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THE LESBIAN LYRE: Reclaiming Sappho for the 21st Century

- by Jeffrey M. Duban

A Publication of Clairview Books


- David Dubal, The Juilliard School

About the Author

Jeffrey Duban attended the Boston Public Latin School, where he began his study of Latin in the seventh grade and classical Greek in the tenth. Graduating from Brown University with a combined B.A.-M.A. in classics, he went on to complete his PhD in classical philology at The Johns Hopkins University. After a brief university teaching career, he enrolled in law school, obtaining his JD degree from the Fordham Law School. As an attorney, Mr. Duban specialized in academic law, defending professors in promotion and tenure disputes, and professors and students alike in racial discrimination and sexual misconduct cases. More recently an attorney-turned-writer, Mr. Duban is the author of The Lesbian Lyre: Reclaiming Sappho for the 21st Century, and is currently working on a second book. An avid supporter of the arts, Mr. Duban also produces and narrates the musical programs of "Sappho, Nine Fragments for Contralto" by Sir Granville Bantock and "Sappho for Soprano" with original music composed by Constantine Caravassilis.


The Lesbian Lyre: Reclaiming Sappho for the 21st Century

Lesbian, because Sappho (7th and 6th centuries BC) lived and composed on the Greek island of Lesbos, off the northern coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).

Lesbian designating sexual attraction emerged only in the 19th century.

Lyre, because Sappho composed and sung her poetry to the lyre (hence, lyric poetry).

Sappho, the earliest female poet in the Western literary tradition and the most famous in her own time and since.

Reclaiming, because the past fifty years and more have seen Sappho subject to egregious mistranslation and interpretation—in the first case by so-called poet-translators ignorant of Greek; in the second, by feminist scholars with a political agenda.

For the 21st Century, because the output of works on Sappho continues apace.

Hailed by Plato as the “Tenth Muse” of ancient Greek poetry, Sappho is inarguably antiquity’s greatest lyric poet. Born over 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.

Part I

  1. Greek Lyric, Greek Epic, and Old Testament; the Quarrel of Ancients and Moderns
  2. Greekless Translators, Theorizing Scholars
  3. Selected Lyric Poets of Antiquity: Archilochus, Alcman, Anacreon & Ibycus
  4. Sappho: Antiquity’s Poetess and Ours
  5. Sappho’s Eroticism
  6. The Loves of Men, Gods, and Primordial Forces
  7. Lesbos, Troy, and Environs; the Principal Greek Dialects

Part II

  1. Sappho and the “Lyric Nine,” An Aesthetic for Lyric Translation
  2. The Aesthetic of English-Language Prosody in the Translation of Classical Verse
  3. Translatability: Achieving Charm and Distinction in Translation
  4. Translation as the Profession of Ignorance: Mary Barnard, Willis Barnstone, and Others
  5. Translations Compared

Part III


  • Sappho
  • Alcman
  • Anacreon
  • Archilochus
  • Ibycus

Part IV

  1. Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid: The Epic Cycle in Progress
  2. Cosmic Preservation and the Heroism of Heracles
  3. Self-Perpetuation and the Heroism at Troy
  4. Imperishable Fame and the Evolution of Greek Epic
  5. Imperishable Fame Denied: Sappho’s "Wedding of Hector and Andromache"
  6. Cataclysm Averted: Homer's Separation of Helen and Achilles

Part V

  1. Homeric and Sapphic Meter, Metric Formulae and Oral Composition, the Origins of Rhyming Poetry, Milton on Blank Verse
  2. Accentuation, Sound, and Word Order in Ancient Greek Poetry

Part VI

  1. Growing Latin from Greek Roots, Rome’s Imperial Vision and Its Aftermath

Part VII

  1. Equal to the Gods: Poetic Sublimity, Inner Collapse
  2. Equal to a God: Form and Content in Convulsive Union
  3. Frenzied Emotion, Expressive Control: Form and Content Bound
  4. Modernism Wins Out: Form and Content Abandoned
  5. “Freedom, Freedom, Prison to the Free”: The Obfuscatory Unfettered
  6. Sappho Unbound and Boundaryless – Theorized, Personalized, Politicized
  7. Boundaries, Artistic Fit, and What "Art" Is and Does


