in my crazy heart. Whom should I persuade (now again)
to lead you back into her love? Who, O
Sappho, is wronging you?”
In this stanza, Sappho uses a shifting speaker to describe the relationship between herself and Aphrodite. In the first question posed in the stanza, the “I” is “Sappho,” the heartsick speaker. The next question begins in Aphrodite’s voice, the goddess with the power to “persuade” the object of Sappho’s affection. By seamlessly moving from one voice to the next, Sappho suggests that she and the goddess are mirrors of one another. Aphrodite’s last question, beginning “Who, O Sappho,” is an apostrophe, paralleling Sappho’s address to the goddess at the beginning of the poem. Again, Sappho suggests that she and the goddess are actually similar characters. For Sappho, the divisions between mortal and god are less interesting than the intimacy between them.
“And fine birds brought you,
quick sparrows over the black earth
whipping their wings down the sky”
In focusing on the broader themes of Sappho’s work, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the moments of simple beauty in her poems. Here, her use of adjectives and repetition helps transform a moment in the plot into a beautiful image all its own. The middle line, “quick sparrows over the black earth,” doesn’t really add any new information. The adjectives she uses to describe the sparrows and the earth, “quick” and “black” respectively, are similarly repetitive—it isn’t surprising that a sparrow flies quickly or that soil is dark. Carson’s translation, like Sappho’s original text, echoes that beauty by using especially flowing language, especially the alliterative, breathy sound of “whipping their wings down the sky.” Rather than continuously sketching a more detailed picture, all this layered description allows the reader to linger with the same beautiful image.
“I would rather see her lovely step
and the motion of light on her face
than chariots of Lydians”
In this quotation, Sappho draws on the geopolitical realities of her time to make a personal, romantic point. Lydia, a kingdom in what is now Turkey, was extremely wealthy, and Sappho often references it in relation to its many fine exports. Here, Sappho makes an implicit connection between that famed wealth and the military actions that secured it. In this poem that prioritizes love over war, she thus suggests that it might be necessary to reject not only war, but the wealth that it accrues, and to instead find other kinds of beauty.
“For her dress when you saw it
stirred you. And I rejoice.”
These two lines are one of the most succinct testaments to Sappho’s reverence towards desire. Like “Fragment 96,” it describes a triangle of women intimately relating to one another. Rather than describing images, like the way “her dress” looks, these lines focus on the way images are gathered—through looking. By focusing on the act of observation, rather than what is observed, the poem describes the world as a fundamentally relational place, where things are always seen and understood through other perspectives, rather than existing on their own. When the speaker declares “And I rejoice” in an unusually short sentence, she asserts an appreciation for that whole reality, rejoicing in the fact that she lives in the kind of world where one woman is “stirred” by the dress of another.
“myrrh and cassia and frankincense were mingled.
And all the elder women shouted aloud
and all the men cried out a lovely song”
Although “Fragment 44” is set in Troy, Sappho lists many fine items specific to her own experiences in Lesbos. This is true of “myrrh and cassia and frankincense,” three incenses that were common imports in her time. While her inclusion of these items might undermine the realism of her world-building, it also would have made the scents and luxury of the scene more real for her audience. Additionally, Sappho’s perspective on abundance is informed by her own aristocratic upbringing. Her celebration of it in “Fragment 44” is hence also a celebration of a contemporary Lesbian aristocratic lifestyle. While that seems like a lot to fit into one poem, that excess only adds to the general themes of “Fragment 44.” The whole poem is about exchange and combination, from the arrival of Andromache from Thebes to the scents mixing in the air to the mingled voices of the crowd. To this exuberant mixture, Sappho adds a bit of her own home.
“]Come, nod yes to this for my sake!
So she spoke. Then the father of blessed gods nodded yes.
Virgin deershooter wild one the gods
call her as her name.”
These lines refer to Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt. In the preceding stanzas, she declares her will to remain a virgin. Zeus bends to her will: she demands that he “nod yes to this” and indeed he “nodded yes.” The parallel syntax emphasizes that he agrees to every aspect of her demand. As part of that total agreement, the gods give her a new name. The transformation of her attributes into a name indicates that they have become inherent to Artemis. Carson’s use of italics offsets this new name from the rest of the poem, making it feel almost magical. The poem thus reveres Artemis and identifies her virginity, her wildness, and her hunting as both her choice and an inherent part of her.
“Oh how badly things have turned out for us.
Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you.
