Sappho: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Robinson, David M. "The Writings of Sappho." In Sappho and Her Influence, pp. 47-100. Boston: Marshall Jones, 1924.

In the following excerpt, Robinson traces the theme of love throughout Sappho's poetry, emphasizing the beauty of her language and imagery.

The passion of love is the supreme subject of Sappho's songs, as shown by these first two and many a short fragment, as for example (E. 81) where Love is called for the first time in literature "sweet-bitter." Some scholars have credited it to the much later Posidippus, but he and Meleager took the word from Sappho, though it may not have been original even with her. Sappho's order of the compound word is generally reversed in translation, but Sir Edwin Arnold says "sweetly bitter, sadly dear," and Swinburne in Tristram of Lyonesse speaks of "Sweet Love, that are so bitter." Tennyson also has the same order in Lancelot and Elaine (pp. 205-206). To Sappho love is a second death, and in the second ode death itself seems not very far away. The Greek words for swooning are mostly metaphors from death, and so we are not surprised when we read that like death love relaxes every limb and sweeps one away in its giddy swirling, a sweet-bitter resistless wild beast. Here is Sir Sidney Colvin's translation (John Keats, 1917, p. 332): "Love the limb-loosener, the bittersweet torment, the wild beast there is no withstanding, never harried a more helpless victim." Another fragment (E. 54) also shows the power of love:

L ove tossed my heart as the wind
That descends on the mountain oaks. (EDMONDS)

Sappho's range of subjects is much greater than the personal emotions of love, though very personal and individual feelings predominate. She touches almost every field of human experience, so that there is much in her scant fragments to bring her near to us. The wail against ingratitude comes home to those high-strung natures who do good to others but are sensitive to every wrong when they have the unfortunate experience of learning that one's friends are sometimes one's own worst enemies. "Those harm me most by whom I have done well" (Mackail). But she is not one of those who bear a grudge long, her heart is for peace. One of the few ethical fragments, as Mackail says, "is a speech of delicate self-abasement, spoken with the effect of a catch in the voice and tears behind the eyes;" "No rancour in this breast runs wild, I have the heart of a child." Sappho's love of sermonizing is seen in her commandment: "when anger swells in the heart, restrain the idly barking tongue." From Aristotle's Rhetoric Edmonds (91) reconstructs another fragment:

D eath is an ill; the Gods at least think so,
O r else themselves had perished long ago.

In another fragment of a different nature (E. 120) we read: "Stand up, look me in the face as friend to friend and unveil the charm that is in thy eyes." In other fragments we enter a Lesbian lady's home and see woman's love of dress,—no short skirt for her, for they "wrapped her all around with soft cambric" (E. 105). "A motley gown of fair Lydian work reached down to her feet" (E. 20), or, if we believe Pollux (VII. 93), it is the Greek love of fine shoes. No Lesbian butchery for her tender feet, but she must wear soft luxurious Lydian slippers: "A broidered strap of fair Lydian work covered her feet." Punning on the name of Timas (precious), another fragment, which perhaps refers to a statue of Aphrodite in Sappho's home, seems to dote on fancy handkerchiefs; "and hanging on either side thy face the purple handkerchief which Timas sent for thee from Phocaea, a precious gift from a precious giver" (E. 87).1 The fragment (E. 21), "shot with a thousand hues," refers to dress rather than to the rainbow. The sight of beautiful gowns thrilled her: "Come you back, my rosebud Gongyla, in your milk-white gown." Again she says: "Many are the golden bracelets and the purple robes, aye and the fine smooth broideries, indeed a richly varied bride-gift; and without number also are the silver goblets and the ornaments of ivory" (E. 66). She coined new words for women; she calls the chest in which women keep their perfumes and like things a gruté or hutch (E. 180). Again she uses (E. 179) the word Beudos for a short diaphanous frock or blouse. She is the first to use the word Chlamys, where she speaks of Love as "coming from Heaven and throwing off his purple mantle" (E. 69). Blondes were much admired among the fair-haired Lesbians, though Sappho herself was a brunette, and so she herself mentions (E. 189) a kind of box-wood or scytharium-wood with which women dye their hair a golden color. She is fond of cassia and frankincense (E. 66), and she dotes on myrrh and royal perfumes (E. 83). She rebukes the foolish girl who prides herself on her ring.2 With "a keen swift flicker of woman's jealousy," and well acquainted with the philosophy of clothes and with the new Ionic dresses introduced into Lesbus during her own lifetime at the beginning of the sixth century b.c. from Asia Minor, she jests about her rival Andromeda, the country girl who knows not how to manage the train of her new gown3 (E. 98):

W hat rustic hoyden ever charmed the soul,
That round her ankles could not kilt her coats! (THOMAS DAVIDSON in Warner's Library of the World's Best Literature)



Lo, Love once more, the limb-dissolving King,
The bitter-sweet impracticable thing,
Wild-beast-like rends me with fierce quivering.
John Addington Symonds, 1883
Percussion, salt and honey,
A quivering in the thighs;
He shakes me all over again,
Eros who cannot be thrown,
Who stalks on all fours
Like a beast.
Eros makes me shiver again
Strengthless in the knees,
Eros gall and honey,
Snake-sly, invincible.
Guy Davenport, 1965

Sappho. "Fragment 130." In The Sappho Companion, edited by Margaret Reynolds, p. 61. London: Chatto & Windus, 2000.

There is an intimate love of the loveliness of nature in Sappho, as we should expect of one resident on an island under Ionian skies where, as Herodotus (I. 142) says, "the climate and seasons are the most beautiful of any cities in the world." "The many garlanded earth puts on her broidery" (E. 133). "Thus of old did the dainty feet of Cretan maidens dance pat to the music beside some lovely altar, pressing the soft smooth bloom of the grass (E. 114)." As Thomas Davidson has so well said: "every hour of the day comes to Sappho with a fresh surprise." We lie down for a noonday siesta in "a murmurous, blossomy June," as Stebbing puts it, in the orchard of the nymphs where (E. 4),

T hrough boughs of the apple
C ool waters sound.
F rom the rustling leaves
D rips sleep to the ground. (Unpublished, RHYS CARPENTER)

In the Greek, as Edwin Cox says, "the sound of the words, the repetition of long vowels particularly omega, the poetic imagery of the whole and the drowsy cadence of the last two words give this fragment a combination of qualities probably not surpassed in any language." The beautiful verses about the pippin on the topmost branch we shall quote below. In another fragment (E. 3) Sappho sees the stars in a way which Tennyson echoes when he writes: "As when in heaven the stars about the moon Look beautiful." Or again Sappho's love of nature appears in the line (E. 112): "the moon rose full and the maidens took their stand about the altar." In the new Ode to Atthis the moon is not silver (as in E. 3) but rosy-fingered: "after sunset the rosy-fingered moon beside the stars that are about her, when she spreads her light o'er briny sea and eke o'er flowery field, while the dew lies so fair on the ground and the roses revive and the dainty anthrysc and the melilot with all its blooms" (E. 86). Recently (1922) A. C. Benson in The Reed of Pan has combined fragment (E. 3) with the beautiful half stanza quoted above, under the title Moonrise:

T he moon high-hung in the hollow night
R esistless pours her silver tide;
S wift, swift the stars withdraw their light,
A nd their diminished glories hide.
A nd where cool streams through reed-beds slip,
T he breeze through the orchard alley stirs,
A nd slumber well-nigh seems to drip
F rom the dark arms of dusky firs.

In another fragment, which we quote below, Sappho pictures a spring midnight with almost astronomical exactness. She loves the sun: "I have loved daintiness [from childhood] and for me love possesses the brightness and beauty of the sun." William Stebbing in his Minstrel of Love expands the two verses into ten, the last "Dazzling my brain with gazing on the Sun." Sappho knows the golden-sandalled and queenly dawn (E. 19, 177). She wrote an ode to Hesperus, the Evening Star, of which we have only the tantalizing beginning, "fairest of all the stars that shine" (E. 32). Another graceful fragment quoted in antiquity to show the charm of repetition (E. 149)5 on the Evening Star, which comes in Catullus too, has influenced not only Byron in Don Juan but Andrew Lang in Helen of Troy (II. 4) and especially Tennyson (see p. 206). "That Greek blockhead," as Sir Walter Scott was called, though he knew more Greek than most undergraduate students of Greek to-day, even if he didn't know the Sappho fragment, expresses the same idea in the Doom of Dever Girl, "All meet whom day and care divide."

Sappho is fond of birds, the dove, the lovely or heavenly swallow (E. 122), the nightingale. The doves drive Aphrodite's car in the first ode and in E. 16 "their heart grows light and they slacken the labor of their pinions." Ben Jonson took from Sappho (E. 138) his line in The Sad Shepherd, "the dear good angel of the spring, The nightingale," and Swinburne, "The tawny sweet-winged thing Whose cry was but of spring." A fragment published even since Edmonds' book speaks of the "clear-voiced nightingales." She knows exactly what crickets do at noon of a summer's day. Listen to their song (E. 94), rescued from Alcaeus, to whom Bergk had wrongly ascribed it:

A nd clear song from beneath her wings doth raise
W hen she shouts-down the perpendicular blaze
O f the outspread sunshine of noon. (EDMONDS)

We see the woman also in her love of flowers as well as of birds. Flowers are her favorites and she worships them with almost the modern reverence of the Japanese, whom I have sometimes seen saying their morning prayers to a beautiful bouquet. Take, for example, this simple but pretty flower-picture of Sappho's (E. 107):

I saw one day a-gathering flowers
T he daintiest little maid.


She sympathizes with the hyacinth (E. 151), which the shepherd tramples under foot on the mountain, and uses it in one of the most attractive flower-similes in all literature. Listen to this aubade which has been recently found and very tentatively restored (E. 82). It gives a delightful glimpse also of Sappho's ménage:

'Sappho, I swear if you come not forth I will love you no more. O rise and shine upon us and set free your beloved strength from the bed, and then like a pure lily beside the spring hold aloof your Chian robe and wash you in the water. And Cleïs shall bring down from your presses saffron smock and purple robe; and let a mantle be put over you and be crowned with a wreath of flowers tied about your head; and so come, sweet with all the beauty with which you make me mad. And do you, Praxinoa, roast us nuts, so that I may make the maidens a sweeter breakfast; for one of the Gods, child, has vouchsafed us a boon. This very day has Sappho the fairest of all women vowed that she will surely return unto Mytilene the dearest of all towns—return with us, the mother with her children.'

Dearest Atthis, can you then forget all this that happened in the old days?…


Or take this other example of Sappho's love of flowers which Symonds has expanded into a sonnet too long to quote here. I give Tucker's new version:

Take springs of anise fair
  With soft hands twined,
And round thy bonny hair
  A chaplet bind;
The Muse with smiles will bless
  Thy blossoms gay,
While from the garlandless
  She turns away.

Sappho speaks of the golden pulses (E. 139):

[It was summer when I found you
  In the meadow long ago,]
  And the golden vetch was growing
  By the shore. (BLISS CARMAN)

Sappho knows the little and common flowers, the dainty anthrysc and melilot, the violets and the lilies (E. 86, 83, 82), but, like Pindar, she especially loves the rose. Meleager's garland of song assigned the rose to Sappho. She says in one of the new fragments (E. 83): "with many a garland of violets and sweet roses mingled, you have decked my flowing locks as I stood by your side, and with many a woven necklet made of a hundred blossoms you have adorned my dainty throat." Philostratus in his Letters (51) says: "Sappho loves the rose and always crowns it with a meed of praise, likening beautiful maidens to it; and she compares it to the bared fore-arms of the Graces." Fragment E. 68 says: "Hither pure rosearmed Graces, daughters of Zeus." Sappho's love of the rose has led earlier collectors of Sappho's fragments to include among her verses the famous song in praise of the rose quoted by Achilles Tatius in his love romance on Clitophon and Leucippe, which Elizabeth Barrett Browning has translated:

If Zeus chose us a King of the Flowers in his mirth,
   He would call to the Rose and would royally crown it,
For the Rose, ho, the Rose, is the grace of the earth,
   Is the light of the plants that are growing upon it.
For the Rose, ho, the Rose, is the eye of the flowers,
   Is the blush of the meadows that feel themselves fair
Is the lightning of beauty that strikes through the bowers
   On pale lovers who sit in the glow unaware.
Ho, the Rose breathes of love! Ho, the Rose lifts the cup
   To the red lips of Cypris invoked for a guest!
Ho, the Rose, having curled its sweet leaves for the world,
   Takes delight in the motion its petals keep up,
As they laugh to the wind as it laughs from the west!

Sappho, however, does mention the roses of Pieria in the famous lines spoken with characteristic teacher's tone, almost in the manner of Mrs. Poyser. According to Plutarch, in one passage, the verses are addressed to a wealthy woman, in another passage,7 to a woman of no refinement or learning; according to Stobaeus,8 to a woman of no education; probably it was some rich but uncultured Lesbian girl, who would not go to the Lesbian Smith or Vassar or Bryn Mawr:

Thou shalt die and be laid low in the grave, hidden from mortal ken
Unremembered, and no song of the Muse wakens thy name again;
No Pierian rose brightens thy brow, lost in the nameless throng,
Thy dark spirit shall flit forth like a dream, bodiless ghosts among. (SHOREY)

For another expanded version by Swinburne in his Anactoria I must refer to Wharton. Sappho had known and loved the wee wee maiden Atthis when she was an awkward school girl, but now in the bloom of beauty after a sad parting the fickle Atthis has flitted away to another woman's college and clean forgotten Sappho for a rival teacher, Andromeda; "I loved you, Atthis, long ago, when my own girlhood was still all flowers, and you—you seemed to me a small ungainly child" (E. 48).9 "So you hate to think of me, Atthis; 'Tis all Andromeda now" (Edmonds).

Lesbus was a land of flowers, of the rose and the violet, "a land rich in corn and oil and wine, in figs and olives, in building-wood and tinted marble," as Tucker says. But this triangular island (about thirty-five by twenty-five miles) had mountains rising from two to three thousand feet at its corners and two deep fiords on its southern coast. From the northern coast Sappho must often have looked across the short seven miles of laughing sea upon Troyland and thought of the Homeric poems in which Lesbus played such an important rôle.10 The air like that of Athens as described by Pindar, with a glamor wreathing such cities as Smyrna, was so translucent that in the northeast across the dividing sea many-fountained Ida could easily be seen. It is perhaps an accident that there is so little mention of mountain or sea in Sappho. But she was no "landlubber," as Professor Allinson would have us believe.11 Pindar and the other lyric poets were acquainted with the sea and so must Sappho have known it, as she daily saw the ships fly in and out of their haven on white wings (cf. first stanza of poem on p. 82). In one of the new fragments (E. 86) we have a marvellous picture of the sea in the last stanza of a poem which otherwise, with its love of flowers, with the beautiful simile of the rosy-fingered moon, is one of the most perfect things in literature. The telepathic and telegraphic sympathy of Sappho startles us and the wireless message sent by night across the severing sea, whose sigh you can hear in the original Greek, anticipates the modern radio.12 As this is a memory poem, and Anactoria, like Hallam, is "lost," for the time being at least, I have followed as a model Tennyson's In Memoriam in metre, stanza, and rhyming. The first line seems to be "remembered" in rhyme as it were after the interval during which the second and third lines have been made and rhymed.


