Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806

Discussion of Sappho’s poetry necessarily entails what has come to be identified as her primary motif; namely, female homoeroticism. The term “lesbian” in its late nineteenth and twentieth century English usage is referentially derived from the reputation of Sappho of Lesbos. The grounds for diagnosing Sappho as homosexual involve two...

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Discussion of Sappho’s poetry necessarily entails what has come to be identified as her primary motif; namely, female homoeroticism. The term “lesbian” in its late nineteenth and twentieth century English usage is referentially derived from the reputation of Sappho of Lesbos. The grounds for diagnosing Sappho as homosexual involve two assumptions: that Sappho’s expressions of emotion are subjectively her own and that her use of her own name in homoerotic context is self-identical and not generic. In most studies of Sappho, these assumptions are both unstated and understood.

That not all Sappho’s poems express homoeroticism and that Sappho, even in self-identical context, is not exclusively homosexual are suppositions that any reader of her work in translations published during the latter half of the twentieth century will recognize. Earlier translations, commentaries, and scholarly articles presented a Sappho varying from an almost deranged homosexual to a paragon of heterosexual chastity or moral purity. In her hymn to Aphrodite, the single poem that has been preserved in full, Sappho presents herself, or her generic namesake, as being addressed by name by Aphrodite, to whom she has prayed for the renewed affection of her beloved and by whom she is told that the now indifferent beloved will soon be courting Sappho’s favor. A single letter, missing from some codices but included in others, is the determinant that the indifferent beloved is a woman. In the absence of that letter (an alpha, denoting feminine gender), Sappho’s, or her namesake’s, beloved may be either male or female. A translation published in 1902 by John Philip Merivale makes the beloved a male; but almost all later translations, even those by scholars who prefer a chaste Sappho and consider homosexuality, in Denys Pages’s word, a “perversion,” adhere to the supposition of a female beloved.

Sappho’s attention to heterosexuality is attested in lines such as “svelte Aphrodite has melted my will away/ and filled me with longing for a boy,” as well as in the epithalamia, which celebrate the formalizing of conjugal heterosexual love. Sappho’s own conjugal heterosexuality is made explicit in two fragments in which she refers to her daughter Kleis.

There is nothing in Sappho’s poetry to support the legend that she loved a man named Phaon; there is no historical evidence that she, having abandoned her homosexuality in his interests, leaped to her death from a cliff when he subsequently deserted her. The legend was propagated by the Greek dramatist Menander (second century b.c.) in a line from one of his plays that is quoted by Strabo (c. 64 b.c.-a.d. 24); it is also the subject of a long Latin poem questionably ascribed to Ovid (43 b.c.-a.d. 18).

Legend and biographical fictions inhibit the analysis of Sappho’s work, likewise the conjectures of editors and translators that add to her extant text words and passages. For example, the fragment “. . . er’a . . . derat . . . Gongyla . . . “ appears in Paul Roche’s translation as “Then Gongyla spoke.” In Josephine Balmer’s translation, it is “[I tell you I am miserable,] /Gongyla. . . .” Most translators settle for “Gongyla . . . to retain the only intelligible word in the sequence. Some translators, and for that matter some editors, expunge the entire sequence in preference to interpolation or emendation. Guy Davenport offers as his translation “Spring/ Too long/ Gongyla,” insisting that “the misreading, if misreading it be, is by this time too resonant to change.” He is perhaps referring to the popularity of Ezra Pound’s poem “Papyrus,” published in Lustra (1916) and reading “Spring . . ./ Too long . . ./ Gongula . . .”

The most cogent analysis of Sappho’s lyricism is found in the essay on sublimity written, according to most estimates, in the first century A.D. by a critic called “Longinus.” The author exemplifies sublimity by quoting, and thereby preserving for posterity, four stanzas of a poem in the meter named for Sappho. The stanzas describe an observer, presumably Sappho, reacting to the sight of a man seated next to a woman whom the observer adores. The man impresses the observer as virtually godlike both because he is favored by the woman’s presence and because he can retain his equanimity when the very sight of the woman sends the observer into emotional excess. Longinus writes that Sappho always selects the precise, the greatest, and the most intense symptoms of love and combines them into an illustrious whole. The symptoms in the poem include loss of voice, sight, and hearing; fever, with cold sweat and spasms; pallor; and a sense of death. Longinus explains that the paradox of being both hot and cold and both rational and unhinged is expressed as a synthesized emotional integer. Sappho’s rationality, or noesis, is found in her observer’s logical diagnosis as she simultaneously suffers emotion and disciplines her rendition of the event with precise metric.

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