The link below is to an article reporting on the first poet to win the Rathbones Folio Prize.
In this series, we look at under-acknowledged women through the ages.
The world’s first known author is widely considered to be Enheduanna, a woman who lived in the 23rd century BCE in ancient Mesopotamia (approximately 2285 – 2250 BCE). Enheduanna is a remarkable figure: an ancient “triple threat”, she was a princess and a priestess as well as a writer and poet.
The third millennium BCE was a time of upheaval in Mesopotamia. The conquest of Sargon the Great saw the development of the world’s first great empire. The city of Akkad become one of the largest in the world, and northern and southern Mesopotamia were united for the first time in history.
In this extraordinary historical setting, we find the fascinating character of Enheduanna, Sargon’s daughter. She worked as the high priestess of the moon deity Nanna-Suen at his temple in Ur (in modern-day Southern Iraq). The celestial nature of her occupation is reflected in her name, meaning “Ornament of Heaven”.
Enheduanna composed several works of literature, including two hymns to the Mesopotamian love goddess Inanna (Semitic Ishtar). She wrote the myth of Inanna and Ebih, and a collection of 42 temple hymns. Scribal traditions in the ancient world are often considered an area of male authority, but Enheduanna’s works form an important part of Mesopotamia’s rich literary history.
Enheduanna’s status as a named poet is significant given the anonymity surrounding works of even earlier authors. Yet she is almost entirely unknown in the modern day, and her achievements have been largely overlooked (a notable exception is the work of Jungian analyst Betty De Shong Meador).
Her written works are deeply personal in subject, containing numerous biographical features.
Enheduanna’s cycle of temple hymns concludes with an assertion of the work’s originality and its authorship:
The compiler of the tablets was En-hedu-ana. My king, something has been created that no one has created before.
While clearly asserting ownership over the creative property of her work, Enheduanna also comments on the difficulties of the creative process — apparently, writer’s block was a problem even in ancient Mesopotamia.
Long hours labouring by night
In her hymns, Enheduanna comments on the challenge of encapsulating divine wonders through the written word. She describes spending long hours labouring over her compositions by night, for them then to be performed in the day. The fruits of her work are dedicated to the goddess of love.
Enheduanna’s poetry has a reflective quality that emphasises the superlative qualities of its divine muse, while also highlighting the artistic skill required for written compositions.
Her written praise of celestial deities has been recognised in the field of modern astronomy. Her descriptions of stellar measurements and movements have been described as possible early scientific observations. Indeed, a crater on Mercury was named in her honour in 2015.
Enheduanna’s works were written in cuneiform, an ancient form of writing using clay tablets but have only survived in the form of much later copies from around 1800 BCE, from the Old Babylonian period and later. The lack of earlier sources has raised doubts for some over Enheduanna’s identification as the author of myths and hymns and her status as a religious official of high rank. However, the historical record clearly identifies Enheduanna as the composer of ancient literary works, and this is undoubtedly an important aspect of the traditions surrounding her.
Aside from poetry, other sources for Enheduanna’s life have been discovered by archaeologists. These include cylinder seals belonging to her servants, and an alabaster relief inscribed with her dedication. The Disk of Enheduanna was discovered by British archaeologist Sir Charles Leonard Woolley and his team of excavators in 1927.
The Disk was discarded and apparently defaced in antiquity, but the pieces were recovered through excavations and the scene featuring the writer successfully restored. The scene depicts the priestess at work: along with three male attendants, she observes a libation offering being poured from a jug.
Enheduanna is situated in the centre of the image, with her gaze focused on the religious offering, and her hand raised in a gesture of piety. The image on the Disk emphasises the religious and social status of the priestess, who is wearing a cap and flounced garment.
Art imitates life
Enheduanna’s poetry contains what are thought to be autobiographical elements, such as descriptions of her struggle against a usurper, Lugalanne. In her composition The Exaltation of Inanna, Enheduanna describes Lugalanne’s attempts to force her from her role at the temple.
Enheduanna’s pleas to the moon god were apparently met with silence. She then turned to Inanna, who is praised for restoring her to office.
The challenge to Enheduanna’s authority, and her praise of her divine helper, are echoed in her other work, such as in the myth known as Inanna and Ebih.
