Sappho's Poem of Jealousy through various translations
4:21 PM


Sappho was one of the only well-known ancient Greek women poets. Born between 630 and 612 B.C., Sappho lived an affluent life where she spent her days on the isle of Lesbos, writing poetry and studying the arts. Sappho was what was known as a lyrist - a person who wrote poems to be accompanied in performance by a lyre player the music for which Sappho wrote herself.

All of Sappho's poetry, except for one poem, only exist in fragments today. Her poems are available in many different translations that put a slightly different spin on the original meaning.

Catullus (ca. 84 BC – ca. 54 BC) was a Latin poet who in his translation of Sappho's Poem of Jealousy inserted the name of his own love (Lesbia). Some of the following versions are actually translated from Catullus’s version of Sappho's poem.




Equal to Jove that youth must be —
Greater than Jove he seems to me —
Who, free from Jealousy’s alarms,
Securely views thy matchless charms.
Ah! Lesbia! though ’tis death to me,
I cannot choose but look on thee;
But, at the sight, my senses fly,
I needs must gaze, but, gazing, die;
Whilst trembling with a thousand fears,
Parch’d to the throat my tongue adheres,
My pulse beats quick, my breath heaves short,
My limbs deny their slight support;
Cold dews my pallid face o’erspread,
With deadly languor droops my head,
My ears with tingling echoes ring,
And life itself is on the wing,
My eyes refuse the cheering light,
Their orbs are veil’d in starless night:
Such pangs my nature sinks beneath,
And feels a temporary death.

Translated by Lord Byron (ca. 1820)




That man is peer of the gods, who
face to face sits listening
to your sweet speech and lovely
     laughter.
It is this that rouses a tumult
in my breast. At mere sight of you
my voice falters, my tongue
     is broken.
Straightway, a delicate fire runs in
my limbs; my eyes
are blinded and my ears
     thunder.
Sweat pours out: a trembling hunts
me down. I grow
paler than grass and lack little
     of dying.

Translated by William Carlos Williams (1958)




He must feel blooded with the spirit of a god
to sit opposite you and listen, and reply,
to your talk, your laughter, your touching,
breath-held silences. But what I feel, sitting here
and watching you, so stops my heart and binds
my tongue that I can’t think what I might say
to breach the aureole around you there.
It’s as if someone with flint and stone had sparked
a fire that kindled the flesh along my arms
and smothered me in its smoke-blind rush.
Paler than summer grass, it seems
I am already dead, or little short of dying.

Translated by Sherod Santos (2005)

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