Bulfinch's Mythology

Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics by Bliss Carman

"Sappho, who broke off a fragment of her soul for us to guess at"

"Sappho, with that gloriole of ebony on calmèd brows - O poet-woman! None forgoes the leap, attaining the repose." E.B. Browning


THE POETRY OF SAPPHO.--If all the poets and all the lovers of poetry should be asked to name the most precious of the priceless things which time has wrung in tribute from the triumphs of human genius, the answer which would rush to every tongue would be "The Lost Poems of Sappho."

These we know to have been jewels of a radiance so imperishable that the broken gleams of them still dazzle men's eyes, whether shining from the two small brilliants and the handful of star-dust which alone remain to us, or reflected merely from the adoration of those poets of old time who were so fortunate as to witness their full glory.

For about two thousand five hundred years Sappho has held her place as not only the supreme poet of her sex, but the chief lyrist of all lyrists. Every one who reads acknowledges her fame, concedes her supremacy; but to all except poets and Hellenists her name is a vague and uncomprehended splendour, rising secure above a persistent mist of misconception.

In spite of all that is in these days being written about Sappho, it is perhaps not out of place now to inquire, in a few words, into the substance of this supremacy which towers so unassailably secure from what appear to be such shadowy foundations.

First, we have the witness of her contemporaries. Sappho was at the height of her career about six centuries before Christ, at a period when lyric poetry was peculiarly esteemed and cultivated at the centres of Greek life. Among the Molic peoples of the Isles, in particular, it had been carried to a high pitch of perfection, and its forms had become the subject of assiduous study.

Its technique was exact, complex, extremely elaborate, minutely regulated; yet the essential fires of sincerity, spontaneity, imagination and passion were flaming with undiminished heat behind the fixed forms and restricted measures. The very metropolis of this lyric realm was Mitylene of Lesbos, where, amid the myrtle groves and temples, the sunlit silver of the fountains, the hyacinth gardens by a soft blue sea, Beauty and Love in their young warmth could fuse the most rigid forms to fluency. Here Sappho was the acknowledged queen of song--revered, studied, imitated, served, adored by a little court of attendants and disciples, loved and hymned by Alcaeus, and acclaimed by her fellow craftsmen throughout Greece as the wonder of her age.

That all the tributes of her contemporaries show reverence not less for her personality than for her genius is sufficient answer to the calumnies with which the ribald jesters of that later period, the corrupt and shameless writers of Athenian comedy, strove to defile her fame. It is sufficient, also, to warrant our regarding the picturesque but scarcely dignified story of her vain pursuit of Phaon and her frenzied leap from the Cliff of Leucas as nothing more than a poetic myth, reminiscent, perhaps, of the myth of Aphrodite and Adonis--who is, indeed, called Phaon in some versions.

The story is further discredited by the fact that we find no mention of it in Greek literature-- even among those Attic comedians who would have clutched at it so eagerly and given it so gross a turn--till a date more than two hundred years after Sappho's death. It is a myth which has begotten some exquisite literature, both in prose and verse, from Ovid's famous epistle to Addison's gracious fantasy and some impassioned and imperishable dithyrambs of Mr. Swinburne; but one need not accept the story as a fact in order to appreciate the beauties which flowered out from its coloured unreality.

The applause of contemporaries, however, is not always justified by the verdict of after-times, and does not always secure an immortality of renown. The fame of Sappho has a more stable basis. Her work was in the world's possession for not far short of a thousand years--a thousand years of changing tastes, searching criticism, and familiar use. It had to endure the wear and tear of quotation, the commonizing touch of the school and the market-place. And under this test its glory grew ever more and more conspicuous.

Through those thousand years poets and critics vied with one another in proclaiming her verse the one unmatched exemplar of lyric art. Such testimony, even though not a single fragment remained to us from which to judge her poetry for ourselves, might well convince us that the supremacy acknowledged by those who knew all the triumphs of the genius of old Greece was beyond the assault of any modern rival. We might safely accept the sustained judgment of a thousand years of Greece.

Fortunately for us, however, two small but incomparable odes and a few scintillating fragments have survived, quoted and handed down in the eulogies of critics and expositors. In these the wisest minds, the greatest poets, and the most inspired teachers of modern days have found justification for the unanimous verdict of antiquity.

The tributes of Addison, Tennyson, and others, the throbbing paraphrases and ecstatic interpretations of Swinburne, are too well known to call for special comment in this brief note; but the concise summing up of her genius by Mr. Watts-Dunton in his remarkable essay on poetry is so convincing and illuminating that it seems to demand quotation here:

"Never before these songs were sung, and never since did the human soul, in the grip of a fiery passion, utter a cry like hers; and, from the executive point of view, in directness, in lucidity, in that high, imperious verbal economy which only nature can teach the artist, she has no equal, and none worthy to take the place of second."

The poems of Sappho so mysteriously lost to us seem to have consisted of at least nine books of odes, together with epithalamia, epigrams, elegies, and monodies. Of the several theories which have been advanced to account for their disappearance, the most plausible seems to be that which represents them as having been burned at Byzantium in the year 380 Anno Domini, by command of Gregory Nazianzen, in order that his own poems might be studied in their stead and the morals of the people thereby improved. Of the efficacy of this act no means of judging has come down to us.

In recent years there has arisen a great body of literature upon the subject of Sappho, most of it the abstruse work of scholars writing for scholars. But the gist of it all, together with the minutest surviving fragment of her verse, has been made available to the general reader in English by Mr. Henry T. Wharton, in whose altogether admirable little volume we find all that is known and the most apposite of all that has been said up to the present day about

"Love's priestess, mad with pain and joy of song,
Song's priestess, mad with joy and pain of love."

Perhaps the most perilous and the most alluring venture in the whole field of poetry is that which Mr. Carman has undertaken in attempting to give us in English verse those lost poems of Sappho of which fragments have survived.

The task is obviously not one of translation or of paraphrasing, but of imaginative and, at the same time, interpretive construction. It is as if a sculptor of to-day were to set himself, with reverence, and trained craftsmanship, and studious familiarity with the spirit, technique, and atmosphere of his subject, to restore some statues of Polyclitus or Praxiteles of which he had but a broken arm, a foot, a knee, a finger upon which to build.

