When I was 12 and an altar boy at St. Mary’s of the Assumption Church, on my way to serve midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, I looked intently at the winter sky in search of the Star of Bethlehem.
I learned about the Star in catechism class and grew to believe that it returned every year and that, finding it in the darkness of night I, like the Magi of the first Christmas, would find the heralded child born in a manger.
The Christmas carol, “We Three Kings,” which my family sang and was played incessantly on the radio, said so:
O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide me to thy perfect light.
“Still proceeding.” It meant the star came every year for every believer to see.
Within 10 years, in college courses on the Greek Scriptures (the New Testament), I was introduced to concepts such as “form criticism,” “redaction criticism,” and Midrash.
These methods exhorted that, in reading Biblical texts, it was critical to define the literary form and historical context of biblical passages in order to understand how the redactor (editor) shaped the narrative to express certain theological truths and reveal the purpose of his writing.
In the case of the narrative of Jesus’s birth, I found out there were two stories, one by Matthew the other by Luke, and that they did not put forth the same facts, in fact contradicted each other. I was disedified: How could there be a discrepancy in the Bible?
I was told the stories were parables — as Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan explain in “The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth” — stories that might not be factual but nevertheless contain deep truths. A Joe Friday “Just the facts, ma’am” approach would not get at the truth.
In examining the Christmas stories critically, I had to conclude there was no manger, there were no swaddling clothes, there was no “star of night” to lead me to the “house” or “stable” — the two gospels differ on the location of the event — so I stopped looking for the Star of Bethlehem.
But there was a subversive quality to the new thinking in that, when the seeker of truth hears the angels (metaphoric) sing “peace on earth,” that person feels called to become a person of peace, which might include taking a stand against corporate, military, and religious institutions that initiate, thrive on, and profit from war.
In singing carols such as “Silent Night,” “O Holy Night,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” the person of conviction receives the truths contained in the Scriptural narrative and elects to chase away the darkness without fear, indeed becomes the announcing angel singing, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”
The great joy is that another soul has chosen to live a different kind of life, to create a different kind of world, one in which poverty and injustice are confronted and steps taken to eliminate them.
A while back, it struck me that that was what Dickens was talking about in “A Christmas Carol” — my favorite (and only) childhood book — when the Ghost of Christmas Present forces Scrooge to look upon two emaciated children, a boy called “Ignorance” and a girl called “Want.”
The spirit warns Scrooge, “Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom unless the writing be erased.”
But ill-sighted Scrooge could not accept personal responsibility for erasing the conditions that gave these children currency, exclaiming in write-off fashion: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”
As the night progresses, as lovers of the story know, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come projects for Scrooge personal destruction that will occur — the death of Tiny Tim — without his involvement in the lives of others. Scrooge of course undergoes a transformation and becomes Tim’s “second father.”
The 19th-Century novelist Margaret Oliphant described this book of metamorphosis as “a new gospel.” claiming that it did in fact make people better.
“A Christmas Carol” came out in 1843 and reflected Dickens’s real-life experiences with the poor and downtrodden. The book’s plot was conceived during the author’s three-day stay in Manchester, England witnessing the poverty and human degradation inflicted on the “dregs” of the citizenry.
I do think it more than coincidental that during 1843 the first worldwide commercial Christmas card was produced. Inventor Sir Henry Cole commissioned artist John Callcot Horsley of the Royal Academy in London to design a card that people could send to family and friends to wish them Merry Christmas while reminding them of what the December birthday stood for.
In its own right, the card is a kind of gospel, a parable that tells a story far more complex than the cards bought, signed, and sent today.
In the Horsley original, a family has gathered together to offer a toast to the person looking at the card. The gathered friends are facing the recipient with their glasses held high looking not sad but not exuding merriment.
On the card, to the right of the family is depicted a woman with a child being clothed by a compassionate older woman standing above them, and on the left is a man serving food to an old person and a child dressed as commoners.
Let those who make distinctions between the sacred and profane play games that split the world in two. When I saw the card, I exclaimed: Look! It’s the Star of Bethlehem!
