We say God and the imagination are one.
How high that highest candle lights the dark.
-Wallace Stevens, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”
Sappho Fr. 2
Come from Crete to me, to the holy temple
where there’s an elegant apple orchard
smoking with frankincense.
There, cool water babbles through apple-branches;
the place is entirely shadowed with roses;
and from bright stirring leaves
deep sleep pours down.
There, a meadow where horses graze
blooms with spring flowers,
and the honied breezes blow . . .
In this place, Kypris, as you take up [ ],
into golden cups gently pour
mixed with our rejoicing.
Sappho Fr. 2 is addressed to Aphrodite (Kypris), summoning the god to her temple precinct.
The precinct may have existed in Lesbos, but this being song, I’m going to suggest it exists in the mind. In other words, the “me” and the “holy temple” (the first verse) are one and the same.
The sensuous landscape seems very much a mindscape: obscured by smoke, shaded throughout (fancifully, by roses), and the light filtering through dancing leaves brings enchanted sleep.
It is here, in the space created by and for song, that the communion with the god occurs.
Something similar is at work in Rilke’s Sonnet to Orpheus I.I.
The poem’s central conceit is that of a song-space: a place where the father of song and the creatures attentive to his music gather. This place of communion (“a temple”) is situated not in the physical world, but inside of them (“in the ear”).
It’s in this interior space that Sappho and her god, and Rilke and his demi-god, meet in song.
Rilke: Sonnets to Orpheus I.I
A tree sprung up there. O pure transcendence!
O Orpheus singing! O tall tree in the ear!
And all was quiet. Yet in the silence itself
a new beginning, an intimation, a change came on.
Creatures of stillness thronged out of the clear
untroubled forest, from their lairs and nests.
And it was not from cunning,
nor from fear, were they so quiet in themselves,
but from listening. Bellow, cry, roar
seemed small in their hearts. And where there was scarcely
even a hut to host this,
a shelter made of their darkest longing,
its entryway held up by wobbly posts–
there you built for them a temple in the ear.
Sappho Fr. 2:
δεῦρυ μ’ ἐκ Κρητας .π[ ]ναῦον
ἄγνον, ὄππ[ ] χάριεν μὲν ἄλσος
μαλί[αν], βῶμοι δὲ τεθυμιάμε-
ἐν δ’ ὔδωρ ψῦχρον κελάδει δι’ ὔσδων
μαλίνων, βρόδοισι δὲ παῖς ὀ χῶρος
ἐσκίαστ’, αἰθυσσομένων δὲ φύλλων
ἐν δὲ λείμων ἰππόβοτος τέθαλεν
ἠρινίοισιν ἄνθεσιν, αἰ δ’ ἄνητοι
μέλλιχα πνέοισιν [
ἔλθα δὴ σὺ [ ] ἔλοισα Κύπρι,
χρυσίαισιν ἐν κυλίκεσσιν ἄβρως
ὀμ[με]μείχμενον θαλίαισι νέκταρ
Rilke Die Sonette An Orpheus I.I
Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung!
O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr!
Und alles schwieg. Doch selbst in der Verschweigung
ging neuer Anfang, Wink und Wandlung vor.
Tiere aus Stille drangen aus dem klaren
gelösten Wald von Lager und Genist;
und da ergab sich, daß sie nicht aus List
und nicht aus Angst in sich so leise waren,
sondern aus Hören. Brüllen, Schrei, Geröhr
schien klein in ihren Herzen. Und wo eben
kaum eine Hütte war, dies zu empfangen,
ein Unterschlupf aus dunkelstem Verlangen
mit einem Zugang, dessen Pfosten beben, –
da schufst du ihnen Tempel im Gehör.
A pottery shard, circa 250-100 B.C., inscribed with Sappho 2.
It is held in the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence.
Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.