He Is More than a Hero Summary



(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

“He is more than a hero,” another apostrophe to a woman, comprises seventeen lines and is reasonably complete but probably lacks its original ending. Two quite divergent translations of its opening lines illustrate the creative roles that Sappho’s translators play.

He is more than a heroHe is a god in my eyes—the man who is allowedto sit beside you—hewho listens intimatelyto the sweet murmur ofyour voice . . .     (Barnard)Fortunate as the gods he seems to me, that man who sitsopposite you, and listens nearby to your sweet voice     (Page)

The poem is cited, almost complete, in the essay On the Sublime, written by the Greek critic labeled Longinus. The poem was freely adapted by the Roman poet Catullus in one of his lyrics. Moreover, Catullus addressed poems to a woman whose pseudonym is Lesbia, and he employed Sapphic meter. In vivid, lush, and sensuous imagery, Sappho reports how she watches a man in conversation with a woman and identifies with him to an extent that weakens her. The imagery of the poem dramatizes the couple whom the poet observes. The man, sitting by the woman, hears her murmuring voice and her laughter.

The poem’s imagery, expressing and appealing to various senses, seems to make the poet’s own emotions almost palpable. Mary Barnard renders Sappho’s lines this way:

   I can’tspeak—my tongue is broken;a thin flame runs undermy skin; seeing nothing,hearing only my own earsdrumming, I drip with sweat;trembling shakes my bodyand I turn paler thandry grass

The poem closes by noting the closeness of “death”—a traditional conceit for orgasm.

The poem has been interpreted as a wedding song but seems more likely to be a lyric expressing personal passion. Sappho’s indirect approach, focusing initially on the man and not the beloved woman, adds an original twist. Sappho’s identification with the “heroic” male is provocative for what it may suggest about her psychology. The carefree, chattering girl whom this man woos provides a dramatic foil, contrasting with the distraught speaker.


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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