The most beautiful sight in this world is not arms and warriors, it is the thing you love. Sappho is a great authority on love and beauty, and this poem is a moving tribute to their devastating power. Because it is written by a female poet, it is tempting to read this text as setting male against female, as Sappho denouncing the masculine world of warfare as less important than the feminine values of beauty and love. However, Sappho is rather stating a general truth about life, one that she has tragically learnt from her own experience.
In my post Sappho 31: A Lesbian Passion I explained that the popular theory about Sappho is that she was a sort of teacher or leader for young girls, perhaps preparing them for marriage. So is Anaktoria one of her girls that she used to care for, but who now has married and left? That is currently the most likely reading.
Unfortunately this is a fragmentary poem, and so after ‘led astray’ there are some lines missing. However enough remains for us to appreciate the beauty of Sappho’s words.
Some say horsemen, some say warriors,
Some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest
Vision in this dark world, but I say it’s
What you love.
It’s easy to make this clear to everyone,
Since Helen, she who outshone
All others in beauty, left
A fine husband,
And headed for Troy
Without a thought for
Her daughter, her dear parents…
And I recall Anaktoria, whose sweet step
Or that flicker of light on her face,
I’d rather see than Lydian chariots
Or the armed ranks of the hoplites.
In my post on Theocritus XVIII: Finding Helen of Troy I explored a portrayal of Helen of Troy as a mythical goddess. Worshipped by young girls she is a powerful and mysterious figure, giving us tantalising glimpses of her elopement with Paris. That is not the portrayal we have here. Helen is completely human. She has been led astray, subject to something more powerful than herself. The remains we have of the missing lines suggest that it is Aphrodite who has led Helen astray. If this is the case then Helen is very much mortal and like everyone else is at the mercy of the gods.
At first using Helen as an example might seem odd. After all this is not a story that ends well. In the legend of Troy Helen’s lover Paris is killed, the city is sacked and Helen is returned to her husband. This hardly glorifies the love that drove her from home. But Sappho is not trying to glorify Helen’s love. She is in fact lamenting it, and lamenting the compulsion of love. The emphasis is not on Helen’s new life with Paris, it is rather on her ‘fine husband’ (in Greek literally the best of husbands), her daughter and her dear parents, the ones Helen left behind. She mourns the idea that Helen was blinded by the sight of Paris, and so compelled to leave her dear home.
But Sappho has another reason to be sad when she thinks of Helen, for Helen reminds her of Anaktoria, who is Sappho’s own ‘loveliest vision’. Like Helen Anaktoria outshines all else in this dark world, and the radiance of her face is imprinted on Sappho’s memory. But also like Helen, Anaktoria has left those who love her. If Anaktoria is Helen, then Sappho is those dear to her. She is Anaktoria’s mother, child and lover. She both cared for Anaktoria and depended on her. And of course she loved her.
It is also possible to contrast Sappho to Menelaus, Helen’s husband. Menelaus, in response to Helen’s elopement, set off for Troy and waged a ten year war. This war was embodied by the very things Sappho rejects at the start of the poem. It is therefore sadly ironic that it is only with his cavalry, infantry and ships Menelaus could retrieve his wife. Of course as a woman such armies would not have been available to Sappho, and she is powerless.
I have tried to explain some of the complexities of a poem that at first glance might look fairly straightforward. Someone said to me the other day that the only reason Sappho is so famous is because she is the only female poet to have survived from Archaic Greece. I hope I helped show that this is definitely not the case.
Translated by A. S. Kline (2005).