Sapphics

The Story So Far

1. Foot, Metrics, Prosody and Scansion

1.1 General Overview

1.2 Anglophonic metrics

1.3 Romance Languages

1.4 Classical languages

2. Verse Forms

2.1 Sestina

2.2 Villanelle

2.3 Pantoum

2.4 English Sonnet

2.5 Rondelet

2.6 Italian Sonnet

2.7 Pushkin Sonnet

Experimental Intermission

3.1. Iambic pentameter stanzas

2. Verse Forms

2.8 Terza Rima

2.9 Ghazal

2.10 Sea Shanty

Sappho

Sappho was an Ancient Greek poet born on the island of Lesbos, included in the canon of the Nine Lyric Poets. Only fragments of her work remain now, fragments I have a deep and enduring admiration for. Her work is characterised by transcendant and mortal passion, as well as supreme technical ability.

I’m going to digress slightly here, as I feel Sappho is deserving of more than a few biographical lines followed by a clumsy attempt at approximating her work. It would be tawdry and predictable to decry the undoubtedly huge loss to the world that was the bulk of Sappho’s poetry, which is why, if you want to properly appreciate what remains of her work without knowledge of Greek, your best option is Ann Carson’s If Not, Winter. Carson is probably the finest living poet that I know of, with an understanding of space that’s second to none. As such, she makes as much use of the gaps as she does the actual words. Furthermore, she resists re-ordering the word to hammer a square Ancient Greek metre into a round English language hole, nor does she add possessive pronouns where none exist in the original. The result is quite haunting; Fragment 31’s narrator is now disembodied, ego-less, as ephemeral as parchment:

He seems to me equal to gods that man

whoever he is who opposite you
sits and listens close
to your sweet speaking

and lovely laughing – oh it
puts the heart in my chest on wings
for when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking
is left in me

no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin
and in eyes no sight and drumming
fills ears

and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all, greener than grass
I am and dead – or almost
I seem to me.

But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty

The Stanza
The Sapphic stanza is composed of three hendecasyllabic lines followed by an Adonic line. So (and I apologise again for the formating fucking up after the scansion marks, I are no good at WordPress):

/ ˘ | / ˘ | / ˘ ˘ | / ˘ | / ˘ x3

     / ˘ ˘ | / ˘

This is a difficult metre if you ask me, even if we're counting it qualitatively (being Ancient Greek, it would have originally been counted quantitatively). Here are some examples in English.


Examples


So the | goddess | fled from her | place, with | awful

Sound of feet and thunder of wings around her;

While behind a clamour of singing women

           Severed the | twilight.

Swinburne

Once, after long-drawn revel at The Mermaid,

He to the overbearing Boanerges

Jonson, uttered (if half of it were liquor

           Blessed be the vintage!)


Rudyard Kipling, in a tribute to Shakespeare called The Craftsman

Such shall the noise be and the wild disorder,

(If things eternal may be like these earthly)

Such the dire terror, when the great Archangel

           Shakes the creation,

Tears the strong pillars of the vault of heaven,

Breaks up old marble, the repose of princes;

See the graves open, and the bones arising,

           Flames all around 'em!


The third and fourth stanzas of The Day of Judgment by Isaac Watts

Let’s give it a go!


/ ˘ |/ ˘|/˘˘| / ˘ | / ˘ x3

Light, from conservatory windows, enters

Splitting night, unfolding the vision, brightly

Bringing Bast's visage, holy pagan

/ ˘ ˘ | / ˘

           Goddess of morning,

 

Telling me, obscured though she is, Heaven's

Gaze a spinning shroud (that which speaks to angels

Sears the eyes of men), of those sacred orders:

           Love for the worldly.

19/12/11

Closing thoughts


I found this very very difficult. It took about an hour and a half to compose two stanzas. To fit the rhythm, I had to use enjambments that probably come across as awkward. Bast, of course, isn't, to my knowledge, the goddess of morning, but the subject matter is based on personal experience (don't ask; I have some kind of weird epilepsy.)


I think next time I use hendecasyllables, I'll probably use the English version: an iambic pentameter followed by a very short unstressed syllable, e.g. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” (see here). I wonder if it would be acceptable to write a Sapphic like this?


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Laurence Thompson

Laurence Thompson is an English writer. He is almost certainly drunk.

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