I start with Sappho, a poet whose person shrouded in mystery, but whose voice still rings clearly across the centuries with intensity and passion.
Sappho was writing around 600 BC and came from Lesbos, a Greek island near the east coast of Turkey. She is the only known female poet from classical Greece whose poetry survives. This uniqueness however has not isolated her and she was greatly respected throughout antiquity. She remains one of the most popular Greek poets today.
Despite this very little is known about Sappho and only a few of her poems have survived. We can guess a little about her from these fragments, but nothing is certain. One popular theory is that Sappho taught at a sort of school where girls were sent to prepare for marriage. Most of what remains by her is addressed towards women, perhaps they were once her pupils.
What is most striking about Sappho is her passion , or more specifically, her homoerotic passion. If you haven’t spotted it already, the modern term ‘lesbian’ actually comes from Sappho and her home on Lesbos. In fragment 31 this passion is very powerful, overwhelming the poet’s senses.
I think that man is like a god
Who faces you, and sits by you,
And listens to your gentle words,
And to your silver laughter. But I—
My heart explodes within my breast;
One timid glance, and all my voice is gone,
My tongue breaks, and a subtle flame
Races below my flesh, my eyes
Refuse their sight, my hearing is a gong,
Cold sweat clings to me, and I shake
From head to toe, my skin the colour
Of grass: I am about to die, I think. . . .
In this poem Sappho is completely overcome by the vision of the woman before her. She cannot speak, cannot see, she breaks into a sweat. It builds up in a crescendo, to the point where Sappho feels she might die.
The poem starts with a description of a man who sits ‘face to face’ with Sappho. The vocabulary Sappho uses here is specific, and some scholars think she could be describing a ritual, perhaps a marriage ritual. If this is the case then Sappho could be saying goodbye, watching the woman she intensely desires being joined with another.
It is because of the man that this is sometimes called the Jealousy Poem. Is Sappho’s strong reaction partly jealousy for he who is so close to her, or is it simply love she feels? Some think that this poem would have been performed at a wedding, celebrating the bride’s beauty and so indirectly praising the groom. Whether or not this song could ever have been appropriately performed at a wedding is up to you. To a modern audience it might seem too personal for such a public ceremony, but maybe this was the conventional way to celebrate a bride in Ancient Greece.
Part of my aim in this blog is to show why these poems are still worth reading today. Here I turn to Longinus, a Greek teacher writing under the Roman Empire hundreds of years after Sappho’s lifetime. He explains what is so unforgettable about Sappho:
“Are you not amazed at how at one and the same moment she both freezes and burns, is irrational and sane, is terrified and nearly dead, so that we observe in her not a single emotion but a whole concourse of emotions? Such things do, of course, commonly happen to people in love. Sappho’s supreme excellence lies in the skill with which she selects the most striking and vehement circumstances of the passions and forges them into a coherent whole”
Longinus, On the Sublime (trans. Campbell, 1982)
N.B. There are countless translations of Sappho 31 online. I have chosen that of T.G. Rosenmeyer (ca. 1982), which I feel captures the emotion and does not deviate too far from a literal translation. Feel free to look up other translations though! It’s all a matter of personal taste really.