Reading Sappho "d0e"
younger man, Phaon, to a dramatic suicide The ancients' belief in Sappho's superiority was so strong that it prevented them from ascribing to her conduct. Myth and ritual tend to be segregated from one another in classical studies. As I write this, the very idea that the songs of Sappho and Alcaeus were sung in .. The first person of Alcaeus and the first person of Sappho are ever engaged in. It may be the case that more people know Sappho's poetry now than at any point conclusive evidence to suggest that they ever met or even knew of each other, Western poetry could not have taken the shape it did without him. . In one of his odes (), Horace envisions Alcaeus and Sappho side by.
Wikimedia Commons Sappho mourns the passing of her youth, and reminds her audience of the myth of Tithonosone of the few mortals to be loved by a goddess. Struck by the beauty of the young man, the goddess Eos asks Zeus to permit her to take the young man to live with her eternity.
Lady of Lesbos
But Eos forgets to ask that Tithonos be granted a second gift: And so, she is left with a lover she quickly finds hideous and repellent, and Tithonos is left alone, trapped in a never-ending cycle of ageing.
More and more of Sappho is emerging. Inmore new fragments were discovered that have assisted in reconstructing existing pieces, and bringing to light four previously unknown pieces. One relatively complete poem, Brothers Song is the most significant of the find because of its hitherto unknown status. The piece is also important because it further develops the image of the poet as an artist whose themes extended beyond the sensual and romantic. The discoveries of this century are testimony to the fascinating and random nature of such finds.
The Sappho History by Margaret Reynolds is the most recent of several books devoted to the reception of Sappho which have been published in English in the last 15 years. Reynolds herself has edited The Sappho Companionan anthology of stories, essays and translations. Her new book is an enjoyable introduction to what has become an essential topic for classicists interested in reception, for scholars interested in Hellenism or classicism in European vernacular literature, and especially for feminist historians and queer theorists.
In classical Athens, the island of Lesbos was associated with sexual activity in general, but primarily with blowjobs. The Greek verb lesbiazein means "to fellate".
The island was known for other things as well, such as sweet wine and sweet music, but not for girl on girl action. Until the end of the 19th century, the usual English terms for lesbian practices did not draw on classical literature. Women could be "lovers of their own sex" or, in the more frank Greek loan word, "tribades" literally "rubbers"; the words "rubster" and "fricatrice" were also used in the 17th century.
The OED cites no usage of "lesbianism" in the modern sense beforewhen it was used to argue that Swinburne's obsessive interest in Sapphic love was just as "loathsome" as sodomy. It was through Sappho that female homosexuality came to be understood as a distinct sexual orientation, and as a distinctly sexual set of practices.
Sex between women was often not seen as sex, but as harmless touching and kissing. Sappho's poetry was a reminder that desire between women could be as intense as heterosexual desire.
Certainly, preth century versions of Sappho did not always keep her locked in the closet. Donne's wonderful verse epistle "Sapho to Philaenis" is the first English poem to describe what Sappho did with her girlfriend. The term "lesbian loves" was used inin a satirical attack on a group of learned ladies. Yet before the 19th century, Sappho's sexuality was far from clearly defined. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that Baudelaire, through Sappho, invented modern lesbianism, and Swinburne brought it to England.
Classicists in the late 19th century, protective of Hellenic purity, tried to repress Sappho's sexual orientation: Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff fantasised that she ran a girls' school, which helped dispel the whiff of impropriety.
For the ancients, the problem with Sappho was her licentiousness, not her sexual orientation. As an example of one of the pointless questions that people love to debate, Seneca includes "whether Sappho was a prostitute".
Those who admired her poetry but disliked the idea of promiscuity found a simple solution: According to ancient legend, Sappho was bisexual.
After various affairs with girls, she supposedly fell in love with a ferryman called Phaon, and threw herself off the Leucadian Rock in order to rid herself of her passion. This influential story, which goes back at least as far as Menander, was probably inspired by allusions in Sappho's poetry to an Adonis-like myth about the ageing Aphrodite and a young sun deity called Phaon perhaps identifiable with Phaethon.
The legend was widely known in post-classical times through an Ovidian or pseudo-Ovidian epistle, "Sappho to Phaon", and assumed a central position in almost all later responses to the poet.
Later writers often use the story of the Leucadian leap as a misogynistic fable, an emblem of the comeuppance awaiting any woman who is too intellectual and too highly sexed.
Erica Jong's latest novel, Sappho's Leap, corrects the legend by describing a Sappho who is unharmed by her various sexual adventures, which include a zipless fuck with a toy-boy called Phaon. She falls from the rock almost by accident, survives, and lives happily ever after with her first love, Alcaeus, and her devoted grandchildren.
Jong's novel is the latest in a long line of works about Sappho by women writers. An early example is Mary Robinson's breathless sonnet sequence, Sappho and Phaon Robinson aspires to the Longinian Sublime; sadly, her writing sounds like this: In vain you fly me!
It is not surprising that women writers who are attracted to Sappho simply because they want to celebrate her gender should produce pretty turgid results. Unmitigated panegyric is seldom fun to read, and sentimentality, even vaguely feminist sentimentality, does not age well.
Furious ranting is often more enjoyable than gushing praise. Fragments 5, 21, 24a, 38,and are either spoken by a chorus or by a soloist not necessarily Sappho who wants to include one or more other persons. Among the major fragments in Sappho's corpus there are two that make extensive use of first-person plurals: In fragment 96 a song for Atthis about a woman in Lydiathe study of the first-person speaker can be combined with an examination of the situation described in the poem.
