26 April, 2020 • • 43.1ClassicsTranslations

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Sappho 44: The Wedding before the Funeral


A photo of Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1232 (P.Oxy.1232), showing Sappho fragment 44. The papyrus was found in ancient rubbish dump on the Upper Nile, and first published in 1914.

Our last text of the term* was another Sappho, the so-called ‘wedding-hymn’ of Hector and Andromache. The poem (see Greek) recounts the announcement of their arrival in Troy, and the jubilant preparations of the people. Like our last (the Brothers Poem), it survives in papyrus fragments, and its genre is equally controversial. Why, at a wedding, would anyone invoke Hector and Andromache? Their marriage, as Homer tells it, will end with Hector cut down by Achilles; tradition has Andromache enslaved by Achilles’ son, and their own child cast to his death from the walls of Troy. But if Sappho’s poem is not a nuptial celebration, what is it? The metre is largely dactylic, reminiscent of the epic tradition; signature Homeric formulae are transplanted entire into Sappho’s song. The Trojan war thus haunts this happy catalogue of gifts, this choreography of joy.

Oscar’s poem articulates this layering of epic and lyric voices, and discovers several others. Thinking of a recent essay on ‘lyric minds’ by Felix Budelmann, he picks out the speech of the herald, the murmur of citizens, the singing of celebrants, all present on the surface of the poem. To these he adds earlier Hesiodic and Homeric scenes of marriage in stasis, ominously framed with war and strife; the author’s own voice, which is present but vague to us today, not least when it breaks away at the paean; the translator’s voice, in this case invasive, picking apart the original; and finally the performer’s voice, which was fun to write specifically for the evening in a pub, much like how many extant lyric works are compositions for one-off events. Each voice spills over from one stanza into the next, with a kind of medley effect.

What if we allow Sappho to speak on her own? Leah Alpern treats the poem as an independent work of art, whose structural rhythms she tries to recreate in English. Thus she attends to its alternation of motion and stillness, separation and connection. The gaps she sees as an invitation, pacing the poem, sounding its mythic silences.

Ollie Cowley took a freer approach, recognising in Sappho’s poignant celebration of a doomed wedding an old photo-portrait from her home. So many brides have played the part of Andromache, whittled down, trussed up and carted in, their image handed down through history, a compulsion to repeat. In her translation, Andromache herself becomes a kind of dress, an heirloom or κειμήλιον, enfolding and weighing down each new generation.

– Xavier Buxton


Sapphic Minds

Listen. His is the voice that speaks, the swift Idaeus:
‘Hector returns with bride onboard from Placian streams,
Who squints at perfumed, beaming spoils, and blinks away

The salt.’ Theirs is the voice that speaks: the murmurs down
Wide lanes, which swiftly flit from tongue to Ilian tongue,
Of folks who grease their wheels, and yoke their mules, and head

To Troy. Theirs is the voice that speaks: the celebrants
Who sing, who with sweet pipes and castanets and cries
Form waves upon the pools of frankincense and myrrh

In praise. Theirs is the voice that speaks: the forgers of
The shields, on which, beneath the licks of festal flames, glow
Embers of bronzed platoons and sparks of strife, snuffed by

Achlus. Hers is the voice that speaks: the Lesbian
Herself, whose tongue cracks at the paean, crosses the strait
Homeward, and leaves humming the ears of judges, drinkers,

Lovers. Mine is the voice that speaks: the prying tap
Of keys, which isolates each ancient mind upon
The page, and crudely explicates her vertical

Layers. Mine is the voice that speaks: this voice you hear
Tonight, which with each sound recasts the minds both new
And old, and hopes to bring back Sappho here to toast.

– Oscar Harrington-Shaw


Quick Idaeus

Quick Idaeus
came with news

the rest of Asia met undying glory []

and from holy Thebes and flowing Placia
Andromache graced ships with starry eyes
bearing friends and Hector on the salt
sea, heavy with goldenlike bright-shining bracelets,
a wily thing there were ivory cups and purple cloaks
they said it was like benevolence leapt nimbly up
and spread fame through the well-spread city,
like a father among friends it came

and immediately animated Ilians yoked up mules for
smooth carriage, which picked up groups of women
and tender maidens mounted
sated the Trojan daughters cleaved apart again
and men led horses under chariots
unmarried and very much charioteering
|                                             like the gods
|                                             holy
on the road                             to Troy,
the sounds all rattled together:
pipe and cithara mixed sweet melody,
clear-voiced maidens sent holy song;
a godlike echo sounded to the heavens

and all along the road was littered
with hollow vessels—thin layers of dew
blanketed a liquid mix of cassia, myrrh
and frankincense coated gritty dregs
from the depths of wells [] mists rose

on the road the elder women finally got loose
their many men let forth a shriek—
keening for Apollo,
the pine of archer’s bow and narrow lyre;
legs spread among friends
they sang of Hector and of Andromache

– Leah Alpern



Behind glass, you are sun-eyed,
Amaranthine, carted in on
Your father’s arm through
Cloistral city gates. Your
Audience the darkened pews,
Your liturgy left out to sea,
Softly-braided, you constellate
And play the part of Andromache.

One day, you will tell me how
You fasted and whittled yourself
Away into a bone-white dress.
You will worship iridescence,
Welter under hardened suns,
And rest on the dresser the
Image of an ivory woman.

Years later, I remember the old photo
As I try on my first dress, like a scion
Does new leaves, unsteady on my feet.
As an attendant attempts to unearth
A woman from the folds, you hold me
In place and excavate your echo.

An old word ‘κειμήλιον’ means
‘Treasure’      or      ‘heirloom’,
     When disjointed it means
‘Something that may be laid down’.
A tongue-bound book thinks of metal,
While I think of taffeta, the dead alive
And young brides with suns for eyes.

– Olivia Cowley


Leah Alpern is reading for an MSt in Classics at Wadham College, Xavier Buxton for a DPhil in Classics at Balliol College, Olivia Cowley for a BA in Classics and English at St Anne’s College, and Oscar Harrington-Shaw for an MSt in Classics at Magdalen College.


*Editor note: Owing to a technical difficulty with the website over the Easter break, publication of this spread has unfortunately been delayed.