Sappho Fragment 31

Sappho Fragment 31 Summary and Analysis of Lines 5-8


In the second stanza of Fragment 31, the speaker’s attention shifts from one specific conversational scene to a broader reflection on her own passion for her beloved. Carried away after hearing her “lovely laughing,” the speaker is overcome with passion, and recounts the way that just looking at her beloved makes her heart beat fast. With the “heart in [her] chest on wings,” she is struck speechless. The ecstasy of love is coupled with an inability to express that love, a theme that intensifies as the poem continues.


This stanza uses imagery, tone, and metaphor to flesh out the speaker’s relationship towards her beloved—the “you” introduced in the first stanza.

The first line of this stanza parallels the last line of the previous stanza, which spoke of the beloved’s “sweet speaking,” by describing her “lovely laughing.”The two descriptions share both a tone of admiration, and a focus on sonic imagery—the kinds of sounds that the speaker associates with her beloved, and the sounds that the reader should hear as they read the poem. Anne Carson, in her translation of the fragment, chooses to amplify that parallelism by structuring both phrases as an adverb followed by a verb in the present participle tense (a verb ending in -ing). Additionally, she translates both phrases alliteratively, with both words of “sweet speaking” beginning with an /s/ sound, and “lovely laughing,” /l/. Not all translations use those same literary devices—for example, Mary Barnard writes “enticing laughter” instead. Indeed, the original Greek doesn’t have identical poetic characteristics to Carson’s translation, or to any other version of the poem in English.

However, her choices serve to emphasize the poetic choices Sappho makes. Here, grammatical structure and alliteration both emphasize the doubling that was already present in this part of the poem on a literal level. That doubling, in turn, helps create the speaker’s fawning tone towards her beloved. The imagery that the speaker shares about her beloved can’t be just utilitarian description, because she repeats herself; instead, it’s an act of continuous admiration, a way of thinking about her beloved.

The repetition also creates a kind of rhythmic build-up to the exclamation which carries from the end of this line into the next, “oh it/puts the heart in my chest on wings.” This is the first time in the poem that the speaker tells us about herself, rather than describing what she sees, and it constitutes the poem’s first climactic moment, the result of the tension that built up through the distance of the first stanza and the repeated admirations at the beginning of the second. Sappho’s use of metaphor brings drama to the relatable feeling of one’s heartbeat speeding up in the presence of a crush.

By shifting focus from the scene of the beloved and the man speaking together to the speaker’s own experience, the poem also shifts from describing a moment in time to describing the speaker’s broader experience of love. The speaker states that her passion is so great that she is unable to speak after seeing her lover for “even a moment.” The phrase “even a moment” tells us that the speaker understands her own feelings towards her beloved, and that the scene from the first stanza was not the first time she saw the woman she is addressing in this poem; rather, her passion has persisted long enough for her to know that while she may sometimes look longer, as she does at the beginning of the poem, there have been times where just a glance was enough to strike her dumb.