Sappho, “I took my lyre and said”

I took my lyre—Sappho at once pronounces herself bold, empowered, and vulnerable. Uttering a musical phrase invites others to be lost in note after note. Is there such a thing as a song sung only to oneself?

Sappho feels and wants those feelings to flow to those near and beyond. Song itself should do that; what’s curious is her prelude to playing and singing. Her speech to her lyre looks like a moment of hesitation, of stage fright:

I took my lyre and said
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

I took my lyre and said:

Come now, my heavenly
tortoise shell: become
a speaking instrument

I took my lyre and said—maybe the easier scenario to imagine is Sappho outside, seated upon a smooth stone in the sunshine, playing before a crowd excited to hear her. In which case, this is banter at a live show. It could be pure confidence masquerading as timidity.

What if she’s actually nervous, though? Maybe she isn’t outside, surrounded by fans, but indoors, alone, speaking to an empty shell devoid of a living creature. Come now, my heavenly tortoise shell: become a speaking instrument—this doesn’t seem divine when those circumstances are imagined. She speaks to the shell but does not believe she has spoken at all. The need for a speaking instrument—not just sounds or syllables, not just ritual, but words unique and resonant—is pronounced.

The shell has become a lyre before; she has realized herself as a poet before. It’s the object which reminds her who she is. We could say, then, that there is a Muse, a heavenly beauty which may dazzle and blind us physically. The Muse takes away seeing this world for the truth of this world. It’s something beyond us that allows us to realize who we are, as we act in amazing ways without quite knowing what we’re doing.

When we are returned to the world at hand, it is frightfully ordinary. Objects seem dead and powerless. One has to regard the right ones as heaven-sent in order to redeem one’s own power.

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