Sappho and Emily Dickinson: A Literary Analysis
All mediums of poetry are specific and unique among each other. They have different attributes that can be mastered in order to deliver a perfect execution. However, when it comes to the ancient genre of lyrical poetry, these attributes are based around a certain form of meter and emotional content. Like the lyrics of regular music, the words of a lyrical poem were often made to go along with a musical instrument. Back then, the poems were set to an old instrument called a lyre, but more currently lyrics have evolved to be set to popular, modern music. It is most interesting to note that the history of this style of poetry is one that goes back to times of ancient Greece. Before the age of documentation, inspired writers were composing the first works of the artistic word. Although poetry from this particular time period was often lost in translation, an interesting woman has survived the rubble – Sappho. As a Greek poetess, or female poet, Sappho’s success was unprecedented by anyone before her. She is considered one of the nine lyric poets to have shaped the genre, which was heavily dominated by men in its beginning stages. Lyric poetry launched itself as a starting point for the importance of meter and beauty in writing. Today, popular music and other forms of poetry and art mimic the standards of this style. Poetry as a collective whole has changed an incredible amount of times throughout the years, with each era bringing a new phase of stylistic experimentation and growing popularity. Regardless of this fact, the remnants of Sappho’s poetry can be found in the work of other and later poets. Her poetic influence has run further than her life. Thousands of years after her death, Massachusetts born, female poet Emily Dickinson is revered for her poems of love and loss, of grace and refined style. Much like Sappho, Emily Dickinson is considered a huge inspiration for her type of genre. Many consider Dickinson to have changed American female authored poetry, but her work echoes that of the ancient lines of Sappho. When compared and contrasted, there are many similarities between the two authors. In the brevity, stylistic talent, and content of her work, Dickinson’s type of poetry can be traced back to that of Sappho’s style. Dickinson was openly inspired by many classical poets, and one may presume that Sappho was one of these artists. Paving the way for other female writers, both can be compared to one another as talented poets with a great mastery of meter, rhythm, and lyrical attributes. Greek studies researcher Mary Lefkowitz suggests that people assume female writers are not intellectual, and underestimate the power, talent, and intellect of the feminine author. She writes that people claim “Because women poets are emotionally disturbed, their poems are psychological outpourings…concerned with their inner emotional lives.” (Lefkowitz 113). Whether this is true or not, the strength of this emotion is unparalleled and proves the genuine talent of both similar poets. Even with such a gap of time between their lives, it is amazing how unbelievably alike the two are.
Sappho is best known for her fragments, which are the surviving excerpts of her various poetic works. These excerpts are extremely short in length, sometimes even only a sentence long. However, their content reflects the rhythm and style of her work, and how it fits into the genre of lyrical poetry.. It is soft and pretty, while also drawing in the reader with stunning, simple language and imagery. Because of their lost and broken nature, none of these fragments are titled. Lacking proper names, they have been numbered when documented by historians. Similarly, Emily Dickinson’s poems generally do not have names. For this reason, they are often referred to by their first line as a title, to differentiate between each piece. Although sometimes she has produced longer works, a decent amount of Dickinson’s poems are short and to the point, much like Sappho.
The fragments of Sappho are also often song-like, due to the metered nature of her writing. Her piece, fragment 31, is an ode to love unrequited. It is believed that it is Sappho’s longing response at “the wedding feast of a girl who was leaving her…” (McEvilley 1).
When she writes that “a cold sweat pours down me, and trembling seizes all (my body); I am paler than grass and seem almost to be dying”, she is expressing the sorrow and worry she feels at her lover’s marriage to someone who is not her. Like a lot of lyrical poetry, the content is universally relatable. Many can attest to the horrible feeling of love that is not returned. The emotions of Sappho being rejected translate vividly through the description of her pale, sweating body. When she writes that “And that seductive laugh, which sets /the heart to flutter in my chest,” Sappho is describing the mesmerizing nature of love and its accompanying feelings.
