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The Fragmentation of Sappho: Materiality and Translation

by Kitty Doherty

Polyphony, Volume 2, Issue 2 First published April 2020, Manchester



This essay focuses upon the literary figure of Sappho in order to discuss issues of how the past is viewed, used and constructed by the present. There is a vast disjunction between the vast legacy of Sappho and the physical evidence of her work in existence today. As such, this essay explores the question: to what extent is her legacy constructed by historical evidence, and how much by the cultural imagination of the present? In doing this I draw upon Ezra Pound's 'Papyrus', a poem and a translation of three words claimed to be Sappho's found on an ancient scrap of papyrus. My analyses finds that Pound's poem embodies this discrepancy in the figure of Sappho, and highlights the vital role the imposition of literary form plays in the creation of meaning, and of an 'afterlife' as immense, yet as ambiguous, as Sappho's.


Sappho is an archaic, lyric poet who lived and performed her poetry on the island of Lesbos in the sixth and seventh centuries BC. Throughout antiquity she was known as the tenth muse: her works were edited into nine books in the great library of Alexandria in the Hellenistic period and today, she has been translated or adapted by poets from Ezra Pound to Anne Carson. Nevertheless, approximately only sixhunded and fifty lines of her poetry survive, mostly as fragments found on pieces of papyrus during archaeological digs or quotes of her work from later authors. As such the ‘afterlife’ of Sappho holds a vast disjunction in the relationship between the meaning and the materiality of her work. How can so much content come from so little? It is necessary to examine these issues as the manipulation of history is no small matter, given the influence the past has over the present. It is necessary to be aware of the condition in which history reaches us, and to aim to determine how much, if any, of what we perceive as history can be called ‘true’.

In general, meaning succeeds form in the cultural imagination. People remember content, substance, impressions, but forget how these were reached. It is important to remember, however, that form shapes meaning, and is a feature controlled by whoever writes or alters records of the past. Correspondingly, I aim first to highlight this point with regard to the legacy of Sappho. I will go on to discuss her ‘afterlife’, which I take as her ‘meaning’, in conjunction with contemporary physical manifestations of her work, which I otherwise call her ‘form’. It is important to note that I take her ‘meaning’ to encompass the general set of beliefs attributed to her figure, life and historical context in contemporary society, and that I presume that any reader of Sappho will be aware of these beliefs. Her legacy will be analysed in line with Ezra Pound’s ‘Papyrus’, a rendition of a Sappho fragment I suggest epitomises the congruent relationship between form and content, and the problematic lack of historical grounding sustaining her ‘afterlife’.

It is essential to first discuss the relationship between form and meaning in the notion of the ‘literary past’. Literary history is habitually described in a way which is structured, formed and whole: literary timelines, literary periods, and literary styles. To label an author ‘postmodern’, whilst placing that individual within a structural, physical literary timeframe (e.g.the twentieth century; adjacent to the modernists) brings with it meaningful connotations. That author will be presumed to break boundaries and play with narrative reliability, for example. This suggests that form and meaning have a congruent relationship, with the imposing of structure and form carrying semantic signification. Meese and Parker aptly perceived the connection between literary criticism and a desire to ‘fill in [the] gaps’ epistemologically, noting that ‘Helpless before history, the postmodern intellectual invents historicism as a game which helps to deny our fears about the relation between what was written and what really happened in the past’ (see note 1). Consequently, the categorisation of the Sappho fragments into some tangible form is to be expected. Sappho herself has been determined, amongst other things, as a lyric, elegiac, and iambic poet resulting in the ‘Sapphic’ poetic form being attributed to her. This naming implies her poetry, centuries ago, was all in this specific form, forging a tangible connection between her poetry in the sixth century BC and poetry in the contemporary world in which the label exists.

The physical evidence of Sappho’s ‘after-life’ is suspect due to its fragmented nature.

This is an important discussion due to what little we have of her work in relation to the meaning imposed on her, and, vitally, the fact that the fragmentation of her body of work is because she is part of ancient history. This fragmentation of her work signals a process: of destruction, preservation, a loss of origin in terms of time, geography and authorship, and any meaningful coherence or unity. Writing on fragments, Utell noted papyrus as ‘that marker of writing through history and of history, signifying scraps and fragments of a literary past' (see note 2). Utell is hinting at a corresponding relationship between materiality and content; physical fragments as representative of semantic fragments. A similar analogous relationship between materiality and meaning is asserted by Walker, who urged the reading of a text’s physical form as equally important to its semantic essence:

By refusing a basic conceptual dichotomy that regards a text as an inherent message imposed upon an expendable medium, these readings incorporate the materiality of early documents into the interpretive process to show how that materiality might jointly labor in the production of dramatic meaning (see note 3).

