In the opening lines of the poem, the speaker’s attention is fixed at one scene at one specific point in time. Carson’s translation emphasizes this by introducing the man as “that man,” as if the speaker was pointing to someone. “That” also helps to establish a sense of physical space in the poem by suggesting that the man is somewhat distant from the speaker, but near to her beloved. The flippant tone of “whoever he is” indicates that these issues of setting and social location are more significant to the speaker, and to the poem, than the man as an individual person. While the beloved is as distant as him in a physical sense, the speaker’s use of the second person to refer to her connotes a figurative intimacy, in contrast to the indifference with which she refers to the man beside her beloved.
“no: tongue breaks and thin
fire is racing under skin”
This crucial moment in the poem, in which the speaker begins to lose herself while gazing at her beloved, is marked by a deepening surreality. The inclusion of a colon in this otherwise-minimally punctuated poem is striking, especially because it is used so unusually, following the first word at the beginning of a stanza, and not introducing a list. The colon forces a hard stop, one exaggerated by the strangeness of its presence. It parallels the sonic imagery of “tongue breaks” by breaking the sound of the line. In contrast, the enjambment at the end of the line pushes the reader smoothly forward, past the line break, wondering how the sentence will end. That new pace creates aesthetic contrast with the beginning of the stanza, while again echoing the image it describes, this time of racing fire.
“and cold sweat holds me and shaking
grips me all”
The beginning of the penultimate stanza might appear at first glance to merely reiterate the imagery of the previous lines. Yet, while the focus on a bodily crisis remains, the speaker’s attitude towards it begins to shift. The speaker uses “holds” and “grips” to describe the actions of her body, two nearly synonymous verbs. This repeated, and hence important, image of the body holding onto the speaker conveys intimacy, even an erotic relationship between the speaker’s body and herself—as if she could be so moved by her desire for the beloved, that she is actually outside of her own body. This quote also reintroduces the first person, which disappeared in the last stanza. The sudden presence of a “me” suggests that the speaker has found a way to exist as a self, even as her relationship to her own body remains fractured.
Sappho Fragment 31 Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Sappho Fragment 31 is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.