Atthis, in Sardis far away
     Anactoria dear to thee
     And dear indeed alike to me
Now dwells, but hither often stray
Her thoughts sent usward by the power
     That lives anew the life she loved
     When thou her glorious goddess proved,
Thy songs her joy at every hour.
You were her sun, now set too soon;
     Among the Lydian dames she shines
     As, after sunset, glow the lines
Of light the rosy-fingered moon
Throws on her retinue of stars
     Spreading a far-flung lane of beams
     That gleams the salt sea o'er and streams
Across the rocky shore that bars
In vain the light that floods its gloom,
     And leaping landward bathes the fields
     Where many a flower its beauty yields
With fragrant variegated bloom.
Full fair the dew springs forth and holds
     The light, the roses lift their heads,
     The dainty anthryscs quit their beds,
The clover, honey-rich, unfolds.
Through all this beauty, hard unrest
     And longing crushing like a stone
     Her tender heart, ofttimes alone
She wanders with a weighted breast.
She cannot calm her quivering lip
     And through the balmy, scented dark
     She cries aloud we must embark
And thither come on some swift ship.
Full clear her words to thee and me,
     For night with all her many ears
     Their ardent sound full gladly hears
And sends us o'er the severing sea. (D. M. R.)

This ode alone marks Sappho as a great poetess. The reasons are: (1) the loving notice of little and common flowers, (2) the comparison of Anactoria when surrounded by other women to the moon in the midst of her surrounding stars, the bold personification of the moon secured by the use of the single figure "rosy-fingered," (3) sudden and masterful survey of land and sea, (4) the successful centering of attention upon Anactoria's homesickness even in the midst of such farreaching beauty of land and sea, (5) the remarkably forceful portrayal of what in our day we call thought-transference as seen, for example, in Tennyson's Aylmer's Field or Enoch Arden, (6) and not least important, the simplicity and sharpness of outline displayed in the imagery. "Night" is a vague, widely diffused, mystic thing, but Sappho makes us see her a thing of many ears and one of them close to Anactoria's face. Night does not send a mystic intimation such as Tennyson's vibration of light might indicate. But she speaks right out in a clear voice that carries far enough to reach across the sea to Sappho. A seventh reason is the strange, hot emotion of love and sorrow and longing that throbs like a pulse in every line and makes the whole letter a living creature. Milton said and lovers of poetry have always agreed that poetry must be simple, sensuous, and passionate. By sensuous he of course meant expressed in images involving the use of the bodily senses. Is there anything in poetry, ancient or modern, that more exactly meets Milton's requirements than these few lines of Sappho's letter to her girl friend? Now if this is evident to the reader of an English translation, it is vastly more so to one who knowing the meaning of the words has read them in the Greek and then read them again because they were so sweet, and read them a third time and many times until the music haunts him like the face of a lover.


  1. For such head-cloths cf. the Latin word struppus and the festival at Falerii, called struppearia, Dion. Hal., XI. 39 and Poulsen, Etruscan Tomb Paintings, p. 23. Edmonds' new reading is very uncertain; for his previous reading and poetical version cf. Sappho in the Added Light of the New Fragments, p. 28.
  2. I keep Bergk's reading, "Foolish woman, pride not thyself on a ring." Edmonds changes the text and translates, "But come, be not so proud of a ring."
  3. Cf. Poulsen, in Jahrbuch, XXI. 209 ff. (1906); Die Bronzen von Olympia, IV., pl. VII. 74.
  4. There are many other poetical versions by Merivale, Symonds, F. Tennyson, Tucker, Cox, Edmonds, etc. For an absurd interpretation Sappho in the Rain, cf. Wiener Studien, XXXVIII. 176 ff. (1916).
  5. Poetical translations by Merivale, Arnold, Appleton, F. Tennyson, Symonds, Edmonds, Miller, Percy Mackaye, etc.
  6. Sappho in the Added Light of the New Fragments, p. 25, but in Lyra Graeca, I, p. 253, he changes his previous emendation and reads a text which I consider very uncertain, "and pours down a sweet shrill song from beneath his wings, when the Sun-god illumines the earth with his downshed flame outspread."
  7. Praec. Con., 48; Qu. Conv., III. 1. 2.
  8. Flor., IV. 12.
  9. For Swinburne's expansion cf. p. 210; cf. also Percy Mackaye in Sappho and Phaon. Bliss Carman has evolved the following from Sappho's one line:
    I loved thee, Atthis, in the long ago
    When the great oleanders were in flower
    In the broad herded meadows full of sun.
    And we would often at the fall of dusk
    Wander together by the silver stream,
    When the soft grass-heads were all wet with dew
    And purple misted in the fading light,
    And joy I knew and sorrow at thy voice,
    And the superb magnificence of love

    The loneliness that saddens solitude,
    And the sweet speech that makes it durable,
    The bitter longing and the keen desire,
    The sweet companionship through quiet days
    In the slow ample beauty of the world
    And the unutterable glad release
    Within the temple of the holy night;

    O Atthis, how I loved thee long ago
    In that fair perished summer by the sea.
  10. Cf. Miss Shields, "Lesbos in the Trojan War, "in The Classical Jour., XIII. 670 ff. (1918); The Cults of Lesbos (Johns Hopkins University Diss.) 1917.
  11. Cf. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, LIII. xvi (1922).
  12. For Mnesidice, Edmonds would now read Anactoria. There is a good metrical translation by G. M. Whicher in Manatt, Aegean Days, London, 1913, p. 286.

Selected Bibliography of Recent Books on Sappho

Aly , see Pauly-Wissowa.

Bascoul, J.M.F., La chaste Sappho de Lesbos et le mouvement féministe à Athènes au IVe siècle av. J. C. Paris. 1911.

Bascoul, J.M.F., La chaste Sappho de Lesbos et Stésichore. Les prétendues amies de Sappho. Paris, 1913.

Bergk, Th., Poetae Lyrici Graeci. Vol. III, Leipzig, 1914.

Bethe, E., Griechische Lyrik. Berlin, 1920.

Brandt, Lida R., Social Aspects of Greek Life in the Sixth Century B.C. Philadelphia, 1921.

Brandt, P., Sappho, ein Lebensbild aus den Frühlingstagen altgriechischer Dichtung. Leipzig, 1905.

Bunner, Anne, see Wharton.

Carman, Bliss, Sappho, One Hundred Lyrics. Boston, 1904.

Carroll, M., Greek Women. Philadelphia, 1907.

Christ, W. von-Schmid, W., Geschichte der griechischen Litteratur. Munich, 1912.

Cox, E.M., Sappho and the Sapphic Metre in English. London, 1916. Poems of Sappho. London, New York, 1924.

Cipollini, A., Saffo. Milan, 1890.

Croiset, A., Histoire de la Litterature Grecque (vol. II, pp. 226-244). Paris, 1898.

De Courten, Maria L. G., Saffo (Supplementi ad "Aegyptus"). Milan, 1921.

Diehl, E., Supplementum lyricum3 (Kleine Texte, 33-34). Bonn, 1917.

Edmonds, J.M., The New Fragments of Alcaeus, Sappho and Corinna. Cambridge, 1909.

Edmonds, J.M., Sappho in the Added Light of the New Fragments. Cambridge, 1912. (Has some poetical translations.)

Edmonds, J.M., Lyra Graeca, I, in The Loeb Classical Library. New York, 1922. [Abbreviated as E.]

Edmonds, J. M., Various articles in Classical Review, Classical Quarterly and Cambridge Philological Society's Proceedings, from 1909 to 1922.

Farnell, G.S., Greek Lyric Poetry. London, 1891.

Glaser, R., Sappho, die zehnte Muse (Südwest-deutsche Monatsblätter). 1916.

Grenfell, B. P., and Hunt, A.S., The Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Vols. I-XV, especially I, X, and XV. London, 1898. 1922.

Higginson, T.W., Atlantic Essays. Boston, 1871.

Latini, Giov., Saffo, Mimnermo e Catullo Viterbo, 1914.

Lavagnini, B., I Lirici Greci. Turin, 1923.

Lobel, E., Sappho. Oxford, 1925.

Mackail, J.W., Lectures on Greek Poetry (pp. 83-112). London and New York, 1911.

Meabe, T., Saffo (Spanish translation). Paris, 1913.

Merino, A. Fernandez, Estudios de Literatura Griega. Safo ante la crítica moderna.3 Madrid, 1884.

Meunier, M., Sappho, Traduction nouvelle de tous les fragments. (Has not recent fragments.) Paris, 1911.

Milburn, Lucy Mc D., Lost Letters from Lesbos. Chicago, 1902.

Miller, Marion Mills, and Robinson, D.M. The Songs of Sappho (Greek text of all Sappho, of all the epigrams about her, of Erinna, of the new papyrus biography of Sappho, etc., prepared and annotated and literally translated by D. M. Robinson. Introduction on The Recovery and Restoration of the Egyptian Relics of Sappho and a critical Memoir of the Real Sappho by D. M. Robinson. Introduction by M. M. Miller on the Sapphic Metre, and Poetical Adaptations of Sappho. New York, 1924.

Mustard, W.P., Classical Echoes in Tennyson. New York, 1904.

O'Hara, J.M., The Poems of Sappho. Portland, 1910.

Osborn, Percy, Poems of Sappho. London, 1909.

Pasella, Pietro, I Frammenti di Alceo e di Saffo tradotti. Rome, 1922.

Patrick, Mary Mills, Sappho and the Island of Lesbos. Boston, 1914. Reprinted, 1924.

Pauly-Wissowa-Kroll-Witte, Real-Encyclopädie. Exhaustive article on Sappho by Aly. Stuttgart, 1920.

Petersen, W., The Lyric Songs of the Greeks. Translated into English Verse. Boston, 1918.

reinach, Th., Pour mieux connaître Sappho (Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres). Paris, 1911.

Robinson, D.M., See Miller-Robinson.

Scollard, C. L.,-Jones, T.S., Sapphics. Clinton, N. Y., 1910.

Sitzler, J., Bibliography on Sappho in Bursian (Kroll) Jahresbericht über die Fortschritte der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft. CXXXIII, 1907, pp. 104 ff., pp. 176 ff., CLXXVIII, 1919, pp. 46 ff.

Smith, J.S. Easby-, Songs of Sappho. Washington, D. C., 1891.

Smyth, H.W., Greek Melic Poets. London, 1900.

Stacpoole, H.D.V., Sappho, a new rendering. London 1920.

Stanley, Albert A., Greek Themes in Modern Musical Settings. (Includes, pp. 1-68, Music to Percy Mackaye's Sappho and Phaon). University of Michigan Humanistic Studies, XV, 1923.

Stebbing, W., Greek and Latin Anthology thought into English Verse. Part III, Greek Epigrams and Sappho. Adaptations and Expansions of Sappho. None of the new fragments included. London, 1923.

Steiner, B., Sappho. Jena, 1907.

Storer, Edward, Sappho (Poets Translation Series). London, 1916.

Tucker, T.G., Sappho. Melbourne, Australia, 1914.

Tutin, J.R., Sappho, The Queen of Song. London and Boston, 1914.

Vivien, RenÉe [pseudonym of an American lady, Pauline Tarn, 1877-1909, who lived in Paris], Sappho, traduction nouvelle avec le texte grec. Paris, 1903. Reprinted in the anonymous Sappho et huit poetesses grecques. Texte et reduction. Paris, 1909.

Wagner, R., Übersetzung der grösseren Bruchstücke Sapphos im Versmass des Originals nebst erläuternden Bemerkungen. 1916.


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Little—not little—but all, all roses! So at the last, we are forced to accept the often quoted tribute of Meleager, late Alexandrian, half Jew, half Grecian poet. Little but all roses! True, Sappho has become for us a name, an abstraction as well as a pseudonym for poignant human feeling, she is indeed rocks set in a blue sea, she is the sea itself, breaking and tortured and torturing, but never broken. She is the island of artistic perfection where the lover of ancient beauty (shipwrecked in the modern world) may yet find foothold and take breath and gain courage for new adventures and dream of yet unexplored continents and realms of future artistic achievement. She is the wise Sappho.

H. D. Excerpt from "The Wise Sappho." In Notes on Thought and Vision, edited by Anne Janowitz, p. 67. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1982.

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SOURCE: Stehle, Eva. "Sappho's Circle." In Performance and Gender in Ancient Greece: Nondramatic Poetry in Its Setting, pp. 262-318. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

In the following excerpt, Stehle reads Sappho's poetry through the lens of performance, distinguishing the narrator and poet from the performer to examine how Sappho creates various possibilities for feminine identity and subjectivity.

Love among women was an area of women's interest, so one would expect that Sappho's love poetry was performed to her circle.1 But Sappho's love poetry does not support the analogy with the symposium poets; the major poems and fragments are antithetical to the creation of collective bonhomie. It is not just that they intimately address one person but that they implicitly reject the circle. Given their disinterest in striving for the psychological efficacy of renewing the group, I think that these poems had another function. To demonstrate my reason for thinking that the circle was not their primary setting, I begin by examining 31 V, then I propose a setting for it that makes more sense of its communicative strategy.

Here is the poem, one over which there has been much dispute:2

He appears to me to be equal to the gods, that man who sits facing you and listens to you sweetly speaking right near him and laughing enchantingly—a thing that truly makes the heart in my breast cower. For as I look at you fleetingly I can no longer utter a thing, but my tongue is shattered (?), instantly light fire runs through my flesh, I see nothing with my eyes but my ears resound, sweat flows down me and a shiver seizes me whole, I am a fresher green than grass, and I seem to myself to lack little of death. But all is bearable, since even a poor man (?) …

The song puts the speaker into a fictional situation: she is looking at a man and woman conversing. She also addresses the woman in this scene ("you" in lines 2 and 7), who by the logic of the setting cannot hear her. The singer must be speaking to herself.4 The audience must overhear her since her imaginary situation means that she is not speaking to it. The singer shifts her attention to her own state in the second stanza, and thereafter she is speaking about herself to herself. After describing the symptoms of emotional distress that afflict her each time she looks at the woman, Sappho reasserts emotional control at line 17, at the moment of near fainting. Her recovery is reflected in the few remaining words of that line: "all is bearable."5 The tight inward focus of "I seem to myself" in line 16, followed by her recall of some mitigating idea, further denies the audience its obvious role as sympathetic substitute for the woman who affects Sappho. Far from striving to affirm her membership in a circle of friends, the singer of 31 V does not allow room for the listeners' presence in her fiction or insinuate that the group has any function in relation to her.6

I have characterized this poem as "overheard," but the image is not adequate to describe the communicative situation that the poem establishes. The singer's visible and audible control as she sings, the beauty of the highly organized words, mean that the listeners must suppose a radical disjunction between outer poise and inner turmoil. More than that, the singer describes herself immediately as unable to speak.7 What then are we hearing as we hear the poem performed? In the fourth stanza the singer adds that she is looking distressed—sweating, trembling, and pale. The singer in the here and now is not the same as the speaker constituted by the text of the poem.8 A split between the physically present performer (the singer) and the poem's first-person selfrepresentation (the speaker) has opened up.9

The separation of singer and speaker combined with the fictional situation described and the soliloquizing creates a fictional character within the poem whose inner emotional state is laid open to secret observers—a remarkable configuration for archaic lyric. To see the difference from symposium poetry, we can recall several of the poems discussed in Chapter 5. Symposium poets address absent figures: Archilochos, for instance, accosting Lykambes in 172 W. But his speech is meant to be public, as public as possible, for Archilochos is engaged in shaming Lykambes. The address therefore renders Lykambes imaginatively present so that the symposium group can share in denigration of him. Anakreon addresses a boy who, he says, cannot hear him (360 PMG). However, he does not establish a fictional situation for himself, so the remark is not overheard; rather, the boy's failure to "hear" marks the boy as absent or uncomprehending. Anakreon's poem therefore functions both as an admission of love and as a comment to the audience about the paradox of desirable innocence. Ibykos, by contrast, exploits the disjunct between singer's control and inner chaos to express his very being as lovetorn, but his poems have no addressee or fictional setting. They are presented as confessions to the actual audience.