Similarly, the topic of a heart broken is no stranger to the works of Dickinson. In Emily Dickinson’s poem which is titled after the first line as Heart! We Will Forget Him!, she attempts to forget the pain that a heartbreak has left her to deal with. Her proclamation in the title as well as the poem’s first line has a cadence with a tone of much ferocity and spirited determination, yet denial. This is comparable to the ending of Sappho’s poem, in which she states “all must be endured…”, which is in reference to the pain of a tragic heartbreak. Here, Sappho urges herself to fight through the pain, despite its terrible effects on her emotional and mental health. She breaks the narration in which she previously spoke only towards her leaving lover. Emily Dickinson wrote her poem to directly address her own heart, which she has personified as somewhat like a companion or confidante. She is trying to get through its walls from heartbreak, and is speaking to it metaphorically in order to console it. When Dickinson writes, “When you have done, pray tell me/ That I my thoughts may dim”, she means that she wants her mind to calm down and be less upset about what is happening. The heartbreak is taking a toll on her mind and body, much like that described in the Sappho poem fragment 31. In contrast, Sappho addresses her lover with her honest and true inner thoughts, watching the horrifying scene unfold before her. Although they both are speaking to entirely different audiences, contextually the poems serve as a way to reconcile their feelings of loneliness and betrayal.
It is interesting to note the extreme brevity of Dickinson’s poem as well. In only eight short lines, she is able to produce deep feelings of sadness and longing. Much like that of Sappho’s poetry, she is able to stay short with her words, yet express so much emotion. Sappho’s fragment 31 is only around thirteen lines, and this is even a bit long for Sappho. This constant brevity is a key factor of lyric poetry, and it is clear that this style of poetry inspired Dickinson. The quick, yet rhythmic nature of the poems are so similar, despite the time that has passed between them. Furthermore, they both incorporate rhyming. Dickinson’s poem rhymes the words “tonight” with “light”, which uses contrast imagery in lines two and four. This rhyming uses an “XAXA” rhyme scheme, which continues throughout the poem. In Sappho’s poem, she rhymes “near” with “overhear” in lines three and four. Sappho’s rhyme scheme is a little more unpredictable, but she is able to upkeep the lyrical nature of the poem by using slant rhyme. For example, in the final lines she slant rhymes “grass” with “as that”. Paired with a lot of alliteration and fluidity in diction, Sappho creates musicality in the same way that Dickinson is able to.
The influence of Sappho’s poetry on the work of Emily Dickinson is clear and evident throughout most of her poems. Although they both had very different lives, they still had experiences that they could relate to one another. The styles of both poets continue to affect the direction of modern poetry today. The short and sweet nature of their lyrical poetry is a homage to how beautiful and empowering words can be, even without using many of them. There is something special about having steady control over diction, flow, and rhyme scheme. Their feminine and powerful tone resonates throughout each piece of their personal work. Skillfully, each poet is able to keep a specific and strict meter, but yet they do not deter from the themes of their poems. Sappho’s affinity for style intertwined with romance related topics was passed down to Emily Dickinson, despite the years in between their lives. And like this, the true strength of her inspiring, yet ancient poetry is shown.
McEvilley, Thomas. “Sappho, Fragment Thirty One: The Face behind the Mask.” Phoenix 1978: 1-18. Rpt. in Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism. Ed. Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 160. Detroit: Gale, 2014. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Sept. 2016.
Lefkowitz, Mary R. “Critical stereotypes and the poetry of Sappho.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 14.2 (1973): 113.
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.
Women as drivers of violence in If Not, Winter by Sappho, The Bacchae by Euripides V, and Symposium by Plato
The Iliad by Homer, the text which is often referred to as the beginning the Greek literary tradition, begins with an argument between Achilles and Agamemnon over a woman. This fight takes place within a war which started because of Helen, who was stolen from the Achaeans by the Trojans on account of her overwhelming beauty. This is a theme which persists throughout the Greek literary tradition at large. While it is usually the men in these kinds of books who carry out acts of violence as warriors and combatants, it is often the action of or reaction to a woman that triggers an unfortunate series of events. Women very often are construed as drivers of violence in Greek literature, as exemplified by three key works: “If Not, Winter” by Sappho, The Bacchae by Euripides, and The Symposium by Plato.
