In Our Time: Sappho

Sappho was a 7th Century BC Greek poetess, but I rather suspect the thing she’s best known for in modern culture is for being the reason we call lesbians lesbians. However, it was for her poetry that she was renowned in ancient Greece. Discussing a little bit about the woman and a lot about her work on In Our Time were Edith Hall (King’s College, London), Margaret Reynolds (Queen Mary, University of London) and Dirk Obbink (University of Oxford).

Saphho lived on Lesbos, which is an island between mainland Greece and Turkey – both in a geographical sense and in a cultural sense. Whilst they were definitely Greek there were eastern influences on both their culture and their language. Their dialect of Greek was not the same as the Greek of Homer and would’ve sounded a bit exotic to the mainland Greek people of her time. She was a lyrical poet, which means that her words were set to music – accompanied by the lyre or other instruments. The work of a lyrical poet was an important part of ceremonies, and was also important to memorialise events. Obbink said that what survives is a bit like having the words to an opera, but not the music.

To the Greeks Sappho was “The Poetess” in the same was that Homer was “The Poet”. A lot of her work was written down and still read long into the classical era. In the Library at Alexandria there was a 9 volume text containing all her poetry. But most of what survived to be rediscovered in the Renaissance did so as fragments in other texts – later translations and quotations in textbooks and commentaries. Much more recently papyrus fragments have been discovered from what were originally whole poems written in her native dialect – I hesitate to say originals as I think these would post-date her time but it would be like discovering fragments of a “Complete Works of Shakespeare” after only knowing his work via quotations from other books in modern English. More of these papyrus fragments occasionally get discovered – Obbink has recently found and translated some previously unknown fragments. These can radically change our understanding of a poem where they overlap with previously known pieces.

The subjects of her poetry were very personal in nature rather than mythical as is the case with Homer. Her poems contain several expressions of her desire for and love of other women, hence her later reputation as a lesbian. Some of the language and metaphors that she uses for desire have become a standard part of the repertoire of imagery – e.g. fire in the veins. The people in her poems are often specific named people, and she names herself in her poetry as well. Despite the first person perspective and specificity of the poetry it’s not clear if it was actually autobiographical. In particular it’s not clear if she was actually a lesbian, and if she was it’s not clear if anyone in her culture at the time cared (although it is clear that they did care later on).

Hall suggested that Sappho’s poetry might indicate that in her time and place there were women’s symposiums running in parallel to the men’s ones. Men’s symposiums are well attested through Greek culture. Hall explained them as semi-public gatherings which in effect provided poetic and ritualised training of the next generation in how to be civilised. They were where a young Greek man learnt how to be “a Greek man”. There are no records of women’s symposiums, and in parts of the classical Greek world (like classical Athens) women’s lives were so restricted that they seem implausible as an idea. However Sappho’s time and place were different, and women’s voices survive so rarely from this era (I’m not sure if Sappho is unique or just almost so) that no evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.

In her own time and during later Greek culture Sappho’s poetry was very popular. However she began to become less revered during the Roman period. Her dialect of Greek had died out and so understanding her poetry wasn’t a question of picking up the text and reading it, it required a commentary or a translation. It became even more obscure in the Christian era when it dropped out of the standard curriculum altogether because the subject matter was too much about worldly, sinful things like desire for a beautiful woman. And because of her obscurity her work was not often copied, and thus no copies survived intact. Fragments of her work were only discovered in the late Renaissance, and early translations downplayed the sauciness of the texts.

Since rediscovery Sappho’s work, and Sappho herself, have often been taken up by the women’s movements of various eras. Because there is so little known about the woman herself, and even her work, it’s relatively easy to shape her into an icon. Whether that is for intellectual liberation as in the 18th Century or the sexual liberation of the 20th Century. One of the experts suggested that it’s also because of the position of Greek culture in our own culture as one of the “roots of civilisation”. As the vast majority of what survives from Greece is male voices and male culture that can lead to an equation of men with civilisation. So if you’re putting forward women as the equal of men against this cultural backdrop it’s good to have an example of a feminine Greek culture.

