Differences in Meaning

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During her lifetime, Sappho never wrote down a single poem. Her poetry was celebrated throughout the Greek world and often copied and passed around, but all of this occurred many years after her death. Her work was also the inspiration for other poets, so much so that Plato labeled her...

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During her lifetime, Sappho never wrote down a single poem. Her poetry was celebrated throughout the Greek world and often copied and passed around, but all of this occurred many years after her death. Her work was also the inspiration for other poets, so much so that Plato labeled her the “tenth muse.” She was acknowledged to be as great a poetess as Homer had been a poet, and yet Sappho’s songs and poems only survived by chance. After her death, the development of a Greek alphabet and writing materials allowed Sappho’s admirers to finally preserve her work, which had previously been memorized, on papyrus. The result was at least nine volumes of poetry, most of which eventually disappeared from the written record. Most of this body of work has been lost in the period since Sappho’s death, and the work that has survived did so in a manner that seems quite serendipitous now. Some of her works were quoted by other authors and have survived in the preserved texts of later writers, though some of Sappho’s original texts survive only as papyrus fragments recovered from Egyptian rubbish heaps. A significant additional problem that has arisen from texts recovered in either fashion concerns the translations of these works. Sappho’s poems were written in a rural and archaic form of Greek, the vernacular Aeolian dialect. Even scholars who are familiar with ancient Greek have problems with the more arcane dialects for which word meanings are uncertain. As a result, translations of Sappho’s poems often offer significant variation among translators. Although the text of “Hymn to Aphrodite” was preserved in its entirety in Dionysus’s On Literary Composition, translations of this poem can vary significantly, resulting in both loss of meaning and loss of integrity in Sappho’s work. As a result, an examination of several of the different translations of these poems can provide important lessons about the integrity and responsibility of the translator to preserve meaning.

In her book Sappho’s Immortal Daughters, Margaret Williamson explores the difficulties in translating poem 1, “Hymn to Aphrodite.” Williamson points out that although this poem has survived intact, it has faced a set of unique problems in its preservation. The biggest problem, according to Williamson, is the centuries of recopying. Williamson notes that manuscripts of this poem provide for three variants, and modern translations are based on one of these earlier manuscripts, which provides for some important differences in translation. Other problems of translation are noted by Margaret Reynolds in her work The Sappho Companion. Reynolds mentions that another problem of translation was that “in early writing practice no punctuation was used and, worse still, no gaps between words.” These issues make translating Sappho’s work exceptionally difficult. Because there have been so many translations of this poem, it is important to establish a reliable source for comparison. For purposes of this study, the benchmark translation of “Hymn to Aphrodite” is that of Josephine Balmer, taken from Sappho: Poems & Fragments (revised and corrected, 1992). There have been several recent translations of Sappho that attempt to stay close to the Greek and that resist the temptation either to clean up the poet’s image by changing the focus of the poem from feminine to masculine or by protecting the sensibilities of readers who might be shocked by the references to a passionate love between women. Balmer’s translation of Sappho is one that provides for the reader, as Williamson suggests, a translation, “whose unencumbered layout does more justice to their [the poems’] clarity and elegance.” Accordingly, all comparisons of earlier translations that follow will be read against the Balmer translation.

Reynolds’s The Sappho Companion includes reprints of several of the earliest translations of the “Hymn to Aphrodite,” beginning with those published early in the eighteenth century when new interest in Sappho’s work first flourished. The earliest translation included in Reynolds’s study was taken from Ambrose Phillips’s book The Works of Anacreon and Sappho, Done from the Greek, by several hands (1715). Phillips has used the Roman name for Aphrodite and so changed the title to “An Hymn to Venus.” An examination of just the first stanza quickly illustrates some of the problems in this work. The text itself remains consistent in its pleadings to the goddess, although with some embellishment that is not seen in the more recent translations of the poem. For instance, Phillips’s translation adds to the flattery that the speaker directs toward the goddess. For example, Balmer translates the first line to read: “Immortal Aphrodite, on your patterned throne,” whereas Phillips writes “O Venus, Beauty of the Skies, / To whom a thousand Temples rise.” Phillips’s version, in addition to being considerably more ornate, also creates a more significant degree of flattery, which the writer has adopted in her quest for help. This flattery continues in the next lines when Balmer’s simple rendition of “guile-weaver” is transformed into “Gayly false in gentle Smiles, / Full of Loveperplexing Wiles.” However, the most significant changes are not just those of flowery embellishment but the differences of poetic structure. Sappho’s pleading words have been changed to rhyming couplets, a favorite genre of the Renaissance poets but not a poetic device used by early Greek writers. The stanza and meter have also been changed from four lines to six. Williamson explains the Sapphic meter has four lines of eleven syllables, followed by a fourth line of five syllables. In contrast, Phillips provides for an iambic eight syllables in each line, with alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. Reading the poem aloud illustrates the monotony of both the rhyming couplets and the eight-syllable line, whereas reading Balmer’s translation of Sappho’s poem aloud clearly illustrates how the variation in stressed and unstressed syllables helps to create a tension and an interest in the flow of her poem. Obviously, Phillips did not intend for his translation to be sung, as did Sappho, but ignoring the purpose of the original work causes Phillips’s translation to have a much more dated sound. His work clearly fails to escape its early-eighteenth-century origins, unlike Sappho’s original work, which is timeless in its appeal.

