Jack’s Naughty Bits: Sappho, “Anactoria”

Pin it

Jack's Naughty Bits
The great works are dying. Dying, not because they are losing their relevance in our age of machine and microchip, nor because they are languishing in the dustiest corners of soon-to-be-obsolete libraries, nor even because recession and pragmatism are turning the universities more and more into trade schools (perhaps rightly); they are dying because we are losing the languages in which they were written, and translation is no more than a stopgap. My own linguistic limitations are indicative: though I’m conspicuously overtrained as a pedant, I still cannot read Greek, nor do any of my friends. I have to get my Plato in translation, and can never trust my own instincts on the cryptic but beautiful fragments of Anaximander or Parmenides. The sublimity of Sophocles and Aeschylus will for me always be second-hand, and Homer — the bridge of Gods and men — will always sound a bit forced and tinny in my ear. For centuries, the intellectual elite of Europe believed that ancient Greece was the pinnacle of human civilization, yet I, and most everyone else in today’s version of civilized life, will never be able to appreciate the full force of why.


Sad as I am about the loss of each of so many great writers, I am perhaps most saddened by not being able to read in the original the foremost romantic and lyric poet of antiquity, Sappho. Most people know Sappho only for her lesbianism (a term which derives from Sappho having run a school for girls on the isle of Lesbos), but for centuries she was regarded as among history’s greatest poets. As recently as a hundred years ago, English schoolboys were assigned Sappho in Greek as part of their Classics homework, despite the strong sexual overtones of many of her poems. Nowadays, even if high school students were capable of reading the language, Sappho would never make it past schoolboard censors. And it’s a shame. Her poems, which exist mostly in fragments, exhibit an emotional depth and delicacy (even in translation) that no writer would match for a thousand years. Take this week’s selection, “Anactoria,” perhaps Sappho’s most famous poem, which describes the psychosomatic effects that love has on a person. It reads like a highly poeticized list of side effects to some heavy-duty medicine: dry mouth, chest pains, wandering thoughts — you get the picture. It’s been 2,600 hundred years since Sappho wrote this poem to one of her students, and I’m not sure anyone has done a better job describing the physical herk and jerk of a massive crush.

NB: As I can’t fully endorse any one English translation of Sappho’s works, I read renderings of “Anactoria” in all the languages I know, then tried to improve on the best I could find. The result, I hope, captures a bit of the quiddity of the original. But then — if one takes the hardest line on such matters — how would I (or almost anyone else), really know? Not, at least, till we spend more time in the language lab . . .


“Anactoria” by Sappho

Adapted by Jack Murnighan from a ninteenth-century translation by Henry Wharton

He who sits in your presence,
Listening close to your sweet speech and laughter,
Is, in my esteem, yet luckier than the gods.
The thought makes my heart aflutter in my breast.
For even seeing you but briefly,
I lose what words I had;
My tongue finds not a sound;
My eyes fail to see, my ears set to ring;
A fire runs beneath my skin;
Sweat pours from me and a trembling takes my body whole.
I am paler than summer-burned grass, and, in my madness
I fear that I too may die.
And yet, I’ll dare it. Just a little more!

last week next week

Jack Murnighan‘s stories appeared in the Best American Erotica editions of 1999, 2000 and 2001. His weekly column for Nerve, Jack’s Naughty Bits, was collected and released as two books. He was the editor-in-chief of Nerve from 1999 to 2001, before retiring to write full time and take seriously the quest for love.

Introduction ©2000 Jack Murnighan and, Inc.