CUP (2021) p/b 553pp £29.99 (ISBN 9781316638774)

Of Sappho it was said in Meleager’s Garland that her poems were ‘few but roses’, and of those few even fewer have come down to us. Yet, as the editors say, ‘no ancient poet has a wider following today than Sappho’; her status as the most famous woman poet from Greco-Roman antiquity has long been established.

This Companion is divided into four parts: Contexts (six chapters), Poetics (nine chapters), Transmission (three chapters), and Receptions (fifteen chapters). This review can do no more than notice some of the chapters which are likely to be of the most wide-ranging interest. In what follows, the letter S. may be taken for Sappho unless otherwise specifically stated.

Contexts: the six chapters cover Lives, Lesbos, Sexuality, Epic, Alcaeus, and Archaic Song Culture. Maarit Kivolo, (chapter one) faced with the inescapable fact that what we can claim to know of S.’s life, is slender, copes well in distinguishing fact or plausible speculation from myth (justly citing Mary Lefkovitz). S. lived in Mytilene circa 600 BC, had two—or three—brothers, and became famous for her love poetry; her father may have been called Scamander —a river of the Troad—but the Suda also offers seven other names; fifteen female names appear in S.’s poetry, including goddesses and characters from myth. But, ‘since practically all sources are unreliable, we cannot determine if anything in the tradition reflects the life of the historical S.’.

No easier is the task of Melissa Mueller on S. and sexuality in chapter three: ‘the question of the poet’s sexuality is not one that can be answered through a close reading of her lyrics’. M.’s goal is ‘neither to reaffirm nor to revoke S.’s lesbianism’; she gives a thoughtful account of fragment 94 (in Greek, here and elsewhere, with translation) —but in it, who, or what, is satisfying whom? Your reviewer adds that, unavoidably, the word olisbos is found in fragment 99, and although Martin West is cited as translating it ‘plectrum’, that is not its accepted meaning: LSJ typically offer penis coriaceus i.e. dildo: Mueller does not comment.

In his excellent chapter four Adrian Kelly tells us firmly that ‘scholarship has moved beyond mapping early Greek literary history into discrete periods’ with epos preceding melos. Kelly adduces the proximity of Lesbos to Homer’s Troy, and similarities between the dialect of S. and that of the largely Ionian epic poets; remarkably, A. Broger 1996 listed 117 expressions held in common between the Iliad and Odyssey and S. and Alcaeus. Usefully, Kelly lists, by way of example, nine cases of formulaic interaction in fragment one; and S. even experimented with the hexameter, her interactions extending to prosody and scansion. Kelly sums up that S. is ‘attempting not so much to create a separate poetic aimed at women, but a universalising encouragement to hear and appreciate the vibrant female voices otherwise kept behind the curtain of early Greek poetry and culture’,

Chapter five, by Wolfgang Roesler (translated by Kathrin Lueddecke) brings S. and Alcaeus together, as they are in the red-figure krater of c. 470 BC, now in Munich, which shows both poets labelled with their names; they again engage with one another in the first book of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. However, as D.L. Page observed, ‘S. and Alcaeus certainly lived part of their lives in the same city at the same era, probably within the same aristocratic circle’. Moreover, there would in all probability have been contact at the common sanctuary of all islanders at Meson in the Gulf of Kalloni: a poem by Alcaeus commemorates its foundation and a recently discovered poem by S., albeit fragmentary, deals with the same celebration. Roesler goes on to illustrate the interaction of the two via three poems—one by S. the other two by Alcaeus—that treat the myth of Helen and Paris: ‘highly skilful texts that appear to be aligned with each other’.

In chapter nine, Luigi Battezzato considers S.’s metre and music, opening with the comment that ‘the main peculiarity of Aeolic metre is isosyllabism’: i.e., whereas in (say) dactylic hexameters a dactyl can often be replaced by a spondee, that freedom is not granted in Aeolic verse; moreover, the number of syllables, not their length, is what matters in the Aeolic base, i.e. the first two elements of ‘many Aeolic metrical structures’. Battezzato goes into useful detail on this and other related aspects, e.g. synapheia, catalexis, acephalia, responsion: his account is both lengthy and highly technical, and all the more valuable for it; he goes on to consider S.’s strophic structures in similar detail (note that a word can be split between two lines). However, be warned: analysis in the detail provided by Battezzato over six pages makes for demanding reading. As for the music, Battezzato comments that it ‘remains elusive for us’; S. wrote both for solo singers and for choruses, and instruments used included the lyre and the harp. In summary, ‘S. varies her less flexible (sc. than the hexameter) isosyllabic strophes with the skilful use of caesura and enjambment, creating a series of rhythmic ripples not obvious at first sight’.

