Sappho Fragment 31

Sappho Fragment 31 Summary and Analysis of Lines 9-12


This stanza continues with the focus on the experience of love that the previous stanza established, but the descriptions of passion only intensify as this brief poem races towards its conclusion. The tension of the poem ticks up from the last stanza, as the speaker no longer feels merely empty of language, but rather finds that her “tongue breaks,” and that even later speech now seems impossible. After the tongue, the speaker describes her skin tingling as if it is on fire, her eyes being struck blind, and her ears going deaf. She is so overwhelmed with love that all other senses begin to systematically fail, from touch to sight to hearing.


Though this stanza speaks more fervently than ever to the experience of love, it does so without ever actually referring at all to the speaker herself. Rather, it lists a series of physical experiences in a disjointed manner, locating each at the relevant body part, rather than with the speaker as a whole. That breaking apart escalates the drama of the poem, bringing new intensity to the unfulfilled passion of the first two stanzas.

The first line of this stanza, “no: tongue breaks and thin,” not only describes breakage, but enacts a formal breakage in the structure that the first half of the poem established. The introduction of the colon, an unusual punctuation mark for a poem which is otherwise minimally punctuated, draws attention to the first two words of this line. It also forces the reader to a halt, almost like a period; by placing it right after the first word of a new line, Carson’s translation isolates that “No” from the rest of poem, allowing it to interrupt the natural flow of the line, a single protest shouted out. From that moment onward, the stanza takes on a distinctly different cast to what preceded it. While the first two stanzas used a poetic, but vernacular, syntax, this line is more difficult to understand and doesn’t sound at all like a normal sentence someone might say in conversation, because of the unexpected placement of “tongue” as the subject, and the lack of clarifying words to bring context to the phrases. It’s broken, like the tongue itself.

That breaking carries into the rest of this stanza, which divides the body into tongue, skin, eyes, and ears, all operating without relation to a whole person. In their isolation, each individual piece of the body also fails to function. After the sudden stop of “No:” the poem’s formal elements force the reader to speed up again—another instance of Carson’s choices as a translator serving to complement the meaning of Sappho’s language. In line 10, the speaker refers to the “fire racing under [her] skin,” which evokes speed even as the physical feeling is caught in the small space beneath the skin. Mary Barnard’s translation uses “runs,” a word which has a similar effect. Carson’s translation draws on this characteristic of the poem by rhyming that line with its predecessor, the only rhyme in the fragment. In contrast to the stilted line that begins this stanza, this rhyme retains the more poetic diction of the stanza, but does so rhythmically, pushing the reader forward. The short lines only add to this frenetic reading pace, which makes the imagery of these two lines even more vivid.

The economy of language which gives this stanza its swift pace also lends itself to the disappearance of the speaker in phrases like “in eyes no sight” instead of, for example, “no sight in my eyes.” On a literal level, this stanza speaks to the speaker’s loss of sense, and hence, isolation from the world beyond herself. However, the disappearance of the speaker from the grammatical structure of the stanza conveys that the speaker is isolated not only from the outside world, but from herself. There’s something tragic, and poignant, about this ultimate loneliness springing from an unexpressed love. The distance between the speaker and her beloved that permeated the first stanza is now reflected in the speaker’s relationship to everything else in the world—including herself.