As a lesbian, Sappho provides a unique perspective on the role of women in Greek society. She is somebody who is unable to procreate with the people to whom she is sexually attracted. From these factors, it can be inferred that Sappho does not love for the purpose of investing in her lineage or family line. Rather, her love with women is purely romantic in nature. In the first fragment of “If Not, Winter,” she describes the goddess of love as “[d]eathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind, / child of Zeus, who twists lures” (Sappho 3). The language used in this interaction displays her view that love is something which she has been tricked into. A “lure,” as Sappho says, is a tool used in hunting to entice the victim into a trap so that it may be killed. This language implies an unpleasant ending as it leads the leader to believe that her relationship with the people who she loves — women — is likely to end badly, if not violently. Further, this dialogue with Aphrodite displays her view that her feelings towards women are inevitable and uncontrollable.
In her 31st fragment, Sappho describes violence as a product of a woman’s presence. In this poem, her love interest has a flirtatious conversation with a man. Sappho becomes overwhelmed with jealousy, describing her emotion watching the scene as “fire racing under skin / and in eyes no sight and drumming fills ears” (Sappho 63). The metaphor of fire is significant as fire is inherently violent and often uncontrollable. By nature, fire destroys and consumes. To equate her feelings provoked by her intense feeling towards this woman to fire is to indicate the unrestrained, uncontrolled, and destructive nature of sexual desire towards a woman. If her feelings uncontrollable like fire, a lure that Aphrodite twists, then there is no way she could conceive to prevent such emotion. Any attempts to do so are likely to be unsuccessful, as Sappho describes in her 1st fragment: “[i]f she does not love, soon she will love / even unwilling” (Sappho 5). Consequently, there is no way to prevent the negative consequences that occur as a result of this intense emotion unless the woman is removed from the scenario entirely.
Sappho recognizes the specificity of her situation in the 31st fragment and expands her scope to prove the universal nature of this circumstance. “But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty” (Sappho 63), Sappho begins before the fragment ends abruptly. Even though the sentence is partial, its implications are still clear. It is not her fame, money, or individual situation that are responsible for her intense and destructive state of mind. This feeling would have happened to anybody, no matter the circumstance. Women are the cause of feelings as irrational as these which can only lead to negative consequences, as confirmed by the ominous last complete phrase of the fragment “I am dead–or almost / I seem to me” (Sappho 63).
Sappho characterizes the presence of a woman as something that is likely to produce an unhappy ending. Logically, a set of rules and standards should be established to prevent negative outcomes. The noticeable disregard of these rules, exemplified by the Bacchae in Euripides composition, leads to a violent and gruesome end. The sexually liberated women in the Bacchae are free from conforming to a restrictive society. Additionally, they are represented as violent, animalistic, and uncontrollable. This correlation suggests that women, especially those who don’t follow the expectations of the patriarchal society, are conducive to violent ends.
The collective and liberated nature of the Bacchae, or the group of women who worship Dionysus, is threatening to the ancient Roman society in which this play was written. The Bacchants have no explicit leader, no king or queen to tell the lowly peasants how to live their lives. Instead, they live communally. When the messenger relays his experience with the women to Pentheus, he describes them as a flock, “they flew like birds” (Euripides 50). Rather than a singular leader supported by an army, the The Bacchants are birds, an animal without hierarchy in their society. This can be described as power “with.”
This type of cooperative power works in contrast to Pentheus, who opposes the Bacchae for their behavior, stating in reference to the Bacchants that “[t]hose who run at large shall be hunted down” (Euripides 28). Pentheus is willing to take action and repress those who do not think similarly to him. From this, it is clear to see his dependence on superiority and domination in the society which he runs. He, as the king, exerts power “over”.
Arguably, this school of thought is very detrimental to the established patriarchy. This fear is reflected in Teiresias’ attempt to comfort Pentheus, who is disturbed that these two men want to join the movement of the Bacchae, “[d]on’t be so sure that domination is what matters in the life of a man” (Euripides 31). Power over, which Pentheus exemplifies, is predicated in part by sexual control. Contrastingly, in the view of Dionysus, hedonism — specifically sexual activity — is not discouraged. The aspiring Bacchant Teiresias clarifies this when he points out that “Dionysus does not, I admit, compel a woman to be chaste” (Euripides 31). When women are allowed to have sex independently and uninhibitedly, a power shift occurs. For, if one cannot regulate the female body, one cannot regulate reproduction. This conception, in turn, means that you cannot regulate inheritance, which ultimately jeopardizes the patriarchy.
