Eileen Gregory (essay date winter 1986)

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SOURCE: Gregory, Eileen. “Rose Cut in Rock: Sappho and H. D.'s Sea Garden.Contemporary Literature 27, no. 4 (winter 1986): 525-52.

[In the following essay, Gregory explores the poetry of Sappho in terms of its influence on Hilda Doolittle, characterizing the Greek poet's work as “the timeless matter of ephemeral feeling.”]

If we accept Sappho as a great erotic poet, Paul Friedrich suggests, “then her body becomes an icon for a myth of the inner life” (113). What are the contours of the myth seen through this female “body” of language? What is that interior landscape of Lesbos, and how is it present in H.D.'s Sea Garden? I would like to evoke Sappho herself, as her poetry—in translation—can render her presence, and to evoke as well H.D.'s Sappho. H.D.'s specific meditation on the Greek poet, recently published as “The Wise Sappho,” has great resonance in the world of Sea Garden.1 Here H.D. shows keen awareness of Sappho's poetry, and at the same time sees the Greek poet through the lens of her own alienation from the island and her longing as lover and poet for such a place.

Perhaps the most remarkable quality of Sappho's imagined Lesbos is the “liminality,” the threshold quality, of its central mysteries, all of which reflect the goddess Aphrodite whom Sappho both serves and embodies in song.2 Aphrodite's theophany occurs within mood, in the state of aphrodite, an interiorized quality of feeling indistinguishable from the numinous presence of the goddess herself (Friedrich 97, 124). Aphrodite dissolves boundaries between inner and outer, between self and other. In the same way the central values of Sappho's world are at once deeply subjective and radically impersonal (god-given); they represent a deep interiority infusing an outward shape or motion, making it vibrant and golden. The quality of grace, or charis, which the goddess and the poet cultivate, is a refined excellence at the center of life, a revelation, through one's whole presence—in movement, speech, action—that one shares in the life of the gods (Friedrich 106-7). A similar quality of exquisiteness (habrosune) is the very texture of aphroditic/sapphic vision (Friedrich 122-23). Sappho says in one fragment (Lobel and Page no. “58”), “But I love [the exquisite], … this, and yearning for the sun has won me Brightness and Beauty” (trans. Nagy 176). This delicacy and refinement, like the quality of grace, is present both in the outward richness of the other and in the vision that endows it with beauty. Aphrodite stands within and between seer and seen, speaker and spoken, giver and given. And the poet through the liminal rite of the poem makes the moment of her theophany a communal event.

One Sapphic fragment especially points to the nature of Aphrodite and to some of the images surrounding her. In fragment “LP 2,” Sappho summons Aphrodite to come to a sacred grove and participate in ritual festivities in her honor:3

You know the place: then
Leave Crete and come to us
waiting where the grove is
pleasantest, by precincts
sacred to you; incense
smokes on the altar, cold
streams murmur through the
apple branches, a young
rose thicket shades the ground
and quivering leaves pour
down deep sleep; in meadows
where horses have grown sleek
among spring flowers, dill
scents the air. Queen! Cyprian!
Fill our gold cups with love
stirred into clear nectar

Sappho invokes the goddess to leave her island and come to this intimate place; but the sensuous, incantatory poem itself manifests her presence. For both Aphrodite and poetry have each the power of thelxis, enchantment, manifest in bodily response (Segal 144). In the erotic charm of the poet's language, Aphrodite enters the body and soul, awakening the motions of desire. The rich and dense fragrance of frankincense mingles with the delicate odors of flowers, and the murmur of cold water through graceful trees blends with the exquisite shadowing of roses. This complex heightening of senses is climaxed, when from quivering leaves—kindled and alive, as are body and vision too—a koma, an enchanted sleep, descends. The spell complete, the entranced eyes open to the larger animation of burgeoning spring, to feeding horses, to a meadow of blossoms, through which move refreshing breezes. When Sappho calls, finally, “Queen! Cyprian! / Fill our gold cups with love / stirred into clear nectar,” the goddess is with these words no longer latent but suddenly manifest. Having already awakened the suppliant to the fresh yet erotically charged life within her presence, she crowns the moment as Divine Queen. As if among the imperishable gods, she pours out into gold cups immortal nectar mingled with the lucid joy of this consummated mortal rite.

What is this rite, and where does it take place? An altar has been prepared, and perhaps a feast as well, but no one is present; nothing is present except the longing voice of Sappho and the images by which she gives body to longing. This sacred place where the goddess enters is intimate and interior: it is, Thomas McEvilley suggests, “the imagination of the poet, the grove of transformations in which visions are seen and the breaches in reality are healed.” Moreover, the “sacred grove” is the poem itself, creating in the reader through the speech of the poet “the trance of paradise” in which the goddess is entertained (“Fragment Two” 332-33).

This poem also suggests a set of images that are central to Sappho's world. One of these is the spatial image of a “private space.” Lesbos itself—or Sappho's thiasos or group of young girls—is such an insular space, a liminal “island” set apart from ordinary life, within which a ritual passage is experienced.4 But there are still other distinct spaces within the daily life of the thiasos, Eva Stehle Stigers says, such as the “invisible bond or … single enclosure, impenetrable by others” wherein two women are united in intimacy. The private space in Sappho's poetry “is a metaphor for emotional openness in a psychological setting apart … from everything experienced by a woman in the ordinary course of life” (“Private World” 56-57). These spaces often enclose one another within imagination and memory, as in “LP 96,” when Sappho in an intimate moment with Atthis comforts her for the loss of a friend, creating the space of the remembered thiasos as well as the imagined solitary moment when her separated friend in Lydia now longs for her. Likewise in “LP 2,” the space of the grove is interiorized to become the space of the longing body and the innermost shrine of the goddess. Through the poems, however, this private space is communal space, the very matter of intimacy celebrated within the thiasos.

This “emotional openness” so necessary to the growth of the young woman is also at the basis of two other mysteries: the figure of the bride or nymphe, and the image of the flower. These recurring presences point to the paradoxical, threshold quality of Sapphic eroticism, both virginal (cold streams through apple branches, the meadow of spring flowers, fresh breezes) and sensually charged (smoking incense, shadows of roses, quivering leaves, the gold cup waiting to be filled).

The young women on Lesbos are virgins being prepared for marriage. The nuptial moment is a threshold state, and the bride is a figure of passage. For the Greeks, the bride or nymphe denotes a woman at the moment of transition from maiden to wife and mother. Aphrodite, who is herself a Bride, guides these women in the refinement of their grace and in the cultivation of desire. The threshold of the bridal moment, sacred to the goddess, represents then a moment of fullness in beauty, of openness to the demands of Eros. That very openness carries intense potency; mythically the bride or nymph is associated with an ambiguous, aphroditic state of delicate yet awesome erotic potential.5 The name of nymph is also given to the goddesses who inhabit the wild regions of nature. They too are elusive and liminal figures, being, like aspects of elemental nature itself, both inviolate and erotically suggestive.

The flower is a natural image for the young girls of Sappho's Lesbos, for the delicacy and beauty of youth coming to distinct perfection at the moment of opening. The brief time of the opened flower is another liminal moment; and it is the major image attending descriptions of the community of girls surrounding the poet. But in Sappho's poetry—contrasting markedly, as Stigers shows, with a male poet's use of the image—the flower does not represent an incomplete process of development, but rather a specific kind of fullness possible in the thiasos, wherein a “maiden's delicate charm” and her “youthful, self-celebrating erotic drive could find expression without compromise of … her emotional freshness” (“Retreat from the Male” 92).

That flower and maiden are at the center of Sappho's world points to an obvious lyric preoccupation: loving and witnessing to the ephemeral. These two images represent “that brief moment when the beautiful shines out brilliantly and assumes, for all its perishability, the stature of an eternal condition in the spirit if not in the body” (McEvilley, “Sapphic Imagery” 269). Because they represent the gracious time of the union of souls in beauty, flowers carry the remembrance of the bonds within the thiasos of maidens. In one fragment (“LP 94”) Sappho recalls her parting words to a woman: “‘If you forget me, think / of our gifts to Aphrodite / and all the loveliness that we shared / all the violet tiaras, / braided rosebuds’” (trans. Barnard no. “42”). The garlands of flowers are woven times of the animated body, woven graces. Sappho's poems, recalling that unfading beauty in the heart, are themselves such moments, such woven roses (McEvilley, “Sapphic Imagery” 269).

Though H.D. understands fully her distance from this religious and mythic world of Lesbos, she nevertheless claims it in her way. She drew at least as much guidance from her study of Greek lyric poetry as from any contemporary influence or immediate tradition. That she absorbed aspects of craft and conception from these sources seems evident in her early poetry, in the choric voice, in rhythms associated with dance and erotic enchantment; in the figure of the nymph and the image of the flower; and in the image of the marginal space of erotic intimacy. Furthermore, like Sappho's lyrics, the early poems are forcefully ritualistic and liminal, demanding that the reader surrender ordinary orientation and participate in the erotic ordering of the poem. Jean Kammer has seen H.D.'s early poems as resting in a certain poetic mode which, unlike other forms of metaphor, does not move from concrete to abstract, but which rests in juxtaposition and suspension of concrete poetic elements in a configuration. Kammer says that the “absence of a named feeling … force[s] us to search for other, less rational entries into the poem.” This form of speech turns the metaphoric activity inward, so that “the reader is forced through the singular experience of the poem” (158).

H.D.'s poetic affinities with Sappho, however, are more fundamental than any external influences. They rest ultimately, one might say, in the kind of “goddess” they each imagine serving, and in the kind of lyric necessities that service entails. Sappho has Aphrodite at the center, and H.D. a more complex, syncretic figure drawing together qualities of Aphrodite, Artemis, and Athene. It is not so important to name this figure as to recognize her powerful, shaping presence. She insists upon the primacy of Eros as a ground of value and vision, and thus upon the worth of the animated mortal body. She promises within the experience of passion not only suffering but grace and loveliness, and a certain kind of purity and wisdom. This figure compels an ever deepening interiority as the matter of poetic exploration, so that a moment of mood comes to reveal its lucid truth, and the ephemeral becomes the god-given, oracular substance upon which the poetess works. Finally, this goddess by her liminal nature, her movement under and between cultural fixities, bequeaths to the lyricist her paradoxical role as a threshold figure, pointing inward to the truth of intimacy and suggesting withdrawal, while at the same time inviting public celebration.

H.D. in her essay “The Wise Sappho” might be describing this veiled and complex figure who gives sanction and potency to her lyric song. She calls upon the memory of Sappho's creation in a meditation upon the question of poetic and psychic survival. H.D. opens her reflection with the remark of Meleager of Gadara about the poems of Sappho that he gathered in his Garland: “‘Little, but all roses’” (Notes 57). Her whole meditation plays upon this phrase. H.D. at first negates, then qualifies and turns, then finally returns at the end of the essay to affirm his statement. But what accounts for her continuous metamorphic word play? Not roses, not all roses, not roses at all; not flowers—but rocks, island, country, spirit, song (Notes 57-58). This rhetorical process is necessary in order for H.D. to articulate the network of association defining for her the nature of Sappho's immortality. In this essay the Greek poet serves as a guide to her in working through what is essentially her own puzzle: what is the durable matter of fragile lyric song, what is the principle of durability within one's openness to the suffering of Eros? In other words, how does the rose survive, how is the rose a rock? One thing is certain: upon Sappho's endurance as the image of woman/poet/lover somehow depends her own.

In “The Wise Sappho” H.D. places herself implicitly in the position of Hellenistic Meleager, who lived, like the modern poet, in a mongrel and graceless age. In the proem to his Garland, Meleager says that he has gathered “flowers” from the ancient poets, adding his own, to weave a “garland” for his friends, though “the sweet-speaking garland of the Muses is common possession of all the initiated” (Palantine Anthology 4.1 [Paton 1]; my translation). In her work H.D., too, in a sense, gathers those flowers, the woven roses of Sappho and others, transmuted into her own severe poems; and they too are for an implied audience of friends and mystai, those within the mysteries of Eros.

But H.D. in this essay seems also to identify herself with Sappho—like the ancient poet she fashions roses with stubborn endurance in time. In that transmission/transmutation of Sappho into a new time, H.D. would not choose roses as the sign of Sapphic power and beauty: “I would bring orange blossoms, implacable flowerings made to seduce the sense when every other means has failed, poignard that glints, fresh sharpened steel: after the red heart, red lilies, impassioned roses are dead” (Notes 57). H.D. here reveals her literary place in relation to Sappho: after the “impassioned roses” are dead—after the living poems are lost, after the passionate life they represent is inaccessible—she would offer through her poetry what Sappho's fragments also seem to offer—other “implacable flowerings” that would “seduce the sense,” almost through violence, within the extreme numbness of modern life.

Though little remains of Sappho's work, H.D. reflects, it is durable matter: her fragmentary, “broken” poems are not lush roses, not flowers of any color, but rocks, within which “flowers by some chance may grow but which endure when the staunch blossoms have perished.” The fragments, in other words, are a ground, an enduring subtext, for imagination. More durable than individual poems is this rock-world: “Not roses, but an island, a country, a continent, a planet, a world of emotion, differing entirely from any present day imaginable world of emotion” (Notes 58).

What are the qualities of Sappho's Lesbos that flourish in imagination? H.D. remembers it in terms of its grace, its ample loveliness. Yet more than this she emphasizes the deep bitterness, “the bitterness of the sweat of Eros,” within which Sappho suffered (Notes 59-62). That suffering is essential to Sappho's “wisdom”—which H.D. understands not as an abstract, Platonic wisdom, not Greek sophrosyne or Christian constancy, but one gained within the nets of devastating feeling (Notes 63-64). The wisdom of Sappho's poetry, H.D. suggests, came from “the wind from Asia, heavy with ardent myrrh,” but tempered with a Western wind, “bearing in its strength and salt sting” the image of Athene (Notes 63). It is, in other words, characterized by its sensuous immediacy, but also by its questing spirit, its penetrating consciousness, its clarity and control. Sappho was “emotionally wise,” capable in her simplicity of seeing within the momentary awkward gesture of a girl “the undying spirit of goddess, muse or sacred being.” Sappho's wisdom is a concrete, human love which merges “muse and goddess and … human woman” in the perception of grace and beauty (Notes 64-65).

“Sappho has become for us a name.” As a cultural and artistic figure, H.D. finally implies, she is one with her poems and one with the power of her poems: she is “a pseudonym for poignant human feeling, she is indeed rocks set in a blue sea, she is the sea itself, breaking and tortured and torturing, but never broken.” She is an island “where the lover of ancient beauty (shipwrecked in the modern world) may yet find foothold and take breath and gain courage” (Notes 67). For this reason the puzzle of Sappho's mortal durability is significant—her poetry, rose/rock/island/sea, is the timeless matter of ephemeral feeling and ephemeral speech at the basis of lyric expression. In this sense—that Sappho is feeling, is a rocky island retreat for the lover of beauty—she is, I suggest, H.D.'s “sea garden.” She is the mythic figure at the ground of H.D.'s world of fragile sea- and rock-roses. She is the goddess who guards it, the sea that washes it, and the spirit informing the poet who suffers her ecstasies within it.


  1. The manuscript from which “The Wise Sappho” was taken is not precisely dated. I do not claim, then, that H.D.'s essay directly informs Sea Garden—the case may indeed be the reverse—but that both come from the same imagination of the island experience, of which Lesbos was a configuration.

  2. My understanding of Aphrodite and of the liminal qualities of Sappho's world has been greatly shaped by Friedrich, especially chs. 5 and 6.

  3. In the major points of my interpretation of this poem I am indebted to McEvilley, “Sappho, Fragment Two.”

    Because of its grace, and not because of its literal accuracy, I quote here the version of Barnard. Here is my own literal rendering of the fragment: Come from Crete, for my sake, to this holy temple, where is the lovely grove of apple-trees, and where altars are smoking with frankincense; therein cold water murmurs through apple branches, and the space is all shaded over with roses, and from quivering leaves an enchanted sleep descends; therein a meadow where horses feed has blossomed with spring flowers, and soothing breezes blow … there … Cypris, pour gracefully in golden cups nectar mingled with these festivities.

  4. For a discussion of rites of passage see Turner 94ff.

  5. Two important elaborations of the significance of the nymphe are those of Winkler 77-78; and Detienne 102-3.

Works Cited

Detienne, Marcel. “The Myth of ‘Honeyed Orpheus.’” Myth, Religion and Society: Structuralist Essays by M. Detienne, L. Gernet, J.-P. Vernant and P. Vidal-Naquet. Ed. R. L. Gordon. Cambridge: Cambridge UP; Paris: Editions de la maison des sciences de l'homme, 1981. 95-109.

Doolittle, Hilda (H.D.). Notes on Thought and Vision & The Wise Sappho. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1982.

Friedrich, Paul. The Meaning of Aphrodite. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978.

Kammer, Jean. “The Art of Silence and the Forms of Women's Poetry.” Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets. Ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979. 153-64.

Lobel, Edgar, and Denys Page, eds. Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta. 1955. Oxford: Clarendon-Oxford UP, 1968.

McEvilley, Thomas. “Sapphic Imagery and Fragment 96.” Hermes 101 (1973): 257-78.

———. “Sappho, Fragment Two.” Phoenix 26 (1972): 323-33.

Nagy, Gregory. “Phaethon, Sappho's Phaon, and the White Rock of Leukas.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77 (1973): 137-77.

Paton, W. R., ed. The Greek Anthology. 5 vols. 1916. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP; London: William Heinemann, 1969.

Sappho. Trans. Mary Barnard. Berkeley: U of California P, 1958.

Segal, Charles. “Eros and Incantation: Sappho and Oral Poetry.” Arethusa 7.2 (1974): 139-60.

Stigers, Eva Stehle. “Retreat from the Male: Catullus 62 and Sappho's Erotic Flowers.” Ramus 6.2 (1977): 83-102.

———. “Sappho's Private World.” Reflections of Women in Antiquity. Ed. Helene P. Foley. New York: Gordon and Breach Science, 1981. 45-61.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. 1969. Symbol, Myth, and Ritual Series. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Paperbacks-Cornell UP, 1977.

Winkler, Jack. “Gardens of Nymphs: Public and Private in Sappho's Lyrics.” Reflections of Women in Antiquity. Ed. Helene P. Foley. New York: Gordon and Breach Science, 1981. 63-89.


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Sappho fl. c. 6th century b.c.-

Greek poet.

The following entry contains recent criticism on Sappho's poetry. For additional information on Sappho's life and works, see CMLC, Vol. 3.

Acknowledged as the greatest female poet of the classical world, Sappho is renowned for her intensely personal verse, only a fragmentary portion of which has survived into the contemporary era. Considered the most accomplished and influential lyric poet of antique Greece, she composed poems that continue to be admired and respected for their characteristic passion, lucid simplicity, and evocative imagery. As a literary figure surrounded by legend, Sappho has also been the subject of much critical controversy and speculation and has been linked with both female homoeroticism and the grounding myths of poetic discourse. A fascinating subject for successive generations of poets, novelists, playwrights, and biographers, Sappho of Lesbos remains a figure whose elusive thoughts writers have attempted to reconstruct. In addition to her lyric works, Sappho also wrote a variety of occasional poems, in particular a number of epithalamia, or marriage songs, for which she became famous during her own lifetime. Her compositions in other poetic forms, including narrative and elegiac verse, have largely been lost.

Textual History

While tradition holds that Sappho composed enough poetry to fill nine volumes, collected in Alexandria during the third century b.c., only a minute portion of her poetry survives. Her writings are thought to have endured into the early medieval period before being lost or destroyed by about the ninth century. Since that time, her poetry has, for the most part, only been accessible through quotations in a variety of secondary sources. An 1898 discovery of several Egyptian papyri containing additional verse fragments added somewhat to the Sapphic manuscript tradition, which includes only one poem in its entirety. Beginning in the eighteenth century efforts were made by German classicists to translate her literary remains into Latin, an important source for later translators. This process continued into the twentieth century as new texts containing bits of Sapphic verse were unearthed. Though English translations of individual poems by Sappho appeared in the seventeenth century, the first complete English translation of the Sapphic fragments was not completed until 1885 and the publication of Henry Thornton Wharton's Sappho: Selected Renderings, and a Literal Translation, which made extensive use of German scholar Theodor Bergk's 1882 Latin edition. In the contemporary era the most well-regarded version of Sapphic verse in English has been Mary Barnard's Sappho: A New Translation (1958). Edgar Lobel and Denys Page's Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta ranks as the definitive Greek edition of Sappho's work.

Biographical Information

Little is known about Sappho's life and the information that is available cannot be viewed as trustworthy because accounts of the poet's life have become thoroughly interwoven with legend and myth. The only standard, but unreliable, source of information about Sappho's life is the Suda, a Greek lexicon compiled about the end of the tenth century. It records that Sappho was a native of Lesbos, an island in Asia Minor, and that she was probably born in either Eresus or Mytilene. Her father's name is given as Scamandronymus, and her mother's as Cleis. Evidence also suggests that Sappho had three brothers, and that her family belonged to the upper class. She is believed to have married a wealthy man named Cercylas—they had a daughter named Cleis together. Sappho apparently spent the majority of her life in the city of Mytilene, and most of her time there was occupied in organizing and running a thiasos, or academy for unmarried young women. As was the custom of the age, wealthy families from Lesbos and neighboring states would send their daughters to live for a period of time in these informal institutions in order to be instructed in the proper social graces, as well as in composition, singing, and the recitation of poetry. Ancient commentary attests to the fact that Sappho's thiasos ranked as one of the best and most prestigious in that part of Greece, and as its dedicated teacher and spiritual leader, she enjoyed great renown. Some legends of Sappho's life indicate that she lived to old age, but several others contend that she fell hopelessly in love with a young boatman, Phaon, and, disappointed by their failed love affair, leaped to her death from a high cliff—a story made famous by the Roman poet Ovid in his Heroides, but one which has been largely discredited by scholars.

Major Works

Sappho wrote her poetry in the Lesbian-Aeolic dialect, her native Greek vernacular. Though she used a less refined language than that of the formal Ionian literary mode employed in Homeric epic, Sappho's poetry is said to demonstrate an innate verbal elegance that closely mirrors the rhythms of natural speech. Her standard metrical form, designated as the Sapphic meter by scholars, consists of four lines: three with eleven syllables each and a fourth line of five syllables. Characteristically mellifluous, Sappho's verse also exhibits her trademark directness, whether she is writing about nature, the gods, or the voluptuous physique of one of her pupils. Most of Sappho's poems are monodies, songs composed for the single voice and intended to be sung to the accompaniment of the lyre. Much of her verse was also occasional, usually meant to commemorate some event taking place in her thiasos, but she also composed narrative poetry, religious hymns, and epithalamia, or wedding songs. Sappho's lyrics are first and foremost personal, conveying deeply felt emotion in a simple, lucid style. The speaker in her poems (generally assumed to be Sappho herself) spontaneously exhibits an unusually wide range of emotional responses: tender protectiveness and friendship; erotic longing and jealousy; playful chiding of her pupils; extreme anger toward those who have proven disloyal; and outright vilification of the headmistress of a rival thiasos. Probably her most famous piece (the only poem she composed to have survived intact), the “Hymn to Aphrodite” is something of an incantation or a prayer to the Greek goddess of love, patron of Sappho's circle. Twenty-eight lines in its entirety, the “Hymn” calls on Aphrodite to soothe the speaker, possibly in her suffering from unrequited love. Internal anguish also figures prominently in the epithalamion referred to as “Phainetai moi,” which captures Sappho's jealousy and distress upon seeing a young woman she loves with her new husband. Other works features folk or mythological motifs, such as that of “The Wedding Reception of Hektor and Andromache.”

Critical Reception

Sappho's works have been admired for their stylistic brilliance since antiquity. In a famous epigram, Plato named her the tenth Muse, and praise of such a superlative nature has been common through the centuries. Scholars believe that Sappho's epithalamia raised the ancient folk tradition of the marriage song to a new level of artistic excellence, and her lyrics, fragmentary as they are, have been nearly universally considered outstanding poetic achievements. However, while her literary reputation has remained high into the contemporary period, Sappho's personal reputation has been controversial, sometimes even to the point of overshadowing her status as a poet. The dispute over her reputation seems to have begun two or three centuries after her death, and consists of mostly unfounded accusations of immorality, including contentions that she was the lover of Alcaeus, and that she instructed her pupils in homosexual practices. By the twentieth century Sappho's name had become synonymous with lesbianism in both popular and scholarly parlance. Though many contemporary critics have emphasized Sappho's skilled versification, exploring her themes, imagery, and influence, discussion of her school and sexual preference has been renewed in the era of feminist literary studies and academic interest in the dynamics of erotic desire. The true purpose of Sappho's thiasos also remains something of a mystery: was it mainly a religious association dedicated to the worship of Aphrodite; was it primarily a sort of finishing school intended to prepare young women for marriage; or was it a female retreat where maidens were instructed in lesbian practices? Scholars have posited theories across the spectrum. As the critical speculation surrounding Sappho's poetry continues, so does the admiration and appreciation of it. Commentators have unanimously praised her sincerity and intensity, as well as her remarkably simple, yet effective style. She has also been lauded for her ability to establish an intimate relationship with the reader. Contemporary critics, meanwhile, have continued in the established traditions associated with this powerfully enigmatic figure, endeavoring to unveil the poetic subtleties and intensities of her fragmentary work, drawn from aged and corrupted texts. Her influence on various poets, from her contemporary Alcaeus to writers as diverse as Catullus, John Donne, Lord Tennyson, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Hilda Doolittle, has been studied. Above all, in the late modern period scholars have sought to redefine Sappho as the overarching symbol of feminine discourse, portraying her as the original, finest, and most defiantly personal female poet of all time.

David Sider (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Sider, David. “Sappho 168B Voight: Δέbχε μεν α Σελαννα.” Eranos 84 (1986): 57-68.

[In the following essay, Sider discusses multiple poetic meanings of the term “ôra” in the Sapphic fragment designated as 168B Voight.]

Δέδυχε μὲν ἀ Σελάννα
χαὶ Πληiαδεs· μέσαι δὲ
νύχτεs, παϱὰ δ' ἔϱχετ' Ὤϱα,
ἔγω δὲ μόνα χατεύδω.(1)

Recent discussion of this poem has concentrated on the meaning of ôra, scholars as usual arguing for only one of the possible meanings the word may have: (i) hour of the night, i.e., the night itself (“nottata”);2 (ii) fixed time (for meeting one's lover);3 (iii) indefinite period of time, i.e., “time passes;”4 (iv) ἥβη, flos aetatis, referring to Sappho's own life;5 (v) φυλαaή, a watch in the night.6 Rather surprisingly, nobody has argued for the word's basic meaning, season of the year (hôra is cognate with year/Jahr), although, as I shall show, two learned poets have so interpreted the poem (see below, n. 13). The approach to the problem has been a somewhat circular one: to survey Greek (and other) literature for situations said to be parallel to the one described here in order to determine which meaning is most appropriate.7 But all that has been demonstrated by this discussion and disagreement is that no meaning is obviously inapplicable or inappropriate. My approach will differ from earlier ones in that I shall begin with the poem itself, noting its development clause by clause, in order to show that it is the poem itself rather than the rest of Greek literature that determines the range of meanings connoted by ôra.

In the first line we learn that the moon has set for the night; with the next two words we also learn that “the Pleiades have set.” But the latter phrase, in one form or another, appears frequently in the sense that the Pleiades have had their cosmical setting in November, hereby marking the end of the sailing season and the onset of winter.8 This sense is so prevalent that we are very artfully led by this syllepsis to feel that the Pleiades have both set for the night and set for the season. An ancient reader would know immediately that it was midwinter,9 for as the time of the Pleiades' setting below the horizon before sunrise occurs earlier and earlier every day after the cosmical setting, it will not be before late January or early February that Sappho can say at midnight that the Pleiades have set, in both senses.

From the first two and a half lines, therefore, we learn that the sky is dark10 and that the night is cold. Surely this weather report cannot be entirely objective: Sappho's remarks upon the external darkness and cold must derive from and reflect a feeling of a more subjective gloom. Some proof that this is indeed the case may be found both in the use of δύω, which often appears as a metaphor for human life,11 and in the fact that it is female deities who are said to have passed from their position of glory in the sky.12

From these three senses of δέδυχε derive three equivalent senses of ôra: (a) the time of the night (δ. with Selanna), (b) the season of the year (δ. with Pleiades),13 and (c) the passing of Sappho's life (the metaphorical sense of δ.). It is ôra in this last sense in fact that both crystallizes the inchoate personal feelings underlying the first three lines and acts as a glide between the astronomical description of the poem's beginning and its intensely personal last line. After some (few?) nights of sleeping alone, Sapho sees her life passing; perhaps, given μέσαι δὲ νύaτεs, having passed its midpoint.14

I conclude, therefore, that all three meanings discussed here are called forth in the poem.


  1. Fr. 94 Diehl = fr. 52 Bergk. Although I regard the poem as Sappho's, whether it was in fact written by her is not of concern here, and hardly (see below, n. 10) affects the argument. For a review of the controversy over authorship, see M. Treu, Sappho (Munich 1968) 211 f.; D. Clay, “Fragmentum Adespotum 976,” TAPA 101 (1970) 119-129; B. Marzullo, Gnomon 50 (1978) 711 f. Lobel and Page did not admit it into Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta (cf. Page JHS 78 [1958] 84 f.), but they seem to have made few converts; the poem has since appeared in E.-M. Voight, Sappho et Alcaeus (Amsterdam 1971).

  2. P. Lunák, “De Sapphus Fragm. 52 Commentariolum,” WS 40 (1918) 97-102 (whose sense of the poem is destroyed by his insertion of οὐ before aατεύδω); B. Marzullo, Studi di poesia eolica (Florence 1958) 41 ff.; P. Berrettoni, “Per una lettura linguistica di un frammento di poesia eolica,” SCO 19-20 (1970) 254-269 (who cannot decide between this meaning and (iii) below); Clay 128.

  3. V. Longo, “Aristofane e un'interpretazione di Saffo,” Maia 6 (1953) 220-223; H. Hoffmann-Loss, “Die Bedeutung von Ὤϱα in Δέδυχε μὲν ἀ σελάννα,” Mnemosyne 21 (1968) 347-356.

  4. L. Massa Positano, Saffo (Naples 1967) 164 f.

  5. B. Lavagnini, Nuova antologia dei frammenti della lirica greca (Torino 1932) 184 ff.

  6. P. Maas, “Zum griechischen Wortschatz,” Mélanges Émile Boisacq 2 = AIPhO 6 (1938) 131 f., identifies the word as Ὤϱα (A) in LSJ, a variant of the stem found in οὖϱοs = φύλαξ; cf. EM 117, 18. Treu translates as Warten, but argues in his commentary as though for (ii) above in the sense of aαιϱόs—a lack of clarity he admits apud Hoffmann-Loss 350 n. 2.

  7. E.g., Longo argues for “appointed time” largely on the basis of the similarity to Sappho 168B of A.P. 5.150 (Asclepiades X Gow-Page): Niko promised to come this night but has not, φυλαaὴ δὲ παϱοίχεται.

  8. A constellation is said to set when it is seen to set for the first time that year at sunrise; cf. M. L. West, Hesiod. Works and Days (Oxford 1978) 379 f. The Pleiades “rise” in mid-May, marking the beginning of the sailing season. That the dates of their rising and setting were known to all hardly calls for demonstration; I refer only to Hes. Op. 383 f., with West's notes ad loc.

  9. See the last note, and compare the way in which Theocritus implies the season of the year at 7.52 ff. (with Gow's note). Berrettoni 256 infers from the poem's beginning that “la notte è serena” (in contrast to the last line, where “l'animo è turbato”), but it should be noted that the setting of the Pleiades was traditionally associated with rain and wintry storms; cf. Hes. Op. 319 ff., Democr. B 14.3 (VS 2.143), Antipater Thess. XXXVII Gow-Page (A.P. 11.31).

  10. If the moon set not long before midnight, the night would have been illuminated by only a half moon—a fact worth noting also because thrice among Sappho's exiguous remains beautiful girls are likened to the full moon: (i) fr. 34 σελάννα … ὄπποτα πλήθοισα, (ii) fr. 154 πλήϱηs … ἀ σελάννα, and (iii) fr. 96.6 ff.

    νῦν δὲ Λύδαισιν ἐμπϱέπεται γυναί-
    χεσσν Ὤs ποτ' ἀελίω
    δύντοs ἀ βϱοδοδάχτυλοs σελάννα [Schubart μήνα ms.]
    πάντα πεϱϱέχοιοσ' ἄστϱαέ,

    where the moon seen first at sunset is a full moon, which also helps to explain the ποτε that has puzzled the commentators looking for a nightly occurrence. For an explanation of the moon's reddish appearance when first rising, see. I. Waern, “Flora Sapphica,” Eranos 70 (1972) 4.

    Note the converse to Sappho 168B: Housman, Last Poems 26, “The half-moon westers low, my love,” entails that the time of speaking is approximately midnight.

  11. Aesch. Ag. 1123 βίου δύντοs αὐγαῖs, Arist. Poet. 1457b25 τò γῆϱαs έσπέϱαν βίου e δυσμὰs βίου, Pl. Laws 770a, 781c, Callim. Ep. 20.1-2.

  12. Selanna with article presents fewer problems in Aeolic if it is regarded as a proper noun, as Aeolic permits this construction elsewhere: Sappho fr. 168, Alcaeus fr. 338, 349; cf. E. Lobel, 'Αλχαίου Μέλη (Oxford 1927) lxxxvii f.; T. Clay 123 f; McEvilley, “Sapphic Imagery and Fr. 96,” Hermes 101 (1973) 262. Note that in one of his renderings of this poem, Housman, More Poems 11, introduces the male Orion: “The rainy Pleiads wester, / Orion plunges prone, / The stroke of midnight ceases, / And I lie down alone.” For the Pleiades and Orion's setting signalling the onset of winter's storms, cf. Hes Op. 619-21 (cf. above, n. 9).

  13. This seems to have been understood not only by Housman (see last note) but also by Asclepiades XLII Gow-Page (A.P. 5.189) νὺξ μαχϱὴχαὶ χεῖμα, †μέσην δ' ἐπὶ Πλειάδα δύνει (χεῖμα μέσον, Πλειὰs δὲ δέδυχεν Ludwig Gnomon 38 [1966] 23; Ludwig recognizes that this line implies that “es is um Mitternacht”).

  14. Thus we can answer Treu's question (212), warum soll die [sc. Jugendblüte] gerade nach Mitternacht schwinden? Similarly, Marzullo 35 f., who objects to Lavagnini's interpretation on the grounds that a mere description of the heavens would not lead to Ὤϱα = ἥβη, and who wants to see the first sign of personal concern in ἔγω.

Principal Works

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Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta (edited by Edgar Lobel and Denys Page) 1955

The Odes, Fragments, and Epigrams of Sappho; With the Original Greek Plac'd Opposite to the Translation (translated by John Addison in his The Works of Anacreon) 1735

”Sapphic Fragments” (translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in his Poems) 1870

Sappho: Selected Renderings, and a Literal Translation (translated by Henry Thornton Wharton) 1885

Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics (translated by Bliss Carman) 1907

The Poems of Sappho (translated by Edwin Marion Cox) 1924

The Songs of Sappho (translated by Marion Mills Miller and David M. Robinson) 1925

Sappho: The Poems and Fragments (translated by C. R. Haines) 1926

Sappho: A New Translation (translated by Mary Barnard) 1958

Sappho: Lyrics in the Original Greek with Translations (translated by Willis Barnstone) 1965

Sappho: Poems and Fragments (translated by Guy Davenport) 1965

Sappho: Love Songs (translated by Paul Roche) 1966

The Poems of Sappho (translated by Suzy Q. Groden) 1967

”Sappho” (translated by Guy Davenport in his Archilochos, Sappho, Alkman: Three Lyric Poets of the Late Greek Bronze Age) 1980

Sappho: Poems and Fragments (translated by Josephine Balmer) 1992

Sappho: A Garland, the Poems and Fragments of Sappho (translated by Jim Powell) 1993

Sappho: Poems (translated by Sasha Newborn) 1993

Love Songs of Sappho (translated by Paul Roche) 1998

Joan DeJean (essay date summer 1987)

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SOURCE: DeJean, Joan. “Fictions of Sappho.” Critical Inquiry 13, no. 4 (summer 1987): 787-805.

[In the following essay, DeJean probes Ovid's fictionalization of Sappho in his Heroides as an abandoned woman who kills herself because of unrequited love.]

… [In] the Heroides, … Ovid recounts tale after tale of women abandoned by unfaithful lovers. Ovid's fiction is a prime example of the complicity between female humiliation and canonical positioning … for the Heroides concludes with a vignette that makes plain the bond between physical abandonment and critical appropriation. Ovid transfigures the original woman writer, Sappho, into the archetypal abandoned woman. He portrays Sappho's physical humiliation as both a necessary prelude to her acceptance into the canon of great writers and as the action that empowers him to speak in her name. I would like to suggest the possibility that Ovid fabricated a legend of Sappho in response to what were for him the threatening aspects of the vision of poetic creation she presented, in the hope of making her poetry work, as it were, against its author, to discredit both her person and her poetic authority. Before I discuss the process through which Ovid transformed literary mother into abandoned woman, I would like to review briefly the aspects of Sappho's biography and of her literary production that could have set this transfiguration in motion.

Sappho's commentators have responded in particular to her presentation of the context of poetic creation. Sappho consistently portrays both the composition and the performance of her verse as an exchange among women, as the product of a female community whose members were united by bonds both personal and professional. Her oeuvre is most famous and most notorious because of its celebration of a type of female friendship that commentators try to understand through reference to the biographical scenario they promote for Sappho. Commentators thus most often consider Sapphic friendship solely in terms of what they believe to be its sexual content and react to the subject with moral condemnation, or sympathetic defense, or even attempts to deny the sexual content of her poetry. Yet this female bond can be considered in purely literary terms as an attempt to bypass male literary authority and to deny men any primary role in the process of poetic creation. Sappho presents poetic creation as a gift handed down from woman to woman, as literature written by women for other women. In this poetic universe, males are relegated to a peripheral, if not an intrusive, role. Most strikingly—and this, I contend, constitutes the central threat of Sappho's creation for canonic critics such as Ovid—the Sapphic narrator, a woman, assumes what is generally a male prerogative. She is the desiring subject and controls the gaze that objectifies the beloved woman, thereby giving the poem its visual focus and creating its geometry of desire.

Let us consider briefly what is perhaps Sappho's most celebrated poem, the ode widely known in English by the apocryphal title “To a Beloved Girl” (and in French as “A l'aimée”). Here is the poem in a recent French translation by Edith Mora. (I will provide only French translations of Sappho because the feminine forms essential to my argument are retained in French.)

Il égale les dieux je crois
l'homme qui devant toi vient s'asseoir
et qui tout près de toi entend
ta voix tendre
et ton rire enchanteur qui a, je le jure,
affolé mon coeur dans ma poitrine
Car si je te vois un instant je ne peux
plus rien dire
ma langue est brisée, sous ma peau
un feu subtil soudain se glisse
mes yeux ne voient plus, mes oreilles sont
une sueur glacée me couvre et un tremblement
me prend toute et je suis plus verte
que l'herbe, tout près de mourir
il me semble …
Mais il faut tout oser car même abandonnée …(1)

The poem recounts what appears at first to be a rather banal story: the narrator is a voyeur, observing from a distance the woman who is the object of desire while this woman demonstrates her love for a man. For today's reader and for readers at least as early as Ovid's day, however, there is something “wrong” with the scene of love reciprocal and frustrated that is staged in the poem. The triangle of desire inscribed there is unlike either of those formations that literary portrayals of love have schooled the reader to expect. The narrator's femininity is not immediately stressed, so that the presence of a feminine adjective (“je suis plus verte”) in the poem's second half can come as a shock, an invasion. This woman is a usurper, for she has displaced the male from his role as viewer in the most common literary love triangle in which a man sees the woman he loves in the arms of another man. However, the triangle configured after this displacement can in no way be confused with what has become the stereotypical literary love triangle composed by two women and one man, in which one woman laments her abandonment for the other woman.

To judge from responses to her poetry over the centuries, Sappho's (re)configuration of the plot of love, the triangle of desire that she proposes, was the source of the threat she has so often constituted for canonic critics. Sappho usurps for her female narrator the control over the gaze that is normally a male domain. I realize that it is impossible to reconstitute the original “horizon of expectations” for erotic poetry and that her poetry may well predate the stereotypes I have in mind, yet the axiom Luce Irigaray posits, that “the prevalance of the gaze” has always been “particularly foreign to female eroticism,” in all likelihood predates those stereotypes as well.2 When Sappho put a woman in the place reserved for the male poet-lover, she initiated a pattern in the economy of desire that many “strong” male writers have tried to overturn. Poets like Catullus (in his Ode 51) and Ronsard (in his ‘Je suis un demy-dieu”) propose a masculine reconfiguration of Sappho's erotic geometry in which a male narrator controls the gaze and has regained control over the beloved woman. Poets like Ovid … elect instead the fictionalization of Sappho, a process by which they make Sappho's poetry of desire a tool in the displacement of the desiring female subject from a position of control.

The complicated process by which Sappho became an exemplar of rejected female passion was initiated in antiquity. The legends about Sappho's life that were then formulated time and again took a recurrent form: biographers imagined that a series of mythical (or in some cases dubiously historical) figures could be seen as doubles for Sappho. The least troubling of these doubling fictions are those in which the Sappho character is something like a line-by-line copy of the original. Thus Philostratus cites the example of a “clever woman” Damophyla who “was said to have had girl companions like Sappho, and to have composed love-poems just as she did.” More intriguing are the doubles who bear Sappho's name generally without sharing either her poetic gift or her sexual preferences. The doubles in this category are either courtesans or, in Lipking's terms, abandoned women, in this case, women betrayed by their male lovers. Aelian, for example, alleges the presence in Lesbos in Sappho's day of another woman named Sappho, a courtesan. To these legends of the courtesan double should be linked the sources from antiquity accusing Sappho herself of having been a prostitute.3 Those who do not make Sappho a lover of many men rather than of many women describe her double as wild with love for one man, a male lover whose betrayal drives her to commit suicide by leaping from a cliff. Witness the account in the ancient lexicon, the Suda, of this other Sappho: “a Lesbian of Mytilene, a lyre player. She threw herself from the Leucadian Cliff for love of Phaon the Mytilenaean. Some authorities say that she, too, was a lyric poetess.”

All early attempts to forge a biography for Sappho are troubling because of the recurrent tendency to replace the original woman writer with a pair of Sapphos. This doubling makes it possible to distinguish, for example, between a female sexuality judged unorthodox, even disreputable, and a respectable female sexuality, or even between female sexuality and poetic genius. This splitting, though it may originally have been inspired by a desire to separate a sexually disreputable Sappho from the poet and thereby protect the poet from criticism, provided nevertheless the basis for subsequent fictions of Sappho in which the desire to domesticate both woman and writer is evident. The repeated disjuncture between the female desiring subject and the female poetic subject can always therefore be seen as a more or less articulate response to the dual threat of sapphism and of Sappho's subversive poetic genius.

Let us examine just one example of the fictionalization of Sappho in order to reconfigure the triangle of desire created by her poetry, a process Mora has referred to as “remodeling the erotic face” of Sappho's poetry.4 Many scholars today believe that, in some poem or poems now lost to us, Sappho must have evoked a certain Phaon. They believe that she was naming not an actual individual but perhaps a mythical figure, the ferryman Phaon who was said to have transported an old woman without remuneration. The old woman revealed herself to be Aphrodite and, to thank Phaon for his generosity, transformed him into a perfectly handsome young man. The goddess then proceeded to fall so madly in love with Phaon that she tried to hide him to keep him from other women. It is probable, however, that Sappho used the name Phaon simply as a symbol, to designate the name's root meaning, the light. Phaon, as Gregory Nagy has demonstrated, is another name, a doublet, for Phaethon.5 In this context, let me reiterate part of Lipking's argument: he contrasts the female fear of abandonment with “masculine fantasies and myths [that] compulsively reenact the rise and fall of Phaethon, his premature ambition and precipitate plunge.” You will remember that, anxious to be recognized as a legitimate son of Phoebus, Phaethon begs his father to let him drive the chariot of the sun for a day. But he is unable to dominate the horses, and they veer wildly out of control. In order to protect the earth from conflagration, Zeus is obliged to hit Phaethon with a thunderbolt, and he plummets to his death. Lipking does not specify the “masculine fantasies” he has in mind, but the desire of the son to put himself in Phoebus' place and his failure to carry out his father's role could figure a male fear of sexual inadequacy—a fear that the young man's sexual rite of passage will not be successfully accomplished, that the son will not live up to his father's example.

We can only guess at the explanation of Sappho's invocation of Phaon/Phaethon. Howard Jacobson sums up the prudent stance on this issue: “It is generally believed that Sappho alluded to the mythical Phaon in some such way that later readers were able to misinterpret it (willfully?) as a personal relationship.”6 I will break with critical prudence and allow myself a moment of speculation in an attempt to account for the violence prominent in subsequent fictions of the archetypal woman writer that center on her involvement with Phaon. Given all surviving examples of Sappho's poetry, it seems unlikely that Phaon figured as part of one scenario of female abandonment consistently stressed by canonic critics, the plot in which, as in the ferryman-Aphrodite legend that supports Lipking's theory, the young man deserts the older woman. It is possible that Sappho's biographers from antiquity (willfully?) read a more personal reference to Phaon/Phaethon into a reference to the luminosity at the root of these names. They could have decided that Sappho had introduced Phaon/Phaethon to suggest the limits of male hubris. The persistent attempt to humiliate Sappho could therefore have been a response to the specter of male (literary) inadequacy her poetry was thought to represent. The Sapphic narrator, after all, displaces male desire by dominating the erotic gaze. Furthermore, Sappho herself was viewed as a primal voice of personal passion, a literary force that deprived male writers of preeminence in a domain crucial to erotic poetry and later to prose fiction. The male author who makes the actual Sappho rather than her double, the lyre player from Mytilene, commit suicide for love of a man named Phaon triply reassures his male audience: the desiring woman rejects her love for women; the woman writer loses her poetic gift; and Phaon/Phaethon is triumphant and completes his sexual rite of passage, while the older woman is hurled into the sea in his place. I would like now to examine several fictions of Sappho, notably Ovid's canonical fiction, to present the way in which male writers take revenge on Sappho in the name of Phaon/Phaethon. I imitate the focus of these canonic critics and will therefore limit my consideration of Sappho's poetry to the triangle of desire central to her poem “A l'aimée” and my consideration of Sappho's biography to what has been alleged to be its final scene, her leap from the White Rock of Leukas.7


Ovid's Heroides is a collection of fictive epistles addressed by women to men, for the most part to men who have betrayed their love and abandoned them for other women. With this collection, Ovid, like his heirs Richardson and Rousseau, established both a model for epistolarity and a model for women's writing. The mark of his craft is his apparent lack of control. The female style as he defines it is instinctive. In the Heroides, Ovid maintains a complicated stance with respect to the heroines whose voices he re-creates. He reverses the narrative focus of traditional accounts, where attention is centered on the male as a nexus of continued adventures, to allow women previously condemned to silence to present their sides of well-known tales. Yet they are given a voice only to try to win back unfaithful lovers and to complain of their solitary pain. Ovid establishes a model for canonic critics by standardizing and simplifying the plot of female passion. Women write, in Ovid's model, only in abandonment, only spontaneous cries from the heart, uncontrolled outpourings of unrequited passion. Thus the shepherdess Oenone blames Paris because he has deserted her for Helen, and Ariadne condemns Theseus for having left her alone in her “abandoned bed.”8

Ovid brings together the most famous abandoned women of classical literature and legend. To this collection, he introduces a single historical figure, Sappho, whose epistle to Phaon brings the work to a close.9 For his portrait of the archetypal woman writer, Ovid consolidates biographical information from a variety of sources and creates a “Sappho” whose life conforms to the plots of the mythical heroines whose epistles precede hers. Yet nowhere in Sappho's passionate cry from the heart as Ovid imagines it does he draw the line between fact and fiction; nowhere does he indicate that, in her case alone of all the characters in the Heroides, is he dealing with a historical rather than a legendary figure. In short, Ovid never discloses that he is presenting a fiction of Sappho, enshrining the original woman writer as a male myth.10

“My name is already sung abroad in all the earth. … I am slight in stature, yet I have a name that fills every land; the measure of my name is my real height” (H 15.28, 33-34). When Ovid has Sappho thus proclaim the rewards of genius, his canonization of the woman writer is only granted in exchange for the debasement of Sappho first as woman and then as writer. Ovid's “Sappho” is a fiction remarkable above all for its taming of deviant female sexuality and its erasure of the female bond that was the inspiration for Sapphic poetic creation. Ovid has Sappho renounce what he presents as a youthful transgression—“my eyes joy not in Atthis as once they did, nor in the hundred other maids I have loved to my reproach” (“non sine crimine,” “not without blame or wrongdoing”) (H 15.18-20, my emphasis). His heroine has realized that one man is preferable to a multitude of women, to the female community celebrated by Sappho in her poetry: “the love that belonged to many maids you alone possess.” Furthermore, her acceptance of the superiority of an ars amatoria that resembles Ovid's own over that which she herself formerly preached has brought about her public humiliation. Ovid's Sappho is a madwoman (see H 15.139), consumed with a desire for a man who has betrayed her, a desire so strong that it “embarrasses” her, a desire that, like her lover, constantly betrays her: “Modesty and love are not at one. There was no one who did not see me; yet I rent my robe and laid bare my breast” (H 15.121-22).

For his allegedly “heroic” presentation of Sappho, Ovid portrays her not in full possession of her literary powers but at a time when her genius has been interrupted and her towering stature diminished: “My former power in song will not respond to the call; … mute for grief is my lyre” (H 15.197-98). Because she realizes that her writing is no longer recognizably hers, Sappho has recourse to what Foucault terms a nom d'auteur to authenticate this outpouring: “unless you had read their author's name, Sappho, would you have known whence these brief words come?” (H 15.1-4). In his vision of Sappho, Ovid poses her on top of the White Rock of Leukas, poised for the suicidal leap that she hopes will bring her much desired oblivion, the ability to forget the beautiful young man, Phaon, for whom she had abandoned her sapphism, and whose subsequent betrayal had silenced her poetic gift. Sappho's flagrant debasement is a form of expiation: Ovid uses Phaon to make her atone for the interrelated sins of having preferred many women to one man and of having achieved formidable literary status for her celebration of a feminocentric world. He grants her a signature, an author's name (“auctoris nomina Sapphus”), but only once she has lost control over herself and her passion.

In the final image of this inaugural fiction of the woman poet, Sappho declares that, unless her letter provokes a quick response from her unfaithful lover, she will “seek [her] fate in the Leucadian wave” (H 15.220). In the Amores, Ovid alludes to a possible reply from Phaon, but such a letter, like the responses invented in the seventeenth century to the letters of the Portuguese nun, is an impossible fiction: Sappho can win no stay of execution. In his account of the White Rock of Leukas, Ovid's contemporary, Strabo, mentions both Sappho's alleged suicide and an ancient cult practice associated with the cliff: “Every year, … some criminal was cast down from the white rock into the sea below for the sake of averting evil.”11 This ritual sacrifice followed a model, as René Girard has analyzed, frequently chosen in antiquity for scapegoats.12 Sappho's leap into water is the crucial moment in Ovid's rewriting of her biography, for it completes the exorcism of her inadmissible sexuality. His fictional Sappho functions as a scapegoat since her suicidal leap guarantees the continuing orderly functioning of life inside the literary city. This gesture purifies her and serves as a necessary prelude to her acceptance as a canonical author. By lending his authority to the fiction of Sappho's suicide, Ovid completed her baptism as “mascula Sappho,” a phrase coined by his contemporary Horace in his first epistle (composed during the same period as one of the most influential canon-forming texts of antiquity, his Ars poetica). The adjective has been seen as a commentary on Sappho's authoritative prosody,13 but it can also signify the discrediting of her sexuality and the severing of her ties to a female tradition. “Masculine” or “manlike” Sappho: Sappho domesticated (made to follow a “normal” sexual scenario); Sappho naturalized (portrayed as a great author according to a male literary model).

Furthermore, Ovid's fiction of Sappho illustrates perfectly the process to which I alluded earlier by which Sappho's poetry of desire is used to displace the female subject from a position of control. Both Jacobson and Mora uncover numerous Sapphic echoes and actual citations from Sappho's poems in Ovid's fictive epistle.14 Most notable is the passage (H 15.110-13) based on the celebrated images from “To a Beloved Girl” that evoke the physical power of the narrator's desire for another woman: here they are used to convey the extent of the humiliation suffered by the woman when the man who had at last taught her the full force of desire abandons her. When Ovid makes the object of Sappho's passion a man, he simultaneously recovers for men the right to make women suffer in love, and recovers for the male writer the right to portray the force and torments of female desire. Ovid's vision proved so attractive—so useful, I am tempted to say—that it successfully dominated public opinion of Sappho for nearly nineteen centuries, to such an extent that only recently have scholars attempted to set the record straight.15


  1. Edith Mora, Sappho: Histoire d'un poete et traduction integrale de l'oeuvre (Paris, 1966), p. 371.

  2. Luce Irigaray, “This Sex Which Is Not One,” trans. Claudia Reeder, in New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (New York, 1980), p. 101.

  3. On classical references to Sappho, see Mora's informative study Sappho, esp. pp. 16, 129. The Philostratus quotation is from his Life of Apollonius of Tyana, the Aelian reference from his Historical Miscellanies.

  4. Mora, Sappho, p. 137; my translation.

  5. See Gregory Nagy, “Phaethon, Sappho's Phaon, and the White Rock of Leukas,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77 (1973).

  6. Howard Jacobson, Ovid's “Heroides” (Princeton, N.J., 1974), p. 281 n. 22. Marguerite Yourcenar offers a reconstruction of the process by which Phaon could have been identified with Sappho in La Couronne et la lyre (Paris, 1979), p. 72.

  7. On the basis of the surviving examples of the Greek literary motif of falling from a white rock, Nagy concludes that “falling from the white rock is parallel to falling into a swoon—be it from intoxication or from making love” (“Phaethon,” p. 142). Even the place chosen for Sappho's suicide could therefore be viewed as an attempt to use her poetry against her: her leap from the White Rock of Leukas would be a fitting revenge against the poet who inaugurated the evocation of the physical power of love, the poet who made the swoon of love the central image of “A l'aimée.”

  8. Ovid Heroides (Loeb Classical Library, trans. Grant Showerman), 10.14; all further references to this work, abbreviated H, will be included in the text. On occasion, I modify Showerman's translation.

  9. I follow Jacobson's practice of considering the first fifteen epistles independently from the six “double letters” usually printed with them. The authenticity of the Sappho herois was for a long time the subject of dispute. Jacobson, who like most recent commentators considers the poem genuine, rehearses the arguments made by both sides in the debate over its authenticity (see Ovid's “Heroides,” p. 277).

  10. The critical economy of this essay forces me to set aside discussion of two questions that merit continued debate, the alleged feminism of Ovid's position in the Heroides and what I see as a related issue, his wit in this work. On the latter point, see especially Florence Verducci, Ovid's Toyshop of the Heart: Epistulae Herodium (Princeton, N.J., 1985). In general I feel that criticism focused on Ovid's wit distracts from the complexity of Ovid's involvement with Sappho. I do not intend my reading as confirmation of Ovid's hostility to women or to unconventional sexuality. Critics have long been sensitive to the exceptional quality of the voice Ovid adopts in the Sappho herois (see Jacobson, Ovid's “Heroides,” p. 286). I would argue—although to do so adequately would necessitate an extensive excursion into Ovid's work—that Ovid lent his authority to the most extreme fiction of Sappho because of his own alarming proximity to his female precursor. Ovid becomes Sappho for the space of the fifteenth herois—and he uses Sappho's leap to exorcise the transvested ventriloquism that threatens to usurp his own literary authority.

  11. Nagy, “Phaethon,” p. 141.

  12. See René Girard, “Generative Violence and the Extinction of Social Order,” Salmagundi 63-64 (Spring/Summer 1984): 216.

  13. See Marie-Jo Bonnet, Un Choix sans équivoque: recherches historiques sur les relations amoreuses entre les femmes, XVIe-XXe siècle (Paris, 1981), p. 28.

  14. See Jacobson, Ovid's “Heroides,” pp. 280-85; Mora, Sappho, p. 83.

  15. In addition to Marguerite Yourcenar's and Edith Mora's studies, see also Bonnet, Un Choix sans équivoque, and Mary R. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Ancient Poets (Baltimore, 1981).

Further Reading

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Andreadis, Harriette. Sappho in Early Modern England: Female Same-Sex Literary Erotics 1550-1714. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001, 254 p.

Invokes the status of Sappho as an icon of female same-sex eroticism to study aspects of this phenomena in sixteenth- through eighteenth-century England.

Bergmann, Emilie L. “Fictions of Sor Juana/Fictions of Sappho.” Confluencia: Revista Hispanica de Cultura y Literatura 9, no. 2 (spring 1994): 9-15.

Applies Joan DeJean's theories of the role of the feminine in male poetic discourse outlined in her Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937 to a study of works by Latin writers Octavio Paz and Sor Juana.

Bigwood, Carol. “Sappho: The She-Greek Heidegger Forgot.” In Feminist Interpretations of Martin Heidegger, edited by Nancy J. Holland and Patricia Huntington, pp. 165-95. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.

Considers unusual affinities between the poetry of Sappho and the thought of Martin Heidegger.

Blank, Paula. “Comparing Sappho to Philaenis: John Donne's ‘Homopoetics.’” PMLA 110, no. 3 (May 1995): 358-68.

Interprets Donne's poem “Sappho to Philaenis” in the context of homoerotic desire.

Bonnet, Marie-Jo. “Sappho, or the Importance of Culture in the Language of Love.” In Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality, edited by Anna Livia and Kira Hall, pp. 147-66. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Traces the development of the terminology and symbolism of female homosexuality from Sappho to the end of the twentieth century.

Christy, Angela. “The Mary Barnard Translation of Sappho.” Paideuma 23, no. 1 (spring 1994): 25-63.

Evaluates the accuracy and style of Mary Barnard's English translations of Sapphic verse in her Sappho: A New Translation (1958).

Collecott, Diana. H.D. and Sapphic Modernism,. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, 350 p.

Uses the Sapphic fragments as evocative intertexts in the study of the poetry of Hilda Doolittle.

DeJean, Joan. Introduction to Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937, pp. 1-28. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Surveys and analyzes the profound influence of Sappho on the French literary tradition.

Goldensohn, Lorrie. “‘The Speech of Her Stringed Shell’: Mary Barnard's Sappho.” Paideuma 23, no. 1 (spring 1994): 13-22.

Praises Barnard's translations of Sapphic verse in her Sappho: A New Translation.

Harvey, Elizabeth D. “Ventriloquizing Sappho: Ovid, Donne, and the Erotics of the Feminine Voice.” Criticism 31, no. 2 (spring 1989): 115-38.

Studies John Donne's adaptation of Sappho's classical, feminine poetic voice in his “Sappho to Philaenis.”

Kaminsky, Amy. “The Construction of Immortality: Sappho, Saint Theresa and Caroline Coronado.” Letras Femeninas 19, no. 1-2 (spring-fall 1993): 1-13.

Highlights the resonance of Sapphic legend in nineteenth-century Spanish literary feminism.

