The HyperTexts

Reclaiming the Roses of Pieria

What are the Roses of Pieria, what do they represent, and what do they have to do with the current "state of the art" of poetry? The Roses of Pieria grew on Mount Olympus, the abode of the nine Muses of Greek poetry, literature and art, and they thus represent the highest flowering of art. The Roses of Pieria were mentioned in one form or another, such as "deathless flowers," or by association with the Pierian spring where they grew, by poets like Ovid, Sappho, Antipater of Sidon, Petronius, Alexander Pope and Ezra Pound.

Have contemporary poets lost their way? If so, how can they reclaim the Roses of Pieria? To arrive at possible answers, let’s go back to the source and begin with Sappho of Lesbos ...

by Michael R. Burch

Gleyre Le Coucher de Sappho by Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre

Sappho, fragment 55
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

soon you'll lie dead, disregarded,
as your worm-eaten corpse like your corpus degrades;
for those who never gathered Pieria's roses
must mutely accept how their memory fades
as they flit among the obscure, uncelebrated
Hadean shades.

This is my admittedly loose translation/interpretation of a Sappho fragment, but I believe it serves my purpose here. I have provided translations by other poets later on this page, in case your prefer theirs to mine.

This poem is, I believe, Sappho’s indictment of poets whose work does not achieve the height of real art (i.e., poets who lack “the Roses of Pieria”). In Greek mythology the Pierian Spring, which flowed from the northern foot of Mount Olympus, was sacred to the Muses. The nine Muses were daughters of Zeus, goddesses, and the inspiration of human arts and science. The Roses of Pieria grew beside the Pierian Spring. Thus someone who lacked the Roses of Pieria lacked real artistic inspiration.

This is another Sappho poem about roses. The rose was no ordinary flower to Sappho, and roses planted, watered and cultivated by nine goddesses would have been the most perfect of all.

Sappho's Rose
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

The rose is—
the ornament of the earth,
the glory of nature,
the archetype of the flowers,
the blush of the meadows,
a lightning flash of beauty.

Sappho knew she possessed the true Roses of Pieria:

Sappho, fragment 32
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

They have been very generous with me,
the violet-strewing Muses of Olympus;
thanks to their gifts
I have become famous.

Sappho may have described herself best, in her own words, as parthenon aduphonon, "the sweet-voiced girl." If this epigram was her composition, she was fully aware of how talented she was:

Sapphic inscription on a long-stemmed cup in an Athens museum

Mere air,
my words' fare,
but intoxicating to hear.
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

That epigram reminds me of William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet, who said of his poetry: "I made it out of a mouthful of air."

Her ancient peers agreed and were not shy about singing Sappho's praises. According to Plutarch, Sappho's art was like "sweet-voiced songs healing love." According to Edwin Marion Cox, a Sappho translator, the passage below was quoted by Stobaeus and Plutarch. Another early reference is found in the Satyricon of Petronius, circa the first century AD:

Come! Gird up thy soul! Inspiration will then force a vent
And rush in a flood from a heart that is loved by the Muse!
—Petronius, translation by W.C. Firebaugh

Antipater of Sidon mentioned "deathless flowers" in one of his tributes to Sappho:

Mnemosyne was stunned into astonishment when she heard honey-tongued Sappho,
wondering how mortal men merited a tenth Muse.
Antipater of Sidon, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

O ye who ever twine the three-fold thread,
Ye Fates, why number with the silent dead
That mighty songstress whose unrivalled powers
Weave for the Muse a crown of deathless flowers?
Antipater of Sidon, translation by Francis Hodgson

O Aeolian land, you lightly cover Sappho,
the mortal Muse who joined the Immortals,
whom Cypris and Eros fostered,
with whom Peitho wove undying wreaths,
who was the joy of Hellas and your glory.
O Fates who twine the spindle's triple thread,
why did you not spin undying life
for the singer whose deathless bouquets
enchanted the Muses of Helicon?
Antipater of Sidon, loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Plato apparently agreed with Antipater, as did other poets many centuries later:

Some thoughtlessly proclaim the Muses nine;
A tenth is Lesbian Sappho, maid divine.
Plato, translated by Lord Neaves

Had Sappho's self not left her word thus long
          For token,
The sea round Lesbos yet in waves of song
          Had spoken.
Charles Algernon Swinburne

When her ancient Greek peers nominated Sappho to be the Tenth Muse, they were apparently elevating her above all other poets up to their era. By Plato's time, the poets Sappho leapfrogged would have included Homer, Archilochus, Alcman, Alcaeus, Anacreon, Pindar, Simonides, Sophocles, Aesop, Euripides and Aristophanes. That's pretty heady company! But who was Sappho, and was she really that good?