In this narrative, the goddess Inanna comes into conflict with a haughty mountain, Ebih. The mountain offends the deity by standing tall and refusing to bow low to her. Inanna seeks help from her father, the deity Anu. He (understandably) advises her against going to war with the fearsome mountain range.
Inanna, in typically bold form, ignores this instruction and annihilates the mountain, before praising the god Enlil for his assistance. The myth contains intriguing parallels with the conflict described in Enheduanna’s poetry.
In the figure of Enheduanna, we see a powerful figure of great creativity, whose passionate praise of the goddess of love continues to echo through time, 4000 years after first being carved into a clay tablet.
Note: Translations of the Temple Hymns are taken from Black, J.A., Cunningham, G., Fluckiger-Hawker, E, Robson, E., and Zólyomi, G., The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, Oxford 1998.
For many people, most of what they know about the futility, sacrifice and tragedy of World War I, they learned through reading the poetry of Wilfred Owen. But what they may not be aware of is how close the Armistice was when Owen was killed at the age of 25.
On November 4 1918, the 2nd Manchester Regiment received orders to cross the Sambre and Oise Canal near the village of Ors to capture German positions at the opposite side. But as the troops attempted to build a pontoon bridge, they came under heavy machine gun fire. Against the odds, they forced a crossing and routed the enemy, but in so doing they suffered more than 200 casualties.
The attack was one of multiple attempts made up and down the canal to push back the Germans, all with similar consequences. But what made the crossing at Ors different however was the death of its most celebrated officer – Lieutenant Wilfred Owen – who was hit while helping the men who were building the bridge.
The tragedy of Owen’s end, just seven days before the guns fell silent, stands out in the cultural memory ahead of the thousands of men who died – or were yet to die – during the final moments of World War I. As a poet, Owen understood the irony of heroism very well. He resisted giving concrete identities to the soldiers who populate his poems to stop their experiences from becoming mere anecdotes. One man’s suffering is not more tragic than that of another.
In a provisional preface, written for a collection of his verse he would never see published, he set down his belief in what poetry could do – or could not do – to appropriately remember the atrocity of war:
This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn.
The sentiment here echoes a shift in war poetry, away from the jingoistic tenor of Rupert Brooke’s sonnets from 1914 about “some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England” and the men that gave their life for “immortality” to Siegfried Sassoon’s defiant denunciations of the evils of war.
The “big” words “War” and “Poetry” were ultimately not important for Owen – the more humane invocation of “pity” was poignantly written in lowercase. What the country needed, what the world needed, was empathy and regret, not hero worship – there was nothing glorious in being dead. But the time for this was not now. He disbelieved whether his own generation would ever be able to deal truthfully with the trauma. He was probably correct.
Owen had aspired to become a poet since boyhood. His early lyric verse written before the war showed promise, but it didn’t set him apart. The effects of war, and of his reading Sassoon, would change all that. Traditional lyricism gave way to starker rhythms, direct imagery and extensive use of assonance and half rhyme, which at once created sonic cohesion within a broken, phantasmagoric world. The protagonists in Owen’s poems are often no more than a spectre of themselves, mere voices who have lost all sense of their surroundings –- “unremembering” souls “[o]n dithering feet” who have “cease[d] feeling | Even themselves or for themselves”.
These poetic phantoms, spectres, ghosts were not shaped by the fighting alone; more than the trenches, it was Owen’s experiences at the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Officers, near Edinburgh, that coloured his vision. The four months spent there convalescing from shell shock would prove highly significant. Not only did he meet Sassoon there, who encouraged his poetic sensibilities, it was conducive to his creativity.
As part of their treatment, patients were subjected to ergotherapy, a behavioural therapy developed by Dr Arthur Brock, who believed that through useful work and activity patients would regain healthy links with the world around them. Owen was put in charge of The Hydra, the hospital’s literary magazine, and encouraged to write poetry. But his surroundings also furnished Owen with something more valuable: a space to process the suffering he had seen and was seeing around him. This emotion, recollected in tranquillity, is crystallised in the subject matter of some of his best known poems – characterised by an evocation of the sick, the wounded and the dying.
