05 May 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/19

The Dancers

Under the light of the Cretan moon
The maidens are dancing together in tune,
They dance together the dances of Crete,
Round the altar with delicate feet,
Delicate feet that lightly pass
Treading the delicate bloom of the grass.

Sappho, "freely translated and adapted" by Dorothy Burr Thompson

It's only the beginning of May but it feels as if spring is drawing to a close, at least here in the Bay Area; we've already had some unpleasantly hot days that left the plants as wilted and dusty as they left me, and our year-long lack of rain means the dewy fresh greenery is already turning sere, even with our local fog. So I wanted to get in this lovely combination of some Sapphic fragments while it seemed timely rather than ironic. Spring is not explicitly mentioned here, but I feel the season is evoked in "the delicate bloom of the grass" and there is a very vernal feel to the maidens dancing under the moon, perhaps exactly because they are maidens (in the sense of young, virginal women) and because of the aura of delicacy and lightness, which seems appropriate to the beginning of things (as opposed to the ripeness and maturity and even heaviness one would expect if that were a harvest moon). Thompson evokes the circular movement of the dance by using repetition: the "light of the Cretan moon" is reflected later on as the maidens' feet "lightly pass," and the "Cretan moon" itself gets reflected in the "dances of Crete"; the girls are "dancing together in tune, / They dance together the dances of Crete" and they go round the altar "with delicate feet / Delicate feet that lightly pass / Treading the delicate bloom of the grass"; and note also how many of these phrases are joined with the alliterative sound of d. The poem has a lilting, dance-like rhythm, and each line of each couplet ends with the double bar of an accented syllable. (The term for this sort of rhyme, in which the stress falls on the final syllable, is masculine rhyme, which is sort of comical for a poem that evokes women dancing under the moon, but then these names – to complete the set, feminine rhymes end with one or two unaccented syllables after the beat – somewhat arbitrarily reflect gender roles in a way that makes me think there must be other, less loaded terms that are replacing them. If there are, I haven't heard them yet, for though I sometimes hear them called strong and weak rhymes, that seems under the circumstances more like an objectionable euphemism than an improvement.)

I took this from a collection with the gorgeous title Swans and Amber: Some Early Greek Lyrics Freely Adapted and Translated by Dorothy Burr Thompson.

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