Another problem with Phillips’s translation is one that reoccurs frequently over the next two hundred years. In stanza 6, Phillips has translated the feminine word endings to masculine, and so the goddess reassures the poet-speaker that “Tho’ now he Shuns thy longing Arms, / He soon shall court thy slighted Charms.” Sappho’s love is now directed toward a man, and so it becomes heterosexual and more acceptable to both its translator and, presumably, his audience. Of course, Phillips is not alone in his reliance on heterosexual love to define the poet-speaker’s longing. In John Addison’s 1735 translation of “Hymn to Aphrodite” for his collection of Greek verse, The Works of Anacreon translated into English Verse; with Notes explanatory and poetical. To which are added the Odes, Fragments, and Epigrams of Sappho, Addison has translated the sixth stanza as “Tho’ thy Gifts and Thee he slight, / He shall soon with Gifts invite.” Like Phillips, Addison relies upon rhyming couplets, although he uses the seven-syllable iambic line, instead of eight. Both Phillips and Addison ignore the last line of stanza six, the promise by the goddess that the object of Sappho’s love shall soon experience love, “even / against her own will” (Balmer’s translation). Williamson points out that this line is especially important since “In the Greek this is the only point in the poem at which it is made explicit that the speaker’s beloved is a woman and not a man.” If this line is translated, it becomes clear that the preceding lines of stanza 6 are meant to refer to a woman. By ignoring the words “even / against her own will,” Phillips and Addison become free to change the pronouns to masculine, and the meaning and intent of Sappho’s poem is transformed into something entirely different.

The propensity to change the feminine to masculine finally changed in the late nineteenth century. In John Addington Symonds’s translation, which was included in Henry Thornton Wharton’s Sappho: Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings and a Literal Translation, Symonds restores both the missing line and the transformed feminine pronouns. In his sixth stanza, Symonds also reverts to the Sapphic stanza. The artificiality of rhyming couplets has disappeared, as has the alternating iambic meter. Symonds verse now reads:

Yea, for though she flies, she shall quickly chase

Yea, though gifts she spurns, she shall soon bestow

Yea, though now she loves not, she shall soon love

Yea, though she will not!

While Symonds remains true to meter, he substitutes parallelism to create additional interest. There is the repetition of the first word in each line, followed by the inverted thought from the first half of each line into the converse thought of the second half of the line. Symonds partners “flies” with “chase,” “spurns” with “bestow,” and “loves not” with “love.” He does not quite trust Sappho’s words to stand on their own, and so he uses the device of oration and clergy, the parallelism of thought, to keep the reader focused on the words. And yet, in spite of the continued reliance on poetic artifice, Symonds does include the often missing final line and the feminine pronoun to define the lover. Williamson credits the work of German editor Theodor Bergk for the change that resulted in the acknowledgement that Sappho’s poem was intended to be a pleading for a female lover. Williamson relates that it was Bergk’s 1843 Poetae Lyrici Graeci that first proposed that the gender of the beloved was female. Bergk later defended his choice in an 1882 edition of his earlier work. The effect of his work can be seen almost immediately in Symonds’s translation, which appeared only three years later.

In the translations that followed those of Bergk and Symonds, most translators have chosen to retain the feminine endings. A notable exception was the widely read anthology Greek Poets in English Verse, whose editor, William Hyde Appleton, chose to include his own translation. Like the writers of nearly two hundred years earlier, Appleton ignored the recent scholarship on Sappho and retained the masculine gender designation:

For, though now he flies, he soon shall follow,
Soon shall be giving gifts who now rejects them.
Even though now he love not, soon he love thee
Even though thou wouldst not.

Although Appleton has rejected the rhyming couplets and tried to eliminate some of the pronouns, especially in line 2, he does not acknowledge the female lover. Another important point is clear in the last line of stanza 6. The phrase “even against her own will” has been completely altered with the inclusion of the word “thou.” The inclusion of this word changes the meaning completely. Instead of the lover being forced to love even when she (or he, as Appleton insists) would not wish to, Appleton’s version implies that the poet-speaker may no longer want the lover. This change drastically alters one of the most important ideas of the poem: that Aphrodite had both the power and the trickery to force a lover to do what she does not wish to do.

In virtually all of the translations of the twentieth century, Sappho’s meaning in “Hymn to Aphrodite” has been kept intact. Many of the translations have altered meter and stanza, but they have stayed true to the integrity of meaning. A study of the many different translations of Sappho that exist, whether those of the eighteenth, nineteenth, or twentieth century, will reveal much about the preferences in poetic form of that period, and thus all are worth the time spent in study. Additionally, these many differing translations only indicate how important it is for readers not to limit themselves to only one translation of Sappho’s work.

Source: Sheri E. Metzger, Critical Essay on “Hymn to Aphrodite,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2004.

Western Poetic Tradition.

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Many contemporary poets, critics, and scholars associate poetic form with metrical formalism, or almost exclusively associate verse itself with the most common, rhythm-based verse formulas in English (such as the sonnet). Such an attitude fails to recognize the importance of other, perhaps less obvious, structures or rhetorical stratagems for establishing patterns. Some important examples are the narrative, the catalogue, and the prayer. Without these, there could be no poetry in any language. As Joseph Campbell and other scholars have pointed out, human history is imbued with forms and structures that contemporary poets and other artists must rely on (as they need not the sonnet): even the descent and ascent depicted in Jesus’ birth and resurrection is anticipated—and potentially informed— by the Greek myth in which Persephone descends into the underworld with Hades each winter and returns each spring. This pattern of falling and rising, which comes out of the prehistorical human experience of the death of one season and the birth of the next, is so archetypal, or fundamental to the human understanding of form in nature, that it is virtually impossible to conceive of art without it.

