Sappho: Poems and Fragments

Sappho: Poems and Fragments Summary and Analysis of "Fragment 16"


“Fragment 16” is an extended argument for the supreme importance of love. In the first stanza, the speaker contrasts her own views with presiding male opinion. Various groups of men say that military might, whether on horse, on foot, or in ships, is the most beautiful thing in the world. The speaker, however, says that that honor belongs to whoever you love. She argues this first by recalling how Helen, herself the most beautiful of women and hence well-versed in the subject, abandoned her husband, her home, and all her family without regret in order to chase love in Troy. The next bit of the poem is missing, but it seems that Helen reminds the speaker of her own lover, Anaktoria, who has since departed. The speaker longs for her and would rather see just a glimpse of her than a grand display of military might. Most of the rest of the fragment is destroyed, but what remains seems to juxtapose the reality of worldly limitation with the continuous potential for unexpected happenings.


The poem begins with a “priamel,” a Greek rhetorical device meant to focus attention and deliver praise. Priamels are most commonly structured as a list of three items followed by a fourth, superior option. In “Fragment 16,” the priamel differentiates three armies “of horse,” “on foot,” and “of ships” from “what you love.” The device elevates this final option by marking it as different from the first three options. Yet beyond introducing a new object, “Fragment 16”s priamel also introduces the issue of subject, asking us to think not just about what is being said, but who is saying it. By repeating “some men” three times, Sappho connects those men as speakers to their various beloved armies. When the rhetorical device turns, and delivers its fourth, better option, it is not only different from the three armies, but also beloved by a different person; not “some men” but an “I.” The use of the first person also signals that this is a work of lyric poetry, where the “I” was common. The genre was always juxtaposed against the epic, the other common branch of Greek poetry, and the more respected. Later in “Fragment 16,” Sappho alludes explicitly to Homer, but even in the first stanza, the shift from “some men” and their armies to an “I” who speaks on her own and centers personal experience of love, suggests that the poem is also an argument for the importance of lyric poetry.

In Greek lyric, it was conventional for male poets to speak of romance by comparing it to battle, describing success or failure in love through the language of victory and defeat, and enlisting gods or goddesses as military allies in the pursuit of affection. The distinction drawn in the first stanza of “Fragment 16” falls along distinctly gendered lines. It is not just a declaration that the most beautiful thing in the world is “what you love,” not military might, but a condemnation of the dominant patriarchal voice that forwards that perspective. However, the stanza does not end by celebrating what “some women” say over “some men,” as one might expect. Rather, it distinguishes “some men” from the single “I” of the speaker. Against the dull, generic background of “some men,” a group which loses any sense of self outside of gender, the speaker’s single voice stands out like a bright light, a transformative moment that avoids a binary gender narrative in favor of a deeply personal argument. In “I say it is/what you love,” the speaker celebrates that personal perspective as capable of articulating a universal argument; by addressing “you,” the speaker asserts that her argument will be relevant beyond herself, that it can convince whoever listens to the poem.

That confident merging of the deeply personal and the universal structures the way “Fragment 16” makes its point. In the second stanza, the speaker begins her argument by referring to Helen of Troy, an allusion to Homer’s epic poem the Iliad. In the Iliad, Helen causes the Trojan War by abandoning her Grecian husband Menelaos in order to elope with Paris, a Trojan prince. Homer’s epic was well known in Sappho’s time, as it is now. In this poem, Sappho confidently employs that familiar narrative to her own ends while upending with some of Homer’s assumptions.

By declaring that it will be “easy to make this understood by all” at the beginning of the stanza, the speaker continues to involve her audience while suggesting that their pre-existing knowledge of the Helen myth will aid their understanding of her argument. The next line, “she who overcame everyone in beauty (Helen),” sits comfortably within the boundaries of Homeric epic, in which Helen is characterized as a beautiful object desired by military men, the poem’s real actors. The repetition of “beautiful” from the first to the second stanza further suggests that Helen will be the “most beautiful thing” that the poem praises, as does the assertion that her beauty “overcame everyone,” which literally makes her “the most beautiful thing.” The verb “overcame” has a military air, and Carson’s use of it strengthens the connection between Homer’s characterization of Helen and a male prioritization of violence.

