Usually, love is part of everyday life, a matter of routine devotion and simple joys. But occasionally, love can hit like a storm, ripping you away from the ordinary passage of time, and from yourself. Sappho's "Fragment 31" speaks of this experience through a drama of glances and soft sounds: one woman gazes at another and finds herself lost in a multivalent passion, simultaneously ecstatic and near-death, closed off from the world, yet full of hope.
"Fragment 31" is an archaic Greek lyric poem, one of Sappho's most famous works and a hugely influential work for modern lyric poetry. Its depiction of desire rests on a tense social scene, in which a man sits closely with the speaker's beloved. Although their identities are nebulous in English, the Greek pronouns make clear that both speaker and beloved are women. As the speaker's gaze moves from man to woman, she begins to spiral into herself, struck dumb by the site of her beloved, until she becomes totally fragmented, and feels almost dead. Nevertheless, the fragment ends not with despair, but with a will to adventure that seems to come out of the crisis of the rest of the poem.
Perception complicates the status of "Fragment 31" as a love poem. While it begins with a scene that could suggest jealousy and thwarted passion, the speaker is indifferent to the man, and focuses only on the woman beside him. Yet her passion is so intense that she paradoxically becomes unable to focus on her beloved, or even on herself. Rather, she experiences a fragmentation of her own body, and the fragment ends with a reversal of the dynamics of the beginning of the poem, as the speaker becomes the object of her own gaze. Love is not where the poem ends, but where it begins—it is a conduit for transcendence, a way to escape the boundaries of the body and experience both the world and oneself in a radically new way.
Though Sappho likely lived between the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, the earliest surviving copy of "Fragment 31" is a quote from hundreds of years later, in Longinus's treatise On The Sublime. By that time the poem had already been adapted by several Classical writers, including Catallus, perhaps the best Roman lyric poet. In the nineteenth century, it was considered emblematic of Romanticism, and inspired great poets including Tennyson, Keats, and Shelley.