Mason, Hugh J. “The Literature of Classical Lesbos and the Fiction of Stratis Myrivilis.” Classical and Modern Literature 9, no. 4 (summer 1989): 347-57.

Explores echoes of Sapphic verse in the writings of the twentieth-century Greek novelist Stratis Myrivilis.

McGann, Jerome. “Mary Robinson and the Myth of Sappho.” Modern Language Quarterly 56, no. 1 (March 1995): 55-76.

Examines how Mary Robinson's 1796 drama Sappho and Phaon introduces Sappho's writing and myth to the poetics of sensibility.

Moore, Lisa L. Dangerous Intimacies: Toward a Sapphic History of the British Novel. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997, 191 p.

Uses Sappho as a cipher for female homoeroticism in studying fiction by British women writers.

Most, Glenn W. “Reflecting Sappho.” In Re-Reading Sappho: Reception and Transmission, edited by Ellen Greene, pp. 11–35. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Chronicles shifting popular and literary perceptions about Sappho's work from antiquity to the contemporary era.

Naafs-Wilstra, Marianne C. “Indo-European ‘Dichtersprache’ in Sappho and Alcaeus.” Journal of Indo-European Studies 15, no. 3-4 (fall-winter 1987): 273-83.

Probes the poetic diction of Sappho and her contemporary Alcaeus to find evidence of an Aeolian tradition independent of the Ionian epic mode of Homer.

O'Connor, Desmond. “From Venus to Proserpine: ‘Sappho's Last Song.’” Rivista di Studi Italiani 14, no. 2 (December 1998): 438-53.

Investigates the influence of Sapphic poetry and legend on the nineteenth-century Italian writer Giacomo Leopardi.

Petropoulos, J. C. B. “Sappho the Sorceress—Another Look at Fr. 1 (LP).” Zeischrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 97 (1993): 43–56.

Analyzes Sappho's “Hymn to Aphrodite” as a magical prayer or incantation akin to a love spell.

Powell, Jim. “Afterwords.” TriQuarterly 86 (winter 1992–93): 244–58.

Comments on the poet's life, versification, style, and the textual and critical history of her works.

Prins, Yopie. Victorian Sappho. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999, 279 p.

Feminist study of the reception of Sappho's poetry in Victorian England, which claims that “Sappho influenced the gendering of lyric as a feminine genre.”

Race, William H. “Sappho Fr. 16 L-P. and Alkaios Fr. 42 L-P.: Romantic and Classical Strains in Lesbian Poetry.” Classical Journal 85, no. 1 (1989): 16-33.

Contrasts fragments of verse by Sappho and her contemporary Alcaeus (Alkaios), suggesting that Sappho's work prefigures aspects of English Romanticism, while that of Alcaeus evokes echoes of Homer and Pindar.

———. “Some Visual Priamels from Sappho to Richard Wilbur and Raymond Carver.” Classical and Modern Literature 20, no. 4 (fall 2000): 3-17.

Defines the poetic priamel, a series of seemingly unrelated, often paradoxical statements brought together in verse, and mentions its famous use in Sappho's sixteenth fragment.

Reynolds, ed., Margaret. The Sappho Companion, edited by Margaret Reynolds. London: Chatto & Windus, 2000, 422 p.

Collects and investigates some of the myriad legends, references, and metaphors associated with Sappho from throughout the western tradition.

Richards, David. “Swinburne and Sappho.” Notes and Queries 246, no. 2 (June 2001): 155-58.

Documents English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne's reverence for Sappho and her poetry.

Slings, S. R. “Sappho Fr. 1, 8 V.: Golden House or Golden Chariot?” Mnemosyne 44, no. 3-4 (1991): 404-10.

Comments on grammatical ambiguity in Sappho's ancient Greek verse.

Vanita, Ruth. “The Sapphic Sublime and Romantic Lyricism.” In Sappho and the Virgin Mary: Same-Sex Love and the English Literary Imagination, pp. 37-61. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Surveys Sappho's influence, as both poet and myth, on English Romantic poetry.

West, William N. “Thinking with the Body: Sappho's ‘Sappho to Philaenis,’ Donne's ‘Sappho to Philaenis.’” Renaissance Papers (1994): 67-83.

Explicates John Donne's poem “Sappho to Philaenis” as part of the tradition of masculine appropriations of Sappho's poetic voice.

Additional coverage of Sappho's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Vol. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 176; Discovering Authors 3.0; Discovering Authors Modules, Poetry Edition; Literature Resource Center; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 5; Reference Guide to World Literature (St. James Press, an imprint of Gale), eds. 2, 3; World Poets (Charles Scribner's Sons, an imprint of Gale).

Joan DeJean (essay date September 1987)

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SOURCE: DeJean, Joan. “Female Voyeurism: Sappho and Lafayette.” Rivista di Letterature moderne e comparate 40, no. 3 (September 1987): 201-15.

[In the following essay, DeJean concentrates on Sappho's resistance to the objectifying male erotic gaze in favor of a poetic vision that reflects feminine desire.]

«Within [the logic that has dominated the West since the time of the Greeks], the gaze is particularly foreign to female eroticism […]. [Womans] entry into a dominant scopic economy signifies […] her consignment to passivity: she is to be the beautiful object of contemplation» (25-6). In This Sex Which is Not One, Luce Irigaray offers this categorical denunciation of an erotic economy dominated by the gaze. It could be objected that she follows too closely the logic that, from the time of the Greeks, has decreed that, since desire operates through the eyes, Woman should not be allowed to look directly on the male. However, Irigaray offers a challenge to this axiom dictating acceptable female behavior. She argues that «Woman's desire [does not] speak the same language as man's», that «Woman takes pleasure more from touching than from looking» (25-6). According to her theory, there is no need to forbid the gaze to women, for women do not speak their desire through the eyes.

And why would they want to? The gaze, Irigaray argues, is the instrument of a pleasure that is as restricted as it is restricting. «Can pleasure be measured, bounded, triangulated, or not?» (10), she queries. Behind her question is a never explicitly formulated attack on the concept articulated by René Girard, the triangulation of desire. In Girard's theory, male desire—in Girard's model, the desiring subject is always a man or a woman, like Emma Bovary, created by a man—is never original, but is inspired by the desire of a male rival. Both the functioning of the gaze as Irigaray presents it and the triangulation of desire act to objectif Woman, to deny her an active role in the economy of desire.

It seems logical to assume as Irigaray does that «Woman's desire does not speak the same language as a man's». However, what seems missing from Irigaray's reformulation of the language of desire is a reading of representations by women writers of the creation of a female erotic language. The gaze has been forbidden to women, but that does not mean that they have not used it. It may be that readers have not been sensitive to Woman's invasion of «the dominant scopic economy» because the female erotic gaze does not function according to the model that male representations have schooled us to expect. I would like to examine texts that contradict both Irigaray's description of Woman's relation to the gaze and her implicit critique of Woman's role in triangular desire. These are two of the founding texts of an erotic literature in which women authors portray a female desiring subject in the process of expressing her desire. These texts run counter to the logic Irigaray develops, according to which Woman situates herself outside the erotic geometry constructed with the gaze, for they depict Woman openly speaking her desire through the eyes. Furthermore, they suggest that there may also be a female variant or variants of the triangulation of desire: in both these texts, female desire expresses itself voyeuristically, through a gaze that is mediated, although in ways that are not recognizable on the basis of male-oriented discussions of the triangulation of desire.

The women's texts I have in mind also refute the rare portrayals by male authors of women who take an active role in «the dominant scopic economy». Let us begin to measure the originality of female representations by briefly considering Woman's fate in male texts. Without exception, male depictions of a female desiring subject who looks openly upon the object of her desire reveal that Woman adopts what is assumed to be a male language at her own risk.

Let me inaugurate the precarious historical balance I will maintain throughout this discussion by illustrating the male presentation of the female desiring subject with two examples, one classic (Greek) and one French neo-classic. In Greek tragedy, Woman is a dangerous speaking subject because she comes to language in order to speak about sexual desire. Nowhere is this more strikingly illustrated than in the work of Euripides, frequent inspiration for the French poet of Woman's passion, Racine. Recently, critics have begun to speak of Euripidean feminism to refer to his staging, especially in the character of Phaedra but also with his Medea and his other women wronged, of the discourse of female desire. However, that characterization is perhaps hasty, as is evident from the example of Euripedes' heir, Racine. No one expresses with more complexity the power of Woman's prise de parole and its threat to the social order than Racine. Racine establishes female desire as a dangerous force that must be annihilated when he portrays the desiring woman as active subject controlling the gaze, and when he allows her to propose a novel triangulation of desire, in which the object of desire is doubled, rather than the desiring subject.

Such early commentators on French neo-classical tragedy as Germaine de Staël's protégé Schlegel considered Euripides' rendering of Phaedra's tragedy superior to Racine's because of its more restrained portrayal of the heroine's expression of her desire. The most striking illustrations of what Schlegel terms the «shameful degradation» of Racine's Phèdre are the famous double scenes of Phèdre's avowal of her forbidden love for Hippolyte (I, 3, II, 5). In both instances, Racine pointedly inscribes the functioning of desire through the eyes—«je le vis, je rougis, je pâlis à sa vue»; «tel que je vous voi» (lines 273, 640). Phèdre is «shameful» because she refuses the founding classical dictate of female modesty which forbids her to look directly at a man. However, her degradation is even more complete in the second scene because, when she turns her desiring gaze on Hippolyte, she enriches the erotic present by conflating it with the erotic past. In addition, Phèdre triangulates her desire incestuously when she fractures the functioning of genealogy to see not the son's resemblance to his father but the father's resemblance to the son. She objectifies Hippolyte as the beautiful object of her contemplation, then endows him with her memories of his father's past: «[Thésée] avait votre port, vos yeux, votre langage, / […] Lorsque de notre Crète il traversa les flots» (lines 641, 643). It is this memorialization through and of the gaze, this use of the gaze to create an erotic scene in which past and present function simultaneously, that constitutes Racine's greatest insight into the gaze of the female desiring subject and into Woman's invasion of the «dominant scopic economy».

During the scene in which Phèdre uses her memorializing gaze to combine the seductive traits of father and son, displacing thereby both the legendary womanizer Thésée and the aspiring warrior Hippolyte from the male's customary place as organizer of love's geometry, she is still unaware of Hippolyte's love for Aricie. She therefore does not yet know that she has been assigned a place in a traditional love triangle, in which she plays the conventional role of older woman abandoned for younger woman. While Phèdre still believes that she has the power to rearrange the geometry of desire, Racine has her give voice to that desire on several occasions by borrowing from the original voice of women's erotic literature, Sappho. Most notably, for the moment at which Phèdre, brought low by her passion, memorializes her initiation into the transgressive role of desiring/gazing female—«je le vis», etc.—Racine's heroine speaks not with her own Racinian voice but with a virtual citation from what has been since Racine's day Sappho's most famous ode, the ode traditionally referred to by the French tradition as «A l'aimée». Racine's one major transformation of Sappho's original, his translation of Sappho's present tense into a past tense, may signal his recognition of memory's central place in Sappho's poetry of desire. The punishment Racine reserves for Phèdre, her suicide under the spectator's gaze, a flagrant violation of 17th-century theatrical practice, may also be an act of authorial revenge against Sappho, the female poet indecent enough to have dared both to appropriate the gaze for a desiring woman and to invent a female triangulation of desire.

Sappho's commentators through the ages have responded in particular to two characteristics of her work, her presentation of the context of poetic creation and her configuration of the plot of female passion. Sappho portrays both the composition and the performance of her verse as an exchange among women, as the product of a female community whose members are united by bonds both personal and professional. Her oeuvre is most famous and most notorious because of its celebration of a type of female friendship that commentators try to understand through reference to the biographical scenario they promote for Sappho. Commentators thus most often consider Sapphic friendship solely in terms of what they believe to be its sexual content and react to the subject with moral condemnation, or sympathetic defense, or even attempts to deny the sexual content of her poetry. Yet this female bond can also be considered in purely literary terms as an attempt to bypass male literary authority and to deny men any primary role in the process of poetic creation. Sappho presents poetic creation as literature written by women for other women and about other women. In this poetic universe, males are relegated to a peripheral, if not an intrusive, role. Most strikingly—and this, I contend, constitutes the central threat of Sappho's creation for male writers—the Sapphic narrator, a woman, assumes what is generally a male prerogative. She is the desiring subject. Because the object of her desire is also a woman, she is in control of the gaze that objectifies the beloved woman, thereby giving the poem its visual focus and creating its geometry of desire.

Let us consider the transgressive qualities of Sappho's use of the gaze in the poem cited by Racine, the ode «A l'aimée». Here is that scandalous ode in a recent, fairly literal French translation by Edith Mora. (I provide only a French translation because the feminine forms are retained in French).

Il égale les dieux je crois
l'homme qui devant toi vient s'asseoir
et qui tout près de toi entend
ta voix tendre
et ton rire enchanteur qui a, je le jure,
affolé mon coeur dans ma poitrine
Car si je te vois un instant je ne peux
plus rien dire
ma langue est brisée, sous ma peau
un feu subtil soudain se glisse
mes yeux ne voient plus, mes oreilles sont
une sueur glacée me couvre et un tremblement
me prend toute et je suis plus verte
que l'herbe, tout près de mourir
il me semble …
Mais il faut tout oser car même abandonnée …

The poem recounts what appears at first to be a conventional tale of the triangulation of desire: the narrator is a voyeur, observing from a distance the woman who is the object of desire while this woman is demonstrating her love for a man. However, for today's reader and for readers at least as early as the time of the first translator to remodel Sappho's erotic geometry, Catullus, there is something «wrong» with the scene of love reciprocal and frustrated that is staged in the poem. The triangle of desire inscribed there is unlike either of those formations that literary portrayals of love have schooled the reader to expect. The narrator's femininity is not immediately stressed so that the appearance of a feminine adjective («je suis plus verte») in the poem's second half can come as a shock, an invasion. The reader suddenly realizes that the poem is not what it first appears to be. The narrator is a usurper, for she has displaced the male from his role as viewer in the most common literary love triangle in which a man sees the woman he loves in the arms of another man. However, the triangle configured after this displacement can in no way be confused with what has become the stereotypical literary love triangle composed by two women and one man, in which one woman laments her abandonment for the other woman.

To judge from responses to her poetry over the centuries, Sappho's (re)configuration of the plot of love, the triangle of desire that she proposes, was the source of the threat she has so often constituted for male writers. Sappho usurps for her female narrator the control over the gaze that is normally a male domain. I realize that it is impossible to reconstitute the original «horizon of expectations» for erotic poety and that her poetry may well predate the stereotypes I have in mind, yet the axiom Irigaray posits, «the prevalence of the gaze» has always been «particularly foreign to female eroticism» in all likelihood predates those stereotypes as well. When Sappho put a woman in the place usually occupied by the male poet-lover, she initiated a pattern in the economy of desire that many «strong» male writers have tried to overturn. Poets like Catullus (in his ode 51) and Ronsard (in his «Je suis un demi-dieu») propose a masculine reconfiguration of Sappho's erotic geometry in which a male narrator controls the gaze and has regained control over the beloved woman.

For their so-called «translations» of «A l'aimée», both Catullus and Ronsard revise Sappho's geometry of desire. In «Ille mi par esse deo videtur», Catullus puts a man in the place of Sappho's female narrator. As a result of this substitution, he sets up triangular desire zero degree: a man desires a woman when he sees her in the arms of another man. Ronsard is more radical than his Latin precursor: he eliminates both the transgressive desiring woman and her scandalously innovative triangulation. In «Je suis un demy-dieu, quand, assis vis-à-vis / de Toy», the male poet («je») has assumed the double control over the gaze Sappho and Catullus divided between the narrator and the man seated next to the beloved woman. While in Catullus all attention is focused on the exchange between men from which both desire and poetry are born, Ronsard's poem is constructed around a single gaze, through which the male objectifies the beloved woman.

Critics and commentators are unable to erase Sappho's transgression as easily as her poet-translators. Since they are obliged to accept the erotic triangle she proposes, they attempt instead to account for the Sapphic gaze in a manner that alleviates the threat of its uncanny functioning in the poem. Witness the efforts of the man who is arguably the most influential Sappho commentator of our century, Denys Page. In his still authoritative Sappho and Alcaeus Page devotes a disproportionately long section of his extensive commentary on Sappho “31” to an attempt to reposition the reader's vision of Sappho's vision. Page views the poem as an interpretive option: «We have to choose … whether the emphasis falls on love of the girl or on jealousy of the man» (22). Page turns this choice between «love» and «jealousy» into a decision between two types of triangulation. He seeks above all to persuade us of the absolute centrality of the first member of the triangle to be introduced, the anonymous man presented only as «he», a pronominal interloper in the intimacy shared by «I» and «you». «The greatest obstacle to our understanding of the whole is indeed our ignorance of the relation of this man to the girl and to Sappho … : But we must not forget that the man was the principal subject of the whole of the first stanza; and we shall not be content with any explanation of this poem which gives no satisfactory account of his presence and his prominence in it» (28).

By centering his account on the man and on Sappho's jealousy of him, Page makes the poem function according to a standard masculine triangular scenario. Echoing Freud's conclusion about female homosexuality (in «The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman»), Page thereby also makes Sappho's female narrator desire a woman as a man. The commentator who promotes jealousy as the narrator's primary emotional response to the scene and reinforces the man's «prominence» argues by implication that the narrator is involved with greatest intensity in the process by which the gaze is used to objectify the girl who is the object of masculine desire. To see the process of objectification as the primary function of the gaze in Sappho “31” is to imply that this poem inscribes the origin of Sapphic desire, to view that desire as existing primarily in the present, and finally to suggest that the narrator's silent interlocutor, the girl she addresses as «you», plays only an incidental role in the generation of her desire.

This triple implication of Page's reading denies the specificity of Sappho's vision of the erotic moment. Like Racine, Sappho stages the gaze as an act of memorialization. Unlike the male vision of female desire, however, Sappho's female desiring subject immortalizes the memory of an erotic gaze in order to comment on the creation of female desire, rather than, as in Phèdre's case, in order to build a monument to the young male's physical beauty and heroic prowess. Sappho's use of the present tense is her canniest poetic strategy. She appears to be grounding her gaze in the moment of its generation—«si je te vois un instant»—as if to invite comparison with the focus on the moment of sexual desire that is a commonplace of male erotic poetry. But to read Sappho “31” as a standard use of the present tense is to fall into the oldest misreading of the poem's erotic situation in which the poem becomes both the archetypal vision of Woman, transported by the frenzy of untamed physical desire, writing in the heat of the moment, and the archetypal model of women's writing as the spontaneous, uncontrolled outpouring of personal passion. It is against this traditional vision of the poem, prominent for centuries and dominant in Racine's day, when Sappho was rediscovered for modern literature, that Page and other recent commentators insist, with an overbearing sense of superiority, that Sappho “31” must above all be seen as a tribute to Sappho's artistic control: Page stresses «the uncommon objectivity» of her attitude toward her emotions, the «accurate definition» of symptoms, the «precision» of expression, the «exactitude» of portrayal, all the while leading up to what was surely in its original formulation a bold conclusion: «There is certainly no lack of control in the expression, whatever there may have been in the experience» (27).

However, this recent refocusing of the critical viewing angle from Sappho's spontaneity to Sappho's control simply reverses the coin, without attempting either to explain the specific nature of Sapphic poetic control or to account for the role played in the poem by the appearance of spontaneity. In Sappho's erotic vision, the gaze does not function as a unique occurrence, as the lightning-bolt vision of love/desire at first sight. The Sapphic gaze is doubly repetitive, both an action that takes place again and an original action that is recreated in memory. Catullus projects the multiple gaze onto the man who, sitting «opposite» the beloved, «gazes at her again and again [identidem]», and he uses this recurrence to spark the narrator's jealous desire. Sappho's repetition is both less predictable and more complex. The man does not look at the beloved girl; he is shown listening to «her voice and her laughter». The female poet alone turns the gaze on the object of desire, in a use of «see» that has troubled translators for centuries. Here are a few of the attempts to render its complexity: «while I gazed» (Ambrose Philips, Sappho's first English translator, 1711), «should I but see thee a little moment» (Symonds, 1883), «when I see thee but a little» (Wharton 1885), «si je te vois un instant» (Mora, 1966). By adding temporal constraints to the present, or by making it conditional («if», «should»), Sappho's translators attempt to render the evocative plenitude of the present tense in which the female erotic gaze is displayed. Sappho's use of the present stretches the boundaries of that tense: she packs into «I see» both a present of repetition—«each time that I see you»—and a present of memorialization—«the minute I catch a glimpse of you my desire comes back to me in full force». Sappho uses the gaze to evoke not the instant of desire but both the recreation of an erotic association that no longer exists, and the duration, the past stability of that relationship. This duration, this endurance, returns in the fragment that sounds what must remain for us the poem's end: «I must dare all, for even abandoned … ».

Instead of a standard scenario of the birth of desire, in Sappho “31” we find a model for the regeneration of desire. The gaze acts to keep desire alive, to give the poet the potential for a renewed and ongoing erotic experience, even in the face of abandonment. Sappho's controlled recreation of the function of the gaze displays her female narrator desiring a woman not as a man, as Freud would have it, but as a woman. In the model for the operation of the gaze in female eroticism that she establishes, Woman gazes in a present that renews the past and reaffirms the bond that is at the origin of the renewable erotic trance, the controlled and spontaneous outpouring of female desire.

Rosanna Warren (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: Warren, Rosanna. “Sappho: Translation as Elegy.” In The Art of Translation: Voices from the Field, edited by Rosanna Warren, pp. 199-216. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Warren details the influence of translated Sapphic poetry on such writers as Catullus, Charles Baudelaire, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, with a principal focus on Sappho's poem known as “Phainetai moi.”]

Our dreams pursue our dead.

Swinburne, Ave atque Vale


He's like a god, that man; he seems
(if this can be) to shine beyond
the gods, who nestling near you sees
          you and hears you
laughing low in your throat. It tears me
apart. For when I glimpse you,
Lesbia, look—I'm helpless:
          tongue a frozen
lump, and palest fire
pouring through all my limbs; my ears
deafened in ringing; each eye
          shuttered in night. …
You're wasting your time, Catullus,
laying waste to your life. You love it.
Whole kingdoms and blissful cities
          have wasted away, like you.

I seem to have given a misleading title, for the poem I present is not by Sappho, but by Catullus. And I revise further by pointing out that it is not “by” Catullus either, but “by” me. There may seem to be no little immodesty and downright foolishness in putting forward my own translation of Catullus' famous translation of Sappho's famous poem “Phainetai moi.”

My translation of Catullus' “Ille mi par …” occurs, with another Catullus poem in the Sapphic meter, in a volume of my own poems. But these possessive phrases become obtrusive, as indeed they ought in matters of authorship. The purpose in focusing on a translation of a translation is not to claim that the world needs yet another version of this perennially retranslated poem; nor is it to demonstrate that I have outpaced all my predecessors and found a perfect English equivalent for Catullus. Rather, I should like to offer it, impersonally, as a small instance of lyric lineage, a type or model for poetry's perpetual re-engendering of itself. It is to argue that poetry is, finally, a family matter, involving the strains of birth, love, power, death, and inheritance; and that, given such strains (in every sense), one is never “by oneself” however isolated the act of writing may appear. The so-called original poems in my book are, in their own way, translations of several lyric traditions into personal experience and idiom, and are possible only because of strenuous acts of reading, one form of which we know, conventionally, as translation. I am concerned here with the way in which the individual poet inherits poetry, or, in Eliot's formulation, is catalyzed by it; and I take translation as a specific and especially focused instance of the reception and transformation of literary tradition.

I was drawn to Catullus 51 (“Ille mi par …”) not only because it has haunted me since adolescence, not only because I am more at home in Latin than in Greek, but precisely because I was touched by the pathos of its being a translation and not “the real thing.” In Catullus' forging of a new poetry from his still rather primitive native traditions and Greek models, I recognized the situation of any poet in the strain of self-creation through confrontation with the foreign and the past, the choosing of a parentage. And that situation may be seen as an analogy for the self-creation of a whole literature which develops by exposure to the “other,” as English literature, also fairly barbaric in its early stages, has done in burst after burst, and as American literature, given its colonial inception, could not avoid doing.

The word “inheritance” implies death, grief, contest, and riches. In presenting the literary genre of elegy as a model for translation, I shall be relying on Peter Sacks's The English Elegy (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985). This book traces the work of mourning from its anthropological origins on into complex literary codification. In elegy, with its association with the ritual death and rebirth of a fertility god, I see a figure for the work of translation, which involves the death, dismemberment, and (one hopes!) rebirth of a text, with relative consolation for the mourners, or readers.

Sacks's work is essential in restoring our sense of the primitive vigor, I could almost say sacred power, at the source of our inherited rituals of mourning, of elegiac writing, and, I will argue, of all writing. In recalling the rites of sacrifice and cannibalism associated with early cults of Dionysus, and the survival of such rites symbolically in ancient Greek and later funerary practice, Sacks reveals the terror and virtú latent in such an apparently artificial form as English pastoral elegy. He shows how individual loss may be integrated within larger rhythmic structures dramatized by the poem, and he provides a vision of literature as a communion perpetually renewed in the light of death. In considering Sappho and some of her progeny, I am trying to recover that visceral sense of the rite of poetry: that sense in which, as Auden said of Yeats, “the words of the dead / Are modified in the guts of the living,” and in which Pound, also translating a translation, envisioned Odysseus summoning the dead in canto 1 of the Cantos: “… A sheep to Tiresias only, black and a bellsheep. / Dark blood flowed in the fosse, / Souls out of Erebus. …”

The term “elegy” requires more than a little elucidation. The word is a rather mysterious one, with veiled origins, and auspicious dual associations with death and with love. The original Greek elegiac couplets were not necessarily associated with funerals, but were used for a wide variety of exhortation and reflection.1 But Hellenistic grammarians derived elegos, in an imaginative etymology, from “e e legein” (to cry ‘woe, woe’).2 In Euripides it is used as a song of mourning associated with the aulos, a flute whose tone was considered woeful as opposed to the barbitos, the lyre associated with lyric. In Heroides 15, Ovid has Sappho say, in elegiac couplets, “Flendus amor meus est—elegiae flebile carmen; / non facit ad lacrimas barbitos ulla meas” (ll. 7-8: My love is lamentable—a weeping song of elegy; no lyre suits my tears). “Elegy,” in that passage, is doubly anachronistic: in Ovid's time the term was used for witty amatory complaint, and in Sappho's sixth century b.c. the elegiac meter had no necessarily doleful connotation. However, there is a strong possibility that the elegos was at an earlier period specifically associated with ritual grief.3 Sacks describes the evolution of elegy through Latin love poetry into the English pastoral elegy, which reclaims some of the primitive features such as structures of repetition, myth of a vegetation god, bursts of anger and cursing, procession of mourners, detachment from the deceased, and consolation through symbolic substitution.4 For my purposes, which are to define a private ritual figure for translation, the perhaps fictive origin of elegy as the art associated with funerals, and thus with the death and resurrection of vegetation gods and the rechanneling of eros into song, serves beautifully. We are considering the death and resurrection of texts in a myth of literary metamorphosis whose deities are those grieving poet-lovers whose nymphs turn into the tools—or emblems—of the trade: Pan's Syrinx into the panpipes, Apollo's Daphne into the laurel. Its other deities are those vegetation figures Dionysus, Adonis, Hyacinth, who survive sacrifice to reemerge as myths of eternal song.5 It becomes apparent then that two senses of elegy, love and loss, can only rarely be disentangled.

We shall find our way back to Sappho through Lycidas. The death of Edward King provided Milton with an occasion to negotiate with grief—in this case a rather ceremonial grief—and, more pointedly, with the inherited genre of pastoral elegy and his own ambition and fear of death. His apparent heartlessness, or at least jauntiness, in the twitch of the mantle blue and the turn from pastoral to epic has often been noted. A poet's elegy for another poet is somehow a translation of that poet or at least of a tradition, and involves some kind of transfer of powers, perhaps aggressively asserted by the survivor. In any case, the underlying question is not that of personal survival, but of the survival of poetry. If all real poetry is, as I believe, writing in the light of death, elegy is the genre which performs most consciously in that light.

In Lycidas Milton's grief, anger, and fear crystallize appropriately around the figure of Orpheus, in classical mythology the mystic singer whose death by dismemberment could be read either as the failure of art or as its resurrection and purification.6 Orpheus' sparagmos and drowning in the Hebrus not only suit the fate of Edward King, but fit within Milton's cosmic pattern of drownings and ascensions of stars and the sun. Such a pattern is hinted at early in the poem when the shepherds sing undisturbed by the passage of time (“Oft till the star that rose at evening bright / Toward Heaven's descent had sloped his westering wheel”); the pattern is fulfilled at the end, in a Christian design: “So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed / And yet anon repairs his drooping head.” The final couplet astonishingly detaches the surviving poet, the uncouth swain, from the natural cycle to which the dead poet has been assimilated; yet the solar association haunts the conclusion in the ambiguous pronoun “he”: “And now the sun had stretched out all the hills, / And now was dropped into the western bay; / At last he rose, and twitched his mantle blue: / Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.”7

In a crucial turn Lycidas associates Orpheus with Sappho:

What could the Muse herself that Orpheus bore,
The Muse herself, for her inchanting son
Whom universal Nature did lament,
When by the rout that made the hideous roar,
His gory visage down the stream was sent,
Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian Shore?

(ll. 59-63)

The classical Orpheus envisaged in his humiliation emphasizes the death of Lycidas, in this phase, as horror. This Orpheus serves as anti-type to, and will give way before, “the dear might of him that walked the waves”; cut off from Christian revelation, he is an inadequate figure for resurrection. Even at this nadir, however, when the “hideous roar” of the Thracian women seems to overwhelm the “inchanting” powers of music, Milton hints at the resurrection of those powers by imagining the current of the Hebrus flowing south over a hundred miles along the coast of Asia Minor to wash Orpheus' head to the shores of Sappho's island. That “supreme head of song,” as Swinburne called her, and the possibilities of poetry she represents, are immediately challenged in Lycidas by the speaker's questions and the visions of the blind Fury. In Milton's poem Sappho remains a faint allusion. It is significant, however, that she should be glimpsed here in the context of the drowned poet who will be raised, like the “day-star,” into the morning sky, and into a familiar mythology of resurrected divinities. Sappho, too, is said to have drowned, disappointed in love, by leaping from the Leucadian Rock; as Gregory Nagy has shown,8 she rises, in her legend if not in Lycidas, into a similar myth of solar resurrection as Sappho/Aphrodite pursuing Phaon/Phaethon.

But why Sappho? I have been considering her as a legend, not as a poet. Indeed, it is partly as legend that she presides over the family matters I want to trace, in translation, through Catullus, Baudelaire, and Swinburne. Nagy's argument linking her to Aphrodite/Istar/Eos and a solar myth of recurrent death and rebirth—an argument so intricate as to deserve Sappho's own epithet for Aphrodite, doloplokos, weaver of wiles—derives to some degree from Sappho's invocations to the goddess, but for the most part from a fragment of Menander's Leukadia preserved by Strabo, from Ovid's Heroides 15, and from a bristling array of mythological sources. Through Menander and Ovid and earlier comic traditions, Sappho entered the Western imagination as a priestess of song and of illicit love who died by flinging herself off the white cliff at Cape Leukas for the love of the handsome ferryman Phaon. Satirically viewed in various plays of Middle Comedy, the story is one of the insufficiency of poetry, and perhaps also of the just come-uppance meted out to a woman who has spurned too long the love of men. Even the burlesque plays and Ovid's arch diagnosis, however, veil a glorious Sappho linked to ancient cults at Cape Leukas. Through “Longinus,” that is, through the treatise “De Sublimitate” to which we owe the preservation of “Phainetai moi,” Sappho has imposed herself as the exemplary sublime poet, with a halo of primacy for the lyric akin to that of Homer for epic. She was known in the Palatine Anthology as the Tenth Muse, and comes down to us as a kind of mother goddess of poetry, of whom Swinburne said, “Judging even from the mutilated fragments fallen within our reach from the broken altar of her sacrifice of song, I for one have always agreed with all Grecian tradition in thinking Sappho to be beyond all question and comparison the very greatest poet that ever lived.”9

But again, why Sappho? Why such a legend? Why should she seem to have engendered the Western lyric, not once, but over and over again, as we see in the twentieth century's rapture over the Oxyrhynchan fragments and their shaping touch on Aldington, Pound, HD, Guy Davenport … ? We must turn to these fragments, to the poems. If the legendary Sappho rising from the sea as the evening star gives us an emblem of the translation and survival of song, the actual survival of her texts in quoted snippets and in the papyri of grave wrappings is all the more eloquent. In the idea of elegy, with its dual allusions to love and death, we can sense something of the power of these mutilated poems stripped from mummies but still casting erotic spells.10

The enchantment resides, however, not in an idea, but in her “visible song,” as Swinburne so rightly understood; supremely, in the Sapphic stanza, which burned its shape into Catullus' brain five centuries after Sappho's death, and which has shaped our desire ever since. If we consider Sappho as a myth, it must be as a myth not of love, but of form.

Phainetai moi keinos isos theoisin
emmen oner ottis enantios toi
izanei kai plasion adu phonei-
sas upakouei
kai gelaisas imeroen, to m'ei man
kardian en stethesin eptoasen;
os gar es t'ido, broke', os me phonas
ouden et' ikei
all' akan men glossa eage, lepton
d'autika kroi pur upadedromaken,
oppatessi d'oud' en oreimm', epirrom-
beisi d'akouai,
kad de m'idros psukros ekei, tromos de
paisan agrei, klorotera de poias
emmi, tethnakein d'oligo pideueis
phainomai …

It is a haunting shape. In Sappho's hands it plays release against restraint with unrivaled cunning: the poem runs from stanza to stanza like water pouring from basin to basin down a trout stream, twisting and flashing, unfurled and checked. As Charles Segal has observed, its very motion is the erotic persuasion, peitho, of which Sappho so often writes. Within each hendecasyllabic line the opening trochaic feet give way to the impulse which throbs forward in the choriamb, to be teasingly checked by the concluding bacchiac. … The halt teases because more often than not the sentence's propulsion launches us into the next line, sometimes through enjambment within a word: phonei-/sas (ll. 3-4), epirrom-/beisi (ll. 11-12). After three such hendecasyllables the adonic seems to dam up the current with its wedgelike, truncated shape and final pair of long syllables; but Sappho admits no such resolution, and spills her poem over barrier after barrier. Within this flow, the eddies of assonance and consonance complete the work of hypnotic enchantment. In its expansions and contractions this is a stanza fatally gauged to register the pulse of desire.

Can a living stream be translated? One of Sappho's finest interpreters, Swinburne, has testified:

To translate the two odes and the remaining fragments of Sappho is the one impossible task; and as witness of this I will call up one of the greatest among poets. Catullus “translated”—or as his countrymen would now say “traduced”—the ode of Anactoria—“Eis Eromenan”; a more beautiful translation there never was and will be; but compared with the Greek, it is colorless and bloodless, puffed out by additions and enfeebled by alterations. … Where Catullus failed, I could not hope to succeed.11

Swinburne is here mourning the death of the original. To pursue the elegiac analogy, he has brought himself to that stage of grief which recognizes irreplaceable loss. But just as the work of mourning proceeds by rehearsal of the trauma and ritual self-mutilation to detachment from the deceased and acceptance of a symbolic substitute, so the work of translation repeats the destruction of the original, dismembers and ingests it as in the Thracian sacrifice of Orpheus or the rites of Dionysus, and finally offers its transubstantiated version as consolation for, and recognition of, loss. In the passage just quoted Swinburne was defending his free translation of Sappho in his poem “Anactoria”:

“That is not Sappho,” a friend once said to me. I could only reply, “It is as near as I can come; and no man can come close to her. … I have striven to cast my spirit into the mould of hers, to express and represent not the poem but the poet. … Here and there, I need not say, I have rendered into English the very words of Sappho. I have tried also to work into words of my own some expression of the effect: to bear witness how, more than any other's, her verses strike and sting the memory in lonely places, or at sea, among all loftier sights and grounds—how they seem akin to fire and air, being themselves “all air and fire”; other element there is none in them.”12

We shall presently consider the fruits of such devotion; before that, we need to turn to her first translator, Catullus.



Ille mi par esse deo videtur,
ille, si fas est, superare divos,
qui sedens adversus identidem te
          spectat et audit
dulce ridentem, misero quod omnis
eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te,
Lesbia, aspexi, nihil est super mi …
lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus
flamma demanat, sonitu suopte
tintinant aures, gemina teguntur
          lumina nocte.
otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est:
otio exsultas nimiumque gestis:
otium et reges prius et beatas
          perdidit urbes.

Though Catullus seems to have written only two poems in the Sapphic meter, the extent of his debt to the poet of Lesbos may be judged from the name he gave to the woman he loved: Lesbia. The two Catullan Sapphic poems record stages in that affair. The translation of “Phainetai moi” can be seen either as celebrating an early, happy phase, substituting erotic rapture for Sappho's distress,13 or, as had been plausibly argued, as commenting ironically on the destructiveness of his love for Lesbia through allusion to supposed marriage elements in Sappho's poem.14Furi et Aureli,” Catullus' other Sapphic poem (Catullus 11), is a savage and lyrical farewell to the unworthy lover. However Lesbia is seen by Catullus in these poems, it is through a Sapphic lens which emphasizes, by contrast, Lesbia's Roman corruption.

This is not the occasion to pore, syllable by syllable, over the transposition from Greek to Latin; a few details will have to suggest the enterprise. Most tellingly, however, we can observe right from the start that Catullus has “lost it” (to use current parlance) with the very first word. Phainetai, from phaino (to appear), shares a root with phaos (light), and with the verb phao (to give light, to shine). The “appearance” Sappho indicates is no mere seeming or being seen, but something more on the order of our “epiphany,” an English cognate of phaino. It is used of the apparitions of deities. The man in Sappho's poem, keinos, that one, whoever he is who sits next to the beloved girl, blazes in the first stanza with a radiance reflected from Aphrodite, through the girl. It is an epiphany of Love, working upon the man and, beyond him, upon Sappho observing. We are confronted here not simply with a relative poverty in Latin and English verbs of seeming, but with an entirely different conception of the manifestation of the divine.

Another detail: Sappho's imeroen (l. 5). A long-drawn-out, caressing neuter adjective used adverbially (“and listens to you laughing enticingly”), it contains the words eros, and is charged with desire, with the dread and sacred power of love, to a degree that annihilates most dippy English substitutes and far outstrips Catullus' merely sensory dulce (sweetly). As if imeroen had not sufficient voltage, Sappho renews the charge in a phonetic echo, completing the line kai gelaisas imeroen, to m'ei man, whose sensuous alliteration and assonance can be savored even by the Greekless reader. A few final points: Catullus inserts a legalistic clause into line 2: si fas est, superare divos (if it is permitted, [he seems] to surpass the gods). It testifies to a peculiarly Roman attitude about men and gods, but it also slows up the poem, and a good deal is lost in line 6 in the replacement of Sappho's heart shuddering in her breast by the abstract sensus (general powers of apprehension).

What has Catullus salvaged? First and foremost, the stanza form, through which he knowingly pours his own poem. It was Catullus' muscular twining of sentences through lines and stanzas that mesmerized me years ago when I did not know the Greek. He has taken over, likewise, something of Sappho's vowel and consonant play, though his seems more programmatic and symmetrical: “flamma demanat, sonitu suopte” (l. 9). Where Sappho was entirely flexible, Catullus moves toward practices which will be codified in Horatian Sapphics, often making the fourth syllable of the hendecasyllable long, and ending a word after the fifth syllable. He does not have Sappho's radiance, but he grasps the simplicity with which she lists the medical symptoms of love, symptoms taken over from Homeric descriptions of shock and fear, the drama of war imported to the love chamber, epic into lyric. Where Sappho emphasized intimacy in stanza 1, Catullus insists on the recurrent nature of the scene with the rare adverb identidem (again and again) which appears in his other Sapphic poem, “Furi et Aureli,” in an obscene context. He misses the ring structure in her poem that linked the apparition (phainetai) of the rival man in line 1 through the sundering of her own body to a reunification of self in the strongly enjambed verb “to be” (emmi, l. 15) and felt apparition of self “I seem” (phainomai, l. 16). Where her poem went at this juncture is a wild surmise. Catullus seems to have omitted her remarkable fourth stanza, and his poem may or may not have ended with the famous otium stanza. If the otium lines did close his poem, as I sense they did, they set Catullus' passion in the typically Roman context of politics and empire at odds with private erotic life, and glance out again in the direction of epic.

That epic glance is given more scope in the “Furi et Aureli” poem. There Catullus addresses his two enemies as his “companions,” and charges them, in a torrent of bombast mimicking imperial rhetoric, with a simple message of farewell to his “girl.” After that calculated understatement, “non bona dicta” (not good words), explodes a stanza of obscene abuse which gives way to one of the most delicate of all Latin lyrics, the stanza recalling Sappho's cut flower:15

But she'd better not look, like last time, for my
love reviving. It's her fault it's fallen,
a flower at the rim of the meadow, touched
          by the plow passing.

Not surprisingly, the anatomy of love, and perhaps jealousy, in “Phainetai moi” has never lost its grip on the Western imagination. But the history of Sappho in English is by and large a sorry one. It is the story of the awkward adaptation of classical quantitative prosody to the English accentual-syllabic system.16 The faint presence of stress in Latin meter only complicates the problem further. John Hall, translating “Phainetai moi” in 1652, sensibly opts for a loose stress equivalent to Sappho's quantities, and gives tetrameters with a dimeter for the adonic. The poor man can muster almost no other poetic resources beyond his common sense, however: his instinct for the rhyming couplet wars with the shape of the stanza, his meter thuds, his vocabulary is trite; to top it all off he has misunderstood (wilfully perhaps) the gender relations in the poem, rendering stanza 2:

How did his pleasing glances dart
Sweet languors to my ravish'd heart
At the first sight though so prevailed
          That my voice fail'd.(17)

E. M. Cox's 1925 version exemplifies the mess that results when a quantitative system is clamped arbitrarily onto English. One line will suffice. The conflict between natural word stress and fictive quantity results in verse which, if pronounced according to its own system, sounds downright idiotic: “Peér of the góds ¦ the hăppieśt ¦ măn Í seém.”18 J. A. Symonds in 1887 was more successful in aligning English stress with the requirements of length; his version is hardly felicitous syntactically (“Nothing see mine eyes, and a noise of roaring / Waves in my ear sounds”), but his first line at least shows how an accommodation might plausibly be reached: “Peér of góds hé ¦ seéměth to mé, ¦ the blíssfúl. …”19 For an approach which ignores the Sapphic stanza but tries to approximate its simplicity and concision, we can turn to Mary Barnard's 1958 version:

He is more than a hero
He is a god in my eyes—
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you—he …(20)

Hers has the virtue of cleanliness, but it lacks the rhythm of expansion and contraction which sustains life in Sappho's form.

The twentieth century has in fact been rich in appropriations of Sappho's poem. In “Three Letters to Anaktoria” from Imitations (1958), Robert Lowell supplies in hyperbole, exaggerated assonance and alliteration, extraneous similes, and sheer gusto what he lacks in subtlety: the man sits next to the girl “like a cardplayer”; “refining fire,” filched from Dante's Arnaut Daniel, perhaps by way of Eliot, purifies the speaker's flesh in a discordantly Christian way; and Sappho's pale grass becomes blindingly verdant: “I am greener than the greenest green grass.” Basil Bunting, working freely from Catullus in 1965, turns the poem back to Sappho by imitating her ring structure: “O, it is godlike to sit selfpossessed / When her chin rises and she turns to smile,” he begins, and concludes the last stanza: “… I dissolve / When her chin rises and she turns to smile. / O, it is godlike!”21

Examples could proliferate endlessly. I indulge myself in one final instance. John Hollander's canny “After an Old Text”22 uses the fact of its being a translation and revision of Sappho as a figure for the speaker's nostalgia for, hence re-vision of, an old lover, with the pronoun “you” conflating Sappho and his own lost love. The final stanza runs:

This revision of you sucks out the sound of
Words from my mouth, my tongue collapses, my legs
Flag, my ears roar, my eyes are blinded with flame; my
          Head is in hell then.

I would like to close, not by nagging at the innumerable translations of “Phainetai moi” in English, but by penciling briefly a larger sketch of translation as an elegiac genealogy. I spoke of poetry as a family matter; a record of translations is a family tree. I want now to trace, through a series of elegies, a perpetuated acknowledgment of Sappho as lyric mother, and therefore of her progeny as siblings. At issue is the enduring life of poetry. The poems to bear in mind are Catullus' elegy for his real brother (“Multas per gentes,” poem 101), Baudelaire's Sapphic poems, Swinburne's “Sapphics,” and his elegy for Baudelaire “Ave Atque Vale.” Through these elegies, I suggest, we can sense Sappho, the lyric impulse, rising again and again like Hesperus from the waters of language, and perpetually lost; and we will sense translation in action as the blood pulse of our continuing, shared literary life, keeping time with the larger cycles of nature. I freely confess it: this is a myth. A working myth for a poet and translator.


Baudelaire studied Greek as well as Latin in the lyçée, and was surely familiar with Sappho's “Phainetai moi.” But the Sappho reincarnated in Baudelaire is not a metrical essence, as she was in part for Swinburne. Rather, Baudelaire is haunted by the myth of Sapphic sexuality. In a number of poems, two of which were excluded from Les Fleurs du Mal by the censor in 1857, he celebrates an eros which has nothing to do with the Greek Sappho's frank and splendid pleasure. Baudelaire's lesbian love is consecrated, not as joy, but as deviance. Set in the ghoulish context of Christian damnation on the one hand, and of “natural,” socially useful, reproductive mating on the other, his lesbians are artists and outcasts in their pure search for beauty and sensation. “O vierges, o démons, o monstres, o martyres, / De la réalité grands esprits contempteurs, / Chercheuses d'infini …” (“O virgins, O demons, O monsters, O martyrs, great spirits contemptuous of reality, seekers of infinity …” from “Femmes Damnées”). Theirs is the true spirituality in, and against, a materialistic world, and, not surprisingly, they are associated with Baudelaire's cherished images of infinity: the abyss and the gulf, and their corollary, death: “—Descendez, descendez, lamentables victimes, / Descendez le chemin de l'enfer éternel! / Plongez au plus profond du gouffre, où tous les crimes …” (“Descend, descend, sad victims, descend the path of eternal hell! Dive to the depths of the gulf, where all crimes …” from “Femmes Damnées: Delphine et Hippolyte”). This gouffre has its analogies in Baudelaire's sense of Sappho's poetry: the nearest he comes to describing her verse is his evocation, in “Lesbos,” of the lesbian embraces where the imaginary cascade behaves rather like a Sapphic stanza:

Lesbos, where the kisses, like cascades
teeming and turbulent yet secret, deep,
plunge undaunted into unplumbed gulfs
and gather there, gurgling and sobbing till
they overflow in ever-new cascades!(23)

At issue for Baudelaire is not the survival of Sappho's poetry. His Sapphic poems suggest something of the hell created in French nineteenth-century society for homosexual lovers, but his true absorption is with his own deflected eroticism as a figure for art. For him, art is and must be profoundly anti-natural; it joins in holy alliance with a sterile eros and with death, with infinity and the soul, in opposition to the squalid claims of nature and literal fact.

Though he claims to be Sappho's sentinel keeping vigil on the Leucadian cliff, Baudelaire takes us far afield from Sappho's hyacinths and the “dew on the riverside gleaming.”24 With Swinburne the inheritance is much more complex because it is expressed “genetically”—that is, in meter and stanza form. Sappho's strain is crossed, however, with the strong influences of Baudelaire and, at his worst, the Marquis de Sade. Before considering the fraternal relationship between Swinburne and Baudelaire, I want to address the matter of Sappho's more direct incarnation in Swinburne's poetry.

First, the meter. Swinburne's Greek was excellent and, more than excellent, it was passionate, so that he writes the Sapphic stanza naturally, translating long and short syllables to stress with an ease scarcely ever matched in English. I will now make a risky claim: that Sappho lives in English, not in any word-by-word reproduction of her texts, but in Swinburne's poems “Sapphics” and “Hendecasyllabics.” I would claim in addition that Sappho's rigor and subtlety saved Swinburne from his own worst propensities toward prosodic exaggeration, and that his finest poems, to which we do not sufficiently confess our gratitude,25 are those disciplined by Greek. In “Sapphics” Swinburne has allowed himself to be possessed by Sappho's “visible song,” and his poem, in places, surges and pauses as delicately as hers down its streambed, its vowels and consonants as cunningly in play:

… and I too,
Full of the vision,
Sáw thě whíte ím¦plácăblě Á¦phrodíté,
Saw the hair unbound and the feet unsandalled
Shine as fire of sunset on western waters;
          Saw the reluctant
Feet, the straining plumes of the doves that drew her …

(ll. 7-13)

I scan one line to show with what grace the stress corresponds to the Greek's requirements for length. In “Anactoria” the rhyming pentameter couplets make for a cruder versification. Here, however, actual translation of Sappho rises out of hyperbolic Sadean rhetoric, and so filially imbued is Swinburne with her spirit that those fragments from the “Hymn to Aphrodite” seem intrinsic to his own poem:

Saw Love, as burning flame from crown to feet,
Imperishable, upon her storied seat;
Clear eyelids lifted toward the north and south,
A mind of many colors, and a mouth
Of many tunes and kisses; and she bowed,
With all her subtle face laughing aloud,
Bowed down upon me, saying “Who doth thee wrong,

(ll. 67-74)

Swinburne is straining to render the first lines of the ode “poikilothron athanat' Aphrodite / pai Dios doloploke”; literally, “Richly (dappled, intricate, with various colors) enthroned immortal Aphrodite, child of Zeus, weaver of wiles.” Swinburne has at least made incantatory what in Barnard seems blunt and curt, though clean (“Dapple-throned Aphrodite / eternal daughter of God, / Snareknitter!”), and in Davenport rococco (“God's stunning daughter deathless Aphródita / A whittled perplexity your bright abstruse chair …”).

Swinburne has taken from “Phainetai moi” the conceit of love as a pathology, “Yea, all thy beauty sickens me with love” (l. 56); he has grossly exaggerated it with Sadean extrapolation that shies not from cannibalism: “Ah that my mouth for Muses' milk were fed / On the sweet blood thy sweet small wounds had bled!” (ll. 107-8). For a modern reader such a passage can only be comic; nor is there much to be said in defense of the workaday verse. I pause for a moment, however, on the theme of cannibalism. For all its hysteria, the passage points back to primitive rites of communion associated with funerals, and may recall my elegiac emblem of translation for which Sacks provided the model. The erotic communion Swinburne solicits, an invitation to rather than a defense against death, is itself merely a figure for the poet's real communion with the spirit of Sappho, and, as such, is an elegiac act. At the end of “Anactoria” the poetic eros does fend off death, for it allows Sappho, resurrected through Swinburne, to assert the immortality of song:

I Sappho will be one with all these things,
With all high things forever; and my face
Seen once, my songs heard in a strange place,
Cleave to men's lives …

(ll. 276-79)

Communion with a ghost from antiquity is one thing; acceptance of the death of an immediate poetic forebear is quite another and more shocking matter. The loss felt is more urgent, as is the threat to one's own life and voice. The death of Baudelaire was, for Swinburne, such a shock, and one that elicited from him one of the majestic pastoral elegies in English, “Ave Atque Vale.” The title conjures up Catullus' farewell in elegiac couplets to his brother, and proclaims a fraternity between Sappho's lyric offspring: Catullus, Baudelaire, and himself.

Sappho, the mother, is immediately invoked in stanza 2:

Thine ears knew all the wandering watery sighs
Where the sea sobs round Lesbian promontories,
The barren kiss of piteous wave to wave
That knows not where is that Leucadian grave
Which hides too deep the supreme head of song.

Peter Sacks has charted this poem with exemplary intelligence and learning. For my purposes, it will suffice to emphasize the way in which an elegy involves translation. In rejecting the traditional garland “rose or rue or laurel,” in favor of “Half-faded, fiery blossoms, pale with heat,” Swinburne is translating “Lycidas” into Les Fleurs du Mal. The poem proceeds to “translate” Baudelaire's own “translation” of Sappho: “Fierce loves and lovely leaf-buds poisonous …” (l. 25). Facing the death and, worse still, the silence of his brother poet, Swinburne is led to question whether poetry itself survives: “Thou art far too far for wings of words to follow / Far too far off for thought or any prayer” (ll. 89-90); note the lack of caesuras streamlining the distance. In this crisis, the poem attempts to assert poetic communion as the symbolic consolation proffered in traditional elegy: “… and not death estranges / My spirit from communion with thy song” (ll. 103-4); the whole lyric tradition appears as one long, shared lament: “Or through mine ears a mourning musical / Of many mourners rolled” (ll. 109-10). But this death and the impotence of Apollo and Aphrodite, poetry and love, seem to blight consolation: “… not all our songs, O friend, / Will make death clear or make life durable” (ll. 171-72). After much synaesthesia, the elegy seems to end in silence; the dead poet is not to rise as day-star or genius of any shore, and the figure of Sappho has blended into that of a more tragic mother: “And chill the solemn earth, a fatal mother, / With sadder than the Niobean womb …” (ll. 191-92).

The dead poet seems beyond the reach of poetry. This crisis corresponds to the moment in Moschus' lament for Bion in which “Bion is dead, and with him dead is music, and gone with him likewise the Dorian poesy.”26 The work of mourning, that is, would be completely blocked, were it not for the translation of Catullus that opens the final stanza, and in its very nature as translation belies the silence of death which it asserts. As long as Catullus speaks through Swinburne, he is neither dead nor silent, and neither, in some sense, is Baudelaire: “For thee, O now a silent soul, my brother, / Take at my hands this garland, and farewell” (ll. 188-89). Besides being one of the noblest versions of the Catullus we are likely to get, Swinburne's closing echo ensures that Hesperus will once again rise from Okeanos, that Sappho lives on, transmuted, in her children, and that poetry will continue to voice us to ourselves.


  1. D. A. Campbell, Greek Lyric Poetry: A Selection (MacMillan/St. Martin's Press, 1967), xxv.

  2. Georg Luck, The Latin Love Elegy (Methuen, 1969), 26.

  3. Peter Sacks, The English Elegy (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), 3.

  4. Ibid., 2.

  5. Sacks, 26ff.

  6. In the fourth Georgic, Virgil sets the defeat of Orpheus against the life-giving success of the peasant Aristaeus. Thanks to the narration of Proteus, Aristaeus is able to appease the vexed spirit of Orpheus and bring life out of death, reviving his beehive:

    When from the bellies, over the rotten flesh
    Of the corpses, bees buzz out from caved-in flanks,
    Swarm in heavy clouds to treetops, group,
    And hang in clusters down from the pliant boughs.

    (Virgil, The Georgics, tr. S. P. Bovie (University of Chicago Press, 1956, 4: 555-58).

  7. For an elegant and clear-sighted reading of the passage, with particular attention to the anaphora “And now” and the ambiguous “he,” see Sacks, 116.

  8. Gregory Nagy, “Phaethon, Sappho's Phaon,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77 (1973): 173-75.

  9. H. T. Wharton, Sappho (John Lave, 1898, 4th ed.; repr. Libera, Amsterdam, 1974), 168.

  10. Charles Segal, “Eros and Incantation,” Arethusa 7 (1974): 139-160.

  11. Wharton, 34.

  12. Ibid., 36.

  13. C. J. Fordyce, Catullus, A Commentary (Oxford University Press, 1961), 218ff.

  14. T. P. Wiseman, Catullus and His World: A Reappraisal (Cambridge University Press, 1985), 152-54. I am not convinced that we need accept Wilamowitz's theory of a marriage ceremony as occasion for Sappho's poem in order to sense that poem bitterly invoked by Catullus. The elemental drama of Phainetai moi, a happy couple excluding the former lover, suffices in my mind to charge Catullus' address to Lesbia with retrospective anguish. Yes, the symptoms he enumerates appear to be those of passion, not jealousy, since “ille” (ll. 1, 2: that man, any man is not as definite and particular as Sappho's “keinos … aner” (that man). In both poems, I think, attention focuses more on the painful mystery of love itself rather than on an interloper; and Catullus could be seen as recalling his own innocent, early passion only to underscore his disillusion by reference to Sappho's distress as well as to the destruction of whole kingdoms in the otium stanza. For further discussion, see Denys Page, Sappho and Alcaeus (Oxford University Press, 1955), 20, 21, and Anne Pippin Burnett, Three Archaic Poets (Harvard University Press, 1983), 229-43.

  15. Wiseman, 146.

  16. For a learned and lucid account of such efforts, see John Hollander's Vision and Resonance (Yale University Press, 1975; 1985), 59-70. It is an indispensable book.

  17. E. M. Cox, The Poems of Sappho (Charles Scribners Sons, 1925), 34.

  18. Ibid., 70.

  19. Ibid., 72.

  20. Mary Barnard, Sappho (University of California Press, 1958), 39.

  21. Basil Bunting, Collected Poems (Oxford University Press, 1978), 119.

  22. John Hollander, Spectral Emanations (Atheneum, 1978), 57. John Hollander, a rare doctus poeta, has written Sapphics with splendid ease throughout his career. The form has been for him a rich inheritance, allowing him serious spoofs of the modern relationship to Antiquity (“Making It” and “Epilogue: the loss of smyrna” in Town and Country Matters (Yale University Press, 1958), as well as a severely graceful meditation on love and representation, “The Lady of the Castle,” over which Sappho, the poet of Aphrodite, presides through the evocatory power of her stanza (Spectral Emanations, 54, 55). Sappho's form affords Hollander more than thematic resonance; he uses Sapphic enjambment, so often avoided by her translators, to the hilt: “My desire, my memory was so intelli- / gently caressing” (“A Thing So Small,” Harp Lake (Knopf, 1988), 80.

  23. Charles Baudelaire, “Lesbos,” stanza 2, tr. Richard Howard, Les Fleurs du Mal (Godine, 1982), 123.

  24. Guy Davenport, Archilochus, Sappho, Alkman (University of California Press, 1980), 93, a translation of fragment 42. Guy Davenport has brought the Poundian imperative of clarity to bear in his long and honorable engagement with archaic Greek poetry.

  25. A notable exception is Jerome McGann, whose sprightly Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism (University of Chicago Press, 1972) begins to repair the wrong.

  26. J. M. Edmonds, The Greek Bucolic Poets (Harvard University Press, 1938; 1950; 1960), 445.

Joyce Zonana (essay date spring 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5355

SOURCE: Zonana, Joyce. “Swinburne's Sappho: The Muse as Sister-Goddess.” Victorian Poetry 28, no. 1 (spring 1990): 39-50.

[In the following essay, Zonana highlights poet Algernon Charles Swinburne's identification with Sappho and her apotheosis as the “Tenth Muse.”]

In an important early poem, “Sapphics” (1:333-335),1 Swinburne introduces a theme that was to dominate both his poetry and prose: Sappho's apotheosis as the tenth Muse, a poet whose “visible song” soars as “a bird soars.” By identifying Sappho as a Muse—and ultimately, as we shall see, as the Muse, not only for him, but for all poets—Swinburne radically redefines the nature of poetic inspiration and the role of a female principle in art produced by men; by elevating a mortal woman into the place normally reserved for immortal goddesses, he expresses his special notion of the relation between humanity and divinity while simultaneously revising the inherited Christian notion of an exclusively male deity. Neither femme fatale nor chaste virgin nor nourishing spiritual mother, Swinburne's Muse is a human sister who manifests “ineffable glory and grace as of present godhead” (“The Poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti,” 15:33). Her inspiration is neither dangerous temptation nor transcendent revelation, but a steady celebration of humanity, a celebration that makes “each glad limb” of the human body a “note of rapture in the tune of life” (“The Last Pilgrimage,” Tristram of Lyonesse, 4:144).