The star shines in the family greeting its loved ones with a cup of caring wine and in the reminders offered, left and right, about how to defeat Ignorance and Want.
It is a continuation of the parable of love found in the Greek Scriptures as well as in the parable of transformation found in “A Christmas Carol” where angels and spirits respectively sing strains of peace and good will.
And such transformation is not the property of a particular sect of believers; it belongs to every soul who faces the dark night of winter. It might not contain a manger or swaddling clothes or shepherds watching their flocks beneath an open sky but it does reflect a world where the pain of those in need has been taken into account and eased, if only slightly, by human beings committed to angelic peace.
Under such circumstances, the darkness of death hasn’t a leg to stand on because it’s a death-defying birthday, a birthday that belongs to every soul far and wide who looks up in the midnight sky in search of the Star of Bethlehem.
The first chapter of Graeme Green’s “The Power and the Glory,” published in 1940, tells of a certain Mr. Tench who as a boy felt impelled to become a dentist like his father after finding in a wastebasket a discarded cast of a patient’s mouth.
The family tried to dissuade the boy from his fascination with the “toy” by offering an Erector Set in trade but the boy refused. It was too late, Greene says, “fate had struck,” and then with what is often quoted with regard to having a calling in life he adds: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
The door of course is the door to the unconscious. When it opens, the initiate — of any age, and it opens more than once — receives a vision, hears a voice, telling him what path to take in life, how to situate himself in the world. And the recipient has no choice but to obey unless he wishes to be haunted by guilt and regret for becoming a self he was not meant to be.
The haunting persists, the Swiss writer Alain de Botton says in “The Real Meaning of Your ‘True Calling’” (“O, The Oprah Magazine,” November 2009), because one’s calling is connected to such primal questions as “Who am I?” and “What am I meant to be?” Elsewhere he says, pessimistically it seems, the best a person can hope for is to see his talents and aptitudes find a receptive home in the world.
Of course there is grave difficulty in talking about “calling” or “vocation” today because formal religion coopted its usage centuries ago, claiming there is only one authentic voice and that is God’s, all others, as some claim, are the work of the Devil. Thus to have a calling has come to mean becoming a minister, a nun, a priest, or a similar church functionary.
It’s not that calling in life is not a religious concept; it is, but the larger community has been stripped of its stake in it. And yet just a few weeks before his death, on Aug. 30, 2015, the great neurologist Oliver Sacks spoke in The New York Times of his calling.
Involved with patients subject to the weirdest neurological disorders imaginable, Sacks said he felt “a mission to tell their stories . . . I had discovered my vocation, and this I pursued doggedly, single-mindedly” (with no help from others).
Speaking of calling this way, we see it means having a destiny the outline of which comes in the vision or dream when the door opens — and may direct the person to do something monumental as relieving the suffering of others.
Getting hooked up with one’s dream was part of every American Indian’s life growing up. The community did not wait for a door to open; they shook it open. They brought the aspirant to a remote place where, through fasting and ingesting concoctions to disorient the mind, he waited for a dream to come and project his destiny. And the Indians made clear that this was not the work of a spiked imagination.
When the Moravian missionary John Heckewelder, who lived among and near the Delawares (Lenni Lenape) for more than 30 years, saw an Indian engage in deeds of extraordinary courage, he inquired of the person how he knew he would be able to handle such things. The response was that the “tutelary (guardian) spirit” that he had received in a dream was his source of strength, his guarantor of safety.
In his “An Account of the History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations, who once inhabited Pennsylvania and the neighboring States,” published in 1819 — every line of which is worthy of attention — Heckewelder says initiates “were put under an alternate course of physic and fasting, either taking no food whatever, or swallowing the most powerful and nauseous medicines, and occasionally he is made to drink decoctions of an intoxicating nature, until his mind becomes sufficiently bewildered, so that he sees or fancies that he sees visions, and has extraordinary dreams, for which, of course he has been prepared beforehand.”
