It's better in Greek. Isn't it always?*
In English, we have the adjective bittersweet. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word can be both a noun and an adjective, although it is primarily used as an adjective to mean, "Sweet with an admixture or aftertaste of bitterness. fig. agreeable or pleasant with an alloy of pain or unpleasantness." But, to continue the metaphor, the bitter taste remains in our mouth far longer than the sweet taste does.
Sappho must have known this. She uses the word γλυκύπικρον, which literally means sweetbitter. In one of her most famous fragments, she writes, ' Ερος δαὖτέ μ' ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει, /γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον. (Fragment 40)
Anne Carson, in her collection of Sappho poems If not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translates the fragment this way:
Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me
Sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in
It's a beautiful fragment, and its beauty derives, in part, from the fact that it is a fragment. We have a metaphor, but we have no context with which to make sense of the metaphor. Eros melts our limbs. It steals in. It stirs us. It makes us sweetbitter. If we translate as bittersweet we miss something. Sweetbitter and bittersweet. It might just be the difference between a dactyl and an anapest. Maybe if we had more than two lines we would be able to tell.
I've been thinking about Sappho for two reasons. First, in January I taught a month-long course at my undergraduate alma mater, in which I paired ancient readings on love with readings from the early modern and modern period. We read Homer together with Montaigne, Sappho with Shakespeare, Lucretius with Hobbes, St. John with Pascal, and St. Paul with Kierkegaard. All of the readings were brief selections. (The only two complete readings we did were Plato's Symposium and the Song of Songs.) In fact, I constantly worried that these selections were too brief, too fragmentary.
The second reason I've been thinking about Sappho is that I've been reading Daniel Mendelsohn. I'm reviewing his excellent collection of essays Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture for the print edition of Commonweal. In the collection, Mendelsohn has a review of Carson's volume of Sappho, in which he criticizes the way she deals with the fragmentary nature of Sappho's text. Here is the key passage in Mendelsohn's review:
And yet as alluring and provocative to us today as the notion of the fragmentary may be, it must be said that it has no meaningful relation to the presumed object of serious scholarship and translation, which, you would think, ought to be some kind of responsible representation of Sappho herself to the wider world even if that representation must remain partial and unsatisfying to the world (which, as we know, is often eager to see in her its own reflection). The resemblance between the shattered state of the Sapphic texts and the shattered state of the broken hearts that are sometimes described in those texts is purely coincidental; the use of such resemblance as an element in the criticism of Sapphos work is, ultimately, as sentimental as any of the theories advanced by Victorian critics of yore.
I share Mendelsohn's concern for accuracy in translation and transmission. And I admire his defense of ancient scholiasts whose quotations of Sappho have preserved some of her writing for us. (Like Mendelsohn, I cringed at some of Carson's remarks in her introduction. For example, she writes, "A duller load of silence surrounds the bits of Sappho cited by ancient scholiasts, grammarians, metricians, etc., who want a dab of poetry to decorate some proposition of their own and adduce exempla without context.") Mendelsohn reminds us that Sappho's world is emphatically not our own.
But I wonder if our problem actually is that we are eager to see Sappho as a reflection of ourselves. Let me put this another way. Although I'm not in the business of censoring classroom discussion, the one student comment that inevitably causes me to raise my eyebrows is: "Well, for that time period, it made sense." The problem, in other words, is that my students are tempted to see the books they read as museum pieces rather than options for living. The problem I face as a teacher is not that the students want to see the past in light of their concerns; the problem is that they quarantine the past so that it cannot speak to their own concerns.
Here Mendelsohn's most important phrase is "no meaningful relation to the presumed object of serious scholarship and translation." The question, of course, is what would constitute a meaningful relation. If we are not going to quarantine the past (and Mendelsohn's essays show how well a critic can show us the lessons the Greeks and Romans still have to teach us), we need some way to access it.
Certainly, we can't reach across time and touch the real Sappho. Unless we find a collection of her poems stashed away somewhere (improbable but not impossible), the only context we have will be the fragments themselves. And so I wonder if we then end up where we started: with fragments that are beautiful and suggestive, culled from ancient scholars and ripped papyri, speaking to us and perhaps even about us. Mendolsohn himself teaches at Bard College, and I would love to see him write on his experience of teaching. I am sure that he's as good a teacher as he is a critic. For myself, of all the authors my students and I read in our course, Sappho spoke to them the most. But they didn't like her poems because they thought she agreed with them. They let her challenge and teach them. Even in the fragments, they could see how she interpreted Homer. They found her to be a productive conversation partner with the Bard of Stratford. They knew full well they were reading her out of context, but they found a context for her in the other texts we read. (Isn't this what we always do with any text, fragmentary or not?) The importance of historical and literary context notwithstanding, if the way our class discussed Sappho does not constitute a meaningful relationship to her work, I simply don't know what could.
Mendelsohn is right, of course: Sappho's poems, even in Carson's impressive translation, remain partial, although I'm not sure they are unsatisfying. At the risk of stretching the metaphor, such a partial and unsatisfying representation is sweetbitter. Even if they leave us sweetbitter, Sappho's poems, like eros, continue to stir us.
*I'm willing to entertain the idea that Tyndale's New Testament is more beautiful than the Greek version, but I'm only willing to entertain the idea.