Throughout nineteenth-century British poetry, one finds a persistent dissatisfaction with inherited notions of the Muse. From Wordsworth's search for a Muse “greater” than Milton's Urania, through Keats's exploration of various female inspirers, to Arnold's choice of a “Muse of Righteousness,” both Romantic and Victorian poets express a longing for a Muse that would firmly connect life and art, art and religion, joining earthly and heavenly sources of inspiration in a new and stable synthesis. Barbara Fass, in her perceptive study, La Belle Dame sans Merci and the Aesthetics of Romanticism (Detroit, 1974), has carefully explored the Romantic vision of the Muse as an enchanting and enchanted figure who represents an art that simultaneously transforms and transfixes the poet seeking an ideal not present on earth and only questionably present in heaven. Yet Fass stops short of an examination of nineteenth-century poets' attempts to escape from the paralyzing notion of art as seductive siren. She fails to consider these poets' efforts to locate an earthly Muse who could properly replace Milton's heavenly Urania. Even in the work of Swinburne, who in “A Nympholept” would exclaim that “Heaven is as earth, and as heaven to me / Earth” (6:81), Fass sees only another instance of a failed quest for a union of spirit and sense, “Christian” and “pagan” objects of worship and sources of art.

Yet within the context of nineteenth-century poetry, Swinburne's relationship to his Muse-figure is peculiarly untormented. For Swinburne the goddess of poetry is neither elusive nor seductive, neither pure spirit nor pure sense. As he writes in his study of Victor Hugo's L'Année Terrible, the Muse is “omnipresent and eternal, and forsakes neither Athens nor Jerusalem, Camelot nor Troy, Argonaut nor Crusader, to dwell as she does with equal goodwill among modern appliances in London and New York” (13:249). In “Ave Atque Vale,” he is careful to stress that the “most high Muses” bend “us-ward” (3:49) in their concern for and engagement with human life. Similarly, his Apollo, in “The Last Oracle,” is drawn “Down from heaven” by the “song within the silent soul” (3:2-3). Unlike Arnold's “scornful” and “implacable” young god, Swinburne's Apollo is fit to sing on either Etna or Parnassus. Because Swinburne defines his Muse as an unmistakably human figure who has achieved divinity through her full experience of humanity, he can embrace his art with an unambivalent passion, trusting that it will demonstrate the indissoluble union between “spiritual truth” and “bodily beauty,” expressing “the sweet and sovereign unity of perfect spirit and sense, of fleshly form and intellectual fire” (“The Poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti,” 15:13). Not incidentally, he is also able to use his Muse to unify pagan and Christian symbol systems.2

Swinburne develops his myth of the Muse in a group of poems—“Sapphics,” “Anactoria,” and “On the Cliffs”—that revolve around the figure of Sappho, long honored as a figurative “tenth Muse” by poets and critics since Plato, but never before literally perceived and used as such.3 In these poems Swinburne incorporates Sappho's language, translating and interweaving fragments of her work; her voice, like a Muse's, “enters” his. Even more significantly, Swinburne addresses and invokes Sappho here in a manner previously reserved only for sources of inspiration imagined to be genuinely divine—the maids of Helicon for Hesiod and Homer, Jesus for the earliest Christian poets, Urania for Milton, the “dread Power” for Wordsworth, Psyche and Autumn for Keats. Finding in Sappho the “subtle breath and bloom of very heaven itself, that dignity of divinity which informs the most passionate and piteous notes” (“The Poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti,” 15:33), Swinburne appropriates her as a new goddess who teaches, like his beloved Victor Hugo, that “the vibration of earthly emotion” is the surest means to achieve “a note of divine tenderness” (“L'Homme Qui Rit,” 13:215).

Sappho as Muse challenges tradition not simply in her humanity; she also directly confronts the Western (male) poetic imagination through her fully sexual femaleness. Ever since Hesiod and Homer, the Muse has typically been conceived as a female divinity, although post-Classical writers have been able to accept her as such only after a careful spiritualization and/or disembodiment.4 Thus, though Milton's Muse is indeed characterized as feminine, she is divorced from all association with the actual female body. The English poet is not free, as the Greeks had been, to praise the Muses' “tender bodies,” “soft feet,” or “violet” hair.5 The Christian Muse is an incorporeal Virgin Mother; and the spiritualization of the ancient Muses is so much a part of the English tradition that Matthew Arnold, in Culture and Anarchy, sees them, with the Madonna and chivalry, as but another instance of the “feminine ideal” invented by “the delicate and apprehensive genius of the Indo-European race.”6

When nineteenth-century men began their attempts to imagine the Muses once again as physical creatures, they were haunted by fears of sexual seduction by a female whose “earthliness” threatened to consume their own uncertain “heavenliness”; because God and Woman are irrevocably divorced in Christian tradition, the female gender (as much as the pagan origin) of the Muse proved a constant embarrassment to the male writer seeking a divine sanction for his art.7 Thus Swinburne's Muse, a mortal woman who unabashedly celebrates her own sexuality, choosing, through her homoeroticism, to accept and love the female body so distrusted by Christian misogyny, poses a unique challenge to the Western artist afraid that the Muse might be an unholy seduction from his chaste worship of a male god. Indeed, the failure of even the most sympathetic critics to perceive Swinburne's redefinition of the Muse suggests how radical is his view of the relationship between woman and god, art and religion. Only recent feminist criticism of the Christian religious tradition enables us to appreciate the implications of Swinburne's “post-Christian” transformation of a divine female source of poetry.8

Long recognized as a studied reversal of its original, Sappho's celebrated “Ode to Aphrodite,” Swinburne's “Sapphics” functions as an initiation for both poet and reader into the writer's startling new worship of a human Muse.9 Whereas in her own poem, Sappho had appealed for the aid of an Olympian Goddess, Aphrodite, imploring her to descend from heaven to Lesbos, in Swinburne's inversion the Goddess is on earth, pleading with the poet to look at and listen to her. And while in the original poem Aphrodite had promptly responded to Sappho's plea, in the Swinburne poem the mortal refuses the Goddess: Sappho has eyes only for “her chosen, / Fairer than all men,” and for her “newly fledged, … visible song” (1:334-335). Aphrodite flees in horror, even as her doves longingly look “Back to Lesbos, back to the hills whereunder / Shone Mitylene” (1:333).

When she rejects Aphrodite, Swinburne's Sappho also implicitly rejects the “crowned nine Muses,” who, with Apollo, are “sick with anguish,” “stricken at heart,” to hear her independent song—“Ah the tenth, the Lesbian!” (1:334-335, 334). The Muses wax pale to hear Sappho because they know not the “wonderful things,” “full of thunders” (1:334, 335) of which Sappho sings: she feels, loves, and composes as only a mortal can. Similarly, Aphrodite knows not the glory of song—nor the nature of Sappho's love for women. Though Sappho herself had invoked both the Muses and Aphrodite, Swinburne suggests that each alone is inadequate to define fully or account for the choices and achievements of her life and her art. Because she fuses their separate spheres, Sappho rivals and surpasses the very goddesses to whom she is devoted: song and love are inextricably entwined in her work “Made of perfect sound and exceeding passion” (1:335); she is, as Swinburne would later define her, both “Love's” and “Song's” priestess (“On the Cliffs,” 3:310). The gods flee her presence because she is greater than they; she figures precisely as Christ does in the banishing of the pagan gods and the silencing of the oracles. Yet, unlike the victory of the Galilean as it is portrayed by Swinburne in “The Last Oracle,” Sappho's triumph is an affirmation rather than a denial of human power and song.

In “Anactoria,” Swinburne uses many of the same fragments he incorporated into “Sapphics,” though here they enter into a first-person cry of love and longing, rather than a distanced and controlled third-person account of poetic fulfillment. The poem begins with Sappho's account of her vision of Aphrodite—the same vision that forms the context for “Sapphics”—but the poetic persona breaks off in the midst of her recitation to exclaim to her beloved Anactoria:

                                        but thou—thy body is the song,
Thy mouth the music; thou art more than I,
Though my voice die not till the whole world die.


Apparently Sappho is distracted from her vision of Aphrodite into an exploration of art; her equation of Anactoria's body with song does not, however, imply that sexuality replaces creativity, but rather that consideration of one necessarily leads to consideration of the other.10

Sappho cannot think of Aphrodite or Anactoria without thinking of the Muses, as she reveals again a few lines later:

Ah that my lips were tuneless lips, but pressed
To the bruised blossom of thy scourged white breast!
Ah that my mouth for Muses' milk were fed
On the sweet blood thy sweet small wounds had bled!


Here Swinburne's Sappho utterly violates the received notion of the Olympian Muses, suggesting that violent (and literally consuming) sexual passion might give the poet access to “Muses' milk.” And though Sappho is willing to allow her own lips to be temporarily “tuneless,” she cannot live (or love) without song, wishing as she does to

Strike pang from pang as note is struck from note,
Catch the sob's middle music in thy throat,
Take thy limbs living, and new-mould with these
A lyre of many faultless agonies.


Anactoria's body is to become a lyre, her blood Muses' milk; this does not so much represent a renunciation of art as a transformation of both song and the body. In desiring Anactoria, Sappho does not abandon her desire for the lyre, though she chooses a lyre with a difference, a lyre constructed from the skin of the flayed Marsyas. Her Muse is a Chthonian Muse of flesh, deeply bound to the joy and pain of love; and the product of such inspiration is poetry that shares the concreteness and vitality of its source: “one with all … things,” it “Cleave[s] to men's lives and waste[s] the days thereof / With gladness and much sadness and long love” (1:198).

While “Sapphics” portrays Sappho as a tenth Muse, and “Anactoria” explores the corporeal nature of her inspiration, neither poem places Sappho in specific relation to Swinburne, as his Muse, much less as the Muse of all poets. The explicit fulfillment of this identification does not appear until 1879, in “On the Cliffs” (3:304-317). Although Swinburne does not use the term “muse” in the poem, it is in its entirety an elaborate and self-conscious muse-invocation, echoing the language of Milton's appeals to Urania, as well as Wordsworth's calls to the wind and Keats's pursuit of the nightingale. Like his precursors, Swinburne uses the extended invocation to define carefully the nature of his Muse; like them as well, he places her within the context of both Christian and pagan concepts of divinity and poetry.

Alone in a barren seascape characterized by incompleteness and partiality, the poet opens his invocation with a request for a fulfilling word, one that will make both landscape and speaker whole. Calling at first on the wind, he asks what message it carries from the sea. Suddenly hearing a nightingale, he begins to address it instead, “For but one word … / Is blown up usward ever from the sea” (3:306). The sea's word is a sad one, evoking the pain, loss, and death that haunt human memory; it cannot fulfill the poet's request. But the nightingale takes no “shadow of sadness” on its song (3:307). “With throat of gold and spirit of the sun,” it is identified with the Olympian Apollo, living and singing in an atmosphere above the human realm of passion and pain. Like Keats's (but unlike Arnold's) nightingale, this bird is “not marked for sorrow” (3:308), but neither is it marked “for joy.” For a moment, Swinburne allies himself with this Olympian singer; calling it “sister,” he suggests that it has provided him with the word he has been seeking.

Yet as David G. Riede has pointed out,11 the poet immediately recognizes that such a vision of self and song is incomplete. To be “above” human pain is not to resolve the problem that it poses, but simply to ignore it, and Swinburne, like Arnold and Keats before him, cannot rest with such an easy avoidance. Thus, immediately after his paean to the bird's freedom from human limitation, he plummets, in a movement comparable to Keats's in the “Nightingale” ode, to a passionate recognition of pain: “But me, for me (how hadst thou heart to hear?) / Remains a sundering with the two-edged spear” (3:308). Cassandra's cry leads Swinburne towards Sappho, a poet whose pain, unlike that of the prophetess, has been embodied in significant form, and hence “heard.”

And suddenly Swinburne is addressing Sappho, demanding and expecting a word of her—“Because I have known thee always who thou art” (3:311). This Sappho is, like the bird, a “sister” to Swinburne; also like the bird, she burns with Apollo's eternal fire:

As brother and sister were we, child and bird,
Since thy first Lesbian word
Flamed on me, and I knew not whence I knew
This was the song that struck my whole soul through,
Pierced my keen spirit of sense with edge more keen,
Even when I knew not,—even ere sooth was seen,—
When thou wast but the tawny sweet winged thing
Whose cry was but of spring.


Though originally perceived as a nightingale or a god, Sappho is far more: she is a “soul triune, woman and god and bird” (3:315), representing a principle of poetry more inclusive than that embodied by either the bird or the god alone. And, as in “Sapphics,” Swinburne once again demonstrates the triumph of this mortal singer over the immortal gods of song:

The singing soul that moves thee, and that moved
When thou wast woman, and their songs divine
Who mixed for Grecian mouths heaven's lyric wine
Fell dumb, fell down reproved
Before one sovereign Lesbian song of thine.


Sappho's “ruling song,” the speaker now recognizes, is present, has always been present, even in his barren northern landscape, making “all the night one ear / One ear fulfilled and mad with music” (3:313).12 All “earth and heaven and sea” are “molten” in this music “made of thee [Sappho]” (3:316). The phrase “of thee” suggests not merely that the music is made by Sappho, but also that it is composed from her own substance which has entered into the substance of the landscape, just as she had longed, in Swinburne's “Anactoria,” to be “molten” into the body of her lover (1:194). As in the earlier poem, Sappho's self and song are one with all things; even more significantly, they make all things one. Sappho is the unifying, “fulfilling” force in the landscape: she cannot be separated from her song, and her song cannot be separated from the landscape, now held together in a new harmony. And it is this “ruling song” that teaches Swinburne his own “song, and the secrets of it”—the secret being simply that “knowing not love nor change nor wrath nor wrong / No more we knew of song” (3:317).

Thus Swinburne completes his identification of Sappho, not merely as his Muse, but as the Muse of all poets and readers of poetry. Sappho, through her uniquely passionate song of pain and joy, makes the souls of all who hear her “sublime”; she is heard by anyone “whose heart was ever set to song”—“even Aeschylus as I” (3:315). Yet she is a Muse who functions quite differently from any encountered earlier in the Western tradition. Like the classical Muses, she is a daughter of Memory, “mother of all songs made” (3:317); unlike them, however, her function is not to erase human memory but to intensify it, not to release her listeners from their cares but to make them more conscious of all their experiences, both pleasurable and painful. Because she has accepted its limitations, time does not touch her; because she has not struggled against them, her loves survive in her songs.

Further, a poet need not invoke her in order to experience or benefit from her; she is continuously present and always accessible, “in the notes of the nightingales, … in the presence of the glory of the sky.”13 The poet does not have to seek special inspiration from either the gods or nature; Sappho's song is part of the very substance of the universe. But this cosmic song is not identical to the music of the spheres that Milton had so longed to hear; it is, as Riede points out, akin to Wordsworth's “still sad music of humanity,” or what we might call instead the “music of the elements”—air, earth, and water, fused by fire.14 To hear this music one need not purify oneself by the study of god or nature, as Milton had suggested; all one need do is live passionately and fully, swim exultingly in the sea of life and death. Such immersion in experience enables one not merely to hear or to sing but to be song, at one with Sappho, at one with nature, at one with divinity.

Sappho, Swinburne tells us repeatedly in “On the Cliffs”—both explicitly and through his carefully worked images of fusion—is “woman and god and bird,” an indissoluble “soul triune.” Thus he transforms the pagan-Christian dialectic that had informed most post-classical approaches to the Muse. Swinburne defines Sappho, an unquestionably pagan poet, as a trinity that transcends—even as it mimics—the Christian mystery of the Triune God. While Milton had to specify that he called on Urania's “meaning, not the name,” and Arnold had to discover a “Muse of Righteousness” identified with the Holy Spirit, Swinburne is free to address his Muse “inly, by thine only name, / Sappho” (3:311). Ignoring the difficulties of the pagan-Christian debate, Swinburne defines his Muse using both Christian and pagan terminology: the “god” who is one with Sappho is God the Father and “Father” Apollo; the “bird” simultaneously Christian Dove of the Holy Spirit and pagan nightingale whose name in Greek is “synonymous with poetry itself and the poet.”15 And, as a human embodiment of the divine, Sappho evokes both the Christian Incarnation and pagan anthropomorphic deities. Yet for Swinburne, Christ is but the type of Sappho—his incarnation of divinity less complete than her achievement of it, his fusion of man and god less thorough than hers. For as Swinburne makes clear in his comment on Blake's belief that “God only Acts and Is in beings or Men”: “It must be remarked and remembered that the very root or kernel of this creed is not the assumed humanity of God, but the achieved divinity of Man; not incarnation from without, but development from within; not a miraculous passage into flesh, but a natural growth into godhead” (William Blake, 16:259).16 Thus Swinburne suggests that his new myth transcends—even as it incorporates—those that preceded it.

While Swinburne's trinity differs from the Christian one in its greater emphasis on the human achievement of divinity rather than the divine descent into man, it also introduces an even more radical change: the substitution of “woman” for “man.” Sappho, in clear counterpoint to Christ the son of God, is female, the sister of men. Of course such a choice makes her identification as a Muse more natural; the Muses have almost always been represented as women and sisters (to one another, if not to mortal men). Yet it is precisely this “femaleness” of the Muses that caused such problems for Christian writers, who, despite the example of the Virgin, found it difficult to imagine woman except in connection with sin and deception. Even Milton could not entirely divorce the Muses from the Sirens, and, particularly in Victorian poetry, the Muses were constantly in danger of slipping over into their more sinister relatives. Western writers have sought continually to bring their art into accord with their theology; but if the source of art is imagined to be a female goddess (or, worse, a set of female goddesses), while the focus of religion is a male (or at best sexless) god, then the writer who wishes to maintain allegiance to both art and religion must develop a vision of the female that escapes Christian limits, or a notion of divinity that includes the feminine.

The ability to imagine a female divinity—as well as to perceive the “godliness” of mortal women—may well be dependent, as Mary Daly has argued, on abandoning the belief in a transcendent deity; since Swinburne's “post-Christian” god is nothing if not immanent, the incorporation of woman into the godhead poses no logical problems for him; indeed, it helps to enforce the recognition of god's immanence. And because god and woman are not at odds, Swinburne can love his Muse unambivalently, no longer afraid of an art whose female source might be a worldly temptation or a false divinity.

Yet, although female, Sappho is also “strange,” a “manlike maiden” who fuses qualities typically considered contradictory, and who bears little resemblance to the traditional Western image of woman. Swinburne calls her “maiden” even though she is known to have married and borne a child; deeply identified with women, she is nevertheless termed “manlike,” perhaps for the strength and clarity of her passion and her song (for it is doubtful whether Swinburne, who insisted that “qualities called virtues and vices depend on time, climate, and temperament” [Letters, 1:138], would have branded her “manlike” on the basis of her homoeroticism). But what is this woman whom Swinburne identifies as a god, this Muse who loves women and is neither virgin nor whore, neither good nor bad mother, neither all spirit nor all flesh—in a category of her own that seems to escape the traditional Western dualism of spirit and flesh, male and female, good and evil?

The answer must be Swinburne's own: Sappho is a “sister,” a literally kindred spirit born of the same mother and father—Memory and Apollo—as the poet. Surprisingly, the aspect of woman as man's sister has generally been overlooked by male poets in their conceptions of the female Muse. For this is a female not inherently “other” from the male, evoking neither sexual attraction and fear, nor filial love and terror. She is, indeed, something quite different from the “Swinburnean woman” who has so often been the focus of Swinburne studies,17 and who so much resembles the anima figure identified by Jungians as the presumed matrix from which the Muse image has emerged. Though Swinburne has rightly been noted for his bold exploration of the nature of woman as “other”—mother and lover, destroyer and healer, femme fatale and grand ideal—what critics have failed to see is that his Muse is not part of this complex. Sappho, though female and god, is not other to Swinburne, male and mortal: her femaleness does not stand in opposition to his maleness, nor her divinity to his humanity. She is not an anima figure, not Hertha, or Dolores, or Proserpine, or the sea—she is, quite simply, his sister, a woman with whom he can unproblematically identify himself.

And it is this that is Swinburne's distinctive contribution to the history of the female Muse: he is the first male poet to imagine her not as other but as image of his own self, a reflecting sister who can be known and loved unambivalently. As god she is not distinct from humans; as woman she is not apart from men. Swinburne does not, however, define his relationship with the Muse as sexual. By choosing Sappho, whose desire was directed towards omen, and by defining her as sister, Swinburne avoids the implication that this human Muse and her poet might themselves engage in a sexual relationship. Yet by celebrating a Muse whom he defines as having found inspiration in her own sexuality, Swinburne suggests a new model for creativity, and a new vision of personal and artistic integration. Male and female, “spirit” and “sense,” are fused, and the artist need not seek outside him (or her) human self for inspiration. Swinburne's vision of the Muse makes room for (is in fact dependent upon) both female creativity and female sexuality. His identification of Sappho as Muse thus offers a unique resolution to the dilemma of the Victorian artist; recognizing that woman and art need not be other to man or god (or the moral life), Swinburne suggests that only through recognition of the sister-Muse can the brother (or sister) poet recognize and fully express his or her own “present godhead.” Poetry written under the inspiration of such a Muse neither escapes nor transforms the human condition; rather, it reflects and celebrates it for what it is: “the sweet and sovereign unity of perfect spirit and sense, of fleshly form and intellectual fire” (“The Poems of Dante Gabriel Rossetti,” 15:13).


  1. All citations from Swinburne's poetry and prose are taken from the twenty-volume Bonchurch edition, The Complete Works of Algernon Charles Swinburne, ed. Sir Edmund Gosse and Thomas J. Wise (London, 1925). Volume and page number are given parenthetically in the text. The edition of the letters, also cited parenthetically, is Cecil Y. Lang, ed. The Swinburne Letters, 6 vols. (New Haven, 1959-62).

  2. In this achievement, Swinburne to some extent echoes Keats, who, as Helen Vendler has shown in The Odes of John Keats (Cambridge, 1983), creates a thoroughly human, thoroughly divine goddess of nature and art in “To Autumn.” Swinburne's Muse, however, unlike Keats's was a historically real mortal woman before becoming an “immortal.”

  3. In “Sapphistries,” Signs 10 (1984):43-62, Susan Gubar explores women writers' uses of Sappho as a figurative, if not literal Muse. Gubar's article is groundbreaking, though she is on familiar territory when she censures Swinburne for creating a “passionately depraved” Sappho who functions as a “lesbian femme fatale” (p. 49). As I hope to demonstrate, Swinburne's myth of Sappho as Muse defuses the myth of the femme fatale that had entrapped many of his fellow nineteenth-century poets.

  4. For an instructive analysis of the early Christian response to women, a response that can also be traced in early Christian treatments of the Muse, see Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church,” in her Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York, 1974), pp. 150-183. See also Elaine Pagels' recent study, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York, 1988) for a careful analysis of the early Christian perception of women and their relations to divinity.

  5. See, e.g. Hesiod's Theogony, in Richmond Lattimore, trans., Hesiod (Ann Arbor, 1959), p. 123. See also Pindar's Pythia 1 in The Odes of Pindar, ed. Lattimore (Chicago, 1947), p. 43.

  6. Matthew Arnold, The Complete Prose Works, ed. R. H. Super (Ann Arbor, 1960-78), 5:208. See also my “Matthew Arnold and the Muse: The Limits of the Olympian Ideal,” VP [Victorian Poetry] 23 (1985): 59-74.

  7. Ernst Curtius, in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. W. R. Trask (New York, 1953), has carefully traced the development of what he calls the topos “Contrast between Pagan and Christian poetry” (p. 235); studies of English Renaissance poetry, most notably John M. Steadman's Milton's Biblical and Classical Imagery (Pittsburgh, 1984) have applied Curtius' analysis to a developing English tradition. Certainly, the “pagan-Christian” dichotomy is significant, even within the nineteenth century. Yet the terms of the opposition may obscure an even more fundamental conflict: pagan gods were both male and female, while for the Christian, there is only one God, and He is a male Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The consequences of this opposition—between female and male concepts of divinity—have only begun to be explored.

  8. See, e.g., Mary Daly, Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy (Boston, 1984). It is worth noting that in Pure Lust, as well as in her most recent work, Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language (Boston, 1987), Daly makes abundant references to the Muses, whom she sees as essential images enabling women's renewed “participation in Powers of Be-ing” (Pure Lust, p. 148).

  9. See Jerome J. McGann, Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism (Chicago, 1972), pp. 112-116. McGann's reading of “Sapphics” is similar to my own, though he does not emphasize the significance of Swinburne's decision to make Sappho a Muse. For other observations on Swinburne's aesthetics, as embodied in this poem and others, I am indebted to Robert L. Peters, The Crowns of Apollo: Swinburne's Principles of Literature and Art, A Study in Victorian Criticism and Aesthetics (Detroit, 1965); Meredith B. Raymond “Swinburne Among the Nightingales,” VP 6 (1968): 125-142, and her Swinburne's Poetics: Theory and Practice (The Hague, 1971); and, especially, David G. Riede, Swinburne: A Study of Romantic Mythmaking (Charlottesville, 1978).

  10. David A. Cook, “The Content and Meaning of Swinburne's ‘Anactoria,’” VP 9 (1971): 77-93, has argued that the poem shows that “for Sappho, art is a mere bauble in the presence of sex,” and that the progress of the poem demonstrates that art is possible for Sappho (and, presumably for Swinburne) only when sexuality is renounced (p. 86). As Thaïs E. Morgan has observed, in “Swinburne's Dramatic Monologues: Sex and Ideology,” VP 22 (1984): 175-195, Cook's is the consensus view of the poem. Morgan, as I, finds instead that “Anactoria” expresses Swinburne's view of the possible—and desired—conjunction of art and sexuality.

  11. David G. Riede, A Study of Romantic Mythmaking, pp. 131-132.

  12. Swinburne's language here specifically echoes Keats's Mnemosyne speaking to Apollo in Hyperion: A Fragment. Indeed, much of Swinburne's characterization of Sappho as Muse recalls Keats's attempts to define a humanized divinity who will function as a source and subject of poetry—Psyche in “Ode to Psyche,” Apollo and Saturn in Hyperion: A Fragment, Moneta and Mnemosyne in The Fall of Hyperion, Autumn in “To Autumn.” Each of these figures in Keats functions in ways comparable to Swinburne's Sappho, mixing pleasure and pain, love and song, mortal and immortal. Yet the important difference is that Keats's figures are drawn from the realm of myth rather than human history, and thus their “apotheosis” is neither as dramatic nor as transformative as Sappho's.

  13. “Dedicatory Epistle,” The Poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 6 vols. (London, 1904), 1:11.

  14. For another view of Swinburne's relation to Milton, see William Wilson's excellent discussion in “Algernon Agonistes: ‘Thalassius,’ Visionary Strength, and Swinburne's Critique of Arnold's ‘Sweetness and Light,’” VP 19 (1981): 381-395.

  15. H. W. Garrod, “The Nightingale in Poetry,” in his The Profession of Poetry and Other Lectures (Oxford, 1929), p. 134.

  16. These lines came to my attention as cited by McGann, pp. 299-300.

  17. See, e.g., Antony H. Harrison's categorization in “The Swinburnean Woman,” PQ [Poetry Quarterly] 58 (1979): 90-102. Interestingly, Harrison fails to include Sappho among Swinburne's women.

Dolores O'Higgins (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5091

SOURCE: O'Higgins, Dolores. “Sappho's Splintered Tongue: Silence in Sappho 31 and Catullus 51.” American Journal of Philology 111 (1990): 156-67.

[In the following essay, O'Higgins explicates the Sappho poem referred to as “Phainetai moi” (fragment no. “31”) in the context of a verse response by Catullus.]

Sappho1 “31” concerns poetry as much as love or jealousy, like Catullus' “response” in 51, a poem which addresses Sappho's poetic claims and poetic stance at least as much as Lesbia's beauty.2 This study considers the impact of the beloved on each of the two poets, focusing especially on the disturbing and memorable image of the “broken” tongue in Sappho's poem, and the relative seriousness of Sappho's “fracture” and Catullus' sluggish tongue.

The Greek poem's first line introduces what appears to be a highly charged emotional situation, whose “literary” implications appear only later. Sappho (as I shall designate the speaker) supposes a man who sits—or any man who might sit—opposite the girl she loves.3

φαίνεταί μοι χῆνοσ ἴσοs θέοισιν

Before she identifies the subject of the verb phainetai, Sappho introduces the pronoun moi, the indirect object of the verb and perceiver or interpreter of the scene. The line might translate “It seems to me that he is like the gods. …”4 The verb reappears at line 16, where Sappho “seems to herself.” Thus, most of the extant poem is contained within a framework or “ring” of authorial memory, perception, imagination or opinion. Although the poet dramatizes herself as an alien figure, looking wistfully at the unattainable, she is not altogether an outsider. “Phainetai moi” marks the boundary of a world contained within Sappho. By contrast, Catullus begins his poem, and its second line, with the third person pronoun ille, a change which shifts the emphasis from perceiver to perceived. Catullus' naming of his beloved—Lesbia—also grants her a specific identify and a more substantial independent existence than Sappho's anonymous girl.

Lesbia's audience responds to both her visual and her verbal charm; the man watches and listens to (spectat et audit 4) the seductress, who laughs sweetly. In Sappho the man only listens (hupakouei 4), but the girl's aural charms are double; she speaks sweetly (hadu phoneisas 3-4) and laughs caressingly (gelaisas himeroen 5). Thus in Sappho's opening scene the girl's seductiveness is emphatically vocal. The subsequent expression “whenever I see you—even for a short time …” in 7 may suggest that the girl's beauty was such that it could be felt in the briefest glimpse, yet the passage seems at least as concerned with Sappho's extraordinary susceptibility to her beloved's presence as with the girl's appearance.

This thing makes the heart in my breast tremble.
For when I see you even for a short time
I can no longer speak …


The poet's heart is shaken by “this thing,”5 i.e., by the girl's voice, the man's reaction to the girl, her own sense of mortality, in fact by the complete “moment and its beauty and anguish” as Ralph Johnson has put it.6 The verb eptoaisen (“causes to tremble”), describing the scene's shattering effect on Sappho, connotes more than a frisson of sexual excitement; she feels the debilitating fear that precedes lethal encounters on the battlefield.7 The poem gradually unravels the signs and implications of her terror/excitement.

The man faces the girl, listening closely, and seems “like the gods” in his felicity or perhaps his hardihood.8 Although the immediate context allows either reading, the tone and imagery of the remainder of the poem point in the direction of hardihood. The man, in his divine invulnerability, may dally in the girl's destructive ambiance, but Sappho fears even a momentary and relatively long range encounter.

Sappho is a battered “veteran,” whose previous encounters with the girl have always had the same outcome.9 First she is struck dumb. Then a subtle fever (9-10) is succeeded by blindness, humming in her ears, cold sweat, a grass-like pallor—and finally (15-16), “I seem to myself to be little short of dying.” It has been observed that details of this disintegration echo Homeric descriptions of dying or mortally threatened warriors—for example the pallor, blindness (or faintness) and sweat.10 I wish to focus on another aspect of Sappho's reaction, however.

Symptoms that do not characterize the beleaguered warrior include the humming, fever and silence.11 Of these the silence—the first in Sappho's catalog—is perhaps the most interesting. Silence does not generally afflict Homeric warriors, even desperate ones. More significantly, it does not afflict the one Homeric poet who is threatened with mortal danger. Phemius pleads eloquently—and successfully—for his life at Odyssey 22.344-53. Yet, just as Sappho evokes the girl with a double description of her voice—speaking and laughing—so Sappho's reaction begins with a double account of the poet's own voicelessness, a double wound to correspond to the double blow. Sappho is no longer permitted to say anything; instead, her tongue has been shattered into silence.

ἀλλ' ἄχαν μὲν γλῶσσα † ἔαγε † …


The hiatus in line 9 has placed the reading eage in doubt. I believe with Nagy, however, that it is deliberate, intended audially to reproduce the “catch” in the poet's voice; Sappho dramatically represents herself as being almost at the point she describes—losing her voice altogether.12 It is a critical loss for an oral poet, and a paradoxical and dramatic beginning to the poet's response.

I do not maintain that Sappho was an oral poet in the sense that Homer has been described by Parry and Lord, but, as Ruth Finnegan has shown, oral and written literature form a continuum rather than entirely separate traditions.13 Sappho inherits an ancient lyric tradition which sees and describes itself as essentially performative, and communicated, if not created, with the voice.14 Pindar for example uses the word glossa (tongue) and its compounds—“straight tongued,” “tongueless”—to describe poets and poetry.15 Although she was almost certainly literate, Sappho's references to tongue and voice reflect a lingering concept of poetry as an oral medium.16

By contrast, in the aftermath of the Hellenistic revolution, Catullus occupies a point nearer the other extreme of the oral/literary spectrum. Thus for Catullus, being “tongue-tied” does not to the same extent threaten his ability to create or communicate his poetry. His poetry is a libellus, separable from himself and transmitted as a gift to a friend. For Catullus, poetry exists on paper or tablets, and indeed, destruction of the material may mean the end of the poem. At 68.45-46 the paper containing Catullus' poems is imagined as an old woman, transmitting its message:

sed dicam vobis [i.e., Musis, deis], vos porro dicite multis
milibus et facite haec charta loquatur anus.

Poem 36 opens and closes with the famous reference to the cacata charta of Volusius' Annales. This poem also includes a drama between Catullus and his beloved, who has been injured by angry iambics. She wants to burn the poems, but Catullus deliberately misinterprets and consigns Volusius to the flames instead. Burning may be a symbolic gesture of destruction, but in the case of a single copy, burning will end the poems' existence.

In Catullus poetry may be lost, burnt, stolen, but it is not necessarily imperilled by a silenced poet. Poems are comically—but significantly—endowed with independent life and moral responsibility; “little verses” may be wicked while their creator is still unsullied in 16. They are newborn infants in 65. Poems take part as third characters in the little dramas taking place between himself and their recipients; hendecasyllables are sent out to dun for missing tablets in 42. Their effect may be felt in the absence of their creator. In 35, merely reading Caecilius' poem on the Magna Mater has caused a girl (who is described as more learned than Sappho's Muse) to fall passionately in love with him.

For Sappho, however, the poet's voice is the instrument of seduction. Sappho's verb eage (“shattered” 9) describing her tongue metaphorically associates this “symptom” also with a warrior's death on the battlefield. Just as the Homeric warrior defines, defends and justifies himself with a sword, so the poet with a tongue. Sappho is disarmed, her voice a splintered weapon, like the sword or spear of a doomed warrior who has encountered an immortal or immortally aided foe. After only a glimpse, before she can engage in “combat,” Sappho's weapon—the tongue—is destroyed. One might compare Iliad 16.786ff., where Apollo knocks off Patroclus' helmet and destroys his corslet and spear directly before Patroclus is killed by Hector.

At the end of the fourth stanza Sappho marks a break with what precedes with a repetition of the verb phainom' (“I seem to myself”) in 16, which completes the “ring” of the perceptual, imaginary world of the poem's first four stanzas and begins a new phase in the drama. It is followed by a one line fragment of what I take to be the poem's final stanza, as the poem—hitherto an account of the narrator as vulnerable audience—turns to consider its own audience.

ἀλλὰ πὰν τόλματον ἐπεὶ † χαὶ πσνητα †

The expression pan tolmaton is not simply an exhortation to endure, although connotations of endurance are present.17 In this martial context pan tolmaton may be translated “all can be dared.” It is a call to arms providing a dramatic peripeteia within the poem itself. The poem which ironically records the poet's own near death, repeated in the past and again imminent, now reveals itself as a lethal weapon. Whether it was the girl's voice or appearance (or both) that seduced Sappho, it is her own voice with which she plans to attack in her turn, uncannily recreating her fractured weapon. The rout will become a duel, indeed perhaps an upset victory. In fact pan tolmaton marks a “counter-offensive” already launched—a song, divinely seductive as the Sirens'. Sappho seduces in her turn, by daring to approach her audience and perform it. The poem's various audiences—including the girl—experience the dangerous felicity of listening and coming under its spell.

Sappho probably concluded her poem with a gnomic statement of fortune's reversal. “Even the poor man may become rich—and the rich man poor.”18 Martin West cites as parallel Theognis 657, which exhorts the addressee to maintain a calm spirit in good fortune and adversity—for reversals of fortune are commonplace. I agree with West that Sappho here speaks of fortune's reversal—for good and ill. It does not follow, however, that she takes the same attitude as Theognis, seeing fortune's vagaries as uncontrollable, simply to be endured. As her Hymn to Aphrodite suggests, a reversal in the fortunes of love can be deliberately achieved: by the lover who enlists the help of Aphrodite. This poem (1 L.P.) consists of a prayer—and a corresponding promise from the goddess—not, as we might expect, to unite Sappho in bliss with her beloved—but to reverse the situation, to inflict on the girl who has wounded Sappho an equal agony. She will give presents instead of receiving them: she will chase instead of fleeing.

It has long been recognized that Sappho's “Hymn to Aphrodite” resembles in tone and diction the lethally vengeful prayer of Diomedes to Athena at Iliad 5.115-20.19 Sappho's “borrowing” of the Homeric situation establishes a complex, reciprocal literary relationship, many of whose ironies have been well discussed.20

Homer's battlefield afforded little opportunity for relationships between enemies (the exchange between Glaukos and Diomedes in Iliad 6 being a famous exception). The only permanence or stability lay in the shared kleos of death, the poetic fame that united victor and vanquished, incorporating the victim into his conqueror's song of triumph. Similarly on Love's battlefield in the “Hymn to Aphrodite” a reciprocal relationship seems impossible; there is only unequal battle: pursuit or flight.21 For the speaker of Sappho “31” also, Love's battleground seems tense, unstable and lethal, with the additional threat of oblivion, since love's imperilled “warrior” is also the singer. This “warrior's” death, far from earning an expensive glory for the hero from the poet or poetic tradition, will necessarily silence the singer.

Sappho's “myriad-mindedness” makes her battlefield less bleak than Homer's, however. Whereas in Homer the victor and victim seem to be clearly distinguished from one another, Sappho incorporates both roles in herself within her poem as she moves from victim of love to conqueror/seducer. Further, for all the grimness of these metaphorical battles, there is also a sense of the generative excitement of the lethal dialogue between lover and beloved, a sense of irony, delight, and of exhilarating—and divine—energy. The expression “paler than grass,” for example, even as it evokes unconsciousness and death, also suggests tender growth and life.22 Moreover, Sappho in a sense achieves the enviable divinity that she attributes to another. It is not merely a question of survival, of enduring recurrent brushes with death or approaches to death; as far as the poem is concerned, death is a threat that is never fully realized. But the terrible silence, which threatens both the poet's existence as a poet, and the existence of this or any poem of Sappho, actually and repeatedly assails her. The act of poiesis resists the obliteration that passion threatens, and the existence of the poema proclaims a permanent triumph over the recurrent threat of poetic non-being. Indeed, to an extent, the act of making a poem replaces the passion, just as epic may be said to replace the mortal organism with a divine artifact.23

Sappho's poem, in its final stanza, dramatically wills itself into existence despite the silencing nature of its subject. Catullus' final stanza, however, shifts in a different direction. His poem details a disintegration both similar to and subtly different from Sappho's. Sappho records a heart-stopping fear or shock, which she then explains in terms of a recurrent series of past catastrophic symptoms, beginning with loss of her voice and ending in a state near death. Catullus summarizes his entire reaction at the outset. He does not, like Sappho, explain a present sense of fear with reference to repeated past experience; this particular (vicariously experienced) encounter with Lesbia affects him precisely as all other encounters. All of his senses are snatched away (“misero quod omnis / eripit sensus mihi …” 5-6). Whereas Sappho's poem may be located in the moment of fear between the vision of her beloved and the physical breakdown which usually results from such an encounter, Catullus leaves no distance between his vision of Lesbia and his reaction. He sees her and loses all his senses. Catullus' anticipatory summary has the effect of placing on an equal footing all of the symptoms he subsequently lists. Loss of all the senses is unconsciousness, of which loss of speech is merely one aspect. The following catalog of individual symptoms only spells out what has already been said.

Catullus' “lingua sed torpet” achieves roughly the same sense as glossa eage, but lacks the hiatus, the violence and the military connotations of Sappho's expression.24 A slender flame (tenuis … flamma) answers Sappho's lepton pur; the humming in the ears also reappears. But in Catullus unconsciousness (“gemina teguntur / lumina nocte” 11-12) apparently interrupts the poet before he himself can describe his own approach to the edge of death. Catullus depends on his audience's familiarity with the Sapphic poem to create this sense of interruption. His poem enacts the final unconsciousness of which Sappho stops short before he moves to an entirely different plane of reality, stepping abruptly aside from the obvious impossibility of saying anything further within his current dramatic framework.

In place of Sappho's reversing “resolution” (pan tolmaton), Catullus' final stanza moves to self reproach. The disputed meaning of otium in Catullus' final stanza lies at the heart of the poem's notorious interpretative difficulties.25 My treatment is very brief, its purpose merely to suggest how I feel Catullus' final stanza may comment on Sappho's poem and on the question of orality/literariness and the poet's silence.

For the Roman Neoteric poets otium was a symbol—the antithesis of negotium, a responsible citizen's official “activity,” forensic, military, mercantile, or political. It was an attitude as much as the state of leisure, and could be considered the very soil which nourished elaborate, personal poetry.26 Catullus 50, for example, records a day in which Catullus and a friend composed verse “in a leisurely way” (otiosi). Significantly he uses the word scribens (writing) to describe this process; even though each man had a ready audience in the other, they apparently required tabellae to facilitate the process of composition and exchange. Even the most light-hearted and casual symposium requires writing implements. In poem 50 otium facilitates the leisured process of writing poetry.

In poem 51 the effect of otium on Catullus himself apparently is analogous to its destructive effect on “kings” and “wealthy … cities.”27Otium can mean a state of peace, in contrast to the rigors of war, a state which allows the growth of moral degeneration, and renders cities vulnerable to attack.28 By this reading, the word otium responds to Sappho's military imagery of love. Catullus has not been “fighting” in Love's wars, and his idleness has made him unfit for close “combat” with Lesbia—the sort of literary/amatory “confrontation” that Sappho's poem seems to indicate.29

Yet although Catullus seems to rebuke himself for succumbing to otium, he does not indicate that he intends to abandon or resist it. It is significant that, unlike Sappho (with her pan tolmaton), Catullus does not express intention or desires for the future, although it is possible to infer that the poem develops out of the poet's resistance to otium. Thus, to a greater extent than Sappho's, Catullus' poem presents itself as rooted in the poet's present, which is colored by persistent indulgence in otium. I suggest that otium is not inactivity—literary or amatory—so much as a reluctance or failure to confront in one or more areas of life.30 Poems are created and love is expressed—in private. Otium, which I define as a withdrawn and leisurely indulgence in a lover's sensibilities, forms the background of Catullus' poem. The poem can address Lesbia in the absence of its creator, who can thus reproach himself for his otium—a “disengagement” both literary and emotional.

In conclusion, Catullus depicts total breakdown as the direct and immediate result of his vision of Lesbia. He narrates his collapse as an accomplished thing rather than a threatening possibility. Thus his peom does not, like Sappho's, claim to be situated in a terrifying moment of suspense and anticipation. His narrative of disintegration, rather like Horace's ironic description of his own transformation into a swan in Odes II 20, bespeaks a certain detachment. Thus Catullus clearly establishes the poem's existence as separate from the dramatic situation that it describes and independent of the precarious articulateness of its poet. Catullus' final stanza, with its thrice intoned otium, formalizes this emotional and literary distance between himself and his subject.

Sappho's poem, in contrast, appears delicately balanced between the inspiring/destructive girl, and Sappho's daring/enduring response, and between the anticipatory fear or excitement produced by this particular “occasion” and the familiar series of debilitating reactions which such an encounter generally produces. Her fear or tension exists because she expects these reactions, but although they are imminent, they are not yet fully realized. The poem breathlessly describes such an imminent breakdown, beginning with a critical failure of her tongue, the instrument of self-expression. Her tongue “breaks” and seems to doom her, as a fractured spear often dooms a warrior in Homer—before he can harm his opponent.

Sappho's poem is conditioned by the oral culture in which it was created. It is not only a vividly enacted drama of seduction; the poem actually dramatizes its dependence on the vulnerable living organism who must perform it. Of course, as has often been observed, its very existence testifies to a considerable degree of emotional and literary control, but the poem presents itself as suspended in a state of tension between past silences and a future, imminent silence. The song exists in the threat of its own extinction, a threat which is formally confronted and triumphantly survived only at the end, where, in a dramatic peripeteia, Sappho reveals that she has replied to unanswerable enchantment with her own song of seduction. Ultimately Aphrodite proves to be the mother of Persuasion and not the death of the poet.31


  1. For bibliography on this and other poems of Sappho, see D. E. Gerber, Studies in Greek Lyric Poetry: 1967-1975 (special edition of CW [Classical World] Vol. 70 #2 [1976]) 105-14; Studies in Greek Lyric Poetry: 1975-85 (part 1) CW Vol. 81 #2 (1987) 132-44. For bibliography on Catullus 51, see James P. Holoka, Gaius Valerius Catullus. A Systematic Bibliography (New York 1985) 195-97. For summary of earlier treatments of the poem's cruces and insightful comment, see G. M. Kirkwood, Early Greek Monody. The History of a Poetic Type (Cornell Studies in Classical Philology Vol. 37 [Ithaca 1974]) 120-23, 255-60.

  2. Himerius, Orations 28.2 significantly says that Sappho made a girl's beauty and graces a pretext (πϱόφασιs) for her songs. M. R. Lefkowitz, “Critical Stereotypes and the Poetry of Sappho,” GRBS [Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies] 14 (1973) 113-23, shows how Sappho's work has been seen as the artless outpouring of a woman whose emotional energies have been diverted from the “normal” channel—i.e., child-raising. For the artistry of Sappho 31, see C. Segal, “Eros and Incantation. Sappho and Oral Poetry,” Arethusa 7 (1974) 139-60. This issue of rationality and poetic control is related to the question of poetic persona. My position resembles that of W. R. Johnson in The Idea of Lyric (Berkeley 1982) 40-41. The singer is “partly herself perhaps, the woman Sappho; partly an ideal, universal fiction: their fusion in imagination. …”

  3. I agree with J. Winkler, “Public and Private in Sappho's Lyrics” in H. Foley, ed., Reflections of Women in Antiquity (New York 1981) 63-89 (74) that the expression “that man whosoever” is “a rhetorical cliché, not an actor in the imagined scene.”

  4. The verb is not used impersonally at this early date—but my translation preserves the order in which the pronouns appear. Catullus' poem reverses that order.

  5. The antecedent of to has been the subject of much debate. For recent discussion and bibliography, see E. Robbins, “Every Time I Look at You … Sappho Thirty-One,” TAPA [Transactions of the American Philological Association] 110 (1980) 255-61. Whether or not the ambiguity of the relative pronoun in line 5 is deliberate, it cannot be argued into clarity; to glances cursorily back at all that precedes it—the entire series of images, impressions and opinions.

  6. W. R. Johnson (note 1 above) 39.

  7. For discussion of the meaning of ptoieo, see L. Rissman, Love as War: Homeric Allusion in the Poetry of Sappho (Königstein 1983) 110, note 22. For comparable uses of the verb in an amatory context, see Mimn. 5.1-3 W; Alcaeus 283.3-4; Anacr. 60.11-12. G. Wills, “Sappho 31 and Catullus 51,” GRBS 8 (1967) 167-97 (186-87) takes eptoaisen as hypothetical (ken being understood) but the aorist makes better sense, and the indicative mood is accepted by most scholars (see G. L. Koniaris, “On Sappho, Fr. 31 (L.-P.),” Philologus 112 (1968) 173-86 [184-85]).

  8. E. Robbins (note 4 above) 260 takes the expression as capable of referring both to strength and happiness; I also prefer an inclusive reading. See Koniaris (note 6 above) 181-82 for discussions of isos theoisin.

  9. See M. Markovich, “Sappho Fr. 31: Anxiety Attack or Love Declaration?” CQ [Classical Quarterly] N.S. 22 (1972) 19-32 (21), who notes—citing Kühner-Gerth ii 449—that the subjunctive ido in line 7 “denotes the repetition of this chain reaction.” See also Wills (note 6 above) 170 and Koniaris (note 6 above) 184.

  10. See L. Rissman (note 6 above) 72-90. Rissman studies the expressions eptoaisen, tromos … agrei, khlorotera … poias, isos theoisin etc. in the context of certain Homeric passages. See also J. Svenbro, “La tragédie de l'amour. Modèle de la guerre et théorie de l'amour dans la poésie de Sappho,” QS [Quaderni di Storia] 19 (1984) 57-79 (66-72). Svenbro remarks that several of Sappho's “symptoms”—trembling, blindness, sweat, pallor—resemble those of wounded, struggling or fearful warriors.

  11. See Svenbro (note 9 above) 69 for discussion of the humming and fever, both of which are without parallel in Homer. See also D. Page, Sappho and Alcaeus. An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry (Oxford 1955) 29 for (rare) parallels of these erotic symptoms in Greek and Roman poets. Page cites several Homeric passages where silence afflicts someone who is shocked or afraid. Antilochus' inability to speak at his discovery of Patroclus' death (Iliad 17.695-96) is not, as Svenbro claims, a symptom comparable to the trembling, sweat etc. of an embattled warrior. As in the case of Eurylochus (Odyssey 10.244-46), Antilochus is temporarily too shocked to communicate terrible news.

  12. See D. Page (note 10 above) 24-25. G. Nagy, Comparative Studies in Greek and Indic Meter (Harvard 1974) 45 defends the hiatus as Sappho's conscious effort to reproduce the sense in the sound. See also M. L. West, “Burning Sappho,” Maia 22 (1970) 307-30 (311). West also defends the MS reading, which seems to have been the one with which Lucretius was familiar (infringi linguam at DRN 3, 155 seems also to have been a unique metaphorical use).

  13. See R. Finnegan, Oral Poetry. Its nature, significance and social context (Cambridge 1977) 272. Finnegan rejects Lord's definition of oral poetry as too narrow. On p. 22 she observes, “If a piece is orally performed—still more if it is mainly known to people through actualization in performance—it must be regarded as in that sense an ‘oral poem.’”

  14. See Segal (note 1 above) for the importance of the oral tradition for understanding Sappho's work. See also R. Merkelbach, “Sappho und ihr Kreis,” Philologus 101 (1957) 1-29.

  15. See P. 2.86 where Pindar talks about the euthuglossos man and his responsibility to speak out within various political systems. The passage immediately succeeds one in which Pindar speaks of himself and his own function as a poet in society. Aglossos (tongueless) at N. 8.24 signifies (amongst other things) the man who lacks a poet to speak for him. The word glossa is used of the poet's tongue, and the process of poetry making at O. 6.82, O. 9.42, O. 11.9, O. 13.12, P. 1.86, P. 3.2, N. 4.8, N. 4.86, N. 7.72, I. 5.47, Pa. 6.59.

  16. For other references by Sappho to the voice and its seductive power see fragments 118, 153, 185 L.P. Of course, like all ancient poets, Sappho is known to us only through the printed page. Athenaeus 13.596cd quotes Posidippus:

    Σατφωαι δὲ μένουσι φίληs ἔτι χαὶ μενέουσιν
    oδῆs αἱ λευχαὶ φθεγγομέναι σελίδεs.

    Frag. 157D, an epigram probably of Hellenistic date, ascribed to Sappho, announces that even though she is aphonos she will speak, because she has a tireless voice (phonan akamatan) set at her feet—i.e., a stone inscription.

  17. H. Fränkel, Dichtung und Philosophie des frühen Griechentums2 (Munich 1963) 199, n. 16 draws a distinction between the endings -tos and -teos in the verbal adjective. -tos (the ending of tolmaton in line 17 of Sappho's poem) indicates possibility, not necessity. See Smyth 358. I differ from Fränkel and those who translate “may be endured.” See P. Pucci, Odysseus Polutropos, Intertextual Readings in the Odyssey and Iliad (Ithaca 1987) 47 where he remarks with reference to Iliad 10.231 that the verb tolman (as distinct from its cognate, tlenai) usually means to dare rather than to endure, and that is does not appear to be used in the sense of “endure” in the Iliad. Given the martial tone of Sappho 31, valor, rather than endurance, seems particularly appropriate.

  18. See M. L. West (note 11 above) 312-13.

  19. See Svenbro (note 9 above) 57-63 and Page (note 10 above) 17.

  20. See especially J. Winkler (note 2 above) 65-71. For example, Winkler shows how, in the Hymn to Aphrodite, Sappho encompasses within herself both the role of expelled female (like Aphrodite in Iliad 5) and that of aggressive male who seeks the help of a female goddess (Diomedes and Athena in Iliad 5). Thus Sappho shows how she responds, as a subtle and many-minded female reader, to the “male” text of the Iliad. Far from being excluded from the warrior's world, like Homer's Aphrodite, she contains many aspects of it within her single persona.

  21. But E. Stehle Stigers, “Sappho's Private World” in Reflections of Women in Antiquity (note 2 above) 45-61 argues that Sappho's description of love exhibits a mutuality characteristic of women, rather than the desire for domination more typical of men. Stigers does not discuss this poem.

  22. For khloros see Eleanor Irwin, Colour Terms in Greek Poetry (Toronto 1974) 31-78.

  23. See G. Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans. Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry (Baltimore 1979) 144ff. for this question of the living organism replaced by or opposed to inorganic kleos.

  24. The final lines of Catullus 11 show a similar “softening” of a Sapphic image; his love is like a flower which has been brushed by the plough and falls. It is not—as K. Quinn points out in his commentary ad loc.—actually ploughed under, merely fatally bruised. Sappho frag. 105 c L.P. depicts a hyacinth trampled underfoot by shepherds.

  25. For otium in Latin literature, see J. M. André, L'Otium dans la vie morale et intellectuelle romaine, des origines à l'époque augustéene (Paris 1966); W. A. Laidlaw, “Otium,G&R. [Greece & Rome] Ser. 2, 15 (1968) 42-52.

  26. For discussion of the elegiac poets on otium, see André (note 24 above) 403ff.; Laidlaw (note 24 above) 47-48; L. Alfonsi, Otium e vita d'amore negli elegiaci Augustei. Studi in onore di A. Calderini e R. Paribeni, I (Milan 1956).

  27. R. Lattimore, “Sappho 2 and Catullus 51,” CP [Classical Philology] 39 (1944) 184-87 cites similar lines in Theognis 1103-4, where hubris is said to have destroyed famous cities like Colophon and Smyrna. Troy also comes to mind, with its proverbial wealth, the luxurious peace shattered by the Greek expedition. A. Passerini, SIFC [Studi Italiani di Filologia Classica] 11 (1934) 52ff. links Catullus' otium with truphe.

  28. For otium as peace as opposed to war, see for example, Sall. Cat. 10.1; Jug. 41.1; Livy 1.19.4; 1.22.2; 6.36.1; Sen. Ep. 51.6.

  29. For discussion of the final stanza of Catullus' poem, and its possible relationship with the Sapphic poem, see G. Wills (note 6 above). Wills argues (196) that Catullus is talking about “a lover's code—one that embraces suffering and condemns desertion under trial. … Love is his negotium, and he must be fit for all its encounters.” Wills' interpretation of otium is persuasive, although there is no “must,” no exhortation to abandon otium—which constitutes a major difference between Catullus' poem and Sappho's.

  30. C. Segal, “Catullan Otiosi: The Lover and the Poet,” G&R 17 (1970) 25-31 argues that, for Catullus in poems 50 and 51, the concept of otium links love and the writing of poetry. “50 deals primarily with the literary or “poetic” side of otium; 51 with the amatory side; but the two strands of otium are intertwined” (31). I agree that there is a literary and an amatory aspect to otium, but I prefer not to divide its twin aspects between the two poems. Recently J. B. Itzkowitz, “On the Last Stanza of Catullus 51,” Latomus 42 (1983) 129-34 also argued that otium has twin aspects—otium-amor and otium-poesis.

  31. Frag. 200 L.P. (a scholiast on the Works and Days) says that Sappho made Aphrodite the mother of Peitho.

Diane J. Rayor (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2659

SOURCE: Rayor, Diane J. “Translating Fragments.” Translation Review, no. 32-33 (1990): 15-18.

[In the following essay, Rayor explores some of the difficulties associated with translating Sappho's fragmentary poetic texts.]

Since ancient poetry so often survives only in fragments, it would seem to present the translator with special problems not shared by those who translate complete texts. But although some of the problems are unique, the methods used to “solve” them are much the same. Yet focusing on the translation of fragments makes it easier to see the additions, subtractions, and changes that occur in all translations. The awkward loss of text exaggerates the ever-present temptation to “fix” a text rather than represent the poet's words—and the gaps between those words—accurately. Incomplete texts illuminate the criteria, strategies, tactics, and alternatives available for any rendering.

Quotations and papyri provide our only sources of ancient Greek lyric poetry. The quotations generally are very brief excerpts of one or two lines isolated from their original context within longer poems; occasionally a whole poem is quoted. Egyptian papyri containing poetry turn up in various stages of disintegration or in pieces. Indeed, many recent finds of poetry are on strips of papyrus wrapping mummies. Thus poems found on papyrus often are missing the right or left side; sometimes entire lines or scattered words have been erased by time.

The poetry of Sappho (seventh century bce) demonstrates both the possibilities of translation and the necessity for establishing consistent principles of translation. Of the nine books of her poetry (some five hundred poems) collected in the Hellenistic period, only one definitely complete poem remains. The rest are fragments. The combination of the distance in time, the physical state of the manuscripts, the lack of reliable biographical information, and the poet's gender have led to the constant creation of new Sapphos by translators.1

Fragments clarify strategies of reading and translating poetry because their absences expose our necessary interaction with the text. They also expose where the translator distorts the text by interacting too much, thus not allowing the readers a chance to experience the potential of the poem. Translations work best when they fully exploit the connection and activity of the reader with the text. Letting the absences show in the translation leaves room for the reader to determine meaning and make connections.

Fragments implicitly remind us of their physical inscription and call into question the illusion of self-contained, “whole” texts. The holes in the text are not left empty in the reading process. As we read, we fill in, “read between the lines.” While we do this in all reading, fragments tempt us to guess authorial intention, to imagine what the poet originally wrote that is now missing.

Reading a translation of Greek poetry should be as close to the experience of reading the Greek text as possible. Yet the reader can discover the possibilities of the Greek text only through the eyes of the translator. Optimally, the translation recreates as much of the potential meaning of the Greek as possible—opening up rather than narrowing the range of possible interpretations. It is a delicate business to provide enough information without over-determining the meaning of the poem.

To recreate the experience of reading Sappho, for instance, the translation needs to show the reader where the Greek text breaks off. Most available translations of Greek lyric give no indication of fragmentation, where one thought does not immediately follow the last. Translators generally opt for expanding or condensing the text by adding or subtracting phrases. Peter Newmark's terms of over- and under-translation2 have special meaning for fragments.

