In the first stanza, Sappho introduces us to the three main characters of the poem—the speaker, the beloved, and the man she is speaking to. In the very first line, we learn that the speaker is impressed with the man, even to the point of deifying him. However, the speaker doesn't admire him because of his own merit, but because he gets to sit with and speak to the woman who Sappho addresses as "you" throughout the poem. The speaking describes the couple as if looking at them from afar, watching the two of them seated across from one another and speaking closely to each other.
Sappho does a lot of subtle work in this stanza to lay out the tone, setting, and interpersonal dynamics of this poem without wasting time on exposition.
Anne Carson’s translation of the poem begins with the assertive statement that the man “seems…equal to gods” to the narrator. The word "equal" strengthens the admiration behind this statement, as the speaker doesn’t find that the man is like the gods in certain ways, but rather that his stature appears fundamentally equal to theirs. In Mary Barnard’s earlier translation, this line is written even more emphatically, as “He is more than a hero/he is a god in my eyes.”This lengthier translation ends up saying something similar to Carson’s version: the man does not just appear heroic, or as one descended from the gods—he appears as a god himself. The combination of economy and accuracy in Carson’s translation is one reason it is considered the best translation of Sappho today, and why its the primary translation we’re using for this guide.
The second line of Carson’s translation of the poem delicately marks a major shift from the apparently worshipful tone of the first line of “Fragment 31.” The specific “that man” which ends the first line is followed by “whoever he is,” which implies that the speaker is in fact uninterested in the man’s identity. Indeed, after that phrase, the man takes a back seat to the beloved for the rest of the poem, and is never again referred to directly. His godlike stature, rather than making him an important character, is a tool to intensify the speaker’s real preoccupation with the character she refers to as “you” for the rest of the poem. The movement from god to “you” tells us that for the speaker, the beloved is not just important, she is more important even than a god.
Sappho’s use of the second person is also extremely useful in understanding what “Fragment 31” is about. This is also one of the few poetic elements, unlike stanza structure and diction, that is a constant throughout translations of this poem. While the second-person voice is sometimes a way of bringing the reader into the poem, the fact that the man, a character within the poem, interacts with her makes it clear that the speaker is addressing a specific woman, and one who is a figure in the poem—not the poem's audience. The use of the second person to talk about a character points to intimacy, and tells us that the speaker shares a connection with the woman who the man is speaking to, even before she moves into more explicitly romantic language. It is another indication that, even if the man is almost a god to the speaker, he’s not the most important figure in the poem.
The other important dynamic that Sappho lays out in this first stanza relates to setting. Though the speaker never explicitly describes anything about her location, the image of the man and her beloved “opposite” to one another not only helps us imagine the two of them in space, it implicitly describes the position of the speaker as well. By describing the man and the beloved from afar, as if they are on a stage, Sappho points to the speaker’s own distance from her lover, the distance which constitutes the central tension of the poem. In contrast, the speaker describes the man as “listening close” to the beloved, or, in Mary Barnard, as “listen[ing] intimately.” The closeness at play is not just physical but metaphorical, the closeness of romantic intimacy. By drawing attention to this difference, we learn that the speaker elevates the man to the stature of a god because of the gulf between herself and him, between her estrangement from and his closeness to the beloved. This sets up the next stanza, which centers around the speaker's intense emotion towards the beloved, and how that emotion feeds on the distance between them.