The two most relevant strands of contemporary American poetry, the narrative and the lyric, derive their shapes from forms far more ancient than most contemporary poets and readers are willing to admit. It would be difficult to imagine the novel being invented without the literary culture having absorbed the quest forms of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Beowulf. That is, while contemporary writers are obliged in some ways to “make it new,” as the modernist Ezra Pound advised at the beginning of the twentieth century, every story—even every TV sitcom—owes its shape, which is often described in terms of the conflict, the crisis, and the resolution, to the first storytellers of the literate world. The same is true for lyric poetry, which meditates, usually in the first person, on a single topic. Lyric poetry is associated with heightened language (in a way that narrative or epic poetry is not) because the first lyrics (Sappho’s poems are among the first known lyrics in the Western tradition) were usually accompanied by music.

Despite the fact that many of her poems and lines have been lost, Sappho is among the most interesting of the lyric poets not only because her work precedes much of the most important lyric poetry in the tradition but also because it communicates a wise and self-aware understanding of female sexual experience that many contemporary lyric poets have yet to achieve.

“Hymn to Aphrodite” is the best one to study in Balmer’s translation, in part because it is the only complete poem that scholars have found. It is the ultimate lyric plea, addressing Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love, in a heightened, or highly musical, address or request. The poem uses the direct address to stop time and fill the universe with Sappho’s plea. It is thus able to remind all readers not only of other prayers in the tradition but of the ways in which humans always implore the gods to help them. Sappho’s poem records female sexual desire in a language that honors and celebrates yearning so expertly that it is able to transcend its intimate aspects and become an impersonal, or universal, record of human need.

The poem’s first lines address Aphrodite with the praise that is traditional in the prayer, though even by the second line Sappho’s sense of irony comes into play. That is, when Sappho calls Aphrodite a “guile-weaver,” she is potentially criticizing her goddess for causing trouble (evidently, the gods were expert troublemakers), and this advances our appreciation of Sappho as a character, or speaker, by revealing her courage. The reference is also powerful because it communicates a speaker who understands the goddess she is addressing well enough to challenge her.

In the poem’s second stanza, Sappho moves backward in time to remind Aphrodite that she has visited the poet previously, and this control of time happens swiftly, revealing Sappho’s great skill as a poet. The shift in time in the poem’s second and third stanzas is also visually appealing, or imbued with images that make Aphrodite’s movement from her “father’s golden house” to “the dark earth” filled with the mystery and wonder of a “whirl of wings.” It is important to note that the pattern of descent in these lines, in which Aphrodite is said to come to the speaker “from heaven / down through the mid-air” pulled by “beautiful swift sparrows,” takes the shape of Persephone’s descent mentioned earlier, or recalls the sensation of all things falling. It can thus be said to be an archetypal, formalized, imagistic movement in the poem: a moment of passage in the middle of a lyric that stills time while continuing to swirl in time. By illustrating the miracle or phenomenon of yet another god descending in lines that swell with music, these lines also illustrate Sappho’s poetic mastery.

Yet, the poem’s most interesting turn begins in its fourth stanza, when Sappho criticizes herself for asking for Aphrodite’s help again and again. She claims that Aphrodite would want to know “what had gone wrong this time and this time / why was [Sappho] begging.” This turn in the poem also reveals Sappho’s wisdom and her sense of humor: it establishes her authority as a speaker by revealing her intelligence, which comes out of an understanding of the failures of the past. In the poem’s fifth stanza, Sappho admits to having a “demented heart,” and then moves into Aphrodite’s voice, speculating in that voice on what Aphrodite might say to Sappho in her time of need and “aching pain.” It is difficult to move in time in lyric poems and almost impossible to move in voice and time without losing the intensity that is the lyric’s greatest power, but Sappho does it, and, in this translation, quite seamlessly.

In the poem’s final stanza, Sappho repeats the poem’s initial plea. The final lines reiterate the argument that was introduced in the poem’s first stanza. Sappho thus closes the poem in the formal shape of the circle, which might be called the formal shape of the return (which is also one of the main purposes of rhyme). By finishing where she started, Sappho closes her poem the way it began, and so recalls the forms of nature (the cycle of the seasons, of menstruation, and of the movement from birth to death) that have more to do with forms in art than formulas (like the sonnet) do.

As Josephine Balmer points out in her introduction to Sappho: Poems and Fragments, many critics have been unable to talk about Sappho as a lyric poet of great skill because of their obsession with her potential lesbianism, which some critics have even suggested came, in Sappho’s case, out of a “clinically commonplace female castration complex.” Aside from the fact that too much time has passed for any critic to prove Sappho’s homosexuality as an irrefutable factor in the making of her poems, it must be stated that Sappho’s sexual practice is far beyond the point in light of her contribution to lyric poetry.

That is, just as it is impossible to say whether or not Sappho’s poems are autobiographical, it is impossible to infer personal intentions from poems whose main purpose is to formalize human experience into shapes that all readers will recognize. When one reads the most beautiful poems in the Bible, one does not speculate about their authors’ lives and intentions. When the author of King Solomon’s song in “The Song of Songs” tells his unnamed beloved that “the joints of her thighs are like jewels” and “her navel . . . like a round goblet,” one does not wonder who is literally speaking or even what woman he might be addressing because the prayer is, though seemingly a single-minded plea from a singleminded speaker, about the human urges all men and women (in all periods of history) share.