Over-translation and under-translation erase evidence of physical gaps. “Completing” the poem by filling in gaps overly privileges the translator's interpretation, and fragmentary lines left out through condensing often contain vital information. Both practices simplify the poetry and mislead the reader. While the translator's interpretation of the text always informs the translation, she should resist the temptation to add or subtract text itself.

Over-translation was once common because the editors of Greek texts used to add the Greek they guessed the author originally had written. Some additions to fragmented texts certainly are acceptable, and it would be a disservice not to include them. The standard Greek editions include generally accepted supplements based on quotations in other ancient authors, probable readings of papyri, information from ancient marginalia, and the sense of the texts themselves. The translator accepts or rejects these supplements on a individual basis according to probability and necessity. It is not over-translation to accept a suggested word that is likely paleographically and needed for an intelligible reading.

On the other hand, early editions of the Greek, such as Edmonds'3 Sappho, contain large-scale reconstruction. Edmonds fills in whole passages missing in the extant texts of Sappho; he even composes entire poems from a few fragments. More recent editions of Sappho, by Lobel and Page4 and Voigt,5 provide texts free from these restorations. Translations based on poorer editions, therefore, are an additional stage removed from the Greek. Translations not based on the latest findings or the most accurate scholarship are mistranslations rather than over-translations.

The justification given for over-translation is that fragmentary poetry should be completed by the translator to provide the reader with the closest possible experience of the original. The problem, of course, is that the translator cannot know what the poet originally wrote, and that translators always interpret through their own biases. For example, in Sappho [“16”],6 lines 13-14 are missing:

She had no
memory of her child or dear parents,
since she was led astray
[by Aphrodite] …
… lightly
… reminding me now of Anaktoria
being gone,
I would rather see her lovely step
and the radiant sparkle of her face
than all the war-chariots in Lydia
and soldiers battling in shining bronze.

Richmond Lattimore's7 translation adds this for the missing lines:

Since young brides have hearts that can be persuaded
easily, light things, palpitant to passion/as I am.

This addition completely transforms the tone and purpose of the poem. Sappho's poem argues that “whatever one loves” (line 4)—the paraphernalia of war or an individual person—appears most desirable, not that women are particularly excitable and irrational. The lines Lattimore adds to to fill the gap are symptomatic of changes throughout his translations of Sappho; earlier in [“16”] he changes the neuter “whatever one loves” to “she whom one loves best.”

While over-translated poems second-guess the author, under-translated poems tend to leave out even more text than is available in their fragmentary form. Should the translator trim more off a poem already pruned by time? Mary Barnard's8 translation of Sappho [“95”] provides an example of three strategies: under-translation (1) by leaving out the first three partially visible lines, and (2) by pretending the poem is unbroken, and (3) over-translation by adding an explanation to the name of Hermes:

Hermes, Lord, you
who lead the ghosts
But this time
I am not happy; I
want to die, to see
the moist lotus open
along Acheron.

Omission of the woman's name, “Gongyla,” from the first extant line removes the suggestion that perhaps the “longing” to die is based on erotic longing for another woman:

Gongyla …
Surely a sign …
especially …
[Hermes] came into …
I said: O Lord …
By the blessed [goddess]
I take no pleasure on [earth]
but longing to die holds me,
to see the dewy lotus-
shaded banks of Acheron …

Translators need to be particularly aware of their biases or assumptions when translating women's poetry to avoid distorting the message, or closing off interpretive possibilities available in the source text.9 Over-translations, such as Lattimore's of Sappho [“16”], fill in the fragment gaps with inappropriate or trivializing phrases. While fragments lend themselves to that sort of misrepresentation, whole poems also are subject to distorted or censored renderings. Obvious examples include translations that switch pronouns or even the subject from female to male. Nineteenth-century translations of Sappho [“1”] changed from female to male the object of the (female) speaker's desire:

For if she flees, soon she'll pursue,
she doesn't accept gifts, but she'll give,
if not now loving, soon she'll love
even against her will.

Fragments that are excerpts from lost longer poems frequently lack a context for interpretation. In these short fragments, it is sometimes difficult to determine the gender from the Greek verb. For example, in [“15.”4] the Greek could be “he came” or “she came”:

                    … Kypris,
may she find you very bitter
and may Doricha not boast, saying
how she came the second time
to longed-for love.

Nothing in the poem suggests a masculine pronoun, since the only person mentioned is female. Yet the poem generally has been translated “he came,” which shifts the focus of the poem to an unidentified man. This has been justified by an unreliable biographical tradition that associates Doricha with a prostitute with whom Sappho's brother fell in love. Even if we accept that the rest of the poem dealt with that story, nothing hinders Doricha from being portrayed as the active one. Poems that have an erotic element are especially apt to be reconstructed according to the individual translator and prevalent attitudes. Whether words or context are missing, fragments illustrate the need to be sensitive to tone and potential meaning of the poetry translated.

Yet without “completing” the poem, how does one make a wounded poem live in the new language? Gaps in poems can be bridged by loosely linking sense or images, so that the poem reads well, without being deceptive. The translator's job is to make the absences work as part of the poetry without being distracting: to evoke connections, enticing the reader to bridge the gap.

Fragments can engage the reader's imagination by actually using the breaks. Poems of recollection or memory have inherent possibilities. In Sappho [“94”] the speaker tells of how she reminded a friend who was leaving of their past days spent together. Throughout the second half of the poem, scattered words are missing:

“I simply wish to die.”
Weeping she left me
and said this too:
“We've suffered terribly
Sappho I leave you against my will.”
I answered, go happily
and remember me,
you know how we cared for you,
if not, let me remind you
… the lovely times we shared.
Many crowns of violets,
roses and crocuses
… together you set before me
and many scented wreaths
made from blossoms
around your soft throat …
… with pure, sweet oil
… you anointed me,
and on a soft, gentle bed …
you quenched your desire …
… no holy site …
we left uncovered,
no grove … dance
… sound

The recollection in the second part might read as if the speaker's voice drifts off into silent memory.

Word selection is crucial to tantalize the reader and evoke the sensuality of the poem. Lines 21-22 demonstrate the double meaning exploited by the translation. The phrase, taken with the following lines, implies that the women visited every temple, and that they participated in the rituals of Aphrodite, goddess of love. But the eroticism of earlier lines, particularly line 20, is enhanced by the second meaning of covering every “holy site” of the body.

No images are left out, none are added. Each word is given its full impact through word choice and position, each line building on the images and sounds of the previous lines. The need for and effect of devices used in translating all poetry are exaggerated by the fragmentation of the text.

Poems with more radical breaks, such as those with the right side missing as in [“95”] (above), are more difficult to work with. The translator can make the most of the extant text by indicating missing parts through line breaks and punctuation. Some translations can even imitate the physical texture of the papyrus by showing where the lines were torn. But recording very fragmentary pieces containing an interesting myth or image is sometimes more a matter of preserving it than creating viable poetry. One example is an eighteen-line fragment [“58”] missing the left-hand margin, which tells the myth of Tithonos in the context of the speaker's aging:

… rosy-armed Dawn
… taking (Tithonos) to the ends of earth.

A second example, a two-line poem, tells an alternative story to the traditional one in which Zeus, in the form of a swan, rapes Leda and fathers Helen. Sappho [“166”] perhaps suggests that there was no rape and that Leda found an egg containing Helen:

They say that once Leda found
an egg hidden in the hyacinth.

Small fragments like [“166”] have inspired modern poems; H.D. has a series of poems based on Sappho fragments. One can admire the pieces, as one does broken statues or shards of pottery.

To offset gaps or lack of context, the translator needs to employ many different strategies to make the poem work on as many levels as possible. Effective strategies include sound and tempo effects, and even grouping the poems thematically. Sounds with a similar effect, although not usually the same sound, as the source language develop the potential of whole poems and fragments. Translations of Sappho [“2”] and a poem by another seventh-century-bce writer, Alkman, both work with sound, especially with repeated vowels, to echo the hypnotic effect of the Greek:

SAPPHO [“2”]

cold water ripples through apple
branches, the whole place shadowed
in roses, from the murmuring leaves
deep sleep descends.


ALKMAN [89]10

All asleep: mountain peaks and chasms,
ridges and cutting streams,
the reptile tribes that black earth feeds,
mountain beasts and race of bees,
monsters deep in the purple sea,
and tribes of long-winged birds all sleep.

Sappho [“140”] emphasizes the ritualistic aspect of the festival in honor of Aphrodite's (i.e., Kytheria's) lover Adonis, through alliteration in Greek: two words begin with a “t” sound, two with an “ah,” and the rest with a “k” sound. The translation echoes the effects:

Delicate Adonis is dying, Kytheria—what should we do?
Beat your breasts, daughters, and rend your dresses.

Since an attempt to reproduce the Greek meter would work clumsily in English, one can compensate for this by recreating the vivid and direct effects of the Greek sound.

Placing short poems together will also help recreate a context through association. Grouping Sappho's short fragments according to such themes as friendship, rivalry, or epithalamia (marriage songs) builds meaning by accumulation. It is an interpretive move, for instance, to place Sappho [“51”] “I don't know what I should do—I'm of two minds,” with erotic poems or with poems about writing poetry (“do” can mean “set down” in writing.)

By paying particular attention to the words on each side of the gap, by word choice and use of sound, and by the grouping together of short excerpts, the translator can develop the available text, the remaining words, in ways conducive to the reader's activity. As in translating non-fragmentary poetry, the translator abides by certain criteria that remain flexible enough to solve the individual problems posed by every poem. Tactics shift for individual poems, but the underlying approach should be consistent. The translator tries to incorporate as many facets of the source poem as possible, compensating for what is lost either from the fragmentary source text or in the transmission from source to target language. Fragments can make us more aware of how we “complete” texts as readers and interpreters. Then we are more likely to find the balance between over- and under-translation, finding the elusive fine line that is “just right.”


  1. See J. DeJean, Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937, Chicago: 1989.

  2. P. Newmark, Approaches to Translation, Oxford: 1981.

  3. J. M. Edmonds, Lyra Graeca, vol. 1, Cambridge: 1928.

  4. E. Lobel and D. Page, Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta, Oxford: 1955.

  5. E.-M. Voigt, Sappho et Alcaeus Fragmenta, Amsterdam: 1971.

  6. All of the translations not otherwise identified are my own from Sappho's Lyre: Archaic Lyric and Women Poets of Ancient Greece, Berkeley and Los Angeles: forthcoming 1991; I use Voigt's edition and numbering.

  7. R. Lattimore, Greek Lyrics, Chicago: 1960.

  8. M. Barnard, Sappho, Berkeley and Los Angeles: 1958.

  9. See M. Díaz-Diocaretz, Translating Poetic Discourse: Questions on Feminist Strategies in Adrienne Rich, Amsterdam: 1985.

  10. See note 6; I used the edition and numbering of D. Page, Poetae Melici Graeci, Oxford: 1962.

David Bevington (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1874

SOURCE: Bevington, David. “Introduction to Sappho and Phao.” In John Lyly: Campaspe and Sappho and Phao, edited by G. K. Hunter and David Bevington, pp. 141-96. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Bevington explores Elizabethan dramatist John Lyly's version of the Sappho myth—derived from Ovid—in his 1584 play Sappho and Phao.]

[John Lyly, in his drama Sappho and Phao,] seems unaware of, or uninterested in, much of the historical information that we possess today about Sappho. The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature and the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythography1 report that she was born at Mitylene, or perhaps Eressos, on the island of Lesbos in the eastern Aegean, probably in the seventh century b.c. She was of good parentage, and was a contemporary of the poet Alcaeus. Forced to leave Lesbos, perhaps because of political difficulties, she may have gone to Sicily and died there. Apparently she married and had a daughter, Cleis. Among her brothers was Charaxus, whom she reproached for his involvement with an Egyptian courtesan named Doricha or Rhodopis. Sappho gathered together a group of women dedicated to music and poetry, or perhaps to the worship of Aphrodite. Her own literary production included nine books of odes, epithalamia, elegies and hymns, of which one complete ode and various fragments survive. They are in a variety of metres, including the so-called Sapphic. Some appear to celebrate a passionate love for other women. Virtually none of this information makes its way into Lyly's play.

About Sappho's supposed ‘Lesbianism’ or ‘Sapphism’ in the homosexual sense, references are indeed hard to find not only in Lyly but in most writers before A. C. Swinburne and others in the late nineteenth century. The O.E.D.'s earliest citation for ‘Lesbian’ or ‘Sapphism’ in the homosexual sense is in 1890. If Lyly was aware of the allegation, as he probably was in view of Ovid's reference to Sappho's attraction for young women ‘non sine crimine’ (Heroides, xv.19) and of John Donne's ‘Sapho to Philaenis’ (written of course after Lyly's play), he seems to have chosen to overlook the matter as entirely unsuited to his project of flattering Queen Elizabeth.

His reticence on the subject of Sappho as a poetess is perhaps more surprising. Elizabeth, like her father, Henry VIII, nurtured her self-image as a monarch with a flair for literary pursuits, and so Lyly might have been expected to capitalise on the flattering analogy. Possibly he preferred to think of rulers as patrons rather than as dabblers, as his portrait of Alexander with Apelles suggests. But the larger answer may be simply that Lyly was not interested in what he could have learned about the historical figure of Sappho. Even for the historical association of Sappho with Sicily he seems to have been indebted to a suggestion in Ovid. Lyly was primarily attracted to the Sappho of legend and poetry.

Paradoxically, one legendary source to which he turned does not actually link Sappho and Phao, though it does give information about both. Phaon or Phao is instead linked with Aphrodite or Venus. This legend may have been influenced in turn by the story of Aphrodite and Adonis; indeed, Karl Otfried Müller argues that ‘Phaon’ or ‘Phaethon’ is simply another name for Adonis.2 At any rate, Lyly found the story of the encounter between Venus and Phaon in the Varia Historia of Aelian or Claudius Aelianus (fl. c. a.d. 200). This author of De Natura Animalium, to whom Lyly often turned, as he did to Pliny, for abstruse lore in natural history, put together in his Varia Historia a compendium of broad but uncritical learning about political, literary and legendary celebrities of the classical world. Included in it is the following account of Phaon (xii.18):


Phaon, a proper youth, excelling all other in favour and comeliness, was hidden of Venus among long lettuce [original text: lettisse] which sprung up and grew very rankly. Some hold opinion that this Phaon was a ferryman, and that he used that trade of life and exercise. So it fortuned that Venus had occasion to pass over the water, whom he, not so readily as willingly, took by the hand and received into his wherry and carried her over with as great diligence as he could for his life, not knowing all this while what she was. For which dutiful service at that instant exhibited, Venus bestowed upon him an alabaster box full of ointment for her ferryage [ferrage in Q1], wherewith Phaon, washing and scouring his skin, had not his fellow in fairness of favour and beautiful complexion alive, insomuch that the women of Mitylene were inflamed with the love of Phaon, his comeliness did so kindle their affections.3

Aelian adds that Phaon was afterwards taken in adultery and killed. The account makes no mention of Sappho, but is set in Mitylene. Aelian reports in his next paragraph of Sappho:

Plato, the son of Aristo, numbereth Sappho, the versifier, and daughter of Scamandronymus, among such as were wise, learned and skilful. I hear also that there was another Sappho in Lesbos, which was a strong whore and an arrant strumpet.4

Aelian's reference to two Sapphos, one a poetess and one a whore, may reflect a male Athenian difficulty in coming to terms with the frankness of Sappho's lyric poetry; in many later writers, Sappho the poet is represented as a courtesan. Aelian here makes no explicit connection between his accounts of Phaon and Sappho, but he does present them in such a way that Lyly would have found them in adjacent paragraphs, both figures associated with Mitylene and Lesbos.

Lyly could have encountered this story of Phao and Venus connected with that of Phao and Sappho in Palaephatus' De fabulosis narrationibus (Peri Apistōn in Greek), a widely used compilation of Greek mythography that was surely available to him.5 As Bond says (i.157), one occasionally wonders if Lyly may not have used the succinct accounts provided by this and other convenient reference works, though he is very likely to have known Aelian and of course Ovid as well.

The legend of Sappho's love for Phao or Phaon seems to have appeared first in several lost Attic comedies,6 but it is not until Epistle xv of Ovid's Heroides, ‘Sappho to Phaon’, that the story becomes available to Lyly in literary form. Here Lyly not only could learn the narrative details of the legendary connection between Sappho and Phao, but, more importantly, could also read an impassioned fictional account of the heroine's suffering. As is his manner, Ovid allows the woman to speak directly of her lost hopes, her fallen fortune, her fatal infatuation for a man who no longer cares for her. To avoid Sappho's love, Phaon has fled to Sicily and Mount Etna. The speaker, consumed in more than Etna's fires, takes no consolation in music or in her own poetry. No more is she moved by guilty love of the Lesbian dames as of yore. She sees herself as greater than Daphne or Ariadne in that they were not lyric poets; she believes herself worthy of comparison with her fellow islander Alcaeus, of world-wide fame, and yet has been deserted by the man she loves. She concedes her inferior stature and beauty, but pleads with Venus to help. Her life has had many sadnesses—the early loss of her parents, a brother, an infant daughter—but none so great as the loss of Phaon. Warning the maidens of Sicily to beware of the tempter now in their midst, she resolves to throw herself off the cliff at Leucadia (off the coast of Epirus). She will die while careless Phaon stays.

It was apparently common to read ll. 51-2 of this Epistle as indicating that Sappho followed Phaon to Sicily, although by no means obligatory in the text itself. Ovid's poem was translated by George Turberville in 1567, although Lyly surely must have known the original. In any event, the combination of Aelian's and Ovid's narrations gave Lyly many of the essentials of his dramatic situation: a high-born and cultivated woman protagonist torn by an unhappy love, the suggestion of a setting in Sicily (though it is Phaon alone who certainly goes there in Ovid), Venus' gift of extraordinary beauty to a ferryman with whom she has taken passage, the infatuation of other women besides Sappho with Phaon and the lack of romantic completion in the love relationship.

Lyly's changes are no less compelling. Sappho is a queen, no poetess. There is no mention of guilty love for other women. Phao is far below Sappho in station; the difference in rank between ruler and subject, a plausible deduction from Phaon's position in Aelian as ferryman used to a ‘trade of life and exercise’, is much emphasised in the play. Phao is not only beloved, as in the classical sources, but is himself in love, with no suggestion of the insolent masculine carelessness so characteristic of Ovid's deserting men. As a consequence, Lyly's Sappho must learn to master her own affection for a willing Phao instead of suffering the pangs of rejection.

The symbolic contest between Sappho and Venus for the control of passionate feeling in love is new in the play; Ovid and Aelian introduce Venus in a conventional role only as the goddess of love and provider of physical beauty. Venus' motive in bestowing beauty on Phao as a means of entrapping Sappho in amorous longing is an invention of Lyly's. So is the inclusion of Cupid, of Vulcan and of the Cyclopes. Lyly adds philosophers and courtiers to the court of Sappho so that they may debate issues already aired in Campaspe, and in turn parodies their debate with the pert badinage of servants. Sappho's ladies-in-waiting are perhaps hinted at in Aelian's women of Mitylene and their infatuation with Phaon, but fill an expanded role in a discussion of court manners and feminine experiences in love. The ancient Sibylla to whom Phao turns for advice is derived from Ovid's Metamorphoses (xiv.130ff.) and perhaps from Virgil's Aeneid (vi.8ff.), but the inclusion of her in the present story is new, while her role as an adviser in love is indebted to medieval traditions of the court of love.7


  1. Sir Paul Harvey, ed., The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (Oxford, 1937), pp. 381-2, and Sir William Smith, ed., Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythography, 3 vols. (London, 1890), iii.707-11.

  2. Karl Otfried Müller, A History of the Literature of Ancient Greece, 3 vols. (rpt. Port Washington, N. Y., 1958), i.231.

  3. The translation, here modernised, is that of Abraham Fleming, A Register of Histories, Containing Martial Exploits of Worthy Warriors … Written in Greek by Aelianus, a Roman, and Delivered in English … by Abraham Fleming (London, 1576), pp. 125-6.

  4. Trans. Abraham Fleming (1576), p. 126.

  5. Palaephatus, De fabulosis narrationibus, published with the Fabularum Liber attributed to C. Julius Hyginus (Basel, 1535), ed. Stephen Orgel (New York, 1976). For the Greek text see Peri Apistōn, Mythographi Graeci, iii, fasc. 2, ed. Nicolaus Festa, Leipzig, 1902), p. 69.

  6. Müller, A History of the Literature of Ancient Greece, i.231.

  7. See William Allan Neilson, The Origins and Sources of the Court of Love (Boston, 1899); rpt. (New York, 1967), pp. 31, 33, and 134-5.

Kai Heikkilä (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6553

SOURCE: Heikkilä, Kai. “Sappho Fragment 2 L.-P: Some Homeric Readings.” Arctos 26 (1992): 39-53.

[In the following essay, Heikkilä traces Homeric parallels—sometimes recast in erotic contexts—in Sappho's second fragment.]


The relationship of Sappho's poems to Homer has been studied several times.1 Fairly recently four fragments of Sappho, namely frs. “1,” “16,” “31,” and “44” L.-P. have been studied by Leah Rissman as to their Homeric allusions.2 Rissman's methodological approach to Homeric allusions in Sappho deserves attention as a model with which to highlight the purposes and method of this study. Rissman assigns the types of Homeric allusions in three general categories: repetition of a word or expression, adaptation thereof and similarity of situation. The effect of the allusions is produced if the audience thinks of Homer in the first place.3 She rightly notes that this approach involves several difficulties: epicisms in archaic poetry can be coincidental, lyric formulae may arise from an independent tradition, and what seem to be allusions to epic poetry may in fact be allusions to other poems.4

The present study sets out to compare certain key themes of Sappho's fragment “2” L.-P. to similar themes in Homer. Although certain lexical and thematic parallels will suggest that Sappho has constructed her poem with similar Homeric themes in mind, certainty is often impossible, and the corrupt state of parts of fr. “2” further complicates establishing exact Homeric borrowings. Yet even if direct Homeric influence could not be demonstrated, it can be safely assumed that Sappho and Homer work in the same tradition and make use of it for their own purposes. It should also be noted that most of Greek lyric poetry has a close relationship to Homer and the dominance of Homer in Greek culture and literature will have made it the most suggestive field of reference for the poets and their audience. Furthermore, the only surviving literary context, apart from some other lyric poetry, that is contemporaneous with Sappho or precedes her literary output is the epic tradition of Homer and Hesiod. Thus a comparison of Sappho to Homer is a matter of necessity dictated by the chance of survival. The purpose of this study is also to show that contrasting Sappho with the Homeric tradition will make the unique character of her work appear more clearly. Moreover, the Homeric parallels or allusions that can be plausibly identified often create a system of reference that Sappho uses to introduce different shades of meaning for a word, expression or image. How this system of reference emerges in fragment “2” and how it enhances the understanding of the meaning and artistry of the poem will be the main concern of this study.


The basic structure of fr. “2” has been indicated in several studies.5 The first stanza contains the address to a deity that is not mentioned, a plea that the deity come to a temple with a grove and an altar. The two following stanzas describe the grove in detail, and the fourth names the goddess Aphrodite and by asking her to perform a libation returns to the cletic and cultic setting of the first stanza. This establishes a tripartite structure for the poem (or the part of it that has been preserved) as well as the principle of ring-composition without lexical pointers which are often used to announce the ring.6

The wish that the deity would appear is expressed by δευ̑ρυ without the verb, if the word is not missing in the fragmentary first line.7 The call upon the deity is followed by a short description of the locality: it is a holy temple (ναυ̑ον ἄγνον)8 where Aphrodite (as identified later in the fourth stanza) would find a pleasant grove (χάριεν ἄλσοs) of apples with altars which have been perfumed with incense (βω̑μοι τεθυμιάμενοι [λι]βανώτῳ). The key words temple, altar and grove have all been defined with adjectives and the grove with an additional μαλί[αν]. These words not only describe the place but also indicate by the addition of perfumed altars that a cult is being practised. These notions of locality and activity anticipate the following stanzas so that an introduction is created which already indicates the structure and the basic ideas of the poem. A thorough analysis of the first stanza is therefore essential for a proper understanding of the poem as a whole.

The aspect of cult of the first stanza of fr. “2” finds its Homeric parallel in the formulaic expression ἔνθα τέ οἱ τέμενοs βωμόs τε θυήειs, found several times in different contexts.9 In Od. 8. 362f. Aphrodite moves from Olympus to her shrine (τέμενοs) in Paphos where a fragrant altar (βω̑μοs θυήειs) awaits her and where the Charites will wash and anoint her body. The movement of the goddess from one place to another, the fact that she comes to her shrine and the fragrant altars there suggest strong similarity in theme and organization, the lexical connection being provided in the image of the fragrant altars. Both accounts move gradually deeper into the shrine to suggest the movement of the goddess, and the movement takes the same course in both: 1. Paphos - δευ̑ρυ, 2. τέμενοs-ναυ̑οs, 3. βω̑μοs - βω̑μοι. Sappho gives a further lexical connection by describing the grove of the precinct as χάριεν (l. 2). In the Homeric passages describing Aphrodite's arrival at her temple she is assisted by Charites, who as personifications of erotic attraction are associated only with her.10 Here Sappho seems to invite comparison between her poem and Aphrodite's advent scenes in Homer, although the goddess is not named by her until in the fourth stanza.

Despite the evident similarities, Sappho's first stanza is substantially different from its Homeric parallels. Already the function of Sappho's poem as a cletic hymn demands a different and more personal approach which is reflected in the cletic δευ̑ρυ and the use of the second person (τοι) when the goddess is addressed instead of the Homeric third person in οἱ.11 The narrative purpose of Homer emphasizes the action and contains little of the descriptive and picturesque detail that decorate Sappho's account. Sappho's poem emerges as a curious mixture of personal address and generalizing omissions: although the locality is elaborately described by Sappho the place of the shrine is not mentioned and the name of the deity addressed remains unknown for the time being. This creates two important effects that separate Sappho's poem from the Homeric account and the conventional form of a cletic hymn. The omission of the name of the deity creates suspense that is not released until in the last stanza, which gives Sappho's poem a forward impetus quite different from the Homeric linear narrative.12 Moreover, the mention of the godhead's name is essential for a cletic hymn or invocation. The connection between the mortal and the god can be fully established through identification, as Sappho duly does in fr. “1” L.-P., which mentions Aphrodite in the first line with a characteristic epithet.13 Thus the omissions of proper names for the locality and the godhead summoned can be regarded as a programmatic statement to indicate that Sappho's intentions are different than those of Homer and the hymnic genre.

The basic elements of Aphrodite's advent that appear in Sappho's poem were already present in the Homeric account: the holy precinct (τέμενοs) and the fragrant altars. Sappho, however, developes the notion of holiness by adding the temple (ναυ̑ον), describing it holy (ἄγνον) and giving the whole scene the dimension of nature with the addition of the pleasant grove of apples (χάριεν ἄλσοs μαλί[αν]).

Nαόs or ναυ̑οs is usually a temple with the cult image, whereas τέμενοs suggests the holy precinct in general.14 By ναυ̑οs Sappho brings us to the center of the cult where the existence of the temple suggests a permanent establishment for cult rather than just a holy precinct. The word ναυ̑οs also indicates the connection between the goddess and mortals who have built the temple and perform the sacrifices. Whereas in Homer Aphrodite was attended by the Charites, in Sappho humans await her arrival. The adjective ἄγνον is an interesting choice to describe the temple. In Homer ἁγνόs is used of places and things dedicated to gods and the word even otherwise always refers to what is particular to the sacred.15 But it is also the special epithet of virgin goddesses, especially of Artemis. Homer never uses the adjective of Aphrodite.16 Burkert in fact thinks that the word means sacred and pure as opposed to things defiled (μιαρά), although this is a matter of some controversy.17 Parker regards the term ἁγνόs as too vague to mean pure or chaste without qualification from its context.18 According to Williger the term when applied to gods conveys rather a notion of respect than purity.19 Doubtlessly the term ἄγνον when it in Sappho's poem describes the temple conveys a sense of separation, holiness and awe, but the possibility of associating the adjective with Artemis and therefore the connotation of sexual purity and virginity cannot be ruled out since Artemis is the ἁγνή goddess par excellence, and she and her cult are especially connected with groves and meadows.20

In the first stanza the eroticism is represented by the presence of χάριs in the landscape, and those associated with the grove become part of that χάριs.21 Yet the erotic potentiality inherent in the Sapphic grove (χάριεν ἄλσοs) first becomes real and tangible through the Homeric reference to Aphrodite (later confirmed in the fourth stanza) assisted by her Charites. Aphrodite brings in the notion of sensual love and by their association with Aphrodite the Charites suggest erotic attraction and sexual maturity.22 The participants of the cultic celebration of Aphrodite who have perfumed Aphrodite's altar and in the fourth stanza invite her to pour the libation take in Sappho's poem the place of the Homeric Charites as the attendants of Aphrodite. Thus the Homeric reference not only activates the landscape, it also places those present there in their function and status.

Aphrodite's role as the goddess of physical sexuality and her suggested presence in the first stanza seem quite incompatible with the idea of purity and virginity also prominent in the stanza. It is also important to note that sexuality in general was banned from places of cult, which makes the Sappho's combination of eroticism and worship original and striking.23 So even if the interpretation of ἄγνον as implying sexual purity here could not be regarded as conclusive, the contrast between sexuality and the sacred still persists. Such flowery meadows as the one in Sappho fr. “2.” could of course include sexuality, even invite its violation, but what has usually escaped the scholars' attention is that in Sappho fr. “2” the meadow is a hallowed temple with all the trappings of cult and sacrifice and not merely described as “inviolate” (ἀκήρατοs).24 This Sapphic innovation to combine purity, sexuality and the sacred points out her original genius, but creates problems for the interpretation of the passage. Therefore the following similarity that reconciles the concept of ἄγνοs with both Homeric passages describing Aphrodite's advent and the aspect of sexuality in Sappho's poem should be considered.

Aphrodite's arrival at Paphos in Cyprus in the Odyssey is part of one of the most famous and original stories in the poem, the song of Demodocus.25 The story is a parody of passion, adultery and punishment, where the adulterous couple Aphrodite, the wife of Hephaestus, and Ares are trapped in flagranti by the suspecting husband. Without further going into the details of the story, it suffices here to note that the main point of the story is sexuality, namely illicit sexuality, and the shame and ridicule that follows it.26 What is important here is the fact that she leaves Olympus and Ares (who heads to Thrace), the scene and partner of her adulterous affair, to bathe in her shrine. Her departure from Olympus can be understood not only spatially but also as a symbolic separation from the sexual status of an adulteress she had put herself in during the affair.

Since Aphrodite's bathing happens in a holy precinct a comparison with ritual baths suggests itself. Ritual baths were a regulated ceremony before entering holy places and precede sacrifice and mysteries. In them a symbolic separation from the world outside and a transformation into different status or capacity took place.27 Even here it could be suggested that Aphrodite's bath purifies her from the stain of her adultery and marks her transition to a new status, which also is sexual as can be seen from the rest of the Homeric passage: at 366 her clothes are described as captivatingly beautiful (ἐπήρατα) and a wonder to behold (θαυ̑μα ἰδέσθαι). What makes Aphrodite acquiring this status similar to a worshipper approaching ἁγνόν, is that in both cases purity and separation are the key elements. The bath itself shows that purity is not a concept incompatible with Aphrodite, yet Aphrodite's bath does not purify her absolutely, but marks her new sexual status. Similarly in the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite 61 the goddess is bathed by the Charites when she wants to seduce Anchises.28 Here again the bath marks the preparation and the beginning of her new sexual mood and purpose. Of course Aphrodite's purity is by no means virgin purity, but for the interpretation of the Sappho 2 it is essential to note that the allusion to these Homeric passages brings in the idea of purity as a marker of an active sexual status and a limiting factor as regards other sexual statuses. The allusion colors the place of cult and the term ἄγνον by showing that the sexual purity they both imply here can be understood not as a sort of anti-sexuality but as an erotic mood.29 Therefore the purity in this context need not be inconsistent with the sexuality that Aphrodite and χάριs imply, but rather a reflection of the Sapphic idea of the type of love connected with the grove. The virginity and purity suggest that the maiden, like the unmarried priestesses of Artemis,30 was supposed to have no sexual contact with men. If we assume that the love celebrated in Sappho's temple of Aphrodite was strictly between women, the ἄγνον quality of the temple would not have been compromised.31

The idea of purity and sexuality combined can be further strenghtened by considering the apple-grove which is the center of activity. The symbolism and function of the apple-grove become fully clear only in the second and third stanzas, but the image has here suggestive power by itself. Apple-trees in the Odyssey in a garden setting with other trees represent abundance, wealth and the high position of their owners. This is clear in the way Alcinous' orchards in Od. 7.114f. stand for his wealth and the splendour of his court. Apples also figure among the gifts of nature Tantalus is denied as punishment (Od. 11.588ff.). The presence of apples in a holy grove of Aphrodite with its erotic implications and suggestions of purity obviously connects the apple to a different symbolic structure than was the case in Homer. Burnett has noted that the ambiguity of the grove is paralleled by apples which represent both virginity and its loss.32 The connection of apples and ἔρωs is made clear by Ibycus in fr. 6d where the sensually beautiful garden setting bears a striking resemblance to Sappho's fr. “2.”

The problem that the apple presents is again the same as with the advent of Aphrodite to a setting that suggests virginity and sexual purity, a landscape that would be more suitable for Artemis, the pure (ἁγνή) goddess who loves to haunt meadows and groves.33 Burnett notes that Aphrodite was associated with groves as well, but this might represent later tradition. Also her idea that virginity existed only to be lost seems forced in this context.34 Rather if we assume, as suggested above, that the advent of Aphrodite and the eroticism of the landscape do not pose a threat to virginity, the goddess of love can enter with impunity a precinct that also exhibits attributes of Artemis. The fact that the name of the goddess is not mentioned leaves the reader/listener free to associate the scene with both Artemis and Aphrodite and to accomodate the oblique Homeric reference to Athena (Od. 6. 291, see above note 20). The virgin Artemis who only associates herself with women and Aphrodite the goddess of sexual love thus enter the scene to create a setting with a decidedly homoerotic flavor. The ambiguity of the apple is transformed in this grove to a coherence of sexuality and virginity, an ἔρωs of distinctly Sapphic character, with suggestions of purity, holiness and Artemis controlling the loss of virginity associated with the apple.


The image of the apple-grove of the first stanza is elaborated and expanded in the second and third stanzas. The flow of the cool water through apple branches, the shadows of roses, rustling leaves that create deep slumber and a flowery meadow with gentle breezes create a paradise-like atmosphere. This idea of a paradise is indebted or related to some Homeric passages, most notably the amorous encounter between Zeus and Hera in Il. 14.347-51, the description of the scenery around Calypso's cave in Od. 5.63ff. and the grove where Odysseus waits before he follows Nausicaa to the city (Od. 6.291ff.). In Calypso's abode trees, flowers, meadows and water are all present and an image of this kind is echoed in Sappho. Sappho's grove in fr. 2, however, has important additions and implications that form what Burnett has called a landscape of female sexuality.35 Burnett further notes that Aphrodite's “best known attributes and parts are rendered by bits of landscape … to specify and reinforce the aspect of the divinity that the worshipper would meet.”36 It was suggested above that the Aphrodite worshipped in this garden represented the union of sexuality and purity. How do the details of the landscape agree with this?

The first feature of the grove that Sappho gives is the purling of cold water through the apple-branches. In Homer the only instance when water is called ψυχρòν is when it comes from a spring in a garden of Nymphs (Od. 17. 205f.). Also the verb κελάδειν that in Sappho's poem describes the purling of the water is used in Homer of rivers (Il. 18.576). It is therefore plausible to assume that Sappho is describing a spring or a creek. Some of the apple-branches could have fallen into the water or could be long enough to reach it. As the above examples show, water in Homer is an integral part of a pleasant natural setting. But in fact the word ὕδωρ in Homer is most often associated with purification, especially the washing of hands (χέρνιψ). In the Iliad purification with water takes place in connection with oaths (3. 270), prayers (9. 171f.) and reception of guests.37 Water thus purifies to prepare men for a contact with gods and marks the transition of the stranger into the status of guest. Nilsson notes that water was the most usual means of purification in several Greek cults.38 The implications of purity, purification and virginity were already suggested for the first stanza. The sounding water in the second stanza can consequently be seen both as the limit between the holy and the profane and as a means of the purification that gives entry to the area marked pure and holy (ἄγνον) in the first stanza. On the whole the connection of the word ὕδωρ here to Homer shows how Sappho uses the epic parallel to create awareness of the expression she uses, but it also indicates the skill of Sappho to unite the most important aspects of the image in the parallels to a personal and effective synthesis.

In Sappho's poem the flow of water is intimately connected with apple-branches. Whereas water here can be seen to represent the purity and holiness of the grove, apples stand for virginity and sexuality. In the first stanza Sappho had tried to dissolve the inherent contradiction in the symbolism of the apple. In the second stanza Sappho emphatically returns to her interpretation of apple as an erotic symbol. The water that flows among the apple branches cleanses them of the residues of their ambiguous message (especially the loss of virginity) and brings them in line with the definition of their sexual symbolism already formulated in the first stanza.39 This is in keeping with the Homeric qualities of water as a purifier but also as a means and marker of transformation. Moreover, the verb κελάδει can be seen as an oblique reference to Artemis, whose special epithet in Homer is κελαδενή (sounding).40 This lexical connection to Artemis again points out the particular virgin quality of the purity inherent in the landscape and in the image of flowing water (as well as expected of those entering the holy precinct), which was more vaguely expressed in the first stanza.41

The roses that cast their shadow on earth recall with their erotic implication42—which also other flowers can have—the scene in I1. 14. 347f. where lotus, crocus and hyacinth spring up under Zeus and Hera as they make love. The floral imagery reappears coupled with sweet breezes in the third stanza, but because of textual corruption the exact nature of these flowers remains unknown.43 As it is the horse-rearing meadow expands on the rosy earth of the previous stanza. Even if it cannot be attested whether Sappho modelled her account on the famous Homeric passage, the fact that this passage is the only epic occurrence of extensive floral imagery in an erotic setting suggests the parallel.44 The Homeric parallel makes it evident where Sappho's originality lies: roses do not occur in Homer except in the adjective ῥοδοδάκτυλον,45 and the idea of the shadow is also alien to Homer apart from the formulaic description of how the dusk falls.46 Sappho's garden of love preserves the already Homeric idea of the flowery meadow of love but gives it a distinctly new colouring to mark the difference between her concept of pure and virgin love and the Homeric sexual union of the two gods.

The κω̑μα, i. e. the state of total relaxation comes in Sappho's poem from the quivering leaves. Because of its association with the paradise-like garden of love, the Sapphic κω̑μα is easily identified with the pleasant state of slumber (Il. 14.359) that covers Zeus after he has made love to Hera. The passage in the Odyssey where Athena covers Penelope with κω̑μα (18. 201) also has erotic implications: Penelope is made more appealing to the suitors in her slumber. The positive connotation of the word seems to be retained in Sappho's poem: indeed Burnett has suggested that κω̑μα suggests the consummation of love in Sappho's garden.47 Since κω̑μα in the Iliad follows Zeus' lovemaking and can be ultimately traced back to Aphrodite, it seems plausible to suggest that the κω̑μα in Sappho's poem has an erotic flavor and is connected to Aphrodite. But κω̑μα can be a negative occurrence as well. Wiesmann has suggested that the threatening side of κω̑μα is already present in the verb καλύπτω which in Homer describes the onset of κω̑μα but also the coming of death.48 Hesiod (Theog. 798) speaks about a bad κω̑μα that seizes the god who breaks his or her oath on Styx. The god can be revived from this state of paralysis only by nectar.

The link between κω̑μα and nectar brings us to the last stanza of Sappho's fr. “2.” Aphrodite is finally addressed, named, and asked to gently pour nectar with her golden cups among the festivities. Just as the gods in Hesiod could be awakened from coma and Hector's corpse in the Iliad 19.379 saved from putrefaction with nectar, it could be suggested that Aphrodite in Sappho's poem pours out nectar to ward off the possible bad effects of κω̑μα. We need not take the nectar as an antidote against κω̑μα itself,49 whose pleasant nature is suggested by the setting and the parallel in the Iliad and from which no rescue is needed. Rather we can see Aphrodite using the nectar against the wrong kind of κω̑μα, which might even result from a flawed sexual union,50 but also to bring the notion of the divine, immortal and eternally young among the festivities. Nectar belongs to the gods, and this notion of divine is further confirmed by the presence of the golden cups with which Aphrodite pours the nectar. The golden quality which is associated with Aphrodite's dwellings in Olympus in Sappho fr. “1.”8 is in Homer often connected to other gods as well, as Page's note on the passage shows.51 Thus Sappho makes it explicit that the participants of the ritual in the holy grove would by association acquire godlike qualities. These qualities were already suggested in the first stanza and elaborated in the second and third by paralleling the landscape of love to which initiated mortals can gain entry with that of Zeus and Hera in the Iliad. Here the theme grows into a vivid image of the consummation of the ritual which culminates in the realization of the godlike qualities in the beneficiaries of the Sapphic garden of love.


  1. Generally, M. Treu, Von Homer zur Lyrik (Zetemata 12), 1955, 136ff. passim. On the use of formulae E. Risch, MH 3, 1946 and more recently, F. Ferrari, “Formule saffiche e formule omeriche”, Ann. Scu. Norm. Sup. di Pisa XVI, 1986, 441-447. For an excellent study on a Homeric expression in Sappho fr. 2, see P. Wiesman, “Was heisst koma?”, in MH [Mediaevalia et Humanistica] 29, 1972.

  2. L. Rissman, Love as War: Homeric Allusion in the Poetry of Sappho (Beiträge zur klassischen Philologie 157), 1983.

  3. Rissman 1983, 15.

  4. Ibid. 14.

  5. I have followed the text established by D. Page, Sappho and Alcaeus. An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry, 1955, 34. For older literature (mostly dealing with textual problems), see his notes at 35, for structural analysis, 39ff. Page's text is followed closely by D. Campbell, Greek Lyric Poetry, 1982, repr. 1990, 41-42. For further textual problems reference has also been made to the detailed study of the poem by G. Lanata in Studi italiani di filologia classica 1960, 64-90, to the edition by Eva-Maria Voigt (Sappho et Alcaeus, 1971, 33-35) and to the article by C. Gallavotti (L'ode saffica dell'ostracon, Bolletino dei Classici ser. 3, fasc. 1, 1980, 3ff.). On questions of completeness and the identification of the genre, T. McEvilley, “Sappho Fragment Two,” Phoenix 26, 1972, 323ff. Further H. Saake, Sappho Studien, 1972, 62ff. The poem has been studied relatively little recently. The latest major account by A. P. Burnett, Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho, 1983, 259ff. is indispensable for textual problems, interpretation and bibliography.

  6. Whether the fragmentary line (numbered 1a by Voigt 1971, 33) that begins the text of the ostracon actually belongs to the poem is a vexed question. Page 1955, 35 points out that the text as it stands cannot belong to the ending of a Sapphic stanza, although the copyist is careless to the extent that it is difficult to assume anything on the basis of the metrical distortion. Burnett 1983, 261, note 86 evaluates earlier solutions rightly emphasizing the inconclusive nature of the evidence. The solutions to the problem ranging from the rather ambitious attempt to reconstruct a complete first stanza by Theiler and von der Mühll (Das Sapphogedicht auf der Scherbe, MH 3, 1946, 22ff.) to the complete rejection of line 1a Voigt (e.g. McEvilley 1972) have to remain tentative. At any rate the problems of metre and dialect that line 1a presents make it likely that it does not belong to the poem and that line 1 indeed represents the beginning. See further M. West, Maia 22, 1970, 315ff. and A. Rivier MH 5, 1948, 227ff.

  7. Apart from δευ̑ρυ the interpretation of the first line is extremely uncertain. Most scholars have contended that the line contains a mention of Crete or Cretans (e.g. Page 1955, 36), but this has been contested. See Burnett 1983, 262, note 87 and Gallavotti 1980, p. 5f. for different theories. Gallavotti proposes a solution that would turn the word +κρητεσι+ (this reading by Lanata 1960) into a third person of the verb κρετημι = κρατέω and consequently would do away with the cletic element of the first line. This solution seems hardly tenable, however, in view of the fact that it presupposes the existence of an atematic κρετημι, not conclusively proven by the existence of the aorist infinitive κρετησαι in Sappho fr. 20, and for the extremely corrupt state of the text here that makes emendations more or less conjectural. Moreover, if we indeed assume that this line begins the poem, we would except a call of some sort upon Aphrodite, whose identity is subsequently revealed in the fourth stanza.

  8. Here the form ναυ̑ον adopted by Page 1955, 34 and Voigt 1971, 33 seems to be preferable to the word ἐναυ̑λον proposed by Gallavotti 1980, 5, note 4, since the latter needs a heavier and more controversial emendation, especially the addition of the beginning epsilon of which there is hardly any trace on the ostracon.

  9. Aphrodite's arrival at her precinct in Paphos in Od. 8. 362-6 and H. Ven. 59-63, the advent of Zeus at his shrine in Ida in Il. 8. 47-48 and the description of the shrine of the river god Spercheus in Il. 23. 148 (with ὅθι τοι).

  10. The association of Charites and sexual love is more clearly developed in Hesiod than in Homer, and is likely to have sprung from their intimate association with Aphrodite. See Hes. Theog. 907ff., with comments in M. West's commentary (Hesiod, Theogony, 1966). For the coupling of Aphrodite and Charis, Hes Op. 65f: καὶ χάριν ἀμφιχέαι κεφαλῃ̑ χρυσῃ̑ν 'Αφροδίτην / καὶ πόθον ἀργαλέον καὶ γυιοβόρουs μελεδω̑ναs.

  11. Second person address appears in Homer with the formula in Il. 23. 148 when Achilles addresses the river god. As for Sappho it should be noted that τοι is added in the lacuna by Page 1955, followed by Campbell 1982, 41, omitted by Voigt 1971 and Lanata 1960. Perhaps the existence of τοι in the Homeric formula gives some authority to Page's emendation, although it is unlikely that Sappho makes reference to Achilles' address to the river god.

  12. Probably the educated reader will have been able to supply Aphrodite's name by reference to the Homeric parallel, but Sappho still leaves room for ambiguity, which is not dissolved until in the last stanza. The reasons for this will be discussed below.

  13. Cf. Alc. 34a L.-P., where Castor and Polydeuces are invoked with a mention of their name, common haunt and genealogy.

  14. On ναόs see W. Burkert, Greek Religion, 1985, 88f.

  15. Od. 21. 258-9 (έορτὴ τοι̑ο θεοι̑ο ἁγνή); H. Merc. 187 (ἄλσοs). Cf. Pindar Pyth. 4. 204 (τέμενοs), Aisch. Suppl. 223 (ἐν ἁγνἳ̑) “on holy ground”.

  16. Artemis is often styled ἁγνή, e.g. Od. 5. 123; 18. 202; 20. 71, Persephone and Demeter less frequently: Od. 11. 386, H. Cer. 337 (Persephone), H. Cer. 203; 439 (Demeter). What Demeter's virginity consisted of is harder to assess. Perhaps she could be seen as a defender of Persephone's virginity, as she in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter tries to save her from Hades, who by abducting her when she is still a maiden threatens (and finally conquers) her virginity.

  17. Burkert 1985, 270f. with bibliography.

  18. R. Parker, Miasma, Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion, 1983, 147.

  19. E. Williger, Hagios, Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten 19.1, 1922, 37ff. This is also the opinion of B. Gentili, Poesia e Pubblico nella Grecia antica da Omero al V secolo, 1984, 287f. He argues that the sense “ritually pure” develops for ἁγνόs only after the archaic period, but his evidence is inconclusive. For instance it is very hard to assess whether in the passage of Simonides (fr. 577a P) that he cites the prevalent notion of lustral water is that of reverence or purity. In fact both aspects seem to be equally present.

  20. Burkert 1985, 150, with bibliography. On Artemis' special relation with nature and growth see e.g. the ample evidence collected by K. Wernicke in RE (Revue d'Esthetique] 2, 1342f. (Artemis). In Homer ἄλσοs is favored especially by the nymphs, so that the notion is already attached to the expression (e.g. Il. 20.8) Compare Athena's ἄλσοs in Od. 6. 291, which in its structure is close enough to have served as a possible model for Sappho's description of the grove. Athena's ἄλσοs contains a spring (κρήνη, cf. the second stanza in Sappho fr. 2), a meadow, a holy precinct (τέμενοs) and lush vegetation, i.e. the elements of a hallowed locus amoenus that make up Sappho's garden. Athena's grove suggest virginity and Treu 1955, 213 in fact thinks that the inclusion of sexuality by the description of a holy grove as χάριεν seems to be a Sapphic innovation. See the chapter below on this question.

  21. Saake 1972, 63: “Diese Erweiterung gipfelt einerseits in der Wahrnehmung der Charis des ganzen Menschen, anderseits in dem Wiederfinden eben dieser Eigenschaft in den natural objects in der Landschaft und Pflanzenwelt”.

  22. Ibycus 7 calls the beloved Eurualos Kαρίτων θάλοs. Furthermore χάριs is according to Page 1955, 36 used by the Lesbian poets only of personal charm. If this indeed was so, Sappho's use of the word to describe nature must have sounded striking and given the grove an immediate ambivalence between nature and man. The grove could indeed be understood to refer not in the first place to nature but symbolically to human physis and emotion. Burnett 1982, 263-4, note 90, in fact emphasizes that the natural scene in fr. 2 is not natural at all with roses blooming and apples maturing at the same time. This can be seen as a confirmation of the symbolic character of the landscape and as a way to show that this is no ordinary garden but rather divine place where the rotation of seasons is no object.

  23. Evidence on the exclusion of sexuality from cult is collected and interpreted by Parker 1983, 74ff.

  24. Evidence on meadows and love has been gathered in the monumental work by A. Motte, Prairies et Jardins de la Grèce antique (Academie Royale de Belgie, Mém. Classe des Lettres, 61.5, 1973), see especially 147ff. For a more succinct treatment and evidence on the theme meadows and sexuality, see now J. M. Bremer, “The Meadow of Love and Two Passages in Euripides' Hippolytus,Mnemosyne 28, 1975, 268ff, especially 271 that compares Sappho 2, “Ibycus” 5 and Eur. Hipp. 73ff. without noticing, however, how different the Sapphic ναυ̑ον ἄγνον is from what Ibycus and Euripides describe only with the adjective ἀκήρατοs.

  25. The bibliography to the song of Demodocus (Od. 8. 266-369) is very large. For older literature see W. Burkert, “Das Lied von Ares und Aphrodite,” RM [Rhenische Museum] 103, 130ff. and for a recent commentary and additional literature, see now J.B. Hainsworth's commentary (Omero, Odissea, vol. II, 1987, 269ff.).

  26. Hephaestus calls the adulterous affair at 307 ἔργα γελατὰ καὶ οὐκ ἐπιεικτὰ, ridiculous and intolerable deeds, which neatly summarizes the tenor of Demodocus' song.

  27. Parker 1983, 19 aptly states that “Without purification there is no access to the sacred”. His account following this statement (in fact all of the first chapter [Purification: a Science of Division] of his book) well demonstrates the centrality of lustrations before dealing with the sacred and how purification was a liminal marker between the sacred and the profane. Older evidence is presented by M. P. Nilsson, Geschichte der Griechischen Religion I, 1951, 102, with more detail in L. Moulinier, Le pur et l'impur dans la pensée des Grecs d'Homère à Aristote, 1952, 71ff. For an expert study on bathing, see now R. Ginouvès, Balaneutiké, recherches sur le bain dans l'antiquité grecque, 1968.

  28. Note also that Aphrodite at 82 approaches Anchises in the guise of a virgin maiden. Thus the idea of purification and virginity is already suggested in the hymn.

  29. This is a striking modification by Sappho of the usual purpose of purification before cult and sacrifice. Normally the celebrant would exclude sexuality altogether while practising the cult and symbolize the exclusion by ritual washing, but in Sappho sexuality in a form defined by purity is an integral element of the cult.

  30. A comparison between the celebrants of Aphrodite and priestesses seems justified since Sappho's grove is clearly a place for cult. Virgin priestesses are best attested for Artemis, see E. Fehrle, Die kultische Keuschheit im Altertum (Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten 6), 98ff. More in Burkert 1985, 150 and Parker 1983, 90f. who finds the evidence on virgin priests and priestesses (especially for those of Demeter) difficult to interpret and stresses the idea that the abstinence from sex in cult was more often occasional than absolute.

  31. This mood is again contrasted to other forms of erotic self-expression, as the idea of separation inherent in the term ἄγνον and expressed in the Homeric passages describing Aphrodite's bath shows. Therefore it does not seem plausible to see Sappho allowing any broad spectrum of eroticism in her poem, but instead a restricted form of sexuality. Compare Sappho fr. 94 L.-P.where the locality of the past (homosexual) love seems to have included something holy (25: ἴρον) and a grove (27: ἄλσοs), that is, the basic setting of eroticism present in fr. 2 as well.

  32. Burnett 1982, 266ff. By not considering the Homeric parallels she nevertheless misses the subtle way Sappho already in the first stanza creates and dissolves the ambiguity by a masterly play with the Homeric passages.

  33. Burkert 1985, 150f. He notes that Artemis' virginity is not asexuality, but the evidence he has gathered pertains more to her following than to the goddess herself. At any rate even her followers always fall victim to rape rather than have erotic adventures out of their own will. No such sexual intrusions can be found in Sappho 2. Nevertheless Burkert's idea of Artemis and sexuality is interesting in this context, as Sappho could be seen in her way to make good of such potential when she combines purity and sexuality. But the fact that the ἄγνον quality of the temple is respected excludes sexual excesses such as rape and abduction.

  34. Burnett 1982, 269.

  35. Burnett, 1982, 266.

  36. Burnett 1982, 263. Saake 1972, 62ff. thinks that the topographical Ekphrasis replaces the Aretalogie that would have been at place in a cletic hymn. For more on this type of Αφροδίτη ἐν κήποιs in art, see E. Langlotz, Aphrodite in den Gärten, 1954.

  37. For more, see Nilsson 1951, 90.

  38. Nilsson 1951, 102. Nilsson emphasizes that only water in motion is suitable. This makes one think of the verb κελάδει in Sappho's poem.

  39. Sappho fr. 105a provides an interesting parallel. The apple on the bough-top is not accessible to pickers and can be only seen. In fr.2 the apple is not only accessible but also defined by its association with the image of purity. The contrast between the actively pursuing apple-pickers in 105a and the passive reception of love in fr. 2 is also notable: love, the gift of Aphrodite, comes when it is mature and the setting is suitable for its enjoyment. J. Winkler, The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece, 1990, 183f. thinks the apple in fr. 105a is an image of the secure and unattainable nature of female sexuality which men cannot fully know or understand. Winkler's notion of the exclusivity and special nature of female sexuality in fr. 105a goes well with the general tone of fr. 2, although in fr. 105a the image of the apple ripening represents existing but not fully ready sexuality, whereas in fr. 2 sexuality is an active presence in an erotic landscape.

  40. Artemis is styled κελαδεινή in Il. 16, 183; 20, 70; 21, 510; H. Ven. 16; 118; H. Diana 27. The scholiasts suggested that the name suggested the barking of his dogs, but neglected the connection of the term to images of nature and landscape.

  41. The virgin quality of the landscape need again not be understood to exclude all but virgins, but should rather be seen to point out the female exclusivity of the sexual landscape. The water that flows through the apple-branches is not only a boundary between the pure and the stained, but also an active purifier that can create a sexual status suitable for the Sapphic temple and garden of Aphrodite.

  42. Burnett 1982, 263, n. 89.

  43. See further Page 1955, 38.

  44. See E. S. Forster, ‘Trees and Plants in Homer’, CR [Classical Review] 50, 1936, 100. Cf. D. A. Campbell, The Golden Lyre, 1983, 3.

  45. Forster 1936, 100.

  46. Treu 1955, 213ff.

  47. Burnett 1982, 272f.

  48. Wiesmann 1972, 3ff.

  49. Burnett 1982, 274 thinks that nectar revives the participants of the ritual from their coma.

  50. In Il. 14.216f. Hera prepares to trick Zeus into bed with her so she can work freely while Zeus slumbers. It should be noted that most of Sappho's Homeric parallels serve to define the concept of love and sexuality peculiar to fragment 2.

  51. Page 1955 7 n. 8. Rissman 1983, 2 notes that the adjective χρυσέη is applied to Aphrodite ten times in Homer.

Paul Allen Miller (essay date spring 1993)

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SOURCE: Miller, Paul Allen. “Sappho 31 and Catullus 51: The Dialogism of Lyric.” Arethusa, 26, no. 2 (spring 1993): 183-99.

[In the following essay, Miller applies a Bakhtinian theory of lyric dialogism to Sappho's fragment number “31” and Catullus's translation of this poem, in order to suggest that the two works reflect radically different genres of composition.]

Mikhail Bakhtin, in “Discourse in the Novel,” formulates what seems an ironclad distinction between poetic and novelistic discourse. Poetry, he argues, is essentially “monologic” and strives for a unity of discourse, “so that the finished work may rise as unitary speech, one co-extensive with its object.” The novel, on the other hand, is “dialogic,” representing a multiplicity of voices, not only through its characters, but also in its style, ideology, and representation of society.1 This distinction, while provisionally useful for establishing what is unique to novelistic discourse, offers an ultimately unsatisfying account of dialogism's role in literature as a whole, and poetry in particular. To remedy this problem and thereby deploy the considerable power of Bakhtin's theoretical insights for a more satisfying account of the poetic as well as the novelistic, this paper will propose that a further distinction be made between primary and secondary dialogism. Such a distinction, as Caryl Emerson and Gary Saul Morson have pointed out, is implicit in Bakhtin from the beginning, though never made explicit.2 This failure on Bakhtin's part to distinguish between the various but related ways in which he uses the terms dialogue, dialogism, and dialogic has, in turn, become the source of no small amount of confusion.

From this perspective, the term primary dialogism refers to that interplay of voices and concepts which is found in realist fiction and daily life. It designates that set of relations which governs the exchange of complete “utterances” between individuals, social groups, and/or their fictional representatives: the utterance being, as Bakhtin defines it, the basic unit of speech, delimited not by the sentence, the proposition or the paragraph, but by the completion of one speech act by one speaker and the beginning of a second by another.3 Primary dialogism, thus, represents that font of social and linguistic interaction from which the larger and more abstract phenomenon of secondary dialogism springs.

This latter phenomenon, which results from the speaker's simultaneous response to past and anticipation of future utterances, every time (s)he speaks, represents that more subtle level of dialogical interaction which occurs not only within utterances, but even within individual words. For every word we use carries with it the sights, sounds, and smells, the social and rhetorical contexts of its previous uses.4 Thus as Bakhtin points out in his Dostoevsky book, even soliloquies are in essence dialogic. Clearly, this latter form of dialogism can be found in poetry as well as prose.5 Indeed, Bakhtin admits as much in a later essay, “The Problem of the Text in Linguistics, Philology, and the Human Sciences”:

Is not any writer (even the pure lyricist) always a “dramaturge” in the sense that he directs all words to others' voices, including to the image of the author (and to other authorial masks)? Perhaps any literal, single-voiced word is naive and unsuitable for authentic creativity. Any truly creative voice can only be the second voice in the discourse. Only the second voice—pure relationship—can be completely objectless and not cast a figural shadow.6

My argument is that we can use this concept of secondary dialogism to help clarify the differences between a lyric designed for oral performance and a lyric of the book, that the concept of dialogism in its broadest form can make us see that these are in fact two very different genres of composition. To illustrate this thesis I will examine the work of two representative poets, Sappho and Catullus, and will take as a basis of comparison Sappho “31” and its translation, Catullus 51. By looking at these two poems, which are in some ways practically identical but were produced in and for radically different dialogical situations, I hope to demonstrate the validity of this distinction between the two forms of dialogism and its usefulness in making generic discriminations. The crucial determinant in this investigation will be the establishment of the radically different contexts of utterance which characterize these two texts.