Ziolkowski, focussing on ideological fragmentation in art and literature and signalling artists’ successful attempts to make new forms from past fragments, asserted

Even when the tradition is shattered, the fragmentation itself constitutes a recognizable feature of twentieth-century European culture… Modernity, even postmodernity, represents in an important sense an extreme stage in the evolution of the classical tradition, for fragmentation depends upon familiarity with the original whole, just as parody and caricature assume our acquaintance with the work or figure being mocked (see note 4).

Ziolkowski raises an important corresponding point concerning physical and conceptual fragmentation. A fragment always has meaning in relation to some whole, and rarely holds meaning autonomously. This is due, perhaps, to the fact that the very notion of a fragment signifies both presence and absence, only providing enough form and content to allow for meaning, but leaving space for what is to be ‘finished’ by the imagination of the reader. With respect to Sappho, it could be argued that the fragmentary form of her poems has determined the semantics of her literary afterlife, in that from fragments the reader ‘fills in the gaps’; imagines awhole’.

Another crucial element in assessing the ‘afterlife’ of Sappho is the issue of translation. The majority of Sappho’s modern readership does not speak Ancient Greek. Accordingly, the works of Sappho are experienced almost exclusively in translation— the process of which involves a distancing between the reader and the ‘real’ Sappho. It imposes another layer of form, and concurrently another layer of meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘translation’ in a number of ways: ‘a. Transference; removal or conveyance from one person, place, or condition to another.’, ‘a. The action or process of turning from one language into another; also, the product of this; a version in a different language.’, ‘ b. transf. and fig. The expression or rendering of something in another medium or form, e.g. of a painting by an engraving or etching' (see note 5). These definitions highlight equation as always implied in an act of translation; an equivalence of meaning with some alteration in form. Komura, writing on H.D.’s translations of Sappho, perceptively noted

The act of translation becomes synonymous with an act of compensation that is bound to fall short of the original [...] H.D.'s translation of Sappho effectively calls into question the conventional understanding of translation as a compensatory mechanism in which the translation somehow “makes up” for the illegibility of the original work; instead, it proposes a conception of translation as a creation— a creation of loss that gives birth to the original through signification of its privation, or a creation of “afterlife” that creates the life past (see note 6). 

Komura seems to suggest that meaning is not transferred through translation but is lost entirely, and in this space is created something new. This raises some important questions: If the new translation is indeed that, new, then what connects it with its original? What, if anything, is continued from the translated object through to the translated product? Benjamin provided an answer to this problem when he stated ‘The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original’ (see note 7). Through the metaphor of the ‘echo’, Benjamin implies the translated product is not only a changed form of its original, but also changed and distant, in meaning. Nonetheless, crucial to the definition of an echo is that it could not exist without its original. It is ontologically parallel with, and a repeated form of, this original. Welcoming Benjamin’s definition with regard to Sappho implies that whilst the translated poems we read today are ontologically associated with, and dependent upon, what the historical Sappho really wrote, they are formally and semantically separated.

I hope to have established the corresponding issues of form and meaning in relation to how Sappho as a literary figure of the past relates to the experience those in the present day have of her, and the problematic role fragmentation and translation play in this. To consolidate and further my argument, I will now turn to an analysis of Ezra Pound’s poem ‘Papyrus’, which appeared in his 1916 poetry collection ‘Lustra’. The poem itself is a translation of three words found on an ancient leaf of papyrus, which reads, in its entirety:

Spring ...
Too long ...
Gongula … (see note 8).

A translated copy of the text was first published in German in 1902 (see note 9). J. M. Edmunds translated and published the poem in English in 1909 (see note 10), and then a revised version in 1916 (see note 11), and his are the generally accepted English renditions. Fragmentation and translation are both prevalent themes in the ontological state of this Sappho poem, and are evident in Edmond’s notes accompanying the 1916 translation. Alongside an analysis of the possible interpretations of the ancient text, he writes:

I have contented myself with a very careful re-examination of the photographs procured for me by Dr. Schubart seven years ago. This re-examination has included a new reconstitution of the torn, creased and twisted originals by the method described in my earlier papers, a method involving in one case the piecing together of as many as twelve tracings. I have found, also, that greater experience of such attempts at restoration has made it possible in some cases to offer plausible suggestions for very fragmentary lines in which formerly I could see no clue.’ (see note 12).

