A large and well preserved portion of a new poem by Sappho was discovered on a papyrus from a private collection and published by Dirk Obbink in early 2014, and dubbed by him “The Brothers Poem”:
… But you’re always chattering that Kharaxos
comes, his ship with fully stuffed hold. As to that,
Zeus and the gods only know, but these thoughts should
not be in your head.
Instead let me go, having been commanded
to offer many prayers to Hera the Queen,
that his undamaged ship should deliver up
Kharaxos to us
here, finding us safe and serene. And as for
the rest of it, to higher spirits leave it
now, for calm seas often follow after the
squalling of a storm;
for those who’s fortunes they of Olympos send
a spirit to turn from utter disaster
into joy, are in receipt of great blessings
And if Larikhos raises his head to the
fullest, and he shall therefore become a man,
from this heavy-weighing depression we shall
lift up ours and stand.
Some scholars were initially disappointed with the quality of the new work, but Obbink in a TLS article points out that far from being ‘frigid juvenilia, the verses show an ear for balancing and texture, the pulse of rhythm, graceful shaping of words, and an atmospheric ending to a poem.’ The strength of Sappho’s poetry is in the simplicity (sometimes baldness) of its content and the subtlety of its rhythmic and aural effects. The most difficult aspect of translating it is to try to phrase the poem in an English that is neither stilted nor archaising, whilst accepting that it is ancient poetry and often written in the heightened register of, as in the piece above, Archaic ritual contexts. Thus gratuitous colloquialism should also be avoided. I have found that the most effective means of handling the Sapphic stanza is to maintain its syllable count but not to worry too much about its quantitative metre (inimitable in non-inflected English anyway), and instead carefully observe the enjambments between stanzas which are usually key to the poem’s dynamic effect.
As to the content and meaning of The Brothers Poem, according to the ancient Greek geographer Strabo, Sappho’s brother Kharaxos was able to export cargoes of wine from his native city of Mytilene on Lesbos to Naukratis, an ethnically mixed trading settlement founded in the later part of the seventh century on the Kanopic branch of the Nile.
Other fragments of the papyrus which contained The Brothers Poem ended up in a different collection (The Green Collection, Oklahoma City) and preserve and supplement poems by Sappho already known from other papyri.
The editio princeps of The Brothers Poem can be found in ‘Two New Poems by Sappho’ in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 189, (Bonn: Dr. Rudolf Habelt GmbH, 2014) and that of the Green collection fragments (5 and 17) in New Fragments of Book 1 of Sappho, Simon Burris, Jeffery Fish and Dirk Obbink in the same volume. More extensively restored texts can be found in Sappho and her Brothers, and others Passages from the First Book, Franco Ferrari, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 192, (2014). See also Provenance, Authenticity, and Text of the New Sappho Papyri, Dirk Obbink, (Paper Read at the “Society for Classical Studies” Panel: “New Fragments of Sappho”, New Orleans, 9 January 2015). PDF documents of some of the above materials are available online here as part of Oxford University’s research project Reception of Greek Literature 300 BC-AD 800: Traditions of the Fragment.
About the author: William Heath was born in London in 1980 and is a graduate of Bretton Hall College. He is self-taught in the Ancient Greek language and over the last few years has been working on the fragments of Archilochos, Alkman, Sappho, Alkaios, Ibykos, Hipponax, Stesichorus and Anakreon.