Last Updated on August 15, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 373
"Ode to Aphrodite" is a 28-line lyric poem composed by Sappho, a famous woman poet from the Greek island of Lesbos. This poem is notable because, unlike Sappho's other poems, the complete text of "Ode to Aphrodite" survives. "Ode to Aphrodite," like most lyric poetry of ancient Greece, was composed...
(The entire section contains 1491 words.)
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- Critical Essays
"Ode to Aphrodite" is a 28-line lyric poem composed by Sappho, a famous woman poet from the Greek island of Lesbos. This poem is notable because, unlike Sappho's other poems, the complete text of "Ode to Aphrodite" survives. "Ode to Aphrodite," like most lyric poetry of ancient Greece, was composed for public performance, often with musical accompaniment.
Over the course of seven stanzas, Sappho prays to Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Sappho names herself as the speaker of the poem and states that she longs for the affection of an unnamed woman. Because Sappho is ignored by her prospective lover, she pleads for Aphrodite's help to win the heart of the woman. Because of her supplication, Sappho is personally visited by Aphrodite and granted a reply.
The first three stanzas of the poem portray Sappho's agonized request for Aphrodite's patronage. Using colorful imagery, Sappho begs Aphrodite for aid and describes the goddess of love leaving the heavenly realm and descending to earth.
The fourth and fifth stanzas record Aphrodite's diagnostic series of questions to determine how she can help Sappho. Aphrodite asks six rhetorical questions designed to comfort Sappho and remind her that Aphrodite is powerful enough to help.
In the sixth stanza, Aphrodite reassures Sappho that her romance will bloom with time. Aphrodite asserts,
Now she doesn't love you, but soon her heart will
Burn, though unwilling.
The clear implication is that Aphrodite will intervene on Sappho's behalf by using her power as the goddess of love.
The seventh and final stanza of "Ode to Aphrodite" ends with a supplication for continued aid from the goddess. The promises Aphrodite makes in the earlier stanzas appear to have been unfulfilled at the time of the poem's writing, and Sappho seems desperate for even more reassurance or aid.
Despite the relatively simple content of "Ode to Aphrodite," scholars and translators have engaged in a fierce debate over varying interpretations of the poem. For example, some argue that Sappho's poem is a parody of a portion of the Iliad. Others interpret "Ode to Aphrodite" as a record of ancient Greek religious experience. The most commonly accepted explanation of the poem is that the lyric is the frustrated cry of a woman struggling with unreciprocated romantic love.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1118
Sappho of Mytilene, a city on the island of Lesbos in the Aegean Sea, is universally considered the greatest female poet of ancient Greece, if not of all time. Considered the beginning of the tradition of female same-gender poetry (and the ultimate source of the somewhat misleading label “lesbian”), Sappho’s work has played a central role in feminist theories about sexuality in literature, art, culture, and history. Among many fragmentary texts and partial quotations of her work, the “Ode to Aphrodite” is the only complete poem of Sappho to have survived. Accordingly, it cannot fail to interest students both of the art of poetry and of classical Greek culture.
“Ode to Aphrodite” survives because it had been quoted in a work on literary composition, De compositione verborum, by the ancient critic Dionysius of Halicarnassus, as an example of Sappho’s polished style. Portions of the poem also have been found on papyrus at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. The poem consists of twenty-eight lines, arranged in seven Sapphic stanzas, each consisting of, in extreme oversimplification, three eleven-syllable lines followed by a shorter line of five syllables, according to a specific pattern. (The 1980 edition of The Meters of Greek and Latin Poetry, by James W. Halporn, Martin Ostwald, and Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, offers a more exact, and more complex, account of Greek metrical practice.)
The basic story of the poem is straightforward: The first stanza invokes the goddess of love, Aphrodite, and seeks her help in dealing with a recalcitrant lover. The following stanzas describes Aphrodite’s earlier assistance. In the heart of the poem (the epiphany or manifestation of the goddess), Aphrodite addresses Sappho directly, calling her by name. The poem concludes, in the last stanza, with Sappho’s renewed request for the goddess’s intervention.
