Last year, scholars identified a papyrus at the Univeristy of Cologne as containing a poem by Sappho. The poem was recovered from the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy and was identified because it matched a smaller scrap known to be by Sappho found in 1922 during excavations of a rubbish dump in the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. This newly-discovered poem, thought to date from the first part of the third century BC (which means it's 2,600 years old), is the oldest of all remnants of her poetry. Here are three translations of the same poem:
translated by Martin West
You for the fragrant-blossomed Muses' lovely gifts
be zealous, girls, and the clear melodious lyre:
but my once tender body old age now
has seized; my hair's turned white instead of dark;
my heart's grown heavy, my knees will not support me,
that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns.
This state I oft bemoan; but what's to do?
Not to grow old, being human, there's no way.
Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn,
love-smitten, carried off to the world's end,
handsome and young then, yet in time grey age
o'ertook him, husband of immortal wife.
Sappho to Her Pupils
translated by Lachlan Mackinnon
Live for the gifts the fragrant-breasted Muses
send, for the clear, the singing, lyre, my children.
Old age freezes my body, once so lithe,
rinses the darkness from my hair, now white.
My heart’s heavy, my knees no longer keep me
up through the dance they used to prance like fawns in.
Oh, I grumble about it, but for what?
Nothing can stop a person’s growing old.
They say that Tithonus was swept away
in Dawn’s passionate, rose-flushed arms to live
forever, but he lost his looks, his youth,
failing husband of an immortal bride.
Sappho and the Weight of Years
translated by Edwin Morgan
Girls, be good to these spirits of music and poetry
that breast your threshold with their scented gifts.
Lift the lyre, clear and sweet, they leave with you.
As for me, this body is now so arthritic
I cannot play, hardly even hold the instrument.
Can you believe my white hair was once black?
And oh, the soul grows heavy with the body.
Complaining knee-joints creak at every move.
To think I danced as delicate as a deer!
Some gloomy poems came from these thoughts:
useless: we are all born to lose life,
and what is worse, girls, to lose youth.
The legend of the goddess of the dawn
I’m sure you know: how rosy Eos
madly in love with gorgeous young Tithonus
swept him like booty to her hiding-place
but then forgot he would grow old and grey
while she in despair pursued her immortal way.