Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sappho’s Holy Tortoise Shell: Eros and Poetry in Ancient Greece

Sappho is an unusual writer in that, like Hemingway, her name is known to many who have never read a word of her work. Thus her reputation is a cultural force partially independent of her poetry. The facts about her are few, but treatment of her has never been limited to the facts.

Sappho (or  in her own Aiolic dialect) is an early Greek poet, who wrote centuries before the classical time of Periclean Athens. She lived in Lesbos, an island just off the Turkish coast, about 2600 years ago. It may well be that she didn’t actually leave written texts of her work herself, though writing was known in her time, but later editors collected her poetry into organized volumes. Her principal theme is love, love for other women, though she also wrote an entire book of marriage poems, and she is known to have had a husband and daughter. The bulk of her work has disappeared, with only those passages quoted in ancient books, fragments that could be deciphered from papyrus recovered from Egyptian trash-heaps, and a few lines from pottery still extant. Apart from the bits and pieces of her work, the facts of her biography, cobbled out of a handful of dubious references, are scant indeed, and add little to our reading of the poems. Doubtless she was an aristocrat and a friend of the poet Alkaios. She seems to have spent some time in political exile, and we may even know the names of some of her family members. Her brother seems to have been prey to his own love-madness which led to an embarrassing affair with an Egyptian courtesan.

In the history of literature, Sappho contributed toward the definition of the lyric genre by her assertion of the primacy of the data of individual lived experience. Instead of writing genuine liturgical hymns for public use (or patriotic songs or general moralizing), she wrote about specific persons, specific feelings, specific days. At a time when much poetry was choral, and most art traditional and collective, she insisted on the irreducible value of her potentially subversive subjectivity. Like the troubadours, like Villon, and Frank O’Hara (as well as many others), she uses her own name, her friends’ names, and seems very much to write about her most intimate affairs.

Part of poetry’s precision arises from just this close-up view of the author’s consciousness. The “truth” of experience is undeniable, while its interpretation is elusive. This perspective inevitably privileges the irrational, the subconscious, sense impressions, and the imperatives of desire. Most of us rarely acknowledge the extent to which we are governed by desire, while Sappho insisted on her eroticism; indeed, she deified it. Like many insightful artists from the makers of palaeolithic fetishes through Freud and the screenwriters for musicals in Bombay, Sappho realized that eros is, in the words of D. H. Lawrence, “of the great gods.” [1] As the first century author of On the Sublime says, “Sappho in her poetry always chooses the emotions attendant on the lover’s frenzy from among those which accompany this emotion in real life. And wherein does she demonstrate her excellence? In the skill with which she selects and fuses the most extreme and intense manifestations of these emotions.” [2] Yet, unlike some Provençal troubadours, her love was not idealized into ether, but rather altogether realistic, complete with selfish, envious, and vindictive thoughts, nonetheless divine despite all-too-human ego. In the great hymn to Aphrodite, pursuing a woman who rejects her, the goddess does not promise future bliss, but rather that Sappho will find acrid satisfaction of Schadenfreude when she can take her turn in rejecting the one she presently loves. Sappho can be cantankerous at the same time as she is sublime.

Oddly, the element in Sappho that has attracted the greatest share of attention since antiquity – her apparent Lesbianism in the modern sense (we owe this usage, of course, to her reputation) – seems all but irrelevant to understanding her. So far as I can tell, her “gay” sensibility so closely corresponds to my own “straight” experience that the “othernesses” of nationality, era, personality, gender itself, all seem more significant.

Yet for 2600 years Sappho’s sexual orientation has presented a conundrum to moralistic and misogynist critics. A celebrated poet active at the dawn of European culture, she was praised in the very highest terms by the best critics of ancient and modern times. Yet her explicit sexual preference for women, the theme of many of her poems, disturbed some readers from the start. Before long the cognitive dissonance was unbearable, and readers created an extraordinary body of calumnies, evasions, and myths [3] to avoid facing Sappho directly. A survey of such reactions, while it rarely sheds light on the poet, reveals a great deal about the history of sexism and homophobia. [4]

Sappho’s prestige in the ancient literary world was unquestioned. Plato called her the “tenth Muse”5 and Antipater “the mortal Muse.” Longinus made one of her poems the centerpiece of his essay On the Sublime, and Dionysos of Halicarnassus likewise pointed to a poem by Sappho as a model of excellence in his On Literary Composition. A famous story (whose historical truth is irrelevant since its evidence as to her reputation is the same whether it originated with a statesman or a creative critic) has the great law-giver Solon so impressed with a Sapphic song that he said he was satisfied to die, having heard the beauty of her words. Meleagar called her works “few, but roses.” The most prestigious Roman poets – Horace, Catullus, and Ovid among others – paid homage to her art, beginning a tradition that extends to the present day. [6] She was honored in vase paintings (a few of which survive), statues, [7] and coins.

