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Sappho

(c. 600 BCE / Greece)

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On what is best


Some celebrate the beauty
of knights, or infantry,
or billowing flotillas
at battle on the sea.
Warfare has its glory,
but I place far above
these military splendors
the one thing that you love.

For proof of this contention
examine history:
we all remember Helen,
who left her family,
her child, and royal husband,
to take a stranger's hand:
her beauty had no equal,
but bowed to love's command.

As love then is the power
that none can disobey,
so too my thoughts must follow
my darling far away:
the sparkle of her laughter
would give me greater joy
than all the bronze-clad heroes

Submitted: Thursday, November 27, 2003
Edited: Tuesday, March 18, 2014

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Read poems about / on: history, husband, family, laughter, beauty, remember, power, child, joy, sea, love, hero, children

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Poet's Notes about The Poem

Translated by JON CORELiS

Comments about this poem (On what is best by Sappho )

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  • Michael Pruchnicki (1/1/2010 10:38:00 AM)

    The following is a translation by Josephine Balmer -

    Some an army of horsemen, some an army on foot
    and some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest sight
    on this dark earth; but I say it is what-
    ever you desire:

    and it is possible to make this perfectly clear
    to all; for the woman who far surpassed all others
    in her beauty, Helen, left her husband-
    the best of all men -

    behind and sailed far away to Troy; she did not spare
    a single thought for her child nor for her dear parents
    but the goddess of love led her astray

    which
    reminds me now of Anactoria
    although far away. (Report) Reply

  • Michael Pruchnicki (1/1/2010 10:14:00 AM)

    Whether or not God is love in this draycart of a poem by a poet who lived and died centuries before Christianity I leave to the scholars! The translation posted here is probably as good as one can expect given time and circumstance. The poem is indeed economical in its use of language and imagery. From the glory of war in such epic poetry as Homer's ILIAD and ODYSSEY, alluded to in the second stanza by the reference to Troy and Helen, the symbol of beauty and sexual attraction throughout literature to the present. The speaker's darling far away may be her daughter if we consider the speaker to be the woman who lived in Lesbos and was married and had a daughter, or the speaker is fictional and is addressing one of the young girls to whom Sappho taught music and poetry and the devotion to the goddess of erotic love and marriage! (Report) Reply

  • Kevin Straw (1/1/2010 5:53:00 AM)

    Surely the original cannot have been as bad as this translation. It clumps along like a drayhorse. There's a line missing from the third verse. (Report) Reply

  • Emma_1221@list.ru Adamyan (1/1/2010 2:54:00 AM)

    I surely don`t know Creek, but the English version says it`s fantastic poem and translation. I can only guess, that love was supposed to bring only joy and happiness, i mean a true love from God... so, if it makes a woman to leave her husband and... child! to hold a stranger`s hand... i think it`s not love, but true punishment (Report) Reply

  • Ramesh T A (1/1/2010 1:03:00 AM)

    Indeed there is nothing fair or foul both in war and love. But love is supreme power over war and life in the world! (Report) Reply

Read all 7 comments »

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