Sappho: Poems and Fragments

Sappho: Poems and Fragments Summary and Analysis of "Fragment 2"


“Fragment 2” is an appeal to Kypris, or the goddess Aphrodite, to come from far off Krete to a beautiful temple where the speaker resides. The speaker begins by describing a beautiful orchard of apple trees studded with altars which burn incense in devotion to the goddess. In the next stanza, she continues to paint an appealing picture of the grove, describing the sound of the rain in the wood and the roses interspersed among the trees, before speaking to the more mystical powers of the sacred place, which brings sleep to its visitors. In the next stanza, the speaker’s description moves to a field of flowers within the grove, where horses graze and sweet breezes blow. The next lines are lost, but the last stanza survives, in which the speaker finally addresses Kypris by name and imagines her in the grove, raising a celebratory cup of nectar as part of a festival.


The first two surviving lines of “Fragment 2,” “here to me from Krete to this holy temple/where is your graceful grove,” are somewhat ambiguous. It is not immediately apparent that the “holy temple” is synonymous with the “graceful grove,” or that it is Kypris, rather than the speaker, who is in Krete. Other translations are more explicit, but the slight ambiguity is present in the Greek, although the consensus is that these lines welcome the goddess from Krete to a temple-grove, likely in Lesbos, Sappho’s home. Still, the phrase “where is your graceful grove” suggests a question, as though the speaker is simultaneously in the temple-grove and unsure of its location or existence. This makes sense given the surreal beauty of the space described by the rest of the poem; the poem moves in between a geographically grounded narrative, and a more mystical, semi-real space.

The mystical side of the grove is linked from the beginning with Kypris because of the presence of “apple trees,” which were a popular symbol of the goddess at the time. The profusion of “Apple branches and with roses the whole place” in the second stanza doubles down on that association by reiterating the apple while invoking the rose, another popular symbol of Kypris. The “horse meadow” in the third stanza may be another allusion to Kypris, as a similar association between the goddess and horses is drawn in a fragment by Anacreon, another archaic Greek lyric poet. These symbols indicate that the speaker doesn’t just desire Kypris’s presence, but inhabits an environment which is made for, or even by, the goddess herself. The “altars smoking with frankincense” that fill the forest at the end of the first stanza are not only part of the “temple” aspect of the grove, they also add to this more mystical sense of a space. Pointing to the visual image of smoking altars, rather than the smell of burning incense, the poem begins with a clouded aesthetic, a wood where the trees are obscured by smoke. Thus even as the altars establish the scene as clearly located at a temple, they also introduce a mystical mood colored by ambiguity, one well suited to a grove linked to a goddess.

“Fragment 2” is extraordinary for the density of its imagery, which touches all five senses in a few brief lines. Even the primarily visual first stanza still evokes the smell of burning incense. In the second, Sappho weaves auditory imagery into the grove by describing the sound of “cold water…through apple branches.” The following line, “with roses the whole place/is shadowed,” certainly paints another vivid image, but it also suggests the scent of roses, which would fill “the whole place” more naturally than a shadow. The third stanza is more tactile, with “breezes like honey” that seem to stick to the skin while tasting sweet. All of this serves to create not only a vivid sense of place, but a place where you—the poem’s audience—cannot help but imagine yourself.

Part of the power of the poem is the way it brings together that vivid realism with the mysticism of religious practice. The last lines of the second stanza, “down from radiant-shaking leaves/ sleep comes dropping,” echo the image of cold water dripping through the apple branches from a few lines earlier. By piggybacking off of a naturalistic image, the more surreal image of “sleep comes dropping” becomes tactile, as though sleep is water dripping onto the slumberer, and the image of water dripping through the branches gains another mystical resonance, adding onto the already divinely-inflected image of the apple branches. This mingling of imagination and the immanent speaks to an intimate religious practice both distinct from the trivialities of the everyday and rooted in the beauty of the real world.

The introduction of the meadow at the beginning of the third stanza complicates the setting that most of “Fragment 2” is dedicated to illustrating. Paralleling the beginning of the second stanza, “And in it cold water,” the line “And in it a horse meadow,” rather than adding detail to the image of the grove, inserts a whole new setting into its core. The open meadow within the grove is a private space, surrounded by trees enveloped in smoke. This may be linked to the shifting gender politics of Sappho’s time, during which women’s access to shared spaces was being infringed upon as men grew suspicious of women’s behavior when only among one another. One of the only exceptions was religious practice, in which all priests devoted to goddesses like Kypris were women. The meadow within the grove suggests the kind of private, religious space which the “cult” of Kypris might have practiced in.

The meadow as both a private and communal place suggests that the speaker introduced in the first stanza, “here to me from Krete” [emphasis added] may not be alone. Some scholars have suggested that this poem may have been intended for performance by a chorus, and that the “me” of the first line may have been shared by multiple voices. That interpretation is backed up by the strong possibility that this poem was intended as part of a religious ceremony, which would likely have been carried out by a group of women or girls. It also makes sense in the context of the last surviving stanza. whose festivities require a group of people celebrating together; several translators write something like “our festivities,” explicitly bringing the first person plural into the poem. Part of the sparkling beauty of the grove, then, might be that it is a place where shared female community can exist, especially given the focus on both women and Kypris in much of Sappho’s work.

The final surviving stanza comes after a break in the manuscript. Luckily, it is not too hard to guess that “this place” refers to the grove, and hence to draw a continuous line from the first three stanzas to the last. It comes after the conflict (Kypris’s estrangement from the grove) has been resolved, and hence replaces the yearning tone of the first three stanzas with one of joy and celebration. Though the imagery of the poem remains beautiful throughout, the first three stanzas focus almost entirely on the beauty of the natural world, and even the altars aren’t indicated as belonging to anyone, and hence become almost part of the natural landscape. In contrast, Kypris’s “gold cups” are explicitly wrought by hand. The speaker is present from the beginning of the poem, but her only action is pleading and description; although the grove has the potential to serve as a space for communal celebration, no one else is explicitly present. Kypris’s arrival not only resolves the desires of the speaker, but brings her into focus while alluding to community, through the presence of created beauty, and in shared “festivities.”