Mr. Carman's method, apparently, has been to imagine each lost lyric as discovered, and then to translate it; for the indefinable flavour of the translation is maintained throughout, though accompanied by the fluidity and freedom of purely original work.


Now to please my little friend
I must make these notes of spring,
With the soft south-west wind in them
And the marsh notes of the frogs.

I must take a gold-bound pipe,
And outmatch the bubbling call
From the beechwoods in the sunlight,
From the meadows in the rain.



Cyprus, Paphos, or Panormus May detain thee with their splendour Of oblations on thine altars, O imperial Aphrodite.
Yet do thou regard, with pity For a nameless child of passion, This small unfrequented valley By the sea, O sea-born mother.
What shall we do, Cytherea? Lovely Adonis is dying. Ah, but we mourn him!
Will he return when the Autumn Purples the earth, and the sunlight Sleeps in the vineyard?
Will he return when the Winter Huddles the sheep, and Orion Goes to his hunting?
Ah, but thy beauty, Adonis, With the soft spring and the south wind, Love and desire!
Power and beauty and knowledge,-- Pan, Aphrodite, or Hermes,-- Whom shall we life-loving mortals Serve and be happy?
Lo now, your garlanded altars, Are they not goodly with flowers? Have ye not honour and pleasure In lovely Lesbos?
Will ye not, therefore, a little Hearten, impel, and inspire One who adores, with a favour Threefold in wonder?
O Pan of the evergreen forest, Protector of herds in the meadows, Helper of men at their toiling,-- Tillage and harvest and herding,-- How many times to frail mortals Hast thou not hearkened!
Now even I come before thee With oil and honey and wheat-bread, Praying for strength and fulfilment Of human longing, with purpose Ever to keep thy great worship Pure and undarkened.
* * * * *
O Hermes, master of knowledge, Measure and number and rhythm, Worker of wonders in metal, Moulder of malleable music, So often the giver of secret Learning to mortals!
Now even I, a fond woman, Frail and of small understanding, Yet with unslakable yearning Greatly desiring wisdom, Come to the threshold of reason And the bright portals.
* * * * *
And thou, sea-born Aphrodite, In whose beneficent keeping Earth, with her infinite beauty, Colour and fashion and fragrance, Glows like a flower with fervour Where woods are vernal!
Touch with thy lips and enkindle This moon-white delicate body, Drench with the dew of enchantment This mortal one, that I also Grow to the measure of beauty Fleet yet eternal.
O Aphrodite, God-born and deathless, Break not my spirit With bitter anguish: Thou wilful empress, I pray thee, hither!
As once aforetime Well thou didst hearken To my voice far off,-- Listen, and leaving Thy father's golden House in yoked chariot,
Come, thy fleet sparrows Beating the mid-air Over the dark earth. Suddenly near me, Smiling, immortal, Thy bright regard asked
What had befallen,-- Why I had called thee,-- What my mad heart then Most was desiring. "What fair thing wouldst thou Lure now to love thee?
"Who wrongs thee, Sappho? If now she flies thee, Soon shall she follow;-- Scorning thy gifts now, Soon be the giver;-- And a loth loved one
"Soon be the lover." So even now, too, Come and release me From mordant love pain, And all my heart's will Help me accomplish!
Peer of the gods he seems, Who in thy presence Sits and hears close to him Thy silver speech-tones And lovely laughter.
Ah, but the heart flutters Under my bosom, When I behold thee Even a moment; Utterance leaves me;
My tongue is useless; A subtle fire Runs through my body; My eyes are sightless, And my ears ringing;
I flush with fever, And a strong trembling Lays hold upon me; Paler than grass am I, Half dead for madness.
Yet must I, greatly Daring, adore thee, As the adventurous Sailor makes seaward For the lost sky-line
And undiscovered Fabulous islands, Drawn by the lure of Beauty and summer And the sea's secret.
The Cyprian came to thy cradle, When thou wast little and small, And said to the nurse who rocked thee "Fear not thou for the child:
"She shall be kindly favoured, And fair and fashioned well, As befits the Lesbian maidens And those who are fated to love."
Hermes came to thy cradle, Resourceful, sagacious, serene, And said, "The girl must have knowledge, To lend her freedom and poise.
Naught will avail her beauty, If she have not wit beside. She shall be Hermes' daughter, Passing wise in her day."
Great Pan came to thy cradle, With calm of the deepest hills, And smiled, "They have forgotten The veriest power of life.
"To kindle her shapely beauty, And illumine her mind withal, I give to the little person The glowing and craving soul."
Aphrodite of the foam, Who hast given all good gifts, And made Sappho at thy will Love so greatly and so much,
Ah, how comes it my frail heart Is so fond of all things fair, I can never choose between Gorgo and Andromeda?
Nay, but always and forever Like the bending yellow grain, Or quick water in a channel, Is the heart of man.
Comes the unseen breath in power Like a great wind from the sea, And we bow before his coming, Though we know not why.
Let there be garlands, Dica, Around thy lovely hair. And supple sprays of blossom Twined by thy soft hands.
Whoso is crowned with flowers Has favour with the gods, Who have no kindly eyes For the ungarlanded.
When the Cretan maidens Dancing up the full moon Round some fair new altar, Trample the soft blossoms of fine grass,
There is mirth among them. Aphrodite's children Ask her benediction On their bridals in the summer night.
In a dream I spoke with the Cyprus-born, And said to her, "Mother of beauty, mother of joy, Why hast thou given to men
"This thing called love, like the ache of a wound In beauty's, side, To burn and throb and be quelled for an hour And never wholly depart?"
And the daughter of Cyprus said to me, "Child of the earth, Behold, all things are born and attain, But only as they desire,---
"The sun that is strong, the gods that are wise, The loving heart, Deeds and knowledge and beauty and joy,-- But before all else was desire."
Sleep thou in the bosom Of the tender comrade, While the living water Whispers in the well-run, And the oleanders Glimmer in the moonlight.
Soon, ah, soon the shy birds Will be at their fluting, And the morning planet Rise above the garden; For there is a measure Set to all things mortal.
Hesperus, bringing together All that the morning star scattered,--
Sheep to be folded in twilight, Children for mothers to fondle,--