Sappho was born around 630 B.C. on the island of Lesbos and lived there in the port city of Mytilene. It is believed that she came from a wealthy family and had three brothers, two of whom are named in her poems. It is also believed that she was married and had a daughter named Cleïs. Sappho was apparently exiled to Sicily around 600 B.C. and may have continued to live there until her death around 570 B.C. Not much else is known about her, other than what can be gleaned from her poems and from what other classical authors wrote about her. However, Sappho's poems are mostly fragments and much of what was written about her came long after her own day and may not be accurate. For instance, her father was given ten different names! We do know, however, that Sappho and her poetry were highly esteemed.

Sappho's specialty was lyric poetry, so-called because it was either recited or sung to the accompaniment of the lyre (a harp-like instrument). "She is a mortal marvel" wrote Antipater of Sidon, before proceeding to catalog the seven wonders of the world. Plato numbered her among the wise. Plutarch said the grace of her poems acted on audiences like an enchantment, so that when he read her poems he set aside his drinking cup in shame. Strabo called her "something wonderful," saying he knew of "no woman who in any, even the least degree, could be compared to her for poetry." Solon so loved one of her songs that he remarked, "I just want to learn it and die." Sappho was so highly regarded that her face graced six different ancient coins. But perhaps the greatest testimony to her talent and enduring fame is the long line of poets who have paid homage to her over the centuries.

Sappho is known especially for her "Sapphics"―love poems and songs―some of which are considered to be bisexual in nature, or lesbian (a term derived from the name of her island home, Lesbos). But was Sappho just another love poet, or was she the Love Poet? According to Margaret Reynolds: "Certainly Sappho seems to have been an original inventor of the language of sexual desire." Unfortunately, the only completely intact poem left by Sappho is her "Ode to Aphrodite" or "Hymn to Aphrodite" (an interesting synchronicity since Sappho is best known as a love poet and Aphrodite was the ancient Greek goddess of love). In any case, Sappho is remembered today primarily for her epigrammatic "fragments" and the efforts of her many translators to restore them. In some cases a fragment consists of just a word or two, and the translator/interpreter must provide the rest.

Was Sappho the first great Romantic poet, two millennia before Blake, Burns, Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats? Was she the first modern poet as well? Perhaps, because according to J. B. Hare, "Sappho had the audacity to use the first person in poetry and to discuss deep human emotions, particularly the erotic, in ways that had never been approached by anyone before her." Before Sappho, poetry was primarily used for ceremonial, religious and storytelling purposes. But Sappho used poetry to explore herself and her relationships with others. She laid herself bare in ways that other poets would also do―given two thousand years to catch up! Today, when we hear songwriters like Bob Dylan, Prince, Adele and Taylor Swift baring their souls, we are surely hearing echoes of the first great lyric poet, Sappho of Lesbos, who truly possessed the Roses of Pieria.

Skipping forward in time, the inspirational Pierian Spring was mentioned in Alexander Pope's 1711 poem "An Essay on Criticism" as the metaphorical source of knowledge and understanding of art and science:

A little learning is a dang'rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir'd at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts …

The name of the spring derives from the Pierides, the daughters of King Pierus who sought a contest with the Muses. When they lost, they were transformed into magpies, as related in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It was not, alas, a happy transformation: “As they tried to speak, and made great clamour, and with shameless hands made threatening gestures, suddenly stiff quills sprouted from out their finger-nails, and plumes spread over their stretched arms; and they could see the mouth of each companion growing out into a rigid beak. And thus new birds were added to the forest. While they made complaint, these Magpies that defile our groves, moving their stretched-out arms, began to float, suspended in the air. And since that time their ancient eloquence, their screaming notes, their tiresome zeal of speech have all remained.”

