The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with David Stuttard
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I had to think really hard about this – there are so many. In the end I chose Sappho fr. 96:
She looked on you
as if you were a goddess;
in your song.
But now you’re in Lydia,
among women there,
as, when the sun has set,
the white-rose-fingered moon
eclipses all the stars.
She floods her light
across the vast salt sea,
thick with flowers,
and dew falls gentle,
and white roses bloom,
and fragile chervil,
and sweet clover blossoming,
as she forever paces back and forth,
remembering sweet Atthis
in her broken heart,
her soul consumed by sadness.
When did you first come across this poem?
I feel as if I’ve known this poem for ever, but I think I must have come across it first when I was putting together a selection of poems for an on-deck reading for Swan Hellenic, when I used to take actors to perform on their cruises (often in theatres such as Ephesus, Pergamon and Aspendus).
Can you tell me a bit about this source and its context?
It’s a fragment of one of Sappho’s poems, written some time at the turn of the seventh/sixth century BC, and it appears to describe the feelings of the poetess herself on her native island, Lesbos, yearning for her beloved Atthis, who is now living it up in Lydia, that wealthy kingdom in Asia Minor, whose mountains seen across the sea seem so tantalizingly close. I say ‘appears to describe’ because we shouldn’t really take anything we read in Sappho (or any lyric poetry for that matter) at face value – as Catullus, himself an ardent Sappho enthusiast, reminds us in his poem 16 (the one beginning ‘pedicabo vos’).
What is it about this poem that appeals to you most?
One reason is that I think it’s a great poem for lockdown, when we’ve all been prevented not just from seeing friends and loved ones, but from travelling. And the travelling I miss most is to the eastern Mediterranean. So here for a moment we can conjure up that magical landscape – the sea, the flowers, the quality of the light. The other reason is that before the pandemic struck, and over the summer when rules were relaxed a little, I’ve been rehearsing a show with actors Sian Phillips and Stephen Greif, which includes this poem. The show is basically a selection of Greek literature (from Homer and Herodotus to Aeschylus and Euripides to Sappho, Alcaeus and later poets from the Greek Anthology) which I’ve translated and put together to form (what I hope is) a coherent whole – a musing on life, love and war, relationships and inevitable ageing – combining high tragedy with not a little laughter.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I love listening to music, especially baroque music, and during lockdown I’ve been listening to Bach’s cantatas as they work their way through the liturgical year. Each one is so different, and all are amazingly uplifting. Then, when it’s been sunny, my wife and I have been getting out as much as possible for long walks on the South Downs. And, if that all sounds too cerebral, we’ve been also been bingeing on Schitt’s Creek.
David is a writer, lecturer, theatre director, dramaturg and Fellow of Goodenough College, London. He serves on the advisory board of The Transatlantic Forum for Education and Diplomacy (TFED), is an accredited lecturer for the Arts Society, and is represented by Bill Hamilton at A.M. Heath.
After reading Classics at St. Andrews University, David taught for eleven years before founding the specialist Greek theatre company, Actors of Dionysus, for which (also for eleven years) he translated and directed a wide range of tragedies and comedies for performance throughout the UK and occasionally in Graeco-Roman theatres. He still directs the occasional production, but most of his time is now taken up with writing. Since 2010 he has published 14 books with The British Museum Press, Thames and Hudson, Bloomsbury and Harvard University Press. He is the editor of Bloomsbury’s Looking at… series on Greek drama, the next volume in which (Looking at Agamemnon) will come out early in 2021. In May 2021 his book Phoenix: a Father, a Son and the Rise of Athens (about Miltiades, Cimon, the Persian Wars and the Delian League) will be published by HUP – a ‘prequel’ to his Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens which appeared in 2018. David is currently working on Hubris: Pericles’ Parthenon Project and the Invention of Athens (also for HUP) and Looking at Persians (for Bloomsbury). In October 2021 he will lecture for Noble Caledonian on a cruise from Naples to Malta via Sicily.
Dates for David’s ‘literary show’ (working title: Savage Beauty) with Sian Phillips and Stephen Greif include 28th March and 25th April at London’s Crazy Coqs theatre (www.brasseriezedel.com). You can find out more at www.davidstuttard.com.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.