Me too will bring to the dearest, Tenderest breast in all Lesbos.
In the grey olive-grove a small brown bird Had built her nest and waited for the spring. But who could tell the happy thought that came To lodge beneath my scarlet tunic's fold?
All day long now is the green earth renewed With the bright sea-wind and the yellow blossoms. From the cool shade I hear the silver plash Of the blown fountain at the garden's end.
In the apple boughs the coolness Murmurs, and the grey leaves flicker Where sleep wanders.
In this garden all the hot noon I await thy fluttering footfall Through the twilight.
Pale rose leaves have fallen In the fountain water; And soft reedy flute-notes Pierce the sultry quiet.
But I wait and listen, Till the trodden gravel Tells me, all impatience, It is Phaon's footstep.
The courtyard of her house is wide And cool and still when day departs. Only the rustle of leaves is there And running water.
And then her mouth, more delicate Than the frail wood-anemone, Brushes my cheek, and deeper grow The purple shadows.
There is a medlar-tree Growing in front of my lover's house, And there all day The wind makes a pleasant sound.
And when the evening comes, We sit there together in the dusk, And watch the stars Appear in the quiet blue.
I behold Arcturus going westward Down the crowded slope of night-dark azure, While the Scorpion with red Antares Trails along the sea-line to the southward.
From the ilex grove there comes soft laughter,-- My companions at their glad love-making,-- While that curly-headed boy from Naxos With his jade flute marks the purple quiet.
Softly the first step of twilight Falls on the darkening dial, One by one kindle the lights In Mitylene.
Noises are hushed in the courtyard, The busy day is departing, Children are called from their games,-- Herds from their grazing.
And from the deep-shadowed angles Comes the soft murmur of lovers, Then through the quiet of dusk Bright sudden laughter.
From the hushed street, through the portal, Where soon my lover will enter, Comes the pure strain of a flute Tender with passion.
Once you lay upon my bosom, While the long blue-silver moonlight Walked the plain, with that pure passion All your own.
Now the moon is gone, the Pleiads Gone, the dead of night is going; Slips the hour, and on my bed I lie alone.
I loved thee, Atthis, in the long ago, When the great oleanders were in flower In the broad herded meadows full of sun. And we would often at the fall of dusk Wander together by the silver stream, When the soft grass-heads were all wet with dew, And purple-misted in the fading light. And joy I knew and sorrow at thy voice, And the superb magnificence of love,-- The loneliness that saddens solitude, And the sweet speech that makes it durable,-- The bitter longing and the keen desire, The sweet companionship through quiet days In the slow ample beauty of the world, And the unutterable glad release Within the temple of the holy night. O Atthis, how I loved thee long ago In that fair perished summer by the sea!
I shall be ever maiden, If thou be not my lover, And no man shall possess me Henceforth and forever.
But thou alone shalt gather This fragile flower of beauty,-- To crush and keep the fragrance Like a holy incense.
Thou only shalt remember This love of mine, or hallow The coming years with gladness, Calm and pride and passion.
It was summer when I found you In the meadow long ago,-- And the golden vetch was growing By the shore.
Did we falter when love took us With a gust of great desire? Does the barley bid the wind wait In his course?
I recall thy white gown, cinctured With a linen belt, whereon Violets were wrought, and scented With strange perfumes out of Egypt.
And I know thy foot was covered With fair Lydian broidered straps; And the petals from a rose-tree Fell within the marble basin.
Lover, art thou of a surety Not a learner of the wood-god? Has the madness of his music Never touched thee?
Ah, thou dear and godlike mortal, If Pan takes thee for his pupil, Make me but another Syrinx For that piping.
With your head thrown backward In my arm's safe hollow, And your face all rosy With the mounting fervour;
While the grave eyes greaten With the wise new wonder, Swimming in a love-mist Like the haze of Autumn;
From that throat, the throbbing Nightingale's for pleading, Wayward, soft, and welling Inarticulate love-notes,
Come the words that bubble Up through broken laughter, Sweeter than spring-water, "Gods, I am so happy!"
Ah, what am I but a torrent, Headstrong, impetuous, broken, Like the spent clamour of waters In the blue canyon?
Ah, what art thou but a fern-frond, Wet with blown spray from the river, Diffident, lovely, sequestered, Frail on the rock-ledge?
Yet, are we not for one brief day, While the sun sleeps on the mountain, Wild-hearted lover and loved one, Safe in Pan's keeping?
Love shakes my soul, like a mountain wind Falling upon the trees, When they are swayed and whitened and bowed As the great gusts will.
I know why Daphne sped through the grove When the bright god came by, And shut herself in the laurel's heart For her silent doom.
Love fills my heart, like my lover's breath Filling the hollow flute, Till the magic wood awakes and cries With remembrance and joy.
Ah, timid Syrinx, do I not know Thy tremor of sweet fear? For a beautiful and imperious player 15 Is the lord of life.
Love, let the wind cry On the dark mountain, Bending the ash-trees And the tall hemlocks, With the great voice of 5 Thunderous legions, How I adore thee.
Let the hoarse torrent In the blue canyon, Murmuring mightily Out of the grey mist Of primal chaos, Cease not proclaiming How I adore thee.
Let the long rhythm 15 Of crunching rollers, Breaking and bellowing On the white seaboard, Titan and tireless, Tell, while the world stands, 20 How I adore thee.
Love, let the clear call Of the tree-cricket, Frailest of creatures, Green as the young grass, 25 Mark with his trilling Resonant bell-note, How I adore thee.
Let the glad lark-song Over the meadow, 30 That melting lyric Of molten silver, Be for a signal To listening mortals, How I adore thee. 35
But more than all sounds, Surer, serener, Fuller with passion And exultation, Let the hushed whisper 40 In thine own heart say, How I adore thee.
Heart of mine, if all the altars Of the ages stood before me, Not one pure enough nor sacred Could I find to lay this white, white Rose of love upon. 5
I who am not great enough to Love thee with this mortal body So impassionate with ardour, But oh, not too small to worship While the sun shall shine,--