George Henry Loskiel, another Moravian clergyman who lived among the Indians in Pennsylvania, says in his equally-classical “History of the United Brethren among the Indians in North America,” printed in 1794, that the young man who has not received his calling becomes “dispirited and considers himself forsaken by God, till he has received a tutelary spirit in a dream; but those who have been thus favored, are full of courage, and proud of their powerful ally.” And God here means unbounded authentic inspiration.
In 2006, I delivered a paper at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Los Angeles, “To Have a Calling in Life: A Human Antidote to Growing up Absurd And, For Those Involved in the Criminology-Related Disciplines, A Sure Method of Delinquency Prevention.”
I told the gathered that I saw more than a few parents tell their kids to be their unique selves, to find their unique place in life, to do what they feel called to do but their tone said: Be a success which, when questioned about its meaning responded: Court fame, get into power, do unto others before they do unto you, be successful for yourself, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. You have to decode the texts in these messages but the meanings are there and are almost always dressed in the same nuance.
In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell — “Animal Farm” and “1984” do not scratch the surface — says that, if a person had a choice, “One would never undertake such a thing [in his case being a writer] if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
As Greene said: Fate strikes and it’s case closed.
In 1902, the German poet Maria Rainer Rilke received a now highly renowned letter from a 19-year-old soldier, Franz Xavier Kappus, along with a bevy of poems, asking the poet to look at them and tell him if he had something going on.
Not so matter-of-factly Rilke says the poems lack a “style of their own.” He avers, “You are looking outside yourself, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you — no one.” Except maybe a tutelary spirit who comes bearing a destiny dressed in a dream?
In his search for the essence of life, his continued calling, the great Spanish mystic Juan de la Cruz spoke of calling as involving a dark night of the soul but one in which all questions are answered. “On that glad night/in secret, for no one saw me,/nor did I look at anything/’ he says, “with no other light or guide/than the one that burned in my heart./This guided me/more surely than the light of noon . . .”
Years ago, I saw glimpses of a calling during discussions of soccer scores and Mel Brooks at dinner and more so during the boy’s periodic redition regarding his station in life. I listened because I knew such things are a matter of life and death.
Philosophy, the Queen, is at the center of the circle, surrounded by the seven liberal arts — grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy — in “Philosophia et septem artes liberales,” Latin for “Philosophy and the seven liberal arts.” The artwork is from the illuminated encyclopedia, “Hortus deliciarum,” meaning “Garden of Delights,” compiled by Herrad of Landsberg, 12th-Century abbess of Hohenburg Abbey in the French region of Alsace. The encyclopedia was used by young novices at the abbey and is thought to be the first written by a woman.
I would like to make a case for the study of the liberal arts in higher education but the deck is stacked against me.
The Internet is full of sites warning against academic money-losers and the arts and their literary entourage sit atop the list. Championing the liberal arts to bottom-line thinkers is like waving a red flag in front of a bull or more correctly watching the bull walk away with disinterest.
Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce issued a report this year, “The Economic Value of College Majors,” and among the disciplines resting safely in the food-stamp bin are: drama and theatrical arts; art and music; theology; studio arts, human services; language and drama education; and social work — never mind Greek and Latin (they died with Caesar) — in short, all the disciplines that feed the soul and help aspiring students frame a holistic vision of life.
Ranked at the top of the big-ticket diplomas in the report are: petroleum engineering ($135,000); pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences ($112,519); metallurgical engineering ($97,743); mining and mineral engineering ($97,372); chemical engineering ($96,156); and electrical engineering ($93,215).
It’s a riff on the old “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” joke and the answer is: engineering, engineering, engineering, and making the pills to dull the aches that living in a drum breeds.
The Georgetown report says early-childhood education majors — prepped to guide (not “lead” as their professional protocol asserts) kids 2 to 5 with the Piaget or alternate instructional methods — average $39,000 a year, which is little more than the presently-suggested upgrade in the minimum wage of $15 per hour.
This is not to say that early-childhood education is a liberal arts discipline but it can be when education is studied historically and in context where questions are asked like: How would Socrates handle a classroom in the city of Albany’s high school today? Would he reach for the hemlock once the kids saw his toga?
