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Love and Desire
The overarching theme of Sappho's poems and fragments is love, whether this is erotic love, familial love, gay love or unrequited love. Throughout her body of work, the treatment of love and desire varies: some fragments focus on the pleasures of sexual desire, whilst other fragments depict love more negatively as a source of suffering. One common thread between these fragments is that love is always seen from the perspective of the female voice, whether this is through Sappho as a speaker, invocations of female deities like Aphrodite, or allusions to iconic women from Greek mythology like Helen of Troy.
Sappho’s exploration of the dualities of love is implied in Fragment 130, which includes the first description of love as bittersweet in Western literature. This dualistic view of love can be seen throughout her fragments and poems, with some lyrics treating love as tender and sweet, whilst others – typically those depicting unrequited love – suggest it may be a source of jealousy, pain, frustration and loneliness.
On the one hand, many of Sappho’s poems and fragments can be read as a celebration of physical love and female eroticism. One clear example of this is Fragment 48, which describes the speaker’s heart burning with desire in a way that draws attention to the overwhelming nature of their passions. Crucially, a lot of the fragments that refer to the pleasure of love are also ones in which the speaker directly voices their attraction to another woman. Fragment 49, for example, refers to the speaker’s love and affection for a young maiden named Atthis. In these particular fragments, the speaker merges descriptions of innocence with latent eroticism; for example, the speaker of Fragment 94 weaves garlands with a young maiden and perfumes the maiden’s hair before the two satisfy their sexual desires later in the poem. In fragments like this one, Sappho apotheosizes female eroticism, which links to the wider pattern of her poems describing love as ceremonial, ritualistic and ordained by female goddesses.
Sappho’s poems and fragments also focus on the suffering that may come as a result of lost love or unrequited love. First and foremost, Sapphic love is portrayed in terms of its physicality, as if love is capable of having a physical impact on the lover. In Fragment 31, the speaker suffers a number of symptoms as a result of their desire: an inability to speak, blurred vision, impaired hearing, burning skin, sweating and trembling. The speaker’s unrequited love leaves them in a state of physical pain. In many of these fragments that describe the violent effects of love – such as Fragment 31 and Fragment 129 – Sappho assumes the position of somebody who has lost their lover to another, again demonstrating how love is presented as bittersweet.
Worship and Religion
A recurring theme throughout many of Sappho's poems and fragments is the role played by gods and goddesses in the lives of mortals.
Sappho frequently invokes Aphrodite when she is in need of divine guidance in matters of love. In Fragment 2, the speaker describes a sacred grove to which Aphrodite has been invited, merging ideas about female sexuality and love with descriptions of religious rituals. Accordingly, Sappho draws a strong link between religiosity and female sexual power. This can also be seen in the frequent allusions her fragments make to mythic relationships between goddesses and mortal men, such as the relationship between Aphrodite and Adonis. The power Aphrodite has over Adonis relates to Sappho’s multiple descriptions of the empowerment of female eroticism. Sappho’s invocation of Aphrodite in Fragment 33 similarly highlights the influence authority of goddesses in the Sapphic world.
Sappho’s poems and fragments also frequently address the Muses – goddesses of music, song and dance – who are summoned for poetic inspiration. Sappho herself can be identified with the Muses due to her long-lasting influence on other classical writers of the time. This comparison between Sappho and the Muses is clearly highlighted in Fragment 118 when she invokes her own lyre.
An underlying theme throughout Sappho’s poems and fragments is death, which is frequently linked to her thoughts on love, longing, loss and remembrance. Critically, Sappho’s speakers frequently express a longing for death, with Fragment 94 even beginning with the line “In all honesty, I want to die.” The themes of love and death are difficult to disentangle, adding a darker tone to her body of work. Indeed, whilst love is presented as life-giving and regenerative, many fragments suggest that the absence of love can encourage a self-destructive impulse. In Fragments 91 and 168, the loss of love leaves the speaker frustrated, lonely and resenting of their own life. In Fragment 95, the speaker’s desire to visit Acheron, a lake in the underworld, to see the lotuses, which symbolize forgetfulness, acts as a powerful example of the Sapphic speaker’s longing to be removed from the mortal world.
However, Sappho’s attitude towards death is not always framed in such a negative light, with Fragment 147 commenting instead on the remembrance of the individual after death.
A running theme throughout all of Sappho's poetry is the island of Lesbos and how it shapes her writing. Indeed, her poems and fragments frequently allude to the culture of Lesbos, which is formed from a combination of Ancient Greek customs and influences from the East.
Sappho associates Lesbos with both luxurious traded goods, like silver and myrrh, and its natural goods, like marigolds and honey; a contrast that perhaps symbolizes the conflict between the rich sensuality of her writing and the simplicity of its emotional core. The critic John Addington Symonds aptly described Lesbos as “the island of overmastering passions,” thereby demonstrating the importance of the island in shaping the tone and subject matter of Sappho’s lyrics.
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