I would build a fragrant temple To thee, in the dark green forest, Of red cedar and fine sandal, And there love thee with sweet service All my whole life long. 15
I would freshen it with flowers, And the piney hill-wind through it Should be sweetened with soft fervours Of small prayers in gentle language Thou wouldst smile to hear. 20
And a tinkling Eastern wind-bell, With its fluttering inscription, From the rafters with bronze music Should retard the quiet fleeting Of uncounted hours. 25
And my hero, while so human, Should be even as the gods are, In that shrine of utter gladness, With the tranquil stars above it And the sea below. 30
Never yet, love, in earth's lifetime, Hath any cunningest minstrel Told the one seventh of wisdom, Ravishment, ecstasy, transport, Hid in the hue of the hyacinth's 5 Purple in springtime.
Not in the lyre of Orpheus, Not in the songs of Musaeus, Lurked the unfathomed bewitchment Wrought by the wind in the grasses, Held by the rote of the sea-surf, In early summer.
Only to exquisite lovers, Fashioned for beauty's fulfilment, Mated as rhythm to reed-stop 15 Whence the wild music is moulded, Ever appears the full measure Of the world's wonder.
"Who was Atthis?" men shall ask, When the world is old, and time Has accomplished without haste The strange destiny of men.
Haply in that far-off age 5 One shall find these silver songs, With their human freight, and guess What a lover Sappho was.
When the great pink mallow Blossoms in the marshland, Full of lazy summer And soft hours,
Then I hear the summons 5 Not a mortal lover Ever yet resisted, Strange and far.
In the faint blue foothills, Making magic music, Pan is at his love-work On the reeds.
I can guess the heart-stop, Fall and lull and sequence, Full of grief for Syrinx 15 Long ago.
Then the crowding madness, Wild and keen and tender, Trembles with the burden Of great joy. 20
Nay, but well I follow, All unskilled, that fluting. Never yet was reed-nymph Like to thee.
When I pass thy door at night I a benediction breathe: "Ye who have the sleeping world In your care,
"Guard the linen sweet and cool, 5 Where a lovely golden head With its dreams of mortal bliss Slumbers now!"
Well I found you in the twilit garden, Laid a lover's hand upon your shoulder, And we both were made aware of loving Past the reach of reason to unravel, Or the much desiring heart to follow. 5
There we heard the breath among the grasses And the gurgle of soft-running water, Well contented with the spacious starlight, The cool wind's touch and the deep blue distance, Till the dawn came in with golden sandals.
Will not men remember us In the days to come hereafter,-- Thy warm-coloured loving beauty And my love for thee?
Thou, the hyacinth that grows 5 By a quiet-running river; I, the watery reflection And the broken gleam.
I grow weary of the foreign cities, The sea travel and the stranger peoples. Even the clear voice of hardy fortune Dares me not as once on brave adventure.
For the heart of man must seek and wander, 5 Ask and question and discover knowledge; Yet above all goodly things is wisdom, And love greater than all understanding.
So, a mariner, I long for land-fall,-- When a darker purple on the sea-rim, O'er the prow uplifted, shall be Lesbos And the gleaming towers of Mitylene.
Ah, what detains thee, Phaon, So long from Mitylene, Where now thy restless lover Wearies for thy coming?
A fever burns me, Phaon; 5 My knees quake on the threshold, And all my strength is loosened, Slack with disappointment.
But thou wilt come, my Phaon, Back from the sea like morning, To quench in golden gladness The ache of parted lovers.
Phaon, O my lover, What should so detain thee,
Now the wind comes walking Through the leafy twilight?
All the plum-leaves quiver 5 With the coolth and darkness,
After their long patience In consuming ardour.
And the moving grasses Have relief; the dew-drench
Comes to quell the parching Ache of noon they suffered.
I alone of all things Fret with unsluiced fire.
And there is no quenching 15 In the night for Sappho,
Since her lover Phaon Leaves her unrequited.
O heart of insatiable longing, What spell, what enchantment allures thee Over the rim of the world With the sails of the sea-going ships?
And when the rose-petals are scattered 5 At dead of still noon on the grass-plot, What means this passionate grief,-- This infinite ache of regret?
Surely somehow, in some measure, There will be joy and fulfilment,-- Cease from this throb of desire,-- Even for Sappho!
Surely some fortunate hour 5 Phaon will come, and his beauty Be spent like water to plenish Need of that beauty!
Where is the breath of Poseidon, Cool from the sea-floor with evening? Why are Selene's white horses So long arriving?
O but my delicate lover, Is she not fair as the moonlight? Is she not supple and strong For hurried passion?
Has not the god of the green world, 5 In his large tolerant wisdom, Filled with the ardours of earth Her twenty summers?
Well did he make her for loving; Well did he mould her for beauty; Gave her the wish that is brave With understanding.
"O Pan, avert from this maiden Sorrow, misfortune, bereavement, Harm, and unhappy regret," 15 Prays one fond mortal.
Softer than the hill-fog to the forest Are the loving hands of my dear lover, When she sleeps beside me in the starlight And her beauty drenches me with rest.
As the quiet mist enfolds the beech-trees, Even as she dreams her arms enfold me, Half awaking with a hundred kisses On the scarlet lily of her mouth.
I seek and desire, Even as the wind That travels the plain And stirs in the bloom Of the apple-tree.
I wander through life, With the searching mind That is never at rest, Till I reach the shade Of my lover's door.
Like torn sea-kelp in the drift Of the great tides of the sea, Carried past the harbour-mouth To the deep beyond return,
I am buoyed and borne away On the loveliness of earth, Little caring, save for thee, Past the portals of the night.
Fine woven purple linen I bring thee from Phocaea, That, beauty upon beauty, A precious gift may cover The lap where I have lain.
And a gold comb, and girdle, And trinkets of white silver, And gems are in my sea-chest, Lest poor and empty-handed Thy lover should return.
And I have brought from Tyre A Pan-flute stained vermilion, Wherein the gods have hidden Love and desire and longing, Which I shall loose for thee.
XLIX When I am home from travel, My eager foot will stay not Until I reach the threshold Where I went forth from thee.
