Sappho’s Timeless Elegy for Heartbreak at the End of Love, Reimagined in a Haunting Choral Invocation
By Maria Popova
A sole voice rises from antiquity, cuts through the long silencing and erasure of women, cuts through the Ancient Greek tradition of heroic poetry about war and worldly valor, to sing to us in her soulful authoritative voice a new kind of poetry — the personal, consummately intimate poetry of the inner world, the poetry of passionate love and heartbreak, of longing and loss, of the rapture of the natural world — a sensibility that would come to color everything from the cosmogony of the Romantics to pop music.
Celebrated as the Tenth Muse, Sappho (c. 630–c. 570 BC) endures as the first great beacon of women’s right to creative expression and of the basic human right to love whomever one loves — the original champion of what we, two and a half millennia later, have the hard-earned luxury of calling LGBT rights, for unlike Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson twenty-some centuries after her, Sappho did not alter the gender pronouns of her poems to conceal the same-sex nature of her loves — so much so that her native island of Lesbos has woven itself into the etymology of same-sex love in the modern world’s dominant languages.
And yet she comes to us only as a faint echo across the whispering gallery of time, erasure, and collective memory — the nine-volume set of her complete works burned with the Library of Alexandria; it is rumored that the early Christian dogmatists of the Byzantine empire burned most of her remaining works as too scandalous for so openly celebrating same-sex love. But the tiny subset of splendor that does survive — nowhere more splendidly than in poet Anne Carson’s enchanting translation, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (public library) — has radiated an aura of genius so immense that it has moved more than one hundred generations and influenced such disparate titans of thought and artistic vision as Mary Wollstonecraft, Oscar Wilde, Allen Ginsburg, and Judy Chicago.
In one of her most staggering poems, Sappho invokes with intimate particularity one of the most universal human experiences: heartbreak at the end of love — that singularly discomposing maelstrom which, in the words of the contemporary poet and philosopher David Whyte, “begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot [and] colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day,” and which modern science has shown to share a neuropsychology with drug withdrawal. Epochs and civilizations later, Sappho’s lyric portal into this elemental dimension of the human heart comes newly alive in a haunting choral invocation by Constellation Chor — New York City’s vocally and culturally kaleidoscopic vocal ensemble, founded by the visionary aural architect Marisa Michelson, who composed the piece and performed it with ensemble members Jen Anaya, Kalli Siamidou, and Tamrin Goldberg.
I simply want to be dead.
Weeping she left me
with many tears and said this:
Oh how badly things have turned out for us.
Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.
And I answered her:
Rejoice, go and
remember me. For you know how we cherished you.
But if not, I want
to remind you
] and beautiful times we had.
For many crowns of violets
] at my side you put on
and many woven garlands
made of flowers
around your soft throat.
And with sweet oil
you anointed yourself
and on a soft bed
you would let lose your longing
and neither any [ ] nor any
holy place nor
was there from which we were absent
no grove [ ] no dance
] no sound
Complement with Epictetus, writing seven centuries later, on the Stoic strategy for surviving heartbreak, Rebecca West’s extraordinary love letter to H.G. Wells in the wake of their romantic collapse, and the story of how Hans Christian Andersen turned his heartbreak into one of the most beloved fairy tales of all time, then revisit James Baldwin’s abiding wisdom on love, reimagined in music.
Published September 29, 2020