Though this outline sounds simple enough, controversy surrounds the text and its interpretation, literally from the first word on. For example, most scholars read the first words as poikilothron, though there is some slight textual authority for that first word to be poikilophron. Some Greek manuscripts include the latter, but most of them, along with the papyrus evidence, support the less interesting poikilothron. (The difference in Greek turns on a single letter, either a theta or a phi, with similar written forms—an oval with a line.) The term is unfortunately a hapax legomenon (that is, a word that occurs nowhere else in classical literature), but its uncontroversial first part is clearly derived from poikilos, which has a range of meanings suggesting “multiple aspects”: many-colored, dappled, complex, ambiguous, subtle.
The textual dispute concerns the second part of that first word. The root thron suggests “seat” or “throne” (or possibly “flowers”—as discussed in D. E. Gerber, 1970). The root phron, however, means “mind.” Most translators have offered some version of the first: “dapple-throned” (Mary Barnard, 1958), “throned in splendor” (Richmond Lattimore, 1960), “patterned throne” (C. M. Bowra, 1961), “caparisoned throne” (Paul Roche, 1966), “elaborate-throned” (Richard Jenkyns, 1982), “ornate-throned” (David A. Campbell, 1985), “coloured-throned” (Peter Levi, 1985), “dazzling throne” (Barbara Hughes Fowler, 1992), “rich-throned” (M. L. West, 1994), “rainbow-throned” (Erica Jong, 2003). Despite limited manuscript support, classicist and poet Anne Carson opts for the alternative textual reading (as does poet Algernon Charles Swinburne), which is “of the spangled mind,” arguably the poetically richer option. Among other things, this alternative phrase introduces into the prayer a double note of uncertainty, raising the question of whether the goddess will comply with the request and reminding readers of the changeableness of lovers’ minds.
Jenkyns, though he opts for the conventional text, notes that poikilothron “sounds remarkably like poikilophron. . . . Whether or not Sappho’s original audience sensed a double entendre, poikilos and its compounds are inherently ambivalent.” This allows a few translations to evade the issue entirely: Jack Winkler (1981) settles for “intricate” and Stanley Lombardo (2002) offers “shimmering, iridescent.” Both classicists write as if the first part of the first word applies directly to the goddess, rather than to her furniture or her thought. Perhaps there is not much difference between talking about Aphrodite and talking about her mind; if so, then such evasive translations are kindred to Carson’s choice.
In addition to disputes about the text and the meaning of particular words, issues arise about the significance of larger structural elements. The poem utilizes, for example, standard features of kletic prayer: invoking the god, mentioning past services, and calling for current aid. Many critics recognize in this a literary allusion to the prayer Diomedes offers in Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611; book 5, lines 115-120). This episode involves Aphrodite’s intervention in battle to rescue her son, Aeneas, and results in her being injured. Sappho’s audience would have been familiar with this episode, given the centrality of Homer in ancient Greek education. However, is Sappho merely giving a nod to a well-known precedent, or is she doing something more complex, such as offering a subtle critique of Homer or of military values or of male dominance as a whole, as some critics have suggested? Remaining is the question of what parts of the common literary background Sappho is implicitly appealing to in the “Ode to Aphrodite”
Beyond questions concerning words and literary context is the question of what the poem is saying. What sort of aid is Sappho (the persona in the poem, if not the author herself) really requesting? Does she want Aphrodite to make the unnamed woman return Sappho’s love, or does she merely want her to experience the pain of rejection (from some future lover) so she will feel then what Sappho feels now? Does Sappho want relief, or revenge? Carson supports the latter interpretation, adding that Aphrodite does not say that the unnamed woman will seek Sappho, give her presents, or love her; she only guarantees that she will do these things (to or with someone). Many readers, however, find it natural to suppose that Sappho seeks divine assistance in attracting the affection of the woman she desires. Does Aphrodite really promise this to Sappho? Classicist Bruce S. Thornton’s interpretation is that “Aphrodite offers Sappho the consolation of knowing that the suffering will end, even if it will be followed by a different kind of pain, the pain of getting what you want and not wanting it anymore.”
The poem is full of other subtle touches that scholars have highlighted. To mention only one instance, Campbell notes that the participle meaning “unwilling” in line 24 (kouk etheloisa) “gives the only indication in this poem that Sappho’s love is for one of her own sex.” The sole complete example of Sappho’s poetic genius, this lyric of 28 lines, after almost as many centuries of interpretation, continues to pose new problems and provoke fresh responses, from both critics and poets.