This programme concentrated on the poetry and the legacy of Sappho rather than the woman herself – as there is so very little that’s actually known about her. So it was well complemented by the TV programme “Sappho: Love & Life on Lesbos with Margaret Mountford”, which we watched not long after listening to this. The TV programme was more focussed on Sappho the person – although of necessity it was more about the broader culture of the period than the individual. It also looked at the legends that have grown up around the woman in more modern times.

In Our Time: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is a poem by the 19th Century English poet Edward Fitzgerald which is a loose translation of several quatrains attributed to the 11th Century Iranian poet Omar Khayyam. The three experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Charles Melville (University of Cambridge), Daniel Karlin (University of Bristol) and Kirstie Blair (University of Stirling), and they talked about both what is known about the original Persian verses and author as well as Fitzgerald’s version.

The programme started with Melville giving some brief context for Omar Khayyam. He lived in what is now Iran in the 11th Century AD, during the time of the Seljuk Turks. During his lifetime and in the initial period afterwards he was best known as a mathematician and scholar. He wrote an important treatise on geometry and was involved in revising the solar calendar so that it once again matched the seasons of the year. Melville said that this time period in Iran was a transition to a more conservative society and a return to the core values of Islam, and the quatrains attributed to Khayyam are out of step with this attitude. The first mention of Khayyam writing poetry comes 60 or 70 years after his death, as part of a denunciation of him as a heretic by holding up an example of a quatrain he supposedly wrote which contained heretical views. There isn’t actually any hard evidence that Khayyam wrote any of the quatrains associated with his name, but by the 15th Century there are manuscripts of collections of Persian quatrains attributed to Omar Khayyam. He may’ve written some of them, Melville explained that making up snippets of poetry was a sort of parlour game in the court circles that Khayyam moved in during his life. All three experts agreed that it was reasonable for Fitzgerald to believe that the manuscript he had contained at least a core of quatrains written by Khayyam and others that had later been attributed to Khayyam.

Edward Fitzgerald was a privileged member of the British upper class who lived in the 19th Century. His mother was one of the wealthiest women in the country, and the family took the Fitzgerald name because of a bequest from one of her relatives. He was educated at a public school in Bury St Edmunds, and went to Cambridge University at a time where he met people such as Tennyson. However he was also self-taught, and most of his knowledge of English literature & poetry came from his own wide reading. He is a sort of counter-example for the increasing professionalisation of writing and publishing during the Victorian period – self-taught, rather eccentric and wealthy enough to just publish his writing without needing to submit it to a publisher etc. Despite all his advantages he did not have a particularly happy life. His childhood wasn’t terribly happy, in particular his mother was rather distant. He didn’t marry young, and when he finally did marry it quickly became clear that it had been a terrible mistake for both parties. At around the same time his closest male friend, Cowell, went to India for two years and Fitzgerald felt abandoned – this was a time period (the 1850s) when there was a reasonable chance that Cowell would die in India. When Cowell left he gave to Fitzgerald a copy of a manuscript of Persian poems, the quatrains of Omar Khayyam, and Fitzgerald flung himself into learning Persian and translating these poems.

The basic format of the original poems is that each is a standalone piece consisting of four lines, or perhaps two lines each of which is split into half. In the original Persian collections they are organised alphabetically based on the the last rhyme of each. One of the experts (Melville?) suggested that in some ways they occupy the same sort of cultural niche as limericks do in British verse (except without the expectation of them being rude, that limericks have). They’re short pieces with a defined format that you might expect people to just make up on the fly. As well as a particular meter they also have two possible rhyming schemes – one is AAAA (ie all four lines end the same way) and the other is AABA. Melville said that this is a traditionally Persian form of poetry, pre-dating the rise of Islam, and although it has this defined format it’s much less rigid and formal in structure than Arabic poetry.

