Sappho: Poems and Fragments

Sappho: Poems and Fragments Summary and Analysis of "Fragment 1"


“Fragment 1” is an extended address from Sappho to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The poem begins with Sappho praising the goddess before begging her not to break her heart by letting her beloved continue to evade her. She asks Aphrodite to instead aid her as she has in the past. Last time, she recalls, the goddess descended in a chariot drawn by birds, and, smiling, asked Sappho what happened to make her so distressed, why she was calling out for help, what she wanted Aphrodite to do, and who Sappho desired. The goddess interspersed her questions with the refrain “now again,” reminding Sappho that she had repeatedly been plagued by the trials of love—drama she has passed on to the goddess. Nevertheless, she reassured Sappho that her prayer would be answered, and that the object of her affection would love her in return. In the final stanza, Sappho leaves this memory and returns to the present, where she again asks Aphrodite to come to her and bring her her heart’s desires.


Sappho’s “Fragment 1” uses apostrophe, an impassioned poetic address, to call out to the goddess Aphrodite for aid. The first two lines of the poem preface this plea for help with praise for the goddess, emphasizing her immorality and lineage. Yet they also offer a glimpse into the more complicated aspects of Aphrodite’s personality, characterizing her as a cunning woman “who twists lures.” The first line of Carson’s translation reinforces that characterization by describing the goddess as “of the spangled mind,” suggesting a mazelike, ornamented way of thinking easily steered towards cunning, while still pointing to Aphrodite’s beauty and wealth. Other translations render this line completely differently; for example, Josephine Balmer’s translation of the poem begins “Immortal, Aphrodite, on your patterned throne.” This difference is due to contradictions in the source material itself. In one manuscript, the poem begins with the Greek adjective for “on a dazzling throne,” while another uses a similarly-spelled word that means “wily-minded.” Carson chose to invoke a little bit of both possibilities, and speculates that Sappho herself might have intentionally selected an adjective for cunning that still suggested glamour and ornamentation.

Portraying a god or goddess as flawed wasn’t unusual for the ancient Greeks, who viewed their deities as fallible and dangerous beings, so it makes sense that Sappho might have doubled down on her investigation of Aphrodite’s mind, especially because the goddess’s personality proves more important to the rest of the poem than her lineage or power. More unusual is the way “Fragment 1” portrays an intimate relationship between a god and a mortal. By the end of the first stanza, the poem’s focus has already begun to shift away from a description of Aphrodite and towards "Sappho"’s relationship with her. The word “break” in the plea “do not break with hard pains,” which ends the first stanza, parallels the verb “lures” from the second line, suggesting that Aphrodite’s cunning might extend to the poet’s own suffering. By shifting to the past tense and describing a previous time when Aphrodite rescued "Sappho" from heartbreak, the next stanza makes explicit this personal connection between the goddess and the poet.

Rather than shying away from her debt, "Sappho" leans into her shared history with the goddess and uses it to leverage her request, “come here if ever before/you caught my voice far off.” Aphrodite has an obligation to help her because she has done so in the past. The poet certainly realized that this familiar attitude towards the goddess was a departure from conventional religious practice and its depiction in Greek literature. The references to Zeus in both the first and second stanza tacitly acknowledge that fact; each time, the role of Aphrodite as child of Zeus is juxtaposed against her position in the poem as an ally with whom "Sappho" shares a personal history. In the same way that the goddess “left her/ father’s golden house,” the poem leaves behind the image of Aphrodite as a distant, powerful figure to focus on her mind and personality.

Describing the goddess’s last visit, Sappho uses especially lush imagery. A multitude of adjectives depict the goddess' departure in lush color—“golden house” and “black earth”—as well as the “quick” motion of the “fine” sparrows which bring the goddess to earth. The repetition of soft sounds like “w” and “o” add to the lyrical, flowing quality of these stanzas and complement the image of Aphrodite’s chariot moving swiftly through the sky. This dense visual imagery not only honors the goddess, but also reminds her that the speaker clearly recalls her last visit, and feels it remains relevant in the present.

