Song, interrupted

2016.04.28 | By Keith DeStone

William Wetmore Story (1819–1895), “Sappho” (modeled 1862, carved 1867), marble.

§1. There is a thread of conversation on Classical Inquiries about women’s weaving and weaving songs that began with Greg’s 2015.11.19 post titled “Echoes of Sappho in two epigrams of Posidippus” and that continued in further posts by him (2015.12.03 and 2016.01.07) and by Andromache Karanika and Ioanna Papadopoulou. Taking my cue from the word “echoes” in Greg’s initial post, here I would like to point to a set of related echoes. In that initial post, Greg referred to his argument, made at an earlier point (2015.11.12), that Epigram 55 of Posidippus represents in its wording the suitability of such songs of Sappho as the Tithonos Song for being sung in relay at private female symposia. Here I would like to draw attention to how that same epigram of Posidippus echoes a different text of Sappho, that is, PMG Fragmentum Adespotum 976 (I take the translation from Greg’s post of 2015.10.22):

δέδυκε μὲν ἀ cελάννα | καὶ Πληϊάδεc, μέcαι δὲ | νύκτεc, παρὰ δ’ ἔρχετ’ ὤρα· | ἐγὼ δὲ μόνα καθεύδω

The moon has set beneath the horizon | And the Pleiades as well. It is the middle of the | Night, over and over. Time [(h)ōrā] goes by. | But I sleep alone.

Sappho PMG Fragmentum Adespotum 976

As Greg notes there in a footnote, “when the moon-goddess Selene sets beneath the horizon, she goes to sleep with her lover Endymion”—while, by contrast, the persona represented by Sappho’s speaking voice sleeps alone.[1] Compare the following wording of Epigram 55 of Posidippus (again the translation is Greg’s):

|5 . . . ἆ τότε γαμβρῶν |6 τῶν μνηϲτευομένων ψύχρ’ ἔμενον λέχεα.

|5 . . . But then, ah, there came the time when all her would-be husbands, |6 pursuing her, got left behind, with cold beds for them to sleep in.

Posidippus Epigram 55.5–6

§2. The echo that I would like to point out has to do with the concern for who goes to bed—or does not—with whom at the end of the day. What is represented by the speaker’s lonesomeness in the fragment of Sappho is the same thing as is represented by the coldness of beds in Posidippus’s epigram. One could presume that Sappho’s bed is as cold as those in the epigram, or that Nikomakhe’s would-be husbands are as lonesome while sleeping as Sappho is.

§3. The words that convey this thematic echo also contain a more literal kind of echo, that is, a resemblance in sound. Sappho’s wording ἐγὼ δὲ μόνα καθεύδω and Posidippus’s wording ἔμενον λέχεα share, with some interruptions, the sequence of sounds represented by the letters ε, μ, ο, ν, and α. The two types of echo thus reinforce each other here at the end of each text as we have them.

§4. Now I would like to turn to the question from which I have taken the title of this post. While participating in the email conversation that led directly to the posts published by Greg and by Andromache Karanika on 2015.12.03, I began to form a question about reading Epigram 55 of Posidippus. In their thinking, we have Nikomakhe, the interrupted girl, and we also have her interrupted weaving; along with her weaving, her singing too is interrupted. Poignantly, however, the weaving is invoked not in a moment of interruption but in a moment of resumption (or of uninterrupted continuation, as Greg contextualizes it): ‘|1 . . . and, come dawn, |2 as the sound of the weaving shuttle is heard . . .’. My question, then, is this: the Sapphic love-songs that are said, with reference to this moment, to be gone—is it the absence of Nikomakhe’s renditions of these songs that is being highlighted, that is, the absence of her particular voice among those of the chorus of girls who resume (or continue) weaving and singing at dawn? Or is it that none of the girls assembled to weave can bear to sing now that Nikomakhe is gone and so, because of their grief, only the sound of the at-dawn shuttle is heard and not also the songs of Sappho that should correspond? Is this merely a girl interrupted, or is it an entire chorus interrupted?


[1] See the visual representation drawn by Glynnis Fawkes published in Classical Inquiries on 2015.10.09 as “An experiment in combining visual art with translations of Sappho.”