For my money, the most heartbreaking ending in literature is The Name of the Rose. Not to be too spoilery, but it involves a hidden library of countleFor my money, the most heartbreaking ending in literature is The Name of the Rose. Not to be too spoilery, but it involves a hidden library of countless classical texts (imagine Aristotle's Comedy, the lost plays of Sophocles, the collected correspondence of Alexander the Great, etc.) going up in flames. That the writings that form the cornerstone of Western civilization are often just the remnants that survived by fluke chance reinforces the all-encompassing impermanence of the human condition. I judge Jeopardy contestants when they can't properly name Motown backing bands. History has a way of making important things trivial and then forgotten.
Anyways, if there was a winner in this fictional fire it was Sappho. Sappho was widely acknowledged as one of the preeminent Hellenistic poets of the Classical Era. She was the rare woman who achieved predominance in their field in antiquarian times. And she achieved a level of predominance that is pretty staggering for anybody. For many classical Hellenes it was Homer then Sappho then everybody else. There are even sources found from hundred of years after her death basically saying that her stuff was going to be around forever. Now, all that's left is over a hundred fragments. Probably none represent a complete poem. Only a few (around a half dozen) even resemble a full poem. The vast majority are random excerpts, (often quotations from a second source) of a few lines are less. Many are just a line or a segment of a line.
However, this has paradoxically made Sappho the perfect poet for an ADD generation. I can appreciate it, but man reading Wordsworth go on for pages rhapsodizing about some meadow can be a bit of a drag. It's there to be found, but it takes a certain amount of elbow grease and sustained concentration to extract resonance out of a lot of poetry. Compare that to something like "Fragment 105:"
To himself he appears...
That's it. That's the poem. And it's not just great because it's short. Read the whole surrounding circumstances into those words. Those words are trace survivors of a body of work that was first widely acknowledged as sublime, then slowly forgotten about. Yet somehow, these words lingered on, and survived until Renaissance Europe rediscovered her work, around 2200 years after her death. These words have meant something to people throughout the ages. We can't precisely say what they meant to a Classical Greek, but the trace elements leave a kind of common empathy. Isn't that, for lack of a better word, poetic?...more