The symposium poets also create fictions in their poetry. Alkaios' poem from exile (130B V)—the closest parallel—posits a fictional situation for the speaker but does not inhibit identification of speaker and singer. He therefore threatens his audience by portraying his assumed isolation, while Sappho's poem takes it as a given. Alkaios' poem has an addressee, Agesilaidas, whose identity is unknown. He is a sympathetic figure, for the singer complains to him. He is probably a member of the group or someone who could be imagined as a participant, in which case the address to him represents communication to the group. Conceivably Agesilaidas' identity was such that speaking to him precluded speaking to the hetaireia. Barring the latter possibility, utterance is still communication from actual singer to actual audience, even though it must be thought of as traversing a distance. Hipponax too offers a partial parallel with Sappho, though with utterly different effect, but despite the lively fictional accounts of lowlife doings, usually told in the past tense, his short and broken fragments do not appear to split singer and speaker. The poems that are narratives are directed to their actual audience and the prayers are a humorous form of self-staging as rogue.10

The various aspects, therefore, of Sappho's technique are found in symposium poetry. But no extant symposium poem uses all of Sappho's devices together: the fictional situation, the unreachable addressee, the inward focus, the coherent exposition of psychosomatic devastation; nor does any symposium poem push them so far. In its creation of fantasy scene and inner monologue, Sappho's poem actually denies the situation of performance by detaching the speaker from the actual setting, singer, and collected audience. This is certainly not a poem for a group like a symposium group, one that used performance to reinforce a sense of collectivity. How then can we understand the poem as performance?

To one who would study it as performed communication, the poem presents two choices. One can pursue the idea that the poem was performed to a group of a different sort, a group within which it was appropriate for the singer to make a point of her distance and detachment from the audience in her self-presentation. Or else one can look for an altogether different performance context for it. The first is Anne Burnett's approach. Burnett notes Sappho's detachment (which she finds in the content and tone of the poetry, not in performance dynamics). She also accepts an informal version of the initiation theory and sees the audience as a circle of parthenoi preparing for marriage.11 She therefore takes Sappho's aloofness as a didactic stance. Thus in this poem Sappho uses herself as a model to demonstrate a method of recovering self-possession: the poem begins with a statement that "smilingly" compliments the addressee (to sit near you is the highest happiness) and articulates an extreme sense of the difference between the speaker's position and the man's; but it ends by redefining the difference in mundane terms (poor versus rich) that might easily change—a hopeful idea that revives the speaker.12 Love, says the poem, is both immortalizing and ephemeral. Overall Burnett finds Sappho's lesson in the need to transmute desire into appreciation of beauty.13 In sum, Sappho's strategy is to demonstrate her ultimate detachment from any erotic involvement and to bring detachment within the circle as an ideal, promoting an aesthetic sensuality in response to the ineluctable problem of women's being separated by their families' command.

But would 31 V be heard that way? If Sappho in person sang the poem to a group of parthenoi who knew her, they would inevitably take it as an expression of her attitude toward them. If they thought that she had a specific person in mind, the rest would feel emotionally left out, for the contrast between Sappho's intense reaction to one and her disregard for all the others present would be evident. If they thought that she had no one in mind, her description of her symptoms would seem mocking. It seems to me that as a didactic piece the poem would fail because an impersonal attitude projected within a small group will be read as rejection of friendship with other members of the group.

Let us make the other choice and think further about a performance context for the poem. The only way 31 can be heard without appearing to ignore or spoof the emotions of its audience is for each auditor to take it as meant for herself alone. As a result, the poem gains immediacy as each listener loses consciousness of any rival auditor.14 But members of a group with established relationships, affections, and jealousies could not banish each other from mind. The poem would achieve its greatest emotional impact, therefore, if a woman sang it to herself. Instead of hoping that Sappho envisioned her, she would envision Sappho. The separation of speaker and singer effected by the poem means that a woman who sang the poem could simultaneously hear it as another's voice. The fictional setting invites her to imagine herself in that situation, feeling "Sappho's" eyes on her and hearing "Sappho's" thoughts. She could easily picture "Sappho," since the latter gives such full description of herself. To be its focus makes the poem thrilling to any auditor.

From the singer/addressee's point of view, the poem has two powerful effects. First, the poem creates an illusion of communication with "Sappho." Within the framework of the fictional setting, "Sappho's" speech is telepathic, for the addressee becomes cognizant of it as she speaks to the man. Nor does "Sappho" withdraw: since the poem does not begin as a soliloquy for the addressee (as it does for other listeners), she would take lines 8 and following as the continuation of "Sappho's" address to her.15 The result is two-way interchange: since "Sappho" describes herself, the addressee knows what "Sappho" feels and sees "Sappho" along with "Sappho" seeing her and seeing herself. From the recipient's point of view, each woman is seeing herself and the other; she also hears "Sappho"—and can imagine "Sappho" hearing her thoughts. The poem actually invites her participation in a secret conversation.

Dependent on the first effect is the second: the addressee would have to imagine herself as desirable to others, for she would find both "Sappho" and the man beside her in thrall to her, and the reactions of both would guide the representation of herself that she projects into the picture.16 And how unconventionally Sappho goes about signaling her attractiveness! To feel the full impact of the scene of the addressee's speaking to the man, we must compare it to one of Greek culture's most prevalent narratives of female beauty, the rape. The loveliness of a young woman in myth is routinely represented by her ability to attract a god or hero, who seizes the opportunity for an act of intercourse and then is off. Examples are mentioned in Chapter 2. In Sappho's poem, by contrast, the man seems "like a god" but sits immobilized. Instead of acting, he listens to "you" talking and laughing. Since she is thus the one who defines the situation rather than the object of his wilful desire, she finds herself represented as a speaking subject in the mirror of the poem. Even if the addressee does not construe the man as important, his behavior reflects on the image of herself that she is invited to create.

With respect to "Sappho," the revisionist image granted the addressee is even stronger: "Sappho" both listens and sees her but does not objectify her, since "Sappho's" perception leads to an overwhelming sense of her very being. The addressee accordingly perceives herself not as a body caught in "Sappho's" gaze, but as a presence for others.17 Her subjectivity and desirability are inseparable in the phrases "sweetly speaking" and "laughing enchantingly." Thus the poem provides its addressee with an ideal image of herself in terms that resist the culture's objectification of women, just as Sappho reversed the dominant construction of the female in her own selfpresentation.

We can see that when we explore its effects from the position of a unique recipient the poem comes most to life as communication and appears to have the greatest psychological efficacy; that is, it has the power to influence the auditor positively in ways that one can imagine Sappho wanted. It creates more impression of interchange, paradoxically, than if Sappho were to sing it to a group as an illustration of her feelings. The earlier analysis of the disjunct between speaker and singer has already shown that the poem is not a libretto for self-presentation: the fictional speaker cannot be realized by the singer but must rely on the auditor's imagination. Let us take these two aspects of the poem together: they suggest that the poem was created as text, as Sappho's projection of herself into a form that would be independent of her presence. I propose, therefore, that Sappho composed this poem as a gift for a woman from whom she expected to be cut off for some reason. Poems 16, 94, and 96 V show that separation was a painful reality for women. The poem then has as its function to keep a sense of contact alive over time and distance. In blurring subject-object distinctions as she does, Sappho tries not only to foster the fantasy of continued intimacy but to reproduce the sense of mutual affirmation that women must have gotten from Sappho or in her circle. We can add that the telepathic communication implied within 31 mirrors its actual mode of communication, writing, which is silent and able to traverse distance. The repeatability of the scene (the man sits in the continuative present and Sappho collapses every time she looks) reflects the reiterability of the written statement. If I am right, then Sappho was one of the first major poets to exploit the textual possibilities of writing, with its ability to project an implied speaker independent of the physical mode of transmission. I return to this issue at the end of the chapter.

How, then, should we think about gendered speech in this poem? Since it is not a poem designed for a singer's self-presentation to a circle of friends, we should look at the en-gendering of the singer/addressee who creates an image of herself for herself as she performs it. I have already pointed out that she can perceive the force of her presence by its effect on the other figures in the poem. Yet more subtly, the poem forces the recipient to define her own desire by construing the scene. The extant lines never name "Sappho's" emotion, only its symptoms, so the singer/addressee can decide what "Sappho" feels, depending on what she wants from "Sappho." The man might or might not be important, depending on her inflection of the scene. He might function for an addressee simply to indicate a setting in which "Sappho" cannot approach, or she might find the idea of proximity to a man or the implication of marriage exciting. Nor must the man be a future husband; a listener could think of him as an alternative to her present husband, for imagination is free. The poem provides a field in which the recipient can arrange a variety of relationships centered on herself, while she must act as subject in positioning the other figures emotionally.

In singing the poem, the addressee speaks of herself through the mouth of another whom she creates in imagination. Within the poem she sees and hears herself through the others' eyes and ears. She therefore conceives herself as a split subject, finding herself in another's consciousness of her; but because she creates the other whose voice she uses to represent herself, hers is a self-conscious split subjectivity. Her performance therefore counteracts women's gendered public self-presentation as unaware objects for others. The significance of Sappho's poem must be seen in light of the stance assigned to women speakers as we uncovered it in Chapter 2: in public performance women dramatized their dissociation from their bodies and voices. None of the poems examined there comes from Lesbos, but, as the wedding poetry shows, the same assumptions about male and female seem to have been prevalent on Lesbos. When juxtaposed with Alkman's partheneia, 31 V seems subversive: it elicits the singer/recipient's awareness of herself as desiring and desirable in addition to fabricating a female speaker who speaks of her own desire.18

If 31 V had no specific performance context because it was written for a woman to sing to herself, we have no hope of identifying the age of the recipient or her actual relationship to Sappho. Sappho may have given 31 to a parthenos whom she had trained for performance but would not expect to see again. She may have composed it for a companion from her circle. The separation would not necessarily result from one woman's departure from Lesbos, for the shifts of political alignment alone probably barred women from seeing one another at times. Sappho may in fact have been a lover of the one she begifted, but her poems do not reveal actual relationships. They use the expression or intimation of desire to bridge the distance and keep contact with her emotionally alive. It is a striking fact that Sappho's declarations and descriptions of love and desire are always mediated by distance, the inaccessibility of one even to the other's speech by normal channels.19 Desire in Sappho's poetry, then, is a form of and metaphor for contact despite separation.

In 1 V Sappho achieves similar effects by another route. Sappho begins by calling on Aphrodite not to tame her with pains but to come as she has come before in her sparrow-drawn chariot. I quote the latter part of the poem (13-28):

… swiftly they arrived; and you, blessed one, with a smile on your immortal face, asked what again I suffer and why again I call and what I most wish in my mad heart to have happen; whom again should I persuade to [] into your affection (or lead you back into her affection)? Who does you injustice, Sappho? For even if she flees, soon she will chase, and if she does not accept presents, she will nevertheless give them, and if she does not love, soon she will love, even if unwilling. Come to me now also, free me from harsh cares, bring to fulfillment all that my heart yearns to accomplish, and you yourself be my ally.

In the poem the address to Aphrodite becomes a recalled conversation, which switches from indirect into direct discourse, blurring the time difference. The past appears to be now, the divinity there in "Sappho's" presence. A collective audience would be reduced to the status of ignored observers as the narration of a past event turns into a dramatic projection in the present. This poem, like 31 V, does not present its singer to the audience as one among them or constitute its auditors as a group.

The dramatic situation is further displaced from the actual context of performance by the treatment of the first person. The whole poem is an address to Aphrodite, but within that address the singer narrates to Aphrodite a previous epiphany of the goddess's. This narration begins in mediated form: "you" remains Aphrodite from the opening address through the first part of the narration, while "I" is the singer. Then in midstanza (line 18) the construction switches to direct discourse and "I" becomes Aphrodite.21 Two successive first-person verbs (θἑλω and πείθω) have different referents. Just after the moment when the singer's voice becomes Aphrodite's, "Aphrodite" addresses "Sappho" by name. The effect of this transfer is to detach the character "Sappho" from the singer and make her a figure in the imagination of the listener.

The poem withholds even knowledge from a collective audience: the woman who causes "Sappho's" pain is not named, and the listeners would be left in the dark. Nor do I think that her identity would be known to the audience from real life, given that the poem would seem gloating if the woman had (re)turned to Sappho and risky if she had not: if the woman did not soon reconcile with Sappho, Sappho's influence with Aphrodite would appear to have faded. And the poem makes a rather remarkable claim: Aphrodite once told Sappho that she would coerce whomever Sappho wanted (back?) (18-24). How many current intimates, ex-lovers, or rivals for others' affection would want to hear that?