The potential replacement of Pentheus’ patriarchy with the Bacchus’ matriarchy is proven to be dangerous due to the role women play as drivers of violence. The return to a natural state is deeply emphasized within the Bacchae clan. The reason for this is, as the wise Teiresias explains, that “[m]ankind, young man, possesses two supreme blessings. First of these is the goddess Demeter, or Earth” and the second, as he goes on to describe, is Dionysus. This connection to earth and the natural order of things is important because it suggests that at their core, at the very most natural state of being, women are wild, unrelenting, and murderous. For example, the Bacchae, with “hair [crowned] with leaves, ivy and oak” (Euripides 49), are able to connect with the earth in unparalleled ways. One woman is described as she “scratched at the soil with bare fingers and white milk came welling up. Pure honey spurted,” while another “drove her fennel into the ground […] spring of wine poured out” (Euripides 49). The very next moment, these same women are seen “with bare hands tear a fat calf, still bellowing with fright in two, while others clawed the heifers to pieces” (Euripides 50). The scene of the clan of women, unregulated and empowered, attacking after the men who watched them bathe is described with gruesome and bloody detail. The graphic imagery of “ribs and cloven hooves scattered everywhere, and scraps smeared with blood hung from the fir trees” (Euripides 50) suggests that at their very core, in their most natural state, women are violent.
The Bacchae suggests that a circumstance in which women who are liberated and not overpowered by a patriarchal force will inevitably lead to violent ends, as that is simply the way women are. This is emphasized by the massive role that the Bacchants play within the work. Conversely, The Symposium by Plato has a noticeable lack of women in the play, with only one female character, Diotima, who was made up by Sophocles. The play, in contrast to many works in the Greek tradition, ends without any bloodshed or gore. It is the absence of a woman in the scene that allows the men to live their lives in peace, proving that women are the drivers of violence. Despite the omission of a genuine female in Symposium, the play does not lack sexuality. This is important to note, as it is not the presence of sexual interest that leads to disorder. Sexuality in itself is not bad; rather, it is the sexuality of women that produces violent outcomes.
In The Symposium, as the men at the table discuss what they believe is the nature of love, they never condemn love as a whole. The characters do not believe the act of love or sexual desire to be sinful or immoral. For example, Phaedrus, a philosopher and the first to speak at the event, begins his speech by stating that “[l]ove is a great god,” (Plato 9). His primary proof of love as a the “highest honor” (Plato 11) is the story of a Alcestis, a woman who kills herself in place of her husband which the gods accept as “nobly done” (Plato 11). In this story, it is the elimination of the female which allows the unspecified violence to end, although she is eventually brought back to life as a repayment for her selflessness. But even despite her noble and lovely sacrifice, Achilles is given a higher honor than she is because his story is the one of a “lover […] more godlike than his boy” (Plato 12). As woman, she cannot play a role in that equation.
The second story he tells is that of Orpheus who, motivated by his heterosexual desire, goes to Hades to reconnect with his love. He becomes unsatisfied when he is shown only an image and not her body, so the gods “punished him for that, and made him die at the hands of women” (Plato 11). That he is angered when he is not given her body is important as this displays his sexual motivation, rather than emotional, when it came to seeking out his loved one. Therefore, it is this frustration triggered by his heterosexual desire leads to his own demise. By placing “at the hands of women” at the end of the sentence, the manner in which he is punished is given a great gravity of importance. It is those final words that stick in the mind of the reader that as that is what the reader is left with when they transition to Phaedrus’ next point. The way that Plato emphasizes this specific manner of execution asserts that death “at the hands of women” to be the most violent of punishments.
Pausanias, the next speaker, provides the clearest insight to the Greek mindset of common, heterosexual, love as vulgar as compared to the admirable love between men. Common Aphrodite’s love is felt by those “who are attached to women no less than to boys, to the body more than to the soul, and to the least intelligent partners, since all they care about is completing the sexual act” (Plato 14). Pausanias suggests that it is morally careless to feel a sexual attraction to women. This negative association asserts that the woman, who is described a purely sexual object of a lesser intelligence in the passage above, is the corrupting force for men. Heavenly Aphrodite, on the other hand, is for those who “are attracted to the male: they find pleasure in what is by nature stronger and more intelligent” (Plato 14). This type of love does not allow women to participate, and is only intended for two men. Describing this type of love as Heavenly emphasizes the utopian way of life that might exist without a woman in the picture. When a female is subtracted from the equation, love is no longer vulgar. Additionally, Pausanias is sure to point out that this is an ideology can be applied to the city of Athens, as “they are remarkably complex” (Plato 15) when it comes to love, and “also far superior” (Plato 16).
