relationships, is about family rather than eroticism. (The scrappy …read more

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