Fragments: Sappho et al. Matthew Pfaff, translator.

Translator’s Note: This short selection is drawn from a larger translation project, Day and Night: Conversations with Sapphic Desire. This work is an arrangement of translations of ancient Greek lyric poets, drawn heavily from Sappho but also including other canonical melic poets (Alcman, Anacreon, Simonides, and a few others), and one Roman poet, Catullus.

The subtitle of the collection, Conversations With Sapphic Desire, speaks to the way in which the collection might be conceived as a series of calls and responses to the shape of desire in Sappho’s poetry, and the way that Sapphic desire moves and echoes through a tradition. The inclusion of Catullus, although it violates the consistency of the choice to include mostly Greek poets, and is separated from them temporally by hundreds of years, is one example of the way that Sapphic desire remains a vibrant and evolving force in Roman poetry and beyond.

Although the arrangement, at the present moment, is a first draft – provisional and rough – I conceive it as telling the narrative, not of a life, but of an affect, the movement of desire from its dawn to its extinction in death. This affective biography at the same time intersects with a number of lives, and the whole arrangement proceeds under the stellar sign of the progression from day to night, from the first poem, in which the sun rises, to the final section, which is plunged into darkness and death.

Anacreontea 1

“Anacreon in a Dream”
you noticed me
in a dream, old Teionian poet,
in a dream rose up in front of me
to speak.

I ran to you
and threw my arms around you
with a kiss:
old graybeard, yes,
but lovely;

but eager to love,
and lovely.
your lips smelled like wine,
and Desire led you by the fingers
since you trembled with old age
and you took your garland down
to give me –

(the flowers, Anacreon,
they smelled like you)

Idiot me, I lifted it
and set it on my brow,
and from then, even now,
I haven’t held myself back
from desire.

Sappho 147

someone, someday
will remember us,
I know it…

Corinna 691

Dawn plunges up
from the ocean deep, drawing off a moon-
holy brightness from the ash-
grey sky.

Sea-sons, sons of deathless
Zeus, blossomdeep
in May.

In the seven-gated city,
the chorus of singers
cries holy

Alcman 3a

from high Olympus, the Muses
call, from Olympus they fill
my body with longing: a new song,
come, a new song, come:

I want to hear the young girls
sing the hymn that breaks the sky,
I want to hear the song
that scatters dreams from my heavy
eyelids, and leads me, willing,
to the assembly:

I shake my head and the yellow
hair falls down
in waves

Sappho 103

holy Charites, holy Pierian
Muses: don’t
be upset –

Sing the soft feet
of the bride; sing the violet-
breasted daughter of Zeus –

songs in my thoughts,
hearing a liquid-
sweet music, setting
the lyre in place:

Dawn in my hair

Sappho 52

i will never
these two
the sky.

Sappho 38

you make us burn

Sappho new fragment

Burn for the beautiful unearned gifts
and the violet covered breasts of the Muses, girls;
long for the song-sweet liquid of the lyre.

As for me, it’s too late: my skin (so supple once)
old age has changed.
The black has bled from my pale white braids.

There’s a knot in the pit of my stomach, and the same knees
that once in the dance leapt light like gazelles
now shake underneath my weight.

Not a day goes by that I don’t despair
for this state of affairs. But what can I do?
Every person alive must someday die.

(which reminds me of Tithonus: They say that once
upon a time the rose-fingered Dawn,
consumed with longing,
carried him off to the ends of the planet.

He was young and pretty at the time,
but old age eventually caught up with him,
holding on tight to his deathless lover.)

Sappho 55

When all your stirrings,
of blood and breath cease,
and you pass through the outermost silence,
where neither remembrance of you
nor the heat of desire can puncture

that final hanging veil,

then (since you take no communion
with roses
where Music was born
with the Muses)

you will dart,
invisible in the House of Hades,
to and fro above the bodies,

that melt like shadow beneath you.

Departed from us.

Stesichorus 15

Like a living thing silent
and thirsty, the arrow bites
sharp through skin and
bone, to lodge vibrating
in the middle brain,
where it buries itself
to the feathers.

Geryon’s neck
slumps gently to one side
while the blood flows black
on gore-stained limbs
and breastplate:

a trickle of petals
at summer’s end,
the poppy’s tender


Sappho 104a and b

Hesperus, you carry home the dawn-
scattered sheep, home the goat
that dawn scattered. you carry home
the little child
to mother.

you are twilight lovely

Translated from the Greek.

About the Translator: Matthew  Pfaff is a graduate student in the Comparative Literature Department.

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