Sappho is the greatest lyric poet of antiquity. Plato, a century after her death, referred to her as “the Tenth Muse,” and Longinos, in his first-century treatise “On the Sublime,” uses her verse to exemplify that transcendent quality in literature. In Sappho’s lyrics we hear for the first time in the West the words of an individual woman of her own world: her apprehension of sun and orchards; the troubles and summits of love, desire, and friendship. Her poems combine an impression of intimate self-involvement with an almost modern sense of detachment.
Though time has reduced the nine volumes of her work to a handful of complete poems and a collection of fragments, each word and phrase that survives is poignantly significant. The clarity of her voice, its absolute candor, its amazing fresh authority—whether in addressing a goddess, dancers before a night altar, the moon and stars, a sweet apple or mountain hyacinth, a lamb or cricket, a lover or companion—are qualities that compel us today as in antiquity.
Willis Barnstone has given us a close and beautiful lyrical version. His translation, with the original Greek on facing pages, includes a dozen hitherto unintelligible fragments that have been brought vibrantly back to life by him, as well as Sappho’s newly discovered poem from the Cologne papyrus in its complete form. It also contains the translator’s essay placing the poet in her historic and artistic context; a glossary; extensive notes; an epilogue and metrical guide by William E. McCulloh, Professor Emeritus of Classics at Kenyon College; and a special section of testimonia: appreciations of Sappho in the words of her ancient admirers.
News & Reviews
"There have been many translations of Sappho's work by gifted and well-meaning writers. . . . None quite connects the shards and fragments with the same satisfying verve and flair as Willis Barnstone. Barnstone is one of the greatest translators of literary expression from a foreign language into English."—New Letters
“I have this Sappho with me all the time now, as this collection is absolutely stunning in every respect, and I'm filled with gratitude to you for having borne it into the world. May your Sappho be blessed. It is a tremendous gift to all of us.”—Carolyn Forché, author of The Country Between Us and The Blue Hour
“Mysterious, mellifluous Sappho shines anew in this glorious translation, and Barnstone's masterful introduction locates her historically, unveils her impassioned life, and reflects on the sensuous grace of her poetry, revealing the woman as she's never been seen before.”—Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses
“A feast for those who, like me, are hungry to know more about the great poet Sappho. The translations of the poems and fragments read elegantly and the introduction and supporting material are lavishly informative and interesting.”—David Ferry, translator of Gilgamesh and The Georgics of Virgil
“What a joy to have Willis Barnstone’s Sweetbitter Love. This is not only a vivid, sensuously elegant translation of every scrap of Sappho we have; the wonderful introduction is designed to increase our ardor as well as our knowledge, and the appendix containing everything the ancients said of her as well as poetic tributes up through Baudelaire’s is itself a treasure.”—Alicia Ostriker, author of No Heaven and Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America
“Sappho knew what we never tire of learning: passion makes the moment eternal. Willis Barnstone has plumbed profound layers of the ancient Greek to bring us Sappho. On his way to her, he renewed the Gnostic Gospels and the Gospels proper. Now he has sounded the deepest lyric rock of our founding and given us new sound.”—Andrei Codrescu, NPR commentator and author of It Was Today: New Poems
“Willis Barnstone has brought a life dedicated to translation and a lifetime of immersion in the Greek language to give us these new and inspired translations of Sappho. With its brilliant introduction and dazzling notes, this is the book of Sappho you will want on your bedside table.”—David St. John, author of The Red Leaves of Night
“As a student I treasured the original Barnstone Sappho, and it is a joy to have this new version made current with the latest scholarship and enriched by four decades of further reflection. Sappho's famous voice is clear and powerful, even in the shards that remain to us, and Barnstone embraces and captures this phenomenon like no one else. This is a Sappho rendered with wisdom and heart for newcomers and connoissers alike.”—Jeffrey Henderson, Editor, Loeb Classical Library
“What amazes me is how Sappho’s lyrics, composed in the seventh century B.C.E., transcend their time and place to enchant us now. In lines that are at once passionate and precise, seemingly artless and yet magical, she writes of the cycles of life and death, and of erotic desire as a sacred calling. She looks into the burning center of things, and expresses pure wonder in the evening star, the moon, birdsong. Willis Barnstone’s masterful translations capture her excited praise for things of this world, making one of her prophetic observations shine with lasting truth: ‘Someone, I tell you, in another time, / will remember us.’”—Grace Schulman, author of Days of Wonder and The Paintings of Our Lives
“Eros has been riding Barnstone’s back for years, whipping him across Spanish, French, Greek, Chinese poetry, across the poetry and prose of the biblical lands to translate from those literatures poetry, to make them new and his. Now he has embraced Sappho, with whom he has been in love for years. What he has made ‘his’ is a gift to us. Barnstone—lover, poet, and scholar—cannot make Sappho’s fragments whole, but he makes us more aware of our loss than any other translation. He gives us the abyss, and fragments of Sappho in startling English—a few words that in ancient Greek changed its music and made the walls of the city tremble.”—Stanley Moss, author of Asleep in the Garden
"If there is any justice, which there probably isn't, the world of letters would erect a monument of Willis Barnstone and strew it with fresh wildflowers every day. I think of this Sappho collection as the finest among Barnstone's prodigious achievements."—Jim Harrison, author of True North and Legends of the Fall