Let’s skip forward again, this time to 1920 and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” by Ezra Pound. HSM has been regarded as a turning point in Pound's career, by F.R. Leavis and others. Soon after the poem’s completion Pound left England. Mauberley is generally considered to be self-referential, in the mould of Pound’s protégé T. S. Eliot in his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” At the conclusion of his poem, Pound brings up the Roses of Pieria:

Hugh Selwyn Mauberley [Part I]
by Ezra Pound


Conduct, on the other hand, the soul
“Which the highest cultures have nourished”
To Fleet St. where
Dr. Johnson flourished;

Beside this thoroughfare
The sale of half-hose has
Long since superseded the cultivation
Of Pierian roses.

Envoi (1919)

Go, dumb-born book,
Tell her that sang me once that song of Lawes:
Hadst thou but song
As thou hast subjects known,
Then were there cause in thee that should condone
Even my faults that heavy upon me lie
And build her glories their longevity.

Tell her that sheds
Such treasure in the air,
Recking naught else but that her graces give
Life to the moment,
I would bid them live
As roses might, in magic amber laid,
Red overwrought with orange and all made
One substance and one colour
Braving time.

Tell her that goes
With song upon her lips
But sings not out the song, nor knows
The maker of it, some other mouth,
May be as fair as hers,
Might, in new ages, gain her worshippers,
When our two dusts with Waller's shall be laid,
Siftings on siftings in oblivion,
Till change hath broken down
All things save Beauty alone.

Here “that song of Lawes” is a reference to the English composer Henry Lawes, who set a number of the poems by the English poet Edmund Waller to music. And it is Waller’s exquisite poem "Go, Lovely Rose" that Pound is quite obviously riffing on in the envoy of HSM:

Song: Go, Lovely Rose
by Edmund Waller

Go, lovely rose!
Tell her that wastes her time and me,
That now she knows,
When I resemble her to thee,
How sweet and fair she seems to be.

Tell her that’s young,
And shuns to have her graces spied,
That hadst thou sprung
In deserts, where no men abide,
Thou must have uncommended died.

Small is the worth
Of beauty from the light retired;
Bid her come forth,
Suffer herself to be desired,
And not blush so to be admired.

Then die! that she
The common fate of all things rare
May read in thee;
How small a part of time they share
That are so wondrous sweet and fair!

Waller was a contemporary of John Milton; they were born one year apart. A. E. Housman expressed the opinion that there was a long “dry spell” in English poetry between the last major poems of John Milton, who published Paradise Lost in 1667 and Samson Agonistes in 1671, and those of the first great English Romantic poet, William Blake, who published Songs of Innocence in 1789. That’s a very long dry spell, if Housman is correct, of around 120 years. While there were accomplished poets who wrote in the interim, notably John Dryden and Alexander Pope, one might question, along with Housman, whether they possessed the Roses of Pieria.

Who reclaimed the Roses of Pieria? In English poetry it was the great Romantics — Blake, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth — often called the “big six.” I would add to their number the great Scottish poet Robert Burns, the “marvellous boy” Thomas Chatterton, John Clare and Thomas Gray.

Which English language poets had the Roses of Pieria? For me, in addition to the poets above, they include, chronologically, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles d’Orleans, William Dunbar, Thomas Wyatt, Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Donne, Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, Edmund Waller, John Milton, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Tennyson, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins, A. E. Housman, W. B. Yeats, Ernest Dowson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, D. H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, Robinson Jeffers, T. S. Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wilfred Owen, e. e. cummings, Louise Bogan, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Richard Wilbur, Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath and Seamus Heaney. Although I didn’t plan it out, that gives me an even fifty immortals.

Where do we go from here? It’s interesting to note that only 11 of my immortals predate the Romantics, while 29 have written since, within the last two centuries. And 22 of the poets, or nearly half, wrote in the twentieth century. So I suspect the “death” of poetry has been greatly exaggerated. And who knows — perhaps poets among us are cultivating new Roses of Pieria even as I conclude this essay. How will we know? When they knock our socks off and have us riffing on their poems, like Pound in his envoy.

As I promised, here are other translations of the first Sappho poem I offered. The alternate translations are followed by other Sappho poems having to do with flowers and/or art.