The majors that continue to remain popular among students are: business management and administration; accounting; general business; and nursing which means, QED, that Truth and Beauty, to cite Rodney Dangerfield, get no respect much less Truth and Beauty’s love child, Justice.
Is it not a sad irony that gold mined in the soil of the Earth is more highly prized than the gold sitting in classroom seats, never mind that seated behind the desk, those who guide or direct or teach or prime — pick your term — the kiddos for adolescence and adulthood.
The politically conservative columnist for The New York Times, David Brooks, has spoken with fervor in favor of the liberal arts — of self-reflective study that nourishes the soul — but a conflicted Brooks seems unable to shake himself free from a political-economic ideology that refuses to give the liberal arts equal footing in the marketplace.
He says he admires the saintliness of the modern social justice gadfly Dorothy Day — the pacifist anarchist who started the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933 — but refuses to accept, no, will not acknowledge, Day’s political economic stance on justice that caused civil and religious authorities much consternation. He stacks the deck against a holistic view of thinking (and living) that his beloved liberal arts are said to foster.
When the earnest student peruses Aeschylus, Arthur Miller, Dante, James Joyce, Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, or experiences the music compositions of John Cage and the dance sequences of Merce Cunningham, she sees the dangers of living a schizoid life and how such a life grates on well-being — though the liberal arts have never been guarantors of happiness.
And yet the liberal arts remain as contemporary as any course of study even when reflected in the lives of the ancients. The insights of sages east and west serve as a sword for cutting through the insulating jibber-jabber of any age. The aforementioned Socrates said that: No person desires evil; and no person errs or does wrong willingly or knowingly. Very intriguing postulates.
Whether one agrees with their assumptions or not, they can serve as an analytical sword for piercing the motives of, say, the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump when he says that women are “slobs,” “dogs,” “pigs,” “bimbos” and then avers “I cherish women.”
This is a different kind of divide from which Brooks suffers but it shows a person in conflict over the value of Truth. The curse of the House of Atreus shows there is a price to be paid for trying to inhabit two worlds simultaneously and making believe you’re whole.
And this curse can be seen spilling over into the modern family as an exasperated, despairing Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) tells his brother Charlie (Rod Steiger) in “On The Waterfront” that it was he, Charlie, his brother — not some ruthless mobster — who destroyed his career, indicating that familial death-like treachery persists among us.
How does a brother respond to: “You don't understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley [my brother, who destroyed me].”
The art of cinema as well as dance and music and literature exposes the student to Truth, Beauty, and Justice with bold and ineluctable lessons and helps the true aspirant develop a well-thought-out and meaningful “philosophy of life,” which is more essential these days than ever.
Since 1966, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles has asked in its survey of first-year college students about the importance of school in developing a sound philosophy of life.
As Fareed Zakaria points out in his recent “In Defense of a Liberal Education,” in 1967, eighty-six percent of the first-year students said college was important for “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” but a year ago, in 2014, only 45 percent of students thought it was.
Has the “American mind” officially closed down as Allan Bloom asserted in his controversial 1987 best-seller, “The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students.” It has (but not for the reasons Bloom asserted).
Wellesley College, one of the bastions of liberal arts education since its inception in 1875, has not backed off of but doubled-down on its commitment to the liberal arts in the 21st Century.
Its website says Wellesley is addressing the current challenge to the liberal arts “not by abandoning its belief in a liberal arts curriculum, but by working to ensure that students themselves understand — in the course of every learning challenge — that the disciplined thinking, refined judgment, creative synthesis, and collaborative dynamic [of the liberal arts]...are not only crucial to developing their leadership abilities, but are habits of mind that will serve them well throughout their lives, and be primary contributors to their success.”
Though such a commitment one can become Secretary of State, a screenwriter, president of a college, indeed a nationally-recognized editor of an award-winning newspaper — even its publisher some day — prying back open the American mind, weekly edition after weekly edition.