Like 31, the poem is textual; it presents a fictional "Sappho" to be created in imagination by a singer/recipient who identifies herself as the "she" of whom "Sappho" speaks. She would overhear "Sappho's" determination to gain (or recover) intimacy (φιλότας) with her.22 She would hear herself described by Aphrodite as bound to become an active pursuer, an agent of her own desire. The second of the two effects treated above, portrayal of the other woman as at once desiring and desirable, seems to operate in this poem too. On the other hand, this poem sounds very different in tone and attitude from 31. Aphrodite's speech has an aggressive edge, which "Sappho" seconds with her military metaphor in the last line. Aphrodite's repeated "again" makes it clear that she has been summoned before. These features are reminiscent of 130 and 71 V, discussed above as poems about women who appear to be transferring their loyalty to new friendships. The beauty of the other woman is not mentioned, and the problem is not unbridgeable distance but the other woman's refusal to close the distance. I would therefore hazard a guess that 1 V offers a singer who identifies with "she" the motivation to come (or return) to Sappho's circle. She hears that Aphrodite is likely to compel her despite her own resistance, just as Aphrodite has brought others (back). Aphrodite moreover thinks that she is committing "injustice" by staying away. If the singer/recipient is torn between the impulse to come and advice from others not to come, this poem will give her both precedent and justification for yielding to impulse. Sappho's unparalleled use of legal and military language, as well as her unique request that Aphrodite take practical steps to bring a woman (back), indicate that Sappho seeks a different effect from that of 31 V. Like the poems discussed in the last section, this may be a political poem veiled in the language of personal need. The term φιλότας can mean either "love" or "friendship," so would be well-suited to link Sappho's fictional self-presentation as desiring to her actual meaning of seeking political intimacy within a circle.23

The textuality that we discovered, put to use in 31 V to counteract the effects of separation, is deployed here to undo separation. If Sappho sent the poem to the woman she meant, the woman could always renew and justify her attachment to Sappho through the imagery of erotic compulsion. She might notice the veiled threat as well, contained simply in the lack of a specifying pronoun in lines 23-24: Aphrodite does not say whether the other woman will pursue "you" (i.e., "Sappho") or will pursue some other (and learn what it is to be disdained).24 Sappho clearly seeks reciprocity of attachment, so if the woman was inclined to return to Sappho she could supply "you" without making anything of its absence.25 But if she resisted the idea of joining Sappho, she might hear Aphrodite's promise as a threat to make her pursue others.

Some will object that I have demoted 1 V from a love poem to a political poem. I do not think that any of the love poems are a candid cry of emotion or even a taming of ardor by controlled expression. They are rather the vehicle for expenditure of emotion: Sappho lent her body and desire to others in order to sustain them with the energy of her response to them. We, who cannot pretend to know her personally and are not engaged by her political life, must approach her power by creating a biography of loves, but the desire we feel to know her desire attests to her power to draw women to her, even absent an expectation of becoming lovers. Poem 1 V may be both a love poem and a political protreptic, but at the least its vocabulary gives it an additional field of reference missing in the other love poems.

For her project in 1 V, Sappho uses a bold technique: she portrays herself in conversation with a god. Interchange with divinity is another method by which Sappho creates a fictional textual character separate from the singer, for such privilege belongs to mythical and heroic figures.26 Like a hero the speaker calls on her favoring deity; the full stanza it takes Aphrodite to arrive is a measure of the distance the speaker's voice can reach. Like a hero she can endure the undisguised presence of a god. The listener who creates a fictional Sappho can either take the epiphany as "real" and imagine Sappho in quasi-mythical terms or can take it as imagined by the fictional Sappho, who becomes a figure of intense inward emotions.27

This method has a further dimension that the portrayal of psychosomatic chaos in 31 V lacks: it lends authority to the speaker. She is like a bard as well as a hero, for she can also "see" Aphrodite leave Olympus and can make her visible to the audience. On the other hand, Sappho uses bardic authorizing techniques in counterpoint to bards' practice: Aphrodite validates her speaking, not Zeus; she chooses as her "ally" in this poem the god whom Athena mocked in the Iliad as a useless adjuvant in war (21.423-33).28 Sappho's authority is antipatriarchal, and she gains thereby an alternative source of "truth."

In other fragments as well, the speaker portrays herself in conversation with a god. In fragment 95 V Sappho appears to report a conversation with a god; her interlocutor this time may be Hermes.29 She repeats a speech she made to him in which she expressed longing to die and see "the lotusy, dewy banks of Acheron" (8-13). Images of loss of consciousness and renewal interact in the description.30 Of the addressee or the dramatic context for the reported speech, almost nothing is preserved: the name Gongyla and the word sign are almost the only other words of significance that can be read. We cannot tell, then, how Sappho used the figure she created as speaker in this poem, but perhaps she again revealed intense longing for another woman.

Other small fragments hint at Sappho's habit of fictionalizing herself by revealing her interaction with divinities. In 96.21-23, which may open a new poem, the speaker says, "It is not easy for us (?) to equal the goddesses in lovely shape …" In the following two stanzas, something is said about Aphrodite, who "poured nectar from golden [pitchers?]" (26-28). The speaker's idea about whether mortal women resemble the gods gains weight from her personal vision of Aphrodite. A line is quoted by Maximus of Tyre with the explanation that Aphrodite is speaking to Sappho (159 V

You and my attendant Eros

The goddess addresses Sappho, as she does in 1 V, with the added distinction that Sappho is paired with the daimonic Eros; we can see how this poem might have detached the speaker from the singer and created a mythicized figure of "Sappho." Another quotation (134 V) seems to say, "I narrated a dream to (?) Aphrodite," and yet another, garbled passage is reported as spoken to Aphrodite (101 V). Sappho must have used the technique frequently.

Poem 96 V is somewhat different from 31 and 1. Though the opening is lost, it appears to have been addressed to Atthis, to judge from the name in the genitive in line 16. The extant part, beginning with scraps of what may well be the first stanza, evokes a woman who is now in Lydia; she may have been named as well:

… Sardis (?) [] often turning her [mind] in this direction [], [she honored?] you like a manifest goddess (?),31 and she delighted most in your song and dance, but now she stands out among the Lydian women as sometimes, when the sun has set, the rosy-rayed moon outshines all the stars; its light reaches equally over the briny sea and the flower-filled fields; and the beautiful dew settles and the roses and tender chervil and fragrant clover are in bloom. Often pacing up and down, remembering gentle Atthis with longing, she is consumed[]in her delicate heart (?).32 But for us togothere[]this (is) not [possible?] much [] sounds[]middle.

The poem does not detach its speaker from the singer. Instead its speaker pronounces with an air of oracular authority about the thoughts and feelings of the woman in Lydia, offering no explicit self-presentation at all. It too concentrates on one addressee and allows the audience no way to participate, so I take this poem also as one intended for the addressee to perform for herself. The addressee is not described as distant from the speaker, but through the poem she can recall a woman who is gone. We could say that "Sappho" portrays the woman in Lydia as playing the same role toward Atthis that "Sappho" herself fills for the addressee in 31 and 1, with the same two effects. On one hand, the woman in Lydia attests to Atthis' desirability and subjectivity in that she used to compare Atthis to a goddess and loved her singing. On the other, her longing allows At-this to think of the intimacy as continuing across the distance that separates them. "Sappho" speaks for the absent woman; in her name she offers magnificent praise of Atthis, for the phrase "manifest goddess" (4-5) recalls a passage from the Odyssey in which Nausicaa is compared to Artemis (6.107-9).33 "Sappho" also reveals her to Atthis, pacing and yearning. Poem 96 therefore confirms the intent of 31 by showing us the same mystic communication, arranged by the speaker now but affecting two others. In what was perhaps the last stanza (18-20), as in 31 V, the speaker acknowledges separation—unless line 21 is not the opening of a new poem, in which case the speaker goes on to suggest that Atthis looks like a goddess, compensation proffered for the other woman's absence.

Since it involves three figures, 96 V has even more of a polymorphous quality than does 31 V. Atthis could sing the poem to herself and feel "Sappho's" urgency, as well as the longing of the woman in Lydia. The woman's beauty like the moon, an image that seems to overflow the simile and drench the poem in its light, would call forth Atthis' own desire for the absent woman—and perhaps for Sappho too as the producer of such sensuous imagery. "Sappho's" sentiment for At-this is unspecific, if heartfelt: is she comforting or seductive?34 Perhaps she wishes to draw Atthis to herself. Atthis could construct the scene as she wished. The woman in Lydia could also sing it to herself and hear herself described in terms of beauty and sexual subjectivity together, the latter as the one who praises Atthis. The poem implies by its existence that Atthis longs for her. She could also imagine that "Sappho," who extols her beauty, desires her. The power of "Sappho's" feeling for Atthis, or for the woman in Lydia, or both, gives her recreation of their intimacy its force, as though they both draw from her their energy of desire for one another. The poem thus creates a play of intersubjectivity in which each woman who sings and puts herself into the song is desirer and desired. For each woman it offers, in the course of creating a fiction of continued communication, the possibility of mutual interchange in escape from the subject-object division encoded in hegemonic culture.

Fragment 22 V shows us another dimension of Sappho's project. I quote the best-preserved section (9-17) from Campbell:35

[] I order you [to sing of Gongyla, Abanthis?] taking [] lyre [] while desire yet again [] flies around you, the lovely one. For her (?) garment overwhelmed [you?] when you (?) saw it, and I rejoice, for even the [holy?] Cyprian herself (= Aphrodite), no less, once rebuked (me) on the grounds that I pray [] this word (?)[]I want [

The papyrus does not show whether line 9 is the opening of a new poem, but it looks as though it could be, and I will assume that it is. As in 96, there may have been specific names, although the restorations in line 10, Gongyla and Abanthis, are uncertain. Edgar Lobel does not think that "Gongyla" fits the trace of a letter at the edge of the papyrus.36 The name Abanthis is borrowed from an unattributed fragment of Aeolic lyric.37 Other completions of the visible letters are possible, and the whole restoration is tentative; it is not implausible, however, so with that caveat I will adopt it.38

"Sappho" speaks to one woman about another, recreating a past moment of attraction. The fragment does not reveal whether Gongyla is now absent, but the parallel with 96 V suggests that she is. If so, Sappho is again the link between the two women by her observation and memory of what once transpired. Sappho also fictionalizes herself through conversation with Aphrodite as in 1 V and more overtly than in 96. Since the poem shows the same features as these two poems, I analyze it too from the recipient's perspective.

From this angle one can see that Sappho devises a new mode of fostering another woman's subjectivity. The speaker asserts Abanthis' desire and desirability, as we have seen in other poems, but does not create the illusion of continued communication between Abanthis and Gongyla. She does not evoke Gongyla in the present for Abanthis or convey her thoughts like a seer. Instead she orders Abanthis to compose and sing for herself. We should therefore examine the effect on the recipient more closely.

The speaker opens by telling one woman, Abanthis, to sing about another for whom she feels longing. At the same time she (the speaker) attests to Abanthis' beauty, for τὰν Χάλαν (the lovely one) should refer to the nearer accusative (σε in 11). But the adjective does not simply stay put: because it stands at the beginning of the line and has the same metrical shape as Γογγύλαν two lines above, it could be heard as applying to Gongyla also and epitomizing what Abanthis should sing about her. What the speaker says about Abanthis, Abanthis should say about Gongyla. Then too the phrase "desire … flies around you" must refer to the longing that Abanthis feels, but in its vivid unspecificity it suggests the longing that Abanthis causes as well. Like Erotes fluttering about a bride or beautiful woman in later Greek vase-painting, longing flying around Abanthis hints at a double movement of desire between her and another who also finds her desirable.

The next sentence specified that one woman's dress made the other lose her breath, but because of the ambiguity, or rather two-way nature, of the relationship between the two women, we cannot decide between two possible restorations, αὔτας σ́ or αὔταν, attheendofline13.39 The first yields the statement "her dress overwhelmed you when you saw it," and the second the reverse, "your dress overwhelmed her when she saw it." The second creates mutual attraction, for Gongyla responds to Abanthis as well. Even if the original line was the first (as given above), the double movement of desire from and to Abanthis would not be canceled, for Abanthis is the "lovely one" and the focus of the poem. The dress itself is an object onto which desire is deflected to generalize it.40 Abanthis would surely hear confirmation of her desire and desirability in the poem.

"Sappho" shifts attention to herself in line 14, describing her own reaction to the moment just mentioned: she "rejoices" at the sight of one woman overwhelming the other. Her delight must mean that she sees in Abanthis assailed by desire another like herself, and therein lies her reason for commanding Abanthis to sing. Abanthis, who is like "Sappho" in the intensity of her emotions, should become like her also in articulating her acute responsiveness to another and presenting herself as the subject of her sexuality.

On the other hand Aphrodite reproves "Sappho" for wanting []. "Sappho," for her part, seems to refuse to give up the fervor of her own desire despite the criticism. One who not only converses with a god but insists on her own perspective makes herself a subject in the face of powerful authority. Because Abanthis should imitate her, "Sappho" provides a paradigm for the addressee to follow by expressing her self-knowledge in spite of others' disfavor. Abanthis therefore should compose and sing songs herself, whatever those around her make of her passion. Like 1 V, this is a poem of resistance: it establishes a counterweight to other pressures in the recipient's immediate life. It is more vital to understanding Sappho's overall endeavor than 1 V, however, because it does not seek to produce a specific action but to make the recipient more autonomous in expressing her own emotional states.

Yet two problems must be addressed if I am to include this poem with those a recipient sings to herself. First, because the speaker's communication with Abanthis in the fragment appears to be direct and unhindered, the poem seems to be one that Sappho could sing to Abanthis among other women in the circle of friends. Second, the verb "I order" in line 9 (which I take to be the first line of the poem) seems odd in a poem urging another to speak autonomously about her desire. In fact, the two problems cancel each other out. If Sappho were to sing this poem to Abanthis, she would impose herself, with her "I order you" and her interchange with Aphrodite, as superior in power (even if playfully). The poem would then be contradictory in its effect, for Abanthis' singing would not be an expression of her own desire to speak and therefore not a sign of her desire. The impossibility of the verb "I order" in this poem if Sappho meant to sing it to Abanthis shows that the poem must be treated otherwise. If Abanthis, however, were to sing the poem, she would issue the command to herself, and by projecting it onto a mythicized figure whom she creates in imagination she would gain the authority (in her own eyes) to speak about herself as a sexual subject. Claiming divine or mythic validation was of course a normal form of authorizing one's speech or actions in Greek culture. Thus, the split subjectivity Abanthis creates by uttering another's command to her is the springboard to her own freedom to speak.

Fragment 95 V, discussed earlier, could be classed with 22 V as offering a model for speaking. As in 22 V "Sappho" uses her account of interaction with divinity to emphasize her human difference, for she asks not for immortality or gratification but for death. She appears to speak as soon as Hermes arrives: ἱ ευπον (I said) is positioned at the beginning of the stanza (8), highlighting her act of speech. Poem 1 V likewise shows Sappho speaking, compelling Aphrodite's response despite the latter's smile. As remarked earlier, "that man" in 31 can stand in for the whole social system in separating "Sappho" and the addressee. Persistence in subjectivity in spite of lack of power in fact describes all of Sappho's love poetry, composed in the face of the dominant culture, but 22 manifestly propels another to take up Sappho's resistance to the cultural definition of women.