The men within The Symposium have a similar goal to impress and seduce their handsome host, Agathon. In his own speech, Agathon recognizes his own irresistibility, as he describes love from his perspective as something that comes to who is “the most beautiful and the best” (Plato 32). The men in The Symposium flirt openly with him; for instance, Socrates flatters Agathon by saying that he is “brave and dignified” (Plato 30). The competition between the men for Agathon’s affection can be seen when Phaedrus interrupts the intensifying discussion between Socrates and Agathon, his reason being that if it were up to Socrates, he would never stop debating with a partner, “[e]specially if he’s handsome” (Plato 31). Despite this sexual tension that exists within the text, a fight does not break out among them. This peaceful duration is likely due to the lack of women in the play, who are proven to be morally dangerous in Athenian society.
In “If Not, Winter,” Sappho emphasizes the uncontrollable nature of sexual desire towards women. This uncontrollability is emphasized further in The Bacchae, as Euripides V describes the gruesome consequences of an empowered group of women, the Bacchus, upon the patriarchy. Finally, Plato offers a contrasting circumstance to both works, where the absence of women in The Symposium results in peaceful discussion about the virtues of a love which excludes women. It is important to understand that women presented as drivers of violence in literature in order to gain context for the way that women are portrayed in popular culture today. The notion that a sexual desire, or even intensity of emotion, towards a woman simply cannot be contained plays a great role in the modern tendency to blame victims of rape or gender based violence after they are attacked. It is important to analyze the theme of women as drivers of violence in works of literary merit, such as “If Not, Winter,” The Bacchae, and The Symposium, in order to draw attention to this problematic point of view so that future generations can rectify institutionalized misogyny.
Close Reading Sappho and the Treatment of Feminine Desire.
When contemplating Sappho’s illumination of the role of the woman in Ancient Greek society in her poetry, it is equitable to concede that there is an underlying tone of patriarchal oppression woven throughout; in which femininity is reduced to isolation, with the Sapphic lyric as its one remaining spokesperson. The oppression of the female voice seems to manifest itself into a loathing introspection, with the body acting as a form of agent for destruction; internally combusting itself into resentment and heartbreak.
Katz’s conclusion that Greek society is largely characterized as being a “men’s club” (514) is thus important to consider when reading Sappho’s fragments, specifically those in which the female voice is confronted with – as Sappho refers to as – ‘that fellow’. However, Sappho’s depiction of this patriarchal overture, seems starkly distorted when interpreting her own preoccupation with feminine dynamism and divinity; bolstering the idea that women themselves are the fundamental power source for masculine dominance. In the opening verse of Sappho’s fragment, the concentration placed upon the male figure as the competitor against the poem’s persona for the affections of the object of desire is sheerly embellished with feminine power. Greene claims that contemporary readers have the opportunity to view feminine desire as an alternative to the ‘competitive and hierarchical models of eroticism that have dominated Western culture’ (5), but this view can be largely counteracted with the persona’s reaction to seeing the object of their desire with another. Sappho’s poetic voice seems to begrudgingly describe the man as ‘god’s double, couched with you’, which seemingly indicates that the competitive speaker considers the man only to be powerful because he is in the presence of her beloved’s splendor. These godlike insinuations relating to the clout of the male sex, does ultimately imply that femininity exudes the desirability of a goddess, which in the wider context of Sappho’s poetry, likely alludes to Aphrodite as the feminine goddess of love and sex. The role of Aphrodite, although not specifically as a facet in this fragment, can be seen to have a somewhat bittersweet relationship with women in society; in that, whilst she grants them the power of desirability, the antithesis of this results in the sobering result of the isolation felt by the fragment’s voice. In this sense, men cease to realize their dominance without the female counterpart and arguably utilize their ‘warm manner’ and ‘inviting laughter’ as a means to further bolster the superiority of masculinity, making them appear as ‘god’s double’ in the face of onlooking and repressed feminism.