Fitzgerald’s translation of these poems is definitely not a literal translation. To achieve it, first he had to learn Persian and then he translated the poems into medieval Latin. From there, he translated them into English. He also organised the quatrains he picked into a single poem made up of four line stanzas. This follows an overarching narrative of “the day of life” – morning (birth), noon and night (death). Something that’s present in the original and that particularly spoke to Fitzgerald is a sense of nihilism and of needing to take your pleasures in the here & now rather than hoping for better things after death. In his letters, particularly to Cowell, Fitzgerald expressed many scandalously atheist & nihilistic views – Blair reminded us that he’s writing this translation at the time that people are beginning to question the literalness & accuracy of Bible translations, and during the time when the Origin of the Species is being written. It’s probably those elements of the poems that Fitzgerald seized on about a lack of belief in the afterlife and a hedonistic approach to the world that are the same elements that were being cited as indicators of Khayyam’s heresy back in the 12th Century.

During the programme Melville (who works on Persian history) read out some of the original Persian poetry, so we got a feel for the rhythm and rhymes of the original. Karlin and Blair both read parts of Fitzgerald’s verse (they’re English literature academics) and discussed how Fitzgerald made the unusual rhyme scheme (to English ears) work with the poem, for instance in this stanza:

None answer’d this; but after Silence spake
A Vessel of a more ungainly Make:
“They sneer at me for leaning all awry;
“What! did the Hand then of the Potter shake!”

The third line with it’s non-rhyming end is the one talking about being awry and the whole quatrain is about this seeming awryness actually being done on purpose (as it is in the poem). Fitzgerald also wove into the poem a lot of allusions to other great works in the English language – including Chaucer, Shakespeare and the King James Bible. And that all gives it a richness and connection for an English reader that a more literal translation might lack.

Initially the poem was not a success – it sold only a single copy in its first year after publication. But this copy found its way to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who liked it, and once people heard of it via them then it became an incredibly influential poem. The experts were saying that a part of its popularity was in the way it embodied a decadent, hedonistic Orientalist view of “the East” that was appealing to the Victorians (I cynically think it’s so they could have their cake & eat it – get the pleasure of the poetry and of the images it conjures up whilst assuring themselves they’re better than that). Interestingly as the poetry became influential in Britain it sparked a revival in Iran – and Omar Khayyam is now more famous as a poet in Iran that ever before. In Britain after the Second World War there has been something of a drop off in popularity of the poem – Blair suggested this is in part because of a reaction by a new generation against something that was so popular in a previous generation. Blair and Karlin both said they don’t teach it at undergraduate level – in part because it’s so difficult to categorise. Is it a piece of 19th Century English poetry? But it’s heavily based on a Persian original. Yet how can you teach it as a work by Omar Khayyam, when it’s not really known whether it was by him and even if it was, Fitzgerald’s translation is so non-literal that you aren’t really looking at the original?

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

TV This Week Including Witches, Sir Gawain, Ottomans, Musical History, Plastic & 20th Century Britons

The King’s War on Witches: Revealed

This Channel 5 documentary was about the witch hunts in England and Scotland in the 17th Century. As context it talked a little about the witch trials in Europe, which hadn’t spread to England & Scotland until after James VI of Scotland (later also James I of England) began to believe he was the target of a conspiracy of witches trying to assassinate him. As the programme pointed out he’d been the target of more physical assassination attempts several times by the time of his wedding, so when a fierce storm blew up on his & his new wife’s way home from Denmark it didn’t take much of a leap of imagination for him to believe it was deliberately raised to kill him. Once safely home he had several local wise women, or cunning folk, and healers rounded up and eventually under torture some confessed to the witchcraft and assassination attempt and were burnt at the stake. James went on to write a book about hunting witches – what they could do, where they got their powers, what to look out for, what evidence was valid in court of law and so on. This became the primary text used throughout both countries – the programme detailed a few specific cases where women ran afoul of witchfinders and were burnt to death. It also showed some recent archaeological evidence that practices that James VI & I would’ve defined at witchcraft were continuing until at least the 1970s. These were some pits excavated in Cornwall that contain animal or bird skins and eggs, and appear to’ve been ritually laid in the earth at various points in time – one included some plastic, hence the “into the modern day” part.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Simon Armitage has translated Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the original Middle English into modern English, and this programme was partly telling us the story of the poem and partly about translating the poem. Armitage walked through the sorts of landscapes mentioned in the poem, mostly in the pouring rain, to conjure up the world of the story. Gawain is one of King Arthur’s knights, and one New Year’s Eve a green knight comes to Camelot and challenges the knights – is one of them brave enough to cut off his head, knowing that a year later the knight must go to him and he will cut off the knight’s head in return. Gawain steps up to the challenge, and most of the poem details his journey a year later going to his destiny.

