Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder – A Commentary on Sappho’s Fragments
It is easy to love something that is beautiful. It is easy to see beauty in the things you love. What is difficult at times is seeing the distinction between these two ideas. In Sappho’s “Fragment 16,” she says that the most beautiful thing in the world is the thing that you love. A question remains, is it beautiful because you love it or do you love it because it is beautiful? The first female poet questions standards of beauty and the notion of loving someone for their beauty in this poem. Sappho says that although some people find military or horses to be the most beautiful, she believes it is the things that one loves. She shares three different situations to discuss this idea. The first idea is a universal one, the second describes a historical idea through the use of Homer’s The Iliad and the final is personal to Sappho’s life. While it could be said that people love things because they are beautiful, through Sappho’s poetry it can be seen that things are beautiful because of your love for them, this is important to understand because the Greeks’ erotic impulses play a large role in their decision making and in their daily lives.
In Sappho’s poem, “Fragment 16,” she asks, what is the most beautiful thing? In the first stanza Sappho opens with imagery of armies to show what others might see as beautiful, “some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot and some men say an army of ships…” (Sappho “Fragment 16” p 27). During this time war was prevalent in the Greek society and many people would have seen beauty in different types of armies. This is something that at the time would have been easy to understand as warfare was a concept known to all Greeks. Sappho points this out as something that someone would see as beautiful. Sappho then goes on to share what she thinks is the most beautiful thing in the world, “but I say it is/what you love” (Sappho “Fragment 16” p 27). Sappho suggests that no matter what it is you love, that is what is the most beautiful. You could love a person or an object or your family or whatever you like but that person or thing is what is most beautiful. Sappho offers a universal idea of what beauty is. This is something that can be understood by anybody, “easy to make this understood by all” (Sappho “Fragment 16” p 27). This idea is presented as a way to explain what eros makes you feel and what Sappho believes beauty is. Sappho believes that beauty is what you love, this statement alone shows that things are beautiful because you love them. Sappho uses love and eros as the theme for most of her poems showing how important the topic is to her. To the Greek population of the time, these poems would have spoken to them through Sappho’s discussion of divine love versus human love, “deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind, child of Zeus…I beg you” (Sappho “Fragment 1” p 3). Love is something that everyone can relate to. In this poem, she uses others’ thoughts on beauty as a tool to discuss the relationship between beauty and love. This stanza displays Sappho’s feelings on beauty in a way that is universally understood and that is through love.
Sappho uses Homer’s The Iliad to discuss the connection between love and beauty. In The Iliad, Helen leaves her husband, Menelaus, to be with Paris. Sappho uses this story to show what eros can do to a person. Sexual love and desire can move people to do things that could be seen as unconventional. Sappho writes, “(Helen) left her fine husband/behind and went sailing to Troy” (Sappho “Fragment 16” p 27). Sappho suggests that Helen was so overcome with eros that she left her family for Paris. It is shown through this previous quotation that Helen’s husband was beautiful. And although Helen was beautiful, “she who overcame everyone in beauty” (Sappho “Fragment 16” p 27) she left her life and her family behind to chase after her love. Helen had many things before but love took over and carried her all the way to Troy to be with Paris. Helen found love in Paris and along with that she saw his beauty as well. The organization of the poem shows a definitive chronological order in the way love and beauty come about. In the first stanza, Sappho talks about beauty as though it is not that special but focuses more on love, now Helen forgets about beauty and only focuses on the love she has for Paris. The way that Helen puts beauty on the back burner proves that love comes first. Sappho offers this historical telling showing that love is the most important. Beauty is not seen in something until you love it.
Sappho now goes on to share her own personal experience with love and eros. Sappho mentions her lost love, Anaktoria, “reminded me now of Anaktoria/who is gone” (Sappho “Fragment 16” p 27). Anaktoria left Sappho, and as Helen leaving her husband for Paris reminds Sappho of Anaktoria it could be said that Anaktoria left her for a man, “he seems to me equal to gods that man/whoever he is who opposite you” (Sappho “Fragment 31” p 63). Sappho goes on to share in “Fragment 16” that Anaktoria is beautiful. Sappho writes, “I would rather see her lovely step/and the motion of light on her face/than chariots of Lydians or ranks/of footsoldiers in arms” (Sappho “Fragment 16” p 29). She doesn’t say that Anaktoria’s beauty is the reason she loves her. She doesn’t even mention that Anaktoria is, in fact, beautiful, but in the previous quotation, Sappho’s true thoughts on Anaktoria are displayed. Sappho’s words show that she believes that her lover is beautiful. Sappho notices things about her lover that only someone in love would notice. Sappho’s ability to see these things show the love needed to notice beauty in another. The love shared between the two is what makes Anaktoria beautiful in Sappho’s eyes.
As eros’ desires are a huge factor in the lives of the Greeks during Sappho’s time it is important to discuss its relation to beauty. Beauty and eros are both important in the Greek culture. Through Sappho’s writing it is shown that through love, a knowledge of beauty is achieved. Whether it is a man’s love for military, a woman’s love for a man, or Sappho’s own personal affection for Anaktoria it is shown that once you love someone you can see their true beauty. Throughout the fragments, it is seen that just because something is beautiful that does not mean that it is true love. A man’s relationship to a horse can be beautiful, Helen’s life with Menelaus seemed to be beautiful, and Sappho believed that Anaktoria was beautiful, but all these things fade. The one thing that remained true was Sappho’s love for Ankatoria, Helen’s love for Paris and the man’s love for horse and army. Does one love something because it is beautiful or is it beautiful because we love it? The answer is, true love shows the lover the true beauty of their love. The beauty is in the love shared between two beings.
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