A close reading of Sappho: beyond the erotic

Sappho, the first notable female interpreter of the human soul to speak her mind through lyric poetry, is a symbol for women’s self-assertion, as well as the inventor of romantic imagery that has since become common and often used in our culture. The reader who enters the Sapphic realm will be initiated into an atmosphere of ritual, ecstasy, contrasting outpouring of emotions, all of this being both concealed and revealed by fragmentary, yet vivid aesthetic descriptions of a nature inspired by the Lesbos Island. Sappho’s poems seem to reflect the balance of Apollonian and Dionysian essence that characterises art, in Nietzsche’s view. The Apollonian nature of her work lies in the beautiful, evocative and musical forms and structures of poetry, while the Dionysian is represented by the powerful underlying emotions and experiences.

Focus on sensual and emotional awareness
While the theme of love is essential in Sappho’s writing, this should not be reduced to the elements of lust, desire, or to assumptions about the author’s homoerotic passions, as it happened during the Victorian Era. Her work is concerned with sensuality, with a disintegration and reconstruction of the senses and with the bittersweet nature of love. The purpose of this poetic sensuality, as stated by Judith Halleth, is to act as a social means “to impart sensual awareness and confidence in young females on the threshold of marriage and maturity” and to encourage the development of female identity. While Stehle argues against this, saying that the personal intimate reality in Sappho’s work is the most important, it is fair to say that there is a connection between the private and the public in Sappho’s world and in her poetic intentions. On the same note of inspiring sensuality, Josephine Balmer also believes that “Sappho’s poetry is sensual and emotional rather than sexually explicit”. In poem no 32 for instance, in which the narrator shares memories of past bliss with a tone marked by the suffering of parting with the lover, there is an emphasis on the senses: The surroundings radiate sensuality. Elements such as the flowers (violets, roses and crocuses), the floral scented perfume, the garlands and the bed are all associated with the notion of love and depict the relationship between the two lovers in terms of colours and scents.

Ritual imagery
The Dionysian atmosphere of ecstasy that encourages revelling in sensual pleasures is present throughout several poems, such as no 79 in which Sappho creates her ideal image of the temple of Aphrodite, seeming to describe a paradise ruled by a mix of haunting perfume, beautiful pastoral landscape dominated by flowers and the soothing sound of rivers, finishing with a very vivid simile and metaphor of pouring “like wine into golden cups,/ a nectar mingled with all the joy of our festivities”. Wine is a characteristic of ritual imagery, as well as a fundamental Dionysian element in its perception-altering effect. The feelings conveyed in the poem can be resumed in Baudelaire’s famous line from Correspondances, “Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent”.

Connection between the Sensual and the Spiritual
The sensual is closely related to the spiritual in Sappho’s poetry. There is a spiritual dimension to Sappho’s love, which is reflected through the rituals of worshipping the Goddess of Love. Her Ode to Aphrodite imitates a prayer, similar to a Homeric one, in which she begins by invoking the goddess and describing a previous encounter; and finishes symmetrically, in a ring composition, by asking her to come again. Sappho’s description of the previous spiritual encounter is very evocative: it seems to flow perfectly, encouraging the reader to visualise and re-live her experience. The description ends by switching from an indirect approach to a direct one through which Aphrodite asks in a non-hesitant, straightforward manner: “Who shall I persuade this time/ to take you back, yet once again, to her love;/ who wrongs you, Sappho?”.

The figure of Aphrodite
Aphrodite’s tone is very familiar and impatient, because of the repetitive reason of the invocation, namely regaining a lover’s affection. Some critics saw the tone of the ode as “an expression of the vanity and impermanence of her passion, composed in a spirit of self-mockery ”. From this perspective, Aphrodite appears to remind Sappho that all pain is ephemeral and that time will heal all wounds. However, the power of the goddess of love is strongly emphasised in the poem in the sixth stanza by listing the three inversions that are about to happen: instead of running away from, the beloved will run after Sappho, instead of shunning gifts, she will give, and even against her will, she shall love Sappho. The structure and content of the poem makes it difficult to tell whether it was meant to be performed in public or in private. It is said it might have been performed as part of the cult of Aphrodite, but the way Sappho addresses herself in the fifth stanza through Aphrodite’s voice, together with the intimate sense we get from the invocation, gives the impression that it was private. This personal use of myth is one aspect contributing to Sappho’s originality, and it is depicted through the lyric form of her poetry, which is focused on individuality.

