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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1313

Overview This only complete Sappho poem, “Hymn to Aphrodite,” expresses the very human plea for help with a broken heart. The speaker, who is identified in stanza 5 as the poet Sappho, calls upon the goddess of love, Aphrodite, to come to her aid. The goddess has helped the speaker...

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This only complete Sappho poem, “Hymn to Aphrodite,” expresses the very human plea for help with a broken heart. The speaker, who is identified in stanza 5 as the poet Sappho, calls upon the goddess of love, Aphrodite, to come to her aid. The goddess has helped the speaker in the past and will leave her golden palace to come to Earth to help her faithful believer. The center of the poem recalls past visits in which the goddess has brought a reluctant lover back. The goddess promises that the lover will soon know love as intense as that suffered by the poet, and so the poem ends on a more hopeful recognition of the goddess’s power to resolve the pain of love.

Stanza 1
In the first stanza, the speaker calls upon the goddess Aphrodite to come to her aid. The speaker begins by acknowledging the power of the goddess, whom she calls “immortal,” the daughter of the mighty Zeus, the greatest of all the Greek gods. After recognizing Aphrodite’s power and lineage, the speaker mentions the goddess’s skills at deception, using a Greek work that different translators have interpreted to mean guile-weaver, enchantress, one who twists lures, snare-knitter, cunning, wily, or love-perplexing. All of these translations suggest that the speaker is calling upon specific skills that Aphrodite employs to ensnare a reluctant lover. In the final line of the stanza, the speaker entreats the goddess not to ignore her pleadings and thereby break a heart already stricken with grief.

Stanza 2
The second stanza continues the plea of the first stanza, again asking the goddess to come to the speaker’s aid. She reminds the goddess of her devotion in the past, of the songs that have been sung to the goddess, and of how the goddess has heard the speaker’s pleas in the past. The speaker asks the goddess to come again, reminding the goddess that she has heard her requests before and that she has responded to these earlier petitions. The speaker offers flattery and acknowledges that the goddess will once again need to leave the glory of Zeus’s palace of gold.

Stanza 3
In the third stanza, the writer recalls past visits from the goddess when she was needed. The speakerpoet provides a vision of how Aphrodite has previously made the trip from her father’s palace to this mortal’s more humble home. The goddess arrived in a chariot, a Greek word occasionally translated as a car drawn not by winged horses, as one might expect, but by a flock of sparrows, which represent fertility. The image of the sparrows is one of wings beating furiously as they bring the goddess down from heaven and through the air until she arrives on the darkened earth. The stanza helps to reinforce the idea that the speaker and the goddess have a close relationship. This part also suggests that the poet can expect assistance this time, as well.

Stanza 4
In this next stanza, the goddess arrives. She is variously described, depending on the translation, as sacred, blessed, heavenly, or immortal, and so once again the goddess’s power is acknowledged, in this instance within a description of her features. In this fourth stanza, the goddess speaks, and so the dialogue begins between speaker and the object of the prayer. Aphrodite asks the speaker why she has been summoned. Whereas in many cases the translation offers only a variation on the word with similar meanings, as in the case with the differences in the first three stanzas, in stanza 4 the differences in translation do suggest different meanings. Some translators ask the cause of the speaker’s “suffering”; others ask what new “complaints” the speaker has to make. Other translations inquire as to the cause of the speaker’s “grief ” or ask what the speaker’s “distracted” heart might need. The images suggested by these varying translations are different, most notably in the connotative differences between a complaint and suffering, since in the former the goddess suggests a less tolerant response. However this line is interpreted, the result is the establishment of a dialogue to address the speaker’s needs.

Stanza 5
In this fifth stanza, the goddess asks the speaker what she needs this time. Again the repetitiveness of the speaker’s request is recognized, and she is asked what her lover needs to be persuaded to return on this occasion. Because Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, she has the power to force a lover’s return, usually through trickery and deception. The phrasing of the goddess’s question “Who shall I persuade this time / to take you back, yet once again” establishes that the speaker has had this problem in the past and that the goddess has come to the forlorn lover’s aid before. What was suggested in stanza 2, when the speaker petitioned the goddess’s help, is confirmed in stanza 5. The problem is again love, as it has been in the past. The final line of stanza 5 provides two unusual pieces of information. Although the speaker has needed the goddess’s assistance in the past, it is because she has been the injured party in love. The goddess asks, “who wrongs you,” and with these words the reader learns that the speaker is deserving of Aphrodite’s help. She is the injured party, whom love has pained. The final word, “Sappho,” links the speaker and poet, and the speaker ceases to be an abstract entity and becomes the poet persona, Sappho.

Stanza 6
In the sixth stanza, the speaker recalls how the goddess has always promised her aid when called upon. It becomes clear that the lover will not long escape. Aphrodite promises that the one being pursued will soon enough become the pursuer. There are two ways to read this section. In the first interpretation, the speaker will soon enough be the one receiving the lover’s gifts, and if she is not loved now, the speaker will soon enough be the recipient of the love she desires. The final line makes clear that the speaker’s love will be returned no matter what the lover desires. The lover cannot resist the goddess’s power and will be unable to assert her own will against that of the goddess. The second possible meaning is based on the lack of specifics in Aphrodite’s promise. It is possible that the lover will come to love another, someone who will not return her love, and thus she, too, will know the pain of unrequited love, just as the speaker has come to know such grief. It is also clear in this stanza that the desired lover is feminine. Early translations changed the feminine Greek word ending to masculine, in an attempt to protect the reader from possible homosexual allusions and in a desire to sanitize Sappho’s work. Current scholarship has returned the meaning to the poem, and the identification of the object of love is now clearly defined as female.

Stanza 7
In this final stanza, the speaker’s voice again assumes control of the poem. The poem ends with the speaker’s now calmer voice. The plea for help is still present, but the earlier anguish has been lessened since the speaker believes the promise of past help will certainly lead to help again. The reader is also reassured that the goddess’s help will be forthcoming and the speaker’s anguish will be assuaged. The goddess is recognized as the speaker’s ally in love. Aphrodite will free the speaker of the pain of lost love and bring her all that she desires. The poem, which began with an anguished plea, now ends on a more optimistic tone. There is still pain and grief, but the speaker is no longer alone in her grief. Her ally, Aphrodite, will come to the speaker’s aid.

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