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Ovid, Heroides XV

Introduction and Synopsis

Sappho to Phaon

Say whether, as you looked at the letters of my diligent right hand,
Did your eyes know immediately that they were mine?
Or, unless you had read the writer's name, Sappho,
Would you have been ignorant of where this short work came from?
Perhaps you ask why my verses are alternating,
When I am more suited for the lyric mode.
My love must weep--elegy is the tearful verse.
No lyre suits my tears.


I burn, as the fertile field burns, its harvest alight,
With the wild east wind driving the flame.
You, Phaon, visit the remote fields of Typhoean Aetna;
Heat not less than Aetna's fire grips me.
Nor can I bring forth any song from the ordered strings;
Songs are the work of minds free of cares.
Neither the women of Pyrrha nor of Methymna,
Nor the rest of the crowd of Lesbos, delight me.
Anactorie is worth nothing to me, and fair Cydro;
Atthis does not please my eyes as before,
And the hundred others I loved here without guilt;
Wicked one, what belonged to many, only one possesses now.

You have a lovely countenance, and your years are suited to play--
Oh, countenance that was treacherous to my eyes!
Take the lyre and quiver--you will clearly be Apollo;
Let horns appear on your head--you will be Bacchus.
And Phoebus loved Daphne, and Bacchus the Gnosian maiden,
And neither one nor the other was acquainted with the lyric mode.
But for me the daughters of Pegasus repeat the sweetest songs;
Now my name is sung in all the world.
No more praise does Alcaeus have, the sharer in my native land and lyre,
Even though he sounds a grander song.
If obdurate nature has denied to me a lovely appearance,
Let my genius make up for my lack of loveliness.
I am short in stature, but I have a name that fills all lands;
My true height is brought forth by the measure of my name.
If I am not fair, Cepheus' Andromeda pleased Perseus,
Though she was dark with the color of her native land.
And white doves are often joined with those of different colors,
And the black turtledove is loved by the green bird.
If none shall be yours unless she seems worthy for her loveliness,
Then none shall be yours at all.

But when I read you my songs, I already seemed beautiful enough;
You swore that I was the one always graced by speech.
I would sing, I remember--lovers remember everything--
And as I sang you gave me stolen kisses.
These kisses you also praised, and I pleased in every way,
But then especially when we did love's work.
Then my playfulness delighted you more than you were accustomed--
The fleeting closeness and the fitting word in jest,
And, when the pleasures of both had mingled,
The greatest weariness in our tired bodies.

Now new prey come to you--the girls of Sicily.
What is Lesbos now to me?  I wish to be a Sicilian.
Oh send the wanderer back from your lands,
You Nisean mothers and Nisean daughters-in-law.
Nor let the lies of his flattering tongue deceive you.
What he says to you, he said before to me.
You also, Venus Erycina, who frequent the Sicanian mountains--
for I am yours--consider your poet, lady!
Will my heavy fortune continue in the way it began,
And remain always in its bitter course?
Six birthdays had passed for me when I gathered the bones
Of my father before his time and they drank my tears.
My unskilled brother burned, seized by harlot love,
And bore injury along with foul shame.
Made poor, he roams across the deep blue sea with nimble oar,
The wealth that he let slip away through evil, he now seeks through evil.
Me also, because I warned him well and faithfully many times, he hates.
This my frankness, this my dutiful tongue gave to me.
And as if there were a lack of things that tire me without end,
A little daughter heaps up my cares.

As the final cause of my complaints, you are added.
My ship is not driven by a favorable wind.
Behold--my scattered hair lies without order on my neck,
Nor do bright jewels press upon my fingers.
I am covered by a cheap garment; there is no gold in my tresses;
My hair has no gifts of Arabia.
For whom should I take care of myself, unhappy one, or whom should I work to please?
You, the sole reason for my care, are absent.
My heart is soft, and easily injured by light darts,
And there is always cause that I should always love--
Whether at birth the Sisters spoke this law,
And the threads of my life were not made grave,
Or whether enthusiasm changes into character, and Thalia,
The mistress of my art, made my nature soft.
What wonder, if the age of first downiness 
Carried me away, and the years that can make men love?
Lest you stole him away in place of Cephalus, Aurora, I feared--
And you would do so, except your first prey holds you!
Phoebe should catch sight of him, who sees all;
It would be Phaon who was bidden to continue his sleep.
It would be he whom Venus carried to heaven in her ivory chariot,
Except that she perceives he could please her Mars.
Oh, not yet a youth, but not now a boy, fitting age,
Oh adornment and great glory of your time,
Come to me, beautiful one, and slip back into my bosom!
I do not plead that you love, but that you allow yourself to be loved.

I write, and my eyes drop the dew of rising tears;
Look, how many blots are in this place.
If you were so determined to go, you might have gone more fittingly,
And you might have said, at least, "Lesbian girl, farewell!"
You did not bear with you my tears, nor my kisses;
Even at the last I did not fear what I was to suffer.
Nothing is left to me by you except injury; and you--
You have no pledge to remind you of your lover.
I gave no commands, nor would I have given any commands
Except that you not be forgetful of me.
By my love for you--may it never far depart--
And by the nine goddesses who are my divinities, I swear,
When anyone said to me, "Your joys are fleeing you,"
For a long time I could not weep, nor could I speak.
Tears abandoned my eyes, and words my mouth,
My breast was constricted with icy cold.
After my grief discovered itself, I was not ashamed
To beat my breast, nor to howl out with torn hair,
Not otherwise than as a dutiful mother of a son taken by death
Bears his empty body to the heaped-up funeral pyre.
My brother Charaxus rejoices, and his joy grows, at my grief,
And he passes and repasses before my eyes;
And so that the cause of my grief may seem shameful,
He says, "Why does she grieve?  Surely her daughter lives."
Modesty and love do not come together.  The whole crowd saw;
Tearing my robe, I bared my breast.