As is said sometimes of statistics, literary criticism can be too often like a bikini, which reveals the interesting while covering up the vital. The vital in the case of Sappho’s poems is not what she did or did not do in her own life with women, but the ways in which she has been able to transform her understanding of human experience into forms that one can immediately recognize as the forms of nature from which the greatest art always derives.

Source: Adrian Blevins, Critical Essay on “Hymn to Aphrodite,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2004.

Poetry Still Speaks

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The Greek poet Sappho created her “Hymn to Aphrodite” more than 2,600 years ago, yet it and her other pieces of work have done much more than simply survive the long span of history between then and now. Her poetry has transcended time and cultural differences by speaking to readers in a way that still remains vibrant and vital at the beginning of the twenty-first century. How was she able to do that? Much has obviously changed since Sappho issued her prayer to Aphrodite, but the human condition remains largely the same. Then, as now, people fell hopelessly in love and had their hearts broken when that love went unrequited. Longing, lust, and infidelity— the stuff of soap operas and country music ballads—are not modern phenomena. Rended hearts needed mending every bit as much at the dawn of civilization as they do today. Throughout time, it has been the job of poets and other artists to illuminate the way for others by baring their souls, creating works of enduring beauty in the process. In that respect, Sappho helped set a standard others have followed ever since.

The daily reality confronting Sappho was obviously very different from our modern day in many ways. She inhabited a world without mass communication; the written word was only in its earliest stages when her poems were created. It was a world largely unexplored, a world people believed was ruled by mercurial gods rather than the laws of science. Sappho’s earth was a circular disk, round and flat. At its center was Mount Olympus, “the abode of the gods,” writes Thomas Bulfinch in his Bulfinch’s Mythology, describing a place where an assortment of deities “feasted each day on ambrosia and nectar” and “conversed of the affairs of heaven and earth.” But the society that worshipped this pantheon was, in many ways, far from primitive. This is especially true when it came to the arts, which the ancient Greeks exalted. Sappho occupied a central role in that celebration, taking on the status of what today would be called a superstar. “If you wanted to be glib you could say she was a cross between Madonna and Sylvia Plath—like Madonna in her huge fame and like Plath in her ferocious truthfulness,” writes Erica Jong in the afterword to her novel Sappho’s Leap. Jong continues by saying that Sappho “became an inspiration to the singers who followed her. She has remained a muse in our own time.”

What makes this achievement all the more remarkable is that Sappho’s influence has been based upon a relatively small body of work. Most of Sappho’s poetry has been lost to time. Only fragments of work remain, stray lines that were part of larger pieces. Her “Hymn to Aphrodite” is an exception, offering readers the rare chance to experience a Sappho poem in full. It is fitting that this poem was directed to Aphrodite, the goddess of love who was frequently found in Sappho’s work. However, the special relationship existing between Sappho and Aphrodite was not always heavenly. The residents of Mount Olympus were often less than benevolent beings. Writing seven centuries before the birth of Christ, Sappho worshipped deities that were a capricious lot, capable of making much mischief and toys with mortals’ lives as a form of amusement. They could be jealous, deceitful, and unfaithful. Affronts were met with revenge. The goddess of love was no exception. “She is Sappho’s presiding deity,” explains Margaret Reynolds in her book The Sappho Companion. Reynolds continues by saying that Aphrodite is also “sometimes her ally, sometimes her rival, occasionally her enemy.”

As if a reflection of the gods who ruled her world, Sappho, too, was imperfect. Willis Barnstone, a literature professor who has translated her work into English for a book titled, simply, Sappho, notes that the poet was “far from being a woman of unfailingly noble sentiments.” Instead, she was “a common mortal concerned with common matters of love and jealousy.” And constant fidelity to one person was not a matter of great concern to her. She reveals as much in this poem when she quotes Aphrodite saying, “Who shall I persuade this time / to take you back, yet once again, to her love.” Obviously, this is not the first time Sappho has turned her face skyward and implored Aphrodite to assist in matters of the heart. It is easy enough to imagine Sappho kneeling in prayer, beseeching the goddess for assistance. The poet’s heart is filled with anguish and grief. And Aphrodite responds. As with all of Greek mythology, the deity portrayed is not simply carved stone. Aphrodite is depicted as a tangible presence in Sappho’s life, capable of speaking directly to her supplicant and able to take action that would influence the hearts of others—if the goddess was so moved. People of faith still do the same thing today when facing troubled times. When falling ill, they pray to be made better. When catastrophe strikes, they seek divine assistance. In that sense, as revealed in this poem, Sappho is no different.

There was another facet of sexuality concerning Sappho that has remained unchanged throughout time. Although some would like to pretend otherwise, people falling in love with members of the same sex has occurred as long as mankind has existed. That was certainly true during Sappho’s era, when homosexuality was easily accepted. There is some debate among scholars whether Sappho was a lesbian. Jong, who studied Sappho intensely before writing a novel that featured her as its heroine, writes

She is associated with women’s sexuality and gay rights—but she may not have been homosexual at all; or she may have loved both men and women, as was common in the ancient world—and in ours.

