Book Review: Come Close by Sappho (Little Black Classics Edition)

come closeTitle: Come Close
Author: Sappho
Genre: Poetry / Classical Poetry
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Pages: 55
Started: 17th August 2016
Completed: 18th August 2016
Rating: 4/5
Summary: Lyrical, powerful poems about love, sexuality, sun-soaked Greece and the gods.

‘Yes, we did many things, then – all Beautiful…’ (Sappho: c.630-570 BCE)

Penguin’s Little Black Classic editions are usually short stories, poetry collections, or fragments of larger works. They’re very inexpensive, usually only 80p in the UK and I genuinely believe that there’s one to suit everyone’s taste. Penguin seems to be adding more to the collection all the time in a bid to make this type of literature more accessible. I own 12 Little Black Classics and I have previously reviewed A Pair of Silk Stockings and A Slip Under the Microscope, both of which are collections of short stories.

I’m just going to do a quick introduction to Sappho in case you’ve never heard of her. She was a Greek poet who was born on the Isle of Lesbos in around 630 BC (or BCE) but no one really knows when she was born or when she died. She was admired in her own time and she was considered to be one of the nine canonical lyric poets of Ancient Greece. The other eight were men and one was Sappho’s supposed lover Alcaeus. Sappho is perhaps best known for writing homoerotic poetry about women. It is unknown whether Sappho had any actual relationships with women but her poetry is homoerotic, even though some translators still try to make her poetry seem heterosexual, but it’s almost certain that she was in fact bisexual rather than a lesbian. Both the term ‘lesbian’ and ‘sapphic’ relate to Sappho so she will always be linked to the idea of female love.

This is going to be an odd review because Come Closer is full of fragments of poetry. Most of Sappho’s work is lost, although two new poems were discovered in London in 2014, and only fragments of the larger poems remain. She probably wrote over 10,000 lines of poetry during her life but only around 650 lines remain. It’s almost heart breaking because it would be amazing to have more of her poetry. The longest fragment in existence is her Hymn to Aphrodite which is featured in this book. So, I’m not actually going to talk about the poetry in this review since Sappho’s poetry is extraordinary. Instead, I’m going to talk about the composition of the book and the translation.

Come Close is split into different sections: ‘Goddesses’, ‘Desire and Death-Longing’, ‘Her Girls and Family’, ‘Troy’, ‘Maidens and Marriages’, and ‘The Wisdom of Sappho’. The Hymn to Aphrodite is in the first section, ‘Goddesses’.

I did like the way that this book was split up into different themes. It made it much easier to understand the fragments as reading fragments of poetry without any context at all is difficult. I’m also impressed with just how many fragments have been included, although the fragments could have been more obviously separated from one another since they all just seem to blend into one big poem eventually. I think that the separate sections show Sappho’s work in a great light since her poetry is usually designated as ‘love poetry’ and it’s nice to see some further distinctions.

I must admit that I’m not a fan of the translation. I barely recognised the Hymn of Aphrodite from versions I’ve read of it before. That’s the nature of translation though, everyone does it differently. I’m not saying that it’s a bad translation; I’m just saying that I prefer some of the others that I’ve read. However, I really enjoyed the translations in the ‘Maidens and Marriages’ section along with ‘The Wisdom of Sappho’. For only 80p you can’t expect a translation with explanatory footnotes which is what I felt was missing from the translation. That’s just from doing my degrees in Literature though. I’m used to having footnotes so that editors and translators can provide the original text and then explain why they’ve chosen specific words. I did have to remind myself that this is not an academic edition; it’s just a fun one.

I think that the Little Black Classics edition of Sappho’s work is amazing value for money and a great way to read Sappho’s work. It’s definitely worth a read. I am considering buying a different version, possibly the normal Penguin Classics edition or even the Loeb Classical Library edition just to compare the translations, although it’s possible that the Loeb edition won’t include some of the fragments that have been found recently.



7 thoughts on “Book Review: Come Close by Sappho (Little Black Classics Edition)

  1. Ah yes, translations… I do think they are exciting though. Sometimes different aspects come through in a translation that you previously hadn’t considered. Of course aspects also often get lost in translation. I always find it interesting to see – so many possibilities. What will the translator choose? 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. They are very exciting! I love reading different translation of the same text to see what the translator has focused on. You do get a completely different text sometimes and it’s fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

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