This is perhaps Sappho’s most beautiful fragment. She describes a girl who is as lovely as the moon at night, and yet who is consumed by her love for Atthis. The two lovers are separated, but Sappho consoles Atthis by reminding him that across the sea in Lydia his beloved is thinking of him.
…But now among the women of Lydia
she shines, as after the sun has set
the rosy-fingered moon will appear, surpassing
all the stars, bestowing her light alike
upon the waves of the briny sea
and on the fields that sparkle with countless flowers.
Everything is bathed in the lovely dew:
roses take their nourishment, and
soft chervil, and the blossoming honey-lotus.
Often, as she moves on her daily round,
she’ll be eating her tender heart
when she thinks of her love for gentle Atthis…
There are a few theories about the role the extended metaphor of a moonlit night plays in this fragment. The most straightforward of these is that, by comparing the girl to the moon, Sappho highlights her great beauty. Many also point to the night imagery, arguing that this evokes the nights spent by lovers pining for each other. Hague argues that the flower imagery recalls the scene in Iliad 14, where the gods Zeus and Hera make love in a flowered meadow. In Greek poetry lovers often meet in such scenery, and so here it is a cruel reminder to the separated lovers.
Other critics see in the metaphor a contrast between the fragility of human relationships and the constancy of nature. Macleod points out that the girl is “eaten away” with love while the moonlight is undiminished, and that while the moon bestows its light on all of nature, yet she is unable to reach her lover. Carey argues that the long description of nature distances us from the lovers’ sad emotions, replacing the painful human experience with the indifferent, divine perspective of nature; one that is far removed from the cruel vicissitudes that vex the lives of mortals.
These interpretations are not mutually exclusive, nor is one necessarily more right than the other. The metaphor is complex and many-layered; reading both as high praise of the girl’s beauty, and as a comment on the human experience. But however you choose to understand this fragment, there is no denying the sad beauty of Sappho’s moonlit girl.
Carey, C. (1978) “Sappho Fr. 96 LP” in The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 2, p. 266-371.
Hague, R. (1984) “Sappho’s Consolation for Atthis, Fr. 96 LP” in The American Journal for Philology, Vol. 105, No. 1, pp. 29-36.
Macleod, C.W. (1974) “Two Comparisons in Sappho” in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Vol. 15, p. 217-220.
Translation by Martin West (1993)