Astronomers crack the secret of this gorgeous poem by Sappho

sappho poem tonight-ive-watched

This is one of my favorite poems by the ancient Greek poet Sappho. She was a master of packing a lot into a very tiny lyric — which is good since, tragically, only 200 scraps of her verse survive. This one is magnificent. In a mere eight lines, she paints the melancholy of middle age onto the canvas of the night sky.

There’s something else about this poem, though: Its astronomical specificity!

Sappho talks about the Pleiades, a cluster of extremely bright stars near Taurus. What’s more, Sappho mentions two interesting facts:

  • she watches the Pleaides go down, sinking beneath the horizon. And …
  • … this occurs before midnight.

Recently, two scientists got interested in the poem, because they realized these two facts could be used to determine precisely what time of year Sappho wrote the poem.

After all, constellations change their position in the sky as the year progresses. That means in different months they’ll sink beneath the horizon at different times of day. Since we know that Sappho saw the Pleiades go down before midnight, first you have deduce where Sappho was located — geographically — when she wrote the poem (because this will determine what part of the sky she was looking at). Then you check the star charts from that vantage point, and figure out what time of the year the Pleiades would have been visible right until midnight.

That’s what the scientists did, in their fascinating paper “Seasonal Dating of Sappho’s ‘Midnight Poem’ Revisited”.

You can read the paper here — it’s really fun — but the tl;dr is this: They started by working with the year 570 BCE, around the time that Sappho died. (This year is, they admit, fairly arbitrary; but a deviation of a few years wouldn’t change the position of the Pleaides noticeably.) They assumed that she wrote the poem in Mytilene, which was the capital city of the island of Lesbos, and where most scholars suspect Sappho lived at that point in her life.

Then they used a bunch of software, including Starry Night, to visualize the night sky from precisely Sappho’s vantage point. They discovered that Sappho could have seen the Pleiades before midnight from the late winter until the early spring. 

To quote the paper for more precision:

Assuming that Sappho observed from Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, we determined that in 570 BC the Pleiades set before midnight from 25 January on, and were lost to the evening twilight completely by 6 April.

As one of the scientists noted, this is one of the rare pieces of literature with which one can engage in this sort of analysis, because typically writers aren’t quite so exact in their descriptions of astronomical events:

“Sappho should be considered an informal contributor to early Greek astronomy as well as to Greek society at large,” Cuntz added. “Not many ancient poets comment on astronomical observations as clearly as she does.”

True, though there have been some other surprisingly nuanced bits of astronomy tucked into literature. As Jennifer Oulette notes in a terrific post in Gizmodo, Donald Olsen — a “forensic astronomer” — has used astronomic calculations to analyze several works of art; he concluded, for example, “that Mary Shelley was probably telling the truth about a moonlit ‘waking dream’ that inspired her to pen Frankenstein.” And the Pleiades have cropped up in other famous poems, including “On the Beach at Night” by Walt Whitman …

Up through the darkness,
While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading,
Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky,
Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,
Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter,
And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.

… and Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall”

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

And John Milton crammed so much astronomy into Paradise Lost that there’s an entire book devoted to analyzing it (written in 1913, and thus freely downloadable for your reading pleasure!)

By the way, if you google this Sappho poem, you probably won’t find the precise translation in my picture above, because it’s not online. It’s from a book of Sappho translated by Mary Barnard, who is hands-down my absolute fave. Her renditions rock like a Rush concert; accept no substitutes, and in particular try to get your hands on the University of California printing, which is aesthetically lovely and out of print. To give you a sense of how superior are her translations, read the one I snapped a pic of above, then compare it to these three that are quoted in the scientific paper:

Translation of Sappho's "Midnight Poem"

Those are okay, but they lack the deft, bleak drama of Barnard’s version.

Particularly her second stanza! Night is “half-gone”, but youth goes; the former is a factual statement about this particular night, then the latter pulls the camera back about sixteen miles and boom, you behold the existential arc of a life. Then she leaves you with that little hang at the end of “I am” … and nails it to the wall with the final line.

Completely metal.


60 thoughts on “Astronomers crack the secret of this gorgeous poem by Sappho

  1. Chris Joyce

    I couldn’t – to my immense surpise – see any reference to A. E. Housman’s derivative poem (not a translation) – better known I would have thought than any of the other allusions mentioned. Surprising because not only was he a notable poet but also the leading classical scholar of his time (and incomparably the finest textual critic – though mainly of works in Latin).

