Sappho: Poems and Fragments

Sappho: Poems and Fragments Summary and Analysis of "Fragment 44"


“Fragment 44” narrates a moment from the story of the Trojan war that Homer left out of the Iliad—Prince Hektor’s return home to Troy with his bride, Andromache. The fragment begins in Cyprus (Kypros). From there it moves to Troy, where Idaios, the swift Trojan messenger, arrives to tell a story whose fame stretches through Asia. Idaios describes how Hektor and his army take Andromache from Thebes, away from the river Plakia, and bring her to Troy over the sea. Along with her, the men take a wealth of gifts from her father: jewelry, clothing, toys and cups made of precious materials.

Upon hearing the story, Hektor’s father, King Priam, gets the city ready to celebrate his son’s arrival. The men of Troy prepare carts for the crowds of women to ride, although his own daughters go separately. The young men tie their chariots to horses and drive them with “great style,” and the whole crowd appears glamorous and exultant. They leave the King’s palace and go forth to the city of Troy to greet Hektor, celebrating with a symphony of music ornamented by the voices of singing girls. The streets are strewn with the finest incense, an offering to the gods. Eventually, even the old women and the men join in the music and together call on Apollo, or Paon, the god of the harp. Yet the hymn they sing is not for him but for Hektor and Andromache, who seem themselves like gods.


“Fragment 44” is certainly a celebration of love, but it is also about travel and movement. This is true of the many characters in the poem, but it is also true of the poem itself, which moves from Cyprus to Thebes to Troy while naming objects specific to Sappho’s Lesbos. “Kyrpos” or Cyprus is the only word to survive from the first line of the poem. Even on its own, this reference brings the poem into a Grecian setting. It also suggests the presence of Aphrodite, who Sappho often refers to as Kypris in reference to Kyrpos, the goddess’ homeland.

Yet rather than remaining anchored in Cyprus, the poem rapidly swings into motion with the introduction of Idaios. In the fragment, we are not sure where Idaios came from, or where he arrived to, but we know that he traveled swiftly. To some extent, this ambiguity is due to the damage to the poem's manuscript, but it also has to do with the structure of the poem, which describes the messenger before his message, and doesn’t describe his audience until after the story is done. “Fragment 44” therefore becomes as much about the act of storytelling as it is about the contents of Idaios’s story.

The messenger tells his story in the present tense. That immediacy speaks to the swiftness of the messenger, that he has gone on before Hektor’s men and somehow crossed the sea on his own. At the same time, the use of the present tense makes it feel as though the events Idaios describes are actually happening within the poem. His vivid and specific descriptions of the setting—“holy Thebe and from onflowing Plakia/delicate Andromache on ships over the salt/sea”—brings it to the forefront of the poem. In contrast, Troy, where the events of the poem are actually happening, is never named specifically. Idaios’s style of storytelling thus establishes a capacity for storytelling to transcend geography, a capacity that Sappho herself draws on in the way she frames “Fragment 44.”

In line 12, Idaios’s story ends, and the rest of the poem describes what happens after he finishes telling it. Yet reading quickly, it is not entirely clear that the story has ended. King Priam’s actions continue in the present tense, and it seems possible that he himself is part of the messenger’s story. Some translators add quotation marks around lines 5-11, but Carson chooses to leave them out; after all, there are no quotation marks in either archaic Greek or, more importantly, in spoken performance of a poem. By allowing the ambiguity of speaker to persist, Carson helps us see the ways Sappho is thinking about her own poetic practice, and not just Idaios’s. Because everything that happens in the poem occurs under the umbrella of the messenger’s narration, we are reminded that the poem itself exists in the Grecian present, not the past, and that all of its characters, whether or not they are mediated through Idaios’s voice, have been translated into poetic language.

If you’ve read other poetry by Sappho, one of the first things you will notice about “Fragment 44” is probably how different it looks on the page. Most of Sappho’s poetry uses her own metrical system, which required brief lines in four-line stanzas. This poem, however, follows a meter akin to what Homer used in the Iliad, using longer lines and no stanza breaks. Along with the epic meter, Sappho alludes to Homer by including prominent aspects of his vocabulary, such as “like to gods” at the end of the poem. In lines 6-11 of “Fragment 44,” the longer epic line gives Sappho the space for luxurious, extensive description instead of the minimalist, economical descriptions that her work usually favors. In long lists like “And many gold bracelets and purple/perfumed clothes, painted toys, and silver cups innumerable and ivory” Sappho takes advantage of having extra space to create an impression of wealth, using an almost excessively long list to parallel the excess of Andromache’s father.

That pattern of listing continues into the Trojan part of the poem that begins once Idaios finishes telling his story. While many Sappho poems feel private, focused on the solitary experience of the speaker or on her intimate relationship with one other person, “Fragment 44” is extremely social. There isn’t one clear main character, but instead whole crowds of people, and the poet takes pains to include every element of society. For example, in line 14, the “sons of Ilos led mules beneath fine-running carts and up climbed a whole crowd of women and maidens.” Sappho identifies not only the men of Troy, the “sons of Ilos,” but the women as well, both married and unmarried. Although Greek social hierarchy separated these groups into a distinct hierarchy, the poem ties them together by including all three in one long, flowing line, and by relating the women climbing into the carts to the men leading the mules. Her vision of a celebratory society is chaotic yet functional, a world where various groups of people all take up the same space.

We don’t know how much of the poem is missing between “charioteers” and “like to gods.” At some point during the lost verses, Hektor and Andromache arrived in Troy, and the celebration Priam was preparing is now underway. Despite this gap, the poem retains stylistic continuity. The repetition of “and” and the use of lists continue into this final section, as does the theme of abundance. However, while Idaios listed objects and places, the speaker paints a picture of the celebrations with a broader range of imagery, touching on scent and sound as well as physical appearance. This vivid imagery helps to mark the marriage scene as the poem’s climax. Sappho also uses it to reiterate the themes of mingling and interdependence that shaped the way she described the social world in lines 14-20. The scents of “myrrh and cassia and frankincense” mingle together in the air, as do the voices of all the people, the “elder women” and the men joining voices with the maidens.

Sappho’s adaptation of Homer doesn’t uncritically adopt every aspect of his verse. Instead, she borrows various stylistic elements and characters from the Iliad to tell a story that not only did not appear in Homer's epic, but never would have. The marriage of Hektor and Andromache is never described in the original epic, not by oversight, but because mainstream Greek culture understood women as uninteresting and wives as useful only for giving birth to an heir. Although Hektor and Andromache were considered the pinnacle of a married couple, it was still understood that they had little contact with one another. In the epic, celebration was usually reserved for military victory. In Homer, the description “Like to gods” was used exclusively in describing men who were victorious in battle. By using it to praise a victory of love instead, “Fragment 44” argues against a conception of the world that prioritizes military victory above all else.