Κατθάνοισα δὲ κείσεαι πότα, κωὐ μναμοσύνα σέθεν
ἔσσετ᾽ οὔτε τότ᾽ οὔτ᾽ ύ᾽στερον. οὐ γὰρ πεδέχεισ βρόδοων
τῶν ἐκ Πιερίασ ἀλλ᾽ ἀφάνησ κἠν᾽ ᾽Αῖδα δόμοισ
φοιτάσεισ πεδ᾽ ἀμαύρων νέκυων ἐκπεποταμένα.

Sappho, fragment 55 (Lobel-Page 55 / Voigt 55 / Diehl 58 / Bergk 68 / Cox 65)
by H. T. Wharton

But thou shalt ever lie dead,
nor shall there be any remembrance of thee then or thereafter,
for thou hast not of the roses of Pieria;
but thou shalt wander obscure even in the house of Hades,
flitting among the shadowy dead.

Sappho, fragment 55 (Lobel-Page 55 / Voigt 55 / Diehl 58 / Bergk 68 / Cox 65)
by Thomas Hardy

     Dead shalt thou lie; and nought
     Be told of thee or thought,
For thou hast plucked not of the Muses' tree:
     And even in Hades' halls
     Amidst thy fellow-thralls
No friendly shade thy shade shall company!

Sappho, fragment 55 (Lobel-Page 55 / Voigt 55 / Diehl 58 / Bergk 68 / Cox 65)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

soon you'll lie dead, disregarded,
as your worm-eaten corpse like your corpus degrades;
for those who never gathered Pieria's roses
must mutely accept how their memory fades
as they flit among the obscure, uncelebrated
Hadean shades.

soon you'll lie dead, disregarded,
as your worm-eaten corpse like your verse degrades;
for those who never gathered Pierian roses
must mutely accept how their reputation fades
among the obscure, uncelebrated
Hadean shades.

soon you'll lie dead, disregarded;
then imagine how quickly your reputation fades ...
when you who never gathered the roses of Pieria
mutely assume your place
among the obscure, uncelebrated
Hadean shades.

"Quoted by Stobaeus about A.D. 500 as addressed to a woman of no education. Plutarch also quotes this fragment, twice in fact, once as if written to a rich woman, and again when he says that the crown of roses was assigned to the Muses, for he remembers that Sappho had said these same words to some uneducated woman."―Edwin Marion Cox

As J. B. Hare, one of her translators, said, "Sappho the poet was an innovator. At the time poetry was principally used in ceremonial contexts, and to extoll the deeds of brave soldiers. Sappho had the audacity to use the first person in poetry and to discuss deep human emotions, particularly the erotic, in ways that had never been approached by anyone before her. As for the military angle, in one of the longer fragments (#3) she says: 'Some say that the fairest thing upon the dark earth is a host of horsemen, and some say a host of foot soldiers, and others again a fleet of ships, but for me it is my beloved.' In the ancient world she was considered to be on an equal footing with Homer, and was acclaimed as the 'tenth muse.'"

It is because of the homoerotic nature of certain of Sappho's poems that "Lesbian" and "Sapphic" have their current sexual denotations and connotations. Many of her poems are about her female companions, but are suggestive rather than graphically sexual. For instance:

Sappho, fragment 3 (Lobel-Page 160 / Diehl 11 / Cox 11)
by Julia Dubnoff

Now, I shall sing these songs
for my companions.

"Athanaeus quotes this to show that there is not necessarily any reproach in the word ἐταίραι. Like many others, the fragment is unfortunately too short for anything but a literal translation. The breathing of the word in question in Attic Greek would of course be rough."―Edwin Marion Cox

Sappho, fragment 118
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Sing, my sacred tortoiseshell lyre;
come, let my words
accompany your voice.

"Quoted by Hermogenes and Eustathius. Sappho is apparently addressing her lyre. The legend is that Hermes is supposed to have made the first lyre by stretching the strings across the cavity of a tortoise's shell."―Edwin Marion Cox

NOTE: I seem to remember the term "sacred tortoiseshell lyre" appearing in another translation of Sappho, but I have not been able to find the translation or translator's name to give proper credit. Cox used the term "divine shell" in his translation and mentioned the shell belonging to a tortoise in his notes, so it seems like a reasonable interpretation.―MRB

Μνάσεσθαί τινά φαμι καὶ ὔστερον ἄμμεων

Sappho, fragment 29 (Lobel-Page 147 / Cox 30)
by J. V. Cunningham

Someone, I insist, will remember us!

