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Sappho to Phaon

AT the sight of this letter written with an anxious hand, will you not instantly know the characters to be mine? Or must even the name of the unhappy writer be added, to prove the person by whom the few lines are sent? You may perhaps wonder why I address you in alternate measures, when lyric numbers so much better suit my genius. But unsuccessful love complains in melancholy notes, and elegy is the most proper for the expression of my woe. No harp can serve to paint my flowing tears. I burn like a ripened field of corn, when driving east-winds spread the catching flames. Phaon honors the distant fields of burning Ætna, while flames fierce as those of Ætna prey upon my heart. I no more take pleasure in forming my numbers to the tuneful strings: music and poetry are the employment of a mind at ease. The dames of Pyrrha, Methymna, and the other cities of Lesbos, please no more. Anactorie and fair Cydno have

lost their charms; and Atthis, of late so grateful to my sight; with hundreds of others, once the objects of my guilty love. Faithless man, yo alone engross that heart, formerly shared by many. You are happy in a fine face, and years fit for pleasure and dalliance. O enchanting looks, so fatal to me and my repose! Take the harp and bow, and you will pass with all for Apollo. Adorn your head with wreaths of ivy, and you will appear beautiful as Bacchus. Yet Apollo was enamored of Daphne, and Bacchus of the Cretan maid, though neither of them excelled in lyric measures. To me the Muses dictate the sweetest lays, and the name of Sappho resounds through all nations. Even great Alcæus, the partner of my country and my harp, has not more renown,

though he sings in loftier notes. If unfriendly nature has denied me an engaging form, yet the charms of my wit abundantly compensate that deficiency. I am short of stature; yet I have a name that fills the whole earth, and by my own merit have gained this extensive renown. What if I am not fair? Was not even Perseus pleased with Andromede, an Æthiopian dame? Doves of various colours often unite, and the white turtle matches with the shining green. If no charms can gain your heart but such as equal your own, no charms will be ever able to gain Phaon. yet when you read my lays, I then seemed formed to please: you were never enough delighted with my voice, and swore that it became me alone to speak. I remember when wont to sing (for, ah, how vast a memory have lovers!) how you stopped my tongue with kisses; even these you praised: I pleased in all, but more particularly when united with you is the close bonds of love. Then you were fired by my amorous sport; each motion, each glance, each word inflamed you, till, dissolving in tumultuous raptures, gentle faintness surprised our wearied limbs. But now the Sicilian

maids take up all your thoughts. Why was I born at Lesbos? Why am I not a native of Sicily?

But ah! Sicilian nymphs, beware, and banish from your isle this deceitful wanderer. Be not deceived with the fictions of an insinuating tongue; those faithless vows have all been made to Sappho. You too, Erycina, who range the Sicilian hills, think that I am thine, and pity the sorrows of your poetess. Shall cruel fortune still pursue the same sad tenor, and obstinately persist in heaping woes upon me? Scarcely had I completed my sixth year, when the ashes of a deceased parent drank my tears. My brother next, despising wealth and honor, burned with an ignoble flame, and rashly plunged himself into shameful distresses. Reduced to want, he traversed the blue ocean in a nimble bark, and basely hunted after those riches which he had foolishly lost. My many good counsels he repaid with hatred; such was the reward of my piety and plain-dealing. And, as if fortune had determined to oppress me without ceasing, an infant daughter has been lately added to my cares. Yet adverse fate still pursues me, and sends you, the last and greatest of my woes. Alas! How much is this tempestuous voyage of life agitated by unfriendly gales? My locks no more hang curled in ringlets round my neck; nor do the glowing gems adorn my joints. I am clad in homely weeds; no braids of gold bind the flowing tresses, nor do Arabian unguents breathe their sweet perfumes. For whom shall I adorn myself, unhappy wretch? whom shall I thus study to please? The only object of my tenderness is gone. The light darts of Cupid easily wound my gentle heart; and still there is some cause, why Sappho still should love. Whether the Sisters have so fixed my doom from the birth, and formed my life to the softer ties of Venus; or my manners are fashioned by my studies, and those arts in which I excel; the Muse certainly forms my mind to answer the molting notes of my tongue. What wonder, if my tender age yields to the gentle violence, and those years that recommend to the addresses of men? How was I afraid that Aurora might seise you for her Cephalus? And she would have done it, had she not been detained by her

first love. If Cynthia, whose eye extends over all, should chance to fix it upon you, Phaon would be commanded to prolong his sleep. Venus would have borne you off in a chariot of ivory to the skies; but she foresaw that you would no less charm her beloved Mars. O scarcely a youth, and yet not a tender boy; useful age for lovers! O pride and glory of thy age, come to these arms; return, darling of my soul, to my soft embraces. I ask not your love, but that you will kindly receive mine. I write, and, as I write, the starting tears flow from my eyes: see what a number of blots stain this very place. If you were determined to abandon me, it might yet have been done in a kinder way. Was it too much to say, Farewell, my Lesbian maid? You saw none of my tears, you received no parting kisses; nor did I at all apprehend what a load of grief awaited me. You have left nothing with your Sappho but wrongs and woes; nor have carried any pledge with you to renew the memory of our loves. I gave you no charge; nor indeed had I any other charge to give, than that you would

be always mindful of me.