You are my care, Phaon; my dreams bring you back to me--
Dreams brighter than the beautiful day.
There I find you, even though you are absent from this place;
But the joys that sleep brings are not long enough.
Often I seem to burden your arms with my neck,
Often putting my arms beneath your neck;
I know the kisses, with your tongue joining, that you
Were accustomed to take, accustomed to give.
Sometimes I delude myself and speak words that seem most like the truth,
And my mouth keeps watch over my senses.
Beyond that I am ashamed to tell, but all happens,
And I enjoy, and moderation is not allowed to me.

But when Titan shows himself and all things with him,
Then I complain that sleep has deserted me so quickly;
I go to the caves and woods, as if woods and caves could help--
They were aware of my delights.
To those places I am borne away with helpless mind, like one whom furious Enyo
Has touched, my hair loose about my neck.
My eyes see the caves, hanging with rough rock,
Which to me were the image of Mygdonian marble;
I find the forest, which often offered us a bed
And covered us with the shade of many leaves--
But I do not find the lord both of the woods and of myself.
The place is worthless soil; he was the dowry of the place.
I recognize the pressed-down stalks of the turf that is so well-known to me;
The sod was bent down by our weight.
I have lain down and touched the place, the place where you rested;
The once pleasing grass has drunk my tears.
Even the branches seem to mourn, putting aside their leaves,
And no birds complain sweetly.
The Daulian bird alone, most sorrowful mother who took impious vengeance
On her husband, sings of Ismarian Itys.
The bird sings of Itys, Sappho of abandoned loves--
No more than this; everything else is silent as the middle of the night.

There is a sacred spring, shining and more transparent than glass--
Many believe a spirit dwells there--
Above which a water-dwelling lotus spreads its branches,
A forest all by itself; the earth is green with soft turf.
Here I had laid down my weary limbs in tears,
When a Naiad stood before my eyes.
She stood and said:  "Since you burn with an unequal flame,
Ambracia is the land you should seek.
Phoebus surveys the sea from his lofty place, for as far as it stretches--
Actium, the people call it, and Leucadian.
From here Deucalion, inflamed with love for Pyrrha,
Threw himself, and lay upon the waters with unwounded body.
Without delay love, turning, fled from the submerged man's resistant breast;
Deucalion was relieved of the fire.
This is the law that place holds.  Immediately seek the Leucadian height,
Nor fear to leap from the rock!"

Thus she advised, then ceased her speech; I rose in terror,
Nor could my eyes restrain the tears.
I shall go, O nymph, and I shall seek the rock you told me of;
My fear has been vanquished by maddened love!
Whatever will be, it will be better than now.  Breeze, come quickly
And bear off my body--no heavy weight.
You also, soft Love, place your wings beneath my fall,
Lest I should die, to the shame of the Leucadian waters.
Then I will offer my lyre to Phoebus, our common gift,
And beneath it there will be one verse and another:

"The poet Sappho gratefully offers a lyre to you, Phoebus;
It suits me well; it suits you well."

But why do you send me, the miserable one, to the shores of Actium,
When you yourself could bring back your wandering foot?
You can be more healthful to me than the Leucadian wave;
Both in figure and in merit you will be Phoebus to me.
But how can you, O more savage than all the cliffs and waves,
Bear the dishonor of my death if I die?
Ah, how much better for my breasts to be joined to yours,
Than to be cast headlong from the rocks.
These are the breasts of her, Phaon, that you were accustomed to praise,
Who often seemed to you to have genius.
I wish I were eloquent now!  Grief blocks my art,
And all genius is stopped by my evils.
My old strength in song will not respond;
My plectrum and lyre lie mute from grief.
Lesbian daughters of the waters, those to be married and those already wed,
Lesbian daughters, whose names have been told by the Aeolian lyre,
Lesbian daughters, who have been loved by me to my disgrace,
Cease coming, my crowd, to the lyre.
Phaon has carried away all that pleased you before;
Miserable me, I almost said "my Phaon."
Make him return, and your singer will return also.
He gave strength to my genius; he stole it away.

Do my prayers accomplish anything, or is his rustic breast moved?
Or does his breast harden, and the west winds bear away my falling words?
I wish that the winds that bear away my words would bring back your sails;
This deed would be fitting for you, slow one, if you were sensible.
If you are returning, and if the votive offering for your ship is being prepared,
Why do you tear my heart with delay?
Cast off!  Venus who was born from the sea protects the lover on the sea.
The breeze will aid your course; you must only cast off.
Cupid himself will steer, sitting in the stern;
He himself will spread and furl the sails with delicate hand.
But if you enjoy fleeing far away from Pelasgian Sappho--
You will not find any reason that I should be fled from--
At least let a cruel letter tell me in my misery,
So that I may seek my fate in Leucadian waters!
















































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