Sappho, fragment 29 (Lobel-Page 147 / Cox 30)
by Edwin Marion Cox

I think men will remember us hereafter.

Sappho, fragment 147 (Lobel-Page 147 / Cox 30)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Someone, somewhere
will remember us,
I swear!

"From Dio Chrysostom, who, writing about A.D. 100, remarks that this is said 'with perfect beauty.'"―Edwin Marion Cox

Αἴθ᾽ ἔγο χρυσοστέφαν᾽ Ἀφρόδιτα, τόνδε τὸν πάλον λαχόην.

Sappho, fragment 33 (Lobel-Page 33 / Diehl 9 / Bergk 9 / Cox 9)
by Edwin Marion Cox

May I win this prize, O golden-crowned Aphrodite!

"From Apollonius. Sappho invented many beautiful epithets to apply to Aphrodite, and this fragment contains one of them."―Edwin Marion Cox

Σὺ δὲ στεφάνοισ, α Δίκα περθέσαθ᾽ ἐράταισ φόβαισιν, ὄρπακασ ἀνήτοιο συν ῤραισ᾽ ἀπάλαισι χέψιν, ἐγάνθεσιν ἔκ γὰρ πέλεται καὶ χάριτοσ μακαιρᾶν μᾶλλον προτέρην, ἀστερφανώτοισι δ᾽ ἀπυστερέφονται.

Sappho, fragment 82 (Lobel-Page 82 / 80D / Cox 75)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Dica! Do not enter the presence of Goddesses ungarlanded!
First weave sprigs of dill with those delicate hands, if you desire their favor!

Sappho, fragment 75 (Lobel-Page 82 / 80D / Cox 75)
by Edwin Marion Cox

Do thou, O Dica, set garlands upon thy lovely hair,
weaving sprigs of dill with thy delicate hands;
for those who wear fair blossoms may surely stand first,
even in the presence of Goddesses who look without
favour upon those who come ungarlanded.

"Athenaeus quotes this fragment, saying that according to Sappho those who approach the gods should wear garlands, as beautiful things are acceptable to them."―Edwin Marion Cox

Ἕγω δὲ φίλημ᾽ ἀβροσύναν, καὶ μοι τὸ λάμπρον
ἔροσ ἀελίω καὶ τὸ κάλον λέλογχεν.

Sappho, fragment 76 (Lobel-Page 58.25-26 / Cox 76)
by H. T. Wharton

I love delicacy, and for me Love has the sun's splendour and beauty.

Sappho, fragment 76 (Lobel-Page 58.25-26 / Cox 76)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I cherish extravagance,
intoxicated by Love's celestial splendor.

I love the sensual
as I love the sun's ecstatic brilliance.

I love the sensual
as I love the sun's splendor.

From Athenaeus, according to Edwin Marion Cox.

A Hymn to Venus
from the Greek of Sappho

Ambrose Philips

O Venus, beauty of the skies,
To whom a thousand temples rise,
Gaily false in gentle smiles,
Full of love-perplexing wiles;
O goddess, from my heart remove
The wasting cares and pains of love.

If ever thou hast kindly heard
A song in soft distress preferred,
Propitious to my tuneful vow,
O gentle goddess, hear me now.
Descend, thou bright immortal guest,

In all thy radiant charms confessed.
Thou once didst leave almighty Jove
And all the golden roofs above;
The car thy wanton sparrows drew,
Hovering in air they lightly flew;
As to my bower they winged their way
I saw their quivering pinions play.

The birds dismissed (while you remain)
Bore back their empty car again:
Then you, with looks divinely mild,
In every heavenly feature smiled,
And asked what new complaints I made,
And why I called you to my aid?

What frenzy in my bosom raged,
And by what cure to be assuaged?
What gentle youth I would allure,
Whom in my artful toils secure?
Who does thy tender heart subdue,
Tell me, my Sappho, tell me who?

