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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1854

Characteristic features of Sappho’s poetry show themselves in what remains of her work. First, her poems are lyrics—brief, deeply felt, personal verses to be sung or chanted to the strumming of a lyre. Sappho’s persona always represents the poet in some aspect, but without conveying any certain biographical truth. Even when the poet has another character in a poem call her “Sappho,” that may be merely a rhetorical device. Still, Sappho’s poems use “I” recurrently in ways that seem to depict the poet’s own intense emotions.

All ancient Greek poets wrote in meter. Greek meter was not accentual but depended, rather, upon the lengths of syllables—some long, some short—as sung texts still do. Sappho’s writings feature recurring stanzas, similarly shaped but with varying line lengths. The poet often uses a four-line stanza, employing a meter named after her. Its first three lines have eleven syllables each, and the last line has five. Modern English editions often translate Sappho stanzaically but not metrically.

Most longer poems by Sappho imply a lyric speaker/singer and, often, a listener. A dramatic situation—a past or present action or relationship—can usually be reconstructed; this often gives the poem an implicit subtext. Sappho’s lyrics, nonetheless, seem frank and simple. They use vivid imagery, a logical and often argumentative structure, and sensual subject matter that is treated discreetly and with quiet reserve. Sappho is never bawdy. Though some critics contend that Sappho uses no true metaphors, she often employs surprising comparisons. Her writings are not heavy with allusions, though she mentions Hera and Aphrodite in her works.

Sappho writes in the vernacular of Lesbos, generally without foreign or artificial words or topical content. Hers is not a literary dialect. Sappho’s poetry is similar to everyday speech, raised to great expressiveness.

One feature of Sappho’s lyrics is the anxiety of her persona, who typically displays some heightened emotional state. Her lyrics are not the calm, pretty ones that belong to the stereotype of the classical. Their emotional intensity, in fact, shares much with Romantic writers.

Sappho’s body of writings has grown over the years as new fragments have been found and editorial sleuths have deciphered them. In the process, her editors and translators have created divergent renderings. The Volger edition (1810) lists 120 poems or fragments; the Edmonds edition (1958) lists 191; and the Lobel and Page edition (1963) includes 192. Translator Suzy Q. Groden reduced the number to 133 in 1966, arguing that in some cases too little exists to make sense, that some lines are really editors’ interpolations, and that other elements come from sources that state: “Sappho said that . . . ” but do not record her exact words.

Another problem is that any translated lyric loses its particularity—its connotations and nuances of meaning—and much of its form and style. Sometimes different translations become almost like different poems.

In addition to love lyrics addressing women, Sappho wrote various other poems in which she describes the beauties of nature, chides her brother for his involvement with an Egyptian courtesan, sympathizes with her daughter because of restrictive laws forbidding excessive adornments, and represents bridesmaids ridiculing a male wedding attendant. Even Sappho’s smaller verse fragments are interestingly provocative, like bits of songs heard fleetingly.

“Ode to Aphrodite”

First published: First century c.e., copying older sources (collected in Poems of Sappho, with Historical and Critical Notes, Translations, and a Bibliography, 1925)

Type of work: Poem

The poet prays to Aphrodite, goddess of love, for divine help in gaining the affection of a woman who might be unresponsive.

The only surviving full text of any of Sappho’s lyrics, the “Ode to Aphrodite” is a prayer, an apostrophe written in seven Sapphic stanzas of idiomatic Greek. The poem’s subject is a driving passion, bordering on physical and mental illness, that the poet feels for an unnamed woman.

Most stanzas are parts of the poet’s address to Aphrodite, pleading for help. The poem reviews present and past experiences involving the goddess and the supplicant. Finally, in stanza 6, a vaguely drawn female who might resist Sappho’s advances comes hazily into view. The poem thus involves three women: a potential lover (the poet), her unsuspecting beloved, and a goddess who might intercede on the would-be lover’s behalf. The poem excludes men—even the male gods.

The poet uses rich imagery and figures to characterize herself and Aphrodite. Flattering epithets describe and involve the love goddess. The speaker entreats the goddess to become the speaker’s comrade-in-arms in the anticipated love struggle. Stanza 3 shows the poet imagining Aphrodite leaving heaven and coming to earth in a chariot drawn by sparrows. Sparrows in ancient times implied promiscuity and indiscriminate procreation—sparrow eggs were an aphrodisiac—so their association with a love goddess makes sense. Sappho may also be implying that an ordinary pair of sparrows might be drawing down the invisible goddess to aid her.

Details suggesting war and mental distress cluster in the poem. The poet’s suffering is depicted in a blending of intense feeling and objective detachment, as if Sappho were fully absorbed in love’s pain but concurrently able to stand back and watch it happen.

The poem reveals Sappho’s anguish as, lovesick, she fears that her beloved may not return her love, a thought that weakens and paralyzes her. Sharp imagistic details include the speaker’s cry, a darkening of all creation, the image of the ailing poet, victimized by madness and desires, needing deliverance. Meanwhile, the beloved sits somewhere, passive, awaiting what the speaker and goddess may do to her. The prayer hints, disconcertingly, at sexual assault.