And I answered her:
Rejoice, go and
These lines from the beginning of “Fragment 94” are one of the few transcribed conversations in a Sappho poem. Sappho uses the conversational structure to create contrast between the two speakers. The beloved laments in long poetic lines. She uses many pronouns, referring to herself, to Sappho, and to the two of them in combination as an “us.” In contrast, “Sappho” only uses the first person, and writes in brief, enjambed lines. She feels rooted and stable, while the beloved appears distraught, and she also seems more resigned to their separation because she avoids intimate terms like “you” and “us.” Yet her actual advice isn’t in disagreement with her lover’s actions. Instead, she affirms her leaving, only suggesting that she “remember” as she goes. The fact that the sole material difference between their two emotionally disparate states is this drive to remember emphasizes the transformative power of memory.
“and neither any [ ]nor any
holy place nor
was there from which we were absent
no grove[ ]no dance
Although these last two stanzas of “Fragment 94” are damaged, they still manage to create an evocative mood of melancholy and nostalgia. While the rest of the poem celebrates the past and the capacity of memory to bring the past into the present, the poem ends in a more complicated place. On the level of literal meaning, the negations “neither,” “nor,” and “no” in these lines reassert the presence of the two women, yet the ending still feels mournful. This is partly because these negations aren’t accurate any longer—the phrase “nor any [place]...from which we were absent” implicitly contains its opposite, the reality that now they are absent, and always will be. Indeed, while memory is a powerful tool to recover the past in the present, it also marks the differences between what was and what is. If things didn’t change, there would be no need to remember. Beyond this literal truth, the last three lines especially are simply mournful phrases, “]no dance/]no sound.” Although the context of the poem suggests that these too are negations founded in presence, they nevertheless end the poem with images of silence, stillness, and emptiness. “Fragment 94” thus refuses to forget that even healing is founded on the inevitability of loss.
“…And her light
stretches over salt sea
equally and flower deep fields.
And the beautiful dew is poured out
and roses bloom and frail
chervil and flowering sweetclover.”
“Fragment 96” is dominated by the extended simile the speaker draws between the departed beloved and the moon. This figure most explicitly serves to emphasize the beloved’s extraordinary beauty, yet the simile continues after that point is made. The two stanzas quoted above have hence been deemed superfluous by some critics of Sappho. These critics overlook the multiple resonances of these lines, likely because their significance is deeply gendered. The moon’s movement through the sky over the course of the month often represents women’s menstrual cycles in Greek poetry, as it does in many traditions. These stanzas move from that comparison into a series of fertility images. Listing “roses…and frail chervil and flowering sweetclover” models the abundance and fertility that she assigns to the beloved. One of the most beautiful things about this poem is the way it celebrates fertility while sidestepping cliches about women’s bodies. The moon “stretches,” “the beautiful dew is poured out.” The speaker imagines women’s fertility, so often modeled as women as vessels for male virility, as an extension into the world. Indeed, there is something typically male in the image of fertile dew pouring out over the earth, especially because the earth was female for the Greeks. “Fragment 96” appropriates that image for women, contextualizes it with the traditionally feminine imagery of flowers, and assigns it to a female beloved. In today’s language, its a moment of astounding androgyny, and a celebration of embodied beauty between and beyond sex/gender constructions.
“Dead you will lie and never memory of you
will there be nor desire into the aftertime—for you do not
share in the roses
of Pieria, but invisible too in Hades’ house
you will go your way among dim shapes. Having been breathed out.
These five lines are the entirety of “Fragment 55.” Although there may have been more to the poem originally, what survives is a fully coherent work. Sappho here articulates a curse, cutting and permanent. “Pieria” is a mountainous region, known in ancient Greece as the birthplace of the muses. The woman who “[does] not share in the roses/ of Pieria” is someone without creativity, who takes no part in the creation of beautiful things. Sappho couples this denunciation of her life with a description of her death. The phrase “invisible too in Hades’ house” relegates the woman to a shapeless future, but it also asserts that her present is somehow “invisible.” In other words, it suggests that creativity isn’t just a way to make lasting, beautiful things, but a way to make yourself. To “share in the roses” is not just to be remembered, but to assert your existence in the world right now.
Sappho: Poems and Fragments Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Sappho: Poems and Fragments is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The earth is often a symbol of fertility and growth (both the Greeks and the Romans has a goddess of Earth, Ceres and Demeter) since when seeds are planted then there is a "conception" as the earth sprouts that which lives. The imagery...