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors

The third and final episode of this series about the Ottoman Empire was mostly about the aftermath of its collapse, and the repercussions of that that are still being felt today. The Empire was torn apart partly by rising nationalist feeling, and partly by the Allies after the end of WWI – the Ottomans had been on Germany’s side. The first half of the programme was a catalogue of states & empires behaving poorly, and the horrific consequences. This included genocide of Armenian Christians by the splintering Ottoman Empire, brutalities brought about by the Greek invasion of Turkey (sponsored by the British, and leading to a “population exchange” where families with roots centuries deep in one country or another were deported “home” as defined by their religion), and the various problems caused by the British Empire promising the same land to multiple groups during WWI. In the second half of the programme Omaar concentrated on Turkey, as both the former heartland of the Ottoman Empire and as one of the success stories of the region. This was less unrelentingly bleak – although when discussing Attaturk Omaar did say that he “wasn’t as bad as Stalin or Chairman Mao” which strikes me as damning with faint praise! Attaturk and his successors strongly believed that the road to success was to Westernise, and that this meant secularise. The tone of the programme was disapproving of this, but some of the interviewees were much more positive (including a woman who’d been a child during Attaturk’s initial reforms and who felt her life was much better as a result of the rights given to women). Modern Turkey has managed to combine both democracy and being an Islamic state, and is also beginning to rehabilitate the reputation of the Ottoman Empire.

This was an odd series in some ways Рthere were several times when I thought Omaar was glossing over things in an attempt to make the Ottomans sound more tolerant than they actually were. And that continued with a blas̩ handwave past the more recent protests in Turkey as not really important. However it was still interesting (and reminded me how little I know about the Ottomans in general).

David Starkey’s Music & Monarchy

In this series David Starkey is going to tell us all about the impact the English monarchy has had on English music. It boasts newly recorded performances of the various examples, all of which seem to have Starkey standing or sitting and listening in a pseudo-regal style … The first episode took us from Henry V through to Elizabeth I. Along the way he told us (and showed us) how English church music evolved into a complex (and highly respected) art form. Henry V was a composer himself, as well as a pious man who felt that the best way to get God on his side was to make sure His praises were sung in the best possible way. The story also covered how the foundations of both Eton & King’s College, Cambridge were due to Henry VI’s piety and desire for choirs to praise the glory of God. Henry VIII’s break with Rome was almost disastrous for English church music – although Henry himself kept music as part of church services his much more radically Protestant son wanted to abolish all of that. The day is only saved by Elizabeth’s return to a third way between Protestantism & Roman Catholicism – and her Chapel Royal performed a lot of music as part of services (and leading composers such as Thomas Talis & William Byrd flourished during her reign).

Plastic: How It Works

This is the second episode of Mark Miodownik’s materials series – all about plastics, which he’s defining broadly to encompass any and all artificially created materials. It was a mix of history and chemistry, and started with the discovery of the vulcanisation process for rubber. The first century and more of plastic creation was all about chemical reactions that were poorly understood – Miodownik told us about the atomic structure & properties of these materials but the people creating them often didn’t understand it. In the second half of the 20th Century materials begin to be designed, and this is when plastics made from oil start to be created – the key realisation was that what you wanted to do was polymerise carbon based monomers, and that oil is rich in these building blocks. And the last third of the programme was about the future – we’re turning back to look at biological substances and then trying to engineer new materials with those properties. For instance a sticky tape that uses the same structure as hairs on beetle’s feet to grip glass without glue – demonstrated by sticking a handle to a suspended glass panel & Miodownik dangled from it. He also talked about upcoming medical technology – scaffolding material that encourages cartilage regeneration, for instance.

