In “Fragment 96,” the speaker comforts Atthis, who mourns the departure of her unnamed lover. This lover has abandoned her and moved to Sardis, a city in the wealthy kingdom of Lydia. The speaker reassures Atthis that her beloved still thinks of her often, and that she adored Atthis when they were together. Now that she is in Lydia, it is the beloved who has become so beautiful that she cannot be ignored. In this way, she is like the moon at sunset, which outshines all the stars around it so that it appears alone in the sky.
In the next two stanzas, the speaker continues to linger with the moon simile, describing how its light stretches out over the earth like the dew over the meadow. In other words, Atthis’s beloved is the kind of person who feels full of light, who is overflowing with beauty. Yet still she longs for Atthis. From here, the manuscript is quite damaged, and summary requires more guesswork. It seems that Atthis cannot go to Sardis, and her love is trapped in the form of speech. It is not easy for her or the speaker to be as beautiful as the beloved is. They focus instead on desire, on the beauty of Aphrodite, her ceremonies, and the potential for love that she conveys. The poem ends with a reference to a temple of Poseidon, a reference to the possibility of many beloveds, and with an assertion of intent to remain in a state of desire.
As in “Fragment 44,” the first surviving word of this fragment is the name of a place. In modern terms, Lydia would be right next to Lesbos. Even in Sappho’s time, the kingdom of Lydia was a major trading partner with Lesbos and a place Sappho would have known a lot about. In her day, it was the epitome of riches and luxury, and is referenced in several other fragments in relation to the fine goods Lesbians would have imported from the nearby kingdom. Nevertheless, it still would have taken a long time to get from one island to the other, and Sappho likely never visited. In “Fragment 96,” the tension derives from the fact that this rich and beautiful kingdom is impossibly distant, far away across the sea.
By the first full line of the poem, the speaker has already begun to reach across that insurmountable distance. The speaker introduces Atthis’s beloved in the present tense, marking her as an active figure in the poem, rather than just a memory. Yet there is still something distant about the way she is described. The speaker refers to her in the impersonal third person and uses the phrase “turning her thoughts,” which is uncharacteristically generic for Carson’s translation of Sappho. Although Atthis’s beloved is present in the poem, at this point she feels two-dimensional, couched in the speaker’s generic reassurances.
By the next surviving lines, the speaker has moved into the past tense. Immediately, these lines feel more precise, and hence more intimate, than the ones that precede them. She refers to Atthis in the second person, a gesture that marks her as more intimate to the speaker. Sappho uses a similar device in “Fragment 31,” where the speaker refers to her beloved in the second person and the man she sits with in the third. The poem is largely indifferent to the latter character, with the speaker easily looking past him to gaze at her beloved. “Fragment 96” is different. Although the use of the second person indicates that the speaker is closer to Atthis, both emotionally and physically, than she is to her lover, her descriptions of Atthis are filtered through the lens of her beloved. We learn that Atthis is a singer through her beloved’s admiration of that trait, see that she is like a goddess in a context that suggests that her beloved saw her as such.
Indeed, the poem seems loathe to stay long with Atthis, and by the third stanza returns to the vision of her beloved in far-away Lydia. This shift mirrors the departure it describes; when Atthis’s beloved left, she ceased to rejoice in the light of her lover and began to shine on her own. In some ways, the third stanza embraces a narrower scope for the poem, as it forgoes the complex relationship between three women to focus on describing the beauty of one. But at the same time, this stanza reminds us of the existence of community, that these three women do not exist in isolation. “But now she is conspicuous among Lydian women” suggests an inverse past: “once she was inconspicuous among Lesbian women.” It hence invites us to reimagine the world of the second stanza as a community, in which the speaker, Atthis, and Atthis’s beloved all took different but autonomous roles.
Lines 7 through 14 are an extended simile in which the speaker compares Atthis’s beloved to the moon while painting a delicate night scene. The descriptor “rosyfingered” is an allusion to Homer, who repeatedly used that adjective to describe Eos, the goddess of dawn. Sappho, as she does frequently, turns Homer’s language on its head, repurposing his language to describe the evening instead. The image of “the beautiful dew [pouring] out” is a reference to Selene, the goddess of the moon, who was known for bringing dew to the fields during the night. Selene was especially sacred to women because of the connection between menstrual cycles and the cyclic transformation of the moon. One of the functions of the extended simile is thus to draw another parallel between Atthis then and her beloved now; in Lydia, she too is “like a goddess.”
By this point, it is hard not to notice that the overall structure of the poem is somewhat strange. The poet begins in Sardis before jumping to Lesbos, yet the second stanza proves to be only a slight detour before the poem returns to Lydia. That almost redundant cyclic structure can be puzzling, but something does change after the speaker briefly describes the past: the formerly two-dimensional, impersonal Sardis becomes a richly imagined spiritual haven. Although the beloved is now isolated from Atthis, the speaker’s description of her in stanzas 3-6 is grounded in the context of stanza 2. The long simile provides that sense of presence by invoking an abundance of imagery, which the repetition of “and” throughout the fourth and fifth stanzas emphasizes. The image of “her light [stretching] over salt sea” illustrates that this simile transcends distance, that through it, the light of the beloved travels across the sea and back to Lesbos.
In this interpretation, the “but” which begins the sixth stanza does a few different things. First, it parallels the beginning of the third stanza, which introduces the beloved’s move to Lydia. Here, the pendulum swings back to her desire for Lesbos. It also suggests that being “conspicuous among Lydian women,” standing out alone like the moon in a sea of stars, is not enough: that she cannot abandon the mutual dependence she once had with Atthis. Yet on a less-literal level, the “but” also undermines the optimism of the poem itself. The beautiful imagery of lines 7-14 made Lydia feel close, as if the beloved could still be seen and the distance was surmountable. The “but” emphasizes the illusory nature of that feeling and brings the poem back into the realm of desire. Indeed, although Atthis might see her beloved in her mind’s eye, as one can discern the moon’s light across the water, they cannot touch. It is fitting that the beloved’s longing takes the form of tactile imagery (“she bites her tender mind”) while the moon simile was mostly based in visual imagery. Longing is real in a way the presence of the beloved cannot be.
The rest of the fragment is so damaged that it is difficult to even guess at a summary of Sappho’s original verse. There are several references to the gods: Sappho returns to the motif of being “like a goddess,” but now emphasizes that it is “not easy for us.” It is unclear whether “us” includes only the speaker and Atthis, or if it encompasses the beloved, and perhaps a broader community of women as well. It is followed by a reference to the goddess Aphrodite, who pours nectar as she does in festivities at the end of “Fragment 2.” At the end of the poem the speaker references “the Geraistion,” an island temple to Poseidon. Perhaps the speaker intends to call on the god of the sea so that she or Atthis can make their way to Lydia. Yet the poem ends with the assertion that “into desire I shall come.” It seems then that, for the speaker at least, what is possible is not to consummate love but to embrace longing.