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.