And there, as darkness gathers In the rose-scented garden, The god who prospers music Shall give me skill to play.
And thou shalt hear, all startled, A flute blown in the twilight, With the soft pleading magic The green wood heard of old.
Then, lamp in hand, thy beauty In the rose-marble entry! And unreluctant Hermes Shall give me words to say.
When I behold the pharos shine And lay a path along the sea, How gladly I shall feel the spray, Standing upon the swinging prow;
And question of my pilot old, How many watery leagues to sail Ere we shall round the harbour reef And anchor off the wharves of home!
Is the day long, O Lesbian maiden, And the night endless In thy lone chamber In Mitylene?
All the bright day, Until welcome evening When the stars kindle Over the harbour, What tasks employ thee?
Passing the fountain At golden sundown, One of the home-going Traffickers, hast thou Thought of thy lover?
Nay, but how far Too brief will the night be, When I returning To the dear portal Hear my own heart beat!
Lo, on the distance a dark blue ravine, A fold in the mountainous forests of fir, Cleft from the sky-line sheer down to the shore!
Above are the clouds and the white, pealing gulls, At its foot is the rough broken foam of the sea, With ever anon the long deep muffled roar,-- A sigh from the fitful great heart of the world.
Then inland just where the small meadow begins, Well bulwarked with boulders that jut in the tide, Lies safe beyond storm-beat the harbour in sun.
See where the black fishing-boats, each at its buoy, Ride up on the swell with their dare-danger prows, To sight o'er the sea-rim what venture may come!
And look, where the narrow white streets of the town Leap up from the blue water's edge to the wood, Scant room for man's range between mountain and sea, And the market where woodsmen from over the hill May traffic, and sailors from far foreign ports With treasure brought in from the ends of the earth.
And see the third house on the left, with that gleam Of red burnished copper--the hinge of the door Whereat I shall enter, expected so oft (Let love be your sea-star!), to voyage no more.
Art thou the top-most apple The gatherers could not reach, Reddening on the bough? Shall not I take thee?
Art thou a hyacinth blossom The shepherds upon the hills Have trodden into the ground? Shall not I lift thee?
Free is the young god Eros, Paying no tribute to power, Seeing no evil in beauty, Full of compassion.
Once having found the beloved, However sorry or woeful, However scornful of loving, Little it matters.
How soon will all my lovely days be over, And I no more be found beneath the sun,-- Neither beside the many-murmuring sea, Nor where the plain-winds whisper to the reeds, Nor in the tall beech-woods among the hills Where roam the bright-lipped Oreads, nor along The pasture-sides where berry-pickers stray And harmless shepherds pipe their sheep to fold!
For I am eager, and the flame of life Burns quickly in the fragile lamp of clay. Passion and love and longing and hot tears Consume this mortal Sappho, and too soon A great wind from the dark will blow upon me, And I be no more found in the fair world, For all the search of the revolving moon And patient shine of everlasting stars.
Soul of sorrow, why this weeping? What immortal grief hath touched thee With the poignancy of sadness,-- Testament of tears?
Have the high gods deigned to show thee Destiny, and disillusion Fills thy heart at all things human, Fleeting and desired?
Nay, the gods themselves are fettered By one law which links together Truth and nobleness and beauty, Man and stars and sea.
And they only shall find freedom Who with courage rise and follow Where love leads beyond all peril, 6 Wise beyond all words.
It never can be mine To sit in the door in the sun And watch the world go by, A pageant and a dream;
For I was born for love, 6 And fashioned for desire, Beauty, passion, and joy, And sorrow and unrest;
And with all things of earth Eternally must go, Daring the perilous bourn Of joyance and of death,
A strain of song by night, A shadow on the hill, A hint of odorous grass, A murmur of the sea.
Others shall behold the sun Through the long uncounted years,-- Not a maid in after time Wise as thou!
For the gods have given thee Their best gift, an equal mind That can only love, be glad, And fear not.
Let thy strong spirit never fear, Nor in thy virgin soul be thou afraid. The gods themselves and the almightier fates Cannot avail to harm
With outward and misfortunate chance The radiant unshaken mind of him Who at his being's centre will abide, Secure from doubt and fear.
His wise and patient heart shall share The strong sweet loveliness of all things made, And the serenity of inward joy Beyond the storm of tears.
Will none say of Sappho, Speaking of her lovers, And the love they gave her,-- Joy and days and beauty, Flute-playing and roses, Song and wine and laughter,--
Will none, musing, murmur, "Yet, for all the roses, All the flutes and lovers, Doubt not she was lonely As the sea, whose cadence Haunts the world for ever."
When I have departed, Say but this behind me, "Love was all her wisdom, All her care.
"Well she kept love's secret,-- Dared and never faltered,-- Laughed and never doubted Love would win.
"Let the world's rough triumph Trample by above her, She is safe forever From all harm.
"In a land that knows not Bitterness nor sorrow, She has found out all Of truth at last."
There is no more to say now thou art still, There is no more to do now thou art dead, There is no more to know now thy clear mind Is back returned unto the gods who gave it.
Now thou art gone the use of life is past, The meaning and the glory and the pride, There is no joyous friend to share the day, And on the threshold no awaited shadow.
Play up, play up thy silver flute; The crickets all are brave; Glad is the red autumnal earth And the blue sea.
Play up thy flawless silver flute; Dead ripe are fruit and grain. When love puts on his scarlet coat, Put off thy care.
A beautiful child is mine, Formed like a golden flower, Cleis the loved one. And above her I value Not all the Lydian land, Nor lovely Hellas.
Ah, but now henceforth Only one meaning Has life for me.
Only one purport, Measure and beauty, Has the bright world.
What mean the wood-winds, Colour and morning, Bird, stream, and hill?
And the brave city With its enchantment? Thee, only thee!
Softly the wind moves through the radiant morning, And the warm sunlight sinks into the valley, Filling the green earth with a quiet joyance, Strength, and fulfilment.