His manuscripts reflect that state of mind. Composition for Owen was neither frenzied nor easy, but rather it involved a steady process of probing words and phrases from which he manufactured the emotional intensity in his poetry. Differences in pen and ink show how Owen revisited his drafts and touched them up at different moments in time, at Craiglockhart and also afterwards when awaiting medical clearance at Scarborough Barracks.
In May 1918, C K Scott-Moncrief, who had tried and failed to secure Owen a Home posting as cadet instructor, told the young poet he ought to send his work to the publisher Heinemann. Owen was enthused by the encouragement. He drafted his Preface and hastily drew up a table of contents.
But it is likely that getting his work in order led to more writing and rewriting. Two poems, Hospital Barge and Futility (one revised, the other new), appeared in The Nation a month later – in August he received his embarkation orders to return to France. On September 17, at 7.35am, he boarded a military train to Folkestone from where he crossed the English Channel. With the exception of just five poems published in magazines, he never prepared any of his poems for the press, leaving the bulk of his work in various stages of completion.
Reluctant posthumous hero
In 1920, his friend Sassoon published a slim volume from the surviving manuscripts with Chatto & Windus, soon followed by a reprint in 1921, which indicates reasonable sales. (A more complete edition appeared in 1931.) The critical response, however, was mixed. Writing in The Athenaeum, John Middleton Murray praised Owen for achieving “the most magnificent expression of the emotional significance of the War”.
The hidebound Basil de Selincourt, on the other hand, dismissed Owen’s “soothing bitterness” in the Times Literary Supplement. He countered that “[t]he only glory imperishably associated with war is that of the supreme sacrifice which it entails; the trumpets and the banners are poor humanity’s imperfect tribute to that sublime implication”.
Owen’s posthumous reputation, however, owes much to the way that first volume introduced his work to the public. “All that was strongest in Wilfred Owen survives in his poems”, Sassoon wrote in his introduction. Unwittingly, perhaps, that phrase – and the frontispiece of Owen in his regimental uniform – entailed an act of monumentalisation that went against Owen’s preface that his book was “not about heroes”.
Owen’s legacy is inscribed into a culture of remembrance (that persists to this day) which seems to go against his own views. By 1920 the nation was in the grip of commemoration as it began the erection of monuments to the war dead all across the country – and the language adopted was the language of glory, honour, dominion and power which Owen had found repugnant:
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
For those who have read the fragmented remains of the Greek poet, Sappho the loss of most of her poetic corpus is something to regret. With a mere two complete poems extant from nine books of verse, much is left to the imagination in the reconstruction of the output (and life) of this most mysterious of ancient poets.
In a world dominated by male voices whose view of life, the universe and everything was the loudest and most respected, Sappho’s songs were regarded as extraordinary. So revered was she that the ancients called her the Tenth Muse, and her songs were passed down over centuries, inspiring generations of poets, none of whom managed to replicate her command of metre and sensual artistry.
How Sappho managed to acquire the educational acumen to compose her masterpieces has sometimes baffled both ancient and modern scholars. Women lived quiet and controlled lives in ancient Mediterranean cultures with limited, if any, access to formal education. If there were any perceived need to teach a girl basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic, it was only to equip her to run a household once she was married-off.
Even if a girl demonstrated extraordinary artistic skills, there was usually no avenue to express them, as the aspirations of women were limited to marriage and motherhood. Females who displayed a talent were normally suppressed and regarded with suspicion. Why? Because men were the artists, intellects and leaders. Ergo, for a woman to possess such qualities meant she also possessed a masculinity that set her apart from nature.
So, where did Sappho come from? What strange land or culture gave her birth and permitted her extraordinary skills to flourish? While we know little that is certain of her life, we do know Sappho was born in the city of Mytilene on the Greek island of Lesbos, off the coast of Turkey in the late 7th Century BC. Mytilene appears to have been an enlightened society compared to other communities in Archaic Greece. Sappho’s works clearly indicate that women – at least from her privileged social standing – had access to a formal education that included training in choral composition, musical accomplishment and performance.
Her estimated birth date places her sometime after the composition and transmission of the works of the Homeric poets, which told the stories of the Trojan War and are preserved in the epics known as the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Guide to the classics: Homer’s Iliad
Love of women
But Sappho was no epic poet, rather she composed lyrics: short, sweet verses on a variety of topics from hymns to the gods, marriage songs, and mini-tales of myth and legend. She also sung of desire, passion and love – mostly directed towards women – for which she is best known. And it is for such poems that Sappho has come down to us as history’s first lesbian.