    The weeping Pleiads wester,
    And the moon is under seas;
    From bourn to bourn of midnight
    Far sighs the rainy breeze:

    It sighs from a lost country
    To a land I have not known;
    The weeping Pleiads wester,
    And I lie down alone.

    1. Chris Joyce

      Correction: immense surprise. The font allowed in the comment box is minuscule and I didn’t notice the slip until my comment was posted.

  2. Isiodore

    Does μέσαι δὲ νύκτεσ even mean midnight in the precise sense of 12am anyway. Wouldn’t it just mean in the middle of the night more generally (which after all is how Barnhard translates it). Would Sappho even have had the means to tell 12am precisely?

  3. G Plowden

    People who thin k these lines are by Sappho are putting themselves against Wilamowitz, Lobel and Page, which is rash. I add this to strengthen my previous comment, which has not deterred many people from continuing the Sappho attribution.

  4. G Plowden

    People who thin k these lines are by Sappho are putting themselves against Wilamowitz, Lobel and Page, which is rash.

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  9. Dr. José Montoya

    As I haven´t got the Greek text, I can´t judge the accuracy of the translation; but as far as the finesse and the power of suggestion are concerned, I find this adaptation far superior to the older ones.

  10. Kostis Spantidakis

    Cornelius Castoriadis had already dated this poem of Sappho. See Figures du pensable, Les carrefours du labyrinthe VI, Paris, Le Seuil, 1999: Notes sur la poésie. English: Figures of the Thinkable, trans. by H. Arnold, Stanford Univ. Press, 2007 and in the web.

  11. Gardner Campbell

    A lovely post, full of instruction and delight. As a Milton scholar, I’m especially glad to see the shout out to John M.

    Despite what one commenter above suggests, poetry and science are not always at odds. The link between poetry, science, and mathematics was especially strong for some poets during the English Renaissance, a time when “numbers” was another name for poetry, and music was thought of as mathematics made audible.

    The most extraordinary fusion of astronomy and poetry I know is Edmund Spenser’s heartbreakingly beautiful “Epithalamion,” a wedding poem he wrote to celebrate his second marriage. The stanza form is strangely irregular. Many critics had tried for many years to explain it. Not until A. Kent Hieatt’s “Short Time’s Endless Monument” was the code finally cracked: the stanza form represented the exact day, year, and coordinates of the wedding ceremony. Spenser wrote the short time into the endless monument of his magisterial love poem.

    Of course not every poem is a “code” in this way–but the point is that beauty comes in many varieties, and along many thought vectors.

    Thanks for the great post, and the great poem, which I had not read before.

    1. Clive Post author

      Thank you — and yes, “Ephithalamion” is an *amazing* example of a poem with an amazing structure! I’d forgotten about that one; I first read it in college (I studied English at the University of Toronto back in the late 80s and early 90s) and loved it back then, and my professor explained a bit about what Spenser did. I hadn’t heard of Hieatt’s book, and just ordered a copy … really looking forward to reading it.

      As to the point about the union of art and science being quite strong during the Renaissance, I’m reminded of Pope’s fun epitaph on Isaac Newton:

      “Nature, and Nature’s laws, lay hid in night:
      God said, *let Newton be!* And all was light.”

      ( for a nice print of it)

      That’s part of why the 18th century is among my favorite periods in English letters; the writers assumed that being a well-rounded educated citizen meant being up on the all the science of the day.

    2. Andrew Spenser Rhodes

      I did not know this. Mainly because I’m not like my father who loves the written word in most forms. He gave me the middle name of Spenser. I bought a book of his works although I don’t understand most of it.
      Funny because my passion is Astronomy and you’ve taught me a very cool fact about my middle name. I now understand why my father gave me this name. So thank you!

  12. Maria Haskins

    What a fascinating post, combining three things I love: poetry, translation, and astronomy. The astronomy-angle is the kind of thing that makes you feel as though you’re almost standing right next to the writer. As a writer and translator the translation angle also speaks to me: it is amazing what a difference a good translator (not just qualified, but with a feel for both languages) can make. I’ve translated poetry, and you often feel like you’re trying to thread a needle while wearing oven-mitts, it’s so hard to capture the true essence of a poem. This really showcases how a translation can go from “good” to “sublime”.