In “Hymn to Aphrodite,” the object of Sappho’s desire is clearly a woman. It is that way with much of Sappho’s work. Barnstone notes that

The majority are love poems to women. They are passionate poems, self-critical, self-revealing, detached and intense. If we are to believe what they say, we will conclude that the speaker in the poems experienced a physical passion for her beloved, with all the sexual implications that similar poems between men and women normally imply.

Not surprisingly, this honesty from the woman who, according to the Roman poet Ovid, “taught how to love girls,” generated an angry backlash at various points in history. According to Barnstone, her “writings were publicly burned in Rome and Constantinople by order of Pope Gregory VII.” Despite this and other assaults, the power of her poetry prevailed, and with good reason. What matters ultimately is not Sappho’s sexuality, but rather her art. In Sappho Poems and Fragments, translator Guy Davenport describes her work this way: “Her words are simple and piercing in their sincerity, her lines melodically clean . . . Never has poetry been this clear and bright.” Who Sappho loved, be it man or woman, is really irrelevant. What touches the reader is her passion, and the powerful simplicity with which it is expressed.

The power of that raw but eloquent emotion is evident in “Hymn to Aphrodite” when she pleads to the goddess: “So come to me now, free me from this aching pain.” Anyone who has longed to have their love returned by another has felt the intensity of that pain and sees it reflected by Sappho, no matter what age they inhabit. “Her words, used masterfully, make the reader one with the poet, so that he may share her vision of herself,” writes Barnstone. He continues by stating that “There is no veil between poet and reader.” That observation captures the essence of Sappho’s poetic power; it also captures the reason for her extreme longevity as an artist. Sappho has been able to touch readers throughout these many centuries by fearlessly revealing herself and her emotions, exploring the sentiments of love and desire using language that is at once beautiful and intense, delicate and direct. And in doing so, she reveals what makes great art truly timeless: the ability to bare human emotion in a way that helps others understand themselves.

Source: Curt Guyette, Critical Essay on “Hymn to Aphrodite,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2004.

Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho

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Aphrodite dominates every single stanza of this remarkable hymn, and her presence, as evoked by the singer, fills both past and future; as she has aided the singer on many previous occasions, so will she come to the rescue anew. Sappho here employs one of her favorite metrical patterns to celebrate the goddess, the verse-form named for her frequent use of it—the Sapphic stanza, in which all of the songs collected together in the opening book of the Alexandrian edition of her poetry were composed. There are various ways of analyzing the patterns of long and short syllables that make up the four-line units, but simply put, the Sapphic stanza consists of three eleven-syllable lines followed by one five-syllable line that always falls into the pattern of a long syllable followed by two short syllables, another long syllable, and a final syllable that may be either long or short. Every fourth line thus forms a rhythmic “shave-and-a-haircut” ending to each stanza. Each of the first three lines of the stanza follows the pattern, essentially an expansion of a basic unit of Aeolic meter called the choriamb (for which an easy mnemonic device is “mother-in-law”). The rhythm was such that a long syllable would be sustained for roughly twice the length of a short syllable: MOTHer-in-LAW, where the syllables in capital letters would be sustained for twice as much time as the others. (In modern Western musical notation, in other words, a choriamb would be a half-note, two quarter-notes, and a half-note.) We are probably correct in assuming that in performance, the tune of the song repeated itself with each successive stanza.

If we compare this hymn with similar petitions to a deity in ancient Greek literature (of which there are many in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), we find a standard pattern of features shared in common: the address to the god or goddess, along with identifying epithets or places; a reminder of some past relationship or past help rendered to the petitioner; and the present request for the deity’s assistance. While Sappho’s hymn contains all of these standard features, and in that sense conforms to the expected formula for an appeal to a god or goddess, it simultaneously subverts the traditional assumptions of a masculinist frame of reference. Unlike the helpless ninny that Aphrodite is sometimes made out to be in Homer’s Iliad, this Aphrodite is a powerful goddess indeed, capable of uniting opposites into a whole: fleeing and pursuing, receiving and giving, not-loving and loving. The Sappho figure, as speaker of the poem, has derived power from the goddess in the past and expects to do so again in the future. The song presents us with a firm relationship between the two female figures—the goddess on the divine level and Sappho on the human level. Let us look more closely at how the poet portrays female erotic power and the desire of one woman for another through the medium of this hymn to Aphrodite.

The song’s opening stanza contains the traditional identifying tags that ensure contact with the appropriate deity—in this case Aphrodite as daughter of Zeus. Ignoring a rather more grotesque version of Aphrodite’s origins according to which she arose from the foam surrounding the severed genitals of Uranus after he was castrated by his son Kronos, Sappho follows the Homeric story in identifying the goddess as the offspring of Zeus and his consort Dione. She further characterizes the goddess (not surprisingly) as immortal, as having a many-colored throne upon which she sits (poikilothron’), and as being a “weaver of wiles.” In this choice of epithets she differs from Homer, who usually refers to Aphrodite as philommedes (“laughter-loving”) or simply as “golden.” Instead, she selects three qualities or characteristics that serve to portray the special powers of the goddess as the one who can help in matters of love. The epithet poikilothron’, occupying as it does the emphatic position at the opening of the first line of the song, calls attention to the value attached in Archaic-period aesthetics to poikilia, “variegation.” The Greek word suggests a texture that is shimmering and sparkling, along with a rainbow of colors, and is a favorite not only of Sappho but also of other poets of the same period. Perhaps in opening the song with the word poikilothron’ Sappho is thinking of the goddess as sitting on an intricately wrought chair of various colors and textures. In any case, the appearance of the word poikilia in the epithet describing her identifies the goddess as representative of a whole set of aesthetic values to which we shall return in more detail in chapter 5.

