Sappho’s Fragment 31: Malcolm Jack VS “Many Happy Returns”

Originally published in 2010.
Edited and republished at Sharonda.net on March 18th, 2017.
Added to SMWoodfin.WordPress.com on October 30th, 2017.

Xena: Warrior Princess may not be the best place to learn about history. Granted, the show was responsible for my introduction to Boadicea, and… umm… that’s pretty much it. But, through the course of the series, history was hacked at, mythology was morphed, and religions were bent to the needs of the show, itself.

But one thing, one scrap of literature, that the show showed remarkable faithfulness to is Sappho’s Fragment 31. We encounter that piece of poetry in the sixth season episode “Many Happy Returns”. It is presented as a gift from Xena to Gabrielle, for Gabrielle’s birthday.

The poem which Xena commissioned Sappho to write, as read by Gabrielle, via the transcript at Whoosh.org:

“There’s a moment when I look at you
And no speech is left in me.
My tongue breaks.
Then fire races under my skin and I tremble.
And grow pale for I am dying of such love
Or so it seems to me.”

And Sappho’s Fragment 31, from Malcolm Jack’s Top 10 Quotes from Sappho’s Poetry1:

“He seems to me equal to gods, that man whoever he is who opposite you sits close and listens to your sweet speaking and lovely laughing. Oh, it puts the heart in my chest on wings. For when I look at you, even a moment, no speaking is left, in me. No. Tongue breaks and thin fire is racing under skin, and in eyes no sight, and drumming fills ears, and cold sweat holds me and shaking grips me all.”

Whoever “that man” is, I’m extremely grateful he was left out of Gabrielle’s birthday poem. Selective quoting aside, I’m inclined to think that the Xena version is as valid as Jack’s version, in part because both are can only be translations (and, even if translation were science, it would not be exact). But also because of Jack’s version of Fragment 3:

“The stars about the fair moon in their turn hide their bright face when she at about her full lights up all earth with silver.”

It’s obviously the same fragment, but so very different from Fragment 3 as I learned it:

“Awed by her splendour, stars near the lovely moon cover their own bright faces when she is roundest and lights the Earth with her silver.”

I don’t remember my source for that, ‘though Noel Cobb’s Archetypal Imagination: Glimpses of the Gods in Life and Art uses the same translation. I came across that bit when a friend of mine started college (roughly 222 years ago). I would ride to school with him so that I could make use of the university’s library. I found that scrap of verse, jotted it down, and it’s stayed in my memory ever sense.

In the end, there is no “correct” translation (‘though some may be closer than others). But for all of Xena’s tampering with history, mythology, religion, and literature, I appreciate that the show’s version of Fragment 31 was both true enough and accessible enough for me to recognize it immediately upon reading the version presented by Malcolm Jack.


1. This assertion was originally backed up by a page located at http://heritage-key.com/blogs/malcolmj/top-10-quotes-sapphos-poetry. Alas, the page is no more, and I can’t find a similar reference as of the 2017 republish. For more on Heritage Key, though, check out the Wikipedia entry.
2. 29 years, as of the 2017 republish.