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Professor Patrick Finglass
University of Bristol  
Major Research Fellowship

Sappho and Alcaeus: a new critical edition

Patrick Finglass aims to fulfil one of the most pressing needs in the discipline of Classics – a new critical edition, with full commentary, of Sappho’s fragments, as well as of her contemporary Alcaeus, whose poetry vividly describes civil strife in archaic Lesbos

P.Oxy. 1232, containing Sappho fr. 44

No ancient poet has a wider following today than Sappho. Her status as the most famous woman poet from Greco-Roman antiquity – perhaps the most famous woman poet ever – has naturally ensured a continuing fascination with her work, as has her association with same-sex love. The ancient edition of her poems, which filled probably nine books and thus over 10,000 lines, has not survived; but the fragments of those poems which have been preserved, both as quotations in authors whose works did outlast antiquity, and on ancient papyrus manuscripts recovered from the sands of Egypt from the late-nineteenth century onwards, offer many glimpses of her poetic brilliance. Yet for all her fame, there is no modern critical edition of, nor modern commentary on, Sappho’s surviving poems. The most recent critical edition, by Eva-Maria Voigt, was published in 1971, nearly half a century ago and there is no complete commentary in any language. Such a state of affairs is frankly astonishing, given the centrality of Sappho in the discipline of Classics and beyond and given the pressing need to provide readers with the best philological and literary assistance to enable them to make sense of Sappho’s moving but sometimes inscrutable fragments.

My new edition will incorporate all the many new papyri of Sappho (as well as the fragments of her contemporary Alcaeus, who like Sappho was from Lesbos and whose poetry uses the same dialect and metres) published over the last half-century, thus changing our overall picture of one of the world’s most important writers. But as well as interpreting Sappho, my edition will also reflect on the consequential nature of the editor’s crucial task of bringing Sappho’s works to a wider audience. How have editors dealt with the erotic aspects of her poetry, for example? Sappho fr. 1 (a complete poem) was for centuries wrongly treated as a heterosexual love song because of editorial choices made originally in the sixteenth century; only thanks to the philological acumen of nineteenth-century editors was it identified as an expression of homosexual passion. How have editorial choices affected the pictures of Sappho drawn by later generations? And in the light of this, what is the role of a modern editor, and thus what is the place of editing within the discipline of Classics today?

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