We can begin by imagining the setting for which Sappho's poetry was first intended. It is now widely accepted that the primary mode of diffusion, if not composition, for Sappho's poetry was oral performance, inasmuch as there was virtually no book trade in Greece until the late fifth century.7 Such performances imply, in turn, a certain anticipation of how the poem's addressees would have received it. For utterances are always other-directed, and this is particularly so in the case of public artistic performances where the audience is immediately present. Such poems are of necessity communal events, rather than closeted confessions. Each new performance is a separate utterance, indissolubly linked to the moment of enunciation and so forever reinforcing the radically occasional nature of archaic lyric.8

Moreover, as Bakhtin points out, the ways these anticipations of an audience's response structure a text, and ultimately its interpretation, constitute the dialogic situation staged by that text and serve to distinguish one literary genre from another.9 Thus, to understand a poem such as Sappho “31,” the reader must begin by asking what sort of performative context would have been required for such a work to have had a public meaning on the island of Lesbos; that is to say, on what sort of occasion could such a poem have been appropriately sung to a public which was well acquainted with the poet, and indeed constituted her friends, neighbors, and potential political allies and enemies in this small island community?10 This is very different from the question posed by the traditional romantic understanding of lyric: what is the poet trying to express? In a dialogic analysis, it is the relation of “responsive understanding” between poet and public which is foregrounded.11

The most obvious performative context which comes to mind for Sappho “31” is a song performed for a wedding, since it is difficult to imagine many other occasions when a man and woman would be publicly seated together in close converse, in Lesbos' sexually segregated society. Indeed “31” is the sole text in Sappho's corpus to show a woman and a man in an intimate conversation.12 This interpretation of the poem was, of course, standard up until the mid-fifties, having been first advanced by Wilamowitz and later vigorously defended by Snell.13 In 1955, it was to many people's minds decisively refuted by Page, who termed it a “theory … based on nothing but a preconceived notion about Sappho's moral character.” Kirkwood, thus, refers to Page's having “demolished” a view which could only appeal to the “sentimentally inclined,” and which was designed to repress Sappho's homoeroticism.14 Yet such an indictment is little more than an ad hominem attack, and in this reader's case it is applicable neither on the count of sentimentality nor of homophobia. More importantly, McEvilley has persuasively shown that both Snell's and Wilamowitz's major theses were more correct than even they realized. He makes three major points: first, the term anêr (“man”) in Sappho always refers to a husband; second, the direct comparison with a god only occurs in marriage poems; and third, Lesbos in all the surviving literature would appear to have been so sexually segregated as not to have allowed the sort of public interaction between a man and woman portrayed in the poem, except in the context of marriage.15 Ruth Neuberger-Donath has also demonstrated, by using comparative evidence gathered from the Homeric poems, that any time a man and woman are shown to be sitting enantios to one another, they are necessarily philos to one another. It can thus be assumed, she concludes, that the couple celebrated in Sappho's poem were in fact man and wife, and probably recently so.16

This reading is also a tempting solution because Sappho wrote numerous epithalamia and, as Judith Hallet has noted, the social function of her verse would appear to have been that of preparing the young women of Lesbos for their communally sanctioned roles.17 Likewise Gregory Nagy has recently argued that Sappho's role as a singer was that of a khoregos, a publicly sanctioned poet/educator comparable to Alcman in his “Partheneia”:

To say that Sappho is an “educator” is a prosaic way of saying that her assumed role, through her lyric poetry, is that of khoregos, “chorus leader,” speaking both to and about members of an aggregate of female characters who are bound together by ties that correspond to the ties that bind a chorus together.

Her expression and probable practice of homoerotic love was thus, like that of her male counterparts, a form of paideia, not the public expression of a private desire.18

It is, of course, impossible to prove whether this poem was actually sung at a wedding(s) or not, but the attempt to formulate a response to the question of the poem's performative context goes a long way towards elucidating the concrete nature of its dialogical situation. For it makes clear the radically different nature of Sappho's poetry from the vastly more privatized verse which is read and written today. Moreover, as of yet, there have been no other satisfactory performative contexts envisioned, and those who have opposed this interpretation have generally chosen to ignore the question altogether, leading to anachronistic interpretations in which Sappho is read more as an author composing books of poetry, than as an archaic singer performing orally before her peers.19

At all events, the poem can hardly have been intended to be heard by the citizens of Lesbos as a purely personal confession. Its focus is not the moi, but the toi and the kenos.20 The initial naming complex concentrates not on the speaking voice's ego, but on that of the addressees: “This man seems equal to the gods, that sits opposite you and listens close by to your sweet voice.” Likewise the feelings of the speaking subject are only present to the extent that they can be directly expressed in an objectified and externalizing catalogue of symptoms.21 In fact the poetic ego, through its enactment of a universalizing symptomology, functions as an analogue to the central mythic section of a Pindaric ode. It renders public and understandable a unique experience which otherwise would be purely personal and thus meaningless to the public at large. As Kirkwood says, “Sappho used herself as the illustrative equivalent of a simile or myth.”22 We find out next to nothing about the poet herself, or the persona she wishes to project; instead, we are invited to marvel at the devastating effect of the woman's beauty, even as this unnamed, godlike man sits before her, seemingly unfazed. What we have is a poem of praise, directed in the first instance to the young woman and in the second to the man sitting across from her.23

If, however, we examine Catullus' translation of this same poem, the dialogical relation has changed. First, Catullus no longer thinks in terms of communal occasions, but in terms of private readers or intimate friends.24 Second, the poem now not only gains its meaning from its relation to its audience, but also from its relation to other poems in the corpus. These poems provide the primary context in which the individual poem is to be understood. Our vision of Lesbia and Catullus is unalterably modified by our knowledge of these other poems, and thus the poem itself is in constant dialogue not only with its readers, but with the other poems of the collection. It is, in fact, this intertextual quality of Catullus' work that gives it that sense of intimacy which all readers perceive. We seem ever to be eaves-dropping on the poet in dialogue with himself, but that dialogue is infinite because it is always being reshaped and remodelled by our own reading of the corpus.25

Aside from the final stanza of Catullus 51, it and its Sapphic model appear to be substantially alike, except for the seemingly minor difference that Catullus names his addressee Lesbia.26 Now, there is no great mystery as to whom the name Lesbia referred. Apuleius tells us (Apology 10) that it was a woman named Clodia, who is generally thought to have been either Clodia Metelli or one of her sisters. A more important question, though, is: what is the poetic significance of this particular pseudonym? The answer is twofold. First, and most obviously, Lesbia is the metrical equivalent of Clodia, so that if Catullus chose to circulate a private manuscript, the actual name could have been easily substituted. Second, and more important for our purposes, Lesbia is also the Latin adjective denoting a woman from Lesbos, in this context obviously Sappho.27 In Sappho's original, however, she is the one who is tongue-tied. Likewise she is the singer of the poem, not its recipient. Yet in Catullus' version, the woman named with an adjective which alludes to Sappho is in the opposite position. She is now the object, not the subject. She is the woman sung about, not the singer.28 There has been an inversion of roles, which as we shall see will have reverberations throughout the collection, and which necessarily calls the poet's double relation to both his reading public and his predecessors into question. For each of these relations is now mediated by the other and can only be understood from within the other's perspective. The poem is neither a simple presentation of an event to the reading public, nor a univocal reproduction of Sappho's original, but a complex mixture of both, situated within the larger context of Catullus' portrayal of the affair as a whole.

The point is a somewhat obvious one, though it has yet to be fully considered. For, in the very act of self-consciousness this alteration supposes, Catullus' poem comes to transcend the moment of its enunciation and enters into a new and more complex series of dialogic relations which ultimately center around the multi-voiced and often conflicting intentions of the Catullan poetic ego as they are revealed in poem 51's relations with the other poems in the collection.29 There is, then, in this one name, Lesbia, a measure of conscious reflexivity, which is utterly alien to Sappho's original. This seemingly innocent substitution of Lesbia for Clodia opens a whole range of questions about artistic intent and self-conscious intertextuality which would be unimaginable in Sappho's predominantly oral culture.

Are we for example to assume, given the use of the name Lesbia in the context of a poem by Sappho, that there is a reciprocity of symptoms between Catullus and his beloved, so that not only Catullus is Sappho, but also the woman who bears the Sapphic epithet? Or has there been a mere inversion of roles? From the beginning we are in a quandary as to what precise roles Catullus and Lesbia/Clodia/Sappho are going to play, and as to what levels of conscious intent the triple-faceted object of Catullus' desire corresponds. Moreover, what does it mean to send Lesbia/Sappho a reinscription of her own poem into another language, another alphabet, especially when this Lesbia/Sappho is only Sappho and not Clodia through a trick of orthography, through a private code made possible by writing? No simple answers can be supplied to these questions. But what is interesting is the fact that we have now entered into a new genre of poetry whose radically different context of enunciation makes those questions not only possible, but necessary. For they show we are now in a complex and sophisticated world of literary allusions, artistic self-consciousness, and psychological ambiguity, a cosmopolitan and Hellenistic world alien to the predominantly oral culture of archaic Lesbos.

Nonetheless, this reading of 51 has only scratched the surface of the complexities and circuitous routes of responsive understanding this poem contains. For, in this same alteration of Sappho's original can also be seen still another motif of Catullus' poetry, which can be tracked throughout the collection, and which constitutes one of the primary thematic elements organizing it as a whole: that of sex-role reversal.30 A precise parallel to Catullus' intertextual alteration of expected sex-roles in 51 can thus also be seen in poem 70's relation to its original, Callimachus' eleventh epigram, wherein the passive and active roles played by Catullus and Lesbia respectively in 70 are reversed in Callimachus' original.31 There the man, Callignotis, is active, and the girl, Ionis, is passive. Likewise, in poem 68, Catullus compares his own need to overlook Lesbia's infidelities with that of Juno's ignoring the omnivoli plurima furta Jovis.32 And this thematic element of the collection, in turn, can be seen as adding yet another ironic level to Catullus' use of the name Lesbia for Clodia, inasmuch as it was widely thought in antiquity (probably correctly) that Sappho was a Lesbian in both senses of the word. As such, she could have easily been thought of as usurping the masculine role (did not Horace refer to her as mascula Saffo?), and hence within the binary logic of conventional Roman sexual relations: if Catullus was on the receiving end of Lesbia's infidelities, he would thus naturally be in the woman's or at least the effeminate position.33

Given the recurrent nature of this motif of sex-role reversal in the Catullan collection, it is perhaps not accidental that another important example of this same phenomenon can be found in the final strophe of poem 11, the only other poem in the collection written in Sapphic stanzas: “And let her not look for my love which has perished through her blame, just as a flower at the edge of the meadow when touched by the passing plough.” And, as it turns out, the particular sex-role reversal found in the poem appears to be a direct imitation of still another fragment attributed to Sappho (105c), thus seeming to confirm the thesis that 11 and 51 are to be read as a diptych.34 Yet there is more to this stanza than a simple imitation of Sappho, or another example of sex-role reversal. Indeed, by means of its brutal imagery, the reader gains admittance into a realm of associations, which lead him or her into the darkest and least conscious depths of the Catullan poetic ego, into images of mutilation and disease such as Attis' self-castration in 63, or 76's reference to the Lesbia affair as a pernicies pestis.35 At the same time, however, through this double image of the flower destroyed by the plough, the collection demands still another even more complex reading, linking all these poems in a further set of associations which ultimately produce an image of artistic self-consciousness and deliberate inter- and intratextuality unimaginable in an oral context; with the result that the reader has simultaneously a sense of being let into the secret reaches of the Catullan soul, even as (s)he recognizes that it is through that soul's conscious will to artistry that this very insight is possible.

The plough of poem 11's final stanza was of course a common symbol in ancient literature for the masculine phallus while the flower often signified an unmarried woman. Thus in Catullus' first epithalamium, for example, the bride is referred to as flos or floridus four separate times. Hence Catullus, in at least a figurative sense, portrays himself here as deflowered by the phallus of mascula Lesbia. Moreover, this same conjunction of images, the flower and the plough, is also found in Catullus' second epithalamium, where it is made unmistakably clear that the flower represents the still virgin bride-to-be, and the plough the ravishing male.36 In addition, it will also be recalled that Sappho's poem “31,” the original for Catullus 51, was itself probably created for a wedding, so that if Catullus could count on his readers recognizing the wedding background of Sappho's original, then the creation of an ironic contrast between 51 and 11, as poems of marriage and divorce, would have been evident. Thus Sappho herself, through her poetry and its various erotic themes, becomes the unifying subtext, uniting what have often been read as the first and last poems of the affair into a complex dialogical unity in which each poem's meaning is relativized by the reading of the other and by the way in which both of these poems are read by other texts in the collection, such as the epithalamia, the Attis, and poem 76's reflections on the affair as a pernicies pestis.37 Yet the ironic relation obtaining between 11 and 51 is raised to an even higher power when it is seen that poem 11's imitation of Sappho (105c), which in 62 functions as a symbol of intact virginity, here is transformed into an image of Lesbia's insatiable lust.38 Taken as a totality, this set of poems (11, 51, 61, 62, 63, 76) and their Sapphic recollections allude to the full range of Catullus' emotions, ranging from dumbstruck awe, to fear, loathing, and obsessive images of defloration and castration.

This complex set of both inter- and intratextual dialogical relations, in which Catullus 51 necessarily becomes embedded because of its role within the Catullan collection, would be unimaginable for its Sapphic original. Rather than illustrating the linear temporal movement of a performance which must first and foremost be construed in its immediate communal and cultural context, the Catullan poem becomes part of a complex dialogue which moves forward and backward within the Catullan collection itself, as well as back and forth between its literary sources. It is only from within this complex textual network that the individual poem then starts to refer to the larger world of Roman and Hellenistic culture in which it was produced. Each individual moment of the Catullan ego as presented within the collection becomes a dialogical nexus which communicates with all the others. In the Catullan corpus, the reader always participates in a multifaceted dialogue constituted first by the poems themselves and only secondarily by its reading public. Yet the limits of that dialogue can never be fully mapped, never completely exhausted. The process of rereading and interpretation within its bounds is ultimately infinite.39 For a poetry of oral performance the process of interpretation is also, properly speaking, infinite, but the hermeneutic circle it describes is not in the first instance the internal dialogue of the poet, but his or her dialogue with both the (oral) poetic tradition and the collective ideological and social world in which it is performed.

Bakhtin's work, then, allows us to understand the difference between orally performed and written lyric more completely than previous theories have. For the concept of dialogism allows us to see that the primary focus of a work is its relation to its context, both performative and textual, and that written and orally performed texts must necessarily conceive of their contexts in radically different ways. Moreover, by distinguishing between primary and secondary dialogism, we have been able to maintain Bakhtin's concept of the unique nature of novelistic discourse—as allowing multiple, separate linguistic consciousnesses to come together in an ongoing, serious but relativizing play—while at the same time making use of Bakhtin's broader theoretical insights into the inherently dialogical nature of all language, genres, and consciousness, without being forced to see these phenomena as precursors of the novel.40 Consequently, the concept of secondary dialogism allows the full range of Bakhtin's theoretical insights to be applied to ancient texts, rather than seeing them as primarily useful for the study of prose from Rabelais and the sixteenth century onward. Finally, this reading has shown that not only can we apply Bakhtin's concepts to ancient literature, but through them we are also able to make fine distinctions which allow us to see those texts in a new light. Therefore works which on the surface may appear to be closely related can be shown to pertain to radically different dialogical situations and thus to be different types of utterances. Hence, through the concept of secondary dialogism, we have been able to show that the poems of Sappho and Catullus, even when their semantic contents are all but identical, represent two quite separate genres of composition.


  1. Bakhtin 1981.278, 284-88, 296-98, 300, 325-31. The importance of this distinction as well as its controversial nature have been pointed out by more than one critic. See Morson and Emerson 1989.53-54; de Man 1989.111; Roberts 1989.133 and Todorov 1984.64-67.

  2. Morson and Emerson 1989.52-53. For Morson and Emerson's attempt to separate out the different senses of dialogism, from a different point of view, see 1990.49-62.

  3. Bakhtin 1981.274-76, 282, 326, 332-33 and Morson and Emerson 1989.53. On the utterance as a complete verbal performance by one speaker which expects a reply from another, see Bakhtin 1986a.71-73, 82, 92-93; Todorov 1984.x and 43-44 and Volosinov 1986.94-96.

    There is still considerable dispute over whether the texts originally published under the names of Volosinov and Medvedev were: a) in reality written by Bakhtin; b) heavily influenced by him; or c) rejoinders in a dialogue in which he was influenced by the others as much as he influenced them. All commentators agree, however, that there are numerous and striking similarities between the works of the members of the Bakhtin circle. The main areas in which there remain disputes about the compatibility of the theoretical positions elaborated in these works are: whether Bakhtin shared the latter two's Marxism; and whether Medvedev and Volosinov can be said to think in terms of closed, binary oppositions, while Bakhtin can be said to prefer open dialogized pairs. Neither of these problems has a direct bearing on my argument. Thus I shall consider the various works of the Bakhtin circle as all part of the same discourse, even if they were not all written by the same author. In my citations, I use the names under which the texts were published in English. For more views on this debate, see Morson and Emerson 1990.11, 77, 102, 104, 106-07, 111, 118-19, 124-25, 161-62, 479 ns. 6-7; Holquist 1990.8; Todorov 1984.11; Bakhtin/Medvedev 1985.vii and ix.

  4. Bakhtin 1981.276-77, 279-80, 282, 293; 1984.73; Todorov 1984.48-49 and Volosinov 1986.19, 23. On the internal dialogism of individual words, see Bakhtin 1981.279 and Morson and Emerson 1990.138-39.

  5. Bakhtin 1984.120; 1986a.93; Morson and Emerson 1990.49, 131, 143, 146.

  6. Bakhtin 1986b.110. On the importance of this passage, see Roberts 1989.133-34 and Todorov 1984.68. On Bakhtin's wavering on the possibility of dialogism in lyric, see Morson and Emerson 1989.6 and 54-55. Tavis 1988.75 and 77 has argued that Bakhtin in his early work “Toward a Philosophy of the Act,” employs a dialogic method in his analysis of Pushkin's “For the Shores of Your Distant Country.” Thus at the beginning and at the end of his career Bakhtin was more liberal in his granting of dialogic status to poetry than he was in the middle period of his work. Bakhtin's reading of the Pushkin poem can be found in 1990.208-31.

  7. See Snyder 1989.17; Griffith 1989.60; Gentili 1985.3, 41, 75, 204-05; Hallet 1979.461-64; Segal 1974.139-40, 153; Russo 1973/74.709; Havelock 1982.17-20, 189; 1963.37-39, 43. On the lack of a substantial book trade in the sixth and seventh centuries, thus eliminating the only alternative mode by which Sappho's poetry could have been widely diffused, see Harris 1989.92-93, as well as 84-87.

  8. Gentili 1985.52; Zumthor 1983.48, 56, 234; Winkler 1981.65; Finnegan 1977.129; Adkins 1972.5; Havelock 1963.46, 121, 182-83. On the unrepeatability of utterances, see Bakhtin 1986b.108 and Morson and Emerson 1990.126.

  9. Bakhtin 1986a.60-65, 95-96; Bakhtin/Medvedev 1985.11, 130-31; Morson and Emerson 1990.129, 290; Todorov 1984.82.

  10. Lasserre 1989.147. On Sappho's possible political problems, see the reference to her exile during the reign of the tyrant Pittacus, Marm. Par. Ep. 36 (p. 12 Jacoby), reprinted in Campbell 1982.8-9; on oral poetry's audience as a small, relatively homogeneous social group, see Zumthor 1983.40.

  11. Bakhtin 1986a.95-96, 1984.87-88; Morson and Emerson 1990.129-30.

  12. Griffith 1989.59. Race's statement (1989.31) that the situation presented at the beginning of 31 is “ordinary” is anachronistic in its assumption of routinized commerce between unrelated members of the opposite sex.

  13. Wilamowitz 1966/1913.5; Snell 1931.71-90.

  14. Page 1955.30-33; Kirkwood 1974.121-22; see also Snyder 1989.20.

  15. McEvilley 1978.1-9. Lasserre 1989.150-51, argues persuasively against McEvilley's suggestion that the wedding scene evoked by the poem might be imaginary.

  16. Neuberger-Donath 1977.199-200. Wiseman (1985.153) also accepts the Wilamowitz thesis, finding support for it in Catullus. For further corroborating views, see Griffith 1989.59-61; Lasserre 1989.149-52; Winkler 1981.73; Fränkel 1975.176 and Treu 1954.178-79.

  17. Hallet 1979.450, 456, and 461-64. See also Gentili 1985.102-08; Calame 1977.396 and Segal 1974.141 and 153.

  18. Nagy 1990.435 and 370-71, especially: “It should be clear that I understand the monodic form not to be antithetical to the choral but rather predicated on it. A figure like Sappho speaks as a choral personality, even though elements of dancing and the very presence of a choral group are evidently missing from her compositions. Still, these compositions presuppose or represent an interaction, offstage, as it were with a choral aggregate.” This is another way of saying the performance implies an immediate and formalized dialogic relationship with the listening public. For more on Sappho's relation to Alcman and paideia, see Calame 1977.88, 126-27, 369, 421-34; Hallet 1979.463-64; Dover 1978.181; Lefkowitz 1981.51-52; Stigers 1981.45.

  19. Thus Race 1983.92-93 argues that while Wilamowitz's wedding hypothesis solves the historical problem of the performative context it “creates a literary one,” since the word marriage is never mentioned. But the dichotomy is false. Literary problems are always simultaneously historical ones, inasmuch as works of literature are profoundly dialogized utterances which presume a relation of responsive understanding between themselves and their audiences or reading publics. Literary questions are thus inevitably social and historical questions as well.

  20. Snell 1953.52.

  21. Page 1955.26-27; Fränkel 1975.176.

  22. Kirkwood 1974.122; West 1970.314-15.

  23. Burnett 1983.236; Lasserre 1989.157.

  24. Wiseman 1982.38-39.

  25. There remains disagreement over how much of Catullus' corpus was arranged by the author himself. Although there is more and more reason to believe Catullus arranged the collection as a whole, there is at minimum widespread belief that he arranged at least poems 1-51. My argument does not depend upon accepting any one schema of arrangement, but rather on the notion that we read the poems in terms of one another, and that the numerous cross-references between the poems and the use of repeated motifs show that they were meant to be read as a group, whether they were originally placed in the order we now have them or not.

    On the consensus, that at least part of the present collection was arranged by the author, see Skinner 1988.337. Among those who believe the collection as a whole is the work of the poet are: Ellis 1979/1889.1-5, with some minor rearranging of 61-68; Wiseman 1985.136-37, 1969.30; Quinn 1972.9-20 and 38-50; Skinner 1988.338, n. 2, where she revises her claim (in 1981.passim) that only 1-51 were arranged by the author; Ferguson 1986.2; Minyard 1988.343-53; Dettmer 1988.371-81 and Arkins 1987.847-48.

  26. For a recent discussion of the close relations between the two texts, see Vine 1992.251-58 and Wiseman 1985.152-53.

  27. Fredricksmeyer 1983.69.

  28. Skinner 1981.88.

  29. Thus Fredricksmeyer (1983.66-68) has noted Catullus' use of the word identidem (“again and again, habitually”) as one of the parallels linking poems 11 and 51. It has no analogue in Sappho's original and changes what was a particular occasion in the original into a constantly recurring one. Professor Charles Platter has pointed out to me that this adverb may also be making reference to the common recurrence of the adverb deute in archaic lyric. See Kirkwood 1974.112, 249, n. 23 and Sappho 1.

    Note also Commager's interesting observation (1965.87): “Where [Sappho 31] has two verbs to describe the action of the girl and one for the spectator, Catullus reverses the emphasis, also adding the adjective misero. The alterations, admittedly minor, suggest that the poem will be even more self-centered than Sappho's.”

  30. Rubino 1975.294.

  31. Page 1975.93.

  32. For a fuller examination of these issues see Miller 1988.127-32.

  33. Epistles 1.19.28, see also Porphyrio's commentary on this passage, reprinted in Campbell 1982.18-19. On the binary logic of conventional Roman sexual relations, see Wiseman 1985.10-14.

  34. Quinn 1972.163; Duclos 1976.86.

  35. For 76 as “a sort of summary and model for the entire elegiac and erotic segment of the Catullan oeuvre,” including specific reminiscences of poem 51, see Rubino 1975.289; see also Wiseman 1985.170-71; Quinn 1972.102 and Commager 1965.97-98.

  36. Ferguson 1985.44; Fredricksmeyer 1983.73; Putnam 1974.79-80. Poem 62.39-47: Ut flos in saeptis secretus nascitur hortis,/ ignotus pecori, nullo convolsus aratro, / … sic virgo, dum intacta manet, dum cara suis est; / cum castum amisit polluto corpore florem,/ nec pueris iucunda manet, nec cara puellis. (“As a solitary flower which has been born in a walled garden, unnoticed by the herd, and yet to be plucked by the plough … so the young maid, while she remains untouched, is dear to her family; yet once she has lost the chaste flower and her body is befouled, she remains neither a joy to the boys, nor dear to the girls.”)

  37. Ferguson 1988.14; Wiseman 1985.153; Duclos 1976.78; Quinn 1972.56.

  38. Quinn 1972.162.

  39. For an excellent reading of the temporal complexity of Catullus' poetry and how each new reading both builds on and surpasses all past readings, with particular reference to poem 11, see Sweet 1987.514, 522-23, and 526. Rereading is of course something only available in a literate poetic tradition.

  40. Morson and Emerson 1990.9, 131, 155, 236-40, 307, 319-25, 328-30; Bakhtin 1984.87-88.


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Fredricksmeyer, E. A. 1983. “The Beginning and End of Catullus' Longus Amor,Symbolae Osloenses, 58.63-88.

Gentili, Bruno. 1985. Poesia e Pubblico nella Grecia Antica: Da Homero al V Secolo. Rome.

Griffith, R. Drew. 1989. “In Praise of the Bride: Sappho Fr. 105(A) L-P, Voigt,” TAPA [Transactions of the American Philological Association] 119.55-61.

Hallet, Judith P. 1979. “Sappho and her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality,” Signs 4.447-64.

Harris, William V. 1989. Ancient Literacy. Cambridge, Mass.

Havelock, E. A. 1963. Preface to Plato. Cambridge, Mass.

———1982. The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences. Princeton.

Holquist, Michael. 1990. Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World. London.

Johnson, W. R. 1982. The Idea of Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry. Berkeley.

Kirkwood, G. M. 1974. Early Greek Monody: The History of a Poetic Type. Ithaca.

Lasserre, François. 1989. Sappho: Une Autre Lecture. Padua.

Lefkowitz, Mary. 1981. Heroines and Hysterics. New York.

McEvilley, Thomas. 1978. “Sappho, Fragment Thirty-One: The Face Behind the Mask,” Phoenix 32.1-18.

Miller, Paul Allen. 1988. “Catullus, C. 70: A Poem and Its Hypothesis,” Helios 15.127-32.

Minyard, John Douglas. 1988. “The Source of the Catulli Veronensis Liber,CW 81.5.343-53.

Morson, Gary Saul and Caryl Emerson. 1989. “Introduction,” Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges, pp. 1-60. Evanston, Illinois.

———1990. Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford.

Nagy, Gregory. 1990. Pindar's Homer: The Lyric Possession of the Epic Past. Baltimore.

Neuberger-Donath, Ruth. 1977. “Sappho 31.2s … ὄττιs ἐνάντιόs τοι / ἰσδάνει,” Acta Classica 20.199-200.

Page, Denys. 1955. Sappho and Alcaeus. Oxford.

———1975. Epigrammata Graeca. Oxford.

Putnam, Michael C. J. 1974. “Catullus 11: The Ironies of Integrity,” Ramus 3.70-86.

Quinn, Kenneth. 1972. Catullus: An Interpretation. London.

Race, William H. 1983. “‘That Man’ in Sappho Fr. 31 L-P,” CA [Classical Antiquity] 2.92-101.

———1989. “Sappho, FR. 16 L-P. and Alkaios, FR. 42 L-P.: Romantic and Classical Strains in Lesbian Lyric,” CJ [Classical Journal] 85.16-33.

Roberts, Mathew. 1989. “Poetics Hermeneutics Dialogics: Bakhtin and Paul de Man,” in Morson and Emerson 1989, pp. 115-34.

Rubino, Carl A. 1975. “The Erotic World of Catullus,” CW 68.289-98.

Russo, Joseph. 1973/74. “Reading the Greek Lyric Poets (Monodists),” Arion n.s. 1.707-30.

Segal, Charles. 1974. “Eros and Incantation: Sappho and Oral Poetry,” Arethusa 7.139-60.

Skinner, Marilyn. 1981. Catullus' Passer: The Arrangement of the Polymetric Poems. Salem, New Hampshire.

———1988. “Aesthetic Patterning in Catullus: Textual Structures, Systems of Imagery and Book Arrangements, Introduction,” CW 81.337-40.

Snell, Bruno. 1931. “Sapphos Gedicht φαίνεταί μοι χῆνοs,” Hermes 66.71-90.

———1953. The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought, trans. T. G. Rosenmeyer. New York.

Snyder, Jane McIntosh. 1989. The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome. Carbondale, Ill.

Stigers, Eva Stehle. 1981. “Sappho's Private World,” Reflections of Women in Antiquity, ed. Helene P. Foley, pp. 45-61. New York.

Sweet, David R. 1987. “Catullus 11: A Study in Perspective,” Latomus 46.510-26.

Tavis, Anna A. 1988. “Early ‘Pushkinizm’ as a Critical Dialogue: Bakhtin's and Zhirmunsky's Reading of Pushkin's ‘For the Shores of Your Distant Country,’” The Contexts of Alexander Pushkin, edd. Peter I. Barta and Ulrich Goebel, pp. 67-83. Studies in Russian and German, no. 1. Lewiston.

Todorov, Tzvetan. 1984. Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, trans. Wlad Godzich. Theory and History of Literature, vol. 13. Minneapolis.

Treu, Max. 1954. Sappho. Munich.

Vine, Brent. 1992. “On the ‘Missing’ Fourth Stanza of Catullus 51,” HSCP 96.251-58.

Volosinov, V. N. 1986. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik. Cambridge, Mass.

West, M. L. 1970. “Burning Sappho,” Maia 22.307-30.

Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, U. von. 1966/1913. Sappho und Simonides. Berlin.

Winkler, Jack. 1981. “Gardens of Nymphs: Public and Private in Sappho's Lyrics,” Reflections of Women in Antiquity, ed. Helene P. Foley, pp. 63-89. New York.

Wiseman, T. P. 1969. Catullan Questions. Leicester.

———1982. “Pete Nobiles Amicos: Poets and Patrons in Late Republican Rome,” Literary and Artistic Patronage in Ancient Rome, ed. Barbara K. Gold, pp. 28-49. Austin.

———1985. Catullus and His World: A Reappraisal. Cambridge.

Zumthor, Paul. 1983. Introduction à la Poésie Orale. Collection Poétique. Paris.

Linda H. Peterson (essay date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Peterson, Linda H. “Sappho and the Making of Tennysonian Lyric.” ELH 61, no. 1 (spring 1994): 121-37.

[In the following essay, Peterson notes the literary influence of Sappho's poetry on Alfred, Lord Tennyson and, more broadly, on the “feminine” tradition in nineteenth-century English lyric verse.]

In 1830, on a summer tour in southern France and the Pyrenees, Alfred Tennyson wrote the poem now known as “Mariana in the South.” When Arthur Henry Hallam, Tennyson's travelling companion on that tour, sent a copy of the poem to their mutual friend W. B. Donne, he included a paragraph of critical commentary that has since become part of Tennyson studies—although, as I shall argue, in a strangely half-acknowledged way. Hallam noted that the poem was a “pendant to his [Tennyson's] former poem of Mariana, the idea of both being the expression of desolate loneliness”; that the southern Mariana required “a greater lingering on the outward circumstances, and a less palpable transition of the poet into Mariana's feelings”; that this lingering on the external was appropriate, for “when the object of poetic power happens to be an object of sensuous perception it is the business of the poetic language to paint”; and that Tennyson's technique was sanctioned by “the mighty models of art, left for the worship of ages by the Greeks, & those too rare specimens of Roman production which breathe a Greek spirit.” Hallam's commentary ends with a comparison of Tennyson's poetry to “the fragments of Sappho, in which I see much congeniality to Alfred's peculiar power.”1

What has come down in critical studies—as, for example, in the great Ricks edition of Tennyson's poetry—is the association of “Mariana in the South” with Sappho's fragment “1.”

The Moon has set
And the Pleiades
It is midnight
The time is going by
And I sleep alone.(2)
Δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα
καὶ πληiαδεs, μέσαι δέ
νύκτεs, πάρα δ' ἔρχετ' Ὤρα,
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.

This certainly was, for the nineteenth century, the great Sapphic fragment of “desolate loneliness” and unquestionably an influence on Tennyson's lyric. But, following Hallam's lead, I want to associate Sappho's fragments not only with “Mariana in the South,” but also with the original “Mariana” and, more generally, with Tennyson's early lyrics. I pursue this association not so much to trace Tennyson's debt to Sappho or his interest in archaic Greek poetry, though these are important matters, but rather to suggest how a conception of Sappho and Greek lyric poetry—a conception Tennyson shared and worked out with Hallam—helped him understand his role as a poet and his place in the English poetic tradition.

Tennyson's interest in Sappho began early in his career and lasted long. In the 1827 volume, Poems by Two Brothers, he quoted a line from the Ovidian ode, “Sappho to the absent Phaon”—“Te somnia nostra reducunt [You my dreams bring back to me]”—as an epigraph to his own lyric, “And ask ye why these sad tears stream.” Very late in his career, in the 1886 Locksley Hall Sixty Years After, Tennyson referred to Sappho simply (and supremely) as “the poet,” alluding to her fragment on Hesperus, “Féσπερε, πάντα φέρων, ὄσα φαίνολιs ἔσκέδασ' αὔωs, / φέρειs οέν, φέρεσ αέγα, φέρεισ ἄπυ ματέρι παι̑δα,” in the line “Hesper, whom the poet call'd the Bringer home of all good things” (185). And, throughout his work, he regularly quoted or praised Sappho—as, for example, in The Princess, where Lady Psyche cites Sappho as one who “vied with any man” in “arts of grace” (2.147-48), or in the Idylls of the King, where Elaine's lament echoes the bitter-sweet antithesis of Sappho's fragment, “Εροσ δαὖτέ μ' ὀ λυσιμεληs δόνει, / γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον”: “Love, art thou sweet? Then bitter death must be: / Love, thou art bitter; sweet is death to me.”3

Tennyson seems also to have had a lifelong obsession with the technicalities of Greek poetry, including Sapphics and Anacreontics. In December, 1863, William Allingham witnessed a dinner conversation, continued for three nights running, in which Tennyson discoursed on “Classic Metres.” (“Mrs. T.,” Allingham reports, “confessed herself tired of hearing” about the subject).4 Another friend, Mrs. Montagu Butler, recorded in her 1892 diary that Tennyson had told her that the Sapphics of Horace were “uninteresting and monotonous,” whereas “the metre was beautiful under [Sappho's] treatment”; “the discovery for which he always hoped the most,” Mrs. Butler added, “was of some further writings of Sappho.”5

It was in the early 1830s, however, during his time at Cambridge and his friendship with Hallam, that Tennyson showed the most concentrated interest in Sappho's poetry, and this interest marks the short lyrics of his 1830 Poems Chiefly Lyrical and the 1832 Poems. In the 1830 volume Tennyson paraphrases (and disagrees with) Sappho's fragment on Hesperus in his “Leonine Elegiacs”:

The ancient poetess singeth, that Hesperus all things bringeth,
Smoothing the wearied mind: bring me my love, Rosalind.
Thou comest morning or even; she cometh not morning or even.
False-eyed Hesper, unkind, where is my sweet Rosalind?


He repossesses and augments Sappho's fragment “1” in “Mariana” and again, in the 1832 Poems, in “Mariana in the South.” Moreover, as Stephen C. Allen has recently argued, another of Sappho's fragments—”Sweet mother, I cannot weave my web, broken as I am by longing for a boy, at soft Aphrodite's will”—influenced Tennyson's conception of “The Lady of Shalott,” in which a female artist, like Sappho's speaker, is overcome by the onset of Love.6 Finally, in the 1832 Poems, Tennyson includes two adaptations of the famous Sapphic ode “φαίνεταί μοι κήνοs ἴσοs θέοισιν / ἔμμεν Ὤνηρ [Peer of the gods he seems to me]”: an extensive translation-adaptation in “Eleanore” (122-44) and a partial borrowing in “Fatima” (15-19). Indeed, when Tennyson published “Fatima” in 1832, he did so without a title and with only an epigraph repeating the opening words of Sappho's ode: “φαίνεταί μοι κήνοs ἴσοs θέοισιν / ἔμμεν Ὤνηρ.”7

Admittedly, the 1830 and 1832 Poems contain many other allusions, classical and modern, a point to which I shall return. Even so, the density of the allusions to Sappho in 1830-1832 marks her profound influence and presence in these early volumes of Tennyson's poetry. Given this presence, we may surmise that Sappho—both the poet and her poetry—provided Tennyson with a means for pursuing his own poetic agenda and locating his place among English poets. Nineteenth-century myths of Sappho also, I believe, allowed Tennyson to work out a model of influence that enabled poetic production—and that enables us to revise our current discourse about poets and their literary relations, particularly in the early Victorian period.


That Tennyson used Sappho as a vehicle for self-definition is not, of course, unprecedented in literary history. As Joan deJean has argued for French literature, male poets have frequently used Sappho's poetry as an initiatory vehicle or an object of exchange. In Fictions of Sappho, deJean posits a triangulation of desire in which young male poets compete for recognition and priority by translating Sappho's lyrics and thus taking possession of her voice.8 Typically, the site of this competition is Sappho's second ode, in French known familiarly as “A l'aimee,” what we know in English (thanks to Swinburne) as the “Ode to Anactoria,” what Tennyson translated partially in “Eleanore” and “Fatima”:

Just like a god he seems to me
That man who sits
Across from you so closely
Attentive to your sweet words.
Φαίνεταί μοι κήνοs ἴσοs θέοισιν
ἔμμεν Ὤνηρ, ὄστιs ἐναντίοs τοι
ἰζάνει, καὶ πλυσίον ὖδυ φωνεύσαs ὑπακούει.(9)

In this male competition, a poem of sapphic desire—a female speaker gazing at a man gazing at her beloved—gets translated into a heterosexual triangle of desire—a male speaker gazing at another man gazing at his beloved. The woman, whether the woman in the poem or the female poet Sappho, becomes the object of homosocial exchange between men.

Although we might apply deJean's model directly to Tennyson's case, perhaps by viewing Sappho as his means for circumventing Romantic influence and gaining priority over his immediate poetic predecessors, I believe that the Tennyson-Sappho relationship operates on slightly different terms. For one thing, as Hallam suggests and as the 1830 volume bears witness, it was not Sappho's odes but the shorter fragments that were seminal to Tennyson's development. Today we refer to all Sappho's lyrics as fragments, but in the nineteenth century it was customary to refer to the two odes—the “Ode to Aphrodite” and the “Ode to Anactoria”—and to the rest as fragments.10 In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century editions, fragment “1” was “Δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα,” the lyric that inspired “Mariana” and “Mariana in the South”; fragment “3” was “Γλύκεια μα̑τερ,” the fragment relevant to “The Lady of Shalott.”11 It was the fragmentary nature of Sappho's poetry, the sense of lyric possibilities limned but not fulfilled, that attracted Tennyson. Frederick Tennyson, the poet's brother, expressed a simple version of this attraction in his own expansion of Sappho's lyrics, The Isles of Greece (1890): comparing Sappho's fragments to “muscatel grapes shaken from the vine”—“they leave such a delicious flavour on the tongue, that we long to pluck, if possible, the entire bunches from which they have fallen”—he noted the irresistible urge to manufacture what could not be gathered: “What is a Poet to do under these circumstances, but imagine what they might have been when full-orbed perfect compositions?”12

Alfred Tennyson's attraction to Sappho's poetry was more complex, less a desire to complete the fragments themselves than to fulfill the lyric tradition Sappho had begun. Whereas the epic tradition of Homer had been adapted and expanded by multiple successors (Virgil, Spenser, Milton, to name only the most obvious), the lyric tradition had seen no successors to Sappho—at least not as Hallam and Tennyson interpreted that tradition. When Hallam tried to give W. B. Donne examples of other lyrics “which breathe a Greek spirit,” he could think of only two: “the divine passage about the sacrifice of Iphigenia in Lucretius” and “the desolation of Ariadne in Catullus”; he did not even consider English poems as possible candidates.13 According to Hallam, however, Tennyson possessed a “peculiar power” that made him heir to an ancient, original lyric voice. We know that Tennyson was frustrated by the lack of space available in the epic tradition: “Why should any man / Remodel models?” the poet Everard Hall asks in “The Epic”; the result can only be “faint Homeric echoes.” Given the fragmentary state of Sappho's oeuvre, he had ample space to develop a lyric strain.

It was not simply the fragmentariness of Sappho's poetry, but its particular techniques and its place in literary history that must also have fascinated Tennyson. Tennyson's development of the lyric depended on his sensitivity to “impressions of sense” and on his reading of Sappho as a poet of sensation, of “sensuous perception” (the phrases are Hallam's). Archaic Greek poetry was generally believed to concentrate on the particular, the concrete, and the sensual. Sappho's lyrics in particular were viewed as emerging at a historical moment when the ancient Greek lyricists, only having recently learned to distinguish outside phenomena from inner perceptions and reactions, “busied themselves with studying this relationship of inner and outer, and were led naturally to a preoccupation with the particular feeling or experience.”14 We can see the focus on the particular, concrete, and sensual in Sapphic fragments like these:

(1) Thus at times with tender feet the Cretan women dance in measure round the fair altar, trampling the fine soft bloom of the grass.

(2) A broidered strap of fair Lydian work covered her feet.

(3) Come, goddess of Cyprus, and in golden cups serve nectar delicately mixed with delights.

(4) Now Eros shakes my soul, a wind on the mountain falling on the oaks.

(5) And round about the [breeze] murmurs cool through the apple-boughs, and slumber streams through quivering leaves.15

In such verses the natural world serves not as symbol but provides objects of and occasions for “sensuous perception.” The Sapphic preoccupation with the relation between inner feelings and outer phenomena is especially evident in the final two fragments, as well as in the fragment that inspired the Mariana poems—“The Moon has set, and the Pleiades; it is midnight, the time is going by, and I sleep alone”—in which the loneliness of the speaker heightens (or is heightened by) her sensitivity to external phenomena. This relationship—between outer object and inner perception, between sensation and consciousness—was Tennyson's forte; he, like Sappho, was to be the leading “poet of sensation” of his age.

Sappho's historical and generic relation to epic poetry provided Tennyson, moreover, with a means of comprehending (perhaps rationalizing) his own ambivalent relation to the epic tradition. Frank M. Turner has shown that the Victorians regularly and rigorously compared themselves to the Greeks.16 The general view of classical Greek poetry held that a Lyric Age had succeeded the Epic Age, that Homer (his Iliad, his Odyssey, plus other now-lost epic poetry) was followed by lyricists like Alcaeus and Sappho, and in that succession came a shift in poetic interest. The epic age was “the age of heroism, aristocracy, and the equation of external appearance with reality,” whereas the lyric age focused on “the world of the individual, the πόλιs [city-state], and the discovery of inner life and emotions.”17 This critical view became even more dominant after the discovery of Sappho's fragment “16”:

Some say that an army of cavalry
Others that infantry
And others that a fleet of ships
Is what is most desirable
On this dark earth
But for me it is whatever
Inspires one's passionate love.(18)
οἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον, οἰ δὲ πέσδων
οἰ δὲ νάων φαι̑σ' ἐπὶ γα̑ν μέλαιναν
ἔμμεναι κάλλιστον, ἔγω δὲ κη̑ν ὄτ-
τω τιs ἔραται.

Although in 1830 Tennyson could not have known this poem of stark contrast between war and love, epic conquest and lyric passion, he would have shared with Hallam and his contemporaries a historical sense of lyric developing after and out of epic.19 And, by comparing himself with Sappho, he would have located his place in the progress of literature.

“The age in which we live comes late in our national progress,” Hallam wrote in his 1831 review of Tennyson's Poems Chiefly Lyrical in the Englishman's Magazine. In modern criticism, that lateness has routinely been associated with “belatedness,” with coming at the end of an exhausted poetic tradition, when “that first raciness, and juvenile vigour of literature … is gone, never to return.”20 In Hallam's scheme of literary history, however, coming late meant something more. The historical distance between Homer and Sappho (the eighth century bce to the sixth century bce) was roughly the same as the distance between the English Renaissance epicists and Tennyson—a comparison which meant that Tennyson must acknowledge historical context in imagining his poetic career.21 Hallam's view of literary history explains, in part, his comment in the 1831 review that “the French Revolution may be a finer theme than the war of Troy; but it does not so evidently follow that Homer is to find his superior.”22 Hallam's point is not simply that Homer represents the golden age of epic, but rather that poets must know their place in a “national progress” and work accordingly.


Thus far I have been arguing that Tennyson's relation to Sappho operates in terms different from those developed by Joan deJean, that Sappho helped Tennyson comprehend his lyric sensibility and his place in poetic history. I want also to acknowledge the relevance of deJean's model to Tennyson's early lyrics, however, even as I modify her notions of poetic influence. Consonant with deJean's model, Tennyson did turn a sapphic triangle of desire into a heterosexual triangle, and he did finally use Sappho's second ode as a means of expressing male (poetic) desire. It is of course the case that all English versions of Sappho prior to Swinburne's depict heterosexual (not sapphic) love—whether the translations by Ambrose Philips (1711), John Addison (1735), and Thomas Moore (1800), or the fictions of Sappho by Mary Robinson (1796), John Nott (1803), and Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1824).23 Tennyson could hardly have done otherwise, given the biographical information and the state of the editions available to him.24 Thus, in translating and adapting Sappho's second ode in “Eleänore,” he turns a lyric of female passion into one of male desire:

But when I see thee roam, with tresses unconfined,
While the amorous, odorous wind
          Breathes low between the sunset and the moon;
          Or, in a shadowy saloon,
On silken cushions half reclined;
          I watch thy grace; and in its place
          My heart a charmèd slumber keeps,
          While I muse upon thy face;
          And a languid fire creeps
          Through my veins to all my frame,
Dissolvingly and slowly: soon
          From thy rose-red lips MY name
Floweth; and then, as in a swoon,
          With dinning sound my ears are rife,
                    My tremulous tongue faltereth,
          I lose my color, I lose my breath,
          I drink the cup of a costly death,
Brimmed with delirious draughts of warmest life.
          I die with my delight.


Here it is a male poet who feels physical ravishment, while the female beloved is scarcely allowed to speak, allowed only to utter the poet's name, an utterance that causes her (temporary) silence but ultimately produces his (immortal) lyric. In this heterosexual version of Sappho, Tennyson inscribes common nineteenth-century gender dichotomies: female muse/male poet, female silence/male voice, female erotic object/male gaze. We might even add that in “Eleänore,” perhaps the last of Tennyson's youthful Sapphic borrowings, Sappho becomes the object of exchange between men—not the object of competition between male poets, but the object of bonding between Tennyson and Hallam, the poet and the critic who had shared her lyrics during 1830 and 1831.

That bonding may, as the deJean-Sedgwick model implies, have homosocial elements—in that Tennyson transforms a homoerotic desire for Hallam into a socially-acceptable form of love via his public, heterosexual translations of Sappho's poetry and Hallam's official, public discussions of Shelley and Keats, not the dangerous Sappho, as the dominant poetic influences. Indeed, if we follow Richard Dellamora's line of argument in Masculine Desire, we might see the homoerotic interest of Tennyson and (or for) Hallam implied by their mutual interest in Sappho and then by Tennyson's decision to “normalize” that interest into poetic versions of heterosexual love. That Hallam discussed Tennyson's affinities with Sappho in a private letter to a mutual friend, but not in his public 1831 review in the Englishman's Magazine, might further support this interpretation.25

Despite these possibilities, it may be more useful critically to replace the competitive “masculine” model that deJean posits with an alternative “feminine” model of influence that Sappho offered to Romantic and Victorian poets. Many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century accounts of the Greek poetess emphasized her educative function, the role of her academy in Greek culture and her personal role as an intellectual exemplar for Lesbian women. In her 1796 Sappho and Phaon, for example, the poet Mary Robinson viewed Sappho as an original and originating figure, one who fulfilled the criteria for Romantic artistry yet added the specifically female features of nurture and community to the myths of becoming a poet: “Sappho undertook to inspire the Lesbian women with a taste for literature; many of them received instructions from her, and foreign women increased the number of her disciples.” The amateur classicist John Nott similarly imagined scenes of intellectual and pedagogical exchange in his prose fiction, Sappho, After a Greek Romance (1803), which depicts the lovelorn Sappho living in Sicily among a community of philosophers, poets, and critics; within this community, she composes and recites her two great odes.26

Nott's vision of artistic community and poetic influence varies from Robinson's on one significant point: for Nott, Sappho becomes part of an already-existing male community of philosophers and littérateurs, one which invites her participation because she so evidently possesses genius; for Robinson, Sappho represents the founder of an exclusively female community, one which educates and produces other female poets and readers. For Nott, Sappho is an anomaly, a gifted woman living among men; for Robinson, Sappho is the supreme poet but still representative of other women writers. In both cases, however, the function of the artistic community is the same: to nurture poetic production, to provide what we might designate “feminine” support.

There is good historical evidence to suggest, in other words, that Tennyson and Hallam conceived of influence (or, at least, some poetic influence) as following this more gentle, encouraging, educative Sapphic mode—a mode that would have been emotionally as well as intellectually important to Tennyson who, in the 1830's, was known to be sensitive to negative criticism.27 Current critical models tend to emphasize the competitive element, the “anxiety of influence” articulated so forcefully by Harold Bloom: the “battle between strong equals, father and son as mighty opposites, Laius and Oedipus at the crossroads.”28 In a recent essay on Maud, however, Leslie Brisman provides a basis for analyzing Tennysonian influences more subtly and accurately. Differentiating between Byronic and Keatsian influence in Tennyson, Brisman suggests that the former be associated with “masculine” terms like “force, aggression, explosiveness, acquisitiveness, and institution,” the latter with “feminine” terms like “balance, responsiveness, perseverance, the accumulative, and community.” According to Brisman, Tennyson conceived of his relation to Byron and Keats differently and thus treated their poetic texts differently: “Tennyson turned to Keats as a woman writer turns to a woman writer.”29

What Sappho—the poet and her poetry—enables us to see is that Tennyson not only invoked a feminine model in his relation to Keats, but that he learned this mode of poetic influence from a woman writer, one the ancients considered the tenth Muse, the 19th-century the greatest lyricist of all time. If we have come, in the late twentieth century, to associate a feminine mode of influence with Keats, Tennyson's immediate predecessor, it is because we have forgotten Sappho and her heirs. But our association derives as much from critical myth as it does from literary history. Privately, in the letter to W. B. Donne, Hallam noted Tennyson's affinities with and inheritance from Sappho; publicly, in the 1831 review in the Englishman's Magazine, he linked Tennyson only to the male poets of the prior generation, Keats and Shelley. Whatever the reason for this discrepancy between private and public, whether happenstance or rhetorical moderation (it was, after all, audacious to compare a young poet with the great Sappho, known to the ancients as “the poetess,” “κατ'ἐξοχήν, ἡ ποιήτρια” just as Homer was known as “the poet”) or even a desire to keep shared intellectual pleasures secret, the fact is that Hallam's public omission of Sappho began an all-too-successful critical tradition of denying women writers' influence and recognizing only Tennyson's male predecessors.30

This tradition has become most forceful in the criticism surrounding “Mariana,” Tennyson's greatest poem written under Sappho's influence. The Victorian critic John Churton Collins noted, in his now notorious Illustrations of Tennyson (1891), that, despite Tennyson's intimation of his debt to Shakespeare, the more ancient debt was to Sappho: “Probably the four exquisite lines in which Sappho appears to be describing some Mariana of antiquity were not without their influence on him.” Collins then quoted the fragment “Δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα” as Tennyson's primary source.31 Perhaps because no critic wants to be associated with a man whom Tennyson called “a louse on the locks of literature,” Collins's critical knowledge has been virtually ignored.32 Modern criticism of “Mariana” recognizes allusions to Homer and Euripides (Kincaid), Virgil (Bloom), Samuel Rogers (Ricks), Wordsworth (Thomson), Keats (Hollander, Bloom, Tucker), Shelley (Bloom), and obviously Shakespeare—but except for Robert Pattison's wide-ranging Tennyson and Tradition, it ignores Sappho.33


If Hallam's critical writings—and our own—fit the model of masculine competition and domination that deJean posits, Tennyson's poetic borrowings fit less readily. “Eleänore,” the single poem in which a male speaker assumes Sappho's words and voice, is unusual among Tennyson's adaptations, for in most he gives voice to female desire. Tennyson's Sapphic lyrics tend not to silence the female voice as do the French translations that deJean cites. Unlike his male counterparts, who typically use Sappho's words to express male desire for the female sex and male competition for female objects, Tennyson's poems most frequently choose female speakers: Mariana cries “He cometh not,” the southern Mariana bemoans that she must “live forgotten, and love forlorn,” and Fatima assumes Sappho's voice:

Last night, when some one spoke his name,
From my swift blood that went and came
A thousand little shafts of flame
Were shivered in my narrow frame.


Such adaptations of Sappho represent a new strain in the English lyric. Whereas other poets made the lyric voice essentially masculine, Tennyson experimented with a feminine voice and developed a tradition more ancient and original than did any other English poet, including Shelley and Keats, under whose influence he allegedly languished.34

That Tennyson meant to explore a feminine lyric tradition is demonstrated further, I believe, by the many other, non-Sapphic allusions in the 1830 and 1832 volumes, especially in the “lady” poems. These allusions—to Spenser's Claribel, Shakespeare's Mariana and Isabel, Keats's Madeline, Irving's Anacaona—all suggest a poet looking for hiatuses in the masculine traditions of epic and drama, searching for unexplored territory in a literary tradition “late,” as Hallam put it, “in our national progress.” If, in classical scholarship, Sappho had been called “κατ'ἐξοχήν, ἡ ποιήτρια” and her supremacy in the lyric domain unquestioned, in the 1830's Tennyson seems to have been eager to explore that feminine domain, willing to question or abandon the masculine.35

And yet, to give the argument one more twist, it may be that Tennyson's exploration of the Sapphic strain represents the most devastating attempt to subsume the female voice in English literary history. It may be that his exploration became the exploitation I have been attempting to deny. Prior to Tennyson, at least in England, only female poets had assumed Sappho's persona or used her words to develop a specifically feminine lyric. In the first decades of the nineteenth-century, Sappho became the inspiration for a self-consciously feminine literary agenda, with women writers in England and on the continent modeling their professional lives on hers. Mary Robinson's Sappho and Phaon used Sappho to lament her own lost loves, as well as to further her literary career and legitimize her poetry (In a Series of Legitimate Sonnets, as her subtitle puts it).36 For Robinson, Sappho represented “the unrivalled poetess of her time,” a “lively example of the human mind, enlightened by the most exquisite talents,” and thus a model for a Romantic poetess like Robinson who wished to assert her genius and superior literary taste. Sappho was also, Robinson noted, an inspiration to “my illustrious country-women,” who, “unpatronized by courts, and unprotected by the powerful, persevere in the paths of literature.”37

Two such countrywomen were the second-generation Romantic writers Letitia Elizabeth Landon and Felicia Hemans, both of whom used Sappho, in combination with Madame de Staël's fictional Corinne, as a model for their professional careers. As Angela Leighton has shown, Landon enacted the Sappho-Corinne myth in her life and art.38 Known to readers as L.E.L., Landon made her name writing verses about slighted and unrequited love, wearing her hair à la Sappho, as young Disraeli described it, and making the heroine of her widely-popular The Improvisatrice (1824) a modern Sapphic artist.39The Improvisatrice begins with its poetess-heroine singing “a last song of Sappho” and ends with her Sappho-like death of unrequited love. Landon's later poem “Sappho” depicts a successful poetess, “upon whose brow the laurel crown is placed,” falling desperately in love with Phaon and learning that “genius, riches, fame, / May not soothe a slighted love.”40

Hemans also developed a series of lyricizing women who, like most English Sapphos, lament their losses in love and life. Hemans's “Last Song of Sappho” (1828) is representative, as Lawrence Lipking has argued, of the Romantic tendency to depict Sappho in “isolation from any human or natural community”: “The Romantic Sappho stands alone.41 Such isolation, as Angela Leighton has further noted, is the feminine consequence of the Romantic male quest: “The man aspires, but the woman mourns; he scales the heights, but she longs for home.”42 Tennyson develops this feminine perspective, introduced by Hemans and Landon, when he creates such Sapphic figures as Eleänore, Fatima, and the two Marianas who, obsessed by heterosexual passion, live in isolation and seem oblivious to—indeed, seem to exist without—families or friends.

Tennyson's contemporaries recognized the link between Greek and contemporary women writers. When in 1833 Father Prout contributed his sketch of Landon to the “Gallery of Literary Characters” in Fraser's Magazine, he compared Landon's poetry to Sappho's. Defending Landon against critics who thought she wrote too much (and too exclusively) about love, he argued that her choice had good feminine precedent:

How, Squaretoes, can there be too much of love in a young lady's writings? Is she to write of politics, or political economy, or pugilism, or punch? Certainly not. … We think Miss L.E.L. has chosen the better part. She shews every now and then that she is possessed of information, feeling, and genius, to enable her to shine in other departments of poetry; but she does right in thinking that Sappho knew what she was about when she chose the tender passion as a theme for woman.43

Even classical scholars made this sort of connection. In an 1832 article for the Edinburgh Review, the classicist D. K. Sandford surveyed the achievements of “Greek Authoresses,” beginning with Sappho and regularly comparing Greek with modern female poets. His introduction, for instance, draws the line of female genius “from Miriam the prophetess to Mrs Hemans,” “from the days of out-poured inspiration to those of hot-pressed twelves”; he calls the Greek poetess Erinna, who achieved fame “when scarcely more than a year past seventeen,” “the Fanny Kemble of ancient days”; and he explains the rivalry of Pindar and Corinna (and Corinna's victory) by comparing these Greek poets to Robert Burns and Letitia Landon:

Partly, says Pausanias, her beauty, and partly her Æolian dialect, made her successful with an audience, whose eyes and ears were thus alike regaled. We can believe him. Burns, in his most inspired mood, would have had little chance with a southern tribunal, beside the English strains of L.E.L.44

For Sandford, such comparisons come naturally, presumably because he had learned them from contemporary female poets who self-consciously presented themselves as Sappho's heirs.