Was Sappho a lesbian? An answer depends on how one is defined. If love of women, even in a non-sexual sense, and an exclusive focus on the needs and lives of women define a woman as a lesbian, then – yes – Sappho was a lesbian. However, if a lesbian is defined more narrowly as a woman who has sex with another woman, then evidence to define Sappho as one is harder to establish.
Of course, these two binaries are inherently artificial and without nuance. They are also ignorant of social constructionism, which insists on understanding an individual in her or his historical environment, its values, and its cultural specificities. And, in the society of Archaic Mytilene, Sappho was not defined as a lesbian. After all, the word “lesbian” was not invented until the Victorian age.
Sappho’s contemporaries were not responsible for her synonymy with women-loving. That began with the Greeks and Romans of later centuries, who tended to interpret her skill as stemming from a perverted form of masculinity, which sometimes found expression in representations of her through the lens of a hyper-sexuality. Sappho’s reputation for sexual proclivity initially linked her to passionate relations with men, which later morphed into a stronger association with women.
The Sappho mystique is further confounded by later testimonies such as the 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia called the Suda (or the Stronghold), which chronicled the history of the ancient Mediterranean. In one of two entries on Sappho, readers are informed that she was in love with a ferryman by the name of Phaon whose rejection of her caused her to leap to her death from the Leucadian Cliff.
This apocryphal history, which emerged in antiquity, went on to inspire artists, poets and playwrights for hundreds of years, despite the strange origins of Phaon as a figure of myth and legend. In the second entry on Sappho in the Suda, it is stated that Sappho was married, had a daughter by the name of Cleis, and was also a lover of women.
Turning to the fragments and scant number of complete poems from Sappho’s canon, there are references to her daughter, and to her close female companions – even her brothers – although the extant verses do not sing of a husband. In Fragment 132, for example, Sappho sings of Cleis:
I have a beautiful child whose face is like
golden flowers, my beloved Cleis …
Beauty, caresses and whispers
Sappho, following the poetic traditions of Archaic Greece, tended towards floral and natural imagery to depict feminine beauty and youth. Elsewhere, she evokes images of garlands, scents and even apples to convey feminine sensuality. Hers was largely a world of beauty, caresses, whispers and desires; songs sung in honour of the goddess Aphrodite, and tales of mythical love.
In Fragment 16, arguably Sappho’s most sublime poem, fortunately well preserved albeit a little tattered, her definition of beauty anticipates the maxim of the philosopher, Protagoras that “man is the measure of all things”:
Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry,
and others of ships, is the most beautiful
thing on the dark earth, but I say it is
whatever a person loves.
It is perfectly easy to make this
understood by everyone: for she who far
surpassed mankind in beauty,
Helen, left her most noble husband
and went sailing off to Troy with no thought at all
for her child or dear parents,
but [love?] led her astray …
has reminded me
now of Anactoria
who is not here;
I would rather see her
lovely walk and the bright sparkle of her
face than the Lydians’ chariots and armed
Sappho’s definition of beauty – that which a person loves – privileges the individual over the community. She extends her dictum with the example of the mythical figure of Helen of Troy, renowned in antiquity as the most beautiful woman in the world. As testimony to Sappho’s unique interpretation of the story, she removes the standard figures of blame for Helen’s role in the Trojan War – Paris, the Trojan prince who abducted her or, in other versions, Aphrodite who forced her to go with him – and gives agency to Helen herself. In Sappho’s world, where love is all, it is Helen who decides to leave her husband and elope with Paris. Consequences be damned!
Sappho’s thoughts on love and desire extend to a personal reverie on a woman by the name of Anactoria. Sappho reveals that Anactoria is gone and is missed. She compares her, indirectly, to Helen and then evokes her beauty, namely her gait and her sparkling face. Sappho’s lyrics are sensual, gentle, intense. But they are also powerful, as she rejects the world of masculine warfare in preference for beauty and desire.
‘A tremor shakes me’
In another well-preserved piece, Fragment 31, Sappho evokes the sensations she experiences as a result of being seated opposite a beautiful woman:
He seems to me equal in good fortune to the
whatever man, who sits on the opposite side to you
and listens nearby to your
and desire-inducing laugh: indeed that
gets my heart pounding in my breast.
