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. It is a truly beautiful image in which the girl’s sad loneliness is echoed in the quiet, moonlit night.
…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…
In this poem Sappho consoles Atthis, who is in Lesbia, by reminding him that across the sea in Lydia his beloved is also thinking of him. There have been many different ideas about what the extended metaphor is doing. Some scholars simply argue that it reflects the universal beauty of a girl who lights up those around her. Many point to the night imagery, arguing that this evokes the lonely 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: the rest of the world continues its normal cycles, night follows day and the flowers still bloom, oblivious to the painful inconstancy of human relations.
There are also comparisons that are less favourable to Atthis’ beloved. Macleod argues that the two are contrasted: the girl is like the moon, but she is “eaten away” with love where moonlight is undiminished, and the moon is omnipresent while she is far away. Carey argues that the long description of nature distances us from the lovers’ sad emotions. It replaces the human perspective with an indifferent, divine perspective of the beauty of nature, one that is far removed from the vicissitudes that vex the painful lives of mortals.
You can pick your favourite interpretation, you can simply enjoy the poetry as it is, or you can read the imagery as a reflection of all of these different ideas that revolve around the two pining lovers, painfully separate from the distant beauty of the moon and the happy invulnerability of the gods. Whichever you choose 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)