One might argue, then, that Tennyson, by developing his Sapphic affinities, took over the strain that Robinson and her female successors, Hemans and Landon, meant to claim. By creating and speaking for his abandoned women, his Marianas, Fatimas, and Oenones, Tennyson entered the domain of contemporary women poets and assumed their poetic voices. That takeover launched him to preeminence as a lyricist, allowing him to create poetry that consciously developed and counterpointed feminine and masculine strains. It allowed him to mix his “lady” poems with more masculine subjects like “The Poet,” “The Mystic,” or the philosophical “Supposed Confessions of a Second-Rate Sensitive Mind” in the Poems of 1830 or with the Homeric epic monologues “Ulysses” and “The Lotos-Eaters” in the Poems of 1832. Later, it allowed the mixing of masculine narrative and feminine lyric in The Princess (1847) and of masculine and feminine speakers in In Memoriam (1850). But it also gave to a male poet what female poets might have achieved for themselves—that is, if literary history had remembered the Sapphic tradition of which they and he were a part.


  1. Letter to William Bodham Donne (13 February 1831), in The Letters of Arthur Henry Hallam, ed. Jack Kolb (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1981), 401-2.

  2. The Poems of Tennyson, ed. Christopher Ricks (London: Longman, 1969), 362. Subsequent references to Tennyson's poetry are to this edition; line numbers cited parenthetically in text. Biographers like Robert Bernard Martin (Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980], 120) have expanded the literary associations to include the geographical, suggesting that “the Pyrenees provided [Tennyson] with a local habitation for the classical myth and poetry which he had loved since childhood, and which were to suggest much of his best work. The miles of uninhabited mountains, little changed in the generations that they had been known, stood in for those of Italy and ancient Greece.”

    Classicists no longer attribute this fragment to Sappho, but its influence on Tennyson's Marianas is still relevant since in the nineteenth century it would have been considered authentic. Throughout this essay I have used Henry Thornton Wharton's Sappho: Memoir, Text, Selected Renderings, and a Literal Translation, 4th ed. (London: John Lane, 1898) for texts and translations, except where noted. Although Tennyson could not have known this edition till late in his life (it was first published in 1885), Wharton's is the best nineteenth-century English edition available and includes the Sapphic poems commonly known to Victorians.

  3. “Lancelot and Elaine” (note 2), 1003-4. Wharton (note 2) translates this Sapphic fragment (no. 40): “Now Love masters my limbs and shakes me, fatal creature, bittersweet.” The Sapphic allusions I cite were first noted by Wharton, John Churton Collins in his Illustrations of Tennyson (London: Chatto & Windus, 1891), or David M. Robinson in Sappho and Her Influence (Boston: Marshall Jones, 1924).

  4. William Allingham, A Diary, ed. H. Allingham and D. Radford (London: Macmillan, 1907), 93-95.

  5. H. Montagu Butler, “Recollections of Tennyson,” in Tennyson and His Friends, ed. Hallam Tennyson (London: Macmillan, 1911), 216.

  6. “Γλύκεια μα̑τερ, οὔτοι δύναμαι κρέκην τòν ἴστον, / πόθῳ δάμεισα παι̑δοs βραδίναν δι' Αφρόδιταν.” See Stephen C. Allen's “Tennyson, Sappho, and ‘The Lady of Shallot,’” Tennyson Research Bulletin 2 (1975): 171-72.

  7. Collins noted many of these allusions in his Illustrations of Tennyson (note 3), including those in “Mariana,” “Eleänore,” and “Fatima.” Ricks includes most in his notes to The Poems of Tennyson (note 2), but not the important use of fragment 1 in “Mariana”—perhaps, as I shall argue below, because Tennyson so vehemently objected to Collins's commentary on that poem.

  8. Joan deJean, Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937 (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989), esp. the introduction, 1-28. See also Lawrence Lipking, “Sappho Descending,” in Abandoned Women and Poetic Tradition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1988), 57-126, for a more varied survey of the figure and poetry of Sappho in the Western literary tradition.

  9. Translation by Terence DuQuesne in Sappho of Lesbos: The Poems (Thame, Oxon: Darengo, 1990), 38. Following the definitive Lobel and Page edition, de Jean refers to this poem as “fragment 31.” I follow nineteenth-century practice here in referring to it as Sappho's second ode, the first being the “Ode to Aphrodite.”

  10. See, for example, the preface to Arthur Henry Hallam's Remains, new ed. (London: John Murray, 1869), xxxvi, in which a memoirist refers to Hallam's interest in “the short poems and fragments of Sappho,” and Swinburne's 1866 “Notes on Poems and Reviews,” in Swinburne: Poems and Ballads, ed. Morse Peckham (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970), 328, in which Swinburne refers to “the two odes and the remaining fragments of Sappho.”

  11. The numbering of the fragments was not consistent, although fragment 1 was usually “Δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα.” I follow here the numbering in John Addison's Works of Anacreon, Translated into English Verse (London: John Watts, 1735), which included, in addition to the two odes, six fragments of Sappho: (1) “Δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα,” (2) “κατθάνοισα δὲ κείσεαι πότα,” (3) “Γλύκεια μα̑τερ,” (4) “Εροσ δαυ̑τέ μ' ὀ λυσιμεληs δόνει” combined with “ἄτθι, σοὶ δ' ἔμεθέν μεν ἀπήχθετο / φροντίσδην,” (5) “Εἰ τοι̑σ ἄνθεσιν ἤθελεν ὁ Zοὺσ οπιθει̑ναι Βασιλέα” (from Achilles Tatius, now not attributed to Sappho), and (6) “έλθε, Κύπρι, χρυσίαισιν ἐν κυλίκεσσιν ἄβρωs.”

  12. Frederick Tennyson, The Isles of Greece: Sappho and Alcaeus (London: Macmillan, 1890), v. In the preface, Frederick Tennyson notes that his poems were inspired by his reading of an 1825 French edition of Sappho's fragments. Although he gives no sense of when he first read the volume, it may have been as early as the 1830 tour of France and the Pyrenees, on which Frederick accompanied his brother and Hallam. A new English edition of Sappho's poetry, Scriptores Graeci Minores, quorum reliquias, fere omnium melioris notae, ex editionibus variis excerpsit, ed. J[ohn] A[llen] Giles (Oxford: D. A. Talboys, 1831), was published while Tennyson and Hallam were at Cambridge.

  13. Kolb (note 1), 401.

  14. I have used a modern summary of this view from R. L. Fowler's The Nature of Early Greek Lyric: Three Preliminary Studies (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1987), 54-57. The view Fowler summarizes was articulated, if with less sophistication, in the nineteenth as well as twentieth century; quoting Longinus, an anonymous writer [D. K. Sandford] on “Greek Authoresses” for The Edinburgh Review 55 (1832): 198, notes that Sappho gives “strictly a physical picture” of love in the second ode—“no play of the fancy—no fairy frostwork.”

  15. All quotations come from Wharton's Sappho (note 2), where they are fragments 54, 19, 5, 42, and 4, respectively.

  16. Frank M. Turner, The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1981), 1-14.

  17. Fowler (note 14), 4.

  18. Trans. by DuQuesne (note 9), 30.

  19. The poem was first published in the 20th century, too late to fulfill Tennyson's dream of another discovery of Sappho's verse. It is fragment 16 in Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta, ed. Edgar Lobel and Denys Page (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), 14.

  20. The words are Hallam's (see Tennyson: The Critical Heritage, ed. John D. Jump [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967], 40), but the concept of “belatedness” derives in modern criticism from Harold Bloom, beginning with his Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetics (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973).

  21. Tennyson did, of course, finally write epic, and his mastery of both the lyric and epic traditions suggests his desire to subsume and exceed his poetic predecessors—much as Browning's desire to be both “subjective” and “objective” poet suggests another version of poetic mastery.

  22. Jump (note 20), 41.

  23. Mary Robinson, Sappho and Phaon, In a Series of Legitimate Sonnets, with Thoughts on Poetical Subjects, and Anecdotes of the Grecian Poetess, new ed. (London: Minerva Press, 1813); [John Nott], Sappho, After a Greek Romance (London: Cuthell and Martin, 1803); “Sappho,” in The Poetical Works of Letitia Elizabeth Landon (Philadelphia: Jas. B. Smith, 1859), 367-70.

  24. Although Sappho's sexual ambivalences were discussed by some scholars, it is simply not the case, as Swinburne suggests in his “Notes on Poems and Reviews” (note 10), that every schoolboy “compelled under penalties to learn, to construe, and to repeat” Sappho's “imperishable and incomparable verses” would have recognized her desire as anything but heterosexual. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was standard to alter certain feminine endings (especially in the ode, “Peer of the gods”) and thus “regularize” Sappho's desire. See deJean (note 8).

  25. See Richard Dellamora, Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1990), 16-41.

  26. Robinson (note 23), 28; Nott (note 23), esp. 2:viii-ix and 3:iv, “The Table-Dispute,” “The Afternoon Hours,” and “Poetry,” 187-217, 250-60. Robinson is citing the biographical sketch of Sappho by the Abbé Barthelemy.

  27. Indeed, in Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart, Martin devotes a separate entry in his index to “criticism, sensitivity to” ([note 1], 636).

  28. The phrases come from Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), 6, and refer to Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence (note 20).

  29. Leslie Brisman, “Maud: The Feminine as the Crux of Influence,” Studies in Romanticism 31 (1992): 23, 26. Brisman is here modifying terms from Michael Cooke's Acts of Inclusion: Studies Bearing on an Elementary Theory of Romanticism (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979).

  30. David M. Robinson (note 3), 5-6, for a discussion of the epithets for Sappho and Homer.

  31. Collins (note 3), 27.

  32. Anthony Kearney has recently resuscitated Collins's criticism in “Making Tennyson a Classic: Churton Collins' Illustrations of Tennyson in Context,” Victorian Poetry 30 (1992): 75-82.

  33. James R. Kincaid, Tennyson's Major Poems: The Comic and Ironic Patterns (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1975), 23; Harold Bloom, “Tennyson: In the Shadow of Keats,” in Poetry and Repression (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1976), 149-52; Ricks (note 2), 187; Alastair W. Thomson, The Poetry of Tennyson (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986), 31-32; John Hollander, “Tennyson's Melody,” Georgia Review 29 (1975): 683; and Herbert F. Tucker, Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988), 76-77. In Tennyson and Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1979), Robert Pattison discusses several classical influences, including the Sapphic lyric, which Tennyson used not simply “because he liked it, but because it provided an appropriate lyric context upon which he could dilate” (11).

  34. The Bloomian reading of Tennyson's early poems, one that has dominated the past two decades of criticism, is that they fall “in the shadow of Keats.” Bloom's discussion of “Mariana” acknowledges the presence of Virgil behind Keats, but it does not recognize Sappho, whose presence is far more fundamental and powerful than that of any other classical or English poet. See “Tennyson: In the Shadow of Keats” (note 33), 149-52, as well as “Tennyson, Hallam, and Romantic Tradition,” in The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971). Following this line of criticism, but with greater interest in the cultural work of Tennyson's poetry, is Tucker's chapter “Emergencies,” in Tennyson and the Doom of Romanticism (note 33), 93-174.

  35. As in “Anacaona,” where a feminine speaker exposes the violence of masculine (epic) colonialism.

  36. Some readers interpret Sappho and Phaon as a sonnet sequence à clef about her affair with the Prince of Wales, others about the end of her long relationship with Colonel Tarleton. See Lawrence Lipking (note 8), 82-83, and Stuart Curran, “Mary Robinson's Lyrical Tales in Context,” in Re-visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776-1837 (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming), 6 in ms.

  37. Robinson (note 23), 16-18. Robinson called herself “the English Sappho.”

  38. Angela Leighton, Victorian Women Poets: Writing Against the Heart (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), chap. 2, 45-77.

  39. Letter from Disraeli to his sisters, quoted in D. E. Enfield, L.E.L.: A Mystery of the Thirties (London: Hogarth Press, 1928), 74; L.E.L., The Improvisatrice; and Other Poems (Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1825), 71-72.

  40. L.E.L. (note 39), 367-70. The crowning of Sappho derives from book 2 of Corinne, where the Italian poetess is publically celebrated and crowned with laurel. The name Corinne comes from Corinna, the female poet-teacher of Pindar.

  41. Felicia Hemans, “Records of Woman” and “Last Song of Sappho,” in The Poetical Works of Mrs. Felicia Hemans (Philadelphia: Grigg and Elliot, 1845), 200-26, 391-92; Lipking (note 8), 83-84.

  42. Leighton (note 38), 24.

  43. [Father Prout], Fraser's Magazine 8 (October 1833): 433. Accompanying this article is the famous engraving of Landon wearing her hair à la Sappho and holding a rose, the flower thought dear to Sappho.

  44. [D. K. Sandford] (note 14), 183, 199, 200.

André Lardinois (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9564

SOURCE: Lardinois, André. “Subject and Circumstance in Sappho's Poetry.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 124 (1994): 57-84.

[In the following essay, Lardinois questions modern historical reconstructions of Sappho as either a school-mistress or a symposiast, claiming instead that the historical evidence is most consistent with her occupation as an “instructor of young women's choruses.”]

Holt Parker, in a provocative article in [Transactions of the American Philological Association] 123 (1993) 309-51, has questioned one hundred eighty years of classical scholarship on the relationship of Sappho to her addressees, if we take Friedrich Welcker's little monograph Sappho von einem herrschenden Vorurteil befreyt as the beginning of modern scholarship on the subject.1 Parker argues that there is no credible evidence that Sappho's audience consisted of young, unmarried girls (316), and instead proposes that she sang at banquets about her love for other adult women (324, 346).2 The positive aspect of Parker's paper is that it forces us to reexamine the evidence and question some of the scholarly traditions about Sappho, which, as Parker rightly points out (312), were often born in ignorance, sometimes coupled with sexism and homophobia.3 It is my conclusion, after a review of the evidence, that Parker is correct in rejecting the ‘Sappho school-mistress’ paradigm as a plausible reconstruction of the performance circumstances of her poetry, but that the subject of her poetry is, nevertheless, young women or girls,4 and its occasion has to be sought in public performances rather than private banquets. Like Parker, I will first discuss the testimonia, then the fragments and the external evidence. I will finally measure this evidence against Parker's reconstruction of Sappho as a symposiast and against the other modern images of Sappho: teacher at a school, leader of a thiasos, and instructor of a chorus.


Parker, to his credit, inserts a whole section on “the evidence” (316-25). By his own account there are seven testimonia that “present some sort of picture of Sappho consorting with ‘girls’” (321),5 but he forgets four: the Suda Σ 107 (=test. 2) and Themistius Or. 13.170d-171a (=test. 52) speak respectively about Sappho's “pupils” (μαθήτριαι) and her paidika, while Philostratus Im. 2.1.1-3 (=test. 120 Gallavotti) is reminded of Sappho when he sees a picture of a female chorister (διδάσκαλοs) leading a band of girls (κόραι) and Himerius Or. 9.4 (=fr. 194), similarly, portrays her as heading a group of young women (παρθένουs) in what appears to be a musical procession. What can we do with this information? It has been a long time since scholars uncritically accepted what the ancients report about the archaic Greek poets. Welcker's treatise on the modern prejudices about Sappho was actually one of the first to contain a critical examination of the testimonia of an archaic Greek poet. He argued that Athenian comedy was responsible for most of our information about Sappho's life, including her alleged homosexuality.6 More recently, Lefkowitz has concluded that “virtually all the material in all the lives is fiction” and “the ancient biographers took most of their information about poets from the poets themselves” (1981: viii). They, as Parker puts it, were “turning poetry into biography” (321). Does this mean that “[a]s evidence the testimonia are valueless” (idem)?

The Greeks or Romans in subsequent ages probably knew little more than we do about events on Lesbos in the sixth century b.c. They had, however, one distinct advantage over us: they still possessed Sappho's poetry in fairly complete form.7 Therefore, whenever they mention a fact which could stem from her poetry, it has to be treated as at least possibly valuable information. A case in point is their frequent portrayal of Sappho consorting with young women. This is something they could have gathered from her poetry. Christopher Brown has recently concluded on the basis of the diction in fr. 16.18 that Anactoria, who is the subject of this poem, must have been a young woman, and when Ovid (test. 19) and Maximus of Tyre (test. 20) come to the same conclusion, they may have done so on similar grounds.8

Parker argues, however, that the composers of our testimonia misread Sappho's poetry and practiced “something quite familiar to feminists: the wholesale restructuring of female sexuality and society on the model of male sexuality and society” (321). More specifically, they would have changed any reference to same-aged and power-free lesbian relationships in Sappho's poetry into a pederastic relationship between an older woman and a young girl (322). We have become much more aware than, for example, Welcker that all our testimonia are written by men who could have easily misunderstood, or deliberately distorted, expressions of female desire.9 The question is whether this is also the case with their interpretation of the age of the women in Sappho's poetry.

Parker adduces as parallels for the way in which the ancient commentators would have misread Sappho's lesbianism the virile portrayal of tribades in Roman literature (Hallett 1989, cited by Parker 321 n.24) and Lucian's similar representation of a homosexual woman from Lesbos in Dialogues of the Courtesans 5 (referred to by Parker top, p. 322). These portrayals of lesbian women are actually our best evidence against the supposition that the ancient commentators misconstrued the age of the subjects in Sappho's poetry. If Sappho indeed spoke about adult women in her poetry, as Parker assumes, there is no reason why Roman or Hellenistic poets and scholars had to change them into girls: as Lucian shows, they were perfectly well capable of imagining a woman from Lesbos in hot pursuit of other adult women.

If our sources collectively invented the notion that Sappho spoke about young women, it was not based “on the model of male sexuality” in their own society, where pederasty had become less acceptable than in the archaic Greek period,10 but by comparison with the male poets from that same period, who often sing about their love for boys in language very similar to Sappho's.11 One testimonium explicitly states that Sappho praises her “paidika” the same way Anacreon did, and there may be something to this comparison.12 As Parker points out (340), the ancients likened in particular Sappho's love poetry to that of the male (pederastic) poets.

There remains the problem that these commentators may be turning a poetic fiction into a biographical fact. Anactoria, who in fr. “16” is cited as an example of something the “I”-person loves (fr. 16.4), is turned by Ovid into one of the girls whom Sappho loved (Her. 15.18-19=test. 19). We do not know if the sentiments which Sappho in fr. 16 expresses for Anactoria are genuine.13 We do not even know if Sappho herself is the speaker. The ancient commentators were notorious in trying to identify every speaker with the poet/composer himself, which, as Karl Ottfried Müller already observed, is also the most likely origin of the story about Sappho's love for Phaon.14 There are several impersonations of characters in Sappho's poetry,15 and in some of the fragments now attributed to Sappho they may be speaking rather than the poetess herself.

In the case of Sappho we are faced with the additional problem that we know that she composed choral poetry as well as what appear to be monodic songs.16 Page had argued that the two sets of songs were easily distinguishable and that “[t]here is nothing to contradict the natural supposition that, with this one small exception [i.e. marriage songs], all or almost all of her poems were recited by herself” (119), but his most important argument, the linguistic evidence, has in the mean time been questioned.17 There is no clear, metrical division between Sappho's choral and monodic poetry either, since we possess wedding songs (frs. “27” and “30”) as well as supposedly monodic songs (fr. “1”) in the same Sapphic stanza.18 This means that of most fragments it is impossible to say whether the speaker is a chorus or a soloist, who may or may not be Sappho.19 In all these cases the testimonia would contend that Sappho is the speaker.20 In some fragments Sappho is mentioned by name (frs. “1,” “65,” “94,” “133”), in which case we can at least identify her as the speaker (not necessarily the performer), but such clarity is exceptional. I hope to argue elsewhere that most of Sappho's poetry was choral, i.e. sung and danced to by a chorus (cp. Philostratus Im. 2.1.1-3=test. 120 Gallavotti) or performed by a soloist who accompanies a dancing chorus (cp. Anth. Pal. 9.189=test. 59).21 In both cases Sappho can still be the narrator in the poem, but she need not be.

In fact, we do not even know for certain if Sappho as a person ever existed. An increasing number of archaic Greek poets (Homer, Hesiod, Archilochus, Theognis) are believed by some to have been poetic personae, who may at some time have lived but soon became stock characters in the poetic tradition they were supposed to represent.22 Herodotus is the first author to declare that Sappho and her brother Charaxus lived in Mytilene at one time (Hdt. 2.135.6), but he historicized many mythical figures, including Heracles (Hdt. 2.44), Europa (1.2), the heroes of the Trojan War (1.3, 2.112f.), as well as Homer and Hesiod (2.53),23 and the fact that Alcaeus addressed Sappho in his poetry and spelled her name differently from the way it is spelled in the poetry preserved in her name, could possibly be an indication that she was a poetic construct rather than a real life figure in sixth-century Lesbos.24 But even if we accept that Sappho really existed and composed all the poetry preserved in her name, we do not know if she was the speaker and/or performer in, for example, fr. “16” or if she meant it when she said that she would rather see Anactoria's lovely walk and the bright sparkle of her face than the Lydians' chariots and armed infantry.25 One thing we can, however, be reasonably certain of, as a result of Brown's analysis and the plausible assessment of Ovid and Maximus of Tyre: Anactoria was a young woman. I will from here on concentrate on the subject and possible audience of Sappho's poetry, while assuming that, outside of the wedding songs, she is in most cases the speaker, although not necessarily the performer.26

Besides objecting that the testimonia about Sappho's involvement with young women are male-biased and turn poetry into biography, Parker adds that they are chronologically late (“the earliest witness, Horace, is 600 years after Sappho”).27 The lateness of these testimonia is indeed problematic and should prepare us for possible anachronisms in their portrayal of Sappho's relationship with her subjects and addressees. A case in point are the testimonia that refer to Sappho as a teacher of young women (test. 2, 20, 21, 49, fr. “214B” fr. “1”). As far as we know, there existed no schools for women in archaic Greece, and it is dangerous to assume on the basis of these testimonia alone that Sappho's Lesbos was somehow an exception.28 The only “education” girls received outside of the house in archaic Greece was in choruses where they were taught songs and dances and, at least in Sparta, some gymnastics (Marrou: 57, Calame 1977: 1.385-420). From the fifth century onwards, we find representations of women who teach girls how to dance or to play an instrument, and there are some indications of girls being instructed in reading and writing (Beck 155-62 with plates 78-88). Women teachers are attested for Roman Egypt (Cribiore).

One can easily imagine that ancient commentators, anxious to explain Sappho's familiarity with a number of girls in her poetry, took as their model the women teachers they found in their own society. (Welcker and Wilamowitz basically did the same.) The long-time association of pederasty with the education of young boys must have helped connect Sappho's homoerotic poetry with her supposed rôle as a teacher, as e.g. Maximus of Tyre shows (=test. 20).29 At the same time, it is possible that in all these references to Sappho as a teacher there is a memory preserved of Sappho's involvement with the setting up of young women's choirs. This is certainly suggested by Philostratus VA. 1.30 (=test. 21), who claims that a certain Damophyla, “like Sappho, had gathered around her young women disciples and composed love-poems and hymns” (τòν Σαπφου̑s τρόπον παρθένουs θ' ὁμιλητρίαs κτήσασθαι ποιήματά τε ξυνθει̑ναι τὰ μὲν ἐρωτικά, τὰ δ' ὕμνουs). The only problematic, because anachronistic, term in this description is ὁμιλητρίαs.

We may conclude that there is much distortion and misinformation in the testimonia, but that we do not have to reject them entirely. They are based on Sappho's poetry, so that any plausible information they provide, which may have come from Sappho's poems, must be taken seriously. One such piece of plausible information is their identification of the subject of Sappho's poetry as young, adolescent women.30 With regard to their assessment of the speaker of Sappho's poems we have to be much more careful. Not only is there a tendency in all the ancient testimonia to attribute every sentence to the poet/composer himself, but they also tend to read them as personal revelations. Finally, the repeated portrayal of Sappho as a teacher in the testimonia could be an anachronistic interpretation of her involvement with young women's choruses.


The most important evidence about Sappho is of course the poetry itself. All attempts to reconstruct a life of Sappho and a performance situation are ultimately intended to understand this poetry, and the best reconstruction is the one that takes account of most of the fragments and explains them consistently. In the following paragraphs I will ask again two questions: who are the subjects of Sappho's poetry, and what possibly was Sappho's relationship to these subjects? Parker (323) lists six references to the age of the women to whom or about whom she is singing, outside the wedding songs, biographical or mythological fragments.31 First there is fr. “140a:” κατθνάσκει, Κυθέρη', ἄβροs '′Αδωνιs· τί κε θει̑μεν; / καττύπτεσθε, κόραι, καὶ κατερείκεσθε κίθωναs (“Delicate Adonis is dying, Cythera, what are we to do?”; “Beat your breasts, girls, and tear your clothes”). Parker rejects the idea that κόραι in this fragment means “girls,” because “the Adonia was everywhere that we know of a festival of adult women” (323). This statement is incorrect, and Winkler, to whom Parker refers (323 n. 26), does not support Parker's claim. Winkler remarks (about the Athenian Adonis-festival) that “[t]he celebrants, it seems, were not organized according to any city-wide rule but simply consisted of neighbors and friends …” (1990: 189). Winkler does not say that girls were excluded from these festivities because he knew better: on p. 191, he cites the opening of Menander's Samia, in which a young man tells how he got a young girl pregnant while she was present at the celebration of the Adonis festival in her neighbor's house.32 Parker (323 n. 26) further mentions “the same use” of the word κόραι in Telesilla fr. 717 Page/Campbell (an address to the goddess Artemis), but the context here does not specify what is meant by the term any more than in Sappho. However, given the universal use of the term for young women in archaic and classical Greek (and the close connection of Sappho and Artemis with young, adolescent women), Campbell's translation of the term with “girls,” both in Sappho and the Telesilla fragment, seems reasonably secure (1982: 155; 1992: 79).

The next question is: to whom does this word refer? Parker says that “[i]t would, in any case, presumably apply to the poet as well” (323 n.26). This is actually highly unlikely. As Page remarks (119 n.1), the dialogue form of the fragment “could be used as evidence for choral recitation” (cp. fr. 114: a wedding song), and, as in Sappho's wedding songs, the I-person (actually a “we”—person) does not include the poetess but consists precisely of young women.33 If Sappho participated at all in the performance of this song, she may have played the part of Aphrodite, telling her chorus (the κόραι) to beat their breasts and tear their clothes.34 This fragment confirms Sappho's composition of songs for girls' choruses outside the wedding songs. The composition of such a song would have entailed the training of the girls and probably the participation in the performance as a singer and/or the accompanist (see below).

In some of the other fragments Sappho speaks about young women. In fr. “17.”14 (a hymn to Hera), “the reference is not necessarily to the celebrants” (Parker 323), but given the fact that Sappho's maiden choruses were involved in the performance of other hymns to the gods (fr. “140a”), it certainly could be.35 In fr. 49, Atthis is mentioned as one of Sappho's beloved (“49.”1) and perhaps she is identified as being a pais at that moment (“49.”2),36 while in fr. “96” this same Atthis is described as having performed a song-dance (μόλπαι, line 5) in which a woman who is now in Lydia took much delight.37 These are two very important fragments because they explicitly connect one of Sappho's beloved with musical activity. Of course, we do not know for certain that Atthis performed her “song-dance” in one of Sappho's choirs, but it is a distinct possibility.38 Frs. “153” and “56” speak, respectively, about a “sweet-voiced girl” (πάρθενον ἀδύφωνον) and a girl (πάρθενον) with much skill (σοφίαν), “probably poetic” (Campbell 1982: 91 n.1). Parker is right that the context of these poems is unknown, but given Sappho's involvement with the setting up of choruses of, precisely, parthenoi, it is not too far-fetched to assume that these two fragments somehow relate to the girls whom she dealt with in her choruses. Finally, Parker mentions that the pais who is described in fr. “122,” “may well be mythological” (323), but according to Athenaeus, who preserved the fragment, Sappho (read: the speaker in the fragment) had said that she saw the child herself (καὶ Σαπφώ φησιν ἰδει̑ν· ἄνθε' ἀμέργοισαν παι̑δ' †ἄγαν† ἀπάλαν, Athen. 12.554b).

There are two more fragments (frs. “58” and “93” Voigt) that mention parthenoi and paides, outside the wedding songs, biographical or mythological fragments. Of these two fragments, fr. “58” looks most promising.39 Line 11 mentions paides with beautiful gifts, either of the deep or violet-bosomed Muses.40 The speaker (a woman) says that she is overcome by old age and no longer able to do like the young fawns (probably to dance41). A similar-looking poem is preserved among Alcman's fragments. Here the speaker (according to Antigonus, who preserved the fragment, Alcman himself) addresses a group of “honey-tongued, holy-voiced girls,” telling them that “his limbs no longer can carry” him.42 I submit that Sappho in this fragment invokes the same image and that the paides of line 11 make up the chorus which is dancing while she is singing.43 There thus seems to be ample proof in the fragments that Sappho not only composed songs for young women's choruses, both in and outside of her wedding songs, but also spoke about girls and sometimes addressed them directly.44

Parker opposes to this evidence five fragments which, he argues, show “Sappho surrounded by age-mates” (323). The first one is fr. “49.”1, ἠράμαν μὲν ἔγω σέθεν, '′Ατθι, πάλαι ποτά (“I loved you once, Atthis, long ago”), which he interprets as pertaining to Sappho's love for Atthis while both of them were still young. Parker bases this interpretation on a remark by Terentianus Maurus, who recast this fragment as: cordi quando fuisse sibi canit Atthida / parvam, florea virginitas sua cum floret (“when she sang that she loved little Atthis when her virginity was in flower”).45 Parker concludes that “the virginitas sua is Sappho's” (323), but I am not so certain about this. The possessive pronoun suus can refer to other persons besides the subject of a sentence, particularly in late Latin and in subordinate clauses.46 This could well be the case here, since “parvam” (qualifying Atthida) announces the content of the subordinate clause and by enjambment draws Atthis, the last mentioned topic, into the same line.47

Of two of the other four fragments (frs. “23” and “24a”), Parker says: “The speaker may not be Sappho, though I am assuming that she probably is, and it is not impossible that these two, like “27” and “30,” are epithalamia” (324 n.28). If, however, these fragments are wedding songs, like “27” and “30,” they were probably not spoken by Sappho but by age-mates of the bride, as Parker himself admits on p. 332. He assigns fr. “23” to a same-age addressee because one of the two comparandae is Helen (the other is Hermione), and “[n]o male lyric poet compares his pais with the adult male gods or heroes” (324). For the same reason Atthis and the woman in Lydia would be adults in fr. “96” (because they are compared to goddesses) and Leto and Niobe, who are called dear companions (φίλαι … ἔταιραι) in fr. “142,” the comparandae of two same-aged friends. Parker wisely adds “lyric” to poet, because otherwise he would have had to admit that Phoenix already compares his pupil Achilles to the married hero Meleager in Book Nine of the Iliad. His statement is not even true for lyric poetry, however, since the boy victory in Pindar Ol. 10, to whom Parker refers in note 29, is not only compared to Ganymede but also to Patroclus (Ol. 10.19). This passage, which compares Patroclus and Achilles to, respectively, the boy victor and his trainer, demonstrates that age plays no determining rôle in mythological comparanda, while Alcman's partheneia show that girls can be compared to adult gods and goddesses (fr. “1.”41, “71,” “96f.”).48 Of all five fragments Parker adduces, not one is proof that Sappho in her poetry spoke about same-age women. Contrast this with the eight fragments about κόραι, παρθένοι or παι̑δεs (frs. “17.”14, “49.”2, “56,” “58,” “93,” “122,” “140a,” “153;” outside the wedding songs, the biographical or mythological allusions), and the different poems addressed to women whom the testimonia identify as girls (Anactoria, fr. 16, cp. test. 2?, 19, 20; Gongyla, frs. 22, 95, cp. test. 2, fr. 213; Megara, fr. 68a, cp. test. 2; Atthis, frs. 49.1, 96.17, 131, cp. test. 2, 19 and 20), and the verdict is clear: young women are in all likelihood the subject of most of Sappho's poetry.49

The question next becomes: what relationship(s) did Sappho have with these young women? The minimum we can say is that she composed songs for them to perform, like the wedding songs, the Adonis hymn, and fr. “58.” From fragments like fr. “1,” as well as the testimonia, we can further deduce that Sappho expressed desire for some of them in her poetry, although we do not know for sure if her young lovers were also part of her choruses: the only tenuous piece of evidence are the fragments that speak about Atthis as both her lover (fr. “49.”1) and a performer (“96.”5). The crucial fragment is, in my opinion, fragment “94.” In this fragment Sappho inserts her own name (Pάπφ', 5), so the persona of the narrator is beyond doubt. Sappho speaks to a woman who is leaving her (ἄ με … κατελίμπανεν, 2) and reminds her of all the pleasant things they did together: stringing flower-wreaths (12f.), putting on garlands (15f.), wearing perfumes (18f.), going to holy places (25, 27) and possibly performing there.50 Parker is right in resisting any attempt to read “a course description” (315) into these words, but the activities are compatible with those of a chorus and one can even read a linear progression into them, starting with the preparations and leading up to musical performances at temples and in other places. Sappho would be reminding a girl of previous performances perhaps at the very moment that she and her choir, of which the girl no longer was part, were performing again a song-dance.51 In the middle of all this (between the perfume and the holy shrine) we read the words: “and on soft beds, tender … you would satisfy your longing …”52 If these words indeed refer to sexual longing, which Sappho had satisfied,53 they would show that the girl was not only once a member of Sappho's chorus, but that she at the same time had a homoerotic relationship with Sappho.



We may conclude that there is no reason to doubt that Sappho talked about young, adolescent women in her poetry. This is confirmed by eleven testimonia which, although late, could have easily inferred this from her poetry. Parker's hypothesis that our classical sources misread Sappho's poetry in this respect, changing adult women into girls, lacks positive proof and is actually contradicted by other representations of homosexual women in the Roman period. The fragments also speak overwhelmingly about paides and parthenoi and, in one or two cases, address them directly (frs. “58” and “140a”). There are, furthermore, among her poetry at least two types of songs, the wedding songs and the hymns, which must have involved her in the setting up of young women's choruses.

Reviewing the different modern reconstructions of Sappho, one has to reject both the schoolmistress' model as basically anachronistic and Parker's reconstruction of Sappho as a singer at banquets because it lacks proof and is contradicted by too many fragments and testimonia. The reading of Sappho as a leader of a thiasos is either too vague or unhistorical. The model which can best be reconciled with the fragments, the historical period and the testimonia, is that of Sappho as an instructor of young women's choruses. I would therefore suggest that we continue speaking of Sappho's “circle” (which is at least reminiscent of the Greek terminology of choruses: Calame 1977: 1.77-79) or, indeed, of her choruses, which probably included her young lovers.54


  1. Göttingen 1816, reprinted with a “Nachtrag” in Kleine Schriften, Vol. II: Zur griechischen Litteraturgeschichte, Bonn 1845, 80-144. Also referred to by Parker (310 n.4, 313). For even earlier representations of Sappho, see DeJean.

  2. Parker's article brings to its logical conclusion a trend in modern Sappho studies to refer to the subjects of her poetry as “women,” without specifying that they were probably young, adolescent women: Winkler 1981/1990, Stehle 1990, Snyder 1991. These studies, however, unlike Parker's, do not explicitly deny that these women were adolescent (cp. Stigers [Stehle] 1981: 45).

  3. Calder and DeJean (207-09, 217-19) had already made this argument where Welcker's and Wilamowitz's interpretation of Sappho as a chaste schoolmistress is concerned.

  4. By young women or girls, I mean women who in our sources, including Sappho's poetry, are referred to as κόραι, παρθένοι and sometimes παι̑δεs. They denote the age-group between puberty and marriage (roughly twelve to eighteen year olds): see Calame 1977: 1.63-64.

  5. Horace Carm. 2.13.24-25 (=test. 18), Ovid Her. 15.15-20 (=test. 19), Tr. 2.365 (=test. 49), Maximus of Tyre 18.9 (=test. 20), Philostratus VA 1.30 (=test. 21), Himerius Or. 28.2 (=test. 50), SLG 261A (=fr. 214B fr.1). All fragments and testimonia of Sappho are cited from D. A. Campbell's edition in the Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge MA 1982, unless noted otherwise.

  6. Welcker 1816/1845: 105-14; cp. Calder: 141-42. There were in Welcker's time two explicit testimonia about Sappho's love for (young) women: Ovid Her. 15.15-20 and 201-202 (=test. 19) and the Suda (=test. 2). In the beginning of the twentieth century, a papyrus was found which refers to rumors about Sappho being a “woman-lover” (γυναικεράστρια, test. 1). The weakness of Welcker's argument was that, as far as we know, Sappho was not portrayed as a lesbian on the Athenian stage, but, on the contrary, as an extreme heterosexual: test. 8; cp. Lardinois 1989: 22-25.

  7. The Alexandrians had made a collection of Sappho's poems in nine books, which, as the many papyrus fragments show, survived through most of the Hellenistic and Roman period. Parts of her poetry were still directly known in Byzantium in the twelfth century: see Garzya 1971, cited by Campbell 1982: 51 n.1, and more recently Garzya 1991.

  8. The name Anagora, who is mentioned as one of Sappho's pupils (μαθήτριαι) in the Suda (test. 2), is probably also derived from references to Anactoria in Sappho's poetry (Lefkowitz 1981: 64).

  9. Anne Le Fèvre Dacier in her famous “Vie de Sapho,” first published in Paris in 1681, already suggested that jealousy for a woman, “who not only surpassed all other women … but soared far and above the very best male poets,” produced “the calumnies with which they attempted to blacken her” (1681/1716: 235; cp. DeJean: 57). She used the male bias of our sources to discredit any reports that Sappho was a lesbian, while Parker uses it to strengthen them.

  10. Flacelière 1960/1962: 197, Foucault 189-232. The Romans explicitly forbade pederasty with free boys in the so-called lex Sca(n)tinia, a law dating from before Cicero's time: see Bremmer (1980: 288 with notes) and Cantarella (1988/1992: 106-19) for the evidence.

  11. See Lanata, Lasserre 1974, Giacomelli [Carson], Cavallini 1986: 17-67.

  12. Themistius Or. 13.170d (=test. 52). Parker dismisses this testimonium as another example of Sappho “being assimilated as much as possible to the male, in order to neutralize her” (322), but otherwise he encourages a direct comparison of Sappho to the male poets, arguing that she was a woman who “shares concerns and subject matter with Alcaeus and the other lyric poets” (346). Parker 318 himself compares Anacreon fr. 357 (about a boy who does not love him back) and Theognis 250-54 or 1299-1304 (about Cyrnus) to Sappho fr. 1, when arguing that the woman she sings about was not necessarily part of a circle.

  13. Here, as Parker puts it, “[t]he question of ‘sincerity’ raises its pointless head” (333 n. 59). This is not a pointless question, but a very important one, which arises precisely when one starts questioning the move from poetic to biographical fact. Parker's objection that “no one has ever claimed that Alcaeus or Theognis was forced into writing homosexual poetry by convention” (334 n.59) is incorrect. Welcker (1826: Introd. 77-78) already suggested that Cyrnus, Theognis' addressee, is not a real person but a foil for the audience, to which Nagy (1985: 33-34) has added that the figure of Theognis himself is probably a persona. All this does not bode well for the sincerity of Theognis' expressions of affection. In his review of Schneidewin's edition of Ibycus in 1834, Welcker further suggested that Ibycus' love lyrics should be read as public praise rather than private longing (cited by Kurke: 86, who herself points to the conventionality of Pindar's expression of love for Thrasyboulus in Pythian 6). See also Von der Mühll, and Lasserre 1974.

  14. Müller 1858: 231, cp. Bowra: 212-14, Nagy 1973/1990: 228-29, Lardinois 1989: 23. Phaon was a mythological figure who, just like Adonis, ranked among Aphrodite's lovers. We know that Sappho composed songs about the love of Aphrodite for Phaon and Adonis (fr. 211) and in one of the songs about Adonis (fr. 140a) the goddess is made to speak. It is very well possible that Sappho put into the mouth of the goddess a similar profession of love for Phaon, which was later misread as being her own.

  15. E.g. frs. 1.18-24, 140a.2 (Aphrodite), fr. 102 (a girl speaking to her mother), fr. 137 (a dialogue between a man and a woman). For more examples, see Tsagarakis 77-81.

  16. The only explicit reference to Sappho's monodic songs is in the Suda (test. 2), which places her μονῳδίαι, however, outside of her nine books of lyric songs. There are, on the other hand, many references to her choral compositions: e.g. Anth. Pal. 9.189 (=test. 59), Demetrius Eloc. 132 (=test. 111 Gallavotti), Himerius Or. 9.4 (=test. 194), Philostratus Im. 2.1.1-3 (=test 120 Gallavotti). It is further worth noting that when the third century b.c. poet Nossis wants to send a message to Sappho, she sends it to “Mitylene with the beautiful choruses” (καλλίχορον Μιτυλήναν, A.P. 7.718.1=Nossis, Epigram 11.1 Gow & Page).

  17. Page followed Lobel in his assessment that Sappho wrote in her Lesbian vernacular, “uncontaminated by alien or artificial forms and features,” with the exception of some “abnormal” poems, to which most of the wedding songs (though not all: frs. 27 and 30) belonged (327). This distinction has been successfully challenged by Hooker, and Bowie 1981. It appears that all of Sappho's poetry is a complicated mix of old Aeolic, epic, and her local dialect, not unlike Alcman's (choral) poetry (on which see Calame 1983: xxiv-xxxiv).

  18. Not all of Sappho's wedding songs were assigned to Book Nine in the Alexandrine collection of her poems. Most of the other eight books were arranged by meter, and if the wedding songs fitted the meter of one of the other eight books, they were apparently assigned a place there. Such is the case with frs. 27 and 30, which, together with other poems in the Sapphic stanza, were included in Book One (Page 125). Sappho also used the dactylic hexameter for wedding songs (frs. 105, 106, 143) and for such a song as fragment 142, believed to be the opening line of one of her amorous songs (Campbell 1982: 157).

  19. The speaker in Sappho's poetry alludes a couple of times to songs which other women, whom the testimonia identify as her young companions, sing about each other (frs. 21, 22; in fr. 96.4 the person in Lydia is said to have compared Atthis once to a goddess and it is not unlikely that she did so in a song). Were these their own compositions or did Sappho compose these songs for them, the same way she composed the marriage songs?

  20. E.g. Demetrius Eloc. 167 (=fr. 110b) on Sappho fr. 110a (a wedding song); Servius in Verg. G. 1.31 on Sappho fr. 116: Sappho, quae in libro qui inscribitur 'Επιθαλάμια ait χαι̑ρε, νύμφα, χαι̑ρε, τίμιε γάμβρε, κτλ …

  21. Lardinois 1995. Hermann Fränkel already noted that “among the Lesbians too, then, there were songs fairly close to choral lyric” (1962/1975: 186 n.45), like Sappho fragment 16, “which meditates and argues like choral poetry” (172). More recently, Claude Calame (1977: 1.127, 368-69) has suggested that Sappho's circle was organized as a young women's choir which sang or danced to songs composed by Sappho, and Judith Hallett declared that “many of Sappho's fragments thought to be personal, autobiographical statements might in fact be part of public, if not marriage, hymns sung by other females” (1979: 463).

  22. See in particular Nagy 1979: 296-300 (on Homer and Hesiod), 1982/1990: 47-48, 71 (on Hesiod), 1985: 33-34 (on Theognis), 1990: 79, 363-65 (on Archilochus), but, for example, also Lamberton: 23 (on Hesiod), who draws a parallel with the relationship of Anacreon to the Anacreonta. Orpheus is a good example of a legendary figure whose name was attached to a particular kind of poetry in the archaic Greek period, and who was historicized by the end of the fifth century B.C. (fr. 1A5 D.-K.)

  23. Hdt. 2.134 (=test. 9) places Sappho and Charaxus together with the courtesan Rhodopis, whom Charaxus was supposed to have courted (=Sappho's Doricha?: frs. 7.1?, 15.12; Strabo 17.1.33 = fr. 202b), in the time of the Egyptian pharaoh Amasis (568-526 b.c.), which is actually later than the Parian Marble (test. 5) or most scholars want to date her: e.g. Lesky 1971: 167, Campbell 1982: xi, 1985/1989: 162 (floruit around 600 b.c.).

  24. Σάπφοι, Alc. fr. 384, cp. Pάπφοι, Sappho fr. 65.5, 133b; Pάπφ', Sappho fr. 1.20, 94.5. The meter prohibits emending Alcaeus' Σάπφοι to Pάπφοι. The existence of such metrical variants is typical of names which belong to an oral poetic tradition: cp. 'Αχιλλεύs/ 'Αχιλεύs, 'Οδυσσεύs / 'Οδυσεύs.

  25. Fr. 16.17-20. Sappho's preference for the personal (what she loves) over cavalry and ships is matched by the composer of the Apatouria song, which in the Vita Herodotea is ascribed to Homer (lines 426-27 Allen p. 211=Ep. 12 Markwald): ἵπποι δ' ἐν πέδιῳ κόσμοs, νη̑εs δὲ θαλάσσηs, / χρήματα δ' αὔξει οέκον.

  26. On fr. 16 as possibly performed by a chorus, see Fränkel 1962/1975: 172, 186, Hallett 1979: 463 and Lardinois 1995. Stern's objection that the priamel is voiced too personally for choral poetry is answered by Bundy 6 n.19, if Pindar's epinikia are choral (on which see most recently, and sensibly, Morgan 1993).

  27. Parker 321. One of the readers pointed out to me that the reference to Sappho, “teaching the noblest women not only from the local families but also from families in Ionia” (παιδεύουσα τὰs ἀρίσταs οὐ μόνον τω̑ν ἐγχωρίων ἀλλὰ καὶ τω̑ν ἀπ' 'Ιωνίαs), preserved in a fragment of a second century a.d. Sappho commentary (SLG 261A=fr. 214B), may actually be older, since its author cites the Hellenistic scholar Callias of Mytilene (lines 14-15), although not necessarily for the part about Sappho's teaching: cp. Gronewald 114.

  28. This is basically the position that Marrou (71) adopts. Parker correctly notes that “nowhere in any poem does Sappho teach, or speak about teaching, anything to anyone” (314), in the sense of any formal education. Sappho does sometimes provide gnomic advice to her internal addressees (frs. 81, 150), but not very often and not more than, for example, Archilochus or Alcaeus.

  29. Maximus compares Sappho's amorous relationship with Gyrinna, Atthis, and Anactoria to those of Socrates with Alcibiades, Charmides, and Phaedrus. About all three women, whom I believe to be girls, some erotic-sounding fragments are preserved: Gyrinna (=Gyrinno?): fr. 82a; Atthis: 49.1, 96, 131, cp. test. 2 and 19; Anactoria: frs. 16, cp. test. 19.

  30. Although Parker rejects the testimonia as late, male distortions of female relationships, he still feels the need to question our understanding of them. He notes that Ovid (Tr. 2.365=test. 49, Her. 15.15=test. 19) and Horace (Carm. 2.13.24f.=test. 18) speak of Sappho as in love with puellae but that, “puella, of course, is used equally of girls, mature women, and goddesses, especially as objects of love” (321). This is true, but the context in Ovid Tr. 2.365 (=test. 49), where we are told that Sappho “taught” (docuit) her puellas to love, as well as the other testimonia, strongly suggest that in this case puellae does refer to young girls.

  31. These are frs. 17, 49.2, 56, 122, 140a and 153. Add frs. 58 and 93 Voigt. Parker further mentions frs. 27, 30, 105, 107, 113, 114 and 194, “where the youth and the virginity of the bride are mentioned” (add fr. 112.2: bride is a παρθένοs). In fr. 132 παι̑s refers to Sappho's daughter, Cleïs (see Hallett 1982, Lardinois 1989: 22), in fr. 104a.2 to an unspecified child of a mother, in fr. 155 to “the daughter of the house of Polyanax” (Gorgo or Andromeda: her “rivals”), in frs. 1.2, 16.10, 103.3 Voigt, and 164 (“perhaps Eros,” Campbell [1982] ad loc.) to mythological figures.

  32. The girl is referred to as κόρη, 36 and παι̑s, 49 Sandbach. Winkler, in his footnote 2, mentions Pausanias' report about the women of Argos not as evidence that the Adonia were celebrated by adult women, as Parker suggests, but to show that “in other times and places” the festival may have had a more public character. This may have been the case on Lesbos as well, and fr. 140a was probably performed in public (Page 119, Campbell 1982: xiii, 1985/1989: 162).

  33. Compare fr. 30.9 “let us see” ([ἴ]δωμεν) to which the word πάρθενοι in the nominative in line 1 is probably related, and 27.8: σ]τείχομεν γὰρ ἐs γάμον. On the performance of Sappho's wedding songs by age-mates of the bride, see Page 120, Calame 1977: 1.161 n.230 and Contiades-Tsitsoni 40-41, 100. Parker agrees: 331-32.

  34. Bowra 212, otherwise, suggested that the part of Aphrodite was played by a priestess.

  35. Compare fr. 30.1 (a wedding song) for a similar self-reference: πάρθενοι. Fränkel 1962/1975: 181 already suggested that this poem, which has been variously interpreted as an unspecified hymn to Hera (Page 61-62) or a propemptikon (Merkelbach 23-25), may have been sung by a chorus.

  36. I agree with Parker 323 that these two lines do not necessarily belong together.

  37. The “you” of line 4 and 5 probably has to be identified with Atthis, whose name is mentioned in line 16: Page 92, Saake 1971: 172. Atthis is also identified as one of Sappho's “companions or girlfriends” in test. 2, 19 and 20.

  38. The Suda (test. 2) in fact distinguishes between Sappho's pupils (μαθήτριαι) and her “three companions and friends [including Atthis], through whom she got a bad name for impure friendship” (έται̑ραι δὲ αὐτη̑s καὶ φίλαι γεγόνασι τρει̑s, 'Ατθίs, Τελεσίππα, Μεγάρα, πρòs as καὶ διαβολὴν ἔσχεν αἰσχρα̑s φιλίαs), but this probably represents an attempt by the Suda or its source to account for the two Hellenistic traditions about Sappho: Sappho as teacher and Sappho as tribade. One may compare Aelian V.H. 12.19 (=test. 4), who claims that there were two Sapphos of Lesbos: one a poet and the other a prostitute.

  39. Fr. 93 Voigt (not included in Campbell 1982) preserves a first person singular verb in line 4 (ἔχω) and the word parthenoi, seemingly in the genitive plural, in line 5 (παρθένωω): no further details.

  40. Di Benedetto 147-48. It is not unlikely that this line constitutes the actual beginning of the poem (idem: 147, Gallavotti 1962: 113). Page (129) also begins the poem in this line.

  41. ὄρχ]ησση': Edmonds' conjecture in line 16, cited by Voigt and Campbell ad loc.

  42. οὔ μ' ἔτι, παρσενικαὶ μελιγάρυεs ἱαρόφωνοι, / γυι̑α φέρην δύναται, Alcm. fr. 26.1-2a Page/Davies. Compare Sappho fr. 58.15: γόνα δ' [ο]ὐ φέροισι. Antigonus (cited by Davies [1991] ad loc.) further specifies that Alcman speaks this poem, “being weak from old age and unable to whirl about with the choirs and the girls' dancing” (φησὶν γὰρ ἀσθενὴs oν διὰ τò γη̑ραs καὶ τοι̑s χοροι̑s οὐ δυνάμενοs συμπεριφέρεσθαι οὐδὲ τη̑ι τω̑ν παρθένων ὀρχήσει). Calame 1983: 474 already noted the similarity between this poem and Sappho fr. 58.

  43. Sappho fr. 21 describes a similar situation (χρόα γη̑ραs ἤδη, 21.6b=58.13b), and here it is clear that we are dealing with some kind of an exchange, for in line 11-12 the speaker calls on another woman (λάβοισα, line 11, cp. Fr. 22.9-11) to “sing about the violet-robed one” (according to Campbell 1982: 73 n.3 Aphrodite, otherwise perhaps a bride: cp. fr. 30.5). According to Di Benedetto (148-49), line fr. 58.11 opened with an invitation to the chorus to sing (e.g. γεραίρετε) and line 12 contained the instruction to “take up the song-loving, clear-sounding lyre (… λάβοισαι] φιλάοιδον λιγύραν χελύνναν). Calame 1977: 1.127, 369, citing Anth. Pal. 9.189 (=test. 59), already suggested that Sappho may have sung some of her poetry in public while her chorus danced. One may compare for this type of musical performance Demodocus' song about Ares and Aphrodite, which is sung by Demodocus and danced to by a group of young Phaeacian men (Od. 8.262-64), the wedding song in Od. 4.17-19, or the execution of the Linos song in Il. 18.569f. For some applications of this type of performance to other archaic Greek poetry, see Davies 1988: 62-63.

  44. One should add the many names of persons whom the testimonia identify as girls: Anactoria (fr. 16, cp. test. 2?, 19, 20), Gongyla (fr. 22, 95, cp. test. 2, fr. 213), Megara (fr. 68a, cp. test. 2), Atthis (frs. 49.1, 96.17, 131, cp. test. 2, 19 and 20).

  45. Ter. Maur. 2154-55 = 6.390.4-5 Klein, quoted by Parker 323.

  46. Leuman, Hofmann & Szantyr: 2. 175; Klenin 115: “Despite occasional claims to the contrary, there is no subject condition on Latin reflexivization, although antecedents are often also subjects; apparently the basis of their eligibility to trigger reflexivization involves empathy relations as described by Kuno and Kaburaki [“Empathy and Syntax,” Linguistic Inquiry 8.4, 1977, 627-72].” I owe this reference to Brent Vine.

  47. Of course, even if Terentianus Maurus meant Sappho's virginity with “sua virginitas,” we cannot be certain that he understood the poem correctly and, for example, did not confuse the speaker, who may not have been Sappho but one or more of Atthis' companions (cp. frs. 21, 22). It is interesting in this respect that we are told in fr. 96.4 that Atthis once was praised, probably in a song, by a woman who now dances in Lydia (one of her former companions?).

  48. σιειδήs in Alcman fr. 1.71 closely resembles θέαι σ' ἰκέλαν in Sappho fr. 96.4 and the comparison of the woman in Lydia with Selanna (Sappho fr. 96.8) matches that of Agido and the sun (Alcman fr. 1.41). Even if fr. 142 (about Leto and Niobe) refers to two same-aged companions, we would still not know whether they were pictured as two adult or two young women at the time. Athenaeus (13.571d) adduces the fragment in order to show that “free women as well as girls call their intimate and dear friends companions” (καλου̑έι γου̑ν καὶ αἱ ἐλεύθεραι γυναι̑κεs ἔτι καὶ νυ̑ν καὶ αἱ παρθένοι τὰs συνήθειs καὶ φίλαs έταίραs, ὡs ἡ Σαπφώ …). Parker's suggestion that the commentary preserved as fr. 90.10a (=90d Voigt) would somehow reveal that Sappho compared herself and Atthis to these two mythological figures (339 n.78), is highly speculative at best. The fragment does not mention the names of Sappho or Niobe. It preserves Atthis' name in line 15 and the letters]λατωσ in line 3 without there being even the slightest suggestion that the two are somehow connected. Fr. 23 not only compares the addressee to Helen but also to Hermione, Helen's daughter. The comparison is cumulative (you are as beautiful as Hermione, no as Helen herself) and, I would argue, suits a young woman just as well, if not better, than an adult. It may be that this fragment is derived from a wedding song (cp. Parker 324 n.28), in which case it would probably refer to the bride: Lucian (Symp. 41) in a wedding song also compares the bride to Helen. It is, furthermore, not unlikely that Helen in fr. 16 is the comparanda both for the speaker and Anactoria (Macleod 217-19, Carey 368-69, Dane 192 contra Parker 324 n. 28), who has been positively identified as a young woman (Brown; cp. test. 19 and 20).

  49. There are, of course, other types of songs as well: marriage songs, hymns, satires about “rivals” and girls who threatened to leave her, songs about her daughter Cleïs and her brothers Charaxus and Larichus, and mythological tales: see Lardinois 1989: 16-17.

  50. At the end of line 28 the word ψόφοs (“sound”) is preserved and Theander proposed reading κροτάλων] ψόφοs here (cp. fr. 44.25: see Voigt ad loc.). The end of line 27 may contain the word χόροs, but this is uncertain (Voigt ad loc.). The “we” in “we took care of you” (πεδήπομεν, 8) could indicate that Sappho and the woman were not alone; Page (78): “If the plural is strictly interpreted, the implication will be that Sappho is speaking on behalf of her companions,” or at least others besides herself (cp. Burnett 312 on the first person plural in fr. 96.21). The “we” in “we were absent (from no shrine)” (ἄμ]μεs ἀπέσκομεν, 26) may also include these “others,” who with Sappho and the addressee could have been the chorus of line 27.

  51. We find a similar situation in fr. 96 where the speaker also reminds the addressee of her previous performances (5, 26f.?) and of a dance which it imagines to go on right now in Lydia (on ἐμπρέπεται in line 6 as suggestive of dancing, see Calame 1977: 1.91). Fragment 94 has been identified as a “farewell song,” which invokes memories of previously shared experiences: most recently, Rauk 1989.

  52. καὶ στρώμν[αν ἐ]πὶ μολθάκαν / ἀπάλαν πα.[] … ων / ἐξίηs πόθο[ν].νίδων, fr. 94.21-23. From the structure of the preceding strophes we can determine that these words belong together. Every strophe seems to contain one pleasant thing Sappho and the girl did together.

  53. See Burnett (298 n.56) for some other suggestions. To her examples of πόθοs expressing sexual desire in Sappho (frs. 36 and 48), add frs. 22.11 and 102. ἀπάλαν (either a feminine genitive plural or singular accusative) could refer to a person (cp. frs. 82a, 122, 126); fr. 126 is particularly relevant in this regard: δαύοιs ἀπάλαs ἐτά‹ι›ραs ἐν στήθεσιν. On the other hand, one can already in Homer experience desire (ἔροs) or longing (πόθοs) for other things besides sex. Since the expression ἐξίημι πόθον means “to get rid of a longing by indulging in it” (Page 79) and the woman lies in a bed (στρωμνή), the best alternative seems to be that the girl is taking a nap: cp. Il. 13.636f.: ὕπνου κτλ … τω̑ν πέρ τιs καὶ μα̑λλον ἐέλδεται ἐξ ἔρον εέναι / e πολέμου. (This was also the reading of Wilamowitz: 50.) Lasserre's recent suggestion (1989: 136-37, 140) that the girl is playing with dolls (reading παρ[ὰ πλ]αγ[γ]όνων in line 22), has to be rejected: see Liberman 234-35, Rösler 1990: 197-98. Even if this fragment is inconclusive, there is in my opinion enough other evidence (particularly fr. 1) to suggest that Sappho presented herself as having homoerotic relationships with some of the young women she sang about in her poetry.

  54. The term circle, although not original by him (cp. Schadewaldt 1950: 11), was first made popular by Merkelbach's 1957 article: “Sappho und ihre Kreis.”

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Rösler, W. 1980. Dichter und Gruppe: eine Untersuchung zu den Bedingungen und zur historischen Funktion früher griechischer Lyriker am Beispiel Alkaios, Munich.

———. 1992. “Review of François Lasserre, Sappho: une autre lecture,AAHG [Anzeiger fuer die Alterumswissenschaft] 45: 197-99.