— Photo by Elinor Wiltshire
The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh in 1963 visiting the stony grey soil of the family farm in Inniskeen, County Monaghan. He died four years later at 63. His often-quoted poem “Stony Grey Soil” has been read for many decades by every child attending elementary schools in Ireland.
Anyone who’s Irish or Irish-American or has an interest in the Irish soul, and even those who don a T-shirt on St. Paddy’s Day beaming “Kiss me, I’m Irish” while chanting, “The Wild Colonial Boy” over endless jars of porter, will want to include on this summer’s reading list Anthony Cronin’s nonfiction “Dead as Doornails” published by Dublin’s Dolmen Press in 1976.
In “Dead as Doornails,” the Irish poet, biographer, novelist Cronin has produced a literary page-turner that reads like a murder mystery. The mystery is the reader wonders how long the cream of Dublin’s literary crop — who hung out at McDaid’s, that famous public house at 3 Harry Street, for purposes of stout, whiskey, and conversation — can keep a step ahead of the Grim Reaper of drink.
Cronin chronicles seven writers and painters whom he knew and “hung with,” even living with some, and who were an integral part of the social and literary fabric of Dublin during the decades following World War II.
He shows the greatest affinity for the great Irish poet, Patrick Kavanagh; the great Irish poet, short story writer, novelist, and playwright, Brendan Behan; and the great Irish post-modern (a forerunner) novelist, Brian O’Nolan (aka Flann O’Brien, aka Myles na gGopaleen, when he wrote his column “Cruiskeen Lawn” for the Irish Times from 1940 until his death in ’66).
In the claustrophobic literary culture of Dublin, shaped by a scarcity of accolades and the ha’pennies needed to pay the rent, Kavanagh, Behan, and O’Brien went at each other with bladed tongues.
They acknowledged each other’s genius but rarely to each other’s face; their idiosyncratic suffering did not allow for convivial graciousness. Kavanagh, worst of all, could not stand a competitor of any ilk.
He eventually sold his friendship with an admiring and unconditionally supportive Cronin, for 30 pieces of ego. It’s painful to hear Cronin rue the loss of what could have been but there was a part of Kavanagh filled with bilious envy.
That the three refused to let each other up for air is evident in Myles’s column on Kavanagh’s “Spraying the Potatoes,” a poem published a short time before in the Times. Myles says, “I am no judge of poetry — the only poem I ever wrote was produced when I was body and soul in the gilded harness of Dame Laudanum — but I think Mr Kavanaugh [sic] is on the right track here. Perhaps the Irish Times, timeless champion of our peasantry, will oblige us with a series in this strain covering such rural complexities as inflamed goat-udders, warble-pocked shorthorn, contagious abortion, non-ovoid oviducts and nervous disorders among the gentlemen who pay the rent.”
Kavanagh, who came to the city from the family farm in Monaghan where he started writing rustic poems as a young man, knew that, when Dublin’s literary elite saw these words, many of whom graduated from Trinity or University College Dublin and considered themselves sophisticates, would relish Myles’s keeping a bumpkin in his place. The city smart-aleck Behan called Kavanagh a “culchie.”
But Kavanagh was able to escape the tag through a whole new order of poems that appeared in the mid-’50s typified by “Canal Bank Walk.” And his earlier rustic takes, such as “Stony Grey Soil,” “Shankoduff,” and “A Christmas Childhood,” have been part of every Irish child’s formation for decades. Every student from Dublin to Bantry has read his work and, should you meet one such in a pub some night, he will stand and recite with pride the full “Stony Grey Soil.”
Brendan Behan, openly gay and not bashful to talk about his exploits, came upon sudden fame when his play “Quare Fellow” was produced in Dublin’s Pike Theatre in 1954 though “quare” then did not have the pith it has today.
Originally called “The Twisting of Another Rope,” the drama chronicles the ignominies of prison life culminating in the execution of “the quare fellow,” a character never seen on stage. With respect to the demeaning insult of prison, Behan was writing from experience (see infra).
Born into a staunch republican family — his uncle was Peadar Kearney who wrote the “Irish National Anthem” — Behan left school at 13 to work in the family house-painting business.
