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“He appears to me, that one, equal to the gods

the man who, facing you,

is seated and, up close, that sweet voice of yours

he listens to”

Lacking the firm consensus present in the poem, Sappho’s Fragment 31 is one of the most complex poems to interpret. The narrator watches a man, seated across her beloved, and admires his display of self-control, which is so discordant to her own. The theory that Sappho’s emotions are that of jealousy and envy is a major theory put forward by many critics. The strongest advocate of this theory is Sir Denys L. Page, who in his 1955 commentary, observes the poem as ‘an outburst of emotions’ connected to human nature’s response to the situation described. The identification of ‘that man’ in Sappho’s best-known poem, has proven to be one of the most complex and difficult problems in the interpretation of her extant poetry. Is he a suitor? A bridegroom? Is he hypothetical? What emotion is he experiencing? Is it ecstasy? Is it jealousy? Wonder? What, ultimately, is the poem really about? The poem can be looked on as a comparison of the narrator’s love being ‘jealous love’ or ‘unprovoked, normal love’.

In the Greek society of Sappho’s time, homoeroticism and homosocialism were not unusual. The island of Lesbos was famous for Sappho’s tutelage of women, and homoerotic relations between women was not looked down upon. When women came of age to be married, there usually arose the case of a triangle of desire and erotic longing. A lot of women could not see their lovers being married off to other men, and that is quite a probable reason for the element of jealousy to be quite obviously incorporated into Sappho’s lyrics.

It is from Sappho’s spatial relation that she is able to build an alternative to the phallic representation of desire and express active female erotic desire and claim an authentic subject position, rather than the patriarchal idea of women’s passionate love being a jealous response. In her book, ‘The Bonds of Love’, Jessica Benjamin’s analysis of gender and domination and her concept of ‘intersubjectivity’ offer a theoretical perspective that helps to clarify women’s eroticism in Sappho. Benjamin offers an illuminating, feminist analysis of the psychological underpinnings of erotic domination; her discussion of the relation between gender and domination demonstrates the complex intertwining of sexual and social domination. In her analysis, Benjamin identifies the unequal complementarities in which one is always up and the other down, not only as the basic pattern of erotic domination, but also as a specifically masculine mode of thought and practice that permeates all social organization. It is masculine because, as Jane Flax observes, “culture is masculine, not as the effect of language but as the consequence of actual power relations to which men have far more access to women” (p.103). In a society as patriarchal as Sappho’s definitely was, it is quite obvious that the expression of active female desire was most accessible in the realm of an autonomous homoerotic woman’s culture.

The standout feature of Sappho’s poetry is her employment of apostrophe to play out the points of conflict in her ‘erotic drama’. In Sappho’s poems, the speaker often associates the diminishing of verbal power attendant on separation from the beloved, with a kind of death. Apostrophe, the recuperation of voice through memory, reanimates the ‘I’ through a re-inscription of an individual poetic voice into a communal discourse. Sappho’s apostrophizing voice affirms the eroticism of her narrator by erasing the distinction between self and other, speaker and addressee, and creates an intimacy based, in Luce Irigaray’s words, on “nearness so pronounced that it makes all discrimination of identity, and thus all forms of property, impossible”. Sappho does not fantasize about the beloved as separate from herself, as an object either to gaze at or describe (Stehle, 1990).

“And how you laugh your charming laugh. Why it

makes my heart flutter within my breast,

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because the moment I look at you, right then, for me,

to make any sound at all won’t work anymore”.

In this poem Sappho is completely overcome by the vision of the woman before her. She cannot speak, cannot see, she breaks into a sweat. It builds up in a climax, to the point where Sappho feels she might die. Longinus, a Greek teacher writing under the Roman Empire hundreds of years after Sappho’s lifetime, explains what is so unforgettable about Sappho: “Are you not amazed at how at one and the same moment she both freezes and burns, is irrational and sane, is terrified and nearly dead, so that we observe in her not a single emotion, but a whole concourse of emotions? Such things do, of course, commonly happen to people in love. Sappho’s supreme excellence lies in the skill with which she selects the most striking and vehement circumstances of the passions and forges them into a coherent whole” (Longinus, ‘On the Sublime’ (trans. Campbell, 1982)).