  1. Not Making It New (or Better): Recent Iliads and Aeneids
  2. So Old It’s New (and Better): The Smith/Miller Hexametric Iliad
  3. On Leaving Well Enough Alone: Rejecting Lattimore for R. Fitzgerald
  4. Pope’s Iliad and E. FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát; Pope on Chapman’s Iliad
  5. Versions and Perversions of Homer: R. Fitzgerald, Fagles, and Logue
  6. Ezra Pound: Damage to Sextus Propertius

by Kati Gyulassy

Sappho composed in the rare Aeolic dialect of ancient Greek. Aeolis or Aeolia—from which the word Aeolic—lay off the northern coast of Asia Minor—modern Turkey. It looked toward the ancient wealthy kingdom of Lydia—mentioned by Sappho in her poetry—and extended northward toward the site of Troy and the Hellespont. This largely coastal area included several offshore islands, Sappho’s Lesbos foremost among them. Lesbian Greek, which is to say the Greek spoken on the Island of Lesbos, was the version of Aeolic spoken by Sappho and her contemporary on Lesbos, the poet Alcaeus.

The region south of Aeolia along the central coast of Asia Minor was Ionia, the locale of Old Ionic Greek, also known as Homeric Greek. And south of Ionia was Doria, home of the little preserved Doric Greek dialect.

Lesbos, said the late-nineteenth century English poet and literary critic John Addington Symonds, was

the centre of Aeolian culture, was the island of overmastering passions; the personality of the Greek race burned there with a fierce and steady flame of concentrated feeling. The energies which the Ionians divided between pleasure, politics, trade, legislation, science, and the arts, and which the Dorians turned to war and statecraft and social economy, were restrained by the Aeolians within the sphere of individual emotions, ready to burst forth volcanically. Nowhere in any age of Greek history, or in any part of Hellas, did the love of physical beauty, the sensibility to radiant scenes of nature, the consuming fervor of personal feeling, assume such grand proportions and receive such illustrious expression as they did in Lesbos.

Lesbos boasted Mytilene as its capital. The city, in all its prosperity and strength, became virtually synonymous with Lesbos itself. It was fabled in antiquity both for Sappho’s presence and the vigorous trade and military power that eventually made it the most influential of the Asiatic Greek cities.

Situated north of Lesbos at the mouth of the Hellespont was Troy—the famed cite of the Trojan War as recounted in Homer’s Iliad. The distance between Lesbos and Troy was navigable by coastal reckoning. We learn from the Iliad that Achilles, the poem’s protagonist, singlehandedly conquered Lesbos, thus giving its subjection to Greece a basis in mythology. The women of Lesbos were fabled for their beauty and sophistication, and for their sexual resourcefulness. Beauty contests were a yearly occurrence. The Iliad shows an acute awareness of the beauty of Lesbian women. Achilles’ concubine Briseis is of Lesbian origin. It is from her theft by the Greek commander Agamemnon that the Iliad’s dreadful events unfold, including Achilles’ withdrawal from battle and the consequent deaths of his own companions in the thousands. When Agamemnon seeks to reconcile Achilles and bring him back into the fold and fray, it is with an offer, among much else, of nine Lesbian women, one of them the returned Briseis herself.

Byron enthused over

The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece
Where burning Sappho loved and sung . . .

But the only isle of Greece on which Sappho loved and sung, and apart from which it is difficult to imagine Sappho at all—is Lesbos.

Translation Excerpts


The stars about the radiant moon
consider their brilliant orbs unsightly
when in her fullness she burns brightly
upon the earth. . .


As the sweet apple reddens atop of the bough
by the tip, at the furthest height,
the pickers forgot it, no, they didn’t, not quite
but just couldn’t reach it somehow.


As the hyacinth
on the mountain top,
trampling shepherds didn’t see
the purple flower drop.


“Maidenhood, maidenhood,
where go you leaving me”?
“I leave you for good,
you’ve outgrown my company.”


Hesperus, restoring all that shining dawn
has scattered far and wide,
you bring the sheep, bring the goat, bring every fawn
back to its mother’s side.
[not so the bride –
who leaving home is forever gone.]


The moon departs the sky
the Pleiads pass from sight
midnight’s hour slips by
and I lie alone tonight.



Like a smith –
again love strikes the hammer’s blow,
plunging me
in Winter’s torrent as I glow.


Again do I love, again love not,
this moment sane, the next distraught.


Again tossing his purple ball my way
blond Eros strikes calling me out to play
with a gaily sandaled girl.
but she’s of Lesbian pedigree
and won’t have any part of me
because my hair is grey,
and gapes that some other girl agree.


Thracian filly, why cast sidelong glances,
why flee as if I’d lost my senses?

I could easily bridle your head in place,
rein you in; run you round the race.

