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From Sappho to Springsteen: A Timeless Formula

Jesse Hill University of Winnipeg alum pursuing his MA in Classics at the University of Toronto

There's a certain feeling you might get looking at the Greco-Roman collection on display right now at the WAG.

When you come face to face with a statuette of Zeus, buck-naked and hurling a thunderbolt, I expect that its beauty or craftsmanship may not be the first things that cross your mind. You’re probably sooner struck by how strange the figure seems.

To balance this impression, I'd like to encourage you to pick up some summer reading that might help you see a more familiar side of classical antiquity. In particular, I'd like to recommend Sappho.

What do we know about Sappho? Not much. She lived on the isle of Lesbos around 600 BCE, where she composed poems and sang them to the lyre (string instrument). The content of her lyrics is varied, but they often touch on familiar themes: inevitable old age, obnoxious siblings, and, over and over again, erotic love (most often—but not exclusively—for other women; hence our word "lesbian").

The remains of this poetry are slight. We have only one poem that survives entirely intact and another 200 or so fragments that range in length from all-but-complete lyrics to scanty, one-word scraps. This is frustrating. But it also makes Sappho approachable: you can read her Complete Poems in one evening, while it can feel like a lifetime to get through just one of Homer's epics.

Without a doubt, there is strangeness in these fragments; as in the items on display at the WAG, the world of myth looms large in Sappho's poetry. But there's an unexpected familiarity wrapped up in the strangeness of her conception of myth. I'll show you what I mean.

Our one complete Sapphic poem has the poet abandoned, love-sick, and praying to Aphrodite, goddess of love, for help. She recalls how, once before, the goddess had come to her aid, how "beautiful, swift sparrows" had led Aphrodite "over the black earth, whipping their wings through midair, down from the heavens." Sappho goes on to quote the reassuring words the goddess had given her at that time, before requesting—now with a certain confidence—that Aphrodite act the same way now.

At first glance, Sappho's encounter with a sparrow-riding love-goddess would seem to be pretty unfamiliar. Weirder than anything on display at the WAG. But the basic formula at work in the poem is familiar. Sappho's conception of mythology is both personal and spiritual. Her faith (the image of Aphrodite) calms and settles her distress.

We can find a similar formula all over the music of today. For instance, in gospel: an attendee at this year's Folk Festival might hear a song like "I am a Man of Constant Sorrow," whose singer, heartbroken like Sappho, finds solace in the idea of heaven: "but there's one promise that I'm given: I'll meet you on God's golden shore."

The formula is also present in non-religious music—though often "hope" takes the place of "faith." In Bruce Springsteen's "Used Cars," a child from a poor family seeks resolution in the hope he'll win the lottery: "now mister the day my number comes in I ain't never gonna ride in used cars again."

Mythology is merely Sappho's language. Holcomb's is the Christian faith, Springsteen's is hope.

I'll end by quoting the opening of another of Sappho's poems. Its imagery is distant, but the sentiment is as familiar as can be:

Some say an army of horses, some say an army on foot,
some say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing
upon the black earth. But I say that
it's what you love.

Jesse Hill is a graduate of the University of Winnipeg and is currently pursuing his MA in Classics at the University of Toronto.

Statuette of Zeus (detail), c. 480 BC. Bronze. © Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin ñ Preuflischer Kulturbesitz, Inv. no. Ol. 12701. Photographer Johannes Laurentius.