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, 2015

Continue reading “A close reading of Sappho: beyond the erotic”

l’appel du vide

Melissa. solipsist. architect. undertaker of her soul parts.
She was lying on the wooden bench covered by soft pillows and by the still cold, refreshing blanket. The view from the balcony was pure bliss – her secret refuge amid that demanding, unnecessarily and excessively cheerful world. She wanted to immortalise that private earthly heaven, as she knew those moments were as relieving as escaping from a cage after dreadful weeks of physical abuse and food deprivation. She could feel it in her bones. They felt light, surreal. Her body felt light, as if she was transcending from matter to spirit.
While taking a picture of the scenery, she noticed it looked like a framed painting. The mirror on the wooden wall to her left reflected that characteristic intense look on her face, the one that always made people order her to “cheer up” when she passed them by on the boulevard.
“If only I could paint.” she says, sighing. She could visualise a wonderful painting within a painting, inspired by this place. The flowers from the pot on the sill would look as if they are growing on the hill and as if they are trying to reach out to the viewer. Trying to step outside the picture frame… for what purpose? To defy the idea that art is lifeless or separated from life or perhaps, the idea that nature can be captured in a painting.
The painting was so gracefully and ethereally alive: The grass on the hill was dancing in the tender breeze. The vivid green leaves from the closest tree were touching in such a way that they seemed to be clapping at the miraculous spectacle of nature. Upon looking deeper into the picture, her eyes lingered on the graveyard at the top of the mountain. For a brief moment, a white butterfly drunkenly crushed into the wooden frame, but was not able to step outside the frame. It was as if it was stopped by an invisible barrier.
The solemn picture of the graves was not sad at all. It did not inspire death, but the cycle of life. The painting was breathing and radiantly emanating life and love. Birds were flying above and around the tombstones while the sun filled the funerary inscriptions with light. The clear white clouds resembled a beautiful, noble, yet unrecognisable creature that was flying above the happy, contentedly submissive trees – like a celestial king protecting his realm.
It all started with her eyes: Their glow disappeared completely, leaving her face blank and indistinct. She blinked once – nothing happened. She smiled for a few seconds, thinking that, perhaps, her sudden worry was silly and unnecessary. Then she frowned and blinked twice. Nothing: the landscape was still full of vitality and vividness. Still suspicious and somewhat confused, she closed her eyes for 5 seconds this time. When she opened them, she was looking down – her gaze fixed somewhere under the ‘painting’, where she saw seven red petals that had fallen from the potted flowers. She looked up in panic and noticed that the flowers which were stepping out of the frame and crawling down the white wooden wall were dying. They could not survive the impact with the real world for long.
Her heart was racing as she looked up higher, at the rest of the painting. Her face became pale, corpse-like, when her eyes reached the threatening shape of the clouds – which no longer formed a fairytale creature, but a dark, monstrous, deadly fiend from the realm of Hades. The trees were no longer dancing or worshiping the king of the world: rather, they were bending in disgust, wailing and playing their symphony of decay while the branches were brutally slapped by the wind. The leaves no longer clapping, but trembling in terror – at which point Melissa realised her body had been shaking continuously.
Staring at the distant graveyard, she knew that the inscriptions were no longer illuminated by the healing rays of light; they were instead covered by blood and cobwebs. Soon she felt the horrifying stench of decayed matter infecting the air. Her limbs felt heavy, her body was now weary. A broken spirit trapped between worlds, l’appel du vide invaded her fragmented being like a plague. With a tear in the corner of each eye, she climbs the sill and makes her first and last step into the frame.

Transformations of Morgan Le Fay

morgan-le-fay

Goddess, fairy, healer, enchantress and necromancer are some of the evocative terms associated with Morgan le Fay since her earliest known appearance in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini.

The Welsh cleric depicts her in a positive light, as an otherworldly creature possessing the arts of healing and shape-shifting. She is the fairest, the most intelligent and most skilled of the nine sisters ruling the Island of Apples – a paradisiac island where Arthur is taken to be healed.