A Hundred Years of Us

There’s still just enough interesting content in these that we’re continuing to watch – the fourth episode included some fascinating stuff about GI babies. They’d interviewed a woman who was the daughter of an English woman & a black American soldier – she was given up to an orphanage at birth, and subsequently adopted by a family in a Welsh mining village. She did eventually track her parents down – her mother didn’t want anything to do with her because her husband knew nothing about the child & would divorce her if he knew. And her father had died before she could find him, which was also sad. Another interesting segment was about the women sewing machinists who went out on strike for equal pay back in the 60s. The main guest on the programme was Gloria Hunniford who had various anecdotes about the different segments as they related to her – the one that sticks in my mind was when discussing rationing she talked about her mother getting caught smuggling a pair of shoes back into Northern Ireland (from Dublin) in her knickers. Which … how does that even work??

Time Team: The Hollow Way; Michael Wood on Beowulf

We decided to watch a couple of programmes that we’ve had on our PVR for 3 or 4 years and somehow never got round to actually watching before. First was an episode of Time Team about a medieval village that used to exist around a farmhouse at Ulnaby, County Durham. Obviously being Time Team they only had 3 days to do a fairly superficial excavation of a handful of areas around the site. But what they did manage to discover was that the peak of the occupation seemed to be around the 13th to 14th Centuries – finding pottery & house walls, and also references in documents. The original assumption had been that it had been deserted in the Black Death (1348) or as land use throughout the country was re-organised in the 15th Century with many villages evicted. However their digging found evidence of occupation up to the 17th Century (lots of tobacco pipes) and there was also documentary evidence for the village up till then as well (names of people pardoned for being involved in the Rising of the North in 1569 (by supporters of Mary Queen of Scots against Elizabeth I). So their conclusion was that it had petered out gradually around & after that time.

And not really much else to say about it – Time Team tends to be fairly superficial, but it’s normally fun to watch.

Another programme we’d had sitting around for a while was Michael Wood on Beowulf. This was partly a retelling of the Beowulf story and partly about the poem & the world the poem was written for. The retelling part of the programme featured Julian Glover reciting/acting a modern English translation of the poem to an audience of Anglo-Saxon re-enactors in Kent who were all dressed up in their reconstruction royal hall, and had just had a feast. So that was very much “as it would’ve been” (except cleaner, lighter, politer & less drunk, I expect! 😉 ).

For the parts of the programme about the world of the Anglo-Saxons & the origins of the poem Wood spent a lot of time in East Anglia, where the earliest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England were. As he said, the Anglo-Saxon presence here was an immigrant one, and the poem looks back to their ancestral homelands in Denmark & Sweden. He compared it to tales of “the Old Country” told by Irish-Americans or Italian-Americans these days. He visited Sutton Hoo (of course) and talked about how there are ship burials in the poem and that’s what was famously discovered at Sutton Hoo. The King who was buried there was probably Rædwald who was not just a local King but was overlord of all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in Britain. And he & his lineage (and subjects) were probably the target audience for the original incarnation of the poem. Wood told us that there are references to ancestors of Rædwald at various points in the poem, so it seems likely the original poet was well informed about Rædwald’s genealogy (and wanted to associate him with the heroes of old).

One of the things that is interesting about Beowulf in context is that the world it was composed for was a Christian world, but the world it was about was a pagan world. So the hero Beowulf & his companions are all presented as old pagan heroes, but there is some interestingly Christian imagery & crossover. For instance the monsters, Grendel & his mother, are referred to as the seed of Cain (so the descendants of Adam’s son Cain who kills his brother Abel). Wood visited Northumberland to talk about Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which is a very Christian & Anglo-Saxon history. And also to tell us about The Dream of the Rood, which is an Anglo-Saxon poem which is overtly Christian & about a dream about talking to Christ on the Cross. It has a certain amount of pagan imagery, in a sort of mirroring of the Christian imagery in Beowulf. Wood was explaining this sort of cross fertilisation between the pagan & Christian worldviews as being part of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and of fitting the new religion into their history.

