The Works Of Sappho by Eugene Field

Story type: Literature

It would be hard to say whether Chicago society is more deeply interested in the circus which is exhibiting on the lake-front this week, than in the compilation of Sappho’s complete works just published in London, and but this week given to the trade in Chicago. As we understand it, Sappho and the circus had their beginning about the same time: if any thing, the origin of the circus antedated Sappho’s birth some years, and has achieved the more wide-spread popularity.

In the volume now before us, we learn that Sappho lived in the seventh century before Christ, and that she was at the zenith of her fame at the time when Tarquinius Priscus was king of Rome, and Nebuchadnezzar was subsisting on a hay-diet. It appears that, despite her wisdom, this talented lady did not know who her father was; seventeen hundred years after her demise, one Suidas claimed to have discovered that there were seven of her father; but Herodotus gives the name of the gentleman most justly suspected as Scamandronymus. Be this as it may, Sappho married a rich man, and subsequently fell in love with a dude who cared nothing for her; whereupon the unfortunate woman, without waiting to compile her writings, and without even indicating whom she preferred for her literary executor, committed suicide by hurling herself from a high precipice into the sea. Sappho was an exceedingly handsome person, as we see by the engraving which serves as the frontispiece of the work before us. This engraving, as we understand, was made from a portrait painted from life by a contemporaneous old Grecian artist, one Alma Tadema.

Still, we could not help wondering, as we saw the magnificent pageant of Forepaugh’s circus sweep down our majestic boulevards and superb thoroughfares yesterday; as we witnessed this imposing spectacle, we say, we could not help wondering how many people in all the vast crowds of spectators knew that there ever was such a poetess as Sappho, or how many, knowing that there was such a party, have ever read her works. It has been nearly a year since a circus came to town; and in that time public taste has been elevated to a degree by theatrical and operatic performers, such as Sara Bernhardt, Emma Abbott, Murray and Murphy, Adele Patti, George C. Miln, Helena Modjeska, Fanny Davenport, and Denman Thompson.

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Of course, therefore, our public has come to be able to appreciate with a nicer discrimination and a finer zest the intellectual morceaux and the refined tidbits which Mr. Forepaugh’s unparalleled aggregation offers. This was apparent in the vast numbers and in the unbridled enthusiasm of our best citizens gathered upon the housetops and at the street-corners along the line of the circus procession. So magnificent a display of silks, satins, and diamonds has seldom been seen: it truly seemed as if the fashion and wealth of our city were trying to vie with the splendors of the glittering circus pageant. In honor of the event, many of the stores, public buildings, and private dwellings displayed banners, mottoes, and congratulatory garlands. From the balcony of the palatial edifice occupied by one of our leading literary clubs was suspended a large banner of pink silk, upon which appeared the word “Welcome” in white; while beneath, upon a scroll, was an appropriate couplet from one of Robert Browning’s poems.

When we asked one of the members of this club why the club made such a fuss over the circus, he looked very much astonished; and he answered, “Well, why not? Old Forepaugh is worth over a million dollars, and he always sends us complimentaries whenever he comes to town!”

We asked this same gentleman if he had read the new edition of Sappho’s poems. We had a good deal of confidence in his literary judgment and taste, because he is our leading linseed-oil dealer; and no man in the West is possessed of more enterprise and sand than he.

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“My daughter brought home a copy of the book Saturday,” said he, “and I looked through it yesterday. Sappho may suit some cranks; but as for me, give me Ella Wheeler or Will Carleton. I love good poetry: I ‘ve got the finest-bound copy of Shakespeare in Illinois, and my edition of Coleridge will knock the socks off any book in the country. My wife has painted all the Doray illustrations of the Ancient Marine, and I would n’t swap that book for the costliest Mysonyay in all Paris!

“I can’t see where the poetry comes in,” he went on to say. “So far as I can make out, this man Sapolio–I mean Sappho–never did any sustained or consecutive work. His poems read to me a good deal like a diary. Some of them consist of one line only, and quite a number have only three words. Now, I will repeat five entire poems taken from this fool-book: I learned them on purpose to repeat at the club. Here is the first,–

“Me just now the golden-sandalled Dawn.

“That ‘s all there is to it. Here’s the second:

“I yearn and seek.

“A third is complete in–

“Much whiter than an egg;

and the fourth is,–

“Stir not the shingle,

which, I take it, was one of Sapphire’s juvenile poems addressed to his mother. The fifth poem is simply,–

“And thou thyself, Calliope,

which, by the way, reminds me that Forepaugh’s calliope got smashed up in a railroad accident night before last,–a circumstance deeply to be regretted, since there is no instrument calculated to appeal more directly to one versed in mythological lore, or more likely to awaken a train of pleasing associations, than the steam-calliope.”

