Friday 31 January 2014

Of lesbians, lyric poetry and Kirsty Wark

As I'm somewhat demob happy, having excused myself from having to pay attention to Newsnight ever again - and also because it's Friday night and there's no more work till Monday - the following posts may seem a wee bit 'off topic'. That said, both Sue and I love going 'off topic' and they do all relate to this week's editions of Newsnight. So that's all right then.

Last night's edition of Newsnight ended with the news of the discovery of parts of two poems by the ancient Greek poetess Sappho. 

Sappho appeals to both Newsnight types and feminist classics professors as she's both the pagan patron saint of lesbianity and, to those in the know, a great landmark poet too. Consequently, Newsnight's Kirsty Wark discussed the discovery with an enthusiastic feminist, Professor Edith Hall of King's College, London. 

Should I froth and moan about that? The discovery of two new poems by a 'feminist icon'/'gay icon' from Ancient Greece is certainly classic BBC/Guardian territory and, perhaps, indicative of BBC bias.

Still, this selfsame story was also covered on Tom Payne's blog at the Telegraphand the top-rated there runs as follows: 
Before this thread gets closed down by the resident 'frothers' and moaners, thanks for posting up a story that is genuinely interesting. 

And, yes, it certainly is a genuinely interesting story: After some 2,600 years fragments of two poems are discovered by a very famous ancient Greek poetess previously only known for just four poems and lots of fragments. In 2014. 

The poems, written on papyrus, came from an anonymous collector (somewhere in London).

Excessive punctuation alert!  (but I think excessive punctuation is needed here): An anonymous collector?? Missing for over 2,600 years and now reappearing in the collection of a London-based Anon??!!?

What other missing glories of the past are still lurking out there then in the collections of other Anons? More Plato? Yes please! Lost Raphaels? Yes please!! Lost Bach cantatas and passions? Yes please!!!

Looking into the story a bit more, other Sappho findings have emerged in recent years, so these poems aren't quite so out-of-the-blue a discovery as Newsnight's presentation might have led us to believe, but...

Here are the translations published by Slate (the best I can find). They tell of Sappho's two brothers. 

That's interesting in itself as Edith Hall noted that scholars have previously been dismissive of ancient sources who complained that Sappho was always banging on about her brothers (rather than about lesbian love). 

But always you babble that Charaxus is coming
With a full ship. These things, I suppose, Zeus knows
and all the other gods—but you
don’t need to understand them.
Just send me and instruct me
to pour out prayers to Queen Hera;
and beg that, steering his boat here
unharmed, Charaxus

finds us safe and sound. The rest,
let’s consign it all to the stars,
for fair winds suddenly appear
out of great gales.

Those whose fortune the Olympian King
turns back from sorrow—
They are happy
and shine with blessings.

And we, if Larichus ever lifts his head
to become a man,
from great heavy-heartedness we’d be
quick released.

Poem II (Fragment)

How could anyone not gorge always
Cyprian goddess, whomever you should love
and fervidly wish to call back to you?

Edith Hall, before reading the poetry in the Ancient Greek - and it's not often you hear Ancient Greek poetry (in Ancient Greek) on the BBC - made some striking claims for Sappho on Newsnight: 
Sappho invents the love song. She invents the subjective 'I' voice, where you say how you feel when you're in love. She is the first great lyric love poet in Western culture. 
Whether that's true or not, or merely the result of our lack of precursor poems by precursor poets, is an open question I'd suggest. 

Anyhow, this sort of thing beats watching Jeremy Paxman interview Ed Balls any day.

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