The introspective nature of Sappho’s poetic voice in the fragment in question does appear to further exude the repression of feminine desire, with the body viewed as a Hell-like prison in which the speaker’s emotions ravage at her insides; becoming increasingly more violent as the fragment progresses. The persona’s tongue is ‘shattered’ as she observes and contemplates her unrequited and seemingly erotic affections, leaving her voiceless in a society in which sensual relationships with women are only to be enjoyed by men; thus further fattening masculinity’s superiority. The loss of voice also serves to pillow the encapsulation of the isolation of feminine desire and when aligning this to Mendelson’s interpretation that the speaker is left in ‘a kind of interior echo chamber’, the introspective loathing can be seen to sprout from a yearning for sensual experiences. Thus, the speaker’s reversion to inverting into her own biological make-up is likely to be a desperate attempt to fester an experience that she cannot enjoy with the object of her affections. In her eyes, that prize has been stolen by man, which thus brings Greene’s contention back to the forefront of thought, in that in actuality – as opposed to Greene’s line of thought – the male dominative monopoly in Western culture was still of strong prominence in Ancient Greece, and Sappho’s poetry does in fact illuminate this. The isolation of the speaker brings to mind the image of life underneath a bell jar, in which the sole company of the persona reduces her to feelings of worthlessness in a man’s world.
When considering Sappho’s fragment in a more contemporary context, Plath’s poem Lesbos, and her depiction of the angst brought about by feminine desire, which causes ‘hate up to my neck, thick, thick’ (52.64-66) again reveals a sheer parallel to Sappho’s bodily assassination on the senses. Plath expands on this, calling the woman in Lesbos a ‘blood-loving bat’ (53. 80) and when contemplating the role of Sappho’s poetic persona it may be argued that the object of desire is in fact a form of poison to the speaker. Thus, the Sapphic illustration of feminine relationships in fact sets flowing an underlying tone of tragedy; the persona looks on at her beloved, and the ‘gauzy flame runs radiating under [her] skin’, which in turn reveals the candid emotional pain brought about by feminine desire. In light of Plath’s moronic presentation of female relationships, Sappho’s fragment may be considered to be the denotation of female suffering in a patriarchal society. Mendelson calls the fragment a ‘reaction shot’, which highlights the very dominant Sapphic theme of intimacy, and when using this as a lens to objectify Sappho’s fragment we can see the internal effects of unattainable desire, in that it stunts all ability to function. As the speaker’s emotional stability deteriorates, so does their bodily functions and the introspective nature intensifies. Ironically, as the fragment progresses, it becomes more and more concerned with the persona as opposed to the object of desire or the man she is spending time with, which fundamentally poses the question of whether or not the source of the speaker’s pain stems from their beloved, or the general conventions of longing and isolation as a woman.
Greene, Ellen. ‘Sappho, Foucault, and Women’s Erotics’. Arethusa, 1996, pp. 1-14. The Johns Hopkins University Press 1996. pp. 4-9
Katz, Marilyn A. “Sappho and Her Sisters: Women in Ancient Greece.” The University of Chicago Press: Signs. pp. 510-520.
Mendelson, Daniel. “Girl, Interrupted: Who was Sappho?” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, March 16 2015. Web. October 14 2015.
Plath, Sylvia. ‘Sylvia Plath: Poems Selected by Ted Hughes.’ London: Faber and Faber: 2004. pp. 51-53
Sappho, and Aaron Poochigian. ‘Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments.’ Penguin Classics: 2009. pp. 22-23.
The Commodification of Women in Sappho’s Poems and Fragments
Ancient Greek poet Sappho authored poems exploring various concepts of female sexuality and romantic experience. Many of her poems and the fragments of them that remain explore the theme and experience of marriage in women’s lives. While many readers would argue that the women in Sappho’s poems are honored and respected through marriage, this view fails to recognize that the marriage system exists within a social system that favors men, is deeply flawed, and contributes to the commodification of women in society. In her essay, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” Gayle Rubin coins the term “the sex/gender system” in order to describe this dynamic. According to Rubin, the sex/gender system is “the set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity, and in which these transformed sexual needs are satisfied” (159). In our society specifically, it is the system in which women, sexual minorities, and other aspects of human personality are oppressed. Rubin argues for how this system creates a society in which women are exchanged by men through the institution of marriage and therefore commodified. Rubin’s ideas on kinship and marriage further reveal the detrimental effects of the sex/gender system on female value, and her observations not only shed light on the commodification of women in modern times, but on the archetypal commodification of women that plagued ancient Greece as well.