At 16, he joined the Irish Republican Army and on a whacked-out whim conducted an unauthorized mission to blow up the Liverpool docks but the plot was thwarted. When the police found him heeled with explosives, he was sentenced to a borstal in the UK for three years. He wrote about his bid in “Borstal Boy,” which, when it appeared in 1958, became a sensation.
But, long before the book, a year after he got out of the borstal, in 1942, he was sentenced to 14 years for being involved in the killing of two detectives of the Garda Síochána. He was released after three years through a general amnesty that had been declared.
At McDaid’s and elsewhere Behan was always on, performing extended parlor pieces for the gathered crowd and even an audience of one when there was only one to be had, so great was his undiminished thirst for admiration.
He was so vicious in his sallies against Kavanagh that, when the Monahan poet alone in McDaid’s or elsewhere saw him coming, he hid or left the premises altogether. Cronin witnessed these encounters, which he treats with alternating doses of mirth and sadness.
Brian O’Nolan, who had his own covey of friends in McDaid’s and nearby pieds-à-terre, was no less a part of the goings-on. For years, he paid the rent working as a civil servant while writing for the Times. When he was “forced” to retire and a scant government pension did not allow ends to meet — the daily slog of drink a major drain — he sought a job as a clerical worker at Trinity but was denied.
Fate is crueler than anyone knows because decades later O’Nolan’s works were taught at the university, principally “At-Swin-Two-Birds,” published in 1939, the novel some say was the first postmodern piece written and a classic still. The Guardian ranks it 64 of the 100 best of all time.
O’Nolan was not around to see the kudos. Drink took him at 54; Behan it got at 41; and Kavanagh, the ancient of them, at 63, his belching stomach rarely tamed by the box of bicarb he carried on his person.
Cronin’s high-Irish Ciceronian sentences in “Dead as Doornails” are a delight to engage at every subordinate clause. He tells a riveting story.
There’s time to get a copy and sit beneath an umbrella on the beach refusing to talk to anyone until you’ve seen how the flames of these bright lights of Ireland’s soul flicker and expire.
φαίνεταί μοι. If that’s Greek to you, you’re correct, it is. And if you detected they are the first two words of the great Seventh-Century, Lesbos-born, Greek poet Sappho’s Poem 31, you are correct as well. It translates “He seems to me . . .”
It is Sappho’s most famous poem, an epithalamium, a wedding poem sung for a bride on the way to the marriage chamber.
The poem — or more correctly song because Sappho plucked a lyre (barbitos) while she recited — is quintessential Sappho and deserves the attention of not only poets but every living soul since Adam and Eve because it touches the feelings of a heart experiencing loss of a beloved.
In Poem 31 the singer, poet, lyricist — it could be Sappho or a projected other — is expressing feelings of jealousy because a woman she loves has gone off and married someone else, a man. The loss is so great, the poet says, she’s broken out in a cold sweat and shaking, her symptoms so acute she feels dead.
This ancient torch song contrasts greatly with the same theme country music stations play every day of the year but Sappho sings with more authenticity, immediacy, and accuracy of feeling. The listener cannot escape experiencing the pathos of the singer, thus the poem becomes a mirror for the listener’s soul.
And while our lesbian poet reveals she is in the throes of death, she tells her story “slant,” as Emily Dickinson commanded, so the reader does not feel Sappho — or whoever the projected singer is — is one of those 19th-Century repressed “hysterics” who came to Sigmund Freud in hopes of jettisoning sorrow.
Sappho was among the first Western literary ancients to address the world in the first-person, and the first to do so with such outright candor, without shame or malice, which is what every human being beset by loss desires, especially when laced with jealousy.
Because of her depth of insight, the ancients adored Sappho. They said she was as great as Homer, calling Homer “the poet” and her “the poetess.” Plato called her the “10th Muse.”
Her image was engraved on coins in Lesbos; a beautiful statue honoring her was erected in the town hall at Syracuse; elegant vases depicting her plucking a lyre were cast only two generations after her time for which cultured, well-to-do Greeks paid good money to display in their homes. It may not be too much to say she was an ancient rock star.
