Timothy Steele’s “Sapphics Against Anger” is composed of seven stanzas written in the sapphic form of four unrhymed lines. Sapphic verse is organized around a special strophe form. A poem in sapphic strophes always appears in four-line stanzas with a short fourth line. The title of this poem has to do with seven sapphic strophes written against, or in opposition to, feelings of anger. As the title poem of the collection, the piece reflects some of the themes of the whole book, especially in its apparently autobiographical first-person speaker, which in this instance is also true to the first-person voice of Sappho’s own poetry.
The general theme of “Sapphics Against Anger” is the need to control anger, one of the strongest of human emotions. The poem serves as a caution and a reflection for the speaker, who exorcises his anger through the writing of this disciplined form. The tone of the poem becomes lighthearted as it progresses, and a secondary theme, of not taking oneself too seriously, is established. The first stanza sets up the conflict between perspective and impulse, which governs the entire poem. The speaker wishes when angered to be “near a glass of water” to douse the flames of his temper. He longs to remember the importance of silence as a means of controlling what might be an ill-considered reaction. The poem plays off the interrelations of the temper, temperament, and temptation.
Continuing in a meditative manner, the speaker attempts to learn a lesson from the philosophers and poets who have written previously about controlling the passions, especially anger. He first invokes Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, who believed that giving in to anger only made one respond with anger more readily. The speaker then places himself in a scene from Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) in the Inferno section of the poem. He imagines himself being talked about by Vergil and Dante. Vergil, in stanza 4, says to Dante, that the speaker of “Sapphics Against Anger” is suffering now because he “at the slightest provocation,/ Slammed phone receivers down, and waved his arms like/ A madman.” Vergil compares the destructive power of the speaker’s uncontrolled outburst with that of invaders, such as Attila the Hun, known as the Scourge of God, who invaded Europe in the fifth century, and Genghis Khan, the Mongol conquerer of the thirteenth century. The speaker realizes, while overhearing the two poets’ fictional conversation, how easily he can and will ruin his own marriage by persisting in being angry about everything.
The balance of stanza 5 leads to the poem’s conclusion in stanzas 6 and 7. First, the speaker wants to resist giving in to self-pity. Then he concludes that he should let the anger wash over him as easily as the soap runs off the dishes and down into the sink drain. Finally in stanza 7, the speaker decides that all emotions, including anger, might have places in a balanced and well-ordered life. He reconciles himself to the idea that strong feelings can be a motivator to live better as much as they can be destructive elements in personal relationships.
Forms and Devices
Steele’s facility with traditional poetic devices and forms enlivens his poetry on the themes of nature and human nature. In “Sapphics Against Anger,” he re-creates both the formal and the tonal qualities of grace and force associated with the Greek poet Sappho’s own verse of the seventh or sixth century b.c.e. Her “Homage to Aphrodite” is a hymn of invocation in which the poet describes Aphrodite’s qualities and her previous acts of goodness toward the speaker, and states the aim of the speaker—to ask a new favor based on their past relationship. Sappho’s first-person narrator in this poem probably refers to herself, and the development of her request is presented over three distinct periods of time. The structure of the poem encompasses past and present with an offer of a plan for the future. Likewise,...
(The entire section is 2,690 words.)