Now grazing in meadows you lightly skip
with no nimble horseman to hug your hip.



Like a smith –
again love strikes the hammer’s blow,
plunging me
in Winter’s torrent as I glow.


Again do I love, again love not,
this moment sane, the next distraught.


Again tossing his purple ball my way
blond Eros strikes calling me out to play
with a gaily sandaled girl.
but she’s of Lesbian pedigree
and won’t have any part of me
because my hair is grey,
and gapes that some other girl agree.


Thracian filly, why cast sidelong glances,
why flee as if I’d lost my senses?

I could easily bridle your head in place,
rein you in; run you round the race.

Now grazing in meadows you lightly skip
with no nimble horseman to hug your hip.



A fig tree on its rock, feeding many crows,
accessible, loved by all, to all exposed.


Like a mating crow,
pleasured, perching low,
poised on a jutting peak,
slack-pinioned, sleek.


We have a sturdy ox at home,
knows how to plough, need not be shown.


Gain gathered by long time and labor
often flows down the gut of a whore.


And on that skin, insatiable, alight,
hurling belly on belly, thigh on thigh.



In spring the river streams bedew
the quinces in Cydonia,
where sacred stands the Maidens’ grove
and shading bough vine-blossomed grows;
this love of mine no season knows
but races – northern Thracian blast
from Aphrodite’s shrine outcast
ablaze with flash of lightning, black
with shameless fits of parching rage,
pain unrelenting, unassuaged.

Chapter Excerpts

Preface (the Greekless “poet-translator”)

The Lesbian Lyre focuses on the results and implications of the poet-translator phenomenon, one that I have found to perplex non-classicists. Yet within the self-approving classics field of the past fifty years and more, this phenomenon has become commonplace. Reviewing such works for academic journals and other media, classicists rarely so much as note a poet-translator’s lack of classical language training. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, such a situation would have been unthinkable. There have of course been rare and outstanding exceptions: witness Alexander Pope (1688–1744) who, with minimal Greek and an unfailing poetic sensibility, completed one of the most successful and enduring translations of Homer (xxvii).

Chapter 2 (the task at hand)

The present work takes Sappho at face value, restoring her to common sense based on the meaning of her words in context (24).

Chapter 11 (memorizing poetry)

The difference between reading and memorizing poetry is the difference between viewing a Rembrandt at the museum and having it hang from your own wall (106).

Chapter 25 (T. S. Eliot, "Prufrock")

The poem comes laden with Cubist compression: "When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table" equalizes high and low, flattens the depth of sky "upon a table," draining the very empyrean of perspective (and turning it upside down). The sky’s life-sustaining aether becomes sense-numbing ether. The circumambient is localized, creating a sense of spatial and sensory suffocation (343-344).

Chapter 25 (impervious Ezra Pound)

As Pound took all the wrong lessons from Dante—those of his politics, artistic purpose, and style—he proved impervious to the best in Homer and had no use for Virgil. There would have been no Pound, and no self-willed alienation, otherwise (368).

Chapter 25 (Pound and Emily Dickinson)

Dickinson worked in a sparse and highly formal style, with the artist's rather than the barn painter’s brush. Requiring discipline, education, and time, her poetry reflected the life of the mind rather than life’s adrenalized gusto. Even had she been better known in her lifetime—let alone as shamelessly self-promoting as Whitman—Dickinson would not have won the palm. More congenial to the times the wide outdoors and the up-winded scent of one’s armpit. Dickinson was fine wine to Whitman’s beer. Why sip and savor when you can guzzle? (369)

Chapter 27 (Sappho "problematized")

McEvilley's work is a reproach to the radical reclamation and "problematization" of Sappho; it is a credit to what is instinctive or primal in Sappho’s outlook and, thus, to what is eminently simple and straightforward. We know and have always intuitively known Sappho's predicament: "Love and sorrow are re-born with every human being. Time and civilization make little difference. But those touches are only weakened by . . . recondite conceits and ambitious psychology" (392).

Chapter 34 (thunderbolt for hybris)

To treat the Odyssey "as though it had been written not in the 720s BC by Homer, but in the 1950s AD by Robert Fitzgerald," and to proceed in largely unfootnoted fashion as though Homer had never previously met with comment, is a presumption for which Zeus keeps a special thunderbolt (513).


"A humanities degree between two covers. Brilliant."

