Sappho: The original queer
I lived with a lesbian who moved to Canada a few weeks ago. It’s the land of Tegan and Sara and kd lang. She’s heard of them, but oddly enough had reached the age of 30 without ever having heard of Sappho.
Here’s a primer.
Sappho is the source of the word ‘lesbian’ (and ‘sapphic’ which means the same thing), although the word itself, and even the idea of exclusive female homosexuality as we know it now, only came into public consciousness in the 19th century.
We don’t know much about Sappho’s life. She was born on the island of Lesbos in the 7th century BC. She wrote lyric poetry – that is, poetry to be sung, accompanied by the lyre. And she was regarded in the classical world as one of the greatest love poets who ever lived – one contemporary called her “the tenth Muse”. That reputation remains intact today.
What do not remain intact are the poems themselves. Sappho’s works were lost with the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria. We have only one complete poem – a transcendent hymn to Aphrodite, where Sappho invokes the goddess’s aid to conquer the heart of an unwilling beloved (presumably another woman: Sappho appears to have addressed many of her love poems to women). The rest of her work comes to us in enigmatic fragments, excavated from ancient trash heaps, arduously reconstructed by scholars from decaying scraps of papyrus.
One striking translator of Sappho, the Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson, keeps all of the gaps (lacunae is the technical term). Her book If Not, Winter strives for clarity and faithfulness to the way Sappho’s intensity about love outstares gender and even the ravages of time.
Here’s Carson’s opening to Fragment 16: “Some men say an army of horse and some men say an army on foot/ and some men say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing/ on the black earth. But I say it is/ what you love.”
Other translators suggest the gaps through brevity. My favourite, Guy Davenport, captures in Fragment 3 the purity and personal directness of Sappho’s desire: “Nothing can take its place in my mind/This beauty of girls.”
All women should read Sappho: she’s the only woman for centuries around her whose literary works survive and are universally praised. All GLBT people should read Sappho: she’s the ultimate antidote to the common perception (sometimes internalised) that non-heterosexual attraction is primarily about lust rather than love.
And what love. She can still make us shiver after millennia, Sappho. Her most famous poem, Fragment 31, is addressed to a woman, again, in the company of another man. It is perhaps the most piercing representation of erotic jealousy ever written; a poem about how love can sunder the body as time has sundered the body of Sappho’s own poetry. Guy Davenport again:
He seems to be a god, that man
Facing you, who leans to be close,
Smiles, and, alert and glad, listens
To your mellow voice
And quickens in love at your laughter
That stings my breasts, jolts my heart
If I dare the shock of a glance.
I cannot speak,
My tongue sticks to my dry mouth,
Thin fire spreads beneath my skin,
My eyes cannot see and my aching ears
Roar in their labyrinths.
Chill sweat glides down my back,
I shake, I turn greener than grass.
I am neither living nor dead and cry
From the narrow between.