A South-Side packer, who has the largest library in the city, told us that he had not seen Sappho’s works yet, but that he intended to read them at an early date. “I ‘ve got so sick of Howells and James,” said he, “that I ‘m darned glad to hear that some new fellow has come to the front.”

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Another prominent social light (a brewer) said that he had bought a “Sappho,” and was having it bound in morocco, with turkey-red trimmings. “I do enjoy a handsome book,” said he. “One of the most valuable volumes in my library I bought of a leading candy-manufacturer in this city. It is the original libretto and score of the ‘Songs of Solomon,’ bound in the tanned pelt of the fatted calf that was killed when the prodigal son came home.”

“I have simply glanced through the Sappho book,” said another distinguished representative of local culture; “and what surprised me, was the pains that has been taken in getting up the affair. Why, do you know, the editor has gone to the trouble of going through the book, and translating every darned poem into Greek! Of course, this strikes us business-men of Chicago as a queer bit of pedantry.”

The scholarly and courtly editor of the “Weekly Lard Journal and Literary Companion,” Professor A. J. Lyvely, criticised Sappho very freely as he stood at the corner of Clark and Madison Streets, waiting for the superb gold chariot drawn by twenty milk-white steeds, and containing fifty musicians, to come along. “Just because she lived in the dark ages,” said he, “she is cracked up for a great poet; but she will never be as popular with the masses of Western readers as Ella Wheeler and Marion Harland are. All of her works that remain to us are a few fragments, and they are chestnuts; for they have been printed within the last ten years in the books of a great many poets I could name, and I have read them. We know very little of Sappho’s life. If she had amounted to much, we would not be in such ignorance of her doings. The probability is that she was a society or fashion editor on one of the daily papers of her time,–a sort of Clara-Belle woman, whose naughtiness was mistaken for a species of intellectual brilliancy. Sappho was a gamey old girl, you know. Her life must have been a poem of passion, if there is any truth in the testimony of the authorities who wrote about her several centuries after her death. In fact, these verses of hers that are left indicate that she was addicted to late suppers, to loose morning-gowns, to perfumed stationery, and to hysterics. It is ten to one that she wore flaming bonnets and striking dresses; that she talked loud at the theatres and in public generally; and that she chewed gum, and smoked cigarettes, when she went to the races. If that woman had lived in Chicago, she would have been tabooed.”

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The amiable gentleman who reads manuscripts for Rand, McNally & Co. says that Sappho’s manuscripts were submitted to him a year ago. “I looked them over, and satisfied myself that there was nothing in them; and I told the author so. He seemed inclined to dispute me, but I told him I reckoned I understood pretty well what would sell in our literary circles and on our railroad-trains.”

But while there was a pretty general disposition to criticise Sappho, there was only one opinion as to the circus-parade; and that was complimentary. For the nonce, we may say, the cares and vexations of business, of literature, of art, and of science, were put aside; and our populace abandoned itself to a hearty enjoyment of the brilliant pageant which appealed to the higher instincts. And, as the cage containing the lions rolled by, the shouts of the enthusiastic spectators swelled above the guttural roars of the infuriate monarchs of the desert. Men waved their hats, and ladies fluttered their handkerchiefs. Altogether, the scene was so exciting as to be equalled only by the rapturous ovation which was tendered Mdlle. Hortense de Vere, queen of the air, when that sylph-like lady came out into the arena of Forepaugh’s great circus-tent last evening, and poised herself upon one tiny toe on the back of an untamed and foaming Arabian barb that dashed round and round the sawdust ring. Talk about your Sapphos and your poetry! Would Chicago hesitate a moment in choosing between Sappho and Mdlle. Hortense de Vere, queen of the air? And what rhythm–be it Sapphic, or choriambic, or Ionic a minore–is to be compared with the symphonic poetry of a shapely female balanced upon one delicate toe on the bristling back of a fiery, untamed palfrey that whoops round and round to the music of the band, the plaudits of the public, and the still, small voice of the dyspeptic gent announcing a minstrel show “under this canvas after the performance, which is not yet half completed?”

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If it makes us proud to go into our bookstores, and see thousands upon thousands of tomes waiting for customers; if our bosoms swell with delight to see the quiet and palatial homes of our cultured society overflowing with the most expensive wall-papers and the costliest articles of virtue; if we take an ineffable enjoyment in the thousand indications of a growing refinement in the midst of us,–vaster still must be the pride, the rapture, we feel when we behold our intellect and our culture paying the tribute of adoration to the circus. Viewing these enlivening scenes, why may we not cry in the words of Sappho, “Wealth without thee, Worth, is a shameless creature; but the mixture of both is the height of happiness”?

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