Though now he shuns thy longing arms,
He soon shall court thy slighted charms;
Though now thy offerings he despise,
He soon to thee shall sacrifice;
Though now he freeze, he soon shall burn,
And be thy victim in his turn.

Celestial visitant, once more
Thy needful presence I implore.
In pity come, and ease my grief,
Bring my distempered soul relief,
Favour thy suppliant's hidden fires,
And give me all my heart desires.

Hymn to Aphrodite (Lobel-Page 1)
by Sappho
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Immortal Aphrodite, throned in splendor!
Wile-weaving daughter of Zeus, enchantress and beguiler!
I implore you, dread mistress, discipline me no longer
with such vigor!

But come to me once again in kindness,
heeding my prayers, as you did so graciously before;
O, come Divine One, descend once more
from heaven's golden dominions!

Then with your chariot yoked to love's
white consecrated doves,
their multitudinous pinions aflutter,
you came gliding from heaven's shining heights,
to this dark gutter.

Swiftly they came and vanished, leaving you,
O my Goddess, smiling, your face eternally beautiful,
asking me what unfathomable longing compelled me
to cry out.

Asking me what I sought in my bewildered desire.
Asking, "Who has harmed you, why are you so alarmed,
my poor Sappho? Whom should Persuasion
summon here?"

"Although today she flees love, soon she will pursue you;
spurning love's gifts, soon she shall give them;
tomorrow she will woo you,
however unwillingly!"

Come to me now, O most Holy Aphrodite!
Free me now from my heavy heartache and anguish!
Graciously grant me all I request!
Be once again my ally and protector!

"Hymn to Aphrodite" is the only poem by Sappho of Lesbos to survive in its entirety. The poem survived intact because it was quoted in full by Dionysus, a Roman orator, in his "On Literary Composition," published around 30 B.C. A number of Sappho's poems mention or are addressed to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. It is believed that Sappho may have belonged to a cult that worshiped Aphrodite with songs and poetry. If so, "Hymn to Aphrodite" may have been composed for performance within the cult. However, we have few verifiable details about the "real" Sappho, and much conjecture based on fragments of her poetry and what other people said about her, in many cases centuries after her death. We do know, however, that she was held in very high regard. For instance, when Sappho visited Syracuse the residents were so honored they erected a statue to commemorate the occasion! During Sappho's lifetime, coins of Lesbos were minted with her image. Furthermore, Sappho was called "the Tenth Muse" and the other nine were goddesses. Here is another translation of the same poem ...

Hymn to Aphrodite
by Sappho
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Rainbow-appareled, immortal-throned Aphrodite,
daughter of Zeus, wile-weaver, I beseech you: Hail!
Spare me your reproaches and chastisements.
Do not punish, dire Lady, my penitent soul!

But come now, descend, favor me with your presence.
Please hear my voice now beseeching, however unclear or afar,
your own dear voice, which is Olympus’s essence —
golden, wherever you are ...

Begging you to harness your sun-chariot’s chargers —
those swift doves now winging you above the black earth,
till their white pinions whirring bring you down to me from heaven
through earth’s middle air ...

Suddenly they arrived, and you, O my Blessed One,
smiling with your immortal countenance,
asked what hurt me, and for what reason
I cried out ...

And what did I want to happen most
in my crazed heart? "Whom then shall Persuasion
bring to you, my dearest? Who,
Sappho, hurts you?”

“For if she flees, soon will she follow;
and if she does not accept gifts, soon she will give them;
and if she does not love, soon she will love
despite herself!"

Come to me now, relieve my harsh worries,
free me heart from its anguish,
and once again be
my battle-ally!

Sappho, fragment 2 (Lobel-Page 2 / Voigt 2 / Diehl 5, 6 / Bergk 4, 5)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

Come, Cypris, from Crete
to meet me at this holy temple
where a lovely grove of apples awaits our presence
bowering altars
                       fuming with frankincense.

Here brisk waters babble beneath apple branches,
the grounds are overshadowed by roses,
and through the flickering leaves
                                                 enchantments shimmer.

Here the horses will nibble flowers
as we gorge on apples
and the breezes blow
                                honey-sweet with nectar ...

Here, Cypris, we will gather up garlands,
pour the nectar gracefully into golden cups
and with gladness
                           commence our festivities.

