Sappho’s “Fragment 31” uses a crisis of love to explore the boundaries of the self—both those boundaries inside the self and those between the self and the world. It begins with the speaker watching as her beloved, who she refers to in the second person, converses intimately with a man. Rather than hating him, the speaker sees this man as a kind of god by virtue of his proximity to her beloved. Almost immediately the speaker’s attention turns from him to her, and she falls into a kind of trance as she listens to the sweet sounds of her beloved’s speech and laughter.
As the speaker’s attention drifts, the poem stops describing a scene in favor of depicting the turmoil within her mind. She is ecstatic as she listens to her beloved, but simultaneously finds herself struck senseless at the sight of her, unable to speak or hear, blind to the outside world. As the poem reaches its climax, she begins to return to her own body, but continues to experience an intensifying of emotion, until she feels almost dead from the excess of it.
Sadly, the last three lines of the poem are lost to us. The fragment thus ends on a cliffhanger, with the speaker seeming to turn away from the ecstatic despair of the last stanza and expressing instead a commitment to risk embarking upon the world.