Midnight Poem | Sappho #poem

Portrait of a girl, previously thought to represent Sappho the ancient Greek poetess, with tablets and pen. She is also known as Meditation. Italy. Roman. c 75 AD. Pompeii. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

I’m a book behind already in Nick’s Master and Commander four year readalong of the series.

I knew it would happen. As much as I adore these books, I have read them before, and I do have reading commitments for work, so joining in was always going to happen as I could. The winter blues combined with lockdown lethargy kicked in strong a week ago. Pulling out Post Captain (book two in the series) was the only sensible thing to do. I needed comfort and a good rollicking story, and I needed it now!

One of the joys of this series is the rich character development, especially the friendship between Jack and Stephen. Another delight is all the little details about life in England in the early 1800’s. A time when people (men) were schooled in the classics. A time when the classics meant Ancient Greeks and Ancient Roman texts. A time when graffiti chalked onto a wall by a ‘madman’ were Sapphic verses, as happened in chapter thirteen of Post Captain.

It turns out the graffiti was the Midnight poem. It’s one of the most best-known, oft-quoted examples of Greek lyric poetry. One loved by academics who have tried to date the poem thanks to it’s astrological references. It is a fragment usually attributed to Sappho, and first recorded by Hephaestion (2nd century AD). And as you would expect, it now has an endless number of translations. I’ve included just a few below.

I’m astounded by how four little lines can be interpreted in such different ways! Is it a poem about loneliness or the absence of a lover? My favourite is the Mary Barnard, with it’s nod to ageing. But I also like what Magda Kapa has done with the final line.

August is Poetry Month in Australia, and my aim is to improve my knowledge of the various forms and types of poems. This fragment is a lyric poem, a poem designed to be sung to the lyre. Wikipedia also describes it is a ‘formal type of poetry which expresses personal emotions or feelings, typically spoken in the first person‘.

Δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληΐαδες, μέσαι δέ
νύκτες, πάρα δ' ἔρχετ' ὤρα,
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.

The moon and the Pleiades have set,
it is midnight,
and the time is passing,
but I sleep alone.
(Eva-Maria Voigt | 1971)

Tonight I’ve watched

The moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

in bed alone
(Mary Barnard | 1958)

The Moon hath left the sky;
Lost is the Pleiads‘ light;
It is midnight
And time slips by;
But on my couch alone I lie.
(John Addington Symonds | 1873–1876)

The moon has set,
and the Pleiades;
it is midnight,
the time is going by,
and I sleep alone.
(Henry Thornton Wharton | 1887)

The silver moon is set;
The Pleiades are gone;
Half the long night is spent, and yet
I lie alone.
(John Herman Merivale | 1838)

The Moon and the Pleiades have set –
half the night is gone.
Time passes.
I sleep alone.
(Diane Rayor | 2014)

The moon has set
and so the Pleiades; in the middle
of the night, the hours pass by
and I, alone, I lie.
(Magda Kapa)

The moon has set,
and the Pleiades as well;
in the deep middle of the night
the time is passing,
and I lie alone.
(Susy Q. Groden | 1966)

The moon has set
and the stars have faded,
midnight has gone,
long hours pass by, pass by;
I sleep alone
(Josephine Balmer | 1988)

Tonight, I’ve watched the Pleiades and the moon
And now…I’m in bed alone;
The night is half-gone.
(Jean Elizabeth Ward | 2008)

Moon has set
and Pleiades: middle
night, the hour goes by,
alone I lie.
(Anne Carson | 2002)

The moon has set, and the Pleiades;
midnight is gone;
the hours wear by,
and here I lie alone: alone
(Patrick O'Brian | Post Captain | 1971)

This post is part of A Poem For a Thursday with Jennifer @Holds Upon Happiness.

This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

11 thoughts on “Midnight Poem | Sappho #poem

  1. Great poem, great post! It was fun to read/compare the difference translations; like you, I favorite Mary Barnard’s, with Anne Carson’s a close second. I’m always amazed at the difference a translation makes, particularly with poetry. I have a couple of favorite poems that I love, but ONLY in certain translations.

    I’m also a huge fan of Patrick O’brien’s Master and Commander series; you don’t often find wonderful action sequences combined with such great character development (I agree that the Aubrey-Maturin friendship, and how it deepens, is a great draw). I hadn’t realized that this ancient fragment was mentioned in Post Captain, which inspires to run to the shelf and re-read a bit (I’ve read all books except Blue at the Mizzen, which I’m saving to cap a series re-read!)


    1. There is a 21st unfinished book to look forward too, Janakay, The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey. I read the little that there was to it, about 15 yrs ago, because like you, I was reluctant to finish my time with Jack and Stephen and their families.

      It has been a delight to reread them, picking up on little things, like a Sappho poem, that passed me by first time.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. You can join in Nick’s rereadalong (link in post). He’s basically reading a chapter a week, so if you fall behind, you can easily catch up with one good weekend of binge reading!! They are half way through book 3 as I type.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. The challenge of translating poetry seems to be write a new poem referencing as close as possible the original. My favourite of these, I think, is the Merivale which has a more formal structure than some of the others.


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