In addition, Sappho’s characterization of Aphrodite as a “weaver of wiles” (doloploke) connects the goddess both to an exclusively female occupation (at least in ancient Greek culture)— weaving—and to the much-admired ability to devise schemes, an ability usually associated with the male figures of Greek mythology like Odysseus. In the space of just the opening two lines, then, Sappho has announced a different Aphrodite—not the helpless, girlish whiner of the Iliad, but an immortal goddess, seated on her rainbow-colored throne, the powerful daughter of Zeus who knows how to weave wiles on behalf of her suppliant.

Sappho’s petition, phrased first in negative terms, fills the rest of the song’s opening stanza: “Do not overwhelm me in my heart / with anguish and pain, O Mistress.” The power of the goddess is thus contrasted with the helplessness of the suppliant in the face of erotic desire; only through the presence of Aphrodite can the suppliant hope to escape the overwhelming anguish and pain in her thumos, to the Greek way of thinking the center of all emotional response.

The remainder of the song proceeds to create that presence, almost as if by magical incantation. By singing of Aphrodite’s repeated appearances on past occasions and her descent from Olympus in her golden chariot drawn by sparrows, Sappho effectively brings the goddess before our eyes at the present moment, capping the scene before us with her request in the final stanza for help now in the erotic pursuits that are of immediate concern to her: how to change rejection into desire, or more specifically, how to transform a one-sided desire into mutual desire. In other words, even though the song deals primarily with events in the past, namely Sappho’s earlier repeated contacts with the goddess, its focus is really on the power of Aphrodite to assist with the present.

Sappho’s Method of Composition
Since this hymn is, after all, the one complete song left to us, it will be profitable to examine it in some detail in the hope of learning everything we can about Sappho’s method of composition. How does the poet create the presence of Aphrodite for us? What details of description help to make the goddess so vivid as we listen to the song?

As the singer opens the second stanza with the direct request to the goddess to “come hither,” she slips gracefully into the past relationship through the conditional phrase “if ever at another time.” If ever you came before, so please may you come now. Yet clearly there is no real “if” here; Aphrodite has come in the past, as the singer goes on to describe, even including a kind of “transcript” of their previous dialogue. The reiteration in stanza two of Aphrodite’s status as the daughter of Zeus (“leaving the home of your father”) and the emphasis on the distance between goddess (resident of Olympus) and speaker (as mere mortal living on the earthly plane) call attention again to the powerful position of the deity. The epithet normally attached to the goddess herself, “golden,” is here attached instead to her means of transport, a sparrow-drawn chariot (or to the “golden” home of Zeus—the position of the adjective chrusion in the Greek text allows either or both interpretations). The idea of a sparrowpowered chariot might strike us as strange, but to the Greeks sparrows were thought to be excessively prolific, and were therefore closely associated with fertility and fecundity and hence with the goddess of love herself. If Aphrodite were arriving in a BMW instead of a golden chariot, Sappho would make us hear the ticking of its engine; as it is, the poet suggests the whirring of the sparrows’ wings in the plosive sound of line 11, especially the repeated consonant p.

By stanza four, we are suddenly no longer in any sort of conditional situation; the sparrows have brought the goddess from her (golden) house on her (golden) chariot to black earth, and immediately we see her engaging Sappho in a conversation of which we are given only the goddess’s side; we are told only the questions she asks, not the answers. No fewer than three stanzas are devoted to this exchangeless exchange, made even more vivid by the inclusion in stanzas five and six of direct quotation of the goddess’s words.

At first Aphrodite’s questions are put into indirect discourse as the singer of the poem reports what the goddess asked. Addressing the goddess yet again (“O Blessed Lady”), the Sappho persona emphasizes the distinction in levels between goddess and mortal by calling attention to her “immortal face” and to the serene smile she bears—in contrast to the singer’s patent distress. The singer reports three questions, saying that the goddess asked what she had suffered again (deute), why she was calling again (deute), and what she wanted to happen. The repetition of the adverb “again” stresses the fact that Aphrodite has assisted the singer on previous occasions. This is not a new relationship between goddess and petitioner; rather, the history of the connection between the two inspires our sense of confidence in the power of the goddess to effect change once more. The repeating of the repetitious questions adds to the incantatory effect of the lines, almost as if the answers will be created through a kind of magical spell brought on by the words themselves.

In the second line of stanza five, the singer then slips easily into direct quotation of Aphrodite’s questions: “Whom again (deute) shall I persuade / to come back into friendship with you? Who, / O Sappho, does you injustice?” The direct quotation, coupled with the goddess’s direct address to the singer as she calls her by name, brings us a sense of the presence of the deity and of the immediacy of the scene, almost obliterating the fact that the song is describing something that occurred in the past. The further repetition of deute perhaps suggests a mild bemusement on the part of the smiling goddess, who is having to come to the rescue yet one more time. Unfortunately, the poet’s exact wording of the first question is not entirely certain, due to textual problems in the manuscripts of the author who quotes the song for us (an ancient rhetorician named Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who taught in Rome during the first century B.C.). Parts of the first twenty-one lines are also preserved in a papyrus (P. Oxy. 2288), but unfortunately it does not help much with the problematic text of line 19. Educated guesses as to what Sappho actually intended lead to a variety of possible translations, depending on what one reads for the words that I have translated rather loosely as “to come back”; alternative interpretations include “whom shall I persuade to lead you back to her friendship” or “to be broken again to your friendship” or “to be ranked again in your friendship.”