One more poem, 94 V, combines all these functions and shows Sappho urging the role of speaker on another. It is made difficult by the loss of at least one line from the beginning. The text follows:

I truly want to die. She left me weeping much and said this [to me]: "oh! how terribly we are suffering; Sappho, in truth I leave you unwillingly." I answered her thus: "Go in joy and remember me, for you know how we sought you out. Or if you don't, then I want to remind you []and we 'suffered' lovely things. For many wreaths of violets and roses and [crocuses?] together and [] you put around yourself, beside me, and many plaited garlands made of flowers [you put?] around your tender neck and[]with much (?) fragrant myrrh[]you anointed yourself and with royal (perfume), and on a soft bed, tender [] you satisfied longing for [], and no [] and no shrine [] was there from which we stayed away, no grove [

One must decide to whom to attribute the first extant line, the speaker of the poem or the woman who is departing. Anne Burnett argues for the view that it was spoken by the leave-taker. Her "Sappho" expresses no sentiment, which allows her to take the poem as a straightforwardly didactic one.41 Burnett assumes that the girl addressed is one whom Sappho loved. Sappho's lesson for her, repeated for the others, is that she must accept the fact that the circle will continue without her and that Sappho will have other loves; in the dreamlike sensuousness of perfume and flowers she is to give up the specificity of her experience.42 On the other hand, no parallel offers itself among the fragments for a quoted speech begun, interrupted, and taken up again, as we must assume if the other woman speaks the line.43

Emmet Robbins makes a persuasive case for giving the line to "Sappho."44 In that case, as often noticed, "Sappho" confesses that she cannot take her own advice to remember the past without pain.45 This is a more ironic but conceptually almost as simple a poem: pain leads to rehearsal of now-lost pleasures, which must lead to fresh access of pain (or to some consoling thought).46 The didactic version of the poem actually gives the later stanzas more point, but the confessional one more typically superimposes present and past and is rhetorically the more likely.

In either version the audience is irrelevant to the speaker. Either "Sappho" could calmly lose all of her auditors or else no one can distract her from the loss of one. Or if Sappho were to sing "I truly want to die" one day and appear cheerful the next, her protestations of emotion would seem overblown. Unless it is grandstanding, the statement is too extreme to serve as a singer's selfpresentation among a group of those with whom she has close ties.

Let us instead read the poem as I have been doing, as a text that another woman could sing to herself, taking the first extant line as "Sappho's."47 The singer/recipient would hear "Sappho's" confession that she misses the leave-taker and discover that "Sappho" now reviews the (perhaps fictional) final conversation with emotions different from those she conveyed then. She could interpret "Sappho's" intense but unspecific expression of emotion as she wished—as erotic desire or more diffuse sense of emotional loss. There follows, embedded in the first-level narrative, a reported conversation that takes over as the envisioned scene, just as in 1 V. The recipient speaks first in the interchange, so in singing the song she repeats her (alleged) words, addressing "Sappho" by name. Thus the direct discourse returns the recipient in fantasy to communication with "Sappho." "Sappho's" response, sung by the recipient, allows her to hear Sappho again and carries the scene presented to her mind still farther back, to the time when she was a member of a group around Sappho. Thus she can soothe her sense of loss and fulfil "Sappho's" admonition to remember.

At the same time, in "Sappho's" embedded speech she would find mirrored her own enjoyment of herself, her ways of enhancing her sensuousness. Two of the verbs are middle voice ("you put around yourself" in 14 and "you anointed yourself" in 20), focusing attention back on the addressee's own body.48 Sappho's desire for her is a possible subtext within the embedded recollection, for "beside me" in line 14 gives license to it. And even as she sees herself through "Sappho's" eyes, the woman also finds reminders of her interaction with a whole group. This second theme appears with the verb πεδήπομεν (8, "we sought out"), which does not mean "we cherished," as it is often translated.49 Some take it as Sappho's reminder of her own love for the addressee, but they must overtranslate and deny any weight to the plural.50 In line 23 also, the noun expressing the persons or things for whom the addressee satisfied desire is plural.51 The poem recalls for the singer a broader set of affirmative relationships within the imaginatively restored communication with "Sappho."

Still, "Sappho" appears to undermine her own advice by her confession, "I simply wish to die." Is this inconsistency more than ironic? Logically, "Sappho" contrasts her despair now with the advice she gave then to enjoy the memory. But as the poem moves, the memory replaces despair. Or, as Ellen Greene puts it, narrative gives way to reciprocal apostrophes, which give way to "a detemporalized mode of discourse."52 Thus the recipient can indulge both in the pleasure of believing that Sappho misses her and in positive recollection of her participation in a group. In portraying herself as devastated, Sappho lends her erotic energy to the catalogue of mutual pleasures that follows, vivifying it and enabling the addressee to revive her memories without the torment of feeling forgotten by those she leaves behind.

Furthermore, "Sappho's" confession is contained in a poem that must be performed with discipline and harmony, so the move that she recommends, to forge self-defining speech from painful experience, she herself has already made. From this perspective "Sappho's" admission of current pain is essential to her point. As the recipient sang the song, she too would replace weeping with poetry that is at the same time remembering—she would remember Sappho, other times, and the poem itself. Sappho's song sets itself in implicit contrast with weeping and shows the recipient the difference. The poem also seduces the recipient into extending the poem's mode of speaking about the past. "Sappho's" list of pleasures is not individualized to specific events, yet it would induce memories of particular days. The addressee's remembering would leap beyond these generic activities and impel her to continue the recitation, to extend her speech about the past and thus become the speaker that "Sappho" urges her to be. In light of 22 V we can interpret this poem as an inspiration to the recipient to transcend the split subjectivity created by singing Sappho's songs and compose her own.

If this is a poem for an addressee to sing to herself, it sets up the same interplay between two figures who are separated but still in communication as we found in the other poems. We can now return to the problem of the opening. Most scholars think (or hope) that there is only one missing line. But Sappho does not usually begin so abruptly as this poem appears to, so perhaps a full stanza plus a line is gone.53 The first stanza could have framed the poem as a report to a god; then it would be imagined by its singer/recipient as a confession she overhears, like 1 and perhaps 95 V. "Sappho's" self-presentation as despairing (a fictionalizing technique like that of 31) would be contained within another framework that displaced the song from the context of performance, making the fictionality of the speaker even clearer.

The poem, like the others, represents resistance to emotional passivity. It also confirms my reading of the other poems in that it shows "Sappho" creating a discourse for the addressee to adopt that will maintain (or create) both a living sense of intimacy with Sappho and an erotic subjectivity. That is to say, it shows us the genesis of poems like 1, 31, 96 V in which the recipient is invited to imagine her own emotional state in response to the speaker's longing. Like 22 V it also commands the addressee to shape her own speech in song. Poem 94, therefore, is the most revealing of the extant poems about the role Sappho envisioned for her poetry. It provides the addressee with a model speaker as well as a friend or lover for whom she continues to be a presence and who bears witness to her desire/desirability.

Poems for performance in a women's group, poems that commented on political life and celebrated common activities but that used the language of eros to characterize Sappho, are distinguishable from poems that detach themselves from performer and context. The latter appear within the category of love poetry that Dioskourides identified and can be characterized as poems that require a speaker constructed in the imagination and gain psychological efficacy when sung by one who identifies herself as the subject or addressee. These poems vary in the circumstances and relationships they imply, but they have a common theme in soliciting women's sense of subjectivity. Desirable, according to "Sappho," the recipient is also portrayed as desiring and invited to articulate her desire, even when making a song of it may be her only possible form of expression.

Sappho's poetry for others to perform relies on the kind of self-representation possible in writing. The heightened, mythicized speaker, whose emotion is at an absolute pitch and who consorts with the gods, is a figure created in a text. No singer performing as herself could claim to be the person who speaks from these poems of Sappho's. It is through this fictional character that Sappho can dramatize her unyielding energy of desire and convey it to other women as what they should recollect about her and take as a model for themselves. Yet Sappho wrote for those who knew her, and she must have wanted them to dress the textual speaker in their mental picture of her physical self. "Sappho" is not only a fiction but the woman raised to full power. That she speaks with such immediacy, surviving the fragmentation of Sappho's poetry, is an effect of oral style fleshed out (to speak in paradox) by the representation of the speaker included in the text to stand in for Sappho when others perform her poems.


  1. See Saake 1972: 13-36 for a history of scholarship to circa 1963 and 1971 for bibliography on problems connected with the major fragments. Gerber 1976: 105-15 and 1987: 132-44 gives annotated bibliographies.
  2. For bibliography on the question whether this was a wedding poem and how to take the man in the first line, see Saake 1971: 19-22; Burnett 1983: 232-34 notes. For a history of scholarship on the poem, see Bonelli 1977: 463-85.
  3. For a recent discussion of the text of these two lines, see Lidov 1993. I do not accept his emendation because I do not think that Sappho describes a single occasion but something that will always happen. Cf. Latacz 1985: 85-86 on the indicative. As to βϐόχε᾽, which Lidov says does not mean "briefly" at this time, it is already metaphorical in Iliad 10.226, which he cites (514), so it could easily be applied to time.
  4. Cf. Johnson 1982: 1-23 on meditative verse compared with address to an audience; I do not think that this is meditative verse (see below). Latacz 1985: 80-81 points out the fictionality of the address but denies that it is inner monologue; he pictures Sappho performing in the presence of the young woman and projecting a scene that will soon take place (86-87). McEvilley 1978 thinks that Sappho is recreating for her circle of parthenoi the feelings she had while offering praise to a bride. Rösler 1990b: 282-83 points out that the verb appear in 1 and 16 marks the intervening section as fantasy, and Burnett 1983: 230 takes it as inner monologue. For the latter three scholars the poem is essentially meditative. For the views of Rösler and Burnett on the conditions of performance, see below.
  5. The following words, "even a poor man," may be corrupt.
  6. Rösler 1990b: 277-78 thinks the poem could not have been performed in the presence of the girl about whom it speaks because Sappho's self-consolation at the end has nothing to do with her. Burnett 1983: 241-43 (who believes that the poem is about approaching a new love, not about departure) thinks that the consolation consists of gaining the confidence to seek out the woman the speaker desires. Neither scholar allows a role for the audience.
  7. O'Higgins 1990: 158-59 describes the threat that non-speaking poses to oral poetry; it means the end of poetic creation. Cf. 164: silence assails Sappho repeatedly, and the act of creating poetry resists it.
  8. Rösler 1990b: 282 also notes this: "Sappho" becomes part of the imaginary picture within the poem; the "Sappho" who glances is a different person from the one who sings.
  9. It is standard new-critical procedure to distinguish the biographical subject (the poet) from first-person speaker in a poem. Kirkwood 1974: 112, for instance, distinguishes Sappho the woman from Sappho the speaker in the poems. Note that I am distinguishing the speaker in the poem from the performer.
  10. E.g., 79 and 92 W (narratives), 34 W (prayer). See the translations in West 1993: 116-23 for the flavor.
  11. Burnett 1983: 209n.2: "It is the assumption of the present study that the group met in daily intimacy and informality, and that most of Sappho's songs were first performed before this assembly of pupils who were also friends and temporary wards."
  12. Burnett 1983: 241-42, accepting the final two words as part of the poem. West 1970a: 312-13 proposes by analogy with Theognis 657-64 that Sappho said, "All is bearable, since god suddenly makes even the poor man rich."
  13. Burnett 1983: 277-312, esp. 309-12. Burnett's approach reveals that the very effort to locate the poems in a group context exposes their lack of engagement with the audience.
  14. West 1970a: 310, commenting on the lack of names in several of Sappho's poems, suggests that like Theognis' songs, Sappho's could be resung. On 315 he describes her songs as freed from their context.
  15. Contrast O'Higgins 1990: 164, who reads the effect psychologically: the act of making a poem replaces passion.
  16. Hallett 1979 argues that Sappho's poetry has the function of awakening young women's sexuality.
  17. See Stehle 1990: 107-8; Greene 1994: 42-43. Sara Lindheim reminds me of the importance of stressing this.
  18. In this 31 V is like 16 V. In Stehle 1990: 109-12 I analyze 16, a description of Helen acting on her desire in going to Troy, as a validation of women's subjectivity in a cultural world defined by men. Poem 16 has a different rhetorical structure; it has no addressee but makes a general proposition, so performance in the circle would suit it.
  19. Carson 1986: 17 and passim refers to this effect as "triangulation."
  20. A papyrus fragment appears to give Ψ as the second letter in this line. One could therefore restore ἄΨ σ́ ἄγην ἐς σὰν φιλότατα (to lead you back into her friendship), which Campbell 1982 prints. There are details that do not seem to accord with this reading, so it remains tentative. See Page 1955 ad loc.; Voigt ad loc.
  21. See Führer 1967: 3-4 for other examples of the switch from indirect to direct discourse in lyric; none is a switch between first and second person. Cf. also his p. 60.
  22. Wilamowitz-Moellendorff 1913: 48 has a biographical version of this point: the poem might have made the girl aware that she was the one meant and inspired love in her in turn.
  23. Page 1955 ad loc. discusses the meanings of the word in Sappho.
  24. Page 1955: 14-15 remarks that διώχω means "pursue someone who flees." This is not always true, but Sappho's use of the verb may carry overtones. For Giacomelli [Carson] 1980 the justice of Aphrodite consists of making the one who spurns someone's love fall hopelessly in love with another.
  25. As Greene 1994: 50-55 argues.
  26. See Marry 1979 for Sappho's implicit equation of herself with a Homeric warrior in 1 V.
  27. Earlier commentators (e.g., Page 1955: 18) considered whether Sappho had actually experienced the epiphany of Aphrodite. If the poem is taken as a straightforward self-presentation, then the question is a legitimate one.
  28. See Skinner 1991a on Sappho's calling on Aphrodite (rather than the Muses) for poetic inspiration. Greene 1994: 53 discusses Sappho's reconfiguration of military language in this poem.
  29. Εϐ]|μας is a possible restoration of the end of line 6 (Voigt ad loc.)
  30. Boedeker 1979 makes this point; she also reviews earlier literature on the fragment, in which a biographical approach predominates.
  31. Accepting in the translation −σε θἐα<ι> δ́ ἰχἐλαν ἀϐιγνώτα<ι> (where −σε is the end of the verb), which Page 1955 prints. See his note ad loc.
  32. This line has not been reconstructed in a satisfactory way. See Burnett 1983: 309-10n.92 for attempts; Bonanno 1990: 119-21.
  33. Marzullo 1952: 90-92. The text is uncertain; some think that ἀϐιγνώτα is the name of the woman in Lydia. Marzullo gives arguments contra. Voigt's preference (ad loc.) is to take the word as a name in the vocative; then four women would be implicated: the speaker, the Lydian woman, Arignota, and Atthis.
  34. For Hague 1984 Sappho is comforting; for Schadewaldt 1950: 123 Sappho expresses her own desire for Atthis while disguising it as that of the woman in Lydia; Saake 1972: 81 sees Sappho's attitude as seductive.
  35. 22 Campbell 1982. The restored text, although speculative, gives a better idea of possibilities than Voigt's. See also Di Benedetto 1986: 21-25 on the text.
  36. See LP ad loc.; Voigt ad loc. and ad 95.4.
  37. Incert. auct. 35 V; cf. n. 87 above. Di Benedetto 1986: 22 thinks that it is not long enough to fill the lacuna but that a name did stand there. Alternatively, the word could be an imperative.
  38. Cf. λάβοισα and ἄεισον in 21.11-12 V.
  39. The accusative is restored in Page 1955: 135 although not in his edition of the same year; see also Voigt ad loc. Campbell 1982 prints αὔτα[ςσ́ from West 1970a: 319. Di Benedetto 1986: 23-24 disputes West, preferring αὔτα[ν.
  40. Cf. the eroticized landscape in 96 V; Snyder 1994.
  41. Burnett 1983: 293-95. Her reason is that the rhetorical intensifier truly is indicative of an attempt to persuade, appropriate to the other speaker. Greene 1994: 47 concurs. Howie 1979: 302-5 discusses various proposed interpretations of the first line.
  42. Burnett 1983: 296-300.
  43. McEvilley 1971: 4-5n. 7 prefers to assign it to "Sappho" on the grounds that Sappho's poems typically begin in the present and move to the past. As Burnett 1983: 293 points out, however, we do not know that this is the first stanza of the poem.
  44. Robbins 1990: 114-18, who bases his argument on a subtle rhetorical analysis.
  45. The disparity between the first line, if it is attributed to "Sappho," and the tone of the reported speech is noted, e.g., by Schadewaldt 1950: 116-18; Saake 1971: 189-204.
  46. Some see in the poem the implication that the addressee has now forgotten Sappho. Caduff 1972 defends this reading, earlier proposed by Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, but rejected by most commentators since.
  47. Burnett 1983: 292 points out that the poem could be sung later by any of the girls in order to reinforce their memories of delight after they in turn had left.
  48. McEvilley 1971: 9-11 reads the poem in psychological terms as the creation of an imaginary world, a world empty of anyone but the speaker and the beloved. Howie 1979: 310-29 analyzes it as consolation. Though his approach is very different, his conclusions complement mine.
  49. The verb does not normally refer to an emotional state. LSJ s.v. creates a special category just for this instance, but it gets special treatment only because the poem is taken to be a love poem.
  50. Burnett 1983: 296 notes the plural: "The lover who begins by saying 'Remember me' in an instant offers to revive the girl's knowledge of how the whole group had gathered adoringly about her."
  51. The supplement νε]ανίδων (young women) in line 23 has been suggested but cannot be taken as probable. Page 1955 ad loc. says that, whatever the first visible letter was, it was not α. Burnett 1983: 298n.56 takes the genitive that stood there as subjective, "the desire that girls feel" (accepting the supplement), thus avoiding the idea that the recipient was involved with someone other than Sappho.
  52. Greene 1994: 48.
  53. In 31 and 95 V she describes the scene before speaking of her own state. Poem 31 begins with her speech, and so in this poem also she could open with an address to the divinity.