– David Dubal, The Juilliard School, Author, The Essential Canon of Classical Music

"The Lesbian Lyre offers a bracing and very welcome challenge to the twentieth century dominance of 'personal voice’ translations of Greek lyric, Sappho in particular, by translators with scant or no Greek but great self-confidence in their own intuition of what the Greek should say. The trend for ‘poet-translators' to work from cribs and paraphrases has undoubtedly been deplorable, both in conception and results. The polemics of Jeffrey Duban’s argument are very clear, with Ezra Pound the chief villain in the piece. The book promises both to resurrect some forgotten but remarkably effective translations of Greek lyric and to offer new renderings of Sappho in translations reflecting the simple and formal beauties of her lyrics while calling upon the full resources of the English poetic tradition."

– Niall W. Slater, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Latin and Greek, Emory University, Atlanta

"Jeffrey Duban is one of the relatively few scholars and artists standing athwart the flood of modernism and yelling stop—if it is possible to characterize extraordinary erudition and the devoted advocacy of truth and beauty as ‘yelling.’"

– Mark Helprin, Author, A Kingdom Far and Clear: The Complete Swan Lake Trilogy

"The Lesbian Lyre is scholarly in its overall plan, and well-informed and insightful. Interested readers will be accurately informed about the matters of Greek and Latin literature on which it touches; and in considering the themes of this literature from a modern viewpoint, they are also likely to be enlightened by some original judgments. Imperialism is not a cause which finds much enlightened support in the modern era, even within dominant powers such as the UK and the USA which consider themselves (and their quasi-imperial activities) to have been a net force for good in the world. But imperialism is an intrinsic theme of Classical Latin literature. It is a merit of this book that it considers these conflicts of value head-on. Taken as a whole, this book will certainly contain a feast of sound scholarship and challenging critical judgment."

– Nicholas Ostler, Chairman, Foundation for Endangered Languages, Author, Empires of the Word; Ad Infinitum; The Last Lingua Franca

"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, Coauthor, Who Killed Homer: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom

Jeffrey Duban's The Lesbian Lyre is unique. It brings together the story of poetry (and also of the visual arts, and, in important ways, of music) from our first texts in ancient Greece up to the contemporary criticism of the Classics. It deserves comparison with Gilbert Highet’s The Classical Tradition (1949) for its wide-ranging scholarship. The author is generous to the newcomer to the classical world: geography, cultures, the gods and their myths, the Greek language and its dialects, Greek poetic rhythms, are set as background. The writing is clear, and the essentials in all of this are reviewed quickly. The work is magisterial in its root sense: we enjoy good teaching.

Duban shows that the search for shock, or jagged impact—for energy— in English, often distorts the Greek model; similarly, that Marxist or feminist interpreters have made the Greek poets poster figures for their philosophical programs. I heartily applaud the patient and rational exposure of the way in which such ideologies wage war against the very excellent art already present in the Greek. Central to this book are the author’s translations of Sappho and the Greek lyric poets, and of Catullus, who radically recast himself, a Roman lover, as Sappho. The translations and their comparison with other English versions are a strength of this book.

Every part of the work's huge trajectory helps build meaning for the reader. The Lesbian Lyre is a masterful synthesis of all the best arguments in classical scholarship for the past sixty or seventy years, illuminated by the changing cultural contexts of the past twenty-five centuries.”

– William R. Nethercut, Professor, Department of Classics, University of Texas, Austin

"Jeffrey Duban tries valiantly to revive the tradition in his ambitious, pugnacious, eccentric, sprawling new book The Lesbian Lyre. This is not all Duban tries to do; he also provides a learned introduction to ancient Greek lyric poetry, offers translations of his favorite love poems, surveys Latin and Greek literature more generally, explains the formal aspects of classical verse, discusses translation, surveys and criticizes various translations, and explains how literature, art, Classics and everything else went wrong after World War One, with the advent of Modernism, and the inexplicable rise of the half-educated poet, critic and charlatan Ezra Pound (1885–1972), who is ultimately to blame for the decay in modern poetry, and the death of the classical tradition....

Duban has a great deal to say; much of it is immensely valuable. The Lesbian Lyre appears old-fashioned not because Duban is a reactionary, but only because literary criticism and classical scholarship have turned so sharply leftwards that even a moderately liberal intellectual stance seems a quaint novelty....

Jeffrey Duban seems to have been provoked into writing The Lesbian Lyre because of the recent proliferation of bad 'poetic' versions of verses by Sappho of Lesbos (ca. 630-570 BC), where the translators have little or no ability to read ancient Greek, no ability to organize words into recognizable poetic form, and no knowledge of or respect for English literature. Many of these translators claim special insight into Sappho s surviving verses by virtue of being women, even where they cannot read Sappho's own words. Such politicized hocus-pocus goes unchallenged by classicists, who either agree with it or decline to express their dissent."

