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Sappho fr. 1 ll. 21-4

February 6, 2012

καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως δίωκει,
αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ’, ἀλλὰ δώσει,
αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει,
κωὐκ ἐθέλοισα

For even if she flees, soon she will chase you.
And if she does not accept gifts — but she will give them.
And if she loves not, soon she will love you
even unwilling.

This stanza is one of my very favorites in all of literature.  I could extol its merits for hours.  But I’m limiting my comments here to a single fact that struck me this time through, one which is entirely and inevitably obscured by my translation.  This is the first place in Sappho 1 where a beloved of any kind shows up, and it is not until last two syllables of the stanza — the tell-tale participle ending -οισα – that her gender is revealed.  This particular gender marker is a particularly highly marked one, as well; the active participles and related adjective-declensions are places where the feminine endings are particularly distinct from either the masculine or neuter endings.  Importantly, ἐθέλων and ἐθέλοισα are metrically distinct; that is, the gender of the beloved object is metrically guaranteed.  A reciter of this poem cannot simply change the gender of the participle in order to reflect his or her own preferences and comfort levels, as has become the norm to a depressing extent in our popular music.

Of course, with a little creative verse-composition, we could solve the problem for our hypothetical man-lover.  κωὐκ ἐθέλων περ, for example, gives the correct meter while barely changing the sense.  But the change is a more violent one, and one which requires more thought.  It becomes obvious that one is actually rewriting the poem, instead of “merely changing the gender.”

So the reciter of this poem must either become comfortable with performing an “I” whose sexual preferences may not be the same as their own, or with honest poem-rewriting.  Either result is a positive one.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 16, 2014 7:23 am

    But what, O self of two years ago, do you make of the textual controversy surrounding these very lines?

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