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Page, D. L. 1955. Sappho and Alcaeus. Oxford.

West, M. L. 1993. Greek Lyric Poetry: The Poems and Fragments of the Greek Iambic, Elegiac, and Melic Poets (Excluding Pindar and Bacchylides) Down to 450bc, Translated with Introduction and Notes. Oxford.

Studies, Commentaries, Dictionaries

Boedeker, D. D. 1979. "Sappho and Acheron." In Bowersock et al. 1979: 40-52.

Bonelli, G. 1977. "Saffo, 2 Diehl = 31 Lobel-Page." L'Antiquité Classique 46: 453-94.

Burnett, A. P. 1983. Three Archaic Poets: Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho. Cambridge, MA.

Caduff, G. 1972. "Zu Sappho Fragment 94 LP. (= 96 D.)." Serta Philologica Aenipontana II. Ed. R. Muth. Innsbruck. 9-12.

Carson, A. 1986. Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay. Princeton.

Di Benedetto, V. 1986. "Integrazioni al P. Oxy. 1231 di Saffo (frr. 27 e 22 V.)." QUCC n.s. 24: 19-25.

Gerber, D. E. 1976. "Studies in Greek Lyric Poetry: 1967-1975." CW 70.2: Special Survey Issue.

Giacomelli [Carson], A. 1980. "The Justice of Aphrodite in Sappho Fr. 1." TAPA 110: 135-42.

Greene, E. 1994. "Apostrophe and Women's Erotics in the Poetry of Sappho." TAPA 124: 41-56.

Hague, R. 1984. "Sappho's Consolation for Atthis, fr. 96 LP." AJP 105: 29-36.

Hallett, J. P. 1979. "Sappho and Her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality." Signs 4: 447-64.

Howie, J. G. 1979. "Sappho Fr. 94 (LP): Farewell, Consolation and Help in a New Life." Papers of the Liverpool Latin Seminar 2: 299-342.

Johnson, W. R. 1982. The Idea of Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry. Berkeley.

Kirkwood, G. M. 1974. Early Greek Monody: The History of a Poetic Type. Ithaca.

Latacz, J. 1985. "Realität und Imagination. Eine neue Lyrik-Theorie und Sapphos φαίνεταί μοι Χῆνος-Lied." Museum Helveticum 42: 67-94.

Lidov, J. 1993. "The Second Stanza of Sappho 31: Another Look." AJP 114: 503-35.

Marry, J. D. 1979. "Sappho and the Heroic Ideal: ἔϐωτος ἀϐετή" Arethusa 12: 71-92.

Marzullo, B. 1952. "Arignota l'Amica di Saffo." Maia 5: 85-92.

McEvilley, T. 1971. "Sappho, Fragment Ninety-Four." Phoenix 25: 1-11.

——. 1978. "Sappho, Fragment Thirty One: The Face Behind the Mask." Phoenix 32: 1-18.

O'Higgins, D. 1990. "Sappho's Splintered Tongue: Silence in Sappho 31 and Catullus 51." AJP 111: 156-67.

Robbins, E. 1990. "Who's Dying in Sappho Fr. 94?" Phoenix 44: 111-21.

Rösler, W. 1990b. "Realitätsbezug und Imagination in Sapphos Gedicht ΦAINETAI MOI ΚHNOσ." In Kullmann and Reichel 1990: 271-87.

Saake, H. 1971. Zur Kunst Sapphos: Motiv-Analytische und Kompositions-technische Interpretationen. Munich.

——. 1972. Sapphostudien: Forschungsgeschichtliche, biographische und literarästhetische Untersuchungen. Munich.

Schadewaldt, W. 1942. Legende von Homer dem Fahrenden Sänger: Ein altgriechisches Volksbuch. Leipzig.

——. 1950. Sappho. Welt und Dichtung: Dasein in der Liebe. Potsdam.

Snyder, J. 1994. "The Configuration of Desire in Sappho Fr. 22 L-P." Helios 21: 3-8.

Stehle, E. 1990. "Sappho's Gaze: Fantasies of a Goddess and Young Man." In Konstan and Nussbaum 1990: 88-125.

West, M. L. 1970a. "Burning Sappho." Maia 22: 307-30.

Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, U. von. 1913. Sappho und Simonides. Berlin.


SOURCE: Jarratt, Susan C. "Sappho's Memory." Rhetoric Society Quarterly 32, no. 1 (winter 2002): 11-43.

In the following excerpt, Jarratt examines Sappho's writings on memory in the context of gender differences. Placing Greek lyric poetry in the context of the rise of democracy in Athens, Jarratt finds that the language of absence and forgetting in Sappho's poetry reflects women's exclusion from the public sphere—the site of political activity in a democratic society.

Emotions are the matrix of memory impressions, and so—of course—desire moves intellect, as all learning is based in remembering.

Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory

To lack memory is to be a slave of time, confined to space; to have memory is to use space as an instrument in the control of time and language.

Dominick LaCapra, History and Memory after Auschwitz

Feminist historiography in rhetoric has flourished over the last decade and a half. Women rhetors are now counted more regularly and numerously among canonical figures (Bizzell and Herzberg), and the works of both male and female rhetors are being held under a lens of gender analysis (e.g., Brody). These two approaches—recovery of female rhetors and gendered analysis of both traditional and newly rediscovered sources—are by no means exhausted and will no doubt continue to attract scholarly energies. As a gradual outcome of these processes, historians of every stripe are led to reconceive traditional rhetorical categories, and along with them, the relationships between past and present. The three proofs, the five canons, topoi, tropes and figures, situation, audience—any and all of these rhetorical materials are subject to transformation via the work of feminist historians (see Ede, Glenn, and Lunsford). In this process, feminism in historical rhetoric opens doors to a wide range of methodologies (including those employed by political theorists, anthropologists, and psychoanalytic critics, to mention a few) which may, in turn, be enriched through cross-fertilization with the rhetorical tradition.

I offer the following reading of memory in the works of Sappho as an example of the way our understanding and appreciation of a traditional canon of ancient rhetoric may change dramatically as a result of feminist historiographical research.1 Sappho stands as the first and preeminent woman writer in the ancient Mediterranean, and as such, a powerful lure for a student of classical rhetoric interested in gender difference. Among the dozen well-known lyric poets of the Archaic era, Sappho was the one woman who created a body of text read, respected, and (to some extent) preserved by those who produced classical rhetoric and by many others, primarily for its beauties of style and poetic meter.2 An almost unbelievably happy accident of history preserves the writings of a male poet of almost equal stature, Alcaeus, living in the same time and at the same place: an ideal situation for exploring gender difference. For some traditional historians of rhetoric, such an inquiry would pose the problem of rhetoric's official origins and naming: Sappho and Alcaeus lived during the sixth century B.C.E. in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, one hundred and fifty years before—and several hundred miles across the Aegean from—the official founding of rhetoric in fourth-century Athens (Schiappa). But the case can be made for a broader definition of "rhetoric" and what counts as "rhetorical practice." Indeed, Jeffrey Walker has made this case convincingly in Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity. Lyric, he claims, is "the nearest relation to, and indeed the precursor for … the later 'rhetorical' tradition"; it functioned as "culturally and politically significant civic discourse" (140). Numerous feminist historians of rhetoric have argued for the necessity of identifying rhetorical practices outside the boundaries of the named tradition. In her study of Sappho, Page duBois identifies ancient rhetoric as a contested field with no stable point of origin (167-76). She terms the self-referential texts of the rhetorical tradition "metarhetoric," freeing up "rhetoric" for wider use (167). Krista Ratcliffe redefines the writings of Anglo-American feminists as implicit rhetorical theory. Molly Wertheimer collects essays on the "rhetorical activities" of women; Cheryl Glenn discusses the "protorhetoric" of Sappho; and, Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald characterize women's rhetorical theories and practices in terms of "available means." Not only feminist rhetoricians hold this view. According to Oswyn Murray, in cities of the Archaic era, "the poet's role was still central; and so satisfactory for public expression were the varied poetic forms that they may well have delayed the appearance of a prose literature" (25). Because Sappho and Alcaeus were public poets in an era when lyric served as an instrument of persuasion (Podlecki xii; Walker), their texts become valuable sources of reflection on the rhetorical tradition.

A careful reading of all Sappho's fragments brought to my attention repeated references to memory. Could these references be related in any way to the techniques of memorizing speeches which become a mainstay of classical rhetoric? And what role might gender difference play in this process? Isolating memory and considering it in the context of the life of an elite woman in an Archaic era Greek colony suggested a broader context for this mental act, particularly in the light of historical research on memory broadly conceived and of contemporary theories of memory. Studies by scholars such as Frances A. Yates and Mary Carruthers treat memory in Western European intellectual history as a phenomenon of deep cultural significance. Further, recent studies in sexual abuse, racism, and the Holocaust have argued for memory as a powerful force in the interplay between psychic experiences and social structures of exclusion, discrimination, and violence (e.g., LaCapra, Cheng).



Some think the fairest thing in all creation
  To be of horse or foot an armèd host;
For battle-ships some have most admiration,
  But I my heart's beloved do cherish most.
And 'tis not hard to follow me for any;
  For queenly Helen, fairest of the fair,
Although surveying mortal beauties many,
  Did most of all for her famed lover care.
Forgetting her dear parents and her daughter,
  She followed him who glorious Troy destroyed.
Far from her friends and native land he brought her,
  By vanity and passionate love decoyed.
For easily is woman tempted ever
  When lightly she considers what is near.
E'en so, my Anactoria, you never
  Remember her who still today is here.
But I her lovely foot-fall hear more gladly,
  Prefer the brightness of her gleaming eye
To all the din of chariots rushing madly,
  To Lydian armoured foot-men's battle-cry.
I know to men the best cannot be granted:
  'Tis better far to ask a share of that
Which once was shared, to be with this contented,
  Than, vainly reaching higher, to forget.

Sappho. "Fragment 10." In The Lyric Songs of the Greeks: The Extant Fragment of Sappho, Alcaeus, Anacreon, and the Minor Greek Monodists, translated by Walter Peterson, pp. 22–23. Boston: Gorham Press, 1918.

These studies concern people reconstructing their own memories of events they experienced. In such circumstances, one can query one's own memory processes. One can also reflect on the memory practices of a group. Houston A. Baker, Jr., for example, exhorts African Americans to practice "critical memory" as opposed to nostalgia in reconstructions of Martin Luther King, Jr. The case of a historian reconstructing a distant past does not involve the historian's own memory but rather entails an examination of the processes of memory, insofar as they are revealed in textual records. Histories are lived and created by people with memories, thus public processes of representing the past are intimately connected with the workings of memory. Dominick LaCapra formulates this link powerfully: "critically tested memory may appear as the necessary starting point for all symbolic activity" (182). Ancient rhetoric—both narrowly and broadly defined—offers a detailed record of such operations.

Were there differently gendered needs for memory in the sixth century? Both men and (a few) women composed (probably in writing) and then orally delivered memorized text in the preclassical period. The attention paid to rhetorical techniques for memorizing speeches beginning in the classical era provides us with a rich resource for exploring the more profound psychic function of memory in recording experiences of exclusion and loss—experiences inscribed within the rhetorical record in various ways. This exploration requires conceptualizing a link between memory and space. Classical rhetoric takes place in a public space inhabited jointly by speaker and listeners, but this space—as has been well documented—was occupied by only a small fragment of all the people who existed in the world of the ancient Mediterranean. Working back and away from the all-male, democratic setting of fifth-century Athens, we may imagine people who must articulate communal goals in the absence of others and in spaces less central and generally accessible than the Athenian assembly and courts. It is under such circumstances that memory becomes crucial. To construct the significance of memory on these terms, then, is to explore space.3

Difference and Space

The dominant mental image of the classical (i.e. fifth-century Athenian) rhetoric is a space of agonistic rhetorical practice: polis as public sphere, rhetoric as public spear. Jürgen Habermas's early work contributes to this image, sketching classical public in a dramatic chiaroscuro: the agora was a space of pure visibility and freedom, defined against the darkness of the oikos, the household, where women and slaves invisibly dealt with the necessities of material existence (Structural Transformation 1-5):

Only in the light of the public sphere did that which existed become revealed, did everything become visible to all. In the discussion among citizens issues were made topical and took on shape. In the competition among equals the best excelled and gained their essence—the immortality of fame. Just as the wants of life and the procurement of its necessities were shamefully hidden inside the oikos, so the polis provided an open field for honorable distinction.…


This heroic and binary image may accurately represent certain features of fifth-century polis-life, but a danger lies in transposing that classical map onto the Archaic world of a hundred and more years earlier. Scholarship suggests that it would be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that the spaces occupied by women in Archaic Greek-speaking cities were as confining as those of elite Athenian women during the democracy. Despite the similarity of domestic architecture across the centuries, women in the earlier era had more freedom: "they could move freely without escorts, discuss on equal terms with their husbands, and might even be present at the banquets in the great hall" (Murray 44). To the extent that we can speculate about the life of a woman who is represented in the fragments of poetry marked with Sappho's name (duBois 3), we get a picture of someone who occupied many, varied spaces: she moved and performed in mixed groups, traveled—by choice and in political exile, but may also have been married and a mother, was interested in beautiful clothing and grooming, and spent much time and energy in all-woman groups in composing, singing, and practicing cult religions. Before the status of male citizenship was fixed in the classical, Athenian democracy, who were the subjects of communal life in the ancient Greek city, what spaces did they inhabit, and how did they use language to reflect on and mediate their relations? Determining the nature of the actual spaces within which Sappho wrote in relation to her representations of them generates a complexly layered blueprint of public and private. In the interest of dispelling phantasms of both agora and oikos, we begin with the latter—its ideological legacies and archaeological remnants—references to which are almost completely absent in Sappho's fragments.

