Analysis

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Last Updated on June 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 363

In this poem, the speaker (who is actually the poet, Sappho, herself—as we learn in the fifth stanza when Aphrodite directly addresses her) prays to Aphrodite to leave her father, Zeus's, home on Mount Olympus and fly down to the earth in her beautiful chariot. The speaker wants help; she...

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In this poem, the speaker (who is actually the poet, Sappho, herself—as we learn in the fifth stanza when Aphrodite directly addresses her) prays to Aphrodite to leave her father, Zeus's, home on Mount Olympus and fly down to the earth in her beautiful chariot. The speaker wants help; she loves another woman, but that woman does not love her, and she hopes that Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, will assist her in her plight.

Sappho imagines that the goddess will ask her why she suffers and who is the cause of her pain. Sappho characterizes her beloved as an abuser of sorts, someone who causes her pain and treats her with cruelty. (In reality, it seems the only thing this woman is guilty of is not returning the poet's feelings of love. The speaker's word choices, however, paint her as a tormentor and her "cause of anguish.") Sappho further imagines that the goddess promises that the beloved woman will "soon pursue" Sappho and give gifts to the poet rather than "reject[ing]" those she is offered; the woman's "heart will / Burn" even though she is now "unwilling." Ultimately, the poem returns to Sappho's request that Aphrodite come to her and end the torture that she feels, giving her the love of the woman whom she loves.

Due in part to the characterization of unrequited feelings as a "bitter" kind of "torment" and Sappho's description of love as a "battle" in which she wants Aphrodite to "Fight" alongside her as her "comrade" in arms, love in this poem feels more like a war, a fight for power, rather than anything else. We don't see images of Sappho pining away, wishing for the return of her romantic feelings; instead, we get images of an effulgent Aphrodite riding her "shining car" to the speaker's aid in battle and a feeling that will change the speaker's unwilling beloved. There is no concern or thought given for the autonomy of the woman the speaker loves, and it compels one to wonder if it is really love that she feels. Or is it something else? Lust? Anger? A need to overpower this woman who resists?

Ode to Aphrodite

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1201

Critical Evaluation:

Although it is possible to read the Ode to Aphrodite without extensive knowledge of Sappho and the culture in which she lived and worked, readers familiar with ancient Greece will develop a deeper appreciation for the poet’s accomplishments by comparing her works to other classical texts. What may seem like a highly personal poem is actually, on one level, highly derivative and conventional. Clearly designed for public performance, the Ode to Aphrodite relies heavily on conventions commonly used by Greek writers whose audiences were expecting to be entertained with familiar subjects and situations.

Specifically, in the Ode to Aphrodite the poet makes numerous allusions to Homer and other male writers. Additionally, a careful stylistic and content analysis of the work reveals that it is similar to many religious poems in the Greek tradition. Anne Burnett has called the work “the poetic expression of a personal religious faith,” in which Sappho “explores the changes that can be wrought by prayer, in a petitioner and in a divinity.”

Deliberate borrowings and conventional themes not only provide a reader with information about the tradition in which Sappho worked, but also reveal something about her strategies for representing the lives of women to her audiences, which were primarily made up of women. What one notices upon careful examination of the Ode to Aphrodite is that Sappho does not merely borrow conceits from her predecessors. Instead, she modifies and inverts familiar materials to create entirely new portraits of both the speaker and the goddess she addresses. For example, the scene described in the Ode to Aphrodite is reminiscent of one in book 5 of the Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.). Sappho transforms, however, Homer’s weak deity into a powerful force on whom women can call for help. Sappho’s use of Homeric epithets and situations provides an informed commentary on the values of her culture. Modern readers may discover, as Sappho’s original audiences no doubt did, that her poetry is ironic and imaginative, offering a sensitive appreciation of women’s experience.

Ode to Aphrodite, a representative introduction to the poetry of Sappho, may be summarized thus: The poet, Sappho, invokes the attention of Aphrodite, goddess of love, and invites her to leave the house of Zeus, mount her chariot, and let her doves bear her to the earth. The poet imagines their meeting: The goddess will ask who it is that troubles Sappho by fleeing from her, by refusing to reciprocate the ardors of love. That person—Sappho imagines the promise of the goddess—will soon suffer as Sappho now suffers. The vision, briefly and movingly expressed, concludes, and in the last lines Sappho takes up the prayer with which the poem begins. It is a prayer to a goddess who may or may not be gracious.

This brilliant specimen from the six hundred lines of Sappho’s poetry that remain is characteristic of a body of work very distant from the contemporary age and yet modern. Sappho’s poetry once consisted of nine books of some twelve thousand lines, but all except a few fragments are supposed to have been destroyed by Church leaders in Constantinople and Rome. Some of her work survived because it was quoted by grammarians who used her passionate verse to illustrate a syntactical point. Other fragments, written on papyrus, were discovered in 1897 at Oxyrhyncus in Egypt. Also, ancient coffins had been lined with Sappho’s verse.

