7 March, 2020 • • 42.8ClassicsTranslations

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Sappho’s Brothers Poem: A Scholarly Retreat


In Mytilene, capital of the island of Lesbos, Sappho looks out anxiously to the horizon for her brother, Charaxos, the mercantile adventurer, while an unidentified companion ‘prattles on’ about his voyage. Pointless, says the poet; the safety of his return lies in the hands of Hera, and their safety at home in the hands either of Charaxos, or of another brother, Larichos, who is yet to grow up. Upon its rediscovery in 2014, this slice of Lesbian domesticity, the so-called ‘Brothers Poem’ (see the text here), prompted broadly two literary responses. Firstly, that it was unfortunately quite dull, a conventional prayer framed by bare references to two relations, and secondly—perhaps somewhat in rebuttal—that it was a unique and thrilling example of Sapphic invective, following a reference in Herodotus (2.135) to Sappho’s censure of Charaxos. Augmenting this perceived tone of mockery, Anne Carson’s remains the most alluring from a sea of seven sassy Sapphos (TLS 28 Mar & 7 May 2014).

Constance’s response strikes a contrasting tone of consolation, and thus presents a more poignant image of unstable 6th c. island living. Here, the addressee, most commonly seen either as Sappho’s mother or as Rhodopis, a mistress of Charaxos, is instead depicted as a third and younger brother, whom Sappho attempts to calm as they  both fear for the older brother at sea. An analogue to Penelope and Telemachus, perhaps. In form, Xavier’s response attempts to reflect this early dissatisfaction; just as the original doesn’t quite offer the satisfaction of Sappho, Xavier’s unrhymed, three-line pentameter form offers a similar degree of familiarity yet shapelessness. But he also responds to a different aspect of tone: the density of generic, gnomic wisdom—unusual in Sappho. By presenting the addressee as Sappho’s sister and reducing Charaxos and Larichos to their familial identities (à la Anna Burns), the tension between moralising tone and domestic situation, between the intimate and the generic, is achieved. A driving argument of the poem—how to hope—is also highlighted, as is the maritime motif. Allegra likewise pulls on this nautical imagery to ominous effect, portraying the uncertain fate of Charaxos’s ship in stasis, a tumbling die just now cast from the hands of the gods.

Sebastian’s response, inspired by Pale Fire, echoes Xavier’s interest in the moralising tone, dialling up the aphorisms to a state of beautifully dense nothingness. But alongside the poem sits a commentary, ‘accompanying’ only in the loosest sense. It is difficult in 2020 not to reread Sappho’s Brothers Poem (formally titled p.sapph.obbink) without recent accusations levelled at its re-discoverer in mind. Here, the fictional Charles Kinbote becomes a fictionalised Dirk Obbink, whose loose-tongued commentary swiftly devolves into a highly personal history of the papyrus’s shady acquisition. This focus on the creation and process of the poem’s discovery is also reflected in Nicolette’s defacing of Obbink’s own translation, inviting us to pause between the trite platitudes (‘safe and sound’), to hear the radio screeches, to question what else might have been blacked out. An active censorship of the darker side of an ‘established man’: perhaps not all that dissimilar to the blind, ethical complacency displayed by many at the time of its original publication?

–Oscar Harrington-Shaw


–Allegra FitzHerbert


–Xavier Buxton


–Constance Everett-Pite


–Nicolette D’Angelo


–Sebastian Knight


Xavier Buxton is reading for a DPhil in Classics at Balliol College, Nicolette D’Angelo for an MPhil in Classics at Corpus Christi College, Constance Everett-Pite for a BA in Classics and English at Corpus Christi College, and Oscar Harrington-Shaw for an MSt in Classics at Magdalen College. Allegra FitzHerbert is a designer based in London and Sebastian Knight is a classicist.