Whichever version we may prefer, the general sense of the line is clear, given the context that follows. A woman (on this past occasion that by now seems so present) who was once in the relationship of “friend” is no longer in that position; the Greek word here translated as “friendship,” philotas, includes both the sense of nonsexual closeness (as in a familial relationship) and the notion of erotic desire. In other words, it has a broader range of meaning than eros (the god Eros or simply “sexual desire”) or pothos (“desire”), both of which refer primarily to physical passion. The context here, however—given the appeal to the goddess of love and the lines that follow about flight and pursuit, gift-giving, and the transformation of response from not-loving to loving (philemmi, line 23, the verbal form from the same root as philotas)— would leave no doubt that Sappho is speaking of erotic desire. The woman in question may be either the woman of the past encounter with the goddess or the woman who is presently on the singer’s mind—the two become blended in this song. But she is clearly a lover or potential lover who has resisted the singer’s overtures and with whom the singer now hopes to effect an erotic relationship.

The element of repetition in the reporting and quoting of Aphrodite’s words becomes especially apparent in stanza six, which concludes the section of direct discourse. Here Aphrodite assures her petitioner that “if indeed she flees, soon will she pursue, / and though she receives not your gifts, she will give them, / and if she loves (philei) not now, soon she will love (philesei).” As K. J. Dover observes regarding this section of the poem, “a marked degree of mutual eros is assumed: the other person, who now refuses gifts and flees, will not merely yield and ‘grant favours’ but will pursue Sappho and will herself offer gifts.” In the Greek, each line of the verse ends with the action that the desired woman will perforce take as the result of Aphrodite’s power: she will pursue, she will give, she will love. The structure of this verse closely resembles the formulae of ancient magical papyri that aim through the power of their words to bring about a reversal in some troubling situation. The repetition of “soon” (tacheos) in two of the three predictions for the future adds further to the incantatory qualities of these magical lines.

The Power of Aphrodite
The power of the goddess in the “Hymn to Aphrodite” is not simply the power to bring about reversal of fortune. Besides sheer potency, the goddess’s power seems to include potentiality as well; she can create the space in which the potential of erotic desire can be fulfilled. Her Kraft (to use the German word for “strength” or “power”) is craft, as Sappho hints at by calling her a “weaver of wiles.” It is important to note that the speaker of the poem—the Sappho figure—does not seem to desire to possess the desired woman, but rather to enter into a reciprocal relationship with her through the trading of roles; today Sappho is the pursuer and the would-be gift-giver, whereas tomorrow (Aphrodite willing) the lover will be the one who takes up those roles. Thus it is the creative power of the goddess on which Sappho calls when, in the last stanza of the song, she once again addresses Aphrodite: “Come to me now also” In a sense, the ongoing exchange between goddess and singer, repeated on many occasions, provides the model for the desired human relationship: one of reciprocity and exchange, not rejection or alienation.

Seen in this light, the military imagery of the last line of the song, when Sappho asks Aphrodite to be her fellow-fighter or fellow soldier (summachos), is ironic. The earlier part of the poem has in fact not been about the power to conquer but about the power to transform—not about mundane soldiering but rather about divine magic. Indeed, given the usual associations of the Homeric Aphrodite with noncombat duty, so to speak, Sappho’s use of the term summachos here seems even to offer the possibility of complete redefinition; what she means by summachos, despite its root machomai (to fight), is perhaps really more along the lines of “ally.” Sappho desires a collaborator who has the power to bring about reversals, magically transforming unrequited love into a mutual exchange and thus soothing the heart of the petitioner. Just as the song opens with the singer’s request that the goddess not cause her heart (thumos) anguish and pain, so it ends with the petition that Aphrodite bring to pass whatever the singer’s heart (thumos) desires. Thus the direction of the hymn moves from negative to positive, from a request not to do something to a request to do something, and from suffering to the pleasant potential of mutual desire. Ironically, this sense in the final stanza of direction toward the future has been largely accomplished through the poet’s vivid description of the encounter with Aphrodite that occurred at some indefinite time in the past.

Woman-Centered Desire and the “Hymn to Aphrodite”
The “Hymn to Aphrodite” has all the hallmarks of a well-crafted song: vividness of imagery, particularity of detail as well as a generalized appeal, and an enticing balance and structure. In addition to these qualities as well as the pleasing sound effects of the original (the majestic opening line, for example, consists of only three multisyllabic words in the Greek: poikilothron’ athanat’ Aphrodita), part of the appeal of the song over the twenty-six centuries since its composition has been the fact that it describes a specifically female erotic desire, the desire of one woman for another.

From the viewpoint of presumptive heterosexuality, the poem has a prurient, almost illicit, appeal, for it touches on desire that has generally been unspoken, unarticulated, and unsung. Without providing any sort of graphic detail, the song nevertheless asserts the primacy of female relationships (on both the divine and human levels) and the repeating of a pattern of desire of one woman for another. It cannot be dismissed as an aberrant, “one-time only” case, for the whole song treats lesbian desire as routine and normal, not to mention as something worthy of writing a song about. The only way “out” is to substitute masculine pronouns (“if indeed he flees,” etc.), as some eighteenth and nineteenth-century translators did.