For all that, in the generation following Sappho, the attacks on her reputation began. A poem attributed to Anacreon uses Lesbian in its modern meaning including a modern sneer:

Golden-haired Eros
tossed a purple ball my way
and asked me to play
with that young thing
in fancy sandals.

See, she comes from well-built Lesbos.
She can’t stand my white hair,
and ogles another girl.

While this text might be read as satirizing the speaker who attributes his rejection to lesbianism rather than his age, the malice and distortion in Sappho’s image was soon unmistakable. Comedies with her name in the title were written by Diphilus, Aphippus, Ameipsias, Amphis, and Antiphanes. Menander was the first to tell the fanciful tale of the Leucadian leap. In this reworking of myth, [8] Sappho gave up her sexual preference at the sight of the handsome Phaon. Rejected by him, she killed herself by leaping off a cliff. [9] In this glorious suicide, both the poet and the “problem” of lesbianism die. In other comedies [10] she is depicted as a whore, a nymphomaniac, and, in general, a model of moral depravity rather than artistic achievement.

Thus she was denounced in the second century A.D. by Tatian [11] as “a love-mad, whorish woman.” Some of the stories of Christian and Muslim moralists targeting Sappho’s works for censorship have been shown to be dubious or false, but it is clear that the great majority of her poems did not survive the destruction of the ancient libraries. [12]

The split between literary praise and increasing popular ridicule and condemnation led Aelian (in 200 A.D.) to conclude that there must have been two different women of the same name in the same time and place. The encyclopedic Suda repeated this same notion centuries later, and it persisted into the 19th century.

While there were surely no two Sapphos, the division of attitude persisted. She was praised by Boccaccio, Christine de Pisan, and Ariosto; in John Lyly’s play Sappho and Phaon, the author compliments Queen Elizabeth by associating her with Sappho. Donne refers to “the holy fire” of her verse. [13] Raphael managed to get her inside the Vatican by including her as the only mortal woman in the scene of Parnassus in the Stanza della Segnatura. Still, once her sexual preference became known, she was attacked by such prominent writers as Pope.

In more modern times there have also been writers who glorified her as an outsider, a transgressor, a quasi-bohemian role model, and she became a heroine to aesthetes, decadents, and rebels as well as to gays. The French were particularly fond of this image, with Baudelaire [14] in the lead. Louys and Daudet wrote novels about her while in England, Swinburne declared her the greatest poet ever, and Symonds celebrated her in overripe prose, well worth reading.

Scholars and critics, too, participate in the prejudices of their cultures. Some of the most expert professors exercised immense ingenuity to understand how an undoubtedly great poet, endorsed by the best ancient authorities, could seem, on the face of it, to be guilty of the most unthinkable immorality. Thus Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, toward the beginning of the last century, was so gallant as to propose the notion that Sappho operated a school associated with a religious cult. Thus she was made as respectable as a headmistress, which to Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, was surely respectable indeed, and what had looked like erotic enthusiasm for millennia, became professional concern, perhaps slightly warmed by maternal feeling. Robinson indignantly maintains that her very artistic excellence precludes her homosexualityand even her capable modern editor, while he must concede the passionate character of her attachments, insists tortuously that there is no evidence of her having actually acted on her impulses! [15]

But it is time to bring Sappho to this new stage in my own words. Though she has been translated countless times, I suppose my own motives for producing yet more versions resemble those of Kenneth Rexroth, who speaks of his “ecstasy” when first translating Sappho, and says, “what matters most is sympathy – the ability to project into Sappho’s experience and then to transmit it back into one’s own idiom with maximum viability.”16 The imaginative projection across the miles, the years, and the very real gaps of personality, gender and sexual orientation I believe I have managed. As for the “viability,” only those who hear these poems can judge.

1 In “Benjamin Franklin,” Studies in Classic American Literature.

2 Chapter 10.

3 Among the fuller treatments of her reputation are the traditional David M. Robinson, Sappho and her Influence (George Harrap & Co., London, 1925) and the more modern Joan DeJean’s Fictions of Sappho 1546-1937 (University of Chicago, Chicago, 1989). A broader, less scholarly narrative emerges in Margaret Reynold’s A Sappho Companion.

4 See Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality for the best general source for attitudes toward homosexuality in the ancient world, though its value for Sappho is limited by the facts that Boswell has little to say about gay women, and his principle chronological focus is in the Christian era. Still, he documents such striking points as the fact that neither Greek nor Latin even had a word corresponding to the English “homosexuality” (itself invented only a century ago).

5 This is the name of a bar in Mytilene today. Present-day Mytilene has also a Hotel Sappho and a taverna offering “Aphrodite Home-Cooking.”

6 The most recent example being Erica Jong’s novel Sappho’s Leap.

7 The one in Syracuse was inscribed “I surpassed women in poetry as greatly as Homer surpassed men.” Today a modern statue of the poet stands at quayside in Mytilene.

8 Phaon is an epithet of Adonis, and the mythic origins of the story have many parallels.

9 Since this story was repeated by Ovid, it became better known for the Middle Ages than Sappho’s own work. Other comedies, while not including her name in the title, did include references to Phaon or Leucadia, and thus may reasonably be considered treatments of the theme of Sappho.

