Describe the different kinds of relationships between women that Sappho depicts in her poetry.
Much of Sappho’s poetry centers around relationships between women, whether friendly, romantic, or communal. Her poetry often celebrates love, and the romances between women she depicts are explicitly erotic. She uses intensely sensory imagery to make these relationships feel especially vivid, even when they happened in the past. Yet these relationships don’t happen in a vacuum; instead, the speaker sometimes joins voices with a group of women while she describes them, or refers to other relationships in the past or future despite focusing on one specific passion.
Discuss the relationship between Sappho and Aphrodite as depicted in her work. To what extent does it conform to Greek religious convention?
Sappho’s poetry clearly depicts a close relationship between the poet and the goddess of love. Her poetry depicts the goddess as distant and cunning, a complex understanding that wasn’t unusual in Greek religious practice. What is unusual is the intimacy that Sappho depicts between herself and the goddess, especially in “Fragment 1,” which paints the two persons as friends who parallel one another.
Much of Sappho’s poetry deals with the past. How does she depict memory? How can it be powerful, and what are its limitations?
The melancholy mood of much of Sappho’s work is often rooted in the inevitable passage of time. Love is seldom free of aging or loss. Her poetry never attempts to reverse the passage of time, or even to embrace the present and forget the change that the future promises. Instead, memory exists vividly in the present, and often several layers of memory exist in one poem. As Sappho’s characters remember, they are paradoxically both reminded of what is missing from the present, and comforted by the power of memory to bring back what has been lost, if only partially.
What are some major patterns in the critical response to Sappho throughout history?
Readers have viewed Sappho’s work as exceptionally beautiful since its first publication around 300BC—Plato famously called her the “tenth muse.” Some critics attempted to reconcile their misogyny with the greatness of her words by speculating about her personal life. This speculation was usually unverifiable, and could become ridiculous. Many of them insisted on reading all of her work as autobiographical, despite the fact that much of her work was likely written about or for others. Others took the opposite path, twisting her words to impose heterosexuality on poems that explicitly describe eroticism between women, or assuming that her poetry was never written from a woman’s perspective.
Describe some examples of powerful imagery in Sappho's works. Why does it feel so vivid?
The imagery in Sappho's poetry feels so vivid because it often incorporates all five senses. For example, in "Fragment 2," visual imagery, including descriptions of shaking leaves and blooming meadows, is accompanied by the sound of water and the scent of flowers. This allows the audience to imagine themselves in the settings that the speaker is describing. Often, the use of smell and taste imagery feels more specific and personal than visual descriptions, because those sensations are harder to share, but extremely vivid in memory.