Sappho of Lesbos
Posted January 30, 2012on:
What happened to The Odyssey, you ask? Well, frankly, I got bored with it. It’s a great story, but it was way too much work to blog about. So, we’re moving on to the next entry in the Norton (still in Volume A, by the way) – Sappho of Lesbos.
Okay, so what do we know about this notorious lady? Not much, as it turns out. She was born around 630 bc, on the island of Lesbos, off the coast of Asia Minor. She had a husband, and at least one daughter. There was a collection of her poetry, spanning nine books, in the library of Alexandria. That’s awfully unfortunate for us, because now all that remains of her apparently huge folio is two complete poems and a bunch of fragments. She was liberally quoted in other works by the ancients, and it’s clear that she was enthusiastically loved even then. And it’s clear why – she gives us a beautiful picture of the joy and sorrow of love.
Sappho on an Attic red-figure vase by the Brygos Painter, ca. 470 BC. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Yes, love. Now we get to the ~scandal.~ Sappho is sometimes whispered of as being a lesbian, as if there is something wrong with that. And maybe she was. She certainly lent her name to the cause – the noun “lesbian” and the adjective “sapphic” are both traced directly to Sappho. (Neither term was in use until the modern era, however.)
But let’s look at this closely. In ancient cultures, men and women were strictly separated, rarely interacting at all. Young women formed their own tightly-knit society, closer than we can probably imagine. From girlhood to marriage, these friendships were the most important part of their lives. But when it came time for marriage, their lives would be dominated by home, husband, and children. This intense friendship and dependence and camaraderie, and the subsequent parting, was an incredibly deep experience. Maybe those friendships were platonic, and maybe they were more – we may never know, and frankly, it doesn’t matter. The type of relationship doesn’t dilute the depth of emotion. Sappho’s words of love and longing are poignant and relatable no matter our gender or sexual orientation. (And of course it’s entirely possible that her poems are not meant to be autobiographical at all!)
Before we get into the poems, let me pass on something from the introduction in the Norton. “The first two poems printed here were quoted in their entirety by ancient critics (although it is possible that there was another stanza at the end of the second)… Our third selection…comes from the municipal rubbish heap of the Egyptian village Oxyrhyncus.” It seems that much of our text from Sappho has been pieced together from ancient books, which can have holes and other flaws. So the translator, in this case Richmond Lattimore, has to be a bit creative and fill in the gaps with his knowledge of the poet’s subject and dialect. Apparently, we’re quite lucky, because Lattimore also managed to reproduce the metrical form of the poems – the “Sapphic stanza.”
Sappho reading to her companions on an Attic vase of c. 435 BC. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
And so, with no further stalling or introduction, here we go. First up we have a poem known as “Throned in splendor, deathless, O Aphrodite.” (It is sometimes called the Hymn to Aphrodite.) This poem is an intimate prayer to the goddess Aphrodite, who, as you probably know, represents love, as well as beauty, pleasure, and procreation. It may be telling that this prayer is addressed to the goddess of love, as opposed to, say, Artemis, the goddess of virginity and young women.
In any case, Sappho opens her prayer entreating the goddess “not with griefs and bitterness to break my spirit” – she wants to be saved from a broken heart. The second stanza of this poem is a mess, grammatically, but it all seems to be indicating that Sappho is remembering another time that Aphrodite heard and answered her prayers for help: “Swiftly then they came, and you, blessed lady, smiling on me out of immortal beauty, asked me what affliction was on me.”
Aphrodite was gentle and comforting to her supplicant:
Whom then would you have Persuasion
force to serve desire in your heart? …
Though she now escape, she soon will follow;
though she take not gifts from you, she will give them:
though she love not, yet she will surely love you
It appears that while Sappho’s friend or lover was rejecting her, this would not last forever – the relationship will be mended. (It feels very much like teenagerhood – every relationship was constantly in flux, and every change felt like a calamity.)