The very fact that he, a single translator, offers two distinct translations, based on extensive study and within seven years, suggests at the erroneous nature of the translation process. In turn, Edmond’s notes highlight the vital role of materiality. The originals are ‘torn, creased and twisted’, his ‘method’ is the ‘piecing together’ of scattered fragments, and it is this ‘re-examination’ and ‘piecing together’ which creates the possibility of meaning: ‘plausible suggestions’ where he could formerly ‘see no clue.’ Accordingly, this poem incites further discussion regarding materiality in the legacy of Sappho.

Moreover, what is Pound’s poem, as a translation, asserting about the nature of translation as a form and its consequential effect on meaning? Firstly, it is useful to note the major disparity between Pound’s ‘translation’ and that of Edmond’s. Pound’s translation (or poem, a dubious issue I will later discuss), consists of just three words. In translating such a small number of words, which are arguably so few as to lack any meaning, the poem seems to draw attention to the little continuity existent between the translation and the original. He has not filled in, but left absence where it really was. In turn, an informed reader would know that Pound’s and Edmond’s came from the same fragmented physical source. This would result in Edmond’s translation appearing contrived, as the insertion of Edmond’s own words becomes more evident in comparison with Pound’s minimal rendition. Drawing on Komura’s previously discussed notions of translation as creation, ‘Papyrus’ arguably confirms this. Significant, too, is the title and the literary context of Pound’s poem. Unlike other translations of Sappho’s works, he neither calls his translation a ‘translation’ nor attributes it to Sappho with a fragment number, as other authors have done. These actions suggest an awareness on Pound’s part that ‘Papyrus’ is not connected to the real figure of Sappho or the original poem it was a part of, but is instead a separate creation. In turn, unlike other contemporary authors who have attempted to translate Sappho (see note 13), Pound has neither created an entire book of translations nor placed his poem in any such book. Instead, the poem is in a book of original poems. Again, this suggests that he is the author of this poem, not Sappho. He acknowledges the tension between ‘translation’ and ‘poem’, and, in asserting ‘Papyrus’ as a poem, acknowledges the creative process involved in translation, and by implication, assigns dishonestly on those who claim to be ‘translators’. Evidence of translation as a wilfully transformative process can be further noted in Pound’s choice of punctuation- each line ends with ellipses. Linguistically, ellipses indicate an omission when quoting, which makes them signifiers of a value judgement. Accordingly, the poem’s punctuation portrays a layer of conscious authorship, symbolic of the distance between the contemporary reader and the original author, Sappho.

The issue of materiality is similarly prevalent in ‘Papyrus’. Visually, ‘Papyrus’ is more white space than writing. Drawing on my earlier suggestions regarding absence and translation, this compositional choice could point to an absence of meaning. Bearing in mind the poem’s material history, the page’s blankness could be said to embody the physical journey of the poem from conception to the present, which has left it ontologically as a minute part of what it was, with more of its existence lost than retained. Arguably, this aspect of ‘Papyrus’ draws readers towards materiality as an important feature of literature. The absence highlights the fact that the three words carry meaning only because we, the modern reader, believe we know about Sappho and bring our own interpretation to the poem. Based on Sappho’s reputation as a lesbian love poet, a reader could assume this poem was indeed a love poem directed towards the mysterious ‘Gongula’, further emphasised by the romantic motif of ‘spring’ and the yearning tone of ‘too long’. The physical emptiness of ‘Papyrus’, however, draws attention to the vastness of our own interpretations and the absent reality these are based upon. These three words would have no such meaning without the perception we have of the figure of Sappho, her sexuality, and the overwhelming meaning in her ‘afterlife’. As Rayor aptly notes, ‘Readers come to Sappho with assumptions about Sappho as a historical person, her poetry, performance situations, and the individual poems and fragments. We read each piece as fitting into the overall picture in our minds' (see note 14). In turn, as previously noted, ‘Papyrus’ was published in a poetry book created by Pound and alongside original poems. Such a context serves to highlight the knowledge a reader is supposed to have in order to understand it is a Sappho translation (as only with this knowledge does it seem to make ‘sense’). Moreover, the poem’s title, ‘Papyrus’ signposts the materiality and the age of the poem; papyrus being an ancient recording material no longer used. Given that a literary title commonly refers to the overall semantic message of a text; ‘Papyrus’ indicates a privileging of form over, in place of, or at least equated with, meaning. Walker, discussing materiality, affirmed that ‘the facsimile records a physical state that the manuscript no longer possesses, but it therefore expands our access to its historicity' (see note 15). ‘Papyrus’ opens the reader up to the historicity of the figure of Sappho in asserting the physical and semantic changes her and her works have experienced before reaching us, her ‘pastness’, and her ultimate intangibility.