Adopting epic language within a lyric context
In her description of Eros, Sappho employs Homeric terms such as “limb-relaxing”. Her poetry gives new meanings to the epic language. Sappho transforms Homer’s similes into metaphorical terms, almost personifying nature by associating human behaviour with the rhythms of nature. Her vivid descriptions, with their melodic nature, are Apollonian in the harmony they create. The vocabulary she uses is simple and familiar, but the combination of words is suggestive, flowing in a natural, seemingly effortless way. It is also very often open to interpretation: Scholars generally argue about the true meaning behind Sappho’s metaphorical language. For instance, some think that the expression “greener than grass” from poem no 20 suggests that the narrator is envious (green with envy) of the man that is fortunate enough to marry her beloved, while others think that it is not jealousy she experiences – it is, instead, her reaction to the overwhelming beauty of her loved one. To support the latter view, one can compare the figure of speech with Penelope’s suitors’ reactions in the Odyssey: “their knees were loosened, and their hearts were beguiled with passion”. It could also be an association to Homer’s expression “green fear” of war, or a feeling of sickness and pallor or, on the contrary, a symbol of regained youth. This openness of interpretation proves Sappho’s capability of stirring the reader’s wonder through the effective use of simple, lyric expressions.

The fragmented self
In the same poem (number 20), there is a disintegration of senses, and a notion of fragmented self. This aspect is conveyed through powerful imagery in which Sappho’s experience of senses, so important throughout her poetry, gets distorted: “my voice deserts me/ and my tongue is struck silent, a delicate fire/ suddenly races underneath my skin,/ my eyes see nothing, my ears whistle[…]/ and sweat pours down me and a trembling creeps over”. The Dionysian experience implies a loss of self, a near-death experience; yet it is described in such a clear harmonious way, that we get the feeling it complies to Nietzsche’s idea of balance in art – namely the balance between the order lying in the form, and the disorder given by the feelings evoked and by the treated subject. The contradiction, or paradox in this poem comes from the idea that the speaker seems to be capable of recording this near-death experience which is supposed to silence her voice. It almost seems like Sappho divides herself in two entities: the one that is there, experiencing those feelings, and the one that can judge and observe everything and compose a song about it. It is a reflection of the notion of lyric persona, of the “subtle and complex use of ‘I’ in poetry”, as Josephine Balmer points out. The verb “seem”, repeated throughout the poem might suggest that everything is an illusion, that feelings do not shape reality, on the contrary, they have the ability to distort it (“It seems to me”/ “I seem to be no more than a step away from death”). Sappho thus brings this inherent truth in her lyricism: that feelings can be exaggerated, they can burn one’s heart and poison one’s mind.

Modernist aspect
The motif of the fragmented self, as well as the speech incapability from poem number 20 resonate well with modernist techniques and views, such as the unreliable narrators and the irrationality of a seemingly rational society. The fragmentary self seems to mirror Sappho’s fragmentary body of work, which has been associated metaphorically with her supposed suicide, with her body that was broken on the rocks . This metaphor amplifies Sappho’s appeal to a culture fascinated with imperfection, destruction and loss.

Focus on women’s values
Another essential aspect that assures Sappho’s success is her focus on women and women’s values. She moves away from male values of war, heroes and conquest expressed in the epic poems of the ancient writers – towards the female world of ritual, enchantment and love. A great example of this is poem number 21, in which she presents Helen of Troy in a positive light, very differently from Homer’s treatment of the myth. In Sappho’s poems, Helen is seen as a heroine, as a woman who acts independently, as an agent, not just an object of desire. Similarly, Sappho is an active figure who chooses to voice her passions through poetry, and to reject the conventional themes and style of epic poems. She shifts from her philosophical approach of a universal question to a personal situation, from legend to her own time- which involves the importance of the beauty of Anactoria over male values of war associated with Lydia. This writing “breaks the silence of women in antiquity”, and consequently, it is clear that it has inspired so many female writers in finding their own voice. Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, who wrote in the style of confessional poetry, were both influenced by Sappho:
“A young and very ambitious Sylvia Plath ranked Sappho as the first among her rivals for poetic fame and Anne Sexton toward the end of her life wrote a poem about a modern Sappho that reveals Sexton’s own interest in literary fame as well as her dread of losing conventional supports in pursuit of it” (“The Red Dance”, 1981, 530-31).

Lyricism and the female voice in poetry
There are so many aspects of Sappho’s work that create this wholeness of emotions, despite the fragmentary nature of its form. Its sensuality, spirituality, original treatment of myth and of women have brought her recognition among both men and women, both Romantics and Modernists. Despite some critics’ focus on the biographical truth behind her poetry, she is generally seen as a symbolic icon representing female poets, as well as lyric poets.