The House

Life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house … In this remote region, memory and imagination remain associated, each one working for their mutual deepening … Through dreams the various dwelling-places in our lives co-penetrate and retain the treasures of former days.…

Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space

Bachelard's idealized image sketches a thoroughly masculinized view of the house as safe and womb-like nest. Memories are treasures, stored and retrieved through dreams. Though appearing in this brief passage as a timeless form, Bachelard's house distills historically specific elements of the private, domestic space of eighteenth-century European bourgeois culture (Habermas 43-56). Like the middle-class wife and mother, the house itself becomes a maternal bosom, site of love and intimacy, and repository of memory. Contemporary feminist historians must guard against uncritically reproducing this appealing scene of femininity in readings of women writers from earlier cultures. We must look closely at specific features of place and gender, and seek to uncover the ideologies determining their meanings. Where we find familiar elements—separate or intimate spaces, cultivation of the person, emotional intensity, interest in natural beauty—we should ask a number of questions: are they exclusive to a feminine world in a particular time and place, or do they also appear in texts authored by men or in articulations of masculine culture and value? what material conditions support them? what social and political functions do they perform? Asking such questions of archaic Greek culture reveals complex answers.

In some accounts of domestic space and economy of archaic Greece, women occupy a place similar to that of other possessions: "The physical shape of the noble's house provides the key to the relationship between production of wealth and its use to establish the social status of the basileus [warrior king].… [I]t consists essentially of a courtyard, stables, perhaps a porch where guests might sleep, private chambers for storing wealth and weapons and for women's quarters, and a great hall … (Murray 47-48, emphasis added). This is the house of Odysseus or Agamemnon—the heroes of the epics. As in many later descriptions, women are seen as cloistered in gender-segregated, "private" parts of the Greek house. But in a recent study of domestic space across several eras of ancient Greek life, archaeologist Michael Jameson offers a different perspective. There is no way to determine, he claims, which parts of the house were specifically designated for women (172). Most women's work—food preparation, child care, and weaving—went on in the central courtyard, he contends. The one room specially marked as "masculine," the andrôn, was probably not as exclusive nor as large and elegantly appointed as the symposium spaces typically represented on vases and in literature. Nor was it kept at a distance from "women's quarters." The point of his analysis is that, given the minimal physical evidence for clear division of gendered spaces in the Greek house, the work of gender separation is much more heavily a conceptual or ideological task (see also Vernant). Domestic archaeology reveals a "concept of the economic and social independence and privacy of the oikos" as "the household formed around a nuclear family" (195), but the "private" house of the nuclear family was not the private of a purely feminized domestic space. Nor is the house itself clearly divided into male- and female-inhabited spaces. Note the difference in this conception from the equation Habermas offers: public = agora = male; private = oikos = female. Reading the fragments of Sappho in relation to this altered conception of the "private" rather than exclusively in terms of gender segregation across a public/private axis gives a slightly different angle of vision. Although the textual space of a journal article prohibits me from treating this question with the thoroughness it deserves, we can sketch some outlines of the representation of space in Sappho's lyrics.4

The setting for her discourses is not domestic. In all but a few cases, the lyrics are set outdoors. Capturing the sense of these external spaces requires care. The natural settings of Sappho's fragments are neither highly cultivated nor are they completely wild. They evoke ritual practices and the sites marked out for such, but none of the fragments is generically "religious," nor are rituals described with specificity; they are only alluded to obliquely. Setting her lyrics outside the polis draws attention to the fact that women were not included in civic deliberations. Furthermore, a substantial number of the poems thematize presence and absence—women's coming and going—within spaces of women's habitual congregating, thus calling forth a gendered operation of memory.


The lush beauty of natural spaces in Sappho's fragments tempts the contemporary reader into a divided frame of reference: her feminine world of natural beauty and peace—the private garden, in John Winkler's phrase6—vs. Alcaeus's busy masculine world of war, politics, and strife. Again we must be on guard against reading more current ideologies, in particular the bourgeois formulas so familiar to us, onto a much earlier and different era. The case of the garden is much like that of the house. We have inherited conceptions of the garden both from eighteenth-century English attitudes toward ownership and cultivation of land and from a Romantic reaction to those attitudes.7

Several significant words for places appearing in the fragments of Sappho are drawn from nature and from ancient Greek religious practices conducted outdoors, but the "nature" in these poems is neither wilderness nor precisely the domestic "garden." Michael Jameson suggests that in older Greek towns—with haphazard organization along routes leading to fields, shore, heights, and sanctuaries—as well as in the newer orthogonal settlements (i.e., those laid out in a rectilinear grid), the houses were so tightly packed that there would have been little space between them for gardens (177). Agricultural land (chôra) constituted, with the house, part of the "private" realm, but we know from Sappho's scornful reference (Fr. 57) to the couturial ignorance of a "country girl" (agroiôtis) in her "country garb" (agroiôtin stolan) that she has no love for farm or field. What then are we to make of the relation between the spaces created in these writings so as to imagine Sappho neither as a figure in an eighteenth-century landscape painting, proprietress of a cultivated garden, nor yet entirely confined within a house in the city? Recent archaeological work offers insight into this problem, shifting attention from Bronze Age palaces and classical-era monuments to the temporal and geographical spaces in between (Murray and Price). François de Polignac gives us a picture of newly emerging cities during the Archaic period:

In the Greco-Aegean world of the eighth century, 'towns' often consisted of loose groups of villages or clusters of houses that the first elements of urbanization were, at the end of the century, just beginning to pull together in an organic fashion (above all by creating spaces reserved for public use), just as they were expanding as a result of demographic growth.


One of the developments of the seventh and sixth centuries—crucial for the formation of the polis—was the establishment of cults and the building of temples. Polignac catalogues sites for religious practices in three different relations to the city: first the acropolis, a high central temple around which the city organizes itself; the second, what Polignac calls "suburban or periurban," located on the margins of the town or just a little way off. The most interesting of Polignac's findings involves a third category: the "extraurban" sanctuary, situated at a distance from the city so as to be out of the daily routine but close enough to be fairly accessible. He observes that "many of the Greek world's most famous sanctuaries fall into the nonurban category" (23) and that the formation of such extraurban sanctuaries was a significant accompaniment to the development of the polis. The organization of sacred spaces over the period of the eighth century involved the addition of features such as an altar, a temple (housing statues and offerings), and walls marking out the sacred area (16-17). These changes occurred unevenly across various sites (17-21), but "the appearance of sanctuaries implies a definite change in people's perception of space" (20). Polignac's work helps us to imagine that Sappho might have been physically present in extraurban sanctuaries. He notes the presence of one such sanctuary on Lesbos, situated at the center of the island, equidistant from its four cities (38; see also Walker 223-24, 227-28).

This data gives us a historical frame of reference for the ways Sappho describes outdoor space, and Fr. 2 offers the fullest and most suggestive picture of an extraurban sanctuary:

                            ] summit of the
                   mountain descending,
  come to me from Crete to the sacred recess
  of this temple: here you will find a grove of
  apple trees to charm you, and on the altars
4           frankincense fuming.
  Here ice water babbles among the apple
  branches and musk roses have overshadowed
  all the ground; here down from the leaves' bright flickering
8               entrancement settles.
  There are meadows, too, where the horses graze knee
  deep in flowers, yes, and the breezes blow here
  honey sweet and softer [
12         [                                       ]
  Here now you, my goddess [                 ] Cypris
  in these golden wineglasses gracefully mix
  nectar with the gladness of our festivities
16            and greet this libation.
                              (trans. Jim Powell)

I chose this translation in part because it preserves the incomplete line before the first full stanza, giving the picture of this grove not at an indeterminate distance out in the wilds but between mountain and city. This dreamlike poem contains many of the significant place terms Polignac associates with the extraurban sanctuary. The poet appeals to the goddess Aphrodite (associated with Crete) to come to a "recess" (naûon, l. 1). Translated by some as "temple," the term is less suggestive of a built monument than of a place outdoors which naturally lends itself to worship. Likewise, "grove" (alsos, l. 2) seems to be a natural site, but it has been furnished with altars (bômoi, l. 3). There are signs of cultivation—apple trees and roses—but also of wild vegetation. The place word chôros (translated as "all in the ground" in l. 7)9 carries associations of land or country, but can also refer more generically to place or space; Liddell and Scott's first definition is "space to hold a thing," and its related word chôra suggests belonging—to be in one's place or take one's place (793-94).

Given those associations, this fragment's most striking aspect, noted by several commentators, is the eerie absence of people. Thomas McEvilley, for example, describes the grove as a "general image of a relationship of desire and withholding, of emptiness and fullness" (332). We have gone out of the city with the poet—perhaps along a processional path marked out from city to sanctuary, along which the whole community would have walked on another occasion: ending in a place where women would have enjoyed the rituals of the cult of Aphrodite—"private" in their separation from the rest of the group, but public in the sense of engaging in religious practices sanctioned by and in service of the polis. But instead of being accompanied by others, in Sappho's poem the listener is placed in this imagined space alone. More powerfully than the publicly sanctioned space of worship, the fragment represents the absence of women.

In another fragment (94), women are present together, facing imminent separation. The speaker here expresses a wish to die because she must leave a group of other women against her will. She describes this experience, what she has "undergone" (pep[onth]amen), as "fearful" (deina). The respondent, "Sappho," then consoles her, redefining the experience as a good one (kal' epaschomen), and corrects her memory: "and remember me, for you know how we have stood by you. Perhaps you don't—so I will remind you … and we have undergone beautiful things" (trans. John Winkler).10 She goes on to remind the girl of wearing wreaths of flowers, being anointed with perfumed oil, lying on a soft bed and satisfying her longing. The verbs in both cases are forms of paschô, to undergo. This is an active voice verb but has something of a passive sense to it: to undergo something demands less agency than to do something. The poem combines the idea of a forced departure from the pleasure of a group of women in the ritual space of Aphrodite's sanctuary with the shaping of memory in the face of that departure, the reminder which is actually a changed impression of what was "undergone." The words for remembering—the imperative memnais' (kamethen memnais' - "remember me") and omnaisai (an infinitive in the phrase egô thelô omnaisai - "I want to remind you") are derived from Mnemosune, the name of the mother of Muses.11 The rhetoric of the verse delicately reconstructs of a memory of pleasurable erotic and sensual experience to be carried into the new life (Burnett 290-300). The Sapphic speaker corrects the departing woman's memory in order to sustain her in a future in which she would perhaps be cut off from the richness of experience with the speaker and others who have shared those experiences, those who have "taken care of" the leaving woman. Similar uses of memory occur in other poems. Fr. 16, for example, uses the story of Helen in a speculation on a philosophical question: what is most beautiful? At the end of the existing fragment, the speaker says the mythic Helen has reminded her (o]nemnai-s') of "Anactoria who is not here" and goes on to mention "her lovely walk and the bright sparkle of her face" (Campbell 67).12 Fr. 24, of which no complete line remains intact, recreates the tone of Fr. 94: "remember (emnasesth') … for we too did these things in our … youth: many lovely … we … the city … us … sharp" (Campbell 75). The speaker remembers (epimnastheis') "Gentle Atthis" in Fr. 96, another verse filled with natural beauties: moon and stars, salt seas and flowery fields, dew, roses, chervil (Campbell 121).

Converting Desire to Memory: A Rhetorical Process

In these references to memory in Sappho's works lies an impulse related to rhetoric's desire to shape the ideas, feelings, and practices of those it reaches.13 The motifs of memory in Sappho's poems do not offer an organized technê for memorizing speeches (cf. Burnett 277-313). But they arouse yearning (pothos), and it is because one can feel desire, can yearn for a different future, a just response to a past act, a fair valuation of a leader, that one can persuade and be persuaded.14 Although Freud argues that civilization takes shape through the suppression of individual desire (Civilization), one might use Sappho's verse, particularly through references to the goddess Peitho, to make the opposite case: that the articulation of the most compelling of human desires—desire for another person—is related in some way to the capacity to articulate communal desires.15Consciousness of others, present or absent, is necessary at that juncture.

Sappho's references to Peitho, the goddess of Persuasion, and the role of this figure in Archaic culture support such an interpretation. In the Palatine Anthology, a cumulative collection over ten centuries of thousands of Greek epigrams, the second-century B.C.E. poet Antipater of Sidon links persuasion and lyric in his praise of Sappho:

Aeolian earth, you cover Sappho, who among the immortal Muses is celebrated as the mortal Muse, whom Cypris and Eros together reared, with whom Persuasion wove the undying wreath of song, a joy to Hellas and a glory to you. You Fates twirling the triple thread on your spindle, why did you not spin an everlasting life for the singer who devised the deathless gifts of the Muses of Helicon?16

(Campbell 27-29)

Peitho is here connected with Aphrodite and her son Eros, figures for desire and yearning. In Sappho's Fr. 1 (the only complete poem among the remains of Sappho's verse), we see this association enacted when the speaker (called "Sappho") calls on Aphrodite to persuade a lover to submit to the speaker's desire for her. Although Peitho is not named as a goddess, her name would sound and thus her force be felt in the verb "to persuade" (l. 18, Campbell 54). Her assistance to Aphrodite often involves tricks or deception, later strongly associated with rhetorical persuasion. According to Burnett's analysis of the poem, "[Aphrodite's] magic, after all, is a heightened form of persuasion (as Sappho slyly reminds us) and it will be used in the interest of a special erotic justice which Aphrodite, like a little sister to Athena, here defends" (255-56).

In a more general observation, Anne Carson marks the power of the association between desire and persuasion in a primarily oral culture:

The breath of desire is Eros.…Wings and breath transport Eros as wings and breath convey words: an ancient analogy between language and love is here apparent. The same irresistible sensual charm, called peitho in Greek, is the mechanism of seduction in love and of persuasion in words; the same goddess (Peitho) attends upon seducer and poet. It is an analogy that makes perfect sense in the context of oral poetics, where Eros and the Muses clearly share an apparatus of sensual assault.