I have delineated Pound’s ‘Papyrus’ in relation to the ‘afterlife’ of Sappho. In turn, I have highlighted the influential roles of translation and fragmentation as aspects of form embodied by the poem, and discussed what these suggest about the ‘afterlife’ of Sappho in relation to the historical Sappho. It can be suggested that ‘Papyrus’, in emphasising materiality and the polysemic nature of literature, embodies the corroding processes inherent in the identity of literature from the ancient past. As such, the poem urges an awareness of both the historical distance between the modern reader and the historical Sappho, and of the subjective, constructed and baseless nature of what we think we know about her. This poses a notion in line with Martindale, who wrote that ‘our current interpretations of ancient texts, whether or not we are aware of it, are, in complex ways, constructed by the chain of receptions through which their continued readability has been affected"' (see note 16).

I will now more broadly discuss what can be learned from this discussion in terms of the larger question of how the literary present view, you and remember ‘the past’. As ‘Papyrus’ exhibits, the ancient past— being lost from living memory— only reaches the present by way of physical records. As such, in terms of what we can know of the past, what meaning it has, and how it exists through physical records. ‘The past’ is overwhelmingly absent from us, and its physical manifestations are, as Kenner writes, ‘phantasmagoric weskits, stray words, random things recorded,’ on which ‘the imagination augments, metabolizes, feeding on all it has to feed on, such scraps' (see note 17). Subsequently, form is meaning. Therefore, as the form of the ancient past is fragmentary, scattered and lost, our knowledge and experience of the past is based more on absence than substance. As Barthe’s asserts, the meaning of a text ‘lies not in its origin but in its destination’ and the reader 'is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted' (see note 18). As Barthe’s notes, the literary past is not as faithful to reality, but subjective to each reader whose imagination fills in the gaps made by the erosion of time; constructed atop layers of interpretations, alterations and translations previously made. Hence, the literary past as we claim to know it, the romantic, lyrical and lesbian icon that is Sappho, is merely a semantic and physical scattering. A reflection of the creative imagination of the present rather than the actuality of the past.



1: Elizabeth A. Meese and Alice A. Parker, Feminist Critical Negotiations (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1992), p.20

2: Janine Utell, ‘Virtue in Scraps, Mysterium in Fragments: Robert Graves, Hugh Kenner, and Ezra Pound.’ Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 27, no. 1/2, 2003, pp. 99–104. p.99

3: Johnathan Walker, ‘Reading Materiality: The Literary Critical Treatment of Physical Texts,’ Renaissance Drama 41, no. 1/2 (Fall 2013): pp.199-232. p.13

4: Theodore Ziolkowski, “The Fragmented Text: The Classics and Postwar European Literature,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Spring, 2000), pp. 549-562 (New York City: Springer, 2000) p.551

5: "translation, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2018. Web. 14 January 2019.

6: Toshiaki Komura, ‘Loss Created: H.D.’s Translation of Sappho’s Fragments’, (Sapporo: Fuji Women’s University, 2001) p.40

7: Walter Benjamin,. “The Task of the Translator” [first printed as introduction to a Baudelaire translation, 1923], Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn; ed. & intro. Hannah Arendt (NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1968), p. 72

8: Ezra Pound, ‘Papyrus’, in Lustra (Australia: Leopold Classic Library, 2015) p.49

9: Wilhelm Schubart, in Sitzungsberichte d. konigl. preuss. Akademie der Wissenschaften, Jahrg. (1902) pp.202-203

10: J. M Edmunds, The Classical Review23, (1909) p.156

11: J. M Edmunds, The Classical Review 30, (1916) p. 130

12: J. M Edmunds,, The Classical Review 30, (1916) p. 130

13: Diane Rayor, Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Carol Ann Duffy &A. Poochigian,. Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments of Sappho (Penguin Classics)

14: Diane Rayor, ‘Reimagining the Fragments of Sappho through Translation’, The Newest Sappho: P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, Frs. 1-4: Studies in Archaic and Classical Greek Song, vol. 2 ) p.412

15: Walker, pp.199-23 p.14

16: Charles Martindale, ‘Redeeming the Text: The Validity of Comparisons of Classical and Postclassical Literature (A View from Britain)’, Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics Third Series, Vol. 1, No. 3, p.15

17: Kenner, The Pound Era, (California: University of California Press, 1971) p.5

18: Roland Barthes, Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill & Wang, 1977), p.148

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