When the Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet Solon heard his nephew sing a song of hers at a drinking party, so enchanted was he, legend says, he asked the boy to teach it to him. He said, once he learned it, he would be able to die.
Long-time fans of Sappho are elated these days because the bard is back in the news. Last year, Dirk Obbink, a papyrologist at the University of Oxford, revealed he had been the recipient — secretly from a private collector — of two previously unknown poems of hers: one about her brothers, the other about unrequited love.
The finding of the “Brothers” poem was especially lauded because it makes only the second complete poem we have of Sappho; the other is called “fragment 1,” a hymn to Aphrodite, where the singer beseeches the Greek goddess to aid her in her pursuit of a woman she’s after (religion as an aid to libido-satisfaction).
Scholars are indeed grateful for anything “Sappho” that comes along because 97 percent of what she did is gone; her extant work consists of little more than 200 fragments of poems, a considerable number of which amount to no more than a line or two. It’s maddening. The greatest shame is that cataloguers in the ancient library of Alexandria said Sappho had nine books of poems to her credit amounting to more than 13,000 lines!
Whatever happened? You will find it written all over the Internet that those verses vanished because Roman Catholic officialdom burned her in disgust. The Byzantine archbishop Gregory of Nazianzen and Pope Gregory VII are always mentioned as the sanctioning culprits, but there is no evidence to support condemning them.
It is known, however, that the Second-Century ascetic and Christian theologian Tatian in his address to the Greeks (Oratio ad Graecos) called Sappho "a whore,” a whore “who sang about her own licentiousness.” But that fellow must be relegated to nutdom because he said that marriage was the institution of the devil.
The reality seems to be that Sappho’s work fell on rocky soil in large part because she wrote in a difficult vernacular Lesbian-Aeolic dialect that differed from the lingua franca of Athens at the time, so later copyists selecting books to transcribe triaged her to the trash in the interest of time and limited translation skills.
A new translation of Sappho appearing last year by Grand Valley State University (Michigan) Professor Diane J. Rayor (with introduction by André Lardinois) titled “Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works” helps to assuage the ignominy of such (idiotic) shortsightedness.
Rayor’s efforts have been lauded in all the scholarly mags (Lardinois’s introduction as well) but the nuances of her translation keep being compared to those of the laser-minded Greek scholar and poet Anne Carson in “If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho,” which appeared a dozen years ago. Vis-à-vis Carson, Rayor always seems to finish second.
Sappho said a poet can sing about wars and all that tough-guy stuff but what matters most is where a person’s heart is. In Poem (fragment) 16 she says (Carson’s translation):
Some men say an army of horses
and some men say an army on foot/
and some men say an army of ships
is the most beautiful thing/
on the black earth. But I say it is/
what you love.
Because she came from Lesbos and had an abiding affection for women — though she was married and had a daughter — during the latter part of the 19th Century women whose feelings of love were directed toward other women began to call themselves “lesbian.” The Greek verb lesbiazein (to act like the women of Lesbos) has highly erotic connotations and those interested in divining them can check their Liddell and Scott rather than expect explication in a family newspaper.
Sappho was exiled during her twenties or early thirties — depending on her actual birth year, which ranges from 630 to 612 B.C.E. — at a time when Lesbos was undergoing great political turmoil but no evidence exists to suggest she was politically involved.
And the erotic themes she sang about were not outlandish in any way. That judgment came during the Hellenistic period (third/second centuries B. C. E.) when what she said was regarded as disgraceful for a woman.
For those interested in exploring the mansions of the human heart, Sappho is cherished all the more because her few remaining texts keep out of reach like the apple she sang about in Fragment 105A (Carson translation):
as the sweetapple reddens on the high branch
high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot —
no, not forgot: were unable to reach.
But there is hope. Each unearthed papyrus, in which her words were sealed for over 2,000 years, enables the yearning heart to tiptoe a bit higher and just reach the sweet red apple of sapphic love.