Even so, gentle, strong and wise and happy, Through the soul and substance of my being, Comes the breath of thy great love to me-ward, O thou dear mortal.
What the west wind whispers At the end of summer, When the barley harvest Ripens to the sickle, Who can tell?
What means the fine music Of the dry cicada, Through the long noon hours Of the autumn stillness, Who can say?
How the grape ungathered With its bloom of blueness Greatens on the trellis Of the brick-walled garden, Who can know?
Yet I, too, am greatened, Keep the note of gladness, Travel by the wind's road, Through this autumn leisure,-- By thy love.
Indoors the fire is kindled; Beechwood is piled on the hearthstone; Cold are the chattering oak-leaves; And the ponds frost-bitten.
Softer than rainfall at twilight, Bringing the fields benediction And the hills quiet and greyness, Are my long thoughts of thee.
How should thy friend fear the seasons? They only perish of winter Whom Love, audacious and tender, Never hath visited.
You ask how love can keep the mortal soul Strong to the pitch of joy throughout the years.
Ask how your brave cicada on the bough Keeps the long sweet insistence of his cry;
Ask how the Pleiads steer across the night In their serene unswerving mighty course;
Ask how the wood-flowers waken to the sun, Unsummoned save by some mysterious word;
Ask how the wandering swallows find your eaves Upon the rain-wind with returning spring;
Ask who commands the ever-punctual tide To keep the pendulous rhythm of the sea;
And you shall know what leads the heart of man To the far haven of his hopes and fears.
Like a tall forest were their spears, Their banners like a silken sea, When the great host in splendour passed Across the crimson sinking sun.
And then the bray of brazen horns Arose above their clanking march, As the long waving column filed Into the odorous purple dusk.
O lover, in this radiant world Whence is the race of mortal men, So frail, so mighty, and so fond, That fleets into the vast unknown?
My lover smiled, "O friend, ask not The journey's end, nor whence we are. That whistling boy who minds his goats So idly in the grey ravine,
"The brown-backed rower drenched with spray, The lemon-seller in the street, And the young girl who keeps her first Wild love-tryst at the rising moon,--
"Lo, these are wiser than the wise. And not for all our questioning Shall we discover more than joy, Nor find a better thing than love!
"Let pass the banners and the spears, The hate, the battle, and the greed; For greater than all gifts is peace, And strength is in the tranquil mind."
Ye who have the stable world In the keeping of your hands. Flocks and men, the lasting hills, And the ever-wheeling stars;
Ye who freight with wondrous things The wide-wandering heart of man And the galleon of the moon, On those silent seas of foam;
Oh, if ever ye shall grant Time and place and room enough To this fond and fragile heart Stifled with the throb of love,
On that day one grave-eyed Fate, Pausing in her toil, shall say, "Lo, one mortal has achieved Immortality of love!"
I heard the gods reply: "Trust not the future with its perilous chance; The fortunate hour is on the dial now.
"To-day be wise and great, And put off hesitation and go forth With cheerful courage for the diurnal need.
"Stout be the heart, nor slow The foot to follow the impetuous will, Nor the hand slack upon the loom of deeds.
"Then may the Fates look up And smile a little in their tolerant way, Being full of infinite regard for men."
The sun on the tide, the peach on the bough, The blue smoke over the hill, And the shadows trailing the valley-side, Make up the autumn day.
Ah, no, not half! Thou art not here Under the bronze beech-leaves, And thy lover's soul like a lonely child Roams through an empty room.
If death be good, Why do the gods not die? If life be ill, Why do the gods still live?
If love be naught, Why do the gods still love? If love be all, What should men do but love?
Tell me what this life means, O my prince and lover, With the autumn sunlight On thy bronze-gold head?
With thy clear voice sounding Through the silver twilight,-- What is the lost secret Of the tacit earth?
Ye have heard how Marsyas, In the folly of his pride, Boasted of a matchless skill,-- When the great god's back was turned;
How his fond imagining Fell to ashes cold and grey, When the flawless player came In serenity and light.
So it was with those I loved In the years ere I loved thee. Many a saying sounds like truth, Until Truth itself is heard.
Many a beauty only lives Until Beauty passes by, And the mortal is forgot In the shadow of the god.
Hour by hour I sit, Watching the silent door. Shadows go by on the wall, And steps in the street.
Expectation and doubt Flutter my timorous heart. So many hurrying home-- And thou still away.
Once in the shining street, In the heart of a seaboard town, As I waited, behold, there came The woman I loved.
As when, in the early spring, A daffodil blooms in the grass, Golden and gracious and glad, The solitude smiled.
How strange is love, O my lover! With what enchantment and power Does it not come upon mortals, Learned or heedless!
How far away and unreal, Faint as blue isles in a sunset Haze-golden, all else of life seems, Since I have known thee!
How to say I love you: What, if I but live it, Were the use in that, love? Small, indeed.
Only, every moment Of this waking lifetime Let me be your lover And your friend!
Ah, but then, as sure as Blossom breaks from bud-sheath, When along the hillside Spring returns,
Golden speech should flower From the soul so cherished, And the mouth your kisses Filled with fire.
Hark, love, to the tambourines Of the minstrels in the street, And one voice that throbs and soars Clear above the clashing time!
Some Egyptian royal love-lilt, Some Sidonian refrain, Vows of Paphos or of Tyre, Mount against the silver sun.
Pleading, piercing, yet serene, Vagrant in a foreign town, From what passion was it born, In what lost land over sea?
Over the roofs the honey-coloured moon, With purple shadows on the silver grass,
And the warm south-wind on the curving sea, While we two, lovers past all turmoil now,
Watch from the window the white sails come in, Bearing what unknown ventures safe to port!
So falls the hour of twilight and of love With wizardry to loose the hearts of men,
And there is nothing more in this great world Than thou and I, and the blue dome of dusk.
In the quiet garden world, Gold sunlight and shadow leaves Flicker on the wall.