    1. Clive Post author

      “Trying to thread a needle while wearing oven-mitts” — love it!

      What stuff have you translated?

  13. Paul Beardsley

    A lovely poem, made no less lovely by the fact that it reminds me of certain friends’ posts on FaceBook – “Didn’t pull, so I’ve gone to bed, and it’s not even midnight. God, I wish I was 20 years younger.”
    Two issues, though. When we talk about the middle of the night, we only sometimes mean literally midnight – it’s more likely to be 2 or 3 in the morning.
    Also, although I get the metaphor, I feel the term “forensic astronomer” is a horrible misuse. “Forensic” means the use of science to solve crime. If no crime is involved, it simply isn’t forensic.

    1. Clive Post author

      Yes, part of what makes Sappho’s extant poetry feel so oddly contemporary is the brevity of those fragments: They all seem like something you’d see posted on social media.

      Good point about the overuse of “forensic”; I’ll keep that in mind the next time I see the term used improperly, and am tempted to use it that way myself.

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    1. Clive Post author

      Superb! I was wrong about that edtion being out of print, thankfully.

      What happened was that when I lost my copy of that edition and wanted to re-buy it, I called my local bookstore, and they ordered it … but told me “you’re lucky, there aren’t many copies of that edition left.” But I guess there are enough still floating around!

  16. Brent Hugh

    When I read the poem and envisioned the moon setting, I imagined the full moon–probably because the the full moon is what I personally consider to be the epitome of “moon-ness”, and so any time “moon” is mentioned, that is what I think of.

    But the article makes the interesting point that “.. the moon‘s age lies between two and six days…[and therefore would have appeared] as a crescent over the westerly horizon in the evening.”

    Of course in thinking it through, this is the only way it could be (moon above the western horizon after sunset is always a crescent new moon) but it certainly wasn’t the way I envisioned it on first reading.

    A slim crescent new moon slipping below the horizon, followed by the Pleides is really quite an interesting image indeed.

    Here is a photo showing what that might look like:

    In the interest of full disclosure, that image shows the new-ish moon just after sunset, and if the moon was setting closer to midnight it would be closer to first quarter. In that case, it would have looked more like this:

  17. Tom Kim

    Thanks for the mention of Sappho’s poetry, and how it still applies to our lives today.

    My feeling is that people before we all got streetlights (and lighting in general) were much more in touch with the world around them. Including the cycles of nature, the habits of animals, and even the construction of houses. I recall reading a book about houses from around the world, complete with the writer’s sketches and notes, though I no longer recall the title.

    I know for a fact that Googling the search term about how we’ve lost touch with our pasts—in a world free of artificial lighting—brings up many articles showing results regarding many poignant articles on the subject. I also recall, from my undergraduate days on Biological Clocks as a neurobiology major, how humans have a natural sleep cycle that entails our main daytime activity, and a minor nighttime activity of around half an hour or so, where we would usually just look at the stars. On occasion, we would attend to our needs, such as relieving ourselves of bodily waste. By the way, did you know that we are the only species on the planet that ignores their natural sleep cycle?

    Getting back to the topic, it is no surprise to me that people before the 19th century were very much in touch with how the stars moved in the sky, even to the point of having it dictate how the fates worked (I refer to the ancient Aztecs, Mayans, Pueblos, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Kahns of the Turkic steppes, etc., as well as many shamanistic cultures still extant in the world around us.)

    1. Clive Post author

      Absolutely — all poets before the age of electric outdoor urban lighting would have had a very different relationship to the stars than we moderns do.