10 None exists in its entirety, but plot summaries and quotations are extant from several.

11 Once a significant Christian missionary, Tatian is now regarded as a heretic. To him, even marriage is a form of fornication.
12 Other factors also led to the loss of her work: the preference of later ancient writers for Attic dialect instead of Sappho’s Aeolian, the sack of Constantinople by crusaders in 1204, and, of course, the general ravages of time.

13 in “Sappho to Philaenis,” where the fact of her lover’s femaleness seems not to trouble Donne in the least.

14 He had originally planned to call Les Fleurs du Mal Les Lesbiennes, and it is the poems on lesbian themes that brought down censorship.

15 Denys Page. Sappho and Alcaeus: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press: 1955. p. 144. Page was troubled by phrases speaking of her sleeping with her beloved, but he prefers, he says, retreating into Latin, not to take these “in malam partem.” This thoughtful reaction foundered, though, in the face of new fragments which seem to speak of a lover “wet as pasture”, and of a leather dildo (“receivers of the dildo,”  in fr. 99.5), so he simply concludes, “There would be more to say on this topic if the Alexandrian collection of Sappho’s poems had survived intact.” Indeed, but would Page find the voice to say it?

16 The first quotation is from p. 154 of An Autobiographical Novel. Garden City: Doubleday, 1966. The second from p. 28 “The Poet as Translator.” Assays. New York: New Directions, 1961.

I tell you straight: I would be dead.
Leaving me, she wept

so much and told me this:
"What awful woe we have, Sappho!
I swear I go against my will."

Atthis, you know our love Anaktoria,
although she lives in Sardis far away,
she thinks of us a thousand times a day,

of when we used to take our time together
and she thought yours a goddess' face.
Your singing was a thing she loved to hear.

And now her light among Lydian women
is just like when the rosy-fingered moon,
shining after setting of the sun,

pours out a light that overwhelms the stars
and flashes on the sea as bright
as its flood of light on fields thick with flowers.

Transparent dew then settles on the earth
and fills the rose and thyme with life
and also clover, rich in honey.

Often though she's far away,
our lover thinks of Atthis' love.
Exquisite longing grips her heart.

She calls for us to come. We hear --
for many tongues of night
relay her call across the sea.

Sappho (Lobel and Page 96)

And then I answered her and said,
"Rejoice and go. Remember me.
You know how we all cared for you.

If not, then I'd recall your thoughts
of good times we've gone through.

Wreaths of roses, wreaths of violets,
at my side you put them on,

woven wreaths around your tender neck.

And you took perfume fit for queens
and rubbed it on . . .

Lying on soft beds
you'd satisfy desire.

Sappho (83)

Sappho, I tell you, you'll lose my love
if you keep this up.

Oh, pull your shapely body out of bed,
take off your Chian robe and bathe
like a simple lily by a stream.

Kleis will bring us saffron robes
and dark clothes from the cedar chest,
and all just for our joy.

You'll get a fresh dress,
a flower wreath to crown your charms,
those charms that make me mad.

Praxinoa'll roast up nuts
and I will bring a proper drink --
we'll make a party fit for gods!

All this will come when you, most beautiful
of women, return, bringing joy
to the white city of Mytilene.

It'll be just like it was, like a mother
with her children. Just think --
and remember the days we've passed.

Sappho (82)

The moon and the Pleiades
gone down, middle of the night now.
Time passes;
I lie alone.

Sappho (6)

Immortal Zeus-born Aphrodite,
weaving wiles on a rich-wrought throne.
I'm your supplicant. Give me now
no further grief.

But come -- if ever you heard
my call from far and hitched
a chariot to leave
Zeus' golden home.

Fine swift sparrows thickly beating
strong wings over land
and under heaven brought you
to the black earth.

Once come, blessed goddess
with a timeless smile
you'll ask, "What now
that you need me?

What'll I do, wild heart?
Who'll feel the snare of your love?
Tell me now, Sappho,
who's done you wrong?

If she flees, soon she'll follow.
Having spurned your gifts, she'll
offer the more to you. Indifferent now --
she'll love you soon."

Come to me then and chase
my blues away. Lend
your help to grant my heart
its joy.

Sappho (28)

Virgins . . .
all night long . . .
we’ll sing of you and your young lover
(violets between her thighs).

So rouse your brothers, man,
and hit the streets with them.
Tonight we'll know less sleep
than the clear-voiced bird.

Sappho (Lobel and Page 30)

The man's all but a god
who sits with you and pays such heed
to your sweet talk
and lovely laugh --

listening excites me --
my heart's at odds, unsettled.
And when I look at you my mouth
can't form a word.

My tongue stopped, I'm filled
with thin flames -- vision fades,
and my ears hear the beating
of my blood.

Cold sweat on my side, I'm taken
with trembling and blanch like straw.
Little short of death,
I must last it out,

without you . . .

Sappho (2)


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