Saake, H. 1971. Zur Kunst Sapphos: Motiv-analytische und kompositionstechnische Interpretationen, Munich.

———. 1972. Sapphostudien: Forschungsgeschichtliche, biographische und literarästhetische Untersuchungen, Munich.

Sandbach, F. H. 1990. Menandri Reliquiae Selectae, Revised Edition, Oxford.

Schadewaldt, W. 1950. Sappho. Welt und Dichtung. Dasein in der Liebe, Potsdam.

Sergent, B. 1986. L'Homosexualité initiatique dans l'Europe ancienne, Paris.

Skinner, M. B. 1993, “Women and Language in Archaic Greece, or, Why is Sappho a Woman?,” in N. S. Rabinowitz and A. Richlin (eds.), Feminist Theory and the Classics, New York, 125-44.

Snyder, J. M. 1989. The Women and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome, Carbondale IL.

———. 1991. “Public Occasion and Private Passion in the Lyrics of Sappho of Lesbos,” in S. B. Pomeroy (ed.), Women's History and Ancient History, Chapel Hill, 1-19.

Stehle, E. 1990. “Sappho's Gaze: Fantasies of a Goddess and Young Man,” differences 2.1: 88-125.

Stern, E. M. 1970. “Sappho Fr. 16 L.P.: Zur strukturellen Einheit ihrer Lyrik,” Mnemosyne Ser. 4, Vol. 13: 348-61.

Stigers [Stehle], E. 1979. “Romantic Sensuality, Poetic Sense: A Response to Hallett on Sappho,” Signs 4: 465-71.

———. 1981. “Sappho's Private World,” in H. Foley (ed.), Reflections of Women in Antiquity, London, 45-61.

Tsagarakis, O. 1977. Self-Expression in Early Greek Lyric, Elegiac and Iambic Poetry, Wiesbaden.

van Erp Taalman Kip, A. M. 1980. “Enige interpretatie-problemen in Sappho,” Lampas 13: 336-54 (with a brief summary in English).

———. 1983. “Review of W. Rösler, Dichter und Gruppe,Mnemosyne 36: 397-401.

Versnel, H. S. 1990. Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion, Part 1: Ter Unus: Isis, Dionysos, Hermes. Three Studies in Henotheism, Leiden.

Voigt, E.-M. 1971. Sappho et Alcaeus. Fragmenta, Amsterdam.

Von der Mühll, P. 1964. “Weitere pindarische Notizen,” MH [Mediaevalia et Humanistica] 21: 168-72.

Welcker, F. G. 1816/1845. Sappho von einem herrschenden Vorurteil befreyt, reprinted with a “Nachtrag” in Kleine Schriften, vol. 2, Bonn, 80-144. [Originally published as a monograph in Göttingen 1816.]

———. 1826. Theognidis Reliquiae, Frankfurt.

———. 1834. “Ibykos.” RhM [Rhenisches Museum fuer Philologie] 2: 211-44. [A revised version is included in Kleine Schriften, Vol. I, Bonn 1844, 220-50.]

Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, U. von. 1913. Sappho und Simonides: Untersuchungen über griechische Lyriker, Berlin.

Winkler, J. J. 1981/1990. “Double Consciousness in Sappho's Lyrics,” in Winkler 1990, 162-87. [An earlier version of this chapter was published in H. Foley (ed.), Reflections of Women in Antiquity, New York 1981.]

———. 1990. The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender, New York.

Page Dubois (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Dubois, Page. “Sappho's Body-in-Pieces.” In Sappho Is Burning, pp. 55-76. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

[In the following excerpt from her monograph containing feminist, materialist, and historicist approaches to Sappho, Dubois uses the example of Sappho's fragmentary poem no. “31” to suggest the central importance of fragmentation and dismemberment to our modern, theoretical understanding and reconstruction of the antique past.]

One of Walter Benjamin's theses on the philosophy of history expresses scorn for a certain view of historicism. He wrote: “Historicism gives the ‘eternal’ image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called ‘Once upon a time’ in historicism's bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of history.”1 Benjamin here argues, in scandalously sexist terms, against a kind of historicism called by Fredric Jameson “existential historicism,” that aesthetic contemplation of an immutable past called “once upon a time,” “the experience … by which historicity as such is manifested, by means of the contact between the historian's mind in the present and a given synchronic cultural complex from the past.”2 I argue here for a historical materialist historicism, one that is not content merely to contemplate the past from the point of view of an autonomous subject in the present, who comes into contact with the collective past, but that rather engages with the past in order to generate some vision of a utopian future. And if Benjamin, in his vision of the aestheticizing, contemplative version of historicism, uses the image of the whore in historicism's bordello, feminism needs not only to reject such degrading imagery but also to consider a dialectical materialist theory of history, to use Marxism, to see difference, to put into question contemporary assumptions about such concepts as gender, sex, sexual difference and to struggle for change.

We may need a counter to what I see as feminism's continuing and sometimes exclusive emphasis on the present, a circumstance in which even an “existential” historicism might have much to offer. If we focus on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, see only contemporary women writers, reflect only on what is to be done in the next few months, the next few years, we limit ourselves radically in speculation, in strategies and tactics, in the invention of new realities. It seems important to reinsert the possibility of utopian thinking into feminist work, and to argue that historicism, a certain variety of historicism, can expand the vocabulary of possibilities for all work on gender. This [essay] is not only an argument for feminists to adopt a theory of history but also perhaps a regression to a pre-postmodernist vision of history and progress. I realize that such a line is out of fashion, that postmodernity has erased history, rendering all of our experience flat and one-dimensional, that the concepts of past and future, of linear time, evoke unfortunate associations with master narratives, with the humanist trajectory of patriarchy. But to refuse any model of historical difference and change limits us inevitably to a purely aleatory experience of time, without the possibility of political and intellectual change and practice, and will restrict us to a passive observation of the machine of the world as it displays itself and us. I argue for a Marxist-feminist historicism, one that includes not only a narrative about the past but a vision of equality and emancipation in the future not only for women but for everyone.

Historicism will allow us to claim other histories for our political and intellectual work, allow us to see other peoples, other ideas of gendering, power, and sexual difference that help us see beyond the horizons of our own culture's essentializing notions of gender and difference. The ancient Greeks are, for me, a particularly suggestive example for historicist work, in part because we often name them as our origin, in part because they are in fact radically different from us. And fragmentation can stand as a figure for a difference in approach from the traditional classicist drive for wholeness and integrity, origins and continuity rather than recognition of difference.

Before reading Sappho's poem “31,” let me recall some ways in which fragments figure in ancient culture, and undo from the first any possible confidence concerning the integrity and stability of this distant place and time. Ancient Dionysiac ritual included reference to a sparagmos, the ritual dismemberment and devouring of animals in Bacchic celebration. Sophocles' heroine Antigone is haunted by the figure of her brother's broken and unburied body. The Athenians buried the broken bodies of the korai, the cult statues of Athena, after the Persian invasion at the beginning of the fifth century; they used broken pieces of statuary and masonry to refashion the wall that protected the city. The various Greek tribes saw themselves and their settlements as fragmentary, disseminated bits, broken off into individual cities from original unitary founding ancestors' families, saw their colonies as similarly dispersed fragments of an original whole.

What is the political meaning for Athenians both of tribal dispersion after the death of their founder Ion, and of the dissemination of citizens in colonization? What are the discourses in historical texts on dialects, what are the political attempts to establish leagues, to reconstitute wholeness? The Athenians, in their imaginary integrity and homogeneity, descended from a single ancestor, or sprouted from the earth, lived surrounded by refugees, slaves and foreigners, the metics, broken away from their places of origin. The Athenians in particular seem to have seen their existence as a community as haunted by a dialectic between integrity and dissemination. How did they think about democracy—the dispersed, heterogeneous votes, scattered bits of broken shells, ostraka, pebbles broken from rocks, shards once part of whole bodies of vases—transformed through the vote into a single unified voice of the majority, of the polis as a new whole?

And what is writing itself, the inscription on the ostraka that led to ostracism? Writing is the scattered letters, lots, seeds, like the dragon's teeth of Thebes, the gift of Kadmos, like the fragmented bodies of Actaeon and Pentheus, sons of his house, like the stones of the wall of Thebes, moved by the singing of Amphion and Zethus, like the severed, singing head of Orpheus, dismembered by maenads. Can we consider the imaginary opposition between Thebes and Athens in terms of this slippage, this oscillation between fragmentation and integrity, Thebes as the site of dispersion and dismemberment, Athens the city of remembering, recollection, democracy which is the unification of the once dispersed and scattered?3

The period of the earliest democracy and of the Persian Wars, the latter part of the sixth century b.c.e. and the early part of the fifth, exhibit the Greek's own fascination with fragments. An ostrakon is an oyster shell. The term came to be applied to broken bits of pottery. The ceramic vases of the Greeks, when broken, provided myriad shards. Vases came to bear the names of potter and painter, of donor, of the recipient of the gift, epigraphs naming the figures in paintings; they bore writing on them, random letters at first, when the painter wanted to demonstrate his ability to write, then parts of words, names, whole words, whole names, even sentences. Was it these inscribed words, painted and fired into the surfaces of the rounded vases and then split off from their former sites, that led the Athenians to see these broken pieces of vases as proper surfaces for the names of those who were becoming too prominent, who threatened to unbalance the democracy and who thus had to be exiled? The word ostrakon has an interesting history, moving as it does from the split leaves of the oyster, the two sides of the bivalve, to an extended meaning, the broken-up bits of the vases, which might have vaguely recalled oyster shells. The mound of Testaccio in Rome, a hill of waste, of shell and broken pieces of pottery, still looms as a considerable elevation in the modern city. Archaeologists excavating in the modern city of Athens discovered a cache of 190 ostraka, all bearing the name of Themistokles written in just a few hands. They conjecture that Themistokles' political opponents were plotting to have him ostracized, and planned to distribute these potsherds either to the illiterate or to supporters who would be organized to vote against their enemy.

In a significant parallel to the Athenian practice of using pottery fragments for the most important type of voting, the casting out of a prominent man from among the citizens, the citizens of Syracuse in Sicily, a Corinthian foundation, engaged in a political ritual called petalismos, after the petala, or olive leaves, used in voting. Homer, in a famous passage, likens the generations of human beings to leaves on a tree:

As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another dies.(4)

Olive leaves were a convenient and available source of writing material in the Mediterranean, but it is nonetheless significant that this act of scapegoating and expelling a member of the ancient community of Syracuse would use the medium of leaves, the once living and then fallen parts of the olive tree.5 These practices of expulsion take up fragmentary elements of ordinary life, use them to mark someone and to expel him, in order to reconstitute the integrity of the city. The fragments are the instruments of the construction of a new whole, one renewed and strengthened by the breaking off of one of its parts, one of the citizen members of the polity.

Voting in the assembly of Athens took place by a show of hands and does not exhibit the characteristics of the casting of names into a pool for ostracism. However, voting by juries in legal trials was done by secret ballot, and thus has affinities with ostracism; it is remarkable that these two kinds of activity fall into the same field because of the Greeks' physical practices of voting with objects. Questions concerning individuals (ep'andri) were decided with secret ballot (psēphisma, from psēphos, voting-stone, voting-pebble), even in the assembly, and the decisions of juries on individuals similarly used pebbles dropped into an urn, a black stone for conviction or a white one for acquittal. These deliberations, pointed at an individual member of the community, required a secret ballot, one conducted by means of these fragments, ostraka, potsherds, and pebbles, when what was at stake was the punishment or removal of one element of the polity. It is as if all these practices were understood as efforts at cleansing and repair, the reestablishing of balance after a moment of fragmentation and harm brought on the group by the efforts of a single person on his own behalf. The selfish acts of conspirators, criminals, and potential tyrants split the community; the fragments used to name such actors, or to condemn them, served to renegotiate the bonds of community and to create a new whole, one no longer split and fragmented by the actions of the culprit. So both the ostracism and the jury system of Athens might be said to exhibit similarities to the process of historiography, the recognition of fragmentation, the use of fragments to negotiate some change, and the provisional, temporary, establishing of coherence.

The metaphorics of the discourses and practices of the Athenians, in some sense our ancestors, in some sense descendants of Greeks of the archaic age, like Sappho, themselves exhibit a sense of fragmentation, dismemberment. The Greek words that derive from speirō, “sow,” interestingly combine the metaphorics of dissemination with those of fragmentation and dismemberment. It is as if the ear of grain, the source of seeds, is seen as a whole from which parts are stripped, in a move that transfers that act of separation from the sparagmos, which is in fact derived from spaō, “draw, tear, rend,” rather than from the verb for sowing. In a typically unscientific but interesting ancient etymology, there is a confusion between these two verbs and their derivatives which makes both of them partake of the connotations of the other, sowing becoming rending, rending becoming sowing, the Sown Men, the Spartoi of Thebes, the ancestors of the dismembered members of the house of Thebes, Dionysos, Aktaion, and Pentheus.6 All these etymological nets and metaphors, although applied to the city of Thebes, are known from Athenian tragedy, from Athenian accounts of the history of that state.

The semantic complex associated with sowing and rending connects the practices of agriculture, which functioned to unite the community, with myths and rituals of dismemberment. In the Bacchae, for example, a messenger describes the ripping apart, the sparagmos of the ruler of Thebes, Pentheus:

Ignoring his cries of pity,
she seized his left arm at the wrist; then, planting
her foot upon his chest, she pulled, wrenching away [apesparaxen]
the arm at the shoulder. …
Ino, meanwhile, on the other wide, was scratching off
his flesh. Then Autonoe and the whole horde
of Bacchae swarmed upon him. Shouts everywhere,
he screaming with what little breath was left,
they shrieking in triumph. One tore off an arm,
another a foot still warm in its shoe. His ribs
were clawed clean of flesh [sparagmois] and every hand
was smeared with blood as they played ball [diesphairizde] with scraps of Pentheus' body.
                                                                                The pitiful remains lie scattered,
one piece among the sharp rocks, others
lying lost among the leaves in the depths
of the forest. His mother, picking up his head,
impaled it on her wand. She seems to think it is
some mountain lion's head which she carries in triumph.(7)

The passage has some of the baroque strangeness of the scene of Creousa's melting flesh in the Medea; Euripides links by a half-pun the dismemberment and playing ball. The sundered shoulder recalls the body of Pelops, partially consumed at the feast of Atreus and Thyestes, although his shoulder was replaced by one of ivory, and he lived on. While this Bacchic scene is hardly agricultural, it does associate the choruses, the dancing groups of bacchants, with the chorus of the theater, performing before that assembly of the city of Athens that unifies them in the act of watching and seeing. Although this tragedy was supposedly written in Macedonia during Euripides' exile there, it was performed in Athens.

Other relevant scenes of tearing apart, ripping apart, include the image of the city at the time of the Peloponnesian War, when parties struggled against one another and when people turned against each other in fear of Sparta. The ancient historian Thucydides writes about the rebuilding of the walls of the city of Athens after the Persians sacked and burned the city's akropolis. They built broken pieces of the old wall into the new, constructing a fabric consisting partly of stones, the “bones of the mother,” and partly of fragments of earlier man-made structures. Although these elements of the visual culture of Athens may seem distant, these classical Athenian texts to have little to do with the archaic Lesbian Sappho, they demonstrate a cultural preoccupation with the fragmentary that goes beyond the fact that the Greeks of the archaic and classical ages were widely dispersed across a great geographical territory. They saw themselves as scattered parts of a former whole, and the tribes, then dispersions of peoples, then colonization as dialectically related phenomena.

This essay considers the figure of fragmentation of the body in relation to the world of the ancient Greeks and to our own naturalized notions about the body. I am concerned with postmodernity's focus on contemporary culture and with the concomitant loss of a perspective on past and future that might enable other visions of bodies, sexualities, genders. Our lack of relationship to the past, our refusal of its fragmentedness, may depend on a psychological resistance to the fragmented body, a resistance that Jacques Lacan's work can perhaps help us to understand. Our fear of coming to terms with the fragmented historical past leads us to re-member its dismemberment, often to falsify that past. Such misrecognitions have implications not only for how we read the past and its fragments but also for how we read the world and women's place in it. Sappho's poems, their form and the ways in which we receive them, can exemplify an alternative aesthetic. Seeing the possibilities of this alternative—recognizing and accepting our own fragmentation and the inevitably fragmented past—has implications for how we treat bodies of poetry, bodies in poetry, and bodies in the world.

In a recent book called Rethinking Art History, Donald Preziosi characterizes his discipline in terms that cast light on classics as a field. He argues that “the discipline … serves to project or to validate a certain kind of viewing Subject: ideally, passive consumers, and, in more contemporary contexts, educated and discerning cryptographers—but receivers of messages all the same.” He points out further that the discipline actually “shares with other humanistic disciplines … a highly complex and self-perpetuating analytic theater of power and knowledge, a discourse always written in the third person singular.”8 I am especially concerned here with the ways in which the field of classics projects and validates a similar Subject, “the classicist,” who is at once consumer, cryptographer, and receiver of messages, but who has rarely acknowledged rhetorically his own power and presence in the act of interpretation of the fragments of antiquity, assuming rather a transparency, an unmediated access to the remnants of the past.

My question here is: How do classicists come to terms with ancient culture? What sort of subject does ancient culture produce, in the person of the classicist? And how can contemporary theory, especially psychoanalysis, help us think the relationship we have to antiquity?

Classicists receive antiquity in pieces, as fragments. There are various attempts to come to terms with the material of the past, both to break it up further, into more manageable entities, and to recover an imagined lost unity. Paradoxically, both those attempts to reunite lost parts and to break down the past can deter readers from the act of interpretation, from considering what the past means for us, what it makes of us. One way of responding to this recognition is to pursue a dream of wholeness, transparency, perfect access to what we desire to know through such scholarly practices as “conjectures,” imagining the word that might have once been where there is now a gap. Another is to try to manage the instability of our relationship to the past by reducing it to atoms accessible to philological science, through the production of a scholarly apparatus and commentary, through the perusal of lexicons, catalogs of all the words, fixing them into alphabetic lists. Another is to accept the partiality of our experience, to seek, even as we yearn for more—more fact, more words and artifacts, more lines of Sappho, more poems of Sappho—to read what we have in light of who we are now.

Speaking of those ancient writers whose work “counted for something,” in praise of Horace, Nietzsche said:

This mosaic of words, in which every unit spreads its power to the left and to the right over the whole, by its sound, by its place in the sentence, and by its meaning, this minimum in the compass and number of the signs, and the maximum of energy in the signs which is thereby achieved—all this is Roman, and, if you will believe me, noble par excellence.9

Nietzsche's appreciation of Horace does not concern the fragment, nor is it directed to archaic Greek poetry, nor does his praise of Horace as noble suit my purpose. But his remarks on the minimum of signs, maximum of energy might direct a reading of the fragmentary, one that attempts, not romantically, not lamenting the loss that surrounds the fragment, not to restore its lacks, but to read the minimal signs of the fragment with a maximum of energy.

What follows is a reading of a necessarily fragmented poem of Sappho, one that attempts to recognize the fragmentary state of my own encounter with the poem.

This is Sappho's poem “31:”

To me he seems like a god
as he sits facing you and
hears you near as you speak
softly and laugh
in a sweet echo that jolts
the heart in my ribs. For now
as I look at you my voice
is empty and
can say nothing as my tongue
cracks and slender fire is quick
under my skin. My eyes are dead
to light, my ears
pound, and sweat pours over me.
I convulse, greener than grass,
and feel my mind slip as I
          go close to death.(10)
φαίνεταί μοι κη̑νοs ἴσοs θέοισιν
ἔμμεν' Ὤνηρ, ὄττιs ἐνάντιόs τοι
ἰσδάνει καὶ πλάσιον αδυ φωνεί-
σαs ὐπακούει
καὶ γελαίσαs ἰμέροεν, τό μ' ήμὰν
καρδίαν ἐν στήθεσιν ἐπτόαισεν
ὠs γὰρ ἔs σ' ἰδω βρόχε', Ὤs με φώναι-
σσ' οὐδ' έν ἔτ' εἴκει,
ἀλλὰ κὰμ μὲν γλω̑σσά ‹μ'› ἔαγε, λέπτον
δ' αὔτικα χρἳ̑ πυ̑ρ ὐπαδεδρόμηκεν,
ὀππάτεσσι δ' οὐδ' ἐν ὄρημμ', ἐπιρρόμ-
βεισι δ' ἄκουαι,
κὰδ δέ μ' ἴδρωs κακχέεται, τρόμοs δὲ
παι̑σαν ἄγρει, χλωροτσρα δὲ ποίαs
ἔμμι, τεθνάκην δ' ὀλίγω σιδεύηs
φαίνομ' ἔμ' αὔτ[ą.
ἀλλὰ πὰν τόλματον, ἐπεὶ †καὶ πένητα†(11)

The lines break off here, into fragments. This poem was much admired in antiquity; Plato seems to echo it in the Phaedrus when Socrates describes the symptoms of love as beauty enters through the eyes:

… first there come upon him a shuddering and a measuring of … awe. … Next, with the passing of the shudder, a strange sweating and fever seizes him.12

Catullus translated this poem, retaining the gender markers of the object of desire and transforming it into a heterosexual text. Longinus, in citing the poem in his work, speaks of the skill with which Sappho picks out and binds together the most striking and intense of the symptoms of love.13

Sappho's selection of akra, of high moments, is a fragmentation of experience, in that it must perforce break up the flow of lived time. Poetry performs such a splitting up of experience through selection. But piled on top of this sense of fragmentation is another, one peculiar to the thematics of this particular poem, in which the body is represented as falling into fragments, seen as a series of discrete, unconnected, disjunctive responses. As Longinus points out in remarks that have been found inadequate in the twentieth century but that suit my purpose admirably:

Is it not wonderful [literally, ou thaumazdeis? are you not amazed?] how she summons at the same time soul body hearing tongue sight colour, all as though they had wandered off apart from herself?14

Longinus says that the poet constructs of all these things a sunodos, a meeting, a junction. The poem is a crossroads of emotions, a reassembly of the fragmented, disparate parts of the poetic “I” that have “wandered off apart from herself.” These parts are her heart, which is given a separate existence in her breast, her voice, which escapes her, her broken tongue, her skin, over which fire runs, her blinded eyes, her humming ears. This is Eros the limb-loosener, lusimelēs, the one that unstrings the assembly of the body and brings the “I” here close to death.

Much has been written about this poem, some of it illustrating my view that classicists perpetuate a certain kind of subject, one rooted in reason, deciphering the cryptic fragments of the past, speculating endlessly about contexts about which evidence can never be regained. This is true of the argument about whether Sappho's bodily disintegration is caused by jealousy or fear, whether the occasion of the poem is a wedding feast, Sappho an observer overcome by envy of the bridegroom, or full of awestruck praise for the magnificence of the newly married. One particularly obfuscating debate concerns the issue of Sappho's homosexuality,15 as in George Devereux's essay, “The Nature of Sappho's Seizure in Fr. 31 as Evidence of Her Inversion” (1970).16 A belief in the tragedy of homosexual existence colors Thomas McEvilley's otherwise helpful reading of the poem in a way that seems postromantic to me; his essay is subtitled “The Face behind the Mask”! He argues that the beginning of the poem suggests a hymeneal occasion, but that then the poem veers into a private voice. As he describes what he terms the “dramatic situation,” “Sappho has been asked to write or sing the wedding song, and she has begun nicely; then the sight of the beauty of the bride sends her out of control, calling up her very ambivalent feelings about homosexuality and married happiness.” I actually find this rather unpersuasive and irreconcilable with the reading that argues that the fear and disintegration produced by the sight of the beloved are elements of praise, of suggesting the divine beauty of the beloved woman. It is not clear to me that Sappho's desire for girls produced ambivalence about homosexuality at all; we could read her songs of regret and longing as her ontological situation, her aesthetic response to the separation from the beloved that almost all overs experience.17

As Charles Segal points out, this poem is saturated with reference to the world of oral poetry. In a fascinating essay, he writes in detail about the poem's patterns of alliteration and assonance, features that contribute to its incantatory quality, and that link it with the oral tradition.18 Jesper Svenbro reads it as Sappho's allegory about reading:

Coming as she did from the oral tradition, she set up the disappearance of the writer in a new way—not by using the third person for herself, but by giving an allegorical description of her own death by writing.19

Leah Rissman, in Love as War, discusses fragment “31” in terms of the “application of Homeric battle simile and terminology to lovers.”20 Her argument supports the view that Sappho's symptoms suggest not jealousy of the man who is her beloved's companion, but rather that the whole poem is in some sense a poem of praise, that the poet is stunned by the woman's beauty, which has the kind of effect on her that the aegis of Athena had on Penelope's suitors in the Odyssey. The woman in this scene is divine, the man heroic. Rissman says: “Both Sappho and the poet of the Iliad are concerned with contrasting the behavior of winners and losers. Sappho's catalogue of her own reactions to a woman is similar to the Homeric catalogue of the coward's response to the stress of ambush: both lists include pallor and unsteadiness of heart.”21 Fragment “31” is, therefore, a marriage poem in her view, a poem of praise in which the man is presented as godlike, the woman as divine; the poem elevates marriage by investing it with the heroic grandeur of the Homeric situation.22

More persuasive than McEvilley's remarks on Sappho's homosexual alienation are his observations on the diction of fragment “31,” which support Rissman's commentary about the profoundly Homeric quality of Sapphic reference. He points out that kardia, “heart,” does not occur elsewhere in our fragments; that glōssa is unusual, since Sappho usually refers not to tongue but to voice, that “fire” does not occur elsewhere. “Only in fr. “31” are the unpleasant physical sensations of heat and cold a part of Sappho's poetic world. They are … intrusions from the uncontrollable realm of physical circumstance from which Sappho's poetry usually provides escape.” Ears do not appear elsewhere, and sweat too is Homeric, and inelegant. McEvilley points out that “in Sappho's general practice, parts of the body are mentioned only as containers of erotic beauty.” He argues that all this diction is meant to “make explicit the difference between the real and the poetic worlds.” “Now for once the grim facts of bodily death become overwhelmingly clear and close: she is mortal; her tongue of songs is broken, sweat pours down her body.”23 The poem alludes to the Homeric descriptions of the body, using cruder, more corporeal language than that of other poems in its depiction of the poet's collapse.

In a particularly startling image, for example, Sappho says: glōssa eage, variously translated “my tongue broke,” “my tongue shivered,” “my tongue cracked.” Denys Page complains that the hiatus would be irregular, and the meaning “my tongue is broken” unsatisfactory; David Campbell nonetheless points out that Lucretius 3.155 seems to echo this passage in infringi linguam, and in the invocation to the catalog of ships in Iliad 2, the poet asks for the Muses' help with the words, “I could not tell over the multitude of them nor name them, not if I had ten tongues and ten mouths, not if I had a voice never to be broken [phonē d'arrēktos] (Iliad 2.488-90).24 Sappho here alludes to this curious feature of the Homeric body, the frangible tongue, and in her poem the hiatus, the two vowels coming together, could be seen to “break” the tongue, to force an awkward, dysphonious phrase, a stumbling into the gap between the two vowels that produces a simulacrum of the poetic “I”'s distress in the reader.

Nancy Vickers has written brilliantly about the ways in which Renaissance lyric, the poems of Petrarch and his imitators perform a sort of dismemberment of the female body, how in their blazons and ekphrases, their descriptions of the physical appearance of the beloved, their lines anatomize, “cut up” the limbs, the parts of women.25 Such an observation recalls the feminist critiques of contemporary advertising and pornography, which similarly dismember and commodify the parts of women's bodies. Such dismemberment produces not disorder but the control of anatomization. What is particularly fascinating about Sappho's poem is that here the woman herself sees the disorder in the body in love, sees herself objectified as a body in pieces, disjointed, a broken set of organs, limbs, bodily functions.

Whether or not the poem depicts envy or praise expressed as fear—both seem simultaneously possible—readers interested in psychoanalysis might see this poem as an ideal text to demonstrate the universal value of psychoanalytic theory. Such work would point to the universality of the human condition and to the capacity of psychoanalysis to describe and illuminate all human desire.26 Sappho's poem is an important example of a poetics based on recollection, the conscious mind recalling a moment of bodily alienation of a sort that might be thought to exemplify the Lacanian dialectic of imaginary and symbolic. Can we use the work of Lacan to describe the effects on Sappho of the sight of her lover? Lacan speaks, for example, in terms that might seem familiar to the reader of Sappho, of a body in pieces:

This fragmented body … usually manifests itself in dreams when the movement of the analysis encounters a certain level of aggressive disintegration in the individual. It then appears in the form of disjointed limbs, or of those organs presented in exoscopy, growing wings and taking up arms for intestinal persecutions—the very same that the visionary Hieronymus Bosch has fixed, for all time, in painting, in their ascent from the fifteenth century to the imaginary zenith of modern man.27

Although Sappho's fragment “31” seems beautifully to exemplify Lacan's description of the Boschian vision, what follows is an argument against the view that Sappho's catalog of broken body parts proves the universal descriptive value of Lacanian psychoanalysis. This poem, I argue, reveals not transcendent human nature, not universal human psychic structures, but rather historical difference, a moment in the constitution of the aristocratic self, perhaps even before the theorization of gender per se. The “I” that speaks and writes, the “I” that is produced in that moment, regards the past, a disordered, fragmented past, from a present in which the poem itself and the fiction of subjectivity represented in it are constituted against the backdrop of fragmentation. The “I” of the poem comes out of that fragmentation, is constructed from it. The sunodos, the junction, must be read historically, neither generalized to describe some absolute and general proposition of feminine composition, nor used to prove the universality of our postmodern ideas of split subjectivity.

I would argue instead for a historicist understanding of this poem, recalling Bruno Snell's pages on the Homeric body. He argues that the Homeric authors and audience understood the body as such not to exist, but rather to be an assembly of parts, of functions, of disparate organs loosely allied, commanded independently by gods and men. Snell says:

Of course the Homeric man had a body exactly like the later Greeks, but he did not know it qua body, but merely as the sum total of his limbs. This is another way of saying that the Homeric Greeks did not yet have a body in the modern sense of the word; body, sōma, is a later interpretation of what was originally comprehended as melē, or guia, limbs.”28

Snell makes a connection between this conception of the human form and its representation in early Greek art:

Not until the classical art of the fifth century do we find attempts to depict the body as an organic unity whose parts are mutually correlated. In the preceding period the body is a mere construct of independent parts variously put together.29

The tribal, collective, prepolitical world of the Homeric heroes represents the body, or rather what will become the body, as similar to its own social organization, a loose confederation, a tenuous grouping of parts.

Although Snell's work has been called into question by some, the arguments of such scholars as Robert Renehan, in his essay on sōma, do not seem to me to discredit Snell's point.30 I appreciate the objections made to the orthodoxy following Snell, who contended that the word sōma never refers to a living body. Furthermore, there are problems with seeing lyric poetry in relation to Homeric epic in such a way that we see only a Hegelian, nineteenth-century evolution, an inevitable progression, a Lévy-Bruhlian passage from myth to reason. I share many scholars' objections to these versions of historical inevitability. But I do not have the same difficulty with the notion that there is a difference, a historical difference, between Sappho and Homer and that their views of the body may differ. Snell's argument seems to me to be a particularly valuable intervention in the question of the historicity of the body.

Set against the background of this understanding of human beings' physical existence, Sappho's disordered, fragmented body takes on a different resonance than if it were to be understood only as figuring in the Lacanian imaginary. The subject, the “I” of archaic lyric, is generated in the earliest urban, that is, literally “political” setting, internal to the voice of a dominant aristocracy. According to Snell, these poems record the beginning of the historical evolution of selfhood, of individuality, the aristocratic origins of what will become the male citizens of the ancient polis, the city-state, and Michel Foucault's subject of philosophy in the Platonic tradition. Although I do not suggest that Sappho read Bruno Snell, or that she had a historical sense of distance from the Homeric past, Sappho's poem nonetheless recalls the relatively archaic view of the body represented for her in Homeric poetry. There is no historical consciousness for Sappho equal to Snell's in its formal grasp of a shift in consciousness between Homer's day and her own; rather, Sappho adopts here a traditional, conventional, epic description of the body, familiar to her and her audience from the traditional poetry, to express what appears to be a disintegration of her own body. If the relation of Sappho's description of her own physical distress to the earlier Homeric sense of the body may not be conscious for Sappho, it has definite consequences nonetheless. Sappho's view of eros lusimelēs, that love that disunites the only recently constituted body, suggests that eros returns that body to a past state, to an alliance of functions, a loose set of organic capacities; what she represents is a turning back from a tenuously held subjectivity, that new sense of the poet as an “I,” back to an archaic sense of identity.

Lacan's work on the relationship between the body in pieces and the ego, though not directly applicable to Sappho's poetic universe, might … shed light on the question of what we make of the fragments, literal fragments, of ancient poetry. Who are we, these supposed agents of integrity and coherence, who desire to mend that past? I find especially useful, when considering these texts, Lacan's way of thinking about the alternation between the fictional whole, the “I,” and the fragmentary past, as an ongoing dialectic; we are always conscious of the possibility of dismemberment, of the fragility of wholeness, of corporeal and psychic integrity, even as our identity is fashioned against the background of such dismemberment.

In approaching the Greeks in this way, fragmentation stands as a figure that both illuminates a contemporary relationship to the past and that recognizes in the Greeks themselves a certain contestation of figures of integrity and coherence. Such an approach might be seen to differ from a more traditional classicist drive for wholeness and integrity, recognition of origin and continuity, or from the need to fragment, to atomize, to render manageable and not-yet-interpretable the data we receive from antiquity.

It is crucial to understand that the pleasure Sappho's poem “31” affords us, in our positions as psychoanalytic subjects of the twentieth century, is not the same as that of the audience of Sappho's day. If Sappho's listeners heard an account of historical archaism, of dissolution back into undifferentiated collectivity, we may project a psychological state described by Lacan. And we recognize Sappho's distance from Homer, our distance from both. The richer reading of this poem would acknowledge all these dimensions, historical and contemporary, and would measure the distance between one pleasure and another. And this poem, in its evocation of distress, even of anguish, of the exaggerated pains of love, is a pleasure for us to read. The “I” as contemporary reader can appreciate Sappho's recollection of suffering because the poem has constructed coherence from disorder, reconstituted subjectivity out of a body in pieces. The pleasure of this reconstitution is what allows for readerly transference, to refer to a psychoanalytic model. If the male lover, who sits across from, enantios, vis-à-vis Sappho's object of desire, is caught in a specular, dyadic relationship to her, gazing at her, the voice of the poet has entered the domain of language, acknowledges the passage of time and the possibility of a linguistic recovery of her fragmented body. The reader's pleasure comes from an appreciation of the disintegration the poet describes, the undeniable pain of eros, of a disordering desire that shatters the tongue, that brings the “I” to a place near death, but also from the security of that “I” that speaks the poem, the voice that gazes retrospectively at the experience of fragmentation, and from it creates a crossroads, a poem, and a self. And there is further the historical dimension of our reading, a sense of distance from the fragments of Sappho's work, a sense of another distance, internal to the poem, in which the Homeric body serves as a figure for the lover. If, as Shoshana Felman argues, we are both analyst and analysand as we read, if therefore we experience both transference and countertransference, if we see ourselves as authority and as subject to the authority of the text, then such readings might take account of the contradictory drives for integrity and for atomization, for mastery of a disturbing past.31 The self constituted against a background of disorder can be a self of pleasure and authority that recognizes its construction of itself out of fragmentation, that acknowledges its own fictionality, its own historicity. And we as its readers can recognize our implication in its drama and our own situation in the late twentieth century, gazing at the fragments of the past, trying to work them into a story about ourselves, a story that enables action in the present, for the future. We can use the pleasures of that story, rethinking our relationship to the Greeks, to their privileged position in our history, countering the inherited vision of ancient society inhabited by disembodied, philosophical, male citizens.

I would argue for a historical materialist historicism, one that is not content merely to contemplate the past from the point of view of an autonomous subject in the present, who comes into contact with the collective past, but that rather engages with the past in order to generate some vision of historical difference. The ancient Greeks, and Sappho in particular, provide particularly suggestive material for historicist work, in part because we so often name the Greeks as our origin, in part because Sappho is in fact so radically different from us, even in such a “natural” domain as life in the body. And if Benjamin, in his vision of the aestheticizing, contemplative version of historicism, uses the image of the whore in historicism's bordello, feminism needs not only to resist such imagery but also to incorporate a materialist theory of history to see historical difference, to have a richer sense of possibility, to put into question our assumptions about the natural body.


  1. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York, 1969), 262.

  2. Fredric Jameson, “Marxism and Historicism,” in Syntax of History, vol. 2 of The Ideologies of Theory: Essays, 1971-1986 (Minneapolis, 1988), 157.

  3. On Thebes and Athens, see Froma Zeitlin, “Thebes: Theater of Self and Society in Athenian Drama,” in Nothing To Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, ed. John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin (Princeton, N.J., 1990), 130-67.

  4. The Iliad of Homer, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago, 1951), 6.146-50.

  5. On ostracism, see also Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Ambiguity and Reversal: On the Enigmatic Structure of Oedipus Rex,” trans. Page duBois, New Literary History 9:3 (1978): 475-501. “It [ostracism] was all organised so as to make it possible for the popular feeling that the Greeks called phthonos (a mixture of envy and religious distrust of anyone who rose too high or was too successful) to manifest itself in the most spontaneous and unanimous fashion (there had to be at least 6,000 voters) regardless of any rule of law or rational justification. The only things held against the ostracised man were the very superior qualities which had raised him above the common herd, and his exaggerated good luck which might call down the wrath of the gods upon the town” (488).

  6. Cf. sparganon, in plural “swaddling clothes,” “and so, in Trag., remembrances of one's childhood, tokens by which a person's extraction is discovered” (LSJ.). Presumably Oedipus' scarred ankles would be such tokens, Oedipus also of the house of Thebes.

  7. Euripides, The Bacchae, trans. William Arrowsmith, The Complete Greek Tragedies, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago, 1959), ll. 1124-42.

  8. Donald Preziosi, Rethinking Art History: Meditations on a Coy Science (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1989), 52.

  9. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols: or, How to Philosophise with the Hammer, trans. Anthony M. Ludovici (New York, 1964), 113.

  10. Willis Barnstone, trans., Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets (New York, 1988), fr. 31.

  11. David A. Campbell, Greek Lyric Poetry: A Selection of Early Greek Lyric, Elegiac and Iambic Poetry (Basingstoke and London, 1967), 44.

  12. Plato, Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, N.J., 1961), 497.

  13. See David A. Campbell, The Golden Lyre: The Themes of the Greek Lyric Poets (London, 1983), 13-14.

  14. “Longinus,” On the Sublime, in Aristotle, The Poetics, “Longinus,” On the Sublime, Demetrius, On Style (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1932), 10.3.

  15. For a valuable corrective, see André Lardinois, “Lesbian Sappho and Sappho of Lesbos,” in From Sappho to De Sade: Moments in the History of Sexuality, ed. Jan Bremmer (London and New York, 1989), 15-35.

  16. George Devereux, “The Nature of Sappho's Seizure in Fr. 31 as Evidence of Her Inversion,” Classical Quarterly 20 (1970): 17ff. For a response, see Miroslav Marcovich, “Sappho Fr. 31: Anxiety Attack or Love Declaration,” in Studies in Greek Poetry, Illinois Classical Studies Suppl. 1 (Atlanta, 1991), 29-46. Other more illuminating studies are Eva Stehle Stigers, “Sappho's Private World,” in Reflections of Women in Antiquity, ed. Helene P. Foley (New York, 1981), 45-61, and John J. Winkler, “Gardens of Nymphs: Public and Private in Sappho's Lyrics,” in ibid., 63-89.

  17. Thomas McEvilley, “Sappho, Fragment Thirty-One: The Face behind the Mask,” Phoenix 32 (1978): 14. “She is showing us the extreme disharmony which she must have felt inwardly on such occasions. She seems to be the first poet who has left us a record of what has since become a familiar situation: the poet as a sensitive soul suffering feelings of frustration and alienation from the problems of relating his or her work to conventional social realities. Needless to say, in this case the situation was aggravated by Sappho's homosexuality” (15). McEvilley's tragic homosexual, like the “tragic mulatto” or the tormented Romantic poet, seems a highly ideological figure.

  18. Charles Segal, “Eros and Incantation: Sappho and Oral Poetry,” Arethusa 7 (1974): 139-57.

  19. Jesper Svenbro, “Death by Writing: Sappho, the Poem, and the Reader,” in Phrasikleia: An Anthropology of Reading in Ancient Greece, trans. Janet Lloyd (1988; Ithaca, N.Y., 1993), 152.

  20. Leah Rissman, Love as War: Homeric Allusion in the Poetry of Sappho (Konigstein, 1983), 72.

  21. Ibid., 89.

  22. Anne Pippin Burnett shares this view, seeing the singer of fr. 31 as fearful, approaching someone who has aroused her desire. Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho (Cambridge, Mass., 1983), 219; see 230ff. for a useful bibliography of work on fr. 31.

  23. McEvilley, “Sappho, Fragment Thirty-One,” 16, 17, 18.

  24. Page, Sappho and Alcaeus; Campbell, Greek Lyric Poetry, 272.

  25. Nancy J. Vickers, “The Body Re-Membered: Petrarchan Lyrics and the Strategies of Description,” in Mimesis: From Mirror to Method, Augustine to Descartes, ed. J. D. Lyons and S. G. Nichols (Hanover, N.H., 1982), 100-109.

  26. For a psychoanalytic reading of a classical corpus, see Micaela Janan, When the Lamp Is Shattered: Desire and Narrative in Catullus (Carbondale, Ill., 1994).

  27. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York and London, 1977), 4-5.

  28. Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought, trans. T. G. Rosenmeyer (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), 8.

  29. Ibid., 6.

  30. Robert Renehan, “The Meaning of Sōma in Homer,” California Studies in Classical Antiquity 12 (1981), 269-82.

  31. “With respect to the text, the literary critic occupies thus at once the place of the psychoanalyst (in the relation of interpretation) and the place of the patient (in the relation of transference).” Shoshana Felman, “To Open the Question,” in Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading: Otherwise (Baltimore and London, 1982), 7.

Jane McIntosh Snyder (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15380

SOURCE: Snyder, Jane McIntosh. “Sappho's Challenge to the Homeric Inheritance” and “Sappho's Other Lyric Themes.” In Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho, pp. 63-77, 97-121. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

[In the following excerpts, Snyder examines how Sappho's lyric poetry recontextualizes the patriarchal and heterosexual world of the Homeric epic, also surveying several of her lesser-known poetic fragments.]

Despite obvious differences in scope, purpose, and tone, scholars have frequently noted the similarities between Homer's epics and Sappho's lyrics. Remarking on echoes in diction, phraseology, and themes, one critic inquires, “Why does [Sappho] use a pseudo-Homeric ‘mode of writing’?”1 He goes on to explain the parallels on the basis of social history, claiming that Sappho must have turned to the language of Homer's epics in an attempt to recover the lost heroic world of the old aristocracy, which was rapidly crumbling away during the period of political chaos in which she lived.

Here I would like to pose the question differently. Rather than viewing Sappho as a “pseudo-Homer,” I ask instead, “In what ways can Sappho's allusions to and echoes of Homer be seen as a challenge to the epic tradition?” In other words, to what extent does Sappho present herself as a new Homer? Can she not be read as modifying and supplanting the old epics rather than as clinging to them? May Sappho perhaps be presenting herself as a “consciously ‘antiheroic’ persona”?2 These seem particularly important questions in view of the poet's explicit statement in a programmatic song, fragment “16” V., where she emphatically declares—using Helen of Troy as an example to prove her point—that contrary to what “some” say, the most beautiful thing on earth is “what one loves.”

Sappho refashions the legendary Helen, the bane of all Greeks, as a positive figure in pursuit of her own erotic fulfillment, and in so doing transforms the Homeric material to suit her own purposes. In fragment “44” V., as we will see, she writes her own mini-epic, focusing on the vignette of the wedding reception at Troy for Hektor and his bride, Andromache. Although the subject matter of the piece is based on part of the overall narrative of the Iliad, it is really more reminiscent of the Odyssey in its attention to domestic detail and to a female-oriented world. Although the traditional cast of Trojan characters is present in the narrative—Hektor, Andromache, and Priam—and although the language of the poem is more heavily laden with Homeric epithets (“far-shooting” Apollo, and the like) than is usually the case, the piece is completely removed from the battle context that so constantly informs its Iliadic model. In fact the festive occasion described, in which the various roles of younger and older women are detailed, could perhaps almost be said to reflect Sappho's own society (if we knew what that was) as much as Homeric society. In other words, Sappho is producing her own new version of Homer—minus the warriors carrying on warfare—rather than merely reproducing epic themes in a lyric mode.

Seen in this light, Sappho's songs may be read as challenges to the patriarchal and heterosexually focused stories of earlier epic, particularly the Iliad. They reflect a strong female authorial self who offers the audience a new way of seeing the world, through a female-centered perspective. In challenging the old Homeric tradition in both subtle and obvious ways, Sappho presents a fresh alternative to Homer, not merely recycled epic. At the same time, she does not really reject Homer material so much as make use of it for her own purposes. Ironically, her ties with Homer have most typically interested (male) critics of her work and have in effect contributed to the view of her (especially in the nineteenth century) as a “mainstream” poet. The Homeric garb she chooses to wear from time to time has no doubt protected her from the fate of other women poets whose iconoclastic language has contributed to their marginal status.



Some say that the most beautiful thing
upon the black earth is an army of horsemen;
others, of infantry, still others, of ships;
but I say it is what one loves.
It is completely easy to make this
intelligible to everyone; for the woman
who far surpassed all mortals in beauty,
Helen, left her most brave husband
And sailed off to Troy, nor did she
remember at all her child
or her dear parents; but [the Cyprian]
led her away. …
[All of which] has now reminded me
of Anaktoria, who is not here.
Her lovely walk and the bright sparkle of her face
would rather look upon than
all the Lydian chariots
and full-armed infantry.
          [This may be the end of the poem.]

This song about beauty and desire is a striking example of Sappho's power to articulate a uniquely female, woman-centered definition of eros. Sappho's answer to the question “What is the most beautiful thing on earth?” is “what one loves,eratai (line 4), the verbal form of the noun eros. Although many have tried to deny that gender is a factor in this poem, arguing that Sappho is presenting her audience with universal truth, the appearance of the distinctly female Sappho figure in many of the songs that have already been discussed suggests that the “I” of this song must also be read as gendered.3 The military focus of the opening and closing of the fragment, so obviously male-centered in terms of the Homeric background, may then be seen as contrasted with the female singer's point of view, as I argue further below.


Scholars in recent years have devoted an extraordinary amount of energy to an analysis of the poem's logic and of the exact import of its chief rhetorical device—the so-called priamel. Derived from a mediaeval Latin word, the term priamel refers to a catalogue or list in which several items are presented in succession, followed by a concluding statement that usually asserts the primacy of one item or otherwise ties the list together in some kind of concluding assertion.4 An early example may be found in the Spartan poet Tyrtaios's definition of arete (“excellence,” literally, “manliness”). Writing probably during about the same period as Sappho (second half of the seventh century b.c.), Tyrtaios claims (fragment 9 Diehl) that he would not consider a man truly worthy of account just on the basis of fleet-footedness, or of his wrestling skills, or strength, or good looks, or wealth, or persuasive powers; rather, he says, true “excellence” consists of steadfastness in the front lines of battle. Tyrtaios's catalogue of virtues is thus capped by his own statement of what is of the greatest value as far as he is concerned.

Turning to Sappho's priamel, which occupies the opening stanza of fragment “16,” we see that she lists three groups of unspecified people (oi men, “some,” oi de, “others,” and oi de, “still others”) who have certain preferences involving, in turn, cavalry, infantry, and naval forces. The oi here is simply the definite article (“the,” as in the expression [h]oi polloi), and the particles men … de … de are used to mark a series of contrasting ideas. In the Greek, the first-person statement beginning ego de, “But I [say],” follows immediately after the statement of what these unspecified groups of persons are attempting to define, namely, “the most beautiful thing upon the black earth.” The use of the personal pronoun, ego (“I”), which carries emphatic force in a language such as Greek in which the personal endings are already contained within the verb forms themselves, marks a particularly strong contrast that is reinforced by the third occurrence of the particle de: some people say the cavalry is the most beautiful (kalliston) thing on the earth, others the infantry, others ships, but I [say] it is that which one loves/desires. (In the Greek, the verb going with “I” must be supplied on the basis of the earlier third-person form in line 2, phais' [“they say”].)

In what is clearly the opening stanza of the song (as both the papyrus source and the internal rhetorical structure of the fragment indicate), Sappho has boldly set forth a definition of beauty that is linked directly to eros and that prides itself on its alterity. The Sappho figure, or the female singer of the song, declares a different point of view, and not one that poses simply as an alternative to one other point of view; no—this point of view, like Tyrtaios', follows a list of views against which it is counterpoised. The single figure of the poet-singer stands against the numberless unnamed persons who make up the three unspecified groups of “somes” and “others.”

Perhaps because the form of this song is controlled—at least initially—by the rhetorical strategies of the priamel, critics have often sought in fragment “16” some kind of formal—even Aristotelian—logic.5 Scholars argue, for example, over whether the final alternative (“but I say”) is inclusive or exclusive; when the poet says that “whatever one loves” is the most beautiful thing on earth, does she mean that if you love ships or armies the most, then they are kalliston for you? Or does she posit her fourth definition of beauty as excluding mere things, like armies and ships? Does she mean to say, in using the verb eratai (line 4), normally applied to people rather than objects, that only human relationships qualify for the prize of “fairest”?


Perhaps the answers to such questions are not really very important to someone listening to this song, for the hearer's attention is immediately diverted in the next stanza to the singer's “proofs” of her generalization. I will examine these proofs (one mythological, one not) in detail below, but first it may be useful to look closely at exactly how the Sappho figure formulates her definition of beauty.

Although some translators render the fourth definition of the most beautiful thing on earth as “she whom one loves,” the Greek word is actually a pronoun (ken', or in Attic dialect, ekeino) that is neither masculine nor feminine in gender, but neuter, “that thing which one loves.”6 The fact that Sappho chooses a grammatically “neutral” expression does, of course, render the definition she offers more generalized, and certainly more open to multiple readings than if she had referred to “that man” or “that woman” whom one loves. There is a curious analogue here to modern gay discourse within a heterosexual context, in which a lesbian or gay speaker may render her or his language ungendered through the omission of all personal pronouns; in this way a man might recount events without overtly tipping off the audience that the trip last week to Bermuda, for example, was spent with another man. In the case of fragment “16,” Sappho seems to be taking some pains to cast her generalization about desire in broadly applicable terms. In the phrasing she uses, not only the subject (the one loving) but also the object (the thing loved) are left indefinite—“what one loves” rather than, for example, “she whom I-as-woman love.”

With stunning economy, the song lays forth its bold assertion in the time it takes to sing the opening stanza. The claim of the Sappho figure is immediately reasserted in the first line and a half of the next stanza by the further claim that “it is completely easy to make this intelligible to everyone.” This adjunct claim is marked by the assonance and verbal play in the opening words of lines 5 and 6, pagchu (“completely”) and panti (“everyone”), both from the root pan- (“all,” as in “pan-Hellenic”). Sappho could have gone directly from the priamel to its “proofs,” the examples of Helen and Anaktoria that follow, simply through the use of the particle gar (“for,” line 6), which marks an explanation of what has preceded. The presence of the additional claim further emphasizes the authority of the Sappho figure, the ego of the priamel. Not only can the poet assert her own iconoclastic definition of beauty, but she can also prove it—with ease—to any and all! This is not a poem of self-doubt.

A pair of proofs now follows the pair of claims. In a song about beauty and desire, what could be a more appropriate first example than the archetypal fairest of all women, Helen of Troy? The theme of the song—what is “most beautiful” (kalliston, line 3)—is echoed in the allusion to Helen's own beauty (kallos, line 7). Yet as the example unfolds we begin to see that this Helen is cast in the role of neither helpless victim nor evil betrayer. Rather than being portrayed as the face that launched a thousand ships, this Helen (albeit under the influence of Aphrodite) seems to be captain of her own ship. She leaves behind her noble husband (Menelaus, evidently not named in the song) and sails off—remembering neither child nor parents—in pursuit of what she loves, that is, the (unnamed) Paris. As Page duBois was the first to point out, in this version of Helen's story she is a subject of desire, not merely its object.7 Although she herself is beautiful, the emphasis in these lines is on her active seeking after what she regards as beautiful, that is, Paris. Sappho's Helen is not a passive victim but an active pursuer. Nor does Sappho's Helen seem to display the self-reproach evident in the Iliad, where even in the face of King Priam's kindly words toward her, as she recalls her own abandonment of home and child, she calls herself kunopis, “dog-faced” (Iliad 3.180).8 Although the gap in the fourth stanza prevents certainty, it appears that this Helen simply forgets her past and goes off to Troy, “led” by someone or something, perhaps Aphrodite, or perhaps the ship in which she sailed.9

Those critics who have sought a kind of linear logic in this example of the story of Helen have of course been disappointed, and they complain that Sappho's account of Helen—as the most beautiful woman on earth—seems unclear in its focus. If the myth is cited to show how Helen found her own kalliston (“most beautiful thing”) in her lover Paris, they say, why does Sappho begin the account with the allusion to Helen's own surpassing kallos (“beauty”)?10 In response we might argue that Helen provides the quintessential proof of the poet's thesis: even one who already possesses kallos within herself is still going to pursue what is kalliston to her—that which she loves. As in fragment “22” V., desire in Sappho has little to do with possession of anything.

Because of the gap at the beginning of stanza four, we cannot tell exactly how Sappho makes the transition from the mythological proof to the personal proof—that is, to a narrative that is part of the poet's own fictive world of the present rather than Homer's fictive world of the past. In any case, in line 15 the temporal adverb nun (“now”) seems to bring us firmly into the present moment as the poet begins to sing of Anaktoria, who is for some unspecified reason absent.


In contrast to Helen, who no longer remembers (oude … emnasthe) those once dear to her, the poet-singer does recall (onemnais', lines 15-16) her beloved, Anaktoria—and as a result of the telling of the myth of Helen. Given the connections between memory and desire that Sappho frequently makes, it is not surprising that the recollection of Anaktoria brings with it the desire, expressed in the first person, to behold her more than anything else in the world. The verb of desiring, boulomai, is here put into the optative mood of the Greek verb system, a mood that is itself often used to express a wish or some other conditional (as opposed to actual) form of action; along with the particle ke, the form bolloiman in line 17 (or in Attic Greek, bouloimen) conveys the notion “I would wish” rather than simply “I wish.” In effect, the mood of the verb here (impossible to render in English except through vague equivalents involving auxiliary verbs like “would”) renders the singer's statement a timeless one; she is not merely saying “I want to see Anaktoria now,” but rather “I would rather see Anaktoria” even if I could look instead upon every war-chariot in Lydia. It is a statement of preference that is true without regard to time, despite the setting of the example within the fictive present.

Before we look more closely at how the desire to gaze upon Anaktoria is articulated, what about her name itself? Commentators note that it is an aristocratic name, but this fact is not surprising given Sappho's own evidently aristocratic status.11 The name is related to the word anax (stem anakt-), meaning “lord” or “master.” In Homer's Iliad the word is frequently used to describe Agamemnon as the chief general of the Greeks, the anax andron (“lord of men,” as in Iliad 1.442). Curiously, then, the name that Sappho chooses for the “real-world” example to prove the thesis of the song has a kind of Homeric echo to it. The Homeric overtones of this most beautiful thing on earth, this “Maestra,” as it were (to render “Anaktoria” in Italian), link this example to the mythical exemplum of Helen with which the proofs began. The “real-world” example, both through its timeless reference and through its epic associations, takes on some of the same larger-than-life qualities as the story of Helen. Both stories, that of Helen's desire for Paris and that of the Sappho persona's desire for Anaktoria, prove the same point: whatever one loves is the most beautiful thing on earth.

A closer look at the language of desire in the song's fifth (and possibly final) stanza reveals several links both to the opening of the song and to the construction of desire elsewhere in Sappho's poetry. In the Greek for line 17, the verb of wanting, bolloiman, is immediately followed by the adjective eraton (“lovely”), which is from the same root as the verb eratai in the song's opening stanza. As we have already noted in connection with fragments “31” and “22” …, desire in Sappho's songs is often configured in connection with gazing upon the beloved woman. Here the speaker would wish to gaze upon—in particular—Anaktoria's “lovely walk” (eraton … bama) and the “bright sparkle of her face” (amaruchma lampron … prosopo). The emphasis is on the dynamic—rather than static—qualities of Anaktoria, on the effect she creates as she moves and on the sparkling aura that surrounds her face.12 As I argued in connection with fragment 22 (chapter 2), it is not the dress itself but the flow of the dress as it is worn by the beloved woman that elicits desire from the beholder.

Ironically, the language that Sappho chooses here to describe Anaktoria's face also suggests the military imagery with which the song opens and (probably) closes.13 Sappho's compatriot Alkaios describes weapons and armor as “bright” (lampron, fragments 383 V. and 357 V.), and in the Iliad (4.432) weapons “glitter” (elampe) on the Greek soldiers as they march toward battle against the Trojans. (The Greek words here are derived from the same Indo-European root that gives us “lamp” in English.) The way that Sappho describes the narrator's desire further strengthens the song's claim in revising the old Homeric values: it is not the flash of weaponry that the narrator would wish to behold. Sappho seems almost to say, “War and weapons may be beautiful to some, but not to me; for I am the new Homer, and I sing not of war but of eros and desire.”

As is the case with most of Sappho's more sensual songs, critics have sometimes tried to set fragment “16” within a strictly heterosexual context. The most amusing attempt has involved the explanation that Anaktoria is “not present” because she has gone off to marry a Lydian soldier—hence the military frame of reference in stanzas 1 and 5.14 Although this kind of approach cannot completely remove the element of desire on the part of the narrator, it certainly neutralizes it by adding the implication of rejection. We note that the song itself—at least what survives of it—makes no mention as to the reason for Anaktoria's absence, any more than fragments “94” and “96” offer an explanation as to the reason for the separation between lovers. It seems more to the point to concentrate on what is in the song than what is not; just as in fragment “31,” the focus is on the narrator's gaze (in this case, would-be gaze) upon the beloved woman. Here the image of the beloved woman, just as in fragment “96,” must be called to mind through memory, for she is not in fact present at the moment of the song. The military images surely have more significance than as mere props for some alleged biographical underpinning of the song. Rather, they provide the framework within which Sappho argues for a new set of values: the primacy of eros as the determining factor in defining the most beautiful thing on earth.

By concentrating all the alternative definitions in the realm of the military in stanza 1 (whether cavalry or infantry or naval forces) and by setting the example of Anaktoria in opposition to the Lydian forces in stanza 5, Sappho in effect creates an opposition between war and eros. The Sappho persona, although not identified by name as in the “Hymn to Aphrodite” and elsewhere, comes through clearly in the “I” of the narrator's voice, which is set against the anonymous “some” and “others” of the priamel. The “I” of the song confidently asserts that everyone can see the validity of the new values set forth here. The example of Helen appears at first to be traditional in its subject matter and in the technique of drawing on myth to prove a point, but in fact it offers a radical treatment of Helen's story in focusing on her subjectivity and her agency. Even more radically, the narrator of the poem jumps from myth into the narrative of the present—into the story of Anaktoria and the narrator's desire to gaze upon her. In this way, the narrator's desire, her eros, supplants the “masculine” way of seeing the world as a struggle for control through military might; the splendor that the Sappho figure celebrates is not of swords but of the beauty of a woman.