The poet’s universal theme is the power of love to wreck a life and to render lovers powerless. A modern reader may see the figure of Aphrodite as an irrelevant allusive decoration and may consider Sappho’s supplication to this Greek deity as merely a way for the poet to voice the feelings that drive and dominate her. The pain and careful scheming of the speaker’s confession ring true, however, as does the closing suggestion that love is war.

Readers may hardly know where their sympathies should lie, with the speaker or with the beloved. The poet makes her feelings almost palpable and expresses no apology. Her detachment allows readers their private moral judgments.

“He Is More than a Hero: Or, Fortunate as the Gods He Seems to Me”

First published: First century c.e., copying older sources (collected in Sappho: A New Translation, 1958)

Type of work: Poem

Sappho watches a seated couple and, in an aside, addresses the woman—expressing envy for the suitor wooing her.

“He is more than a hero,” another apostrophe to a woman, comprises seventeen lines and is reasonably complete but probably lacks its original ending. Two quite divergent translations of its opening lines illustrate the creative roles that Sappho’s translators play.

He is more than a heroHe is a god in my eyes—the man who is allowedto sit beside you—hewho listens intimatelyto the sweet murmur ofyour voice . . .(Barnard)Fortunate as the gods he seems to me, that man who sitsopposite you, and listens nearby to your sweet voice(Page)

The poem is cited, almost complete, in the essay On the Sublime, written by the Greek critic labeled Longinus. The poem was freely adapted by the Roman poet Catullus in one of his lyrics. Moreover, Catullus addressed poems to a woman whose pseudonym is Lesbia, and he employed Sapphic meter. In vivid, lush, and sensuous imagery, Sappho reports how she watches a man in conversation with a woman and identifies with him to an extent that weakens her. The imagery of the poem dramatizes the couple whom the poet observes. The man, sitting by the woman, hears her murmuring voice and her laughter.

The poem’s imagery, expressing and appealing to various senses, seems to make the poet’s own emotions almost palpable. Mary Barnard renders Sappho’s lines this way:

I can’tspeak—my tongue is broken;a thin flame runs undermy skin; seeing nothing,hearing only my own earsdrumming, I drip with sweat;trembling shakes my bodyand I turn paler thandry grass

The poem closes by noting the closeness of “death”—a traditional conceit for orgasm.

The poem has been interpreted as a wedding song but seems more likely to be a lyric expressing personal passion. Sappho’s indirect approach, focusing initially on the man and not the beloved woman, adds an original twist. Sappho’s identification with the “heroic” male is provocative for what it may suggest about her psychology. The carefree, chattering girl whom this man woos provides a dramatic foil, contrasting with the distraught speaker.

“To an Army Wife, in Sardis: Or, Some Say a Host of Horsemen”

First published: First century c.e., copying older sources (collected in Sappho: A New Translation, 1958)

Type of work: Poem

This love note to the poet’s friend Anactoria calls her finer than any military pomp.

Translator Mary Barnard has titled this twenty-line fragment “To an Army Wife, in Sardis.” Despite missing text, the sense of the Greek is clear; interconnected images suggest a completed poem.

Fearing that “you, being far away, forget us,” Sappho addresses a love letter to a favorite woman, Anactoria, comparing her favorably to the impressive sight of armies in motion and fleets in full sail. The poem—an answer to the riddle: What is finest on earth?—has a three-part structure. Its beginning lines assert that the finest is “whatever one loves,” even though “some” think that military displays are “finest.” To argue the poet’s answer, the middle section of verse offers, as supporting evidence, the story of the mythological Helen and her irrational love for the Trojan prince Paris. The concluding section provides the name of the speaker’s beloved and makes a comparison that echoes the beginning. The poet says that hearing the friend’s footstep and seeing the “light glancing” in her eyes would impress her more than witnessing “glittering” armies on the move. Throughout, hyperbole characterizes the poet’s emotion and flatters the implied auditor, the girlfriend. The poem hints of a past friendship or love affair.

The example of Helen, used in an approving sense, seems problematic, since Helen was usually pictured as a bad wife who forsook her husband and fled with Paris. In so doing, she triggered the Trojan War, which makes the poems’ references to the fine sight of armies and warships particularly telling. When Sappho says that Helen “wandered far” with her lover, she suggests “going astray.” These subtleties create a memorable tension and ambiguity.

The poem has a feminist edge because it belittles the masculine business of waging war, finding in the poet’s girlfriend something finer than all of Greece’s military might. If Anactoria is in fact a military wife, the conceit implies that the friend surpasses her husband and all his war-waging colleagues. Another implication in the poem is that one woman’s actions, Helen’s, required the response of thousands of male troops. An implicit theme—make love, not war—underscores the poem.

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Sappho (Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)