I swear to you by the God of love, by whom let me never be abandoned, and by the sacred nine, those deities whom I adore, that when first told (I hardly know by whom) that you and all my joys had fled, I had neither the power of speaking nor of weeping; my eyes did not grant me the relief of tears, and my tongue was deprived of all motion; a death-like coldness seized my boding heart: but when impetuous grief at last found a vent, I beat my breast, and rent my scattered locks, raving in all the wildness of furious despair; like a pious mother who bears to the funeral-pile the breathless body of her darling son. My brother Charaxus rejoices at the disaster, and barbarously triumphs in my griefs: his hated image is ever before my eyes; and, to reproach me with the shameful cause, he asks, Why all this sadness? Your daughter still lives. Love and shame are ever inconsistent. With garments torn, and my bosom bare, I proclaim to all the world my

guilt. You, Phaon, take up all my thoughts; my care by day, and the nightly object of my dreams; dreams that charm more than the brightest day. In these I find you, though fled to remote regions; but, alas! the joys of sleep are vain and short-lived. Oft you seem to wind your arms round my yielding neck. Oft my arms fondly encircle thine. I soothe and address you in softest words, and my mouth is prompt to utter the language of my heart. I seem to give and take endearing kisses; and yield to joys which I blush to mention, while yet I must confess how much they please. But when the rising sun spreads his light over all; as if once more deserted, I complain that sleep has fled so soon. I retire to the caves and groves, as if caves and groves could yield relief; and fondly court the haunts that have witnessed your dear embraces. Thither I run, my hair loose and disheveled, like those who are infatuated by some powerful sorceress. There I behold the caves beset with rugged cliffs, that to me were more pleasant than the finest Phrygian marble. I find the grove that hath often afforded us a flowery bed, and sheltered us from the heat by

its spreading leaves. But I no more find him with whom I haunted these beloved shades: they now can please no more; for to him they owed all their charms. I view the pressed grass on which we have reposed our wearied limbs, where the bending turf retains the print of our double weight. i kiss the earth pressed by your lovely limbs, and bedew with tears the grateful herbs. For thee the trees, dropping their leaves, seem to mourn, and the tuneful birds deny their songs. The Phocian bind alone, that disconsolate mother, who took so cruel a revenge on her Thracian lord, mourns the hard fate of Itys. The nightingale mourns the fate of Itys; Sappho laments that she is deserted by Phaon. All else is silent, and

involved in the shades of night. A spring there is, whose waters run clear and transparent as crystal: here, as many think, a deity resides. Above, a flowery lotos spreads its shading branches, and seems itself a grove: the banks around are edged with eternal green. Here, while, after an effusion of tears, I rested my wearied limbs, a Naiad suddenly stood before my eyes. She stood, and said, O you who burn with an ill-requited flame, fly to the Acarnanian shore. Apollo from an impending rock surveys the extended ocean below, which is called, by the inhabitants, the sea of Actium and Leucate: hence Deucalion, inflamed with the hopeless love of Pyrrha, plunged himself unhurt into the main. Forthwith love changing, possessed the obstinate heart of Pyrrha; and Deucalion was freed from his flame. Such is the law of the place. Haste then, throw yourself from high Leucadia, nor dread the threatening steep.

She spoke, and disappeared with the voice. I rose amazed, and my dim eyes overflowed with tears. I go, O nymph,

to prove these healing rocks; fear recedes, borne down by powerful love. My fate, whatever it is, will be milder than at present. Blow up, gentle gales, beneath my falling body, and lay me softly on the swelling waves. And thou too, gentle Love, bear up my sinking limbs with out-spread wings; and let not Sappho's death profane the guiltless Leucadian flood. I will then hang up my lyre to Phœbus, and under it write this inscription: Grateful Sappho consecrates her harp to Phœbus; a gift that suits both the giver and the God. But why, relentless youth, do you drive me to distant coasts, when you can so easily cure me by your return? Your charms are more powerful than the Leucadian waves; and your merit and beauty make you a Phœbus to me. Can you bear, O more hard-hearted than the rocks and waves, to be reputed the cause of my untimely death? Would'st thou rather see this breast dashed on pointed rocks, than

pressed to thine? this breast, which you, Phaon, have so often praised as the seat of love and genius. But now genius is no more; grief checks my thoughts, and the edge of my wit is blunted by my misfortunes. My wonted strength no more furnishes the flowing lines; my lute is silent, and the sounding notes sink under a weight of woe. Ye Lesbian virgins and dames, so often celebrated by the Æolian lyre; Lesbians, the objects of my guilty love; cease to hope that I will more touch the sounding harp. Phaon is gone, and with him all my joys have vanished. Unhappy wretch, I had almost called him mine. Make him return; no more shall you complain of the absence of your poetess; it is he, he only, that inspires or quenches the poetic flame. Can prayers avail nothing? Is your savage breast proof against all tender feelings? or have the flying Zephyrs lost my words in air? O that the winds which bear away my words, would bring back your welcome sails! It is what, if you are wise for yourself, you

ought now, though late, to hasten. Or are you already on the way, and are sacrifices offered for your safety? Why do you tear my heart with cruel delays? Spread your sails: the sea-born Goddess will smooth the waves, and prosperous gales speed your course. Only weigh anchor, and set sail. Cupid himself, sitting at the helm, will govern the bark; he with a skilful hand will unfold and gather in the sails. Or do you choose to fly from unhappy Sappho? Alas! what have I done to be thus the object of your aversion? At least inform me of this by a few cruel lines, that I may plunge myself, with all my miseries, amidst the Leucadian waves.

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  • Commentary references to this page (3):
    • John Conington, Commentary on Vergil's Aeneid, Volume 1, 1.665
    • George W. Mooney, Commentary on Apollonius: Argonautica, 4.1279
    • Charles Simmons, The Metamorphoses of Ovid, Books XIII and XIV, 14.556
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