From the viewpoint of a homosexual identity, the “Hymn to Aphrodite” provides a positive construction of lesbian desire, articulating both its intensity and its disappointments within the framework of divine assistance. Far from being isolated or rebuked, the singer here is portrayed as the object of intense attention on the part of the goddess and the recipient of her help on many occasions. Unrequited love in such a supportive context is depicted as the common phenomenon that it in fact is in human relationships, not as the inevitable consequence of some kind of perverted behavior. Such a notion of “abnormal” desire lies not far below the surface of much twentieth-century Freudian-inspired criticism of the poem, which assumes that the song is about the continual frustrations of an inherently defective form of desire that is automatically doomed to failure. Here I propose that we instead view the song as the clearest statement that we have from Sappho’s oeuvre— partly because of its completeness—of the primacy of the female bond in a woman-centered context. The “Hymn to Aphrodite,” as we have seen, celebrates both the connection between goddess and singer, which is of a long-standing nature, and the longing for an emotional and sexual bond between the singer and the woman with whom she hopes to enter into a mutually desired relationship.

Another striking quality of the “Hymn to Aphrodite” is its sheer intensity. The movement in the song—the swift descent of the goddess, the fluttering of wings, the motion through the air—and the colors in its images reinforce the emotional intensity of the desire that Sappho describes. As we will see in other examples of Sappho’s poetry, eros for her is both a powerful and an empowering force, a force that is capable both of weaving stories and of causing pain. In Sappho, eros is almost never represented as a playful boy (as he seems to be in some Greek male homosexual poetry such as that of Anakreon), nor as the cherubic Cupid of later writers. Rather, eros seems to represent a kind of dangerous energy that can be channeled and enjoyed provided that one has the help of Aphrodite. The strongly emotional overtones of the words that the singer uses to describe her own condition—or potential condition should the goddess fail her—emphasize the fine line on which one stands between anguish and the peaceful state of fulfilled desire.

One of the ways in which Aphrodite seems to confer a feeling of power upon the woman in love is simply by giving her the voice with which to declare her desire and call upon the goddess for assistance. Although one of the physical characteristics of overwhelming passion as Sappho describes it is the temporary loss of speech, the emphasis in the “Hymn to Aphrodite” is on the repeated ability of the petitioner to call out to the goddess, and then to articulate what the trouble is on each particular occasion. Despite the helplessness of the petitioner on one level (insofar as she has been unable to transform the disinterest on the part of the desired woman), voicelessness is hardly a part of her condition. She can not only summon the goddess each time she needs her, but she can also engage in a dialogue with her to express the nature of her suffering and to request whatever she wishes the goddess to do on her behalf. Indeed, part of the power of this song today derives from the fact that it gives voice to the desire of one woman for another in a way that few poets until the late twentieth century have been able to echo.

Sappho and the Subversion of Tradition
Another way in which Sappho’s achievement in this song stands out as unique among women writers of the ancient world involves its subversion of the tradition from which it comes. I have already discussed the liberties that the poet takes with the traditional hymn form by prolonging the section dealing with the goddess’s past services and at the same time reducing the present petition to the song’s final stanza. Besides her appropriation in the last stanza of the military image (summachos) borrowed from the Homeric world of male combat in war, Sappho also subverts the traditional system of female subordination by creating a female authorial self that is of key importance in this song as well as others. If this song and one other poem are typical (along with the appearance of the name Sappho in fragment 65 V. and fragment 133 V., discussed below), Sappho seems to create herself as a named character as one among the several named characters who speak or are spoken of in her lyrics. Besides “Sappho” herself, we hear from or about Irana, Atthis, Dika, Gongula, Kleis, Andromeda, and several other female characters who populate the tattered lines remaining to us. I must emphasize that in speaking of these four examples in which Sappho employs her own named character, I do not mean to imply that we should read these or any other of her songs as literally autobiographical. But I think it is important to note the novelty in ancient literature of a female author creating a strong female persona who is totally independent of male authority.

Such a fictive persona is all the more striking when one recalls that in the most important works of earlier Greek literature, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the most desirable status that a mortal female can enjoy is connection by marriage to a male of high rank. In the world of the Homeric epics, there are no independent females, unless we count Cassandra—and she is presented as the victim of rape and lunacy. All the more striking, then, is the sudden emergence of this fictive “Sappho,” a woman who sings of and to other women and who presents herself as enjoying a close relationship with a powerful Aphrodite.

The exact relationship between Sappho’s lyrics and the Homeric epics of a century or so before her time has been a matter of intensive linguistic study and scholarly debate, and is an issue to which we will return in more detail in chapter 4. But it is safe to say that on some level Homer is always present as a kind of palimpsest in Sappho’s songs, and that those who read Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite” (and other poems as well) against the Homeric background are right in seeking a multilayered text and subtext in Sappho’s words. Here in the “Hymn to Aphrodite” Sappho has the powerful goddess as her patron saint, just as the heroes Odysseus or Diomedes, for example, enjoy a special relationship with their protector, Athena. In effect, Sappho creates her own self as a new hero in the battlefield— a lyric hero in the battlefield of love, that is, not an epic hero in the battlefield of war.

Source: Jane Snyder, “Sappho and Aphrodite,” in Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho, Columbia University Press, 1997, pp. 9–17.

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Critical Overview