Sappho Fragment 31

Sappho Fragment 31 Summary and Analysis of Lines 13-17


In the last full stanza of the fragment, the speaker’s isolation from her lover, the world, and herself reaches a climax even as she returns to her own body. She is sweating from stress and shaking, and she describes herself as “greener than grass,” an elusive line which may convey erotic experience. With this intensity of emotion, she declares herself to feel almost dead.

The final stanza of Fragment 31 was likely the same length as the preceding four, but most of it has been lost. Its opening line shifts from the deepening loss of self which the first four describe, to an impersonal call to take a risk, suggesting that poem ended with a departure from the imagery and mental state of the previous stanzas.


In the beginning of the fourth stanza, the speaker echoes the syntactical patterns established in the previous stanza by removing herself from the subject position in the sentence, and making the body the active force instead. This device continues to illustrate her own distance from herself, and to link that distance with an inability to act—a failure to inhabit the role of subject in her own life.

At the same time, this stanza’s first two lines also convey a kind of intimacy to her experience, one that belies an interpretation of it as strictly negative. In the last stanza, the first person is entirely absent, having disappeared beneath an onslaught of fractured senses. In these two lines, while the first person is deferred, it punctuates the end of each phrase as the object of the body’s action. The importance of her presence is suggested by the verbs which Carson uses here, “grips” and “holds,” both of which require an object. The speaker cannot be severed from the “cold sweat” and “shaking” that grip her. Not only that, but she is engaged with them on a physical, even sensual level that echoes the subject matter of the poem and suggests that the dissociative experience that these stanzas describe is not prohibitive of sensuality, but enmeshed with it.

“Greener than grass,” the description that follows these phrases, has proved elusive to modern readers of Sappho, because we are unsure of the idiomatic and symbolic resonances that must have surrounded this imagery during her time. For centuries, this line was interpreted as describing jealousy. However, green was actually not associated with jealousy until centuries after Sappho wrote, and some translations, including Mary Barnard’s, have even used “paler” instead of greener due to the ambiguity of the word in the original Greek. Phillip Freeman suggests that grass may have been associated with eroticism, but the exact connotations of the phrase may never be known. What we can say is that this description marks another shift in the kind of out-of-body experience that this Fragment describes. Although the first person is very much in jeopardy throughout the poem, this is the first moment where the speaker actually compares herself to something else, rather than breaking her body down into parts which are nevertheless still contained in herself. As Anne Carson notes in “Decreation: How Women Like Sappho, Marguerite Porete, and Simone Weil Tell God,” it is also the first moment in which the speaker sees herself as though through someone else’s eyes. It marks an escape from the speaker’s crisis of isolation within and from herself in the last stanza.

This new freedom manifests in the first-person pronouns which dominate the last two lines of this stanza. The full phrase, “I am and dead—or almost/I seem to me” as well as the final line on its own, “I seem to me,” begin and end with the first person. Though that last line might seem unimportant, it is quietly just as central to the poem as the dramatic declaration it follows, because it explicitly centers the speaker’s capacity to perceive herself. The way that these lines are encompassed by first person pronouns reinforces this shift, and even echoes the repetition of the image of “holding” at the beginning of this stanza—it is as if the poem itself is held by the speaker, holding herself.

The final line of this stanza refuses to let us rest there. While other shifts have been implicit, the “But” that begins it is an explicit departure from what came before it. Its bold declaration, “all is to be dared,” refuses to retreat into a seeming death, and into a gaze centered on oneself. Its reference to poverty seems to acknowledge the compounding emptiness of the first four stanzas—their loss of self, and then freedom from that self—and to imagine a world where within that space, plenitude, “all,” is worth daring.