And the wind, a moment since, With rose-petals strewed the path And the open door.
Now the moon-white butterflies Float across the liquid air, Glad as in a dream;
And, across thy lover's heart, Visions of one scarlet mouth With its maddening smile.
Soft was the wind in the beech-trees; Low was the surf on the shore; In the blue dusk one planet Like a great sea-pharos shone.
But nothing to me were the sea-sounds, The wind and the yellow star, When over my breast the banner Of your golden hair was spread.
Have you heard the news of Sappho's garden, And the Golden Rose of Mitylene, Which the bending brown-armed rowers lately Brought from over sea, from lonely Pontus?
In a meadow by the river Halys, Where some wood-god hath the world in keeping, On a burning summer noon they found her, Lovely as a Dryad, and more tender.
Her these eyes have seen, and not another Shall behold, till time takes all things goodly, So surpassing fair and fond and wondrous,-- Such a slave as, worth a great king's ransom,
No man yet of all the sons of mortals But would lose his soul for and regret not; So hath Beauty compassed all her children With the cords of longing and desire.
Only Hermes, master of word music, Ever yet in glory of gold language Could ensphere the magical remembrance Of her melting, half sad, wayward beauty,
Or devise the silver phrase to frame her, The inevitable name to call her, Half a sigh and half a kiss when whispered, Like pure air that feeds a forge's hunger.
Not a painter in the Isles of Hellas Could portray her, mix the golden tawny With bright stain of poppies, or ensanguine Like the life her darling mouth's vermilion,
So that, in the ages long hereafter, When we shall be dust of perished summers, Any man could say who found that likeness, Smiling gently on it, "This was Gorgo!"
Love is so strong a thing, The very gods must yield, When it is welded fast With the unflinching truth.
Love is so frail a thing, A word, a look, will kill. Oh lovers, have a care How ye do deal with love.
Hadst thou, with all thy loveliness, been true, Had I, with all my tenderness, been strong, We had not made this ruin out of life, This desolation in a world of joy, My poor Gorgo.
Yet even the high gods at times do err; Be therefore thou not overcome with woe, But dedicate anew to greater love An equal heart, and be thy radiant self Once more, Gorgo.
As, on a morn, a traveller might emerge From the deep green seclusion of the hills, By a cool road through forest and through fern, Little frequented, winding, followed long With joyous expectation and day-dreams, And on a sudden, turning a great rock Covered with frondage, dark with dripping water, Behold the seaboard full of surf and sound, With all the space and glory of the world Above the burnished silver of the sea,--
Even so it was upon that first spring day When time, that is a devious path for men, Led me all lonely to thy door at last; And all thy splendid beauty, gracious and glad, (Glad as bright colour, free as wind or air, And lovelier than racing seas of foam) Bore sense and soul and mind at once away To a pure region where the gods might dwell, Making of me, a vagrant child before, A servant of joy at Aphrodite's will.
Where shall I look for thee, Where find thee now, O my lost Atthis?
Storm bars the harbour, And snow keeps the pass In the blue mountains.
Bitter the wind whistles, Pale is the sun, And the days shorten.
Close to the hearthstone, With long thoughts of thee, Thy lonely lover
Sits now, remembering All the spent hours And thy fair beauty.
Ah, when the hyacinth Wakens with spring, And buds the laurel,
Doubt not, some morning When all earth revives, Hearing Pan's flute-call
Over the river-beds, Over the hills, Sounding the summons,
I shall look up and behold In the door, Smiling, expectant,
Loving as ever And glad as of old, My own lost Atthis!
A sad, sad face, and saddest eyes that ever Beheld the sun, Whence came the grief that makes of all thy beauty One sad sweet smile?
In this bright portrait, where the painter fixed them, I still behold The eyes that gladdened, and the lips that loved me, And, gold on rose,
The cloud of hair that settles on one shoulder Slipped from its vest. I almost hear thy Mitylenean love-song In the spring night,
When the still air was odorous with blossoms, And in the hour Thy first wild girl's-love trembled into being, Glad, glad and fond.
Ah, where is all that wonder? What god's malice Undid that joy And set the seal of patient woe upon thee, O my lost love?
Why have the gods in derision Severed us, heart of my being? Where have they lured thee to wander, O my lost lover?
While now I sojourn with sorrow, Having remorse for my comrade, What town is blessed with thy beauty, Gladdened and prospered?
Nay, who could love as I loved thee, With whom thy beauty was mingled In those spring days when the swallows Came with the south wind?
Then I became as that shepherd Loved by Selene on Latmus, Once when her own summer magic Took hold upon her
With a sweet madness, and thenceforth Her mortal lover must wander Over the wide world for ever, Like one enchanted.
Like a red lily in the meadow grasses, Swayed by the wind and burning in the sunlight, I saw you, where the city chokes with traffic, Bearing among the passers-by your beauty, Unsullied, wild, and delicate as a flower. And then I knew, past doubt or peradventure, Our loved and mighty Eleusinian mother Had taken thought of me for her pure worship, And of her favour had assigned my comrade For the Great Mysteries,--knew I should find you When the dusk murmured with its new-made lovers, And we be no more foolish but wise children, And well content partake of joy together, As she ordains and human hearts desire.
When in the spring the swallows all return, And the bleak bitter sea grows mild once more, With all its thunders softened to a sigh;
When to the meadows the young green comes back, And swelling buds put forth on every bough, With wild-wood odours on the delicate air;
Ah, then, in that so lovely earth wilt thou With all thy beauty love me all one way, And make me all thy lover as before?
Lo, where the white-maned horses of the surge, Plunging in thunderous onset to the shore, Trample and break and charge along the sand!
Cold is the wind where Daphne sleeps, That was so tender and so warm With loving,--with a loveliness Than her own laurel lovelier.
Now pipes the bitter wind for her, And the snow sifts about her door, While far below her frosty hill The racing billows plunge and boom.
