2009 Form Challenges

#2 Sapphic Poetry

Sappho, 630 BC - 570 BC, was an Ancient Greek lyric poet associated with either Eresos or Mytilene on Lesbos. Most of her poetry, which was well known and admired throughout the ancient world, is irrecoverable, but her reputation prevails through extant fragments of her work.

Sappho used several metrical forms for her poetry, most famously the Sapphic Stanza, although it is not a certainty she created it or as is more likely it is part of the Aeolic tradition of the time. References by Marius Victorinus claim the form was invented by Alcaeus but was used more frequently by Sappho therefore becoming associated with her name.

A few centuries later the Roman poet Catullus wrote in Sapphic Stanza for Catullus 11 and 51 after admiring Sappho's work. Catullus 51 being in fact a rough translation of Sappho's poem 31. The poet Horace also used Sapphics in many of his odes.

The Sapphic Stanza is an Aeolic verse composed of three lines, in the poetry of Sappho and Alcaeus as there would be no word end prior to the final Adonean. The Modern Sapphic Stanza form is four lines.

In Ancient Greek poets used a quantative meter based on long, short syllables and anceps (free syllable) giving a structured form of two hendecasyllabic lines and third that starts as hendecasyllabic and continues with five extra syllables which is known as the Adonic or Adonean line.

Using '-' to represent a long syllable, 'u' a short syllable and 'x' an anceps, the schematic of the Sapphic Stanza can be noted thus:
- u x - u u - u - -
- u x - u u - u - -
- u x - u u - u - x - u u - -

Here is an example of Sappho's Hymn to Aphrodite translated by Elizabeth Vandiver:
Iridescent-throned Aphrodite, deathless
Child of Zeus, wile-weaver, I now implore you,
Don't--I beg you, Lady--with pains and torments crush down my spirit,

But before if ever you've heard my pleadings
Then return, as once when you left your father's
Golden house; you yoked to your shining care your wing-whirring sparrows;

Skimming down the paths of the sky's bright ether
On they brought you over the earth's black bosom,
Swiftly--then you stood with a sudden brilliance, Goddess, before me;

Deathless face alight with your smile, you asked me
What I suffered, who was my cause of anguish,
What would ease the pain of my frantic mind, and why had I called you

To my side: "And whom should Persuasion summon
Here, to soothe the sting of your passion this time?
Who is now abusing you, Sappho? Who is treating you cruelly?

Now she runs away, but she'll soon pursue you;
Gifts she now rejects--soon enough she'll give them;
Now she doesn't love you, but soon her heart will burn, though unwilling."

Come to me once more, and abate my torment;
Take the bitter care from my mind, and give me
All I long for; Lady, in all my battles fight as my comrade.

English language poetry have transposed the Sapphic Stanza into accentual meter by adopting a stressed syllable for the long ones and anceps and unstressed syllables for the short. The stanza is also composed over four lines, the first three being hendecasyllabic followed by the Adonean line.

The hendecasyllabic lines are formed by two trochees, a dactyl, and two trochees. The Adonean is composed of a dactyl followed by either as trochee or spondee.

Using /. to represent stressed syllables and u. the unstressed, the schematic of the Sapphic Stanza can be noted thus:

/. u.. /. u.. /. u.u.. /. u.. /. u..
/. u.. /. u.. /. u.u.. /. u.. /. u..
/. u.. /. u.. /. u.u.. /. u.. /. u..
/. u.u.. /. u..

Here is an example of Adonic Sapphic 121 by Jan Haag:
Sun's rise, moon's set, rain's wild lees, dew drops, sea's calm --
where will thunder rumble to fall from lightning
skies and shake the earth's mild desire to rest in

bliss, untroubled, blameless, quite still in green, blue
atmosphere, clouds, winds with its longing known, lost?
Come again pale star, ride across the world's bright

There are variations of the Sapphic Stanza and I have chosen the Loose Sapphic form created by Marie Marshall. The form is composed over four lines, the first three being hendecasyllabic and the fourth being pentasyllabic.

The focus is on syllabic meter rather than accentual giving the poet more room to explore poetical device and grammatical schema within the verse structure. From the creator's own examples I have found the poems to be more vibrant and dramatic than their strictly metric counterparts.

Using 'X' to represent each syllable the schema of the Loose Sapphic form can be shown as thus:


Here is an example of that form by Marie Marshall:
To Chincoteague

My eyes now light upon an oystercatcher
in its jav'lin flight low over the grey waves
as dawn touches the beach, wind whips stings of sand
I narrow my eyes.

Sun struggling over the horizon; surf-noise
and the bird's piping call are the only sounds.
My gaze follows the flight straight and swift until
the little spark fades.

Bird, can you fly the seas to the west of us?
Can you make that journey flat against the wind,
the dawn at your back, to be there and to call
my dear heart to wake?

Steer by the lighthouse at Assateague, and then
just a little north to Chinoteague whose name
means beautiful, whose beauty is made greater
by my love's presence.

Can your cry start the ponies and Sika deer?
Can you dodge the merlin and the peregrine
to lay your cry upon my darling's ear,
as the sun rises?

If not, dear bird, if you cannot make that flight,
what chance do my own cries have as I stand here?
My tears make little difference to the great sea,
my own heart, broken.

Another variation is believed to be created by Jeff Green (based on the Sapphic odes by Pope) is an accentual meter form composed over four lines, the first three being iambic tetrameter and the fourth iambic dimeter. The form also has a rhyme schema where the first and third lines rhyme and the also the second and fourth line of each stanza.

Using 'X' to represent the stressed syllables, 'x' the unstressed ones, 'A' and 'B' represent the rhymes the schema of this Sapphic can be noted thus:

x X x X x X x A
x X x X x X x B
x X x X x X x A
x X x B

Reference Index:
Author Jem Farmer
Writing Metrical Poetry by William Baer
The Book of Forms by Lewis Turco
Poetry Gnosis -- www.poetrybase.info
The Poet's Garret -- www.thepoetsgarret.com
Poetry and Notes of Marie Marshall -- http://allpoetry.com/ Mairi bheag
Other Women's Voices -- http:.//home.infionline.net/~ddisse/

Tutors and Advisors:

Tia Andrews
Jeff Green
Marie Marshall
Lewis Turco
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