If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carlson

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For poetry month, I knew I wanted to read poetry, and since I’ve also been eager to return to the Greek classics, I thought I’d take the chance to dive in with Sappho’s lyrics, as translated by Anne Carlson in If Not, Winter.

Because Sappho’s poetry remains for us only in fragments, reading through Ms Carlson’s translations was an enjoyable reminder of the essential building blocks of poetic thought: word choice, simplicity, and metaphor, for example.

Sappho lived in the 600s BCE, writing lyrics and singing them. Of her nine collections of poetry, only one poem remains in full today. In Carlson’s translation, it begins as follows:

Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind,
child of Zeus, who twits lures, I beg you
do not break with hard pains,
O lady, my heart

Sappho’s poem is a beautiful prayer to Aphrodite in which the speaker (a singer, since this was a lyric to a song) asks for an ally in finding love and peace. Ancient Greek poetry was written without punctuation or line breaks, so Carlson has added the breaks. The rhythm is simply gorgeous as it has been rendered, and Sappho’s words and images are memorable.

The reminder of the book contains translations of other remaining fragments of Sappho’s writings, some of which are from actual fragments of Sappho’s collections and others are fragments of poems that had been quoted in other, later author’s works. One side of the page contains the Greek, and the facing page reveals Carlson’s translations. Some pages only have one or two words in English. (Even though there are obviously other letters on the Greek side, only a few words in full remain.)

When you consider how long ago Sappho wrote, it’s no wonder that there is so little remaining of her writing. Yet, it is a bit heart-breaking to see so much empty white space, revealing all that has been lost. Nonetheless, I greatly appreciated the fact that each poem was given it’s own page. It was a powerful reminder that each poem/song really did stand alone at one point. And the images that the very limited fragments provide are beautiful too: they provide ideas and themes that get me wondering, and I appreciate them. Consider fragments such as fr. 38 (“you burn me”) or fr. 117A (“of polished doors”) or fr. 157 (“lady Dawn”).

Others have more lengthy excerpts, such as fr. 34:

stars around the beautiful moon
hide back their luminous form
whenever all full she shines
on the earth


or the following (fr. 88B)



shall love


Something is missing in these, of course, but even with the missing words, it’s so beautiful to me. Sappho’s poetry, while left in pieces more than two millennia later, are inspiring in their succinctness. If only we had more of her poems in full!

See other blogger’s thoughts on Sappho:

Reviewed on April 10, 2012

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I don’t usually get along with poetry, but this is one collection that I really adored. I loved the way Carlson laid it out, so we could see both versions.

  • It’s Anne Carson, I think — well, I know it is because I have a huge girl-crush on her. :p She wrote a similarly fragmentary book called Nox that was sort of a reflection on Catullus and sort of a memoir about her brother’s death, and it was marvelous. I thought her translation of Sappho was so evocative and wonderful. <3

  • I read your review before I went to the library today, and then I saw this collection on display in my library’s poetry section, so I had to check it out. Like Jenny, I loved Anne Carson’s Nox, so I’m interested in reading some of her other translations. I’m also excited that this includes the Greek, even though my Greek is beyond rusty.

  • So glad you enjoyed the book! I expected I’d like it when I read it but I didn’t expect I would be constantly awed. Beautiful poetry even in fragments. And I think Carson must have done a fantastic translation job too.

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