The Aging Muse (Sappho)

Sappho was an incredible poet of the ancient world, but most of her poetry has been lost to us. In 2004, Michael Gronewald and Robert Daniel announced that a papyrus in the University of Cologne contained poems of Sappho. This text, recovered from a sort of papier-mâché used for Egyptian mummy masks, is the earliest existing manuscript of Sappho’s verse, copied in the third century BCE some 300 years after she composed the poems.

Three of her works were found, in fragments. Parts of the second one, however, have been known since 1922 from an Oxyrhynchus papyrus of the third century CE, so scholars combined the two texts to uncover the complete poem.

The Aging Muse

For the fragrant-bosomed Muses’ lovely gifts
Dance zealously girls, to the clear melody:
but my once tender body old age now has seized;
my hair has turned white, abandoned its tint;
my heart has grown heavy, my legs are now weak,
though once they were fleet for the dance as fawns.
I mourn my fragility, but what can be done?
Impossible not to grow old on this earth.

The tale is that Tithonus so charmed rosy Dawn
The goddess did wed him, handsome and young,
And carried him off to the ends of the earth
Where grey age o’ertook him, despite deathless bride.

—Translated by David Bowles, December 2012
(Following Martin West’s conjectures in the case of a few gaps)

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