Bloomsbury (2021) h/b 272pp £85 (ISBN 9781350101890)
P.’s monograph had its origins in the PhD thesis she wrote some years ago under the supervision of Nicola Giardini, a professor in Italian literature at Oxford. Her subject then was Sappho and Catullus as lyric archetypes in the poetry of Giovanni Pascoli (1855-1912), Salvatore Quasimodo (1908-68), Ezra Pound (1885-1972) and Anne Carson (b.1950). Today, P. is an Assistant Professor at Durham University, and in this new book she has added H.D. (1886-1961), Luciano Anceschi (1911-95), Guido Ceronetti (1927-2018), Rosita Copioli (b.1948), Robert Lowell (1917-77) and Louis Zukovsky (1904-78) to her study. Thus, she covers the reception of Sappho and Catullus in Italian and North American poetry from the 1890s to the 2010s, including the American Modernists, Italian Hermeticists and American Postmoderns. She begins with the influences of one of Sappho’s few substantial surviving pieces, φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν (fr.31), and Catullus’s translation ille mi par esse deo videtur (51), but she explores the reception of a wide range of Sapphic fragments and Catullan verses.
Sometimes P. relates the reception of Sappho and Catullus to the themes of eros (love) and thanatos (death), sometimes to questions of appropriation and translation. She reports on their changing status as poetic models, and elucidates the social and psychological implications. Pascoli uses them as triggers for ‘mythical rewritings’. Both his and Pound’s verses ‘sublimated the moment of defloration into figures of blooming and images of loss linked to youth’. H. D., Carson and Copioli ‘call upon Sappho and Catullus to denounce the exploitative patriarchal and heteronormative power structures inherent in rituals like marriage or to advocate alternative feminine models.’
By contrast, P. notes that Lowell used Sappho and Catullus to ‘advance a covert social criticism of the United States in the 1950s’. In the 1960s, Zukovsky, like Ceronetti, ‘foregrounds Catullan obscenities’, but his artistic objective is to evoke the sound of Catullus’s Latin at the expense of semantic equivalence. Thus ille mi par esse deo videtur / ille, si fas est, superare divos becomes extraordinarily:
He’ll hie me, par is he? The God divide her,
He’ll hie, see fastest, superior deity.
The postmodernist Anne Carson, takes Sappho’s vocabulary and turns every second line of her poem ‘TV Men: Sappho’ into snapshots of Sappho’s imagery in fragment 31:
He She Me You Thou disappears…
Laugh Breathe Look Speak Is disappears …
Tongue Flesh Fire Eyes Sound disappears …
Cold Shaking Green Little Death disappears …
Nearness When Down In I disappears …
But All And Must To disappears.
P. comments that the vast majority of her ‘sightings’ reflect changed social and political discourses about gender and identity; on this question she is usually content to report rather than judge. Sappho and Catullus have indeed become paradigmatic in the battle for equality and the legitimisation of diversity.
Perhaps P. could have noted that there are limits to our understanding of such gender identities among the poets of antiquity. The interface between truth and performance art is often blurred. Little survives beyond their poetry, their lyric skill, their sentiment and their passion. Catullus was capable of lewdness and vitriol, and had at least one young male sexual partner. Sappho had passionate feelings for younger women, but she married and gave birth to a daughter. In the social environment of Greece and Rome, it is unsurprising that young men and women fell in love with others of the same sex. Here, P. correctly registers a note of caution: Sappho’s fragments are ‘clearly implicated within a male-identified erotic discourse’ which maintains a sense of bisexual eros. P. notes the debate on whether Catullus’s passer is a sparrow or sexual symbol with equanimity.
P. treads carefully, observing and analysing. Each chapter begins with an arresting scenario and moves smoothly forward to her assessment of the poetic reception in twentieth-century Italy and North America. Her study is a valuable introduction to significant writers and movements. The Italians, particularly, Pascoli, Quasimodo, Ceronetti and Copioli are little known in the English-speaking world and repay study.
There are occasional difficulties in identifying P.’s Sapphic fragments, as she uses Bergk’s and Diehl’s numeration; the index in the Loeb edition proved helpful. P. adopts Bergk’s manuscript readings of Sappho, which are sometimes questionable. There are very few slips: ‘noetoeric’ on page 118 refers to the neoterics. On page 168, ‘bagnare’ in Copioli’s ‘I flussi di Oceano bagnano la madre,/ … bagnate di eros / vinciamo il tempo’’ is better translated ‘bathe(d)’ that ‘wet’. In the Index, a search for Lowell is hampered by its appearing after ‘lyric’.
The publisher’s price of £85 (online £76.50) seems high and may limit the circulation. Dissemination will depend on academic reviews and recommendations. But P. is to be commended on a thoughtful and fascinating study, and her work deserves to be followed and appreciated.