      I’ve read a very little bit about modern light contagion, but the one thing that stood out is this wonderful piece David Owen wrote in the New Yorker in 2007 — “The Dark Side”:

      I also have sitting on my shelf a book I’ve yet to read, but the thesis of which really fascinates me: “Evening’s Empire”. You can read a review of it here — — but the gist of the argument is that increasingly-inexpensive sources of light (candle, whale oil, then eletricity) allowed for civic light to extend int the late evening, and that this had huge political effects, as the new bougeoise class hung out in salons and brewed democratic thought:

      “Koslofsky’s signal contribution is to demonstrate that this “colonization of the night” greatly expanded what historians have defined as one of the great and necessary creations of modernity—the bourgeois “public sphere,” places where men could escape their role as the Church’s or a sovereign’s subjects, and exercise and exchange their own opinions and ideas. (He seeks to answer the question “When in everyday life did the discussions, debates, and exchanges … occur?”) Social and intellectual life at two in the morning, as an 18th-century writer asserted, “speaks life, activity, spirit, and vigour”—and contemporary sources consistently noted that late nights in cafés and coffeehouses fostered heretical and anti-establishment conversation of a kind and intensity different from that of daylight hours, which led the authorities to attempt to police this new public sphere.”

      So — night-time lighting took away our close relationship with the stars, but gave us democracy!

      It’s an argument the heft of which I can’t yet assess because I haven’t read the book, but if he’s right it’s an interesting trade.

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  20. Lorenzo Smerillo

    David Meadows, a Classics scholar, on his blog tore this bit of astronomical puffery down to size. His major point is that the year 570 is a guess for Sappho’s death. That does not sit well with the text and causes major problems with this sort of exercise by astronomers who stray out of their expertise, so impressing the gullible with the magic of their science.

    But of course dear Sappho was strenuously attempting to record in precise astronomical terms the exact time at which she wrote her (now fragmentary) poem! This is what poets do, obviously, and have done since ‘Homer’, whenever they mention in passing a star or the Moon or the Sun! Poetry, as we all know from ‘Hamlet’s Mill’. is proto-science and therefore exact in all its descriptions! One can just ignore all that perfectly useless theory about poetic license and imagery in the face of astronomical precision.
    Caveat emptor.

    1. Clive Post author

      Heh. Yes, you and Meadows have nailed the main problem with this study, which my blog post implicitly endorses: That it assumes that Sappho is acting merely as a reporter — i.e. she saw the Pleiades set, then rushed immediately to set it down, that very instant; poetry as blog post, or perhaps tweet. Maybe if she’d had a camera she’d simply have instagrammed it and not bothered with poetry at all?

      The idea that poetry is supposed to be — and only be — a record of actual experience is of course nuts, and something that I worry gets taught far too much in high-school these days. I (unfairly) blame the Romantics and modern dominance of lyric above all other poetic forms, but then again I would: My hands-down fave period is probably the British 18th century poets.

      Nonetheless, I’m awfully charmed by the approach these astronomers took, because it’s fun, and I’m in generally favor of fun, particularly when it comes to literature!

      1. Adele Kennedy

        How wonderful to be able to read such itteresting posts. It makes me want to go back to University

    2. Brent Hugh

      The blog post does a nice job of taking apart the exaggerated media coverage of the article, but it doesn’t really do anything to take apart the original article itself. The article itself doesn’t claim the poem was written in 570BC and in fact is pretty careful to state exactly what it does claim–that if the observation was made in Mytilene or anywhere reasonably close and if the date is anywhere reasonably near 570BC then “we can conclude that the Midnight Poem was written in late winter or early spring.”

      Various specific dates, places, and times are mentioned, but they never claim these establish those dates as precisely relevant to the poem. They are simply outlining in detail the methods they used to establish their conclusions, which (believe it or not) is a thing you do in scientific papers. Part of the reason for that is it gives the reader the information needed to draw their own conclusions based on the data. In this case it is clear to folks who have a general understanding of astronomy that moving the date by 40 years or even 100 or 200 years, or moving the place by a few miles or even a couple hundred miles is going to change the precise dating slightly but isn’t going to change the season from winter-early spring to (for example) mid-summer or early fall.

      They even go to the trouble to discuss the issue of when midnight is determined and point out the fact that the time the observation made and the time the poem was written are (obviously!) not necessarily the same (Footnote 9). They also discuss the issue of whether the poem is describing a literal event or a more poetic one, and whether the poem was written by Sapphos or not (Footnote 1). Papers are written this way to explicitly lay out the issues and the reasoning used by the authors to reach their conclusions precisely so that you, the reader, can evaluate the evidence for yourself. They don’t really have to say explicitly that if the poem was written by someone else or written at a different time than the observation was made or “the night is half gone” means something different than “around midnight” that the end conclusion of the article will be slightly or completely different, because they have led you as the reader through all those arguments so that you can think it through for yourself.