Another notable twelfth century description, introduced by one of the greatest French romancers, Chrétien de Troyes, retains Morgan’s healing power and makes her Arthur’s sister, as well as the lover of Guinguemar, who is given Morgan’s original role as a ruler – that of Avalon.

It is the Vulgate Cycle that adds a wicked, negative dimension to Morgan’s character for the first time. Supposedly influenced by the image of Morrígan, the Irish goddess of battle and sovereignty, a symbol of “life and death, sexuality and conflict” , the authors of the five-part cycle attribute Morgan unrequited feelings for Lancelot, jealousy of his love for Guinevere and hatred for Arthur and Guinevere. She captures knights in the Valley of No Return, yet paradoxically helps Arthur in the end.

In the late Middle Ages, Morgan starts degenerating in beauty, motives and power. She either learns magic from Merlin or in a convent school – a reference to the fear of cultivated women. Her magic scope is reduced to drugged potions, petty spells, plotting against Arthur and Guinevere and maintaining the illusion of beauty after her youthful body suffered because of her connection with the dark forces.

There is no definite reason for this process of degradation, but it has often been associated with a misogynistic fear of powerful, leading female characters or with a Christian rejection of paganism. Even the healing power that represents the original defining quality of Morgan, is given negative connotations in a Christian Middle Ages context in which healing herbs and natural cures are the mark of old women condemned and burnt as witches.

The painting displayed is “Morgan Le Fay” by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope. This particular visual representation depicts a beautiful, seductive version of Morgan.

Transcendence

Red cheeks and fairy dust in her hair.

Fragile lips and bones, pointy ears, rosy shiny skin.

What is our purpose, Magna Mater? What is it with all the human images flashing in my head, leaving this bittersweet feeling in my body, just before they transcend it? I feel the chaos of the sea, the murmur of the trees, the warmth of a sweet dog’s coat, the loneliness of the ruins. I feel all this – it seems to have happened centuries ago.

The aftereffects of the trip…You shouldn’t fear. What is left now is to revel in the delights of the present – to lay on the soft warm bed of leaves, gazing upwards while the clouds become stars. I am telling you this because there is no purpose, not in the way you think. The effects of hurt and human agony are latent – they will remain concealed within you until they lure you in their net once again.

The suffering of the ancient

She awakened only to realise that the echoes of the past were still there. She got up and ran towards the end of the hallway, where she used to tell jokes and laugh with her sisters. The statues were staring at her, from both sides, from above, through hollow, yet somehow luminous eyes. These eyes, both demonic and divine, had been following her every move ever since she was left alone in the house, years ago – centuries ago in her mind. She never knew their verdict. She found herself in front of the back door, never the front door, never on the way out. The garlic was hanging above the door as ever, next to the artificial withered-looking flowers. She never understood why the lord insisted upon keeping such strange, unwelcoming decorations. They used to have many unpleasant visitors lurking around the house indeed, but they were the kind that fed upon her happiness, not upon blood. And the flowers… what was the point? Artificial flowers looking withered – how peculiar!

There it was. The garden where they dwell. Their souls were entrapped in the past – they succumbed to a dreadful repetition of agony; an eternal reenactment of their fate. There was something tragic about the way in which they were displayed: each in their own place, yet all bound by the obligation to keep the Show going beyond time. Like pieces of a living puzzle, or fragments of a graphic novel, or carvings in the Cave of the Making, each depicted one sad episode. They were surrounded by glittering blues – portals through which M. could relive the suffering of the ancient.

Diary entry: library

The pleasure of feeling beams of light piercing through tired, stained windows and caressing the air impregnated by particles of dust. The pleasure of being inside, away from the unbearable, threatening sunlight. Expressionistic shapes are formed on old grey walls holding Pre-Raphaelite portraits of mythical women. A shuttering of a window, a shuttering of a book, a shuttering of a mouth after a hasty yawn. Steps – some confident, some shy, some confused or determined, intermittently disrupting an enchanting silence. Wings cleaving the warm air surrounding a five storey building populated by anxious or dreamy souls. A crow gazing straight into the eyes of a figure that returns the gaze, seemingly bewildered. The sound of the wind shouting at buildings. The sound of nature against architecture. The sound of destruction, the sound of collapse.