24 June 2005

By Sappho, out of Oxyrhynchus

Weekly book reviews and literary criticism from the Times Literary Supplement
Parts of three of her poems are represented. As usual, all are in a fragmentary state. But the second one, it turned out, had been partially known since 1922 from an Oxyrhynchus papyrus of the third century ad, and by combining the two texts we now obtain an almost complete poem.

When we had only the Oxyrhynchus portion, we had only line-ends, preceded and followed by line-ends of other poems, and it was not clear where one poem ended and the next began; the left-hand margin, where this would have been signalled, was missing. That question is now settled. We have a poem of twelve lines, made up of six two-line stanzas. The last eight lines are virtually complete. The first four are still lacking two or three words each at their beginnings. But we can make out the sentence structure and restore the sense of what is lost, if not the exact words. Here is the poem in my own restoration and translation. The words in square brackets are supplied by conjecture.

'[You for] the fragrant-blossomed Muses' lovely gifts
[be zealous,] girls, [and the] clear melodious lyre:

[but my once tender] body old age now
[has seized;] my hair's turned [white] instead of dark;

my heart's grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.

This state I oft bemoan; but what's to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there's no way.

Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
love-smitten, carried off to the world's end, handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o''ertook him, husband of immortal wife.'

Meanwhile, it seems that Narcissus actually came t a fairly sticky end.

The ugly end of Narcissus
Narcissus was so beautiful that vast numbers of men (not Echo and other females, in the newly discovered poem) fell in love with him. However, such was his egocentricity that he spurned them all, leaving a trail of heartbreak behind him. Finally, a rejected suitor persuaded one of the gods to deal with him. Narcissus was made to stare for ever at his own image, reflected in a pool of water. The more he stared, the more desperately he fell in love with himself.

According to Ovid, Narcissus - pining from a broken heart - wasted away and died, whereupon he turned into the world's very first narcissus flower. However the earlier version has now revealed that the original myth probably had a less peaceful, more violent denouement, ending in bloody suicide.

The papyrus fragment is one of tens of thousands that were found in the late 19th and early 20th century in ancient rubbish dumps at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. These dumps, now fully excavated, are the world's largest source of ancient writings, accounting for 70 per cent of all known literary papyri. Many are kept at Oxford but the majority have still not been fully transcribed and translated. It was during work on these remaining manuscripts that the Narcissus fragment was found.

Dr Henry thinks it likely that its author was Parthenius of Nicaea, a Greek from what is now western Turkey. He appears to have been born sometime around 100 to 90 BC and was taken prisoner by the Romans during a war in Anatolia in around 73 BC. He ended up in Italy, where he became the Roman poet Virgil's tutor.

Narcissus either worked for the Bush administration or wrote an ancient blog.

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