20 June 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/25

To a Song of Sappho Discovered in Egypt

           And Sappho's flowers, so few,
            But roses all.

Jonah wept within the whale;
But you have sung these centuries
Under the brown banks of the Nile
Within a dead dried crocodile:
So fares the learned tale.

When they embalmed the sacred beast
The Sapphic scroll was white and strong
To wrap the spices that were needed,
Its song unheard, its word unheeded
By crocodile or priest.

The song you sang on Lesbos when
Atthis was kind, or Mica sad;
The startled whale spewed Jonah wide,
From out the monster mummified
Your roses sing again.

Your roses! from the seven strands
Of the small harp whereon they grew;
The holy beast has had his pleasure,
His bellyful of Attic measure
Under the desert sands.

Along strange winds your petals blew
In singing fragments, roses all;
The air is heavy on the Nile,
The drowsy gods drowse on the while
As gods are wont to do.

Leonora Speyer

There is no actual Biblical authority for saying that Jonah wept in the belly of the whale; in the King James version, he does cry, but in the sense of crying out, in an urgent appeal or entreaty: I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord (Jonah, 2:2). Perhaps Speyer was misremembering, or misread the passage. Perhaps she could not resist the alliteration of wept within the whale. Or perhaps she merely invented the detail (which is entirely plausible) as part of her poem's exploration of the connections and contrasts between religious texts and sacred rituals and the love poems of Sappho.

Although there have been some recent papyrus discoveries of previously unknown fragments by Sappho, this poem, published in 1926, refers to then-new fragments found in what are known as the Oxyrhynchus papyri, for the town in Egypt near which they were found. It's difficult and sad to realize that until fairly recently we had even less of Sappho's poetry than the fraction known today, but then much of the classical past is lost or known only in fragments. Even a celebrated and influential author like Menander, exponent of Greek New Comedy (and thereby father of Plautus, Terence, commedia dell'arte, Molière, and numerous romantic comedies) and with a special aura of Christian-era wisdom as the sole pagan author quoted by St Paul, was known only by stray fragments until the late 1950s, when the Dyskolos (The Misanthrope) was found in close to complete form. There are still discoveries waiting to be made.

Anyway: until these discoveries, much of Sappho's mystique came from her very high reputation in the ancient world, exemplified here by the epigraph from Meleager (this would be Meleager of Gadara, a poet and early founder of the collection of verse that become known as The Greek Anthology). Throughout this lyric Speyer will develop his comparison of Sappho's poems to the rose, generally considered the flower of all flowers, at least among poets.

Speyer begins by contrasting the weeping of Jehovah's reluctant prophet Jonah, hidden within the whale, with the silent singing of the Sappho manuscript inside another water creature, a crocodile (many of the Oxyrhynchus papyri had been used in the mummification of crocodiles; not surprisingly for a creature associated with the life-giving Nile, the crocodile was sacred, an avatar of the god Sobek). Despite the presence of these water creatures (the whale and the crocodile) and the watery tears of Jonah, Speyer creates a sense of dryness and desiccation in the scene: we have the brown banks of the Nile and the dead dried crocodile; in both cases alliteration increases the emphasis on the words. So fares the learned tale: that's what happens to things outside the ordinary, perhaps, or perhaps the reference is to Sappho's relatively obscure and archaic Aeolic dialect, which was less familiar than the standard Attic dialect.

To the priests mummifying their dead reptile, the white and strong (like a Greek column) scroll was merely handy and suitable material. The priests are equated with the dead crocodiles; both are deaf to the personal, emotional songs (when Atthis was kind, or Mica sad) found on the scroll. Speyer compares her wonderfully vivid startled whale spewing Jonah wide (again, she makes music with alliteration: startled / spewing and whale / wide) with the monster mummified releasing Sappho's poems. There is a contrast between the sacred history's reluctant prophet of Jehovah and the poems, described as beauteous roses surreally singing again. But there's also an equivalence in dignity and importance, despite what the ancient priests thought; actually, this poem tends to tip towards the ancient love poems.

The lyric ends with two rhapsodic stanzas continuing the comparisons between the Sappho fragments and the desert world of priests and mummies. The papyrus fragments would themselves be browned and fragile, but Speyer transfigures them into roses, working off of Meleager's ancient praise, and the fresh and lovely petals contrast with the desert sands and the heavy air. Speyer reminds us of the performative nature of Sappho's poems: all of them were originally sung, by soloist or chorus, to the accompaniment of a small harp, an instrument that became associated with Sappho (hence the reference here to the seven strands / Of the small harp). Sappho's ancient fragments are made to seem fresh to us by the comparison to roses, as opposed to the strange, even alien world of the holy beast hidden under the desert sands. The "roses" that slept in these fragments awaken and are spread abroad again, alive and singing, in contrast to the Egyptian gods: while the new ancient poems are spread abroad, the drowsy gods drowse on; the repetition drowsy / drowse helps reinforce the sense of, well, drowsiness, of lethargic half-sleeping semi-dreaming somnolence. This is, Speyer tells us, as gods are wont to do: in the final line, the silent mysterious world of the Egyptian priests (and, by implication, the Judeo-Christian tradition drawn in by the initial mention of Jonah in the whale), the withdrawn and invisible divinity of the gods, is contrasted with the everlasting livingness and love of the poet's art.

I took this poem from the Library of America collection American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume One: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker, edited by Nathaniel Mackey, Marjorie Perloff, and Carolyn Kizer.

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