… of eros (hoped?)
For when I look upon you face to face,
[not even] Hermione [seems] such as
[nor is it unfitting] to liken you
to fair-haired Helen.
… for mortal women, but know this,
that by your … [you would free me]
of all my cares. …
… river banks …
… all night long. …

Like fragment “22,” found in the same Oxyrhynchus papyrus as this song, fragment “23” is composed in the four-line Sapphic stanza. The fragment opens with a reference to eros and proceeds in the next stanza to portray the narrator as being in much the same position as the man of the opening of fragment “31”—who sits opposite (enantios) a woman and hears her sweet laughter. Here the narrator is standing or sitting opposite (antion, line 3) the woman whose beauty she compares first to that of Hermione, the only child of Helen of Troy, and then to that of Helen herself.

The mention of eros in the first extant line of the fragment and the resemblance to the intimate proximity described in fragment “31” suggest an erotic context for this piece as well, but we cannot be sure exactly what shape the song took. However, the allusion to Helen is likely to have functioned less as a digression into old heroic tales of war and abduction and more as a way of illustrating the present moment of the lyric—the desire of the narrator for the woman who is at first compared to the daughter of the most beautiful woman in the world, and then to the most beautiful woman herself.

The reference to riverbanks (dewy riverbanks, according to the commonly accepted restoration of the partially missing adjective) is reminiscent of another short fragment (“95” V.) in which the lotus-covered dewy banks of the river Acheron in Hades are mentioned in connection with the narrator's desire (imeros, 95.11) to die. If this fragment about the likeness of a woman to Hermione and Helen is indeed erotic in nature, then the possible allusion to dying toward the end of the piece should perhaps be compared to the narrator's self-description in fragment “31” V., where the sensation of almost dying caps the list of the physical responses experienced by the singer as she gazes upon the woman whom she desires. Particularly in view of the apparent resemblance between the description of the narrator's proximity to the woman here and the opening scenario of fragment “31” V., we may not be too far wrong in imagining that the Hermione-Helen fragment began by mentioning the narrator's feelings inspired by eros, praised the beloved woman through the mythical comparisons, and went on to describe the narrator's own sensations resulting from the effects of the goddesslike woman on her.



Cyprus …
The herald came,
Idaeus … swift messenger
[who said]:
“… and of the rest of Asia … the fame is undying.
Hektor and his companions are bringing a quick-glancing girl
from holy Thebes and the river Plakia—
tender Andromache—in ships upon the salty
sea; many golden bracelets and purple garments
… many-colored adornments,
countless silver cups and ivory.”
So he spoke. Quickly [Hektor's] dear father leaped up;
the word went out over the broad-plained city to his friends.
At once the sons of Ilos yoked mules
to the well-wheeled chariots. The whole throng
of women and … of maidens …
But apart, the daughters of Priam …
and unmarried men yoked horses to the chariots,
and greatly …
… charioteers …
[Several verses are missing here.]
… like to the gods …
… holy …
set forth … to Ilium
and the sweet-melodied aulos [and
          kitharis] were mingled,
and the noise of castanets. … Then
          the maidens
sang a holy song; the divine echo
          reached the sky …
and everywhere along the road …
libation vessels …,
myrrh and cassia and frankincense
          were mingled.
But the women, as many as were older, cried out,
and all the men shouted a high-pitched lovely song,
calling upon Paean, the far-shooting and well-lyred;
they sang of Hektor and Andromache, like to the gods.

Fragment “44,” of which all or parts of thirty-four lines have been preserved in another Oxyrhynchus papyrus, describes the return of Hektor to Troy together with his new bride, Andromache, as well as the preparations of the Trojans to celebrate the arrival of the newlyweds. Leaving aside the complete “Hymn to Aphrodite,” this is the longest fragment of Sappho's poetry that we have. From the evidence in the papyrus in which the piece is preserved, we know that it was the last poem in Book 2 of the Alexandrian collection of Sappho's songs. Several writers of late antiquity (including Athenaeus, second century a.d.) also cite the song as they comment on particular details, thus doubly confirming Sappho's authorship.15

In form fragment “44” is unusual in that it was not written in stanzas but rather in a line-by-line arrangement, each line being in virtually identical rhythms. The meter is usually described as glyconic but with a dactylic expansion: xx/–ss–ss–ss–/s–. The dactylic element, a long syllable followed by two short syllables (–ss), is so named from the Greek word for finger, daktulos, representing one long element from the first to the second finger joint, followed by two short elements on either side of the joint nearest the fingertip. The long-short-short dactylic rhythms in this poem clearly echo, although they do not precisely duplicate, the dactylic hexameter in which both the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed. Thus even without the Trojan subject matter, the hearers of the song would most likely have been expecting something relating to epic.

The epic context would have been suggested as well by the several Homeric epithets and by the number of dialect forms in this song that are peculiar to the Homeric form of the Greek language, as opposed to the dialect spoken on Lesbos (Lesbian-Aeolic dialect). To give just one example, the word for “city” in line 12 takes the Homeric form ptolin, whereas in Sappho's usual dialect the word would have been pronounced polin (or, in the subject case, polis, from which the English word “political” derives).

Although it is hard to say how much of the song is missing, we may have the essential narrative elements more or less intact: the herald Idaeus's announcement of the impending arrival of Hektor and Andromache along with his description of the bridal trousseau; the reaction of Hektor's father, King Priam; the spread of the news throughout Troy and the consequent preparations on the part of the women, girls, and young men; and, finally, the scene of celebration at the end involving musical instruments, incense, and everyone singing the praises of the bride and groom.

We note that in the course of the narrative as we have it Hektor and Andromache still do not seem actually to have arrived in Troy. It is their impending arrival, and the busy preparations of everyone expecting it, that gives this fragment a certain breathless excitement. The Iliadic context of the war fought over Helen's abduction to Troy seems far from the scene. No weapons are mentioned, nor war-chariots, but only the satine of line 13, a special kind of woman's carriage not mentioned in Homer.

The self-referential quality of fragment “44” becomes obvious when we realize that in the absence of the actual narration of the arrival of the bride and groom (at least in the extant portion), the piece is essentially a song about singing.16 In fact the scene of singing at the end is so vividly presented that we almost sense the arrival of the subjects even though the extant narrative never actually says, “And then Hektor and Andromache disembarked and proceeded through Troy.” Even if the actual arrival was narrated in the gap following line 20, as seems probable, the piece may still have focused more on the reaction of the townspeople and on their celebratory preparations than on the heroic couple themselves.

As I suggested earlier, the attention in this song to domestic details is really more reminiscent of the Odyssey than of the Iliad, except perhaps for the scene of domestic tranquillity that is part of the description of the decoration on Achilles' new shield (Iliad 18.561-72). The herald's report of Andromache's gold bracelets and purple garments and many-colored (poikila) adornments, the music of the aulos (a double-reed instrument of the oboe family), lyre (if the supplement kitharis is accepted in line 24), and castanets, and the myrrh, cassia, and frankincense: all these details appeal to our senses of sight, sound, and smell, and evoke a world of beauty and harmony. The setting may be superficially Homeric, but Homer, or at least the Iliadic Homer, seems to have exited the scene. Instead of war and strife, we hear of finery and music, of joyful sounds to celebrate the union of the happy couple.


Scholars have wondered whether this song about an epic bride and groom might not have been composed to be sung at an actual wedding on Lesbos.17 While we have no way of knowing the answer to such a question for sure, it does seem relevant to point out that the Homeric subtext of fragment “44” suggests that such a function would have been unlikely.18 After all, once the war begins (after the narrative time frame of Sappho's lyric piece), Hektor is eventually killed by Achilles (Iliad Book 22), young Astyanax (son of Hektor and Andromache) is thrown from the walls of Troy, and Andromache herself is taken captive and subjected to the life of a slave, as she herself foretells at the close of the Iliad (24.725-45). These tragic outcomes, although not directly alluded to in Sappho's song about the beginning of their relationship, cannot help but color the listener's perception of the joyful celebrations in honor of the two epic figures. Even though Sappho chooses to focus her song on celebration and joyful beginnings and a sense of eager anticipation, thus creating a mini-epic that provides a respite from the usual Iliadic themes of war and suffering and death, the vignette she creates represents only an initial moment of the story that is all too familiar in its unhappy outcome. In fact it is the inevitability of misfortune that gives Sappho's lyric version a special poignancy, for we know that the sounds of joy echoing among the people of Troy will one day be replaced by sounds of lamentation after Hektor meets his doom at the hands of Achilles. For the moment of the song itself, however, Hektor and Andromache are ikeloi theois (line 21, “like to the gods”), a theme echoed in the final word of the song describing them as theoeikelois (literally, “godlike”).

If we consider this song without regard to its intended function (if any), we can turn our attention to the exquisitely colorful detail and the emphasis on women's roles that are characteristics of Sappho's other songs. The bride's dowry, for example, includes golden bracelets, purple robes, many-colored (poikila) adornments, and silver cups. The women and girls ride in mule-drawn carriages, whereas the young men are in horse-drawn chariots. The girls sing a holy song, while the older women (line 31) cry out and the men sing a song to Apollo, and everyone sings the praises of the bride and groom. Page is probably right in his conclusion that Sappho “is not at all concerned to portray a Homeric scene.”19 In addition to the lack of epic models for the type of scene she describes, the particular details such as the women's carriages (line 13), the castanets (line 25), and the myrrh, cassia, and frankincense (line 30) are not found anywhere in the Iliad or the Odyssey.

What are we to make of this un-Homeric scene drawn from the world of the Homeric heroes? Like fragment “16,” fragment “44” offers us an old myth in a new context. Just as the Sapphic Helen of fragment 16 provides a positive example of erotic self-fulfillment, so here the celebratory scene of joyful anticipation suggests what the union of Hektor and Andromache might have been: a long and happy marriage unmarred by the scars of death and destruction. The sensual details of color, sound, and scent describe a delightful scene that is a far cry from the battlefields of Troy.20 As I will suggest [elsewhere], the details in this song accord perfectly with the aesthetic ideal described elsewhere in Sappho's verses—a world in which delicate variegation (poikilia) is the hallmark of a beautiful and orderly microcosm. Here there is no need for heroic exploits, contests of strength, or battles of will, for none of these is critical to Sapphic eros.

It would be tempting to wonder—if we had more of Sappho's poetry on which to form a judgment—whether or not she tended to use Homeric and other traditional myths in the same way that the great choral lyric poets of the early fifth century did.21 Writers like Pindar of Thebes or Bacchylides of Keos routinely include allusions to or retellings of the old myths in their odes in order to illustrate some maxim or suggest a connection between the old story and the subject of the song at hand, usually with a moralizing slant. Sappho's contemporary Alkaios—although it is hard to be certain in view of the fragmentary nature of his songs—also seems to have used the old tales to make moral statements, as in the contrast he draws between the destruction wrought by Helen and the heroic offspring produced by Thetis, mother of Achilles (fragment “42” V.).22 I venture to hazard a guess that Sappho used the old myths as she saw fit to enhance her descriptions of her female-oriented world. The fragments of her songs suggest little concern with moral pronouncements. Instead, she freely adapts traditional material to suit her own purposes, whether to suggest an epic precedent for the primacy of eros as experienced by the archetypal woman, Helen, to compare female beauty to the legendary pulchritude of Hermione and Helen, or to narrate a scene of splendid nuptial celebration seemingly far removed from the epic context of the Trojan War.


Despite the unquestionable prominence of Aphrodite, Eros, and woman-centered passions in the songs she composed, Sappho's role as a lyric poet treated a wide range of other themes as well. The present [essay] provides an overview of most of the remaining fragments of any substance (i.e., more than three or four connected words) that have not been discussed earlier in this book in an attempt to illustrate what that range most likely was. If we were miraculously to discover a complete copy of the nine books of Sappho's lyrics, we would find songs of prayer, marriage songs, folk songs, festival songs, and no doubt a variety of other kinds of lyric musings on everything from the traditional Greek myths to events of daily life.

Although some of the shorter fragments discussed in this [essay] are preserved in tattered papyrus rolls, many of them come from quotations by ancient grammarians or commentators who wrote many centuries after Sappho's time and who were chiefly interested in some peculiarity of dialect or a metrical phenomenon illustrated by the words they chose to quote. Generally speaking, they provide little or no help as to the context of the words quoted. Short of grouping these fragments into five general categories, I have not attempted to supply any missing context. Tempting though it is to try to imagine in what sort of poem the phrase “the black sleep of night [covers] the eyes” (fragment “151” V.) might have occurred, for example, such speculative guesswork is perhaps not as productive as one's simple indulgence in the evocative nature of any fragment. Like the ruins of an ancient temple, these bits and pieces of song stand as hieroglyphic enigmas that stir the imagination without necessarily begging for actual reconstruction.23 Unlike the ruins of the Parthenon, however, these literary ruins are in no danger of collapse should we choose to let them simply stand as fragments of the original—in most cases no doubt unrecoverable—whole.


Not surprisingly, many of the shorter fragments take the same general shape as the “Hymn to Aphrodite,” that is, a prayer addressed to some deity or deities. We have already seen that several fragments open with an address to the Charites or to the Muses, and other deities called upon include Hera, the Nereids, Eos (Dawn), and perhaps Apollo and Artemis.24 The most substantial among these is the following prayer addressed to the Nereids (and Aphrodite, if, as is likely, the opening of the song has been correctly restored) for the safe return of the speaker's brother following an unspecified journey. We may assume that the poem's journey was by sea, for the daughters of Nereus are sea-goddesses who assist sailors, a role that the Cyprian Aphrodite (whose name reappears toward the end of the fragment), born from the sea, also took on:


O [Cyprian] and Nereids, grant
that my brother come hither unharmed
and that as many things as he wishes in his heart to come about
are all brought to pass,
And that he atones for all his former errors,
and is a joy to his [friends],
a [pain] to his enemies; but for us
let there be no misery.
May he wish to do honor to his sister
          … painful suffering …
… millet-seed … of the citizens …
… but you, Cyprian, setting aside …

Like the “Hymn to Aphrodite” and other songs that made up the opening book of the Alexandrian edition of Sappho's work, this prayer is composed in four-line Sapphic stanzas. Voigt and other scholars believe that what we have left is a skeletal version of the entire song, beginning with the opening address to Aphrodite and the Nereids in stanza one, and concluding with a repeated address to Aphrodite in stanza five. Traditionally, the poem has been read autobiographically in conjunction with the statements in the historian Herodotus (2.134 ff.) regarding Sappho's brother Charaxos. Herodotus reports that Charaxos went to Naucratis in Egypt, where he purchased the freedom of a famous courtesan named Rhodopis with whom he was enamored. When he got home, Herodotus continues, Sappho mocked him for his actions in one of her poems. Is fragment “5” that poem? If it is, is our understanding of the fragment likely to be helped much by the remark of a historian writing some one hundred and twenty-five years after Sappho's time?

Perhaps it is more to the point to examine the fragment—since we have a substantial portion of it left—in comparison with other ancient prayers for the safe return of someone from a journey at sea. Such a poem was known as a propemptikon, literally a “send-off” song in which the speaker pleads that a friend or relative will come home safely. If an example by the Roman poet Horace (65-8 b.c.), who was a great admirer and imitator of Sappho's poetry, is any indication, such a piece might use the allusion to the departed person's trip as a taking-off point for other themes as well. In Odes 1.3, Horace entreats Aphrodite and the twins Kastor and Pollux to grant a safe journey to Vergil on his way home to Italy from Athens. But after the first eight lines, the poem veers off into philosophical musings (for another thirty-two lines) on the audacity of human enterprise in seeking to conquer nature—as, for example, in Daedalus's use of wings for human flight.

In Sappho's song, although the gaps prevent us from knowing exactly what direction the poem took, it seems clear enough that the actual wish for the brother's safe return was accomplished within the two opening lines. The remaining eighteen lines seem to have enlarged on this wish by setting forth a program for various kinds of reciprocal actions: the speaker prays that the brother will accomplish whatever his heart (thumos) desires, but that he will also atone for past mistakes; in addition, according to the conventional Greek morality (along the lines of an eye for an eye), she hopes that he will be a “joy” (chara) to his friends and a pain to his enemies. The speaker prays further that no pain will come to themselves, and that the brother will somehow bring honor to his sister. The song thus focuses on the reciprocity of various relationships—between the speaker and the addressees, between them and the brother, between the brother and his friends (or enemies), and between the brother and the speaker herself. Like the “Hymn to Aphrodite,” the song emphasizes the bonds between human and divine—and, especially in this fragment, between one person and another.

Another, more broken fragment (also in Sapphic stanzas) has been closely linked by scholars to fragment “5,” for it appears to contain some of the same language for the notion of atonement, and it mentions a woman named Doricha, identified by the first-century a.d. historian Strabo (17.1.33) as the courtesan Rhodopis with whom Sappho's brother Charaxos was supposed to have fallen in love. Whether or not this is the case, like fragment “15,” this poem, too, seems to be addressed to Aphrodite:25


… blessed (goddess?) …
[May (s)he atone for] as many errors as
          (s)he made [before] …
Cypris, and may Doricha find you most harsh,
and may she not boast saying this,
how (s)he came a second time [to]
much-desired eros.

Aside from the mention of the feminine name Doricha, the gender of the subjects in this song is not apparent from what is left, but on the basis of Strabo's identification of Doricha with the courtesan Rhodopis, we may perhaps assume a heterosexual context. Evidently the speaker is praying that Aphrodite treat Doricha harshly and not give her assistance in matters of the heart—a plea exactly the opposite of the speaker's request for help in the “Hymn to Aphrodite.” In that song, Aphrodite is requested to assist, as she has done many times in the past, with the repetitive, cyclical, and reciprocal aspects of eros; here, on the contrary, the goddess is to see to it that the flow of eros comes to a dead halt. There is to be no second time.

Another prayer that has survived in skeletal form is fragment “17” V., a five-stanza song (in Sapphic stanzas) that is addressed to the goddess Hera:


Near to me, lady Hera,
[may your lovely form appear],
whom (famous) kings, the sons of Atreus,
When they had accomplished [many labors],
first at Ilium [and then at sea]
setting out to here, they were not able
[to complete the journey],
Until they [called upon] you and Zeus Antiaios
and the lovely [son] of Thuone.
But now kindly [come to my aid]
according to the custom of old.
Holy and beautiful …
maidens …
around …
… to be …
to come to …

Addressed to Zeus's consort Hera, this prayer reminds the goddess of her relationship with earlier Homeric entreaters, namely the Greek kings Agamemnon and Menelaus (the sons of Atreus). In the version told in Homer's Odyssey (3.130-83), the two brothers have quarreled and set out separately on the homeward trip after the Trojan War; only Menelaus stops at nearby Lesbos, where he prays to Zeus for guidance in choosing the best route home. In Sappho's account, however, if the supplement in line 3 is correct, both Menelaus and Agamemnon are present, and they pray not only to Zeus but also to Hera and to Dionysos (the son of Thuone, another name for Semele). In any case, it is clear that the allusion to the Homeric story is meant to serve as part of the “reminder” section of the prayer. …

The mere shreds of the final two stanzas of the song do not permit a reconstruction of what the request to Hera might have been, although the last word of the final line, “to come to” (if the supplement is correct), suggests a journey, perhaps a sea voyage like that of the sons of Atreus. Perhaps Hera is being asked to grant safe passage. Although the song mentions Hera within the context of a trinity of deities especially worshipped on Lesbos (Alkaios fragment 129 V. in all likelihood calls upon the same trinity), Hera is singled out for her especially close relationship to the singer. The goddess is evidently asked to make herself manifest in the singer's very presence—“Near to me.” The woman-centered nature of Sappho's poetry is evident even in her theology, for although gods are mentioned, it is the female deities who seem to occupy center stage.


I have … mentioned [elsewhere] … a few examples of fragments from Sappho's marriage songs (epithalamia), but here it is appropriate to discuss other examples in more detail. Some of these fragments seem to center either on the marriage ritual itself, in allusions to the song sung in honor of Hymen (the god of marriage) or on the appearance of the bridegroom. Here is the beginning of one such song, made familiar in the twentieth century through J. D. Salinger's borrowing of the opening words as the title for one of his long short stories (published in 1963):


Rise high the roof-beams!
Sing the Hymeneal!
Raise it high, O carpenter men!
Sing the Hymeneal!
The bridegroom enters, like to Ares,
by far bigger than a big man.

Some readers have seen an element of risqué humor in the allusion to the size of the bridegroom as “far bigger than a big man,” perhaps referring to his ithyphallic state of excitement.26 Similar humorous exaggeration is evident in the opening of another marriage song that makes fun of the groom's attendant, the doorkeeper:


[At the wedding]
the doorkeeper's feet are seven fathoms long,
and his sandals are made of five oxhides,
and ten shoemakers worked away to make them.

Another example in which the groom's appearance is alluded to opens with the following line:


To what, dear bridegroom, may I suitably liken you?
I liken you most to a slender sapling. …

The description of the groom in this fragment attributed to Sappho by Hephaestion (the second-century a.d. author of a handbook on meter) seems somewhat less than fully heroic, alluding as it may to Odysseus's likening of Nausikaa to the young shoot of a palm tree (Odyssey 6.163) and to Thetis's description of her son Achilles “shooting up like a tree” when he was a young child (Iliad 18.56). If there is any element of risqué humor here in the possibly phallic overtones of the image, the emphasis on slenderness again reduces the groom to less than heroic proportions.

While such instances of bantering raillery may have been a common feature of Sappho's hymeneals (as indeed they are in later Greek examples of the genre), other scraps of the wedding songs seem to emphasize the beauty of the bride or the poignancy of the impending loss of her girlhood status. Perhaps the most vivid example is the following fragment, which was evidently once part of a song in which the groom was likened to the hero Achilles. The meter is appropriately the dactylic hexameter of Homeric epic:


[the bride]
just like a sweet apple that ripens on the uppermost bough,
on the top of the topmost; but the apple-gatherers have forgotten it,
or rather, they haven't altogether forgotten it, but they could not reach it.

Here desire becomes on one level the reach for the unreachable.27 The young woman is like a beautiful, ripe red apple enjoying privileged access to the rays of the sun high up at the very top of the tree. The apple is perfect—but has only been able to achieve and maintain such a beautiful state because it was just out of the reach of the apple-pickers, who could not fulfill their desire to pluck the ripened fruit. At least within the context of the fragment itself, then, the bride is suspended in time at a moment of utter perfection.

The image of the apple, so high up among apple boughs such as those in Aphrodite's sacred precinct described in fragment “2,” almost makes us forget that the Achilles-like groom is indeed about to accomplish what the apple-pickers had wanted, but been unable, to do. Indeed, as far as the simile itself is concerned there is no Achilles; at this moment the red apple remains safely on its bough, and desire becomes perhaps not so much the reach for the unreachable as the contemplation of perfect beauty. Even the applepickers, though they could not reach the beautiful apple itself, held on to its image. Sappho makes a point of this in the correction of the original statement in line 2 to the effect that they “have forgotten” (lelathonto) the apple; no, she emends, they really have not “entirely forgotten” (eklelathonto) it, for, she implies, they can still see it in the mind's eye.

The enduring significance of the image of the perfect apple in this small fragment of Sappho's work has been well captured in the title of a book by the contemporary American poet Judy Grahn, The Highest Apple: Sappho and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition. In her view, the apple stands for “the centrality of women to themselves, to each other, and to their society. That apple remained, intact, safe from colonization and suppression, on the topmost branch, and in the fragmented history of a Lesbian poet and her underground descendants.”28

Another simile, one that has been attributed to Sappho by modern scholars, also seems to compare someone (possibly a bride) to the beauty of the natural world, in this instance to a mountain hyacinth:


[the bride?]
like a hyacinth in the mountains which the shepherd men
trample with their feet, but the purple flower [flying] on the ground. …

In this case, not enough of the context remains for us to guess what Sappho's hexameter lines (if indeed they are hers) might have said about the fate of the trampled hyacinth. It is only the resemblance (in meter and general structure) to fragment “105a,” the highest apple simile, that has led scholars to presume that these lines, too, were once part of a wedding song by Sappho.

Critics have generally further assumed that the trampled hyacinth may have functioned similarly to the “deflowering” imagery in a wedding song by the Roman poet Catullus (62.39-47), in which the chorus of young girls compare themselves to a wonderful hidden flower nourished by rain and sun, a flower that is about to be plucked and stained, thereby losing all desirability.29 While it is certainly possible that the flower in fragment “105b” functioned as an image of lost virginity (a common enough trope in classical literature), we could just as easily conjecture that it stood for resilience: the hyacinth has been stepped on and some of its blossoms lie on the ground, but after the shepherds have passed it by, its stem, nourished by the mountain air, regains its strength and rises again toward the sun to bloom once more. (If only the ancient grammarian who quoted the lines—without attribution—had quoted one or two more, we would have a better idea as to where the image led!) In other words, it is just possible that the image of the hyacinth, like the image of the perfect apple high up on the tree, performed in some way the role of celebrating a woman's beauty.

A fragment that clearly does belong to the genre of the wedding song, as the remarks of the ancient grammarian who preserved it indicate, is the following dialogue between a bride and her virginity:


Maidenhood, maidenhood, where have you gone and left me?
No more will I come back to you, no more will I come back.

The bantering tone of this exchange, with its repetition of the address (parthenia, parthenia) for mock-pathetic effect, may suggest a certain disdain on Sappho's part for the conventional notion of the “deflowering” of the bride. “Maidenhood” is something that simply departs, never to return again. It was for this nicety of expression—whereby the figure of speech in the question posed by the bride, who refers metaphorically to parthenia as a traveler, is picked up again in parthenia's reply—that the fragment was preserved for us by the ancient grammarian.30

Other fragments that can be connected with wedding songs are hardly more than scraps. An ancient commentator on Vergil, Servius, quotes a line from a poem that he says came from Sappho's book entitled Epithalamia, no doubt referring to the ninth book of the Alexandrian edition of her poetry, which contained the wedding songs excluded from the other books on the basis of meter:


Farewell, bride, farewell, honored bridegroom, many …

Similarly, Hephaestion quotes what is likely to have been the opening line of a wedding song:


May you fare well, bride, and may the bridegroom fare well, too.

The same Oxyrhynchus papyrus (1231) that has preserved several significant fragments of the Sapphic stanzas of the first book of Sappho's poems (including the previously discussed fragments “15,” “16,” “17,” “22,” “23,” and “24a”) also contains two rather more substantial, if mutilated, fragments of what appear to be epithalamia. These songs were the final two poems in Book 1 of the Alexandrian edition of Sappho's work. The incomplete state of the text leaves much open to guesswork in both cases:


For once you, too, [as] a child …
… come now, sing of these things …
… strive after … and from …
freely grant us charis [favor/grace].
For we are going to a wedding. And you, too,
[know?] this well, but as quickly as possible
send away the girls, may the gods have …
[there is no] road to great Olympus for mortals …


the night …
The girls …
all night long …
singing of your love for the
violet-bosomed bride.
But wake up and go [to find]
the unmarried youths of your own age.
Let us see as much sleep as
the clear-voiced [nightingale?].

The first of these songs (fragment “27” V.) seems to be addressed to someone, perhaps female (the gender is not apparent from the existing grammatical clues), who is bidden to carry out various instructions. In the first more-or-less extant stanza, we note the familiar association of singing with charis and its underlying implication of pleasurable exchange. The request for song seems somehow tied in to the context of a wedding, for the subsequent stanza includes in its opening phrase the conjuction gar (“for”), which serves to mark an explanation of what has just preceded. Too many gaps remain to allow the certainty of an explanation like that of one scholar, who argues that the song is addressed to Sappho's rival poet Andromeda; Andromeda, he thinks, is being asked to send back the maidens to Sappho so that they may join in public dance and song.31

The second example (fragment “30” V.), the one that concluded Book 1 of the Alexandrian edition, is almost as enigmatic. It appears to be addressed to the bridegroom, who is bidden to go off in search of his fellow bachelors. The song is again one about singing, in this case the all-night singing of the girls about the groom's love for the bride. In what Voigt takes to be the end of the piece, the singer implies further nocturnal celebrations, for she says that they will see as much sleep as some “clear-voiced” creature; the gap at the end of line 8 is usually filled in with ornis, “bird,” and the allusion is then assumed to be to the proverbially wakeful nightingale. Like the nightingale, the celebrants will forego sleep in favor of singing. The fragment leaves us with only a glimpse of how this book of Sapphic stanzas came to a close—the book that had begun with the powerful “Hymn to Aphrodite.” It seems unlikely that the Alexandrian editors, who chose to end Book 1 with two wedding songs, would have been so disparaging of their form and content as one modern editor, Denys Page. Page brands the fragments of the epithalamia as “trivial in subject and style.”32 While they may not have carried the emotional force of a song like the “Hymn to Aphrodite” certainly several of these fragments of wedding songs—particularly fragment 105a about the apple on the uppermost bough—suggest a poignant beauty that ought not to be so lightly dismissed.

One other papyrus scrap preserves the end of what could be an epithalamium but might also simply be another kind of song meant for nighttime performance, or at least alluding to such performance:


                    beautiful …
stirs up peaceful (waters) …
toil … the heart …
sits down …
But come, my dears,
… for day is near.

The speaker's address to o philai (literally, “O dear ones” [feminine gender]) makes clear that the participants in the nighttime ritual or festival (or whatever was described) are other women, who seem to be bidden to depart now that the sun is rising.


Another group of short fragments besides the wedding songs are those that contain folk motifs. The beginning two lines of one such poem are preserved for us again by Hephaestion, who reports that the song was in Book 7 of Sappho's collected works:


Sweet mother, I am not able to weave at my loom,
overwhelmed with desire for a youth because of tender Aphrodite.

Weaving was of course a standard occupation for women all over the Greek world, and in this song the narrator, presumably a girl or young woman, complains to her mother that overwhelming desire for a young man prevents her from carrying out her appointed task.33 Despite the filial, domestic quality of the setting, with the girl addressing her mother, the language of desire is strong: the girl claims that she is “overwhelmed” or “mastered” by desire (pothos), the same word that Sappho uses of sexual desire in fragments “22.”11 and “94.”23. Thus the opening of the song seems to contain the seeds of both innocence and grand passion at once.

A similar kind of folk element appears in the following fragment addressed to the evening star:


Hesperus, you bring all that the shining Dawn scattered,
you bring the sheep, you bring the goat, you bring the child back to its mother.

The evening star, described in a related fragment (fragment “104b” V.) as asteron panton o kallistos, “the most beautiful of all the stars,” is here lauded for its reunificatory powers; under its idyllic light, the flocks and the children all return home from the activities of the day.

A tantalizingly brief quotation from an ancient work on figures of speech preserves the following remarkably alliterative bit from one of Sappho's songs; the sentiment expressed seems to be based on a Greek proverb:


Neither the honey nor the bee for me

Although the context is unknown, the ancient commentators suggest that the proverb refers to the desire to avoid the bad things that inevitably come along with good things; to escape the bee-sting, one may have to give up the bees' honey as well. Might this sentiment have been part of a song about eros? We cannot really tell, but we can say that what little evidence remains indicates that folk motifs and proverbial material such as fragment “146” occupied a significant place in Sappho's repertoire of themes.


Another group of short fragments contains mythological figures. In these instances, the fragments are usually too brief to allow any reasonable guesses as to how the myth may have functioned vis-à-vis the major theme of the whole song. In one such song, for example, preserved in a quotation, Sappho describes Hermes as the wine-pourer for the rest of the gods:


There a mixing bowl of ambrosia had been mixed,
while Hermes, taking up the jug,
poured wine for the gods.
These all held their cups and made libations.
They prayed for all good things for the bridegroom.

Whether this description of a marriage on Olympus formed part of a wedding song, we cannot tell, despite the preservation of several lines of context. In other cases, we have little left beyond the name of a mythological figure, as in fragment “124” V. referring to the Muse Kalliope, or fragment “123” V. describing “golden-sandaled Dawn” (chrusopedilos Auos).

The second-century a.d. scholar Athenaeus preserves two possibly related fragments, the first of which clearly has to do with the story of Leda and the swan (the form taken on that occasion by Zeus), whose union according to some versions in Greek mythology produced two eggs, from which were hatched Kastor, Pollux, Klytemnestra, and Helen:


Indeed, they say that once Leda found
an egg, colored like a hyacinth, covered with …


whiter by far than an egg …

Athenaeus preserves another mythological reference in a fragment whose context is known only to the extent that he points out that even in his time free (as opposed to slave) women and girls use the term hetairai (literally, “companions”) in referring to each other, just as Sappho did in her line:


Leto and Niobe were very dear friends

Perhaps the fragment went on to describe the rift between the goddess Leto (mother of the twins Apollo and Artemis) and the Theban queen Niobe, who rashly boasted that as the mother of seven sons and seven daughters, she had been far more productive than Leto. As punishment, Apollo and Artemis struck down all of Niobe's children with their deadly arrows, and Niobe herself was transformed into a perpetually weeping mountain of stone, forever lamenting her dead offspring.

Hephaestion, in his handbook on meter, preserves what is probably the opening line of a song (in ionic meter) addresed to a woman named Eirana (the name occurs also in fragment “91” V.):


Why, Eirana, does the swallow, daughter of Pandion, [awaken?] me?

The verb in the question is missing, but the supplement “awaken” seems as likely as any. The myth referred to is the story of Philomela, whose brother-in-law, Tereus, raped her and then cut out her tongue to prevent her telling her sister Procne of his evil deeds. Philomela, however, cleverly wove the story into a tapestry, and when Procne understood what had happened, the two sisters took revenge on Tereus by serving him the flesh of his own son, Itys, for dinner. In the end, all were transformed into birds—Philomela into a swallow, Procne into a nightingale, and Tereus into a pursuing hawk. (In Latin and mediaeval literature, the birds with which the two sisters are identified are sometimes reversed.)

In fragment “135,” we note that Philomela (identified as “daughter of Pandion”) is already transformed into the wordless swallow, who can communicate only through inarticulate musical sound. Sappho's Philomela-swallow seems even further removed from articulate expression than the Philomela of a lost play by Sophocles (called Tereus), in which he referred to her use of “the voice of the shuttle.”34 Unfortunately, however, since so little of Sappho's song remains, we cannot explore further the possibility raised by Patricia Klindienst Joplin that the poet may have given us here “an ominous sign of what threatens the woman's voiced existence in culture.”35 Exactly how the Philomela-swallow functioned in the rest of the song we really cannot tell, but it is certainly tempting to note the irony of the parallels between Philomela's tapestry and the shreds of Sappho's own work, the majority of which must now be read through signs and traces.

One last fragment dealing with mythological figures is more substantial than many, but it cannot be assigned to Sappho with absolute certainty. Although the editors who first published the fragment thought that it was perhaps by Alkaios, Voigt and others attribute the piece to Sappho. Treu, for example, notes the reference in section (b) of the fragment to the Muses and to the Charites, so characteristic of Sappho's verse:36



[to golden-haired Phoibos], whom the daughter of Koios (Leto) bore
after she had slept with the great-named son of Cronos.
[But Artemis] swore a great oath [of the gods]:
[By your] head, always I will be a virgin
          … upon the tops of the mountains …
          … grant me this favor.
The father of the blessed gods nodded assent.
The gods [called her] far-shooting Huntress,
a great name.
                    Eros never draws near to her. …


The splendid [gifts?] of the Muses …
makes … and of the Charites
slender. …
not to forget the wrath …
mortals …

How the story of Apollo and Artemis was tied into the remainder of the song must remain a mystery, but perhaps they were somehow linked to the Muses and the Graces (Charites) as inspirers of song. Artemis is mentioned by name in one other fragment of Sappho's (fragment “84” V.), which is otherwise almost totally unintelligible, and Apollo is referred to in fragment “44.”33 V. in his roles as both hunter and musician. Neither deity seems to have occupied the place of central importance in Sappho's poetry, which as we have seen was unquestionably held by Aphrodite.


We come finally to a small group of fragments that seem to treat a variety of subjects. The most controversial of these is a short papyrus fragment (P. Oxy. 2291, col. I.1-9) that Voigt prefers to assign to Alkaios. Others assign it to Sappho, sometimes with cautionary notes to the effect that the poem may in fact be by Alkaios.37 The fragment is badly mutilated but does clearly contain at least one, if not two, references to the sons of Polyanax (“Much-Ruler”), a name that recurs in the following punning line preserved for us in a quotation from Sappho:


I'm overjoyed to say farewell to you,
          Miss Overlord.

In addition to the repetition of the “p” sounds, the pun on polla (“much”) and Polu-anaktida (“child of Mr. Much-Ruler”) produces a sarcastic tone that occurs occasionally among Sappho's fragments.38 In the papyrus fragment in question, however, the allusions to the house of Polyanax occur in far more obscure contexts, quite possibly within two separate poems:



After a little …
… the son(s) of Polyanax …
to strum on the strings. …
receiving the dildo(?) …
… kindly
it quivers. …
                                        [possibly the end of this poem]


[possibly the beginning of a new poem]
O child of (Leto) and Zeus,
come …
leaving wooded [Gryneia?]
… to the oracle
sing …
… sister
show (?) … again … the sons of Polyanax …
I want to expose the greedy [man?] …

The chief reason that these papyrus scraps have attracted so much scholarly attention, despite their wretched state of preservation, is the possible reference in line 5 of part (a) to the word olisbos, known from Greek comedy (e.g., Aristophanes, Lysistrata 109) to be a leather phallus, or dildo. To those eagerly seeking information about ancient lesbian sexual practices, however, it must be pointed out that even if these fragments could be definitely assigned to Sappho rather than Alkaios, the occurrence of the word olisbos here is far from certain; every letter of olisb- in line 5 is printed in the Greek editions with a dot underneath, a convention used by editors of papyri to indicate the uncertainty of decipherment. The Sapphic dildo may be a figment of papyrological imagination—and if so, the question then arises as to why scholars have been so eager to find it in an almost illegible fragment of dubious authorship and uncertain context. The elements of scandal and masquerade in the notion of the Sapphic dildo are worth exploring further (“Woman Poet Wears Fake Penis!”), but I will leave that project aside for now. In any case, we certainly cannot accept Giangrande's glib conclusion that this fragment “leaves us in no doubt as to what Sappho and her companions were up to.”39

Several of the shorter fragments offer just enough intelligibility to enable us to admire the vividness of the Sapphic imagery while at the same time savoring the multiple range of possibilities of context that each might have come from. Here are four examples that refer in one way or another to the tender, flowerlike qualities of a girl or young woman; had we more context, we might well find that these songs would illustrate some of the qualities of Sapphic habrosune.40 The first of these is the most famous, for many readers have interpreted it as an autobiographical reference on Sappho's part to her daughter Kleis; others, drawing on the analogy of a male homosexual context, see Sappho's description of Kleis (who is referred to as a pais, “child,” “boy”) as crotic rather than familial:41


I have a child whose beauty
resembles golden flowers: beloved Kleis,
whom [I would not exchange]
either for all of Lydia or a lovely …


Toward you, beautiful women, my thoughts
are not changeable


[I saw] an exceedingly tender girl plucking flowers


… [a woman]
sleeping on the bosom of a tender companion [hetaira] …

Another vivid but tantalizingly incomplete fragment, whose metrical peculiarities perhaps indicate less than precise quotation on the part of the preserver (Athenaeus), seems to describe the opposite of the aesthetic ideals of charis, habrosune, and poikilia. Here the narrator appears to be rebuking someone (named Andromeda, according to Athenaeus) for succumbing to the charms of a hayseed, a country-bumpkin:


What bumpkin girl charms [your] mind …
wearing her bumpkin dress …
not knowing how to draw her rags over her ankles?

The insulting overtones of agroïotis are suggested by a fragment from Alkaios, a relatively lengthy piece complaining of the deprivations of life in exile away from the center of the action, which in Alkaios's view consists of the politics of the assembly and the council. The narrator of the song (Alkaios fragment 130b V.) complains, “I in my wretchedness live the life of a bumpkin's lot, while I long to hear the assembly being summoned.” After complaining further of living among the “wolf-thickets” in the middle of nowhere, the narrator provides this curious example of what it means to be away from the urban activities of the male aristocracy: he keeps out of trouble by going to watch a beauty contest of the women of Lesbos!


I survive and keep my feet out of trouble,
where the women of Lesbos with their trailing robes
go up and down as they are being judged for beauty,
while all around there rings the marvelous echo
of the women's sacred cries each year.

Ironically, the Alkaios-narrator illustrates the enforced rustic alienation from the urban political process of the male aristocracy with a description of his own “feminization” at what appears to be an annual religious ritual for women, which, according to various ancient commentators, took place at the precinct of the goddess Hera.42 No doubt if Sappho alluded to this beauty contest in her songs, it would have been in quite a different context.43

Four brief fragments preserved in quotation present puzzles as to what their original context might have been. All are in the form of the first-person statements so characteristic of Sappho's poetry; whether any of these songs featured the named Sappho persona that we have observed in the case of longer pieces such as the “Hymn to Aphrodite” or fragment “94” V., we cannot tell:


I do not know what to do; my mind is split


I do not think that I will touch the sky with my two arms(?)


But since you are our friend, seek a younger bed.
For I would not dare to live with you, since I am older.


But I am not someone resentful in
my feelings; I have a gentle heart.

A fuller representation of Sappho's lyrics would surely reveal more songs that, like the following fragment, allude self-consciously to the art of song:


Come now, divine lyre, speak to me,
and sounding forth be [my companion?] …

Preserved (perhaps somewhat inaccurately) through quotation in a later Greek writer named Hermogenes, the lines were cited as an example of what we would call pathetic fallacy, or the attribution of feelings and the the power of judgment to inanimate objects. Evidently, according to Hermogenes, the poem went on to represent the voice of the tortoise-shell lyre actually responding to the poet's apostrophe. We have noted earlier Sappho's fondness for dialogue embedded in her lyrics, as in the “Hymn to Aphrodite” (between the Sappho-narrator and Aphrodite) and in fragment “94” V (between the Sappho-narrator and the departing woman) and fragment “114” V. (between a bride and her virginity). This song addressed to the speaking lyre may have been yet another example of Sappho's enlargement of the lyric scope through the introduction of multiple “voices” within a given poem.

Another short fragment, the text and meter of which are uncertain, seems to refer to “those who serve the Muses,” possibly poets:


For it is not right for there to be lamentation
in the house of those who serve the Muses.
That would not be suitable for us.

As we have already noted, Sappho frequently opens a song with an address to the Muses, either in conjunction with the Charites or independently, as in the following beginning of a poem preserved in a quotation in Hephaestion's treatise:


Hither again, O Muses, leaving your golden [house] …

Three other brief fragments also seem to have to do with the power of song, although the lack of surrounding context makes certainty impossible. In one (in a glyconic meter) Sappho is quoted as praising a young woman (parthenon, literally “virgin,” or at least an unmarried woman) for her “wisdom” or “skill” (sophia), which might be taken to be poetic skill:


I do not think there will be at any time
a woman who looks on the light of the sun
with wisdom such as yours

Elsewhere, in a two-word quotation, Sappho describes someone as a parthenon aduphonon (“sweet-voiced woman,” fragment “153” V.), and a papyrus scrap preserves bits of a poem that mentions someone named Mika, a reference to the women of the family of Penthilus (one of the aristocratic Mytilenean families alluded to as well in the poetry of Alkaios), and a “sweet song”:44


Mika …
… but I will not allow you …
… you preferred the friendship of the Penthilidae
… o mischievous one … our …
… some sweet song …
… gentle-voiced …
… sweet-sounding [breezes?]
… covered with dew …

If only we had another papyrus copy of this poem that was torn in different places than in this copy, we might have a better idea of the context of these allusions to song. Those who view Sappho as an official music teacher of young women would regard the fragment as referring to a rival “school,” to which Mika has decamped and in so doing has become the object of Sappho's rebuke for her desertion. Of course the fragment may also be interpreted as alluding simply to rival poets or to a rival aristocratic family or to a fiction thereof, without reference to any kind of institutionalized practice.

Another short fragment (again preserved via quotation) seems to promote a “nationalist” concept of the singers of Sappho's homeland. The line is quoted as an example of Sappho's comparison of someone's superior qualities, which surpass the qualities of others by as much as Lesbian singers surpass all other singers:


… superior, just as when a Lesbian
          singer [outdoes] foreign ones …

Aoidos (“singer”) is the Homeric word for “bard,” a professional singer who (like Phemios and Demodokos in the Odyssey) serves as a court musician and can render the latest song for the entertainment of the assembled guests. Here Sappho seems to be claiming a special status for the post-Homeric tradition of singers of which she was a part, and of which we now know so little beyond the scraps of songs written by Sappho herself and by her compatriot Alkaios. “We are the best,” she seems to say.

I end this [essay] with a beautiful short fragment whose uncertain authorship highlights the tentativeness of nearly everything that can be said about Sappho's poetry. The piece is quoted as a metrical example by Hephaestion, who does not mention the author's name. Since he usually quotes opening lines, we probably have here the beginning of the song. While some modern scholars have rejected the Renaissance attribution of it to Sappho (notably Wilamowitz as well as Lobel and Page), Voigt includes it along with the one complete poem and the two hundred or so fragments of Sappho's work:45


The moon has set,
and the Pleiades. The night
is at its midpoint, the moment passes,
and I sleep alone.(46)

One of the arguments for Sapphic authorship is that the fragment seems to be faintly echoed in connection with Sappho in both Horace (Satires 1.5.82-83) and Ovid (Heroides 15.155-56), although not closely enough in either case to be conclusive. Certainly the piece has a Sapphic ring to it: the description of the natural setting, the allusion to two female-centered celestial phenomena, namely the moon (Selene, or in Sappho's dialect, Selanna) and the Pleiades (seven sisters transformed into the constellation), a dramatic sense of time, and, finally, an implicitly erotic tone centered around the song's narrator, the ego of the final extant line. The emphasis on the solitary state of the singer implies that she had perhaps hoped it would be otherwise. It is late at night, for the moon has set, and perhaps it is a cold winter's night to boot—if the reference to the setting of the Pleiades alludes not just to their nightly setting but also to their cosmical setting at the end of the sailing season, in November. However we interpret ora at the end of line 3 (“moment,” “hour,” “season,” etc.), the song seems to capture the feeling that tempus fugit. The sky turns inexorably onward as the solitary narrator watches. Did the narrator go on to describe her desire for an absent woman? Was this song composed by Sappho, or only by someone imitating Sappho's images and dialect? Like so many questions about the lyrics of this “tenth Muse” of the ancient world, these must remain open ones. But open questions lead to openings, and … the openings suggested by the remnants of Sappho's work continue to inspire women writers twenty-six centuries after Sappho's lifetime.


  1. Jesper Svenbro, “Sappho and Diomedes: Some Notes on Sappho 1 LP and the Epic,” Museum Philologum Londieniense 1 (1975) 37-49, esp. p. 46. The question of the exact relationship between epic and lyric has been a matter of considerable scholarly debate; see, for example, J. T. Hooker, The Language and Text of the Lesbian Poets (Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft, 1977), who argues that Sappho's poetry draws independently from the same source as epic.

  2. Deborah Boedeker, “Sappho and Acheron,” in Arktouros: Hellenic Studies Presented to Bernard M. W. Knox, edited by G. W. Bowersock, Walter Burkert, and Michael C. J. Putnam, p. 52 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1979).

  3. For an opposing view, see George L. Koniaris, “On Sappho, Fr. 16 (L.P.),” Hermes 95 (1967): 257-68, esp. p. 263: “That this ἔγω [ego, “I”] is physically speaking a woman we all understand, but I think that it is absolutely unwarranted to claim that Sappho, when she writes ἔγω, means to say ‘I being a woman.’” Garry Wills, “The Sapphic ‘Umwertung aller Werte,’” American Journal of Philology 88 (1967): 434-42, argues along similar lines: “She does not contrast woman's world with man's, as many think” (p. 442).

  4. See William H. Race, The Classical Priamel from Homer to Boethius, Mnemosyne suppl. 74 (Leiden: Brill, 1982).

  5. For a recent modification of the approach to the poem through logical principles, see the application of semiotic narrative theory offered by Claude Calame, “Sappho et Helene: Le Mythe comme argumentation narrative et parabolique” in Parole, Figure, Parabole, ed. Jean Delorme, pp. 209-29 (Lyon: Presses Universitaires de Lyon, 1987).

  6. See, for example, Richmond Lattimore, trans., Greek Lyrics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 40; he renders line 4 as “but I say / she whom one loves best / is the loveliest.” The most recent translations aim for a more literal rendering of the neutrality of the Greek text; compare Diane J. Rayor, trans., Sappho's Lyre (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 55 (“I say it is whatever one loves”), and Jim Powell, trans., Sappho: A Garland: The Poems and Fragments of Sappho (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993), p. 28 (“but I say it's what- / ever you love best”).

  7. Page duBois, “Sappho and Helen,” Arethusa 11 (1978): 89-99. See also her chapter on Helen in Sappho Is Burning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 98-126. As Joseph A. Dane, “Sappho Fr. 16: An Analysis,” Eos 69 (1981): 185-92, observes, Helen's status as lover and beloved renders her a complex, multivocal figure whom Sappho uses to good advantage.

  8. Might Sappho's choice of Helen as an illustrative example in this song be colored by the Homeric description of what she left behind as a omelikien erateinen (Iliad 3.175), that is, a “lovely” (the adjective deriving from the same root as eros) group of age-mates? Evidently, despite their loveliness, the eros that they inspired in Helen was not as great as that inspired by Paris. I am indebted to Judith Hallett for calling the details of this description to my attention.

  9. But see John Winkler, The Contraints of Desire (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 178, who proposes that the missing subject of the verb “led” might have been Helen herself.

  10. See Denys Page, Sappho and Alcaeus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), p. 53. The comment of Synnøve des Bouvrie Thorsen, “The Interpretation of Sappho's Fragment 16 L.-P.,” Symbolae Osloenses 53 (1978): 5-23, regarding the opening stanza of fr. 16, would seem to apply to the whole poem: “It cannot be judged by logical reasoning” (p. 9). John Winkler, “Gardens of Nymphs: Public and Private in Sappho's Lyrics,” Women's Studies 8 (1981): 65-91, esp. p. 74, goes so far as to view the poem as a parody of logical argumentation. For an opposing point of view, see Glen W. Most, “Sappho Fr. 16.6-7 L-P,” Classical Quarterly 31 (1981): 11-17, who applies a passage from Aristotle's Rhetoric to his analysis of the poem.

  11. On the aristocratic name, see Enzo Degani and Gabriele Burzacchini, eds., Lirici Greci (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1977), p. 136.

  12. See Christopher Brown, “Anactoria and the Kαρίτων ἀμαρύγματα: Sappho fr. 16, 18 Voigt,” Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica 32 (1989): 7-15, who points out (p. 8) that amaruchma refers to a “flashing” or “sparkling,” particularly with reference to the eyes. See also Eleanor Irwin, Colour Terms in Greek Poetry (Toronto: Hakkert, 1974), p. 216, for this and other Greek terms that suggest both brightness and movement.

  13. Gregson Davis, Polyhymnia: The Rhetoric of Horatian Lyric Discourse (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 34-35, cites Sappho fr. 16 V. as an “elegant example of figurative assimilation,” whereby Sappho incorporates the language of martial spectacles into her description of Anaktoria.

  14. The most recent version of this theory may be found in Brown, “Anactoria,” 14; see also Carl Theander, “Studia Sapphica,” Eranos 32 (1934): 57-85.

  15. Denys Page, “The Authorship of Sappho β2 (Lobel),” Classical Quarterly 30 (1936): 10-15, disputes Wilamowitz's 1914 attempt to deny Sappho's authorship.

  16. See Herman Fränkel, Early Greek Poetry and Philosophy, trans. Moses Hadas and James Willis (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973), p. 174: “The song of Hector and Andromache ends with an account of a song on Hector and Andromache; it leads into itself in a circle.”

  17. See, for example, Hermann Fränkel, Wege und Formen frühgriechischen Denkens (Munich: Beck, 1960), 41.

  18. See Johannes T. Kakridis, “Zu Sappho 44 LP,” Wiener Studien 79 (1966): 21-26, esp. p. 26.

  19. Page, Sappho and Alcaeus, p. 71.

  20. On the whole, modern critics have devoted relatively little attention to fr. 44, which is generally viewed as an aberrant poem within the corpus of Sappho's fragments. Here, for example, is the opinion of Richard Jenkyns, Three Classical Poets: Sappho, Catullus, and Juvenal (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 61: “So under the guise of mythological narrative she is really giving her audience a vivid picture of contemporary life. In any case, it cannot be said that this fragment adds to her reputation. Quaint, lively and fluent, it is the work of an able poet; but there is no subtlety in it, and no inspiration.” For a counterargument to Jenkyns, see Lawrence P. Schrenk, “Sappho Frag. 44 and the ‘Iliad’,” Hermes 122 (1994): 144-50; he argues that allusions to Iliad 22.466-72 (Andromache's wedding to Hektor) and to Iliad 24.699-804 (Hektor's funeral) render the poem another example of Sappho's portrayal of love as glukupikron, “bittersweet.”

  21. For arguments against the view of Hermann Fränkel regarding what he saw as choral feaures of Sappho fr. 16 V., see E. M. Stern, “Sappho Fr. 16 L.P.: Zur Strukturellen Einheit ihrer Lyrik,” Mnemosyne 23 (1970): 348-61.

  22. See William H. Race, “Sappho, Fr. 16 L.-P. and Alkaios, Fr. 42 L.-P.: Romantic and Classical Strains in Lesbian Lyric,” Classical Journal 85 (1989): 16-33; he views Sappho's concern as being with individuals, while Alkaios focuses more on the fate of a whole people and their city.

  23. For an intriguing (if sometimes baffling) discussion of the preeminence of the fragment over the whole in modern aesthetic theory in the light of the work of Walter Benjamin, see Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Sage, 1994), pp. 69-73. See also Page duBois, Sappho Is Burning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 31-54 (“The Aesthetics of the Fragment”); as she points out (p. 39), “We can accept the fragmentary for what it is, appreciate the few words of Sappho that we have inherited, rather than setting them, for example, against the fuller, more adequate corpus of Pindar, and naming him the greater poet.”

  24. The fragment in which Apollo and Artemis are addressed is assigned by some scholars to Alkaios (as Alkaios fr. 303A by Voigt) and by others to Sappho (as Sappho fr. 99 by Lobel-Page); see discussion of this so-called olisbos fragment at the end of the present chapter.

  25. Some scholars also attempt to connect fr. 3 V. with Charaxos, but it is so fragmentary that little sense can be made of it. In addition, fr. 7 V. appears to contain mention of the name Doricha.

  26. See G. S. Kirk, “A Fragment of Sappho Reinterpreted,” Classical Quarterly 13 (1963): 51-52, who was the first to propose that the hyperbole involves the notion that the bridegroom is “fantastically ithyphallic” (p. 51).

  27. See Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 26.

  28. Judy Grahn, The Highest Apple: Sappho and the Lesbian Poetic Tradition (San Franciso: Spinsters, Ink, 1985), p. 11. Despite some minor factual errors (e.g., regarding the mode of preservation of Sappho's one complete song, p. 10), this is a useful study of nine modern poets in the Sapphic tradition: Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, H.D., Gertrude Stein, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Olga Broumas, Paula Gunn Allen, and Judy Grahn.

  29. See Kenneth Quinn, ed., Catullus: The Poems (London: MacMillan, 1970), p. 280: “There is almost certainly an allusion to a poem attributed to Sappho of which a fragment survives.”

  30. A similar treatment may have occurred in fr. 107 V., er' eti parthenias epiballomai? (“Indeed, do I still desire virginity?”), but the fragment is too short to be sure.

  31. Carl Theander, “Atthis et Andromeda,” Eranos 44 (1946): 62-67. He reads es choron (“to the dance”) in place of es gamon (“to a wedding”).

  32. Denys Page, Sappho and Alcaeus (Oxford: Clarendon Press), p. 126.

  33. On the importance of weaving as a female occupation in Greek society, see Robert James Forbes, “Fabrics and Weavers,” in Studies in Ancient Technology (Leiden: Brill, 1955—), vol. 4, pp. 220-51; Jane McIntosh Snyder, “The Web of Song: Weaving Imagery in Homer and the Lyric Poets,” Classical Journal 76 (1981): 193-96; and Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women's Work, the First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times (New York: Norton, 1994).

  34. The phrase is quoted by Aristotle, Poetics 1454b. 36-37.

  35. Patricia Klindienst Joplin, “Epilogue: Philomela's Loom,” in Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century, ed. Diane Wood Middlebrook and Marilyn Yalom, p. 254 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985).

  36. Max Treu, ed., Sappho (Munich: Heimeran, 1954), p. 162. The fragment was first published by E. Lobel and D. Page, “A New Fragment of Aeolic Verse,” Classical Quarterly 2 (1952): 1-3, who assign the fragment either to Sappho or to Alkaios.

  37. Bruno Snell, “Der Anfang eines äolischen Gedichts,” Hermes 81 (1953): 118-19, points out that the sentiment expressed at the very end of part (b) sounds more characteristic of Alkaios than of Sappho.

  38. Another example may occur in fr. 144 V., mala de kekoremenois / Gorgos, where the reference seems to be to people who are “quite fed up with Gorgo.”

  39. Giuseppe Giangrande, “Sappho and the ὄλισβοs,” Emerita 48 (1980): 250.

  40. See also the references to perfume and expensive gifts in fr. 101 V., to “adornments” (athurmata, as in Sappho fr. 44.9 V.) in fr. 63.8 V., and to soft cushions in fr. 46 V. as possible further examples of habrosune.

  41. Judith P. Hallett, “Beloved Cleïs,” Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica 10 (1982): 21-31, argues that the adjective (agapetos, “beloved,” “highly valued”) that Sappho uses to describe Kleis rules out any erotic connotation, and points out that its use in the Iliad and the Odyssey is always with reference to biological offspring.

  42. See Eva-Maria Voigt, ed., Sappho et Alcaeus: Fragmenta (Amsterdam: Athenaeum-Polak and Van Gennep), p. 239 (regarding line 17).

  43. The question of the literary exchange of differing views between the two fellow Lesbian poets is raised by Sappho fr. 137 V. (preserved in Aristotle's Rhetoric); interpretation of the fragment is fraught with difficulties, but Aristotle seems to be implying that Sappho wrote a poem in answer to a poem written by Alkaios.

  44. Cf. also Sappho fr. 185 V., meliphonos (“honey-voiced”).

  45. On the question of authorship, see Treu, Sappho, pp. 211-12; Diskin Clay, “Fragmentum Adespotum 976,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 101 (1970): 119-29, who favors the attribution to Sappho.

  46. Despite the apparent simplicity of the poetry, the interpretation of this fragment is the subject of much controversy. The word that I have translated as “night” is actually plural in the Greek, but such usage is attested elsewhere (e.g., Plato Republic 621b). The word that I have translated as “moment” (ora) is variously interpreted as “hour” or “time” or “right moment.” For a summary of the arguments, see Enzo Degani and Gabriele Burzacchini, eds., Lirici Greci (Florence: La Nouva Italia), pp. 188-90. David Sider, “Sappho 168B Voigt: Δέδυκε μὲν ἀ Σελάννα,” Eranos 84 (1986): 57-59, argues that all three senses of ora are felt.

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Sappho (Feminism in Literature)