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Sappho (ca 630? B.C.E.)  
 
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Male Unease with Female Writers

Historically, male critics have been extremely uncomfortable when faced with women of poetic genius. This discomfort stems from the tradition that "good" women are silent women, seeking not fame in the public world, but to nurture their families and foster the worldly ambitions of their husbands and male relations.

This unease is sometimes assuaged by belittling the poet's accomplishment, or, if this cannot be done, by denying that the author was female. It is for this reason that although the poets Sappho (Greek 630? B.C.E.), Erinna (Greek, ca 612? B.C.E.), Sulpicia (Roman, ca 30? B.C.E.), and Emily Dickinson (American, 1830-1886) could not be more historically distant and culturally different, the criticism on them is almost interchangeable.

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For example, critics maintain that their lyrics are not crafted, but unstudied emotional outpourings; their poems are not the work of imagination, but a biographical record set in verse; their work is not intended for publication, but for the private amusement of a few chosen friends.

More recent criticism has acknowledged the poetic merits of Sulpicia: It has also given birth to the idea that the poet was male. So, too, with Erinna, a woman who died virgin at age nineteen and whom the ancients praised as the equal of Homer.

In The Woman and the Lyre, Jane McIntosh Snyder notes that the one surviving fragment of Erinna has been interpreted in various ways, ranging from "a genuine cry of grief" ("genuine" and thus unstudied) to "a 'brilliant' forgery by a male writer from Cos or Rhodes." The underlying assumption behind such critical gender-switching is that women cannot write good poetry.

Sappho's Commentators

What, then, is such a critic to do with Sappho? The historical tradition is too strong to deny her femininity, and her literary reputation is too powerful for her poetic skills to be denied.

Still, these prejudices influence her commentators, as we can see in David M. Robinson's summary of her work in Sappho and Her Influence: "Sappho then, was a pure and good woman. . . . If she ever collected her verse it was only to promote the idealization of marriage pageants, and not with the purpose of publishing a full edition of her songs."

Note that, as with Fragment 31, Sappho's lyrics have been placed in the service of heterosexuality. The denial of Sappho's intent to publish, and the interest in eternal fame that such an intent implies, is especially curious since it was Sappho who, as far as we know, invented the literary motif of the poet achieving immortality through verse.

The Question of Sappho's Homosexuality

The issue of Sappho's status as a poet is complicated by her homosexuality. It is, indeed, her homosexuality--not her verse--that is the focus of scholarship: what critics call "the moral question."

As Judith Hallett explains in "Sappho and Her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality," "Modern criticism of supposedly homosexual or at least bisexual Greek male lyric poets . . . does not reflect the same obsession with their sexual preferences to the neglect of their poetry." She notes that commentators of the poet Anacreon make few remarks on his homosexual poetry, yet in the one fragment that seems to refer to female homosexuality, many scholars have taken pains to prove that Anacreon is not characterizing the woman in his poem as homosexual.

Ultimately, though, even Hallett seems to reject Sappho's homosexuality, concluding that "there are no references in Sappho's lyrics to any physiological details of female homoerotic involvement." This conclusion, however, ignores the fact that the Greeks would have considered physiological details of erotic involvement--heterosexual or homosexual--completely inappropriate for the higher genres of poetry in which Sappho wrote.

What is the evidence for Sappho's homosexuality? The erotic nature of her poems where both lover and beloved are clearly female implies lesbian interest, although many scholars vehemently maintain that this interest was never consummated.

There is, however, one fragmentary poem that implies lesbian practice. Sappho and another woman, possibly one of her charges, say a tearful final goodbye. The girl stresses that she leaves Sappho against her will. Presumably, she is going to get married. Sappho consoles the girl by reminding her of the pleasures they shared when she lay at Sappho's side.

There are fragmentary references to garlands hung about a soft neck, to anointing skin with fragrant ointments, to lying on a soft bed where, according to the particular verb form, the girl satisfies someone else's erotic desire.

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