Why have so many poets relied on Sappho as the example par excellence for erotic imagery and expression? This creative project—a booklet that collects Sappho’s fragments, poems and prose by poets that are inspired by Sappho’s themes or forms, critical responses, and original poetry and erasures—is a reply to the many poets who have used Sappho’s poetry as a model for ideal erotics and lyricism. The booklet explores the artistic desires, ambitions, and urges that have led poets to turn to Sappho (and to turn away from her).
Throughout the centuries following Sappho’s life, reception to her work has been influenced by mythological tellings of her biography and by interpretations of her sexuality. Horace refers to Sappho as “mascula,” “severing [her] ties to a female tradition” (deJean 797), and Ovid reiterates the phrase. In his Heroides, Sappho’s “leap into water is the crucial moment … for it completes the exorcism of her inadmissible sexuality. His fictional Sappho functions as a scapegoat since her suicidal leap guarantees the continuing orderly functioning of life inside the literary city. This gesture purifies her and serves as a necessary prelude to her acceptance as a canonical author” (797). Most writes that “Sappho seems to have been a favourite stage figure throughout most of the history of Athenian comedy, from Old Comedy through Menander – but one who exemplified insatiable heterosexual promiscuity, as instanced in her sexual relations with poets like Archilochus, Hipponax, and Anacreon” (Most 17). Further, “the reception of Sappho can be interpreted as a series of attempts to come to terms with the complexity” (17) of Sappho’s character and her personal and professional life. Coupled to the brilliance and originality of her poetry, these stagings of Sappho as a masculinized love poet with an acceptable hetero-tragic female narrative cemented her place in literature as “The Poetess,” similar to the ways in which Homer’s distant-past obscurity and extraordinary originality have cemented him as “The Poet.”
Readers and writers cannot escape the temptation to read books-as-such as units of thought and meaning. Prodi writes that, among Sappho’s fragments,
[l]ove poems are not even numerically preponderant. Thus the choice of fr.1 as the opening poem casts Sappho in a very specific light, one that is not intrinsically dictated by the material itself. The editor’s choice to privilege eros as the way into Sappho’s poetry is but one instance of a long and rich strand of her reception—and a powerful tool to orient her reception in that very direction. By encountering the prayer to Aphrodite as we first unroll the first book of Sappho, we are encouraged to read her first of all as a woman in love who sings about love. This introduction also resonates with the long-lived stereotype that casts women and their speech as particularly prone to emotion (Prodi 579).
While emotion is clearly the domain of any poet, regardless of gender, it is true that this paratextual stage upon which Sappho’s fragments play out establishes her as a love poet and as an erotic poet, and that to some extent it erases the abundance of fragments that deal with war, family, nature, landscape, and other topics. But critical and artistic manipulation is the primary mover behind the formation of Sappho’s reputational place as a fictional-inspirational set-piece for love lyrics. According to Most, “[i]n 1682, Madame Dacier’s brief biographical introduction to her edition of the poet set the pattern: it was the variety of Sappho’s heterosexual relationships that was to determine decisively the sequence of events of her life…[Madame Dacier] introduced the image of an older, disappointed Sappho which was to become dominant for well over a century” (Most 21). In “Sex and Philology: Sappho and the Rise of German Nationalism,” deJean writes that “[a]uthors from Verri  to the fanatical Napoleon loyalist J.-B. Chaussard, whose Fêtes et courtisanes de la Grèce appeared in 1801, linger over the powerful beauty of Phaon’s young flesh in a protofascist hymn to the male body as well-oiled machine for the domination of anyone” (deJean 149). DeJean discusses the successful efforts German philologists made to “defend” Sappho and argue for her chastity. These efforts went beyond normalization and literary imagination. Writers like Welcker set out to sanitize Sappho in order to claim her, along with the rest of antiquity, in furtherance of the German Romantic, Pastoralist, and Nationalist literary movements.
[T]he logic behind Welcker’s chastity argument is so convoluted as almost to defy reconstruction. Welcker admits that Sappho’s poetry shows love for women, but he disclaims the existence of any “basely sensual,” “punishable,” or “reprehensible” element in that love. This claim, on which his entire theory rests, is based on no evidence more concrete than a personal conviction that “no educated Greek would have thought these were beautiful love poems if some- thing monstrous and disgusting had been going on in them.” (149)
DuBois offers an explanation for the fascination and the possible justifications for these repeated disruptions of Sappho’s private purposes and poetics. “Lyric poetry is a particularly valuable source for attitudes concerning sexuality, not least because of its rhetorical situation, what Northrop Frye calls ‘the radical of presentation’” (duBois 132). Sappho, as the earliest and most successful lyric poet, offered post-Renaissance poets driven by various combinations of their ambitions, their passion for antiquity, and their competition with other writers a wealth of material and myth to plunder. The firestorm of her position in history, her establishment and preservation as a master by other poets in antiquity, her lyric subject matter, and her gender made Sappho the examplar of love poetry and ideal erotics. “Sappho’s lyrics…often have this quality of discourse overheard, of a privacy temporarily made visible to the listener” (duBois 132). And “Sappho’s poetry works through…shifting oppositions, staging an encounter between an ‘I’ and a singular ‘you,’ representing a scene of intimacy recovered through memory” (136).
For metaphysical poets like John Donne, Romantic poets like Percy Bysshe Shelley, and symbolists like Charles Baudelaire, these private discourses and encounters crystallized in time must have been nothing short of treasure; for Modernists like Ezra Pound and H.D., the very fragmentariness of Sappho’s work made it appealing. It is little wonder that Sappho’s poetry has ridden the wave of its interpretation into the minds and works of so many writers. It is impossible to know what reception of her work would look like without the myth of Phaon or the assignment of her chastity and heterosexuality, but reading her fragments alongside the poems her well-worked example inspired makes it clear that few or no poets have been able to imitate the one aspect of her work that no critic or philologist can manipulate: her voice. In her own voice, Sappho seems not to speak for anyone, not even herself. Instead, she transmits emotions and exchanges with perspectives from the self and the other that speak in an eternal present, outside of time or history. Listeners to her voice are captivated not only by what she says, or by how and whom she loves, but by the overwhelming strength of her voice, by her pauses and her separations, and by her mysterious ability to set down in public the privacy of loss and longing.
DuBois, Paige. Sappho is Burning. University of Chicago Press, 2005.
Most, Glenn W. “Reflecting Sappho.” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, Vol. 40 ( 1995), pp. 15-38
DeJean, Joan. “Sex and Philology: Sappho and the Rise of German Nationalism.” Representations, No. 27 (Summer, 1989), pp. 148-171
DeJean, Joan. “Fictions of Sappho.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Summer, 1987), pp. 787-805
Prodi, E. E. “Text as Paratext: Pindar, Sappho, and Alexandrian Editions.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, vol. 57, no. 3, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, 2018, pp. 547–82.