Before taking a closer look at this poem we must determine, however, where exactly it ends. Some scholars have suggested that the poem ends at line 20, but the echo of lines in line 21 makes it quite clear that the poem continues. Page, Sappho and Alcaeus 95 n. The first thing to be noticed is the persistent use of the first-person plural by the speaker:.
Lady of Lesbos | Books | The Guardian
Of the verb ending in line 3 we cannot say very much, except that the "we" contained in it contrasts itself with the "you" in line 4, who is probably Atthis. But this can hardly be the case with in line Again there is a contrast between the speaker "we" on the one hand and Atthis on the other: These words are in many ways reminiscent of Alcman's first partheneion, in which the chorus compares its leader, Hagesichora, to goddesses though falling short of an equation; 96 f.
To Hailer goes the credit of first having noticed the agonistic quality of Sappho fragment 96 and its resemblance to Alcman's partheneia. It would be very effective to think of the speakers of this poem as performing a song dance at the same time as the woman in Lydia and like Atthis in the past.
Sappho is probably singing the song herself since her name is mentioned in line 5, although we cannot exclude the possibility of another soloist or a chorus impersonating her see above. In the first line, Sappho or the girl who left her speaks in the first-person singular1;2. At first it might seem that this first person refers just to herself "o, how we suffer"but the echo of these words in line 11 makes it clear that she is probably speaking both for Sappho and for herself.
These companions, together with the girl and Sappho, may have formed the chorus that is mentioned at the end of line The whole poem, or at least the preserved part Sappho's speech to the woman who leaves heris, I would suggest, concerned with choral performances.
Most of the "pleasant things" of which Sappho reminds her, the stringing of flower wreaths 12 f. Fragments 1, 2, 5, 16, 17, 31, 58, and 95 So far I have provided positive arguments why certain fragments of Sappho probably were composed for choral presentations. In the following paragraphs, dealing with some of the other major fragments, I will allow myself more latitude.
The Other Poet from Lesbos
I will reverse Page's "natural supposition" and consider if there is any evidence or indication that these songs may have been performed with the help of choruses.
Fragment 1 was most probably sung by Sappho herself or by someone impersonating her: It is possible, however, that she was accompanied by a group of dancers, just as in fragment West has argued that Sappho deliberately left the name of her beloved unmentioned so the song could be performed on different occasions. It would also lend special significance to the idea of the repetition of her love feelings in the poem with every new performance there is the pretense of a new love.
If this was still part of Sappho's poem, the hetairai associated with the speaker were probably present at the scene as well. Here the singers may be mentioned in line In fragment 5, a poem about her brother Charaxus, Sappho uses, after an initial? The philoi included in in line 7 may refer to these dancers or to members of Sappho's family in the audience. Governi, "Su alcuni elementi propemptici," has adduced parallels from greetings and farewell scenes both in Homer Od. If this is meant as a satirical poem, as I assume, its delivery is again best pictured in public where it would have effect.
The same holds true for those poems in which she vilifies her rivals or girls who went to them: I do not exclude the possibility that some of the figures mentioned in this poetry are poetic personae, similar to the stock characters presented in Archilochus's iambics on which see West, Studiesand Nagy, Pindar's Homer Stern's objection "Sappho Fr.
The poem certainly contains a great number of first-person singular statements, but these could refer to a chorus as well as a soloist. The emotions described can be summarized by what Alcman's chorus says about its chorus leader: Note, for example, the structural opposition between that man, who "appears to be the equal of the gods" aand the speaker, who in lines "appears to be little short of dying". This echo, already noted by Wilamowitz, contradicts Winkler's assertion that the man is "not an actor in the imagined scene.
In both poems the speakers are also resigned to this fact. As for the occasion on which this song was performed, I would not want to exclude the possibility that it was sung at a wedding, as Wilamowitz  Segal, "Eros and Incantation" Burnett, Three Archaic Poets n. See Wilamowitz, Sappho grid Simonides 57 cf. Page's main objection is that it would be inappropriate for Sappho or, presumably, any other speaker to speak about the intensity of her passions for a bride on her wedding day, but this could be our modern sensitivity.
Winkler, "Double Consciousness"compares Sappho fr. Fragment 31, whether performed at a wedding or not, is really an enkomion. Line 11 mentions paides with beautiful gifts, either of the deep- or violet-bosomed Muses.
Here the speaker Alcman himself, according to Antigonus, who preserved the fragment addresses a group of "honey-tongued, holy-voiced girls," telling them that "his limbs no longer can carry" him.
Nagy, Pindar's Homer Compare also Odysseus's words to Nausicaa in Od. It is not unlikely that this line constitutes the actual beginning of the poem: Di Benedetto ; Gallavotti, Saffo e Alceo 1: Page, Sappho and Alcaeusalso starts the poem on this line.
This situation is reminiscent of fragment 94 and it may have been performed under similar circumstances. Ultimately it is impossible to prove that a particular song was sung by a chorus or by Sappho herself, with or without the help of choral dancers, but I hope to have shown that a choral performance of these songs is at least a serious possibility.
Sappho's Public Poetry I have argued that three modes of performances can be detected in Sappho's poems, all public: She sang while a chorus of young women danced e.