By reading Sappho’s poems through the lens of Rubin’s ideas on marriage and kinship within the sex/gender system, it is possible to gain a deeper and more complete understanding of Sappho’s perception of the flaws of marriage and its impact on the commodification of women in ancient Greece. By reading Sappho’s poems through Rubin’s sex/gender system lens, it becomes clear that Sappho seeks to expose the subordination of women that results from marriage. In her essay, Rubin argues that marriage commodifies women because the marriage system places value not on a woman and her personal abilities, but on her kinship ties and monetary value. Rubin does not provide a concrete definition of kinship ties, arguing that they “are and do many things,” and are “made up of, and reproduce, concrete forms of socially organized sexuality” (169). Kinship ties are a form of the sex/gender system that perpetuates the reproduction of the marriage system and of female commodification. Rubin argues that “marriage transactions- the gifts and material which circulate in the ceremonies making a marriage,” illuminate that women’s rights are “residual” to those of men (177). Rubin argues that marital transactions consist of a system in which women are the gift and men the giver, creating a dynamic in which women have no ownership over themselves. This system was clearly evident in ancient Greece, as we can deduce from Sappho’s description below of a marriage ceremony. Sappho’s poems reveal a system in which a woman’s worth is tied to her wealth, which is a result of her kinship status. In fact, much of the marriage song depicted describes not the bride herself, but the material objects that accompany her in the marriage exchange. Sappho writes, Hector and his companions are bringing a woman / with sparkling eyes, graceful Andromache, from sacred / Thebe, / from the ever-flowing streams of Placia, in their ships / across the salt-filled sea; / and with her they also carry / many golden bracelets, purple clothing, engraved trinkets, / ivory and silver goblets too numerous to count. (72)
In Greek mythology, Andromache was viewed as the perfect wife- virtuous, domestic, and subservient. However, she also exhibits untraditional behavior for a woman, such as giving her husband advice on matters of war. In this way, Andromache and Hector’s relationship is an example of a relatively untraditional marital partnership that breaks down gender barriers. Sappho, however, disregards this part of Hector and Andromache’s story and simplifies Andromache’s role in order to emphasize Andromache’s subservience and highlight the commodification of women at play here. Sappho first describes Andromache as being brought, by “Hector and his companions,” presumably a largely male group. The image of a woman “being brought” to a man by another group of men demonstrates the lack of female control in this exchange between men. The woman is the gift, and the men are gifting her. This concept of men exchanging women portrays a system in which women have no rights over themselves. Andromache is praised only for her physical beauty, as having “sparkling eyes” and being “graceful.” All other descriptions of her are tied to her kin or the material objects that accompany her. She is “from sacred / Thebe,” connoting that she and her kin come from a place of holiness and purity, as well as “from the ever-flowing stream of Placia,” implying wealth and abundance. The description includes that Andromache is accompanied by “many gold bracelets, purple clothing, engraved trinkets / ivory and silver goblets too numerous to count.” She is being brought alongside material objects that Sappho describes in rich language. The value of the marriage exchange is significantly raised by the material objects that are gifted alongside the bride, thereby reducing her personal value and implying that the exchange of women is only worthy and complete if it includes material objects of monetary worth. Thus, women’s rights are not only more “residual than those of men,” they are plainly secondary (Rubin 177). “Gold” and “purple” are colors associated with wealth, while “trinkets” and “goblets” are described in abundance. As Rubin explains, the woman is only one part of the material that circulates in a marriage ceremony. The emphasis placed on the material objects that a woman is exchanged with demonstrates that the exchange of marriage emphasizes not the woman, but the wealth that accumulates with the marriage. By examining Sappho’s poems through the Rubin’s lens of marriage transactions, it is clear that the poems reveal a deep dissatisfaction with the secondary role that women were assigned in ancient Greece. Through her description of the marriage procession of Hector and Andromache, Sappho demonstrates this by exposing the emphasis that marriage places on a woman’s subservient role and lack of recognition for her abilities.
