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Sappho (ca 630? B.C.E.)  
 
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Sappho's Poetic Techniques

A major component of Sappho's verse (and of Greek poetry in general) is its aurality. The modern reader of poetry forgets that the ancients were not readers at all, but auditors. Consequently, the sound of a poem was of extreme importance. Sappho was an acknowledged master of poetic sound effects, meter, and euphony. Unfortunately, because the Greek language and its verse are innately incompatible with English, this aural component is almost impossible to convey in translation.

Such is the case, too, with Sappho's skillful use of hidden metaphor, ambiguity, wordplay, wit, irony, and allusion. Her poetry is deeply engaged with the Homeric tradition, subtly applying the epithets and formulaic phrases of heroic epic verse to women's erotic experience. In so doing, she implicitly sets women's private experience of love on a par with men's public performance in war. She says, in effect, "This is different, but this, too, is heroic."

Sponsor Message.

The Debate over Sappho's Sexual Identity

In the face of her erotic poetry, it is hard to believe that scholars continue to argue that Sappho was not a lesbian in the modern sense of the word. From the first extant comments on Sappho's erotic relations with young women in the Hellenistic period to the present day, critics (predominantly male), appalled at the thought of women engaging in lesbian sexual activity, have tried to deny Sappho's homosexuality.

Their attempts range from deliberately mistranslating words that indicate that the beloved is female to forcing a heterosexual context on poems depicting lesbian desire.

For example, the famous Fragment 31 has been described as a marriage-song in which Sappho relates the girl's desirability for the groom's benefit. Her feelings in the poem continue to be hotly disputed. They have been described as anything ranging from jealousy, love, fear, wonder, and terror to an anxiety attack brought on by penis-envy.

Had this poem been written by a man, there would be little dispute. Nor has there been in the many translations penned by men. Of course, the gender dynamics of the poem are significantly altered when it becomes a male voice describing his response to a woman. Such translations are an insidious (if unintentional) way of heterosexualizing Sappho.

In the poem, Sappho watches a man's reaction to her beloved and marvels at his composure, so different from her own response. To anyone who has ever been a lover, the symptoms of infatuation are unmistakable:

Fragment 31
     To me, he seems like a God, that man,
Who can sit at ease in your presence
     Who can hear your melodic voice
Strumming close in his ear,
     Your provocative laughter:

Ample cause for cardiac arrest.
     You spied, I swallow all voice
     And my tongue lies crippled.
A lyric fire sweeps my flesh
     And my eyes stare blindly.
Rhombs crash close in my ear,
     A chilling sweat fingers my spine,
Trembling invades my every part
     And I am greener than grass.
To myself, I seem like a corpse, or near....

There is a whole tradition of "defenders" of Sappho. David Robinson is typical: "Villainous stories arose about her and gathered vileness till they reached a climax in the licentious Latin of Ovid."

The most famous of Sappho's "defenders" was the German Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff who in his classic Sappho und Simonides depicted Sappho as a chaste Hausfrau, a virtuous pillar of the community and moral instructor of young girls. As Page describes it, Wilamowitz "gave new and lasting dignity to the old theory that Sappho was a paragon of moral and social virtues and that her poetry was grossly misunderstood in antiquity."

Wilamovitz explained Sappho's relationship with her charges by depicting her as a cult priestess in the service of an "honest" (that is, nonsexual) Aphrodite. As Page points out, there is absolutely no evidence for this theory. Nevertheless, much scholarly ink has been spilled trying to prove that despite her professed love of women, despite her poetic genius, Sappho was still a "good" woman.

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