Out of such materials scholars have labored to reconstitute the work of a woman whom the Greeks called “the poetess” just as they called Homer “the poet.” Born on the island of Lesbos in the Aegean, Sappho grew up in a civilization that was rich and relaxed, epicurean before the time of Epicurus. The luxury of the life that her class enjoyed stirred the merchants of the island to revolt; they supported a “tyrant” named Pittacus. Sappho was twice exiled from her native town, the second time as far away as Sicily. During her exile she married, bore a daughter, was widowed, and returned to Lesbos. Here, for a time at least, she put masculine affection behind her, even though her fellow exile, Alcaeus, had expressed a warm interest in her. Instead, Sappho set up an academy where she was the mistress and guiding spirit of young women whose self-cultivation and loves she supervised. The charms of the young women were celebrated in Sappho’s verse; and their departure to other places or to the marriage altar caused Sappho to lament. Such is one version of her life, necessarily a matter of conjecture in almost all details. There is also a record of Sappho’s objection to the marriage her brother made with an Egyptian courtesan. A poetic fragment touchingly describes Sappho pointing to her wrinkles when someone speaks to her of love.

Sappho was certainly “love’s creature”; she tells readers that she served a goddess who could make the limbs sweat and tremble as well as stir with joy. When Sappho speaks of a young woman as the sweet apple remaining alone on a high twig, perceived by the gatherer but unreached, or when she tells us of a woman who cannot mind her spinning because her fingers ache with love’s desire, Sappho is initiating a tradition of sensual frankness in Western poetry. When Sappho’s laments mark the departure of Atthis or some other friend from the charmed and charming circle of young women who used to wander through the gardens of Lesbos, readers can hear in Sappho’s lines the authentic voice of passion and desperation. From this poetry comes the current meaning of the word “lesbian.” At such moments, Sappho’s odes and fragments do not testify to mere convention. They record an experience of life that is as fresh and troubled today as it was six centuries before Christ.

Bibliography:

Bowra, C. M. Greek Lyric Poetry from Alcman to Simonides. 2d rev. ed. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1961. An important study of major contributions to ancient Greek poetry. Provides a perceptive exploration of Sappho and her influence on other ancient poets. Chapter 6 is exclusively concerned with Sappho, and examines the Ode to Aphrodite.

Burnett, Anne Pippin. Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. Technical and scholarly, the third section provides close attention to Sappho as a major contributor to ancient Greek poetry and discusses important aspects of Greek society.

Castle, W. “Observations on Sappho’s to Aphrodite.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 89 (1958): 66-76. A brief but concise introduction to the Ode to Aphrodite and certain issues of classical scholarship regarding the poem.

Davenport, Guy, trans. Preface to Sappho: Poems and Fragments, by Sappho. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965. Provides a useful but brief discussion of Sappho’s contribution, her concept of Aphrodite and the poetry’s relation to and influence on modern writers. Includes notes on the translation.

Weigall, Arthur. Sappho of Lesbos: Her Life and Times. New York: Garden City, 1932. Although a bit antiquated as a general study, chapter 16 provides a superior and exhaustive review of all elements of the ode, from the meter to traditional aspects of the goddess in ancient Greek society. Index.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 223

Bowra, C. M. Greek Lyric Poetry from Alcman to Simonides. 2d rev. ed. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1961. An important study of major contributions to ancient Greek poetry. Provides a perceptive exploration of Sappho and her influence on other ancient poets. Chapter 6 is exclusively concerned with Sappho, and examines the Ode to Aphrodite.

Burnett, Anne Pippin. Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983. Technical and scholarly, the third section provides close attention to Sappho as a major contributor to ancient Greek poetry and discusses important aspects of Greek society.

Castle, W. “Observations on Sappho’s to Aphrodite.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 89 (1958): 66-76. A brief but concise introduction to the Ode to Aphrodite and certain issues of classical scholarship regarding the poem.

Davenport, Guy, trans. Preface to Sappho: Poems and Fragments, by Sappho. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1965. Provides a useful but brief discussion of Sappho’s contribution, her concept of Aphrodite and the poetry’s relation to and influence on modern writers. Includes notes on the translation.

Weigall, Arthur. Sappho of Lesbos: Her Life and Times. New York: Garden City, 1932. Although a bit antiquated as a general study, chapter 16 provides a superior and exhaustive review of all elements of the ode, from the meter to traditional aspects of the goddess in ancient Greek society. Index.

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