Then, in the fourth stanza, the voice of the poem is taken over by a paraphrase of Aphrodite. Her arrival is announced by “But you” in the first line of the fourth stanza. The conjunction “but,” as opposed to “and,” foreshadows that the goddess’s arrival will mark a shift in the poem. A big part of that shift is tonal; in contrast to the lilting phrases and beautiful natural imagery of Sappho’s stanzas, Aphrodite’s questions use a humorous, mocking tone towards the poet and her numerous affairs of the heart. The irony of again and again giving "Sappho" what she wants “most of all,” only for her to move on to another affection, is not lost on Aphrodite—and the irony of the situation for Sappho’s listeners is only heightened by the fact that even these questions are part of a recollection of a love that she has since moved on from! Yet, in the fourth stanza, Aphrodite’s questions are asked in the speaker's voice, using the first person. The persistent presence of "Sappho"'s voice signals that she too sees the irony of her situation, and that the goddess is laughing with her, not at her.

This voice shifts midway through the next stanza, when the goddess asks, “Whom should I persuade (now again)/ to lead you back into her love?” In this question “I” is Aphrodite, while “you” is the poet. Yet the syntax and content of Aphrodite’s question still parallel the questions "Sappho" asked in the previous stanza, like “what (now again) I have suffered.” While the arrival of the goddess is a vivid departure from the status quo, and the introduction of her questions a shift in tone and aesthetics, the shift from the voice of the poet to the goddess goes unannounced. The conspicuous lack of differentiation between the two of them speaks to the deep intimacy they share, and suggests that the emotional center of the poem is not "Sappho"’s immediate desire for love and Aphrodite’s ability to grant it, but rather the lasting affection, on surprisingly equal footing, that the two of them share. While the poem’s "Sappho" is concerned with immediate gratification, the story that the poet Sappho tells is deeply aware of the passage of time, and invested in finding emotion that transcends personal history.

The next stanza seems, at first, like an answer from Aphrodite, a guarantee that she will change the heart of whoever is “wronging” the speaker. It introduces a third character into the poem, a “she” who flees from "Sappho"’s affections. Yet the stanza says nothing specific about this particular woman. The repetitive syntax of Carson’s translation, as in the second line “If she refuses gifts, rather will she give them,” which uses both the same grammatical structure in both phrases, and repeats the verb “give,” reflects similar aesthetic decisions in the Greek. This repetitive structure carries through all three lines of Sappho’s verse, creating a numbing, ritualistic sound. That sonic quality indicates that rather than a moment of dialogue, these lines are an incantation, a love charm. Charms like this one were popular in Sappho’s time, and the passage wouldn’t be read as disturbing or coercive in the way we might now. Indeed, it is not clear how serious Sappho is being, given the joking tone of the last few stanzas.

The last stanza begins by reiterating two of the pleas from the rest of the poem: “come to me now” and “all my heart longs for, accomplish.” In the present again, the stanza emphasizes the irony of the rest of the poem by embodying Aphrodite’s exasperated “now again.” Lines 26 and 27, “all my heart longs to accomplish, accomplish” also continue the pattern of repetition that carries through the last four stanzas. Specifically, the repetition of the same verb twice in a line echoes the incantation-structure used in the sixth stanza, giving a charm-like quality to this final plea. The final line, “You, be my ally,” balances these concerns. On the one hand, the history the poem recounts seems to prove that the goddess has already been the poet’s ally for a long time, and the last line serves to reiterate the irony of its premise. At the same time, as an incantation, a command directed towards Aphrodite presents her as a kind of beloved. Various translations are telling in regards to this last line. Jim Powell writes “goddess, my ally,” while Josephine Balmer’s translation ends “you, yes you, will be my ally.” Powell’s suggests that Sappho recognizes and calls on the goddess’s preexisting alliance, while in Balmer, she seems more oriented towards the future, to a new alliance. Both interpretations are convincing, and indeed, the temporal ambiguity of the last line resonates with the rest of the poem, which balances the immortal perspective of a goddess with the impatience of human passion.