Discussion of Sappho’s poetry necessarily entails what has come to be identified as her primary motif; namely, female homoeroticism. The term “lesbian” in its late nineteenth and twentieth century English usage is referentially derived from the reputation of Sappho of Lesbos. The grounds for diagnosing Sappho as homosexual involve two assumptions: that Sappho’s expressions of emotion are subjectively her own and that her use of her own name in homoerotic context is self-identical and not generic. In most studies of Sappho, these assumptions are both unstated and understood.
That not all Sappho’s poems express homoeroticism and that Sappho, even in self-identical context, is not exclusively homosexual are suppositions that any reader of her work in translations published during the latter half of the twentieth century will recognize. Earlier translations, commentaries, and scholarly articles presented a Sappho varying from an almost deranged homosexual to a paragon of heterosexual chastity or moral purity. In her hymn to Aphrodite, the single poem that has been preserved in full, Sappho presents herself, or her generic namesake, as being addressed by name by Aphrodite, to whom she has prayed for the renewed affection of her beloved and by whom she is told that the now indifferent beloved will soon be courting Sappho’s favor. A single letter, missing from some codices but included in others, is the determinant that the indifferent beloved is a woman. In the absence of that letter (an alpha, denoting feminine gender), Sappho’s, or her namesake’s, beloved may be either male or female. A translation published in 1902 by John Philip Merivale makes the beloved a male; but almost all later translations, even those by scholars who prefer a chaste Sappho and consider homosexuality, in Denys Pages’s word, a “perversion,” adhere to the supposition of a female beloved.
Sappho’s attention to heterosexuality is attested in lines...
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