For just gazing at you for a second, it is impossible
for me even to talk;
my tongue is broken, all at once a soft
flame has stolen beneath my flesh,
my eyes see nothing at all,
my ears ring,
sweat pours down me, a tremor
shakes me, I am more greenish than
grass, and I believe I am at
the very point of death.
The power of the fragment, and indeed the meaning, are substantially derived from the Greek pronouns that denote three players in Sappho’s drama: Sappho, the man, and the woman.
The man is god-like because he can be in the presence of the woman and remain unaffected. Sappho, in contrast, is a physical, mental and emotional wreck. The fragmented condition of the piece includes a few words that indicate at least one more stanza followed.
Such was the power of Sappho’s poem that it went on to inspire various intellectuals and poets who followed her. The Roman poet, Catullus was so enamoured of Sappho’s work that he reworked Fragment 31, which he would have known in its complete form, into his own version that even rendered the original Sapphic hendecasyllabic metre into Latin [Poem 51].
Translating Sappho is no mean feat. Most of the work is in poor condition, pieced together by papyrologists to make readable texts for scholars to work from. Confronted with the Aeolic Greek of the poet, printed neatly on a page, the translator is immediately drawn into emendations, conjectures, broken lines, missing words, incomplete words, hypothetical punctuation and, in short, a philological headache.
And, after persisting, the translator is always dissatisfied. It is impossible to capture the poet’s genius in another language, especially if the translator is simultaneously striving for a metrical equivalent. Catullus, too, was a poetic genius – an artist with complete control over style, metrics and meaning – yet he was humble enough not to replicate Sappho’s words but to imitate them, to compose a response to them, to make them his own as a homage to the Tenth Muse.
But despite the hurdles and the intellectual heartache, there are rewards in recent discoveries that continue to add more words, more lines, more stanzas and sometimes even new poems to the canon. In 2004, the discovery of piece of papyrus that completed an existing fragment – thereby making a new poem by Sappho – received international media coverage. The process of repair resulted in Poem 58, which deals with the themes of youth and old age.
Sappho mourns the passing of her youth, and reminds her audience of the myth of Tithonos, one of the few mortals to be loved by a goddess. Struck by the beauty of the young man, the goddess Eos asks Zeus to permit her to take the young man to live with her eternity. But Eos forgets to ask that Tithonos be granted a second gift: eternal youth. And so, she is left with a lover she quickly finds hideous and repellent, and Tithonos is left alone, trapped in a never-ending cycle of ageing.
More and more of Sappho is emerging. In 2013, more new fragments were discovered that have assisted in reconstructing existing pieces, and bringing to light four previously unknown pieces. One relatively complete poem, Brothers Song is the most significant of the find because of its hitherto unknown status.
The piece is also important because it further develops the image of the poet as an artist whose themes extended beyond the sensual and romantic. While previously extant fragments and details in works such as the Suda reference Sappho’s brothers, the poem provides more insight into Sappho’s familial world. While the first three stanzas are missing, there are five complete ones, the subject of which is a speaker’s concerns for the safe return of her two brothers, Charaxos and Larichos from a maritime trading venture.
The discoveries of this century are testimony to the fascinating and random nature of such finds. Rather than being hidden away in obscure manuscripts in dusty archives or included in elaborate scrolls, the fragments have sometimes come from less salubrious environments.
For example, much of Sappho’s work, along with pieces from poets and writers ranging from Homer, the Greek playwrights, Plato and Saint Paul came from Oxyrhynchus – an ancient garbage dump in Egypt.
And while other pieces were preserved as quotations in more respectable formats, such as books on grammar, composition and philosophy, the 2004 poem originally came from the cartonnage of an Egyptian mummy.
Indeed, cartonnage – a plaster-like material made from material scraps, including papyri that was wrapped around mummified bodies and then decorated – has yielded rich results, Sappho’s fragments being just one example. Hopefully more garbage will be excavated to reveal more of Sappho’s poetic diamonds.
For a recent, reliable edition of Sappho’s works, see Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works, translated from the ancient Greek by Diane J. Rayor, with an introduction and notes by André Lardinois (Cambridge University Press).