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.
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