Sappho 31

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(previously published in Agni 83)

He seems like the gods’ equal, that man, who
ever he is, who takes his seat so close
across from you, and listens raptly to
your lilting voice

and lovely laughter, which, as it wafts by,
sets the heart in my ribcage fluttering;
as soon as I glance at you a moment, I
can’t say a thing,

and my tongue stiffens into silence, thin
flames underneath my skin prickle and spark,
a rush of blood booms in my ears, and then
my eyes go dark,

and sweat pours coldly over me, and all
my body shakes, suddenly sallower
than summer grass, and death, I fear and feel,
is very near.

φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν
ἔμμεν᾿ ὤνηρ, ὄττις ἐνάντιός τοι
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον ἆδυ φωνεί-
σας ὐπακούει

καὶ γελαίσας ἰμέροεν, τό μ᾿ ἦ μὰν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν·
ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ᾿ ἴδω βρόχε᾿, ὤς με φώναι-
σ᾿ οὐδ᾿ ἒν ἔτ᾿ εἴκει,

ἀλλὰ κὰμ μὲν γλῶσσά <μ᾿> ἔαγε, λέπτον
δ᾿ αὔτικα χρῷ πῦρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ᾿ οὐδ᾿ ἒν ὄρημμ᾿, ἐπιρρόμ-
βεισι δ᾿ ἄκουαι,

κὰδ δέ μ᾿ ἴδρως κακχέεται, τρόμος δὲ
παῖσαν ἄγρει, χλωροτέρα δὲ ποίας
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ᾿ ὀλίγω ᾿πιδεύης
φαίνομ᾿ ἔμ᾿ αὔτ[ᾳ.


Note: This deservedly famous poem is quoted in the first- or third-century A.D. treatise On the Sublime attributed to Longinus, with the following comment: “Are you not amazed how at one instant she summons, as though they were all alien from herself and dispersed, soul, body, ears, tongue, eyes, colour? Uniting contradictions, she is, at one and the same time, hot and cold, in her senses and out of her mind, for she is either terrified or at the point of death. The effect desired is that not one passion only should be seen in her, but a concourse of the passions. All such things occur in the case of lovers, but it is, as I said, the selection of the most striking of them and their combination into a single whole that has produced the singular excellence of the passage” (10.3, trans. Roberts). That about says it all, though scholars have spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint the significance of the man in the first stanza, and whether Sappho’s symptoms are of eros or envy. Surely, however, that very “unpin-down-able” quality, that slippery multivalence under a limpid surface, the strangeness at the heart, is an intimate part of the poem’s appeal.

Though it feels complete, the poem is a fragment: for some reason “Longinus” leaves off his quotation one line into the fifth stanza, which begins “Still, all must be endured, since even a poor…” Wherever Sappho was headed, Catullus goes a different way in the final stanza of his famous free translation, poem 51, here.