Scarcely less technical is chapter ten—Olga Tribulato on S.’s dialect—in which readers who might otherwise be held up should take note of certain morphological traits relating to third-declension datives, the analogical spread of present endings, and the use of patronymic adjectives to signify filiation (many more examples of features peculiar to Aeolic are given, including the ‘overlap and mutual influence of the thematic and athematic conjugations [which] produces one of the most remarkable phenomena of East Aeolic morphology: the athematic conjugation of contracted verbs’). These two chapters, difficult though they necessarily are, provide a most useful vade mecum to S.’s language, dialect, and metre.

Her poetic language is considered in more detail, with plentiful examples. In Vanessa Cazzato’s chapter eleven: ‘artful and yet flexible, (t)he poet’s overt interest in beauty and its sensuous manifestations often translates into an intensity that is nevertheless tempered by elegance or wit’. Cazzato singles out Fragment 16 as exemplifying both mobility and elusiveness, the whole being held together by ring composition. ‘The notion of absence lies at the heart of erotic love’—a concept which, centuries later, Ovid would put to outstanding effect. In chapter twelve, A. Lardinois takes ‘a critical stance towards a personal or autobiographical reading of S.’s poetry’, believing as he does that ‘most of her songs were intended to be publicly performed, which limits the degree of personal detail we may expect in them’.

A feature of Alex Purves’ chapter thirteen (S’.s lyric sensibility) is her emphasis on apostrophe and (less familiar) deixis, or ‘pointing’, which helps the reader to think through both ‘proximity and temporality’ in S’.s poetry: she cites the Tithonus poem (fragment 58 Voigt), aided by supplements by Martin West: Tithonus, taken by Eos to the edges of the earth, creates a deictic effect, contrasting strongly with S.’s own proximity to the girls whom she exhorts.

Of S. in myth (chapter fourteen) Ruth Scodel, after arguing that with her varying techniques S. creates a dynamic relationship between present occasion and mythic past, warns us that ‘Nagy 2007 is idiosyncratic and already outdated’, while commending Pfeiffer on the Tithonus poem (see CQ NS 50 1-6).

Part III (Transmission). In chapter 16. Lucia Prauscello (On the Alexandrian edition of S.) asks a familiar question: ‘How Many Books?’ The traditional number is nine, derived from the Suda, but this has been disputed by the powerful, if unwitting, combination of Lobel and Wilamowitz (references are given in footnotes), who believed that eight was the correct number. Prauscello argues persuasively for the traditional number—which, of course coincides, accidentally or otherwise, with the number of the Muses.

Two chapters, seventeen and eighteen, by P.J. Finglass follow: S. on the papyri, and editions of S. since the Renaissance. A notably valuable feature of the first of these chapters is the ‘spreadsheet’ which Finglass provides. After a historical introduction (itself of no little interest), reading across the page, we find six columns: Description (e.g. POxy 2291); Fragment Number(s); Bookform; Provenance; Date; Handwriting/Other Comment. This spreadsheet occupies four full pages. Further comment follows: of POxy.1076 (a rich collection of literary texts): ‘Imagine the day around 100 CE when somebody decided to take all these precious books and cast them in the rubbish heap’—a ‘casual act of destruction which (proved to be) one of the greatest ever acts of historical preservation, (for) hence came most of the discoveries of S.’s poetry nearly two millennia on’.

Chapter eighteen provides a critical conspectus of editions of S. from the Aldine edition of 1508 (Demetrius Doukas): Finglass finds little to praise until Theodor Bergk (fourth edition, 1882), an ‘outstanding scholarly work’; by contrast, the edition of J.M. Edmonds (1922) comes under heavy fire, especially (in language reminiscent of A.E. Housman at his most mordant) from Lobel—whose own edition (1925) remains an ‘enduring and influential monument of scholarship’; his edition of Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta (with D.L. Page, 1955/1963), was marked by an ‘austerity of approach to supplementation’ which perhaps went too far; by contrast, E-M Voigt’s edition (with Alcaeus) of 1971 was, said M. West, ‘thoroughly prudent, without the gymnosophist tendencies of Lobel-Page’. This remains the latest edition of fundamental importance to appear, though D.A. Campbell’s 1982 edition for the Loeb Classical Library is also commended (both this Companion and this notice use his numeration of S’.s poems and fragments).