A closer reading of Sappho’s poems through the lens of Rubin’s ideas of kinship organization further reveals women’s subordinate role in which women in marital relationships receive neither the benefits of their relationships nor the rights to themselves. One benefit of the relationship would be wealth, or at least financial autonomy. The woman receives neither of these things directly, as demonstrated by Sappho’s depiction of marriage ceremonies. In her essay, Rubin details the system in which women are exchanged without any say in their own circulation. Rubin maintains that women in marriage ceremonies simply “pass from hand to hand,” and as a result, leave “the ties that bind,” meaning kinship ties. However, the resulting kinship ties only benefit men, usually heightening their wealth and power. Women are “conduits” in a system which does not benefit them and which they have no control over. It is the men who benefit from these transactions, who are “linked” by the kinship ties that are created and for whom wealth is increased. Thus, women are commodified as gifts in order to benefit the men in their families (174). The system Rubin reveals is clearly problematic, and is emphasized in Sappho’s poems. In Sappho’s description of a marriage, the groom is praised for his bride, which he seems to have acquired through faith and luck. Sappho writes, Lucky bridegroom, / the marriage you have prayed for has come to pass / and the bride you dreamed of is yours… / Beautiful bride, / to look at you gives joy; your eyes are like honey, / love flows over your gentle face… / Aphrodite / has honoured you above all others (62). Sappho’s description of marriage from the male point of view is one in which the woman is indeed viewed as a gift. The marriage is a result of “luck,” “prayer,” and “dreaming.” The woman did not have to be actively pursued; instead, it is as if he acquired her as one does a gift, confirming Rubin’s description and demonstrating that women are treated merely as pawns used to benefit men by creating kinship ties through marriage, and ultimately leading to an increase in wealth for the men involved. Additionally, the woman’s value lies in her beauty; her eyes are “like honey,” and she has a “gentle face.” Her value lies only in her attributes that can give men enjoyment, such as beauty and wealth, and she receives no benefit from her marital relationship.
Thus, Sappho details a system not unlike that which Rubin describes, in which “women are the gifts” and men “the exchange partners.” In this system, “women are in no position to realize the benefits of their own circulation…men…are the beneficiaries of the product of such exchanges,” (Rubin 174). This system, in which men receive the wealth that accompanies a married woman, creates a problematic dynamic in which women are never in any position of control over themselves, and in which their personal value is never recognized. Rubin defines the term: “’Exchange of women’ as a shorthand for expressing that the social relations of a kinship system specify that men have certain rights in their female kin, and that women do not have the same rights either to themselves or to their male kin” (177). One short fragment by Sappho serves as clear evidence for Rubin’s concept: “’We give this woman away,’ / her father said” (61). The “we” represented here is most likely another party of men: brothers, uncles, cousins, and fathers who will benefit from the exchange of this female member of their family. The decision is final and explicit, for the woman has no say in the matter. She is simply an object to be given away. Women in this system are valued solely for how they can potentially benefit men, whether it be their kin or husbands. Rubin’s ideas on the exchange of marriage illuminate the meaning of Sappho’s poems by emphasizing the commodified and subordinate position of women in ancient Greece through descriptions of marriage ceremonies.
When reading Sappho’s poems and fragments, it can seem logical to view them as having a positive and even joyous outlook on marriage. After all, Sappho’s poems often contain rich descriptions of love, desire, and beauty. However, a deeper reading of her poems reveal a critical perspective on marriage that is required in order to understand the authentic experience of married women in ancient Greece. Rubin’s essay reveals ideas on the sex/gender system that can be applied to the interpretation of Sappho’s poems. Rubin argues that women are commodified because their value is placed on their kinship ties. Women in ancient Greece were commodified by this same system, in which they had no control over themselves or their relationships. Women passed through the hands of men, their value weighed by their kinship ties and beauty, attributes they could not control. Women were the gifts that men received in marriage, and men were the givers. Women were celebrated and valued only for the pleasure they brought to men, whether through their beauty or their family’s wealth. Sappho’s poems on marriage songs and ceremonies are evidence of this, and show the lack of control that women possessed in marital relationships. Rubin’s ideas are a powerful tool in understanding the ways in which women were commodified then and now, and serve as a lens in which to interpret ancient as well as modern marital dynamics.
Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex.” Toward an Anthropology on Women, Edited by Rayna R Reiter. Monthly Review Press, 1975, pp. 157–210. Sappho. Poems and fragments. Edited by Josephine Balmer. Meadowland Books, 1984.