That allusion to militarism foreshadows the shift that ends this stanza. Regardless of what Homer says, for Sappho, Helen’s character centers not around being beautiful, but on what she does: that she leaves her “fine husband” behind. The Iliad paints Helen’s choice to abandon Menelaos as selfish, inevitably leading to violence especially because her beauty compels her husband’s jealous pursuit. Sappho presents the decision to leave “her fine husband” on its own, so that the center of Helen’s character is neither her beauty nor its ramifications, but her bold choice to pursue her own desire. Carson amplifies that theme by breaking the stanza off at “left her fine husband,” so that the action exists, for a moment, entirely on its own.

The third stanza continues to narrate Helen’s history, and begins to reckon with the implications of her actions. Although the consequences of Helen’s choice certainly exist in “Fragment 16,” it is worth looking at which of these consequences Sappho chooses to write about, and what perspective she gives on them. Although Menelaos’s rage is central to the Iliad, the speaker never refers to the way her desertion affected him; the phrase “left her fine husband/behind and went sailing to Troy,” seems like it could end on the impact that leaving her husband had on him, but it instead obtrusively prioritizes Helen’s own actions, speaking to how she left and what she left for. When the poem does turn to what she left behind, it is to mourn not the war that she caused, but rather the personal devastations that resulted—the children and parents she left behind. Yet even their experiences are contextualized within Helen’s own mind. Rather than describing their grief, the speaker notes that Helen “had [not] a thought” for their wellbeing. The third stanza also parallels the structure of the first by reiterating forms of “no” three times, with “] led her astray” as the fourth, different piece. That parallel structure suggests that to be led astray is somehow better than thinking only of one’s home.

By the end of the third stanza, the text is unfortunately damaged. The missing word before “led her astray” might be Aphrodite, Eros (another love deity), or a representation of delusion or madness. Enough of the first two lines of the fourth stanza are missing that guessing at the specifics of their content is largely fruitless. Somehow, Sappho must have orchestrated a shift from Helen, the mythological figure, to Anaktoria, a living woman from the speaker’s own memory. However the speaker came to move from one to the other, the inclusion of these two disparate figures fits within the assertion the speaker makes in the first stanza, that her claim that “the most beautiful thing on the black earth…is what you love” is universally true. By justifying that logic with Helen, and then moving to further back up the point with a story from her own life, the speaker equates these two examples, giving value to her own experiences as a way of interpreting the world, and by extension uplifting the lyric as a poetic mode.

For a moment, it isn’t clear how Helen reminds the speaker of Anaktoria. The fact that Anaktoria “is gone” suggests that she is like Helen because she also left her home in search of something beautiful. Yet the next stanza rests with the speaker’s own desire to see her departed beloved again. In some way, the speaker becomes a foil to Menelaos, as she, like him, desires one who has departed. While Helen “left” and “sailed,” Anaktoria “is gone”: a final state rather than an active verb. That stasis extends to the speaker’s own relationship to her beloved. She does not chase her but only wishes to see her again, and she presents military might as antithetical to realizing the ambitions of her desire. The rich imagery in the first two lines vividly illustrates the poem’s thesis: Anaktoria is who the speaker loves, and she is wreathed with beauty.

The few broken lines which survive from the end of the poem aren’t enough to determine where the speaker goes from there. Perhaps she continues to speak of Anaktoria, presents another example to prove her point, or talks about love more generally. What remains does seem to gesture towards a shift from the surviving Anaktoria stanzas and their fixation on memory and the past. While “not possible to happen” is negatively oriented, as though the speaker has little hope, “toward” and “out of the unexpected” look to the future.