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The Lesbian Lyre

Reclaiming Sappho for the 21st Century


Jeffrey M. Duban

832 pp.  
7" x 9 1/2"

Clairview Books

Hardcover

$37.50
Published:  July 2016

978-1-905570-79-9


Hailed by Plato as the “Tenth Muse” of ancient Greek poetry, Sappho is inarguably antiquity’s greatest lyric poet. Born more than 2,600 years ago on the Greek island of Lesbos, and writing amorously of women and men alike, she is the namesake lesbian. What’s left of her writing, and what we know of her, is fragmentary. Shrouded in mystery, she is nonetheless repeatedly translated and discussed—no, appropriated—by all. Sappho has most recently undergone a variety of treatments by agenda-driven scholars and so-called poet-translators with little or no knowledge of Greek. Classicist-translator Jeffrey Duban debunks the postmodernist scholarship by which Sappho is interpreted today and offers translations reflecting the charm and elegant simplicity of the originals.

Duban provides a reader-friendly overview of Sappho’s times and themes, exploring her eroticism and Greek homosexuality overall. He introduces us to Sappho’s highly cultured island home, to its lyre-accompanied musical legends, and to the fabled beauty of Lesbian women. Not least, he emphasizes the proximity of Lesbos to Troy, making the translation and enjoyment of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey a further focus.

More than anything else, argues Duban, it is free verse and its rampant legacy—and no two persons more than Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound—that bear responsibility for the ruin of today’s classics in translation, to say nothing of poetry in the twentieth century. Beyond matters of reflection for classicists, Duban provides a far-ranging beginner’s guide to classical literature, with forays into Spenser and Milton, and into the colonial impulse of Virgil, Spenser, and the West at large.



“This is essentially two books: the first includes translations of Sappho other Greek lyric poets—including Alcman, Anacreon, Archilochus, and Ibycus—presented with encyclopedic discussions of their cultural and formal contexts. The second is an extended critique of Greekless 'poet-translators,' for instance, a long polemic against many modern versions of Homer. Unifying them is the problem of capturing the “tenor” of the original, the flavor of its 'structural and dictional formality.'

“Duban, a practicing lawyer, holds a PhD in classics (Johns Hopkins) and was a poetry editor for the journal Classical Outlook. Underlying his thesis is what he takes to be the negative influence of the modernists, exemplified by Ezra Pound and others. For Duban, an inadequate command of classical languages and philology, coupled with an imperative to be relevant to modern sensibilities, has distorted if not lost the purpose of the original poets.

“Verdict—Rich and gracefully written, this work is by turns insightful, provocative, and grumpy, good in its parts but diffuse as a whole. Accessible to the general reader, though most interesting to those concerned with questions of translation.” —Thomas L. Cooksey, formerly with Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah

“A humanities degree between two covers. Brilliant.”
David Dubal, The Juilliard School

“Jeffrey Duban is one of the relatively few scholars and artists standing athwart the flood of modernism and yelling stop...”
Mark Helprin, author, A Kingdom Far and Clear: The Complete Swan Lake Trilogy

“A half-century ago Duban’s views on the translation of Greek and Latin poetry would have been non-controversial. Now they may be as incendiary as they are desperately needed.”
Victor Davis Hanson, The Hoover Institution, Stanford University

“Jeffrey Duban’s The Lesbian Lyre is unique.... The work is magisterial in its root sense: we enjoy good teaching.”
William Nethercut, Professor of Classics, University of Texas, Austin

“The Lesbian Lyre offers a bracing and very welcome challenge to the 20th century dominance of ‘personal voice’ translations of Greek lyric, Sappho in particular.”
Niall Slater, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Latin and Greek, Emory University, Atlanta

“...Taken as a whole, the book contains a feast of sound scholarship and challenging critical judgment.”
Nicholas Ostler, author, Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin


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