Sappho and Decadent Translation 1: ‘Lesbos’

Guest contributor: Stina Nölken

Charles Baudelaire

Why were the poets of the nineteenth century so fascinated with the Greek poetess, Sappho? Why did they so eagerly turn her into an image of decadence? Over two blogposts I shall try to find some answers to these questions by looking at poems by Charles Baudelaire and Algernon Charles Swinburne which translate and imitate works by Sappho.

Consider ‘Lesbos’ by Baudelaire, a poem which the censors forced him to exclude from the first edition of his collection, Les Fleurs du Mal (1857). It recounts the myth of ‘virile Sappho, the lover and the poet’ (‘mâle Sapho, l’amante et le poète’ l. 56), and her home on the island of Lesbos. The poem begins:

Mère des jeux latins et des voluptés grecques,

Lesbos, où les baisers, languissants ou joyeux,

Chauds comme les soleils, frais comme les pastèques,

Font l’ornement des nuits et des jours glorieux,

Mère des jeux latins et des voluptés grecques,

Mother of Latin games and Greek delights,

Lesbos! where the kisses, languid or rapt,

cool as melons, burning as the sun,

adorn the dark and gild the shining days

given to Latin games and Greek delights; (1-5)**

The strength of Baudelaire’s investment in Sappho can be seen here in the way that he re-imagines Lesbos as an erotic ideal, where sensual exchange is one with the climate (‘kisses … burning as the sun’).  As the poem proceeds, the position of the poet and his obsessions becomes an explicit part of its subject matter:

Car Lesbos entre tous m’a choisi sur la terre

Pour chanter le secret de ses vierges en fleurs,

Et je fus dès l’enfance admis au noir mystère

Des rires effrénés mêlés aux sombres pleurs;

Car Lesbos entre tous m’a choisi sur la terre.


Et depuis lors je veille au sommet de Leucate,

For Lesbos has chosen me among all men

to sing the secrets of her budding grove;

from childhood I have shared the mystery

of frenzied laughter laced with sullen tears,

and therefore I am chosen among men


to keep my lookout high on Sappho’s Cliff (lines 41-46)

Laden with innuendo, these lines hint strongly that it is the transgressive sexuality of Sappho and her followers that fascinates the poet.

But Baudelaire’s attitude towards same-sex love is also complicated in the poem. He celebrates Sappho as a god-like figure‘fairer than Aphrodite’ (‘Plus belle que Vénus’ l. 57). Yet he describes the sensual pleasures of her followers as ‘’sterile pleasure’ (‘stérile volupté’ l.18). This confirms that it is their same-sex love that fascinates him, but also introduces a note of qualification.

This culminates in the assertion that Sappho has betrayed the world that she built on the island:

— De Sapho qui mourut le jour de son blasphème,

Quand, insultant le rite et le culte inventé,

Elle fit son beau corps la pâture suprême

D’un brutal dont l’orgueil punit l’impiété

De celle qui mourut le jour de son blasphème.

[…] Sappho on the day she broke her vow

and died apostate to her own command,

her lovely body forfeit to a brute

whose arrogance avenged the sacrilege

of Sappho, lost the day she broke her vow… (. 66-70)

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 Simeon Solomon 1840-1905 Purchased 1980

Baudelaire clearly diverges from received versions of Sappho’s story here. According to myth, Sappho killed herself out of misery over her unrequited love for the boatman Phaon. But Baudelaire describes her death as blasphemy (‘son blasphème’), as if a heterosexual attachment proved her unworthy of her title and place on the isle of Lesbos. The hint of rape here (‘un brutal’) also hints at the worst kind of victim blaming.

In The Sappho History,Margaret Reynolds suggests that Baudelaire and Swinburne ‘break up Sappho, dissect her, fragment her and insert themselves into her spaces’ (p. 148).** And ‘Lesbos’ would seem to confirm this. As Reynolds points out, Baudelaire translates Sappho ‘across language, time and gender’ (p. 152). In doing so, he fragments her further and puts together the pieces to shape his own poetic voice. She is, as Reynolds observes, both his muse and his victim (p. 153). In the process of translating Sappho from the past into the present, Baudelaire remakes her in the spirit of decadence – but at what cost?

* Translations of Charles Baudelaire are quoted from Richard Howard, Les Fleurs du Mal (Godine, 1982)

** Margaret Reynolds, The Sappho History (Palgrave, 2003)

Stina J. Nölken is a postgraduate student in Comparative Literature within the School of Modern Languages at the University of Glasgow. She is currently completing a Master’s dissertation on self-translation and bilingual identity in Klaus Mann’s The Turning Point and Der Wendepunkt.




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