      All this assumes some modicum of background and awareness of scientific and astronomical concepts, though–which the authors can probably assume of readers of the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage.

      But probably not of general readership . . . Meadows makes this somewhat hilarious remark near the end of his post:

      “That said, another thing that bothered me about all this is that Sappho’s poem clearly gives another astronomical marker, namely, that the “moon had set”. Why wasn’t this worked into the study? The authors include this puzzling statement:

      “[ … information on the moon’s nightly motion . . . cannot be used to further constrain the time frame of this poem.]

      “I don’t understand this at all. Is the software not sophisticated enough to track both the visibility of Pleiades AND the visibilty of the moon on the same day (er … night)?”

      The reason this is hilarious that anyone with a passing knowledge of how the moon works–say, anyone who has been outside at all during their lifetime–will know that the moon appears low above the western horizon between sunset and midnight for several days every single month of every single year. So literally, any month that Pleides is in the required position, the moon would be in the required position, too, for at least a day or two.

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  23. Deborah Lyons

    The author compares Mary Barnard’s translation to three from the 19th century — hardly a fair comparison. It would make more sense to look at some of the excellent modern translations, especially that of Anne Carson, who is both a poet and a classicist.

    1. Clive Post author

      That’s a good point: Anne Carson is a much closer comparison to what Barnard is doing!

      That said, I don’t agree that it’s inherently unfair to compare a poet from a different period to a modern one. The styles are different, but attention to craft is attention to craft; poetry is not a practice that qualifiably or necessarily “improves” over the centuries, compared to the way, say, that the practice of surgery has improved since the 19th century. As another point of comparison, Alexander Pope’s translations of the Illiad and the Odyssey are almost 300 years old, but they are as artfully done as, say, Fagles’ modern ones, and remain just as delightful as his!

      So to my eye, these translations of Sappho from the 19th century simply aren’t very well done. This is a matter of taste, of course …

  24. Mantelli

    I guess the Symonds translation is the one I know. It fits my memory of that poem, which haunts places in my memory.

  25. R J Tysoe

    “Sappho mentions two interesting facts:

    she watches the Pleaides go down, sinking beneath the horizon. And …
    … this occurs before midnight.”

    Surely 3 interesting facts – the moon set before the Pleaides, or at least it did in this translation.

    1. Clive Post author

      Yes! The authors of the article seem to feel that the location of the moon was less significant for the precise time-stamping of the poem …

      1. Joshua Peek

        That’s very hard to do without knowing the precise year and month, turns out. The season is easy enough that you don’t really need software to do it.

  26. Gabriella L Garlock

    I love Mary Barnard’s translations! I have them in the little book “Shambhala Pocket Classics” (1994). Not nearly as scholarly-looking as some editions I have, but convenient.
    But though I can’t translate Sappho myself, I confess to sometimes picking and choosing and conflating the best of the translations I do have, just for my own pleasure.
    Very nice topic.

    1. Clive Post author

      That’s very cool about remixing different translations into a new one! I’ve done the same thing mentally — is it common amongst fans of translated authors, I wonder?

      I think there’s a name for the practice … as well as for “translators” who’ve done renditions of authors entirely without any knowledge of the language from which they are translating: They just read a bunch of different English translations, and then write their own version of the text!

  27. Michael

    It looks like that book may be in print! The site you linked lets me put it in my cart, and Amazon has it in stock as well (search for the ISBN).

    1. Clive Post author

      Aha, that’s great!

      Thanks for letting me know — in fact, I think I’m going to order another backup copy, or even two. I originally picked this up on a whim in a bookstore, and then discovered that a) this is my favorite translation yet of Sappho, plus b) the typesetting and book-jacket design is really gorgeous.

      I started carrying the book around a lot, which was my undoing: I accidentally left it somewhere.

      So I called up my local bookstore to ask them to order in a replacement copy for me. They told me they’d get one in, but, judging by the book-buying-databases they consult, that this particular edition was close to being all sold out.

      I know the University of California has a few other printings of this translation, but I don’t like the (orange) cover quite so much, and suspect the typesetting on the inside may be slightly less ferociously awesome.

      So I’m going to buy a few more copies of this one LIKE A CRAZY PERSON


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