Author of the essay: Diana Marin
As part of the BA in Film & Literature, University of Essex

SAPPHO’S POEMS, translated by Josephine Balmer:


Love shook my heart
like the wind on the mountain
rushing over the oak trees


[ From our love]
I want neither
the sweetness of honey
nor the sting of the bees


I do not have a spiteful temper
but a tender heart


It seems to me that man is equal to the gods,
that is, whoever sits opposite you
and, drawing nearer, savours, as you speak,
the sweetness of your voice

and the thrill of your laugh, which have so stirred the heart
in my own breast, that whenever I catch
sight of you, even if for a moment,
then my voice deserts me

and my tongue is struck silent, a delicate fire
suddenly races underneath my skin,
my eyes see nothing, my ears whistle like
the whirling of a top

and sweat pours down me and a trembling creeps over
my whole body, I am greener than grass,
at such times, I seem to be no more than
a step away from death;

but all can be endured since even a pauper….


Some an army of horsemen, some an army on foot
and some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest sight
on this dark earth; but I say it is what-
ever you desire:

and it it possible to make this perfectly clear
to all; for the woman who far surpassed all others
in her beauty, Helen, left her husband —
the best of all men —

behind and sailed far away to Troy; she did not spare
a single thought for her child nor for her dear parents
but [the goddess of love] led her astray
[to desire…]

reminds me now of Anactoria
although far away


…already old age is wrinkling my
skin and my hair is turning from black
to grey; my knees begin to tremble
and my legs no longer carry me…
oh but once, once we were like young deer
…what can I do?…

…it is not possible
to return to my youth; for even
Eos*, the dawn – whose arms are roses,
who brings light to the ends of the earth –
found that old age embraced Tithonus*,
her immortal lover…

…I know I must die…
yet I love the intensity of life
and this and desire keep me here in
the brightness and beauty of the sun
[and not with Hades]

*Eos, Tithonus: Eos, the dawn goddess, fell in love with Tithonus, a mortal. She asked Zeus to give him immortality but forgot to ask for eternal youth. Eventually he became old and shrivelled and talked endlessly. Eos looked after him and finally turned him into the cicada.


…frankly I wish that I were dead:
she was weeping as she took her leave from me

and many times she told me this:
‘Oh what sadness we have suffered,
Sappho, for I’m leaving you against my will.’

So I gave this answer to her:
‘Go, be happy but remember
me there, for you know how we have cherished you,

if not, then I would remind you
[of the joy we have known,] of all
the loveliness that we have shared together;

for many wreaths of violets,
of roses and of crocuses
…you wove around yourself by my side

…and many twisted garlands
which you have woven from the blooms
of flowers, you placed around your slender neck

…and you were anointed with
a perfume, scented with blossom,
…although it was fit for a queen

and on a bed, soft and tender
…you satisfied your desire…’


although she is in Sardis,]
her thoughts often stray here, to us…

[…for you know that she honoured] you
as if you were a goddess
and, most of all, delighted in your song.

But now she surpasses all the women
of Lydia, like the moon,
rose-fingered, after the sun has set,

shining brighter than all the stars; its light
stretches out to over the salt-
filled sea and the fields brimming with flowers:

the beautiful dew falls and the roses
and the delicate chervil
and many-flowered honey-clover bloom.

But wandering here and there, she recalls
gentle Atthis with desire
and her tender heart is heavy with grief…


Leave Crete and come to me now, to that holy temple,
where the loveliness of your apple grove
waits for you and your altars smoulder
with burning frankincense;

there, far away beyond the apple branches, cold streams
murmur, roses shade every corner
and, when the leaves rustle, you are seized
by a strange drowsiness;

there, a meadow, a pasture for horses, blooms with all
the flowers of Spring, while the breezes blow
so gently…

there…Cyprian goddess, take and pour
gracefully like wine into golden cups,
a nectar mingled with all the joy
of our festivities

Easterling, P.E. and Knox, Bernard, ed. The Cambridge history of classical literature: Greek Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Greene, Ellen, ed. Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1996

Ed. Reynolds, Margaret. The Sappho Companion. London: Chatto and Windus

Sappho, Poems & Fragments. Ed. and trans. by Josephine Balmer. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books Ltd, 1992.

Schmidt, Michael. The first poets: Lives of the ancient Greek poets. New York: Vintage Books, 2005

Swiontkowski, Gale. Imagining Incest: Sexton, Plath, Rich. Canada: Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corp, 2003

Painting: Sappho embrassant sa lyre by Jules Elie Delaunay (1828-1891)7717564cec9d6757a347b34acc716b49

One thought on “A close reading of Sappho: beyond the erotic

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