Here are five different translations of a poem by Sappho. New discoveries have resulted in a nearly complete poem from fragment 58 and these poems are based on this new text.
The Beat Goes On
You, children, be zealous for the
beautiful gifts of the
and for the clear songloving lyre.
But my skin once soft is now
taken by old age,
my hair turns white from black.
And my heart is weighed down
and my knees do not lift,
that once were light to dance as
I groan for this. But what can I do?
A human being without old age is
not a possibility.
There is the story of Tithonos,
loved by Dawn with her arms of roses
and she carried him off to the
ends of the earth
when he was beautiful and young.
Even so was he gripped
by white old age. He still has his
— Translation by Anne Carson. Published in NYRB, October 20, 2005.
[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.
— Translation by Martin West
Those violet-wearing Muses’ lovely gifts
and tuneful lyres enjoy, O maidens dear!
My own once tender body’s hard with age;
this hair once ebony is changed to white.
A heavy heart – and slow, these faltering knees
that once would whirl me, dancing, like some fawn.
But why complain, when nothing can be done?
Necessity decrees we all grow old.
Tithonus, loved by rose-armed Dawn, we’re told,
was carried by his love beyond the world:
comely, young – but Age still found him there
in time, despite his deathless wife’s intent.
— Translation by Noetica, 2005
Sappho to Her Pupils
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.
— Translation by Lachlan Mackinnon
Sappho and the Weight of Years
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.
— Translation by Edwin Morgan