Sappho: Poems and Fragments

Sappho: Poems and Fragments Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Moon (symbol)

Sappho celebrates the beauty of the moon in “Fragment 34,” and again, at length, in “Fragment 96.” In Sappho’s work, the moon isn’t just a glowing celestial body, but rather a complex symbol of the kinds of womanhood and love for women that Sappho’s poetry celebrates. It symbolizes the possibility for love across a distance, and the ability to see beauty from afar, themes that resonate with the poet’s devotion both to women who have departed, and to the immortal goddess Aphrodite. The moon was also associated with the virgin goddess Artemis, who Sappho praises in “Fragment 44Aa.” The lunar cycle echoes women’s menstrual cycles, while the way its silvery light pours out over the earth suggests another model of female fertility independent of the reproductive functions of women’s bodies.

Song (symbol)

It isn’t surprising that Sappho makes frequent reference to music, given that her poems were written as song lyrics and she herself was, in her time, celebrated as a great musician. Song, in Sappho, symbolizes celebration. It is associated with the sweet voices of young women, and is joyful, fresh, and often celebratory. Song also surrounds weddings, which at the time, required especially youthful brides. In several fragments, Sappho torques this youthful character of song by also characterizing the celebratory character of song as inherently communal. The symphony of voices which make up choral performance are not indistinguishable in Sappho’s work, but are instead a varied, yet unified, community of people. Indeed, the essence of celebration is a bringing-together of many people. Song thus becomes a way for Sappho’s poetry to imagine a society that unifies everyone. By extension, song helps to suggest resonances between apparently disparate people—to find the male in female, the youth in old age.

Helen of Troy (allegory)

“Fragment 16” makes its argument through allegory, using the story of Helen to represent the broader dynamic it attempts to illustrate. Helen abandons her home without a thought in order to pursue Paris, the one she loves who has become, to her, the most beautiful thing in the world. The specific figure of Helen is important, but it also stands in for the generic “you” at the beginning of the poem. Part of the poem’s assertion is that Helen’s story is representative—that anyone would do as Helen did. She hence becomes an allegorical figure for the audience, who are meant to place themselves in her specific story. The speaker compares her own desire for a departed lover to Helen’s willingness to abandon everything for her own beloved. Although the emotional example is a powerful argument on its own, it is also an example of how to see Helen’s story as allegorical, an example that the audience can follow.

Flowers (motif)

Flowers are perhaps the image that appears most frequently in Sappho’s poetry. In “Fragment 2,” they symbolize Aphrodite, and adorn the grove dedicated to her. This resonance between flowers and the goddess of love informs their presence throughout her work. In “Fragment 94,” lovers adorn themselves with flowers and precious oils. In this context, the sweet smell of flowers comes to the forefront. Smell is often connected to memory, which is certainly at play in this poem about loss and the power of remembrance, but it also adds to the eroticism of the poem. The sweet smell of the flowers around the beloved’s “soft neck” draw the speaker closer. Flowers are soft and touchable, and they suggest the presence of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

The Earth (motif)

While Sappho's poems often celebrate growing things, they also feature the earth itself. The “black earth” is wet and fertile. It contrasts against whiteness, which is associated with aging and loss in Sappho’s work. Her poetry sees the earth in relation to the celestial, whether Aphrodite flying close over its surface, or the moon’s light stretching out over its surface. It is important not to impose later, Christian understandings of the earth as the opposite of the celestial onto Sappho’s poetry. For the Greeks, the earth had its own goddess; in Sappho’s work, the earth is always part of the larger world of spiritual and human life that makes up her poetry.