Sappho: Poems and Fragments

Sappho: Poems and Fragments Summary and Analysis of "Fragment 94"


“Fragment 94” begins with a lament: Sappho or her beloved expressing a desire for death. When the beloved departed, she was weeping, and told Sappho that she did not want to go. In response, Sappho told her to be happy and remember that she was loved. Then, as if she sees the doubt in her beloved’s eyes, she tells her that even if she cannot be happy, she should remember the time they spent together. Sappho reminds her beloved how she decorated herself with flowers and perfumed herself with sweet oils. She recalls making love, all the beautiful places they visited together, and their dance and song.


The first lines of “Fragment 94” are missing, so it is impossible to know for sure whether “Sappho” or her beloved “want[s] to be dead.” If the former, the poem becomes a lament, a memory encompassed by the speaker’s bereavement. If, however, it is the beloved who speaks the first line, then it is easiest to read the poem as drawing a contrast between two perspectives: she who mourns the loss of her beloved, and the speaker who rejoices in the existence of the past. Regardless, the bold declaration sets the emotional tone for the fragment, and introduces the motif of desire in an unexpected context. The Greek verb tense Sappho uses can be translated as either “to be dead” or “to have died.” The issue of temporal ambiguity is woven throughout the poem through its consideration of healing through memory.

Unlike many other Sappho love poems, most famously “Fragment 31,” the speaker in “Fragment 94” initially speaks of her lover in the third person. The use of the third person contributes to the distance between lovers which forms the poem’s central tension, as does the stripped-down language of the first two lines. By surrounding “she left me” with references to crying, “weeping” before and “with many tears” after, the poem emphasizes the sadness of leaving. At the same time, the doubling serves to destabilize the poem’s sense of subject: it isn’t clear whether the speaker is left alone with her “many tears,” or if they are another description of the weeping beloved.

The first three lines of the poem reiterate the issue of temporal ambiguity. On the one hand, it is possible to read lines 2-3 as a scene in which the beloved leaves and “Sappho” remains, alone and weighted with many tears, especially because the verb “left” suggests a definite before and after. Yet the departed beloved continues to speak, so that it is suddenly unclear where she is and whether or not the speaker is describing events in order. The switch from narrative to dialogue also encourages a confusion of subjects; in “Sappho, I swear, against my will I leave you,” the beloved becomes the “I.” Indeed, although the poem’s sadness rests on the distance between its two protagonists, “Sappho” and her beloved are marked by their closeness. The poem explicitly sidesteps the drama of unrequited love by specifying that the beloved leaves against her will. The unwilling, but departing beloved is emotionally parallel with “Sappho,” who remains yet encourages the parting.

“Sappho” herself subtly expresses their paradoxical situation when she responds to her beloved’s lament by advising her to “Rejoice, go and/remember me,” telling the beloved to both move on and linger. The rest of the poem heightens that initial tension by using imagery to make memory into a physical place. For “Fragment 94,” memory exists as vividly in the past as in present; in other words, memory becomes a place from which one can choose to either go or stay.

The use of “we” at the end of the third stanza is a little disorientating after the one-on-one intimacy of the lines that precede it. Indeed, in line four, the first person plural “us” encompasses only “Sappho” and the beloved. Yet in “you know how we cherished you,” the separation of the beloved, “you,” from the “we” illustrates that the speaker is not alone. Instead, she is part of some community which is not wholly distinct from her experience of individual love. Although the poem never goes into detail about that community, the potential for “we” to stand in for either the lovers alone or for the people who surround them is another way that the poem confuses subjects and creates a model of love with room for ambiguity.

The manuscript of the rest of the poem is more badly damaged, and hence our experience of it as modern readers is somewhat impressionistic. Indeed, what remains seems to indicate that the original was not anchored, but rather moved fluidly from one image to the next. Even the premise of the poem, an attempt to comfort a grieving loved one, is a shifting prospect. In the fourth stanza, “Sappho” blithely acknowledges that her advice may be unhelpful, and then seems to reiterate it, continuing to reminisce. The function of memory thus stretches beyond even a paradoxical capacity to make going easier; it is something the poem does for its own sake.

The scenes which follow, despite their vivid imagery, blur around the edges. The many flowers which the beloved adorns herself in do not lead to a meadow, nor does it seem possible that they are all gathered in one place. Rather, the speaker presents an abundance of scenes in which flowers appear. There is something imprecise about the kind of memory that “Sappho” argues for, a failure to recall a specific day or scene or place. Instead, the poem’s setting becomes the relationship it centers around. The flower scenes are marked only by the two women’s relationship to one another: “at my side you put on” or “flowers/around your soft throat.” These descriptions are specific in what they say about the women's’ interactions with one another. We get the sense that they are completely cut off from any other world, wrapped up completely in their love.

Thus, rather than describing distinct moments, the different stanzas flow into one another. In Carson’s translation, the parallel between each stanza is emphasized by her use of syntactical pattern. Each stanza begins with “and” followed by an object, then a line of a single adjective, and then a description of the beloved. By layering, rather than differentiating, these scenes, the poem illustrates a unified process of remembering in which many parts of the past are allowed to cluster around one person. The use of touch, taste, and scent-based imagery ensures that this memory, while drifting, will nevertheless feel vivid and real. The speaker’s descriptions rest on those senses which are the most sensual, and hence the most immediate in their ability to bring a physical experience into the present. The repeated memories become almost an incantation, a way to summon the beloved into the present.

Yet the poem ends as it began: with loss. Although the speaker’s repetition of “no” and “nor” in the last two stanzas serves to emphasize the presence of the two lovers, the irony of it can’t be avoided. Though they were once never apart, the circumstances of the poem dictate that now they must be. Regardless of their literal meaning in context, the repeated “no” “no” “no” of the last stanza still creates a bleaker mood than what came before it. It is a reminder that absence and loss exist, regardless of the power of memory.