Sappho ends her prayer, steeped in a feeling of intimate communion with a caring goddess, by appealing that she “in such guise come even again and set me free from doubt and sorrow.” I find myself moved by the deep devotion to and identification with the goddess shown by the poet, and I also think it’s lovely that the goddess addresses her devotee by name. This poem is much more about religion than it is about love and sexuality – a private look at the inner life of a young Greek woman.
The second poem we have is called “Like the very gods in my sight is he.” The first stanza is quite easy to interpret. In no uncertain terms, Sappho tells us that a man who treats his woman with love and respect is “like the very gods” – rare and amazing. However, “it breaks my spirit… all the heart is shaken.” Why? Why does the gift of a loving husband make her despair?
“Let me only glance where you are.”
Oh. OH. In fact, let me let the poet tell you herself:
Let me only glance where you are, the voice dies.
I can say nothing.
but my lips are stricken to silence, under-
neath my skin the tenuous flame suffuses;
nothing shows in front of my eyes, my ears are
muted in thunder.
And the sweat breaks running upon me, fever
shakes my body, paler I turn than grass is;
I can feel that I have been changed, I feel that
death has come near me.
That certainly makes it clear. She may be blessed with a lovely husband, but there is another. The mere sight of this beloved one delivers the speaker to passion – a secret, hidden, forbidden love. Caught between her desire for her lover (there doesn’t seem to be any indication of gender here) and her respect for her husband, Sappho connects to all of us who find ourselves caught between duties and desires. And yet we know that in that time, there is not a chance for her to have acted on her desires. No wonder she feels death.
Sappho’s recently discovered poem on old age, from an exhibit of the Altes Museum. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Let us move on to the final poem in our selection – “Some there are who say that the fairest thing seen.” Remember that this poem is fragmentary and may not be entirely accurate, but of course the scholars have done their best. It opens with a simply lovely bit:
Some there are who say that the fairest thing seen
on the black earth is an array of horsemen;
some, men marching; some would say ships; but I say
she whom one loves best
is the loveliest.
Sappho deliberately sets up the praise of war and battle and manliness (a common theme in poetry throughout history), and then shoots them down in favor of home and love. Clever girl, she is. There isn’t anything in this text to indicate if the love one feels for this lovely girl need be erotic. I know that Greek has a number of different words that translate to “love” in English, and they denote different kinds of love (romantic, familial, etc), but the Norton doesn’t tell us which words are used here.
Sappho invokes a reference to Helen – “not the thought of child nor beloved parents was remembered, after the Queen of Cyprus won her at first sight.” Her claim here is that love, romantic love (the Queen of Cyprus is a reference to Aphrodite), is the strongest force of motivation. She goes on to be rather insulting to her own gender, saying that “young brides have hearts that can be persuaded easily, light things, palpitant to passion.” But she doesn’t exclude herself, referring to “Anaktória who has gone from me.”
She ends the poem with a simple ode to her dearest friend:
whose lovely walk and the shining pallor
of her face I would rather see before my
eyes than Lydia’s chariots in all their glory
armored for battle.
Mirroring her first stanza, Sappho reinforces her initial assertion – she rejects the so-called “romance” of war, violence, and battle, and declares her love for domesticity, beauty, and peace. Admirable sentiments, and probably a rather brave opinion in the war-loving culture of the Greeks (not that far away from Lesbos, Sparta was growing into a dominant power of the world).
So, what have we learned? We’ve learned that not a whole lot is concretely known about our dear Sappho, despite all the rumors. We’ve only got a few of her works remaining. Two of them can certainly be interpreted to indicate homosexuality, but they can also be read in the context of simple close friends (NOT that there is anything wrong with either situation!). One of these is primarily about religion, and the other is a rejection of the glorification of war. The final poem we have is definitely sexual in nature, but gives no indication of the gender of the desired lover. I have no complaint with her reputation as a badass woman writer who may have been homosexual, but I have a quibble with the vilification she has received from socially-conservative modern critics just based on the perception of her sexuality. Let’s deal with the wider message of her works – brave messages of dissent, honest messages of inner conflict, and poignant messages of belief.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this foray into poetry, because we’re heading directly into the Greek dramas, beginning with Aeschylus, next week! Leave a comment below if you’ve got something to say!