– Sandra Kotta, Quillette

Nonfiction: Sappho/the Lyric Poets, Crime in Panama, Raif Badawi, Viking Economics, Language

Xpress Reviews

Duban, Jeffrey M. The Lesbian Lyre: Reclaiming Sappho for the 21st Century. Clairview. Jun. 2016. 832p. maps. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781905570799. $37.50. LIT


This is essentially two books: the first includes translations of Sappho and 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

Also seen in San Francisco Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, and Midwest Book Review.


Book Launch Program

Book Launch Photos

Performance Review

Schedule a performance

Program Excerpts

Sappho for Soprano

"Sappho, Nine Fragments for Contralto" at Lincoln Center, NYC

Program narrator Jeffrey Duban

Program narrator Jeffrey Duban

Mezzo-soprano Kirsten Kane

Pianist Eri Nakamura

Mezzo-soprano Kirsten Kane

Final bows for performers Bridget Hogan, Jeffrey Duban, Eri Nakamura, and Kirsten Kane

Author Jeffrey Duban signing copies of his new book THE LESBIAN LYRE (Clairview Books)


Mezzo-soprano Kirsten Kane, pianist Eri Nakamura, and book editor Rachel Trusheim

Juilliard's David Dubal with author Jeffrey Duban

Jeffrey Duban with guest Rexa Han

The gathering of guests

Mezzo-soprano Kirsten Kane, presenter Bridget Hogan, and pianist Eri Nakamura

From left to right: Kirsten Kane, Bridget Hogan, Jeffrey Duban, Eri Nakamura, and Rachel Trusheim

Mezzo-soprano Kirsten Kane, narrator Jeffrey Duban, and pianist Eri Nakamura

Honored guests David Dubal, Rachel Trusheim, and David Ratner

Program Excerpts

"Sappho for Soprano" at Moores School of Music, Houston, TX

"Sappho for Soprano" Ensemble

Composer Constantine Caravassilis outside the Moores School of Music

Author Jeffrey Duban inside University of Houston's Barnes & Noblen

Claire, a University of Houston student, reading THE LESBIAN LYRE

Jeffrey Duban next to a poster for THE LESBIAN LYRE and "Sappho for Soprano"

Barnes & Noble and THE LESBIAN LYRE "Sappho for Soprano" event

Professor of Classics Casey Dué Hackney giving a speech to the Hellenic Cultural Center of the Southwest attendees

Narrator and producer Jeffrey Duban introduces the program

Pianist Madeline Slettedahl and soprano Dorothy Gal performing Ivor Gurney's "Three Sappho Songs"

Flutist Hannah Hammel performing Claude Debussy's "Syrinx"

Madeline Slettedahl and Dorothy Gal performing Claude Debussy's "Trois Chansons de Bilitis"

Constantine Caravassilis' Sappho de Mytilène performed by Hannah Hammel, Madeline Slettedahl, and Dorothy Gal

A gracious bow

Attendees enjoying the performance

Esa-Pekka Salonen's "Five Images After Sappho" performed by Hannah Hammel, Madeline Slettedahl, and soprano Jenni Klauder

Program narrator Jeffrey Duban

Mikis Theordorakis' Cello Rhapsody performed by Madeline Slettedahl and cellist Sophie Shao

Composer Constantine Caravassilis speaking about his work

World premiere performance of "My Life, a Lyric Cry" performed by oboist Claire Kostic, pianist Madeline Slettedahl, cellist Sophie Shao, and soprano Dorothy Gal

"My Life, A Lyric Cry"

A standing ovation and final bow for the "Sappho for Soprano" performers

Celebrating the performers with flowers

Final bows

The ensemble together

One more group shot, for good measure

There's always one in the crowd! After the show with the performers and Constantine Caravassilis

Jeffrey Duban and Hannah Hammel

Sophie Shao and Jeffrey Duban

Jenni Klauder and Jeffrey Duban

Jeffrey Duban and Claire Kostic

Dorothy Gal and Jeffrey Duban

Jim Duban

Karen Carlisle Duban

Book editor and publicist Rachel Trusheim lending not one but two hands, with Martin Mould

Jeffrey Duban signing THE LESBIAN LYRE for a fan

Composer Constantine Caravassilis

Sappho for Soprano