Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1093
Heartache The content of “Hymn to Aphrodite” makes clear that the speaker has suffered romantic pain in the past and does so again. In the first stanza, the speaker implores the goddess not to ignore her pleas and thereby to burden her heart with anguish and grief. Many lines in...
(The entire section contains 1093 words.)
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The content of “Hymn to Aphrodite” makes clear that the speaker has suffered romantic pain in the past and does so again. In the first stanza, the speaker implores the goddess not to ignore her pleas and thereby to burden her heart with anguish and grief. Many lines in the poem refer to the repetitive nature of the speaker’s romantic unhappiness. She has requested the goddess’s help in the past to secure a lover’s affection. In the fifth stanza, the speaker refers to her “demented heart,” and stanza 7 notes the speaker’s “aching pain.” Heartbreak from unrequited love was a common theme in Sappho’s poems to Aphrodite. Many of the recovered fragments refer to love and to the pain it causes, as well as to the hope that relief of this heartache will be provided. This focus on love, especially the pain of love desired and love lost, continues to provide popular topics for poets even after more than twentyseven hundred years.
Sappho’s poem makes clear that the object of her affection is feminine. The reader knows that the poem’s speaker is feminine because Aphrodite calls the poet-speaker by name in stanza 5. The lover is identified through the use of feminine pronouns. Many of Sappho’s poems deal with her love for the female object. As a result, she is closely identified with lesbianism. The isle of Lesvos, Sappho’s home, is often spelled Lesbos, and the word for its inhabitants, Lesbians, has emerged as a term that identifies sexual love between two women. There has been much controversy about Sappho’s meaning, with some scholarly readers interpreting her poems to mean the more platonic love between mentor and student. But many other scholars assign the meaning of love to a more sexual passion. In “Hymn to Aphrodite,” the speaker’s love appears more in the nature of a consuming passion for a lover than the platonic affection between teacher and student would suggest. It is worth remembering that, in addition to Aphrodite being defined as the goddess of love, she was also designated the deity of abandoned sexuality.
Sappho’s poem is filled with the speaker’s longing and desire for a loved one. The words used to describe her pain at her lover’s abandonment indicate that this is a passionate love and that there is a desire for a union with a lover. The speaker-poet opens the poem with a lament that the goddess should not easily dismiss her need, since she speaks from a heart filled with anguish and grief. The choice of words, such as “anguish,” “grief,” “demented heart,” and “aching pain,” reflect the depth of love and pain that the speaker feels. She refers to past “pleas,” in response to which the goddess has attended to her needs, and reiterates that now she is “begging” for the goddess to come to her aid. In the final stanza, the speaker describes her lover as “everything that / my heart desires.” These words suggest a passionate love, one that consumes the speaker. Passion is one of the most extreme and compelling of emotions and is often associated with a fervor that overrides reason. But passion is also closely aligned with the Greek term pathos, which asks the reader to sympathize with the pain that passion can cause in its victim. Sappho’s choice of words to describe the poet-speaker’s emotions surely evokes the reader’s sympathy in response.
Ideally, a narrative poem should offer some sort of resolution at its conclusion. In Sappho’s “Hymn to Aphrodite,” the concluding stanza offers a suggestion that the writer’s needs will be resolved. This resolution is created through the poetspeaker’s recalling of past instances in which the goddess has come to her aid. In the second stanza, the speaker requests that the goddess come to her aid, as she has “ever in the past.” In a specific instance that is recalled by the poet-speaker in stanza 4, the goddess has left her father’s house and, after coming to the speaker’s aid, has inquired, “what had gone wrong this time and this time / why was I begging.” The repetition of “this time” within this short line suggests that such requests have been frequent. The speaker turns once again to the goddess for resolution because she has turned to her in the past and met with success. Resolution is also suggested by the change in tone from the first stanza to the seventh. The opening of the poem is frantic, with the speaker begging for the goddess’s help and pleading that her heart’s pain not be subjugated. By the final stanza, the tone is easier and lighter. Although the speaker is not happy, she is also no longer feeling so much anguish. She asks of the goddess that she “come to me.” The desperate note is gone, and while the speaker is still hurting from the absence of her lover and still feeling an “aching pain,” she is confident that the goddess “will be my ally.” The speaker is reassured that everything that she desires will be fulfilled because she has recalled that previous experience has made it so. The resolution in the poem’s final stanza results from the pattern of experience that is recounted.
Worship of Gods and Goddesses
Sappho’s poem represents a common Greek practice—the desire for a god to intervene on a human’s behalf. The Greeks of antiquity believed fervently in their gods’ abilities to offer assistance, with different gods assigned qualities and functions to fit particular aspects and needs of human life. Aphrodite was designated the goddess of love and the protector of marriage, as well as the goddess of sexuality and passion. She was very beautiful and quite promiscuous, as were many of the gods. Sappho, with her students and companions, created a cult devoted to the worship of Aphrodite. Songs and poems were written to honor the goddess, and pleas for her help were also common. In “Hymn to Aphrodite,” the speaker opens and closes the poem with stanzas that pray for the goddess’s intervention with a romantic problem. The flattery of the goddess, which is represented in terms that acknowledge her cleverness and beauty, as well as her royal lineage, were common artifices of this type of plea. Gods or goddesses must first be flattered and their greatness acknowledged if they are to supply the desired assistance. In this manner, Sappho’s poem fulfills the expected formula.