Wednesday, December 02, 2020


Sappho and Dionysus

Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (1971; rpt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), pp. 124-125:
Again: a poem that used to be attributed to Sappho, and though now removed from her canon remains perhaps the best-known of Greek quatrains—
Δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληΐαδες, μέσαι δὲ
νύκτεσ, πάρα δ' ἔρχετ' ὦρα,
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.

The moon has set, and the Pleiades,
It is the middle of the night
Hour follows hour. I lie alone.
Guy Davenport, who made this translation, remarks that two lines of Robert Burns seem to answer the Greek as though from beneath the same moon but by another sea in another age:
The wan moon is setting behind the white wave,
                And Time is setting with me, oh.
And W.B. Yeats raised Burns' lines (slightly misquoted) to current fame in perceiving in them the supreme efficacy of the Symbolist aesthetic:
Take from them the whiteness of the moon and of the wave, whose relation to the setting of Time is too subtle for the intellect, and you take from them their beauty. But, when all are together, moon and wave and whiteness and setting Time and the last melancholy cry, they evoke an emotion which cannot be evoked by any other arrangement of colours and sounds and forms. We may call this metaphorical writing, but it is better to call it symbolic writing. . . .
Yeats might equally well have been explaining how men can respond as they do to 17 Greek words that appear to say such unrelated things: that the moon and the Pleiades have set, that time flows, that I lie in my bed alone. Mona: alone: we may recall its resemblance to the other Greek word for moon, the one not used in the poem, mēnē. Egō de mona kateudō: and my loneliness comports with that of the cold moon and the remote stars, now gone, borne on their great circles down under the horizon: a loneliness to fill the dark empty sky. So we read it, forgetting once again how much has dropped out. For what Greek forgot that the moon sleeps nightly with Endymion, or that the Pleiades visit the bed of Ocean? They go to their appointed partners, but I have no one; and "alone" means "unlike them."

The word "golden," the word "time," the word "alone": three words set free for chemical interaction: set free, however, from explicit structures we happen to be able to reconstitute, a folk idiom, a chronology, a habit of apprehending the heavens through myth. Restored to those structures, they act as schoolteachers assert words normally act, naming things, making comparisons, completing rational squares by means of paraphrasable sentences.
On doubts about Sappho's authorship of this fragment (168b Voigt), see Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Isyllos von Epidauros (Berlin: Weidmann, 1886), pp. 129-130, n. 7; Wilamowitz, Die Textgeschichte der griechischen Lyriker (Berlin: Weidmann, 1900), p. 33, n. 1; Wilamowitz, Sappho und Simonides (Berlin: Weidmann, 1913), p. 75, n. 1; Denys Page, Sappho and Alcaeus: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), pp. 128-129, n. 4.

I don't understand why Kenner prints the terminal sigma in the third line as σ, rather than ς.

Kenner's idea that μόνα is supposed to recall μήνη seems very far-fetched to me.

Thrice in The Pound Era (pp. 150, 250, 408) Kenner mentions Dionysius when he meant to say Dionysus. Dionysius doesn't appear in the index, but Dionysus does (p. 596, citing pages 361, 419, 432).


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