Nearly 40% of the Companion consists of Part IV, ‘Receptions’, a balance which will not be replicated here. In chapter nineteen, Lyndsay Coo takes us to S. in fifth- and fourth-century Greek literature, where we encounter S. as poetry-maker (briefly, in Herodotus), as ‘The Beautiful’ in Plato’s Phaedrus, as woman of letters both on the ancient comic stage—where Diphilus’ Sappho portrayed Archilochus and Hipponax (!) as rival suitors of S. —and in the Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus, who quotes Antiphanes and, in it, S.’s ‘riddle’ (the complexities of which need not be followed here).

Perhaps more fruitfully, Richard Hunter (chapter twenty) considers S. and Hellenistic poetry, where references, direct or indirect, are not few: ‘S.’s powerful presence is partly acknowledged and partly deflected by the echoes and reworkings of her poetry with which Hellenistic poetry is filled’. Hunter fleshes this out, notably her survival after death, via Callimachus’ famous epitaph for Heraclitus, and the citations of S. by Pseudo-Longinus and Catullus; but Apollonius Rhodius (4.430ff) in his description of Dionysus and Ariadne, and Posidippus with his Doricha and Charaxus (brother of S.), also evoke, perhaps indirectly, the words of S. Again, for Theocritus, S. was ‘part of a closely felt local poetic heritage’, because there was a tradition that S. had visited Sicily, and, indeed that there was a statue of her there, looted (typically) by Verres. From Theocritus, Hunter cites Idylls 18 and especially 28 (‘The Distaff’); again, Theocritus 2 (‘Simaetha and Delphis’) has reworkings of S. fragment 31; and Idyll 2, line 82 evokes the Iliad 14.294: so the poem of S. is a response to the scene in the Iliad: poets ‘helped to fashion a tradition as much as they also reflected it’. In Dioscorides’ (3rd century BC) epitaph on Sappho (Anth. Pal. 7.407), he hails S. as divine, ‘for we still deem thy songs to be daughters of the gods’ and ‘Helicon honours you together with the Muses’—for was not S. the tenth Muse? Hunter alludes to this epitaph without quoting it in full (p. 279, note 12).

Llewellyn Morgan (chapter 21) considers (the influence of) S. at Rome: leaving aside the too obvious Catullus 51, he cites Juvenal, Statius (Silvae 4.7), even Valerius Aedituus (two centuries before Statius), Plautus in the Miles Gloriosus, and Ovid (Art of Love, 3.331); we have already seen the comedy Sappho by Diphilus. In the literary criticism of Demetrius and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, S. is regarded as a ‘classic of the smooth or elegant style … A general effect of charm’: Demetrius On Style 166-7 is highly pertinent. However, S. does make a (sort of) appearance in Catullus 11, with its ‘mismatch of subject matter and form’ by offering a ‘repellent’ scene in sapphic metre. The influence of S. on Horace is more subtle (p. 299); and may H.’s use of the sapphic stanza suggest the importation of ‘at least some of the ethos the ancients associated with her’?

The ‘Receptions’ are mainly geographic and/or temporal (e.g. Early Modern S. [plural] in France and England), appealing perhaps to local constituencies; Ewen Bowie on Plutarch and S. (pp. 305-6) is an exception.

The Companion includes fourteen attractively produced plates, and a formidable bibliography which covers 60 pages, besides the suggestions for further reading offered by individual contributors (whose brief biographies appear on pp. xviii-xxv). There is a separate Index to the ‘Reception’ of S. (pp. 551-3).

By no means do all Companions contain as much of lasting value and interest as this one, for which the editors are to be congratulated on assembling a distinguished roster of contributors. Production by CUP is impeccable, and the Greek typeface is notably clear. At under £30 for the paperback edition, it represents truly remarkable value.


Colin Leach