Peitho became one of Aphrodite's cult names (Burnett 256n.73), probably during Sappho's time. In a second-century C.E. papyrus commentary, Sappho refers to Peitho as a daughter of Aphrodite (Campbell 115). In Fr. 96 mentioned above, the words "Aphrodite" and "Peitho" appear in the final stanzas.

But Peitho's realm is not purely that of persuasion as personal, erotic seduction; she also has associations with the public life of communities. Her power is necessary for the establishment of civilization and democracy. One of the reports of the founding of her cult illustrates this dual association. Pausanias, the travel guide of the ancient Mediterranean, tells of a temple in Athens to Aphrodite Pandemos ("of all the people") and Peitho. Later, archaeologists find coins with Athena on one side and Aphrodite Pandemos and Peitho on the other. According to Walter Burkert, venerable authority on Greek religion, Aphrodite Pandemos was responsible for vulgar sexuality and prostitution, but the sources he cites here are later Athenian figures: Solon, Plato, and Xenophon (409n34). The older meaning of "Pandemos" he gives is "literally the one who embraces the whole people as the common bond and fellow-feeling necessary for the existence of any state" (155). Another story told by Pausanias speaks of the political power of Peitho. A local myth of Sicyon, an ancient city on the Peloponnesian peninsula, tells of the coming of Apollo and Artemis. The twin deities were ejected from a place called Phobos (Fear), an act that precipitated a plague in ancient Sicyon. Young suppliants from the city went to a river and persuaded the gods to return to Peitho's sanctuary in their town, thereby dispelling the plague. Polignac interprets this story as the banishing of Fear by Persuasion, giving "perfect expression to the ideal of relations within the city, where philia guarantees the cohesion of the community" (71).

Within this mix of sources, we find threads of persuasion cultivating desire or feeling in service at times of personal passion but at other times of forging group bonds. The rhetorical impulse in Sappho's fragments might be described as the cultivation of such feelings among women, particularly in service of a kind of memory useful to a woman separated from pleasurable contact with other women.17

Anne Pippin Burnett describes Sapphic memory training as a "discipline" with some rigor:

… there is nothing sentimental or backward-looking about the Sapphic doctrine of memory, and its practitioners are not to be thought of as listlessly fingering old souvenirs. What Sappho taught was a disciplined mental process which, by reconstructing past actions in a certain way, kept one fit for the best that the present might propose.


Burnett goes on to propose that the memory Sappho cultivates is an "organising and classifying one, and it must be accompanied by a complementary process of forgetting, as particular moments are dissociated from their particular contexts and rearranged with others of their kind" (300). Perhaps "doctrine" (295) is too strong a term, for Sappho lived in a world prior to discursive systematization—to the differentiation of types of discourse into philosophical, rhetorical, scientific, and aesthetic which began in earnest with Aristotle in the fourth century but would be fully enacted only with modernity. But the technê of Sappho's rhetorical lyric is no less artful, self-conscious, and serviceable for the needs of the culture. The question of whether or not this memory work forms a system is less compelling than that of its nature and ends.

The most prevalent references to memory throughout ancient Greek tradition concern a person's kleos, or fame. For warrior, politician, or poet, the ideal is to be remembered for great acts which garnered kleos.18 Sappho's fragments include two examples of this kind of memory, notable because they present positive and negative poles. Fr. 147, preserved in the Discourses of Dio Chrysostom, promises "Someone, I say, will remember (mnasesthai) us in the future" (Campbell 159). The emphatic structure, along with the reference to the future, seems to suggest an assertion of kleos for the speaker and her companions. On the other hand, Fr. 55 puts a curse on someone who has failed to live up to speaker's artistic standards, or refused to participate in the world of poetry and pleasure: "But when you die you will lie there, and afterwards there will never be any recollection (mnamosuna) of you or any longing for you since you have no share in the roses of Pieria; unseen in the house of Hades also, flown from our midst, you will go to and fro among the shadowy corpses" (Campbell 99). Even in the imagined hell of the banished poet, woman is still in motion, going to and fro.

Treatments of memory specific to the Archaic period are outlined by Gregory Nagy, who notes the significance of memory in relationship to forgetting (lêthê) (46-47).19 Characterizing lyric poetic practice in terms of a visual figure, Nagy observes that things are remembered because of the light cast on them by poetry and also through the active task of forgetting, or obscuring, other things: "Such a concept of mnemosune can only be achieved through an ever-present awareness of its opposite, lêthê. Without the obliteration of what need not be remembered, there cannot be memory" (46). There are two references to such forgetting in Sappho's fragments. In 44A—a poem concerning Artemis's birth, her pledge to remain a virgin, and her inaccessibility to Eros—appears an admonition "not to forget the anger" (orgos mê 'pilathe, Campbell 91-93). The temptation to supply a context for this enigmatic phrase is strong. Could it have to do with a woman's anger in a male-dominated culture? Perhaps it could be linked to Sappho's banishment under the tyrant Pittacus. There simply isn't enough information to support an interpretation. A more famous and fruitful reference to "forgetting," one that will bring us to a consideration of the distinctive functions of memory in Sappho's verse, occurs in the brief fragment about apple-picking, 105(a):

As the sweet-apple reddens on the bough-top, on the top of the topmost bough; the apple-gatherers have forgotten it—no they have not forgotten it entirely, but they could not reach it.

(Campbell 131)

Winkler interprets this verse as a commentary on female sexuality. The (male) apple-gatherers have "forgotten" the sweet apple reddening: i.e., they have ignored or neglected women's clitoral sexuality. But in the next line we find that, no, they haven't exactly "forgotten" it; they couldn't reach it. Forgetting becomes reinterpreted as a form of incapacity, or a combination of inattention and ineptitude. This subtle dramatizing of "forgetting" takes place in a different associational realm than the casting or withholding of light Nagy describes. Here, the obverse of forgetting requires a kind of physical attentiveness, a sensing of the physical presence of another, along with the capacity to "reach" the other—to respond in a way that suits the features, the state, the ripeness of the other. This kind of remembering is not available to everyone; it is out of reach of some. There is a "hidden-in-plain-sight" quality to it that couldn't be achieved by the switch-like action of turning on or off a light. In a true obverse of such forgetting, the scenarios of remembering created within Sappho's fragments often have more to do with the subtle interplay of relations—the dispositions—among those present than with the shining of a bright light of attention onto a heroic performer.

The memory cultivated in Sappho's verse employs rhetorical powers of lyric in service of the needs of a group. In the creation of an inter-subjective space, Sappho disposes her listeners toward habits of mind and action that would help them to thrive within the constraints of their world.20 In Sappho's lyrics, the others present (listeners) do not become the object of a gaze (Stehle), nor are they represented as fixed in space. In fact, people in the poems are often not represented at all but rather addressed or remembered. Particularly in the creation of the monody—the single person singing to a group—we have an adumbration of the "primal scene" of classical rhetoric.21 Monody is like but unlike the bardic performance in that the text is new, unknown, "personal" to the singer, but it is presented by a single person to a group. But rather than slotting this genre into the category of "private," we need to remember that the archaic monodist had an important civic function. In the description of space as something to be in rather than look at (Shauf), Sappho's verse disposes her listeners in an attentive relationship toward each other—attuned to their movements in and out of a shared space, their desires, and the ways of remembering that will contribute to their well being.…


The linkage between loss, grief, memory, and the visual occurs repeatedly throughout public moments in history, and has been taken up recently by critical theorists interested in historical trauma and the personal damage wrought by racism, sexism, and homophobia. The experience of being excluded from spaces where others exercise power to determine collective actions that shape one's life must always entail some kind of pain: whether it takes the form of the incremental "strain trauma" of a daily life of subordination and silencing, as experienced by women and by queers of many races and classes across history, or more dramatic events of displacement (of American Indians from their ancestral lands), enslavement (of Africans), or genocide (of Jews under Hitler's regime). The project of reimagining public spaces in ways to include and empower such groups must involve the mobilization of memory; vital, multiple publics will engage in "forms of social action requiring the ability to remember in a desirable way" (LaCapra 6). Memory demands (and allows) a kind of agency essential for participation in the public: "Memory is a technology for gaining freedom of movement in and mastery over the subjective temporality of consciousness and the objective temporality of discursive performance" (LaCapra 194). In the passage offered as an epigraph for this essay, LaCapra relates this technique of memory to space.

Memory suggests a history made accountable to the lives of persons. But this is not to suggest the kind of memory contained in a family photo album, constructed by the powerfully normative frame of "the happy family" (Coward). Critical public memory takes its place between sculpted monuments, so familiar that they have become part of a neutral landscape, and a private collection whose names and faces are meaningful only to a handful of intimates. Such a memory will counter the tendency Fredric Jameson sees in our postmodern era: a "weakening of historicity, both in our relationship to public History and in the new forms of our private temporality" (6). Memory here refers to a practice: "a public, inter-subjective practice, a collective recollection of a social past" (Mitchell 193). These rhetorical reflections help us to ask, How is it possible to keep reworking the past to make the present comprehensible?22

History and memory have an intricate relation to one another, particularly when we speak of those left along the side of the grand road of historical progress. Before (after and around) the technical memory systems formulated within the rhetorical tradition, Sappho inscribed a different practice of memory, one we might attempt to recognize and revitalize even today: "history … can provide us the experience of difference, a productive memory of latent fragments of human being" (duBois ix). Classical rhetoric has been remembered—memorialized—by some as a site of lost glory and unquestioned accomplishment: a monumental history, in Nietzsche's term. Placing Sappho in the narrative gives us the rhetorical means to mourn—a way of remembering that returns us again and again to the loss of countless others who have come and gone, and urges us to seek persistently their traces.


  1. I wish to thank the faculty of Miami University's English department, Peter W. Rose, and especially Laura Mandell for their comments on an early draft of this article.
  2. References to Sappho appear in the works of numerous Greek and Roman authors including Plato, Aristotle, Hermogenes, Demetrius, Menander, Himerius, Cicero, Catullus, Seneca, Strabo, Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Plutarch, Philostratus, Athenaeus, and others. Her poems were collected into nine volumes by a scholar of the Alexandrian era. The most important contemporary translators of and commentators on Sappho are Denys Page and David A. Campbell. I rely here on Campbell's collection, numbering, and translations (unless otherwise indicated) of ancient writings by and about Sappho and Alcaeus. See Snyder on other women writers in Greek and Roman antiquity.
  3. The bibliography on gender and space is vast. For a thoughtful overview focusing on feminist scholarship in U.S. history and literature, see Kerber. For a perspective from feminist geography, see Pratt and Hanson.
  4. This article is based on a chapter of a book-in-progress, Dispositions: Rhetoric, Difference, and Public Space.
  5. Jeffrey Walker titles his richly nuanced chapter on the poetry of Sappho and Alcaeus "Argument Indoors," referring to the "symposiumlike gatherings" which may have been the settings for the performance of works of both figures. Walker is less concerned with physical space than with the conditions of argument: the question he grapples with is the extent to which these poets spoke to a homogeneous audience before whom they would need "little more than a rhetoric of recapitulation" in order to solidify shared attitudes and identity (249). His answer is admirably qualified: the image of this closed system does not quite hold in either case.
  6. In Winkler's elegant interpretation of Sappho's erotic verse, "garden" becomes less a natural space than a metaphor for female sexuality.
  7. Tom Stoppard's drama Arcadia offers a delightful enactment of the landscape debates. See also Williams.
  8. Brackets indicate missing words. Williamson offers an interesting account of the kinds of materials on which Sappho's texts have been preserved and stories of their discovery.
  9. The Greek word chôros appears in l. 6 of the Greek text (Campbell 56).
  10. Several interpreters of this fragment are interested in the problem of attributing the first line: is it spoken by the woman who is leaving, quoted clearly in the following lines, or is it the voice of "Sappho"? On this decision rests the degree of desperation one of the speakers feels at the prospect of separation. There is something of a power struggle involved in the decision: if it is Sappho who wishes to die, she has less power in the relationship than the woman who leaves. Or, vice versa. The "Sappho" speaker seems, in the balance of the fragment, to have more control over the situation—to have an interest in evoking emotional memories that will sustain the departing woman in the absence of the speaker. Thus, the contextually logical interpretation argues for the departing woman speaking first, expressing her wish to die.
  11. The Greek lexicon explains the etymology of memory in the Muses: "… before the invention of writing memory was the Poet's chief gift" (Liddell and Scott 449).
  12. This fragment takes the form of a priamel: a list of parallel items, evaluated on some common criterion, ending in a pointed closing—i.e., what is the best, the sweetest, the first, the strongest X? DuBois interprets this poem as an early form of philosophical logic (chapter five). Burnett discusses the uses of the priamel in the lyric tradition and ultimately reads the function of memory in this poem as an effort to have the listener shift attention from the transience of sensual beauty to the permanence of poetic vision: "the vision to which memory can lead is reflected in an image of changeless luminosity" (277; see also Walker 238-42).
  13. Walker makes a compelling case for Sappho as a "protosophist" (249), both performing and arguing for "the persuasive power in the woman's act of speaking" (see especially 208-10, 236-37).
  14. Kenneth Burke posits a similar connection between pathos and knowledge in his discussion of the "dialectic of tragedy" (38-41).
  15. Laura Mandell remarks that "It's as if, for Sappho's culture and gender, the homosexual/homosocial continuum were visible as a continuum, making the sexual and social 'bedfellows' rather than opposites (as in the more homophobic/male suppression of the continuum: civilization as discontent, as suppression of desire)" (personal communication).
  16. Greek epigrams, unlike the pithy sayings we associated with someone like Oscar Wilde, are occasional poems, inclusive of many subjects and eclectic in their scope. Antipater wrote a series of epigrams in praise of earlier poets: in addition to Sappho, he praised Homer, Orpheus, Anacreon, and Erinna (another of the few female poets in Greek antiquity) (Peter 16ff.)
  17. Walker speculates that women's groups during this period would have an unstable quality, commenting that "Sappho's circle was not so much held together as continually reconstituted" (230-31). He imagines that women of the period, in addition to seeking consolation for this condition, might be expressing in its representation a desire for the agency that allows men to wander of their own volition (242).
  18. See Jesper Svenbro's study of reading in ancient Greece for discussion of the concept of kleos as derived from the sound of poetry read aloud and of Sappho's fragments in terms of speech, writing, and personae.
  19. Many will recognize in this root the name of the river over which the dead pass on their way to the underworld. When the prefix "a" is added (a "privative" or negating morpheme), the resulting words create another way to talk about remembering: i.e., as not forgetting. Truth, aletheia, refers to that which is not forgotten. The root also contributes to the English word "lethargy," suggesting the link between a neurotic forgetting of painful memories associated with depression and the lassitude often accompanying this mental state. Its cure produces not necessarily happiness but vitality.
  20. On intersubjectivity, see Benjamin; Mohanty.
  21. I borrow this term from Mitchell (who, of course, borrows it from Freud). Mitchell writes of the primal scene of a conversation, meaning two people talking face to face. My reference is to the single speaker delivering an oration before a group.
  22. I wish to thank Laura Mandell for the form of this question and for excellent advice on the whole of this chapter, especially on the subjects of mourning and melancholy.

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