Sappho, fragments 54, 94 & 16
by F. T. Palgrave

Sappho loves flowers with a personal sympathy.
"Cretan girls," she says, "with their soft feet dancing
lay flat the tender bloom of the grass."
She feels for the hyacinth
"which shepherds on the mountain tread under foot,
and the purple flower is on the ground."
She pities the wood-doves
as their "life grows cold and their wings fall"
before the archer.

Sappho, fragment 146
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Song of the Rose

If Zeus chose us a king of the flowers in his mirth,
He would call to the Rose and would royally crown it,
For the Rose, ho, the Rose, is the grace of the earth,
Is the light of the plants that are growing upon it.

For the Rose, ho, the Rose, is the eye of the flowers,
Is the blush of the meadows that feel themselves fair—
Is the lightning of beauty that strikes through the bowers
On pale lovers who sit in the glow unaware.

Ho, the Rose breathes of love! Ho, the Rose lifts the cup
To the red lips of Cypris invoked for a guest!
Ho, the Rose, having curled its sweet leaves for the world,
Takes delight in the motion its petals keep up,
As they laugh to the wind as it laughs from the west!

αμφὶ δ᾽ ὔδωρ
ψῖχρον ὤνεμοσ κελάδει δἰ ὔσδων
μαλίνων, αἰθυσσομένων δὲ φύλλων
κῶμα κατάρρει.

Sappho, fragments 93 & 94 (Lobel-Page 105a / Voigt 105a / Diehl 116 / Bergk 93 / Cox 90)
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti


Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
A-top on the topmost twig,—which the pluckers forgot, somehow,—
Forgot it not, nay, but got it not, for none could get it till now.

Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,
Until the purple blossom is trodden into the ground.

Sappho, fragment 93 (Lobel-Page 105a / Voigt 105a / Diehl 116 / Bergk 93 / Cox 90)
by Stanley Lombardo

Like the sweet apple reddening on the topmost branch,
the topmost apple on the tip of the branch,
      and the pickers forgot it,
well, no, they didn’t forget, they just couldn’t reach it.

Sappho, fragment 105 (Lobel-Page 105a / Voigt 105a / Diehl 116 / Bergk 93 / Cox 90)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

You're the sweetest apple reddening on the highest bough,
which the harvesters missed, or forgot—somehow—
or perhaps they just couldn't reach you—then or now.

"Quoted by the Scholiast on Hermogenes and elsewhere. The 'sweetapple' to which Sappho refers was probably the result of a a graft of apple on quince."―Edwin Marion Cox

Sappho, fragment 132 (Lobel-Page 132)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

I have a delightful daughter
fairer than the fairest flowers, Cleis,
whom I cherish more than all Lydia and lovely Lesbos.

I have a lovely daughter
with a face like the fairest flowers,
my beloved Cleis …

It bears noting that Sappho mentions her daughter and brothers, but not her husband. We do not know if this means she was unmarried, because so many of her verses have been lost.

The following are links to other translations by Michael R. Burch:

Ancient Greek Epigrams and Epitaphs
Poems about EROS and CUPID
The Roses of Pieria
Antipater of Sidon
The Longer Poems of Sappho of Lesbos
The Seafarer
Wulf and Eadwacer
The Love Song of Shu-Sin: The Earth's Oldest Love Poem?
Sweet Rose of Virtue
How Long the Night
Caedmon's Hymn
Anglo-Saxon Riddles and Kennings
Bede's Death Song
The Wife's Lament
Deor's Lament
Lament for the Makaris
Tegner's Drapa
Alexander Pushkin's tender, touching poem "I Love You" has been translated into English by Michael R. Burch.
Whoso List to Hunt
Oriental Masters/Haiku
Miklós Radnóti
Rainer Maria Rilke
Marina Tsvetaeva
Renée Vivien
Ono no Komachi
Allama Iqbal
Bertolt Brecht
Ber Horvitz
Paul Celan
Primo Levi
Ahmad Faraz
Sandor Marai
Wladyslaw Szlengel
Saul Tchernichovsky
Robert Burns: Original Poems and Translations
The Seventh Romantic: Robert Burns
Free Love Poems by Michael R. Burch

The HyperTexts