Sappho Fragment 31

Sappho Fragment 31 Themes


Scholars often refer to “Fragment 31” as Sappho’s poem of jealousy. It begins with an archetypal “love triangle” scenario, with the speaker watching from a distance as her beloved speaks intimately with a man. Both figures are important to her, indeed, she begins by describing his stature in her eyes before looking to her lover. However, the poem is not colored by resentment, anger, or other emotions traditionally associated with jealousy. The speaker moves beyond the man’s presence, and doesn’t even seem too invested in taking his place, intimately across from her beloved. Rather, she sits with her isolation from her beloved and turns her attention towards her own experience of self within this unstable social context.


Despite the darkness of much of its imagery, “Fragment 31” still finds room for joy in the experience of love. This emotion is most explicitly expressed in the flowing language of “oh it/puts the heart in my chest on wings/for when I look at you,” which uses metaphor to linger with the sensation of a racing, lovestruck heart. Ecstasy is a useful word for describing the overwrought, exaggerated love that the speaker experiences in this poem; it leaves room for joy while also conveying the complexity of intense emotion as a possibly transcendent experience. In this framework, the near-death moment which marks the poem’s climax is not irreconcilable with the simple joy of love, but is rather an extension of it, escalated to its most intense point.


Dissociation is the feeling of being removed from one's self, or the sense that one's essence, soul, or mind is separate from the body. “Fragment 31” suggests that kind of experience by avoiding the first person and by using syntax to fracture the body into “eyes,” “skin,” “tongue” etc. The body thus ceases to exist as merely a vessel for a person, but as an independent, even malicious actor. By the end of the poem, dissociation is what allows the speaker to look at herself as though at another, “I am and dead—or almost/I seem to me.” This expands the dynamic established by the first stanza, in which the speaker looks at the man and her lover, making her the subject of her own gaze. The dissociative experience is thus intrinsically linked to the poem’s context as a love poem, and suggests that transcendence is an erotic engagement with oneself, paralleling the speaker’s erotic engagement with her beloved.