“My tongue has a breakdown and a delicate

— all of a sudden — fire rushes under my skin.

With my eyes I see not a thing, and there is a roar

that my ears make”.

As stated earlier, eroticism in Sappho’s poetry has often been considered as the alternative to phallic love and eros. This poem has no explicit mention of a marriage but Sappho’s poetry has often been considered to be a part of the epithalamium (a subset or equivalent of the genre known as hymenaioi: choral songs performed at Greek weddings that evoke the god of marriage ceremonies, Hymen), and this fragment is not supposed to be an exception. The breakdown of tongue is probably the elucidation of two ideas. Firstly, it can be the loss of words on the woman’s female lover’s part on the day of the former’s marriage. The narrator talks about a man in the first stanza of the poem and it is probably out of jealousy that there is a fire under her skin and the deafening silence that ensues when a lover is taken away is the reason for the roaring in the narrator’s ears. The breakdown of tongue can be symbolic of the narrator’s inability to sing with the chorus on the said day of marriage. The narrator might have seen her lover sitting with the man who she (narrator) considered to be God-like and feel her emotions overpowered by jealousy and erotic longing.

Secondly, the breakdown of tongue can be looked under a sexual light. It might have been the sight of the narrator’s lover with another man, engrossed in an intimate conversation, that stirred the jealousy in the narrator. The phrases “fire rushes under my skin”, “With my eyes I see not a thing”, and “there is a roar that my ears make” are the signs of a person reaching their climax during sexual activities. Since Sappho was a strong proponent of homosexual eroticism through her lyrics, these phrases might be suggestive of homosexual love-making as a repercussion of jealousy induced reactions. Although this is a far-fetched analysis, the erotic elements in Sappho’s poetry can be an ambiguous suggestion of these ideas.

Sappho is distinct from her male contemporaries and successors in her portrayal of female eroticism and images of desire. Gregory, drawing on Stehle (1977), argues that Sappho’s poems celebrate “the triumph of these elemental needs [male penetration and procreation] over the autonomy of the virgin”. Yet Sappho’s poems imply a fiction of female relations in the thiasos that has a fullness in itself, apart from the male. While Sappho certainly acknowledges the loss of female friendship, erotic love, and virginity that accompany the marriage rite, the repeated calls to rejoice, the humor in the poems about the bridegroom’s appearance, and the lack of resentment towards the figure of the groom in the epithalamia all reveal a generally positive perception of marriage. Yet the many layers of the speaker and the implications that cannot be left unnoticed, there is an element of jealousy that prevails throughout the poem, as well the triangle of desire and erotic longing that is continuously hinted at.

The triangle of desire and erotic longing have a strong intrinsic undertone of jealousy in it, and the text of this poem proves no different point. Homoerotic and homosocial relationships tend to have a lasting effect on humans, and more often than not, it leads to the channelizing of these emotions into fictitious (or probably not) works of literature, and through the ages they are preserved as natural human response to situations and circumstances. Sappho’s work has been one of the greatest proponents, in addition to being examples of, normalizing homosexual relationships and reactions in the modern world.

Works Cited

  1. Race, William H. ”That Man’ in Sappho Fr. 31 L-P’. Classical Antiquity, vol. 2, no. 1,1983, pp. 92-101. JSTOR, http://jstor.org/stable/25010785
  2. Kubic, Amanda. ‘Women’s Erotic Desires and Perspectives on Marriage in Sappho’s Epithalamia and H.D.’s Hymen’ (2018). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 1286. https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/art_sci_etds/1286
  3. Greene, Ellen. ‘Apostrophe and Women’s Erotics in the Poetry of Sappho’.Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), Vol. 124 (1994), pp. 41-56. Published by: Johns Hopkins University Press, JSTOR, http://jstor.org/stable/28428
  4. Nagy, Gregory. ‘Diachronic Sappho: Some Prolegomena’. Classical Inquiries. 2015.10.22. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.eresource:Classical_Inquiries

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