Midnight Poem by Sappho

19.33, Tuesday 2 Jul 2019

Tonight I’ve watched

The moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

in bed alone

I don’t know much - really anything - by or about Sappho. Except this, a fragment of the Midnight Poem, and in particular this translation by Mary Barnard, which was the subject of a blog post by Clive Thompson from 2016 (that link to Internet Archive): In a mere eight lines, she paints the melancholy of middle age onto the canvas of the night sky.

It’s beautiful. The blog post is only available in the Archive now, and the translation isn’t available online except as a photograph which is a broken image in that blog post, so I’ve transcribed it here so I’ve got it to come back to.

In that post, Thompson describes a recently published astronomy paper:

The Pleiades (which is that tight box of stars which I recognise but I’m rubbish at names; by Aldebaran) - says the paper - were visible, in 570 BC around the time the poem was written, at the appointed time which is before midnight, between 25 January and 5 April.

I can imagine how I feel at that time of night, at that time of year. No artificial light of course, or not much anyway. No stultifying heat. I haven’t slept yet, so it’s not in that witching hour before second sleep. But I’m awake and gazing at the sky, long enough that I can see the stars move.

It brings me closer to Sappho. The eyes of science as an empathy machine.

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