Hark, where Poseidon's White racing horses Trample with tumult The shelving seaboard!
Older than Saturn, Older than Rhea, That mournful music, Falling and surging
With the vast rhythm Ceaseless, eternal, Keeps the long tally Of all things mortal.
How many lovers Hath not its lulling Cradled to slumber With the ripe flowers,
Ere for our pleasure This golden summer Walked through the corn-lands In gracious splendour!
How many loved ones Will it not croon to, In the long spring-days Through coming ages,
When all our day-dreams Have been forgotten, And none remembers Even thy beauty!
They too shall slumber In quiet places, And mighty sea-sounds Call them unheeded.
Hark, my lover, it is spring! On the wind a faint far call Wakes a pang within my heart, Unmistakable and keen.
At the harbour mouth a sail Glimmers in the morning sun, And the ripples at her prow Whiten into crumbling foam,
As she forges outward bound For the teeming foreign ports. Through the open window now, Hear the sailors lift a song!
In the meadow ground the frogs With their deafening flutes begin,-- The old madness of the world In their golden throats again.
Little fifers of live bronze, Who hath taught you with wise lore To unloose the strains of joy, When Orion seeks the west?
And you feathered flute-players, Who instructed you to fill All the blossomy orchards now With melodious desire?
I doubt not our father Pan Hath a care of all these things. In some valley of the hills Far away and misty-blue,
By quick water he hath cut A new pipe, and set the wood To his smiling lips, and blown, That earth's rapture be restored.
And those wild Pandean stops Mark the cadence life must keep. O my lover, be thou glad; It is spring in Hellas now.
When the early soft spring wind comes blowing Over Rhodes and Samos and Miletus, From the seven mouths of Nile to Lesbos, Freighted with sea-odours and gold sunshine,
What news spreads among the island people In the market-place of Mitylene, Lending that unwonted stir of gladness To the busy streets and thronging doorways?
Is it word from Ninus or Arbela, Babylon the great, or Northern Imbros? Have the laden galleons been sighted Stoutly labouring up the sea from Tyre?
Nay, 'tis older news that foreign sailor With the cheek of sea-tan stops to prattle To the young fig-seller with her basket And the breasts that bud beneath her tunic,
And I hear it in the rustling tree-tops. All this passionate bright tender body Quivers like a leaf the wind has shaken, Now love wanders through the aisles of springtime.
I am more tremulous than shaken reeds, And love has made me like the river water.
Thy voice is as the hill-wind over me, And all my changing heart gives heed, my lover.
Before thy least lost murmur I must sigh, Or gladden with thee as the sun-path glitters.
Over the wheat-field, Over the hill-crest, Swoops and is gone The beat of a wild wing, Brushing the pine-tops, Bending the poppies, Hurrying Northward With golden summer.
What premonition, O purple swallow, Told thee the happy Hour of migration? Hark! On the threshold (Hush, flurried heart in me!), Was there a footfall? Did no one enter?
Soon will a shepherd In rugged Dacia, Folding his gentle Ewes in the twilight, Lifting a level Gaze from the sheepfold, Say to his fellows, "Lo, it is springtime."
This very hour In Mitylene, Will not a young girl Say to her lover, Lifting her moon-white Arms to enlace him, Ere the glad sigh comes, "Lo, it is lovetime!"
Once more the rain on the mountain, Once more the wind in the valley, With the soft odours of springtime And the long breath of remembrance, O Lityerses!
Warm is the sun in the city. On the street corners with laughter Traffic the flower-girls. Beauty Blossoms once more for thy pleasure In many places.
Gentlier now falls the twilight, With the slim moon in the pear-trees; And the green frogs in the meadows Blow on shrill pipes to awaken Thee, Lityerses.
Gladlier now crimson morning Flushes fair-built Mitylene,-- Portico, temple, and column,-- Where the young garlanded women Praise thee with singing.
Ah, but what burden of sorrow Tinges their slow stately chorus, Though spring revisits the glad earth? Wilt thou not wake to their summons, O Lityerses?
Shall they then never behold thee,-- Nevermore see thee returning Down the blue cleft of the mountains, Nor in the purple of evening Welcome thy coming?
Nevermore answer thy glowing Youth with their ardour, nor cherish With lovely longing thy spirit, Nor with soft laughter beguile thee, O Lityerses?
Heedless, assuaged, art thou sleeping Where the spring sun cannot find thee, Nor the wind waken, nor woodlands Bloom for thy innocent rapture Through golden hours?
Hast thou no passion nor pity For thy deserted companions? Never again will thy beauty Quell their desire nor rekindle, O Lityerses?
Nay, but in vain their clear voices Call thee. Thy sensitive beauty Is become part of the fleeting Loveliness, merged in the pathos Of all things mortal.
In the faint fragrance of flowers, On the sweet draft of the sea-wind, Linger strange hints now that loosen Tears for thy gay gentle spirit, O Lityerses!
Now the hundred songs are made, And the pause comes. Loving Heart, There must be an end to summer, And the flute be laid aside.
On a day the frost will come, Walking through the autumn world, Hushing all the brave endeavour Of the crickets in the grass.
On a day (Oh, far from now!) Earth will hear this voice no more; For it shall be with thy lover As with Linus long ago.
All the happy songs he wrought From remembrance soon must fade, As the wash of silver moonlight From a purple-dark ravine.
Frail as dew upon the grass Or the spindrift of the sea, Out of nothing they were fashioned And to nothing must return.
Nay, but something of thy love, Passion, tenderness, and joy, Some strange magic of thy beauty, Some sweet pathos of thy tears,
Must imperishably cling To the cadence of the words, Like a spell of lost enchantments Laid upon the hearts of men.
Wild and fleeting as the notes Blown upon a woodland pipe, They must haunt the earth with gladness And a tinge of old regret.
For the transport in their rhythm Was the throb of thy desire, And thy lyric moods shall quicken Souls of lovers yet unborn.
When the golden days arrive, With the swallow at the eaves, And the first sob of the south-wind Sighing at the latch with spring,
Long hereafter shall thy name Be recalled through foreign lands, And thou be a part of sorrow When the Linus songs are sung.
Bulfinch Index