So the programme has visited areas near where we currently live and areas near where J grew up, and in discussing the relationship of the Anglo-Saxons to the history of the world around them Wood visited Weyland’s Smithy which is in Oxfordshire which completed the set (as it’s an area near where I grew up). What Wood was talking about here was that the Anglo-Saxons knew they lived in an old world – they saw the Bronze Age monuments & burial mounds in the landscape & peopled them with gods & heroes. And it is this old world that Beowulf fits into & explains.

The poem was written down around 1000AD, but was probably composed some time earlier & passed down orally. Despite being an East Anglian work (probably) the version that’s survived is written in a West Saxon dialect, as part of a compilation of “texts about monsters”. Wood visited the British Library to see the original manuscript, which was damaged in a fire in the 18th Century and is very fragile.

A good programme, I’m glad we kept it. I do have one quibble about the filming of it – all the exterior shots were very heavily processed & vignetted. Sometimes that worked (particularly on shots of bleak fenland while Wood was telling parts of the Beowulf story), but often it felt overdone.

In Our Time: Shahnameh of Ferdowsi

The Shahnameh is an epic poem, twice as long as the Odyssey & the Iliad put together, written in 10th Century AD Persia about Persian history. It took its author, Ferdowsi, 30 years to write and is still regarded today as one of the important pieces of Persian literature. The experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Narguess Farzad (University of London), Charles Melville (University of Cambridge) and Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis (British Museum). The two women are Iranian, and particularly towards the end of the programme were very enthusiastic about how important this poem is to Iran & to the cultural identity of the Iranian people.

At the time it was written it was a few centuries after Persia had been conquered by the Muslim Arabs at a time when the Caliphate was no longer a strong force across the Islamic Empire. The Persian people had kept oral traditions of their culture, and their own language, and during this period there was a reassertion of Persian culture. Ferdowsi was writing as part of this cultural movement & he was setting out to retell pre-existing prose records & oral tradition as poetry because he believed this would be easier to remember. So it was a self-conscious effort at writing something for posterity. It’s written in early modern Persian, so is still understandable today even if somewhat archaic. The format is rhyming couplets, and a specific meter – I think they said it was 11 syllables, a pause, 11 more syllables for each line, and the middles and the ends of the lines in a couplet rhyme. I’m not sure if that means it’s A: A, A: A, B: B, B: B or if it means it’s A: B, A: B, C: D, C: D (if you see what I mean). They said he was a very good poet and within the strict meter he uses the feel of the language to fit the things he’s writing about. So battles have words that feel short and energetic, but scenes like banquets are more flowing words.

The poem is split into three parts – myths, legends & history. The myths are what we might think of as pre-history – the first people (cave dwellers), the coming of gods, that sort of thing. The legends are the stories of heroes, and of early kings and early battles (and these may or may not’ve happened, but certainly didn’t happen like they’re told). And the history is the stories of the Kings of the Sassanid Empire – which runs from around 200AD to the Islamic conquest of Persia in about 650AD. This is accurate in the sense that the right kings are named in the right order, but it’s not really telling you about what happened when, it’s more of a manual for “how to be a good Persian King”. There are lots of dialogues where the wise advisor tells the new King how to rule – reminds me a bit of Ancient Egyptian literature which has a whole genre of that sort of thing.

After it was written it wasn’t all that popular at first – it must’ve survived, and been copied around because it’s referred to in other literature. But it comes into its own once the Mongols conquer Persia, as a way of Persianising the new rulers and of showing what it means to be Persian. Since then it’s occupied a central role in Persian education & culture – they were saying that it’s taught in schools and that even people without formal schooling would learn sections of the poem.