Widely considered by her contemporaries to be one of the greatest lyric poets of her era, Sappho’s poetry was almost lost to us for nearly two millennia and mainly survives in fragments. In this poem, partially recreated from papyrus roll fragments discovered in an ancient Egyptian rubbish dump, Sappho celebrates love and beauty as greater than the armies of Homer. Hers is one of the earliest personal voices of world literature.
Some say a cavalry corps,
some infantry, some, again,
will maintain that the swift oars
of our fleet are the finest
sight on dark earth; but I say
that whatever one loves, is.
This is easily proved: did
not Helen – she who had scanned
the flower of the world’s manhood-
choose as first among men one
who laid Troy’s honor in ruin?
warped to his will, forgetting
love due her own blood, her own
child, she wandered far with him.
So Anactoria, although you
being far away forget us,
the dear sound of your footstep
and light glancing in your eyes
would move me more than glitter
of Lydian horse or armored
tread of mainland infantry
From Sappho: A New Translation, by Mary Barnard, © 1958 by the Regents of the University of California, renewed 1986 by Mary Barnard. Published by the University of California Press.