Sappho Fragment 31

Sappho Fragment 31 Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Speaker's Tongue (Symbol)

The speaker’s tongue is a symbol of speech. By linking speech to a physical body part, it becomes part of the sensual experience of love, and also becomes a breakable object. Speech is also the first way that the speaker describes her beloved, and the contrast between her own broken tongue and her beloved’s “sweet speaking” illustrates how distant the two are, and emphasizes the way that the speaker’s own body is uniquely fragmented.

Death (Symbol)

Death in “Fragment 31” symbolizes a moment of mental crisis characterized by separation from the outside world and from one’s own body. It is prefaced by “greener than grass I am,” a phrase which may describe eroticism, and hence suggests that death here is linked to a sensual, physical experience. At the same time, the crisis of death is only possible within the context of isolation, so the experience it symbolizes is a solitary one; sensuality in this stanza is present in the way sweat and shaking as hold the speaker, suggesting intimacy.

Perception (Motif)

The entirety of “Fragment 31” is concerned with perception, specifically with how and what the speaker is able to perceive the world around her. In the first stanza, she looks from afar at the man and her beloved as they converse, and in the second, it is this looking that catapults her into the crisis which forms the center of the poem. That crisis is itself contingent on perception, as most of the failing body parts it centers around are used to sense the outside world. By the fourth stanza, the speaker’s inability to perceive her surroundings is offset by the new capacity to sense herself, a capacity revealed in the phrase “I seem to me.”