The Trouble with Sappho: A Preamble

Dear Common Readers,

The trouble with Sappho is that it is nearly impossible to say anything definitive about her or her work. This makes it difficult to discuss Sappho and her work in the usual ways that we talk about literature.

Almost everything we know about Sappho’s life comes from gossip reported centuries after her death.

Most of Sappho’s songs are lost to us. One song and many fragments are all that remain to us. Some of the fragments are nearly complete songs, but most consist of only a few lines or even just a few words. Even that is estimated to be only about 10 percent of her entire body of work.

We know that Sappho’s poems were originally songs set to music. Musicians performed her songs with choirs or soloists at weddings, religious ceremonies, and other public events. Despite recent attempts by scholars to reconstruct Ancient Greek music, there are no remaining records of Sappho’s melodies. Thus we can only read the lyrics as poems out of their original context. (If you want to hear how Fragment #1, the only complete song, might have sounded in performance, check out “Hearing Sappho” by David Mendelsohn at The New Yorker‘s website.)

We don’t know whether these fragments are early or later works. We don’t know in what order they were composed or performed. We don’t know if the existing fragments represent the full range of Sappho’s use of styles, forms, and themes. It is impossible to trace Sappho’s development as a lyricist or composer.

Then there is the additional problem for me of reading English translations of the lyrics rather than the original Ancient Greek. It’s difficult for me to know if a given translation truly captures not just the literal meaning of the words but also the poet’s voice and style and the spirit of the songs.

Yet as H.D. put it in “The Wise Sappho,”

The roses Meleager saw as “little” have become in the history not only of literature but of nations (Greece and Rome and medieval town and Tuscan city) a great power, roses, but many, many roses, each fragment witness to the love of some scholar or hectic antiquary searching to find a precious inch of palimpsest among the funereal glories of the sand-strewn Pharaohs.

So how does one properly discuss Sappho and her songs? Having acknowledged the difficulties, one can only set them all aside and focus on what is most important: the actual lyrics that remain. That’s exactly what I’ll do in my next post.

Women’s Classic Literature Event Questionnaire

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To kick off the Women’s Classic Literature Event a few months ago, The Classics Club posted an introductory questionnaire to help participants get acquainted with one another. Here are most of the survey questions and my answers:

Tell us what you are most looking forward to in this event.  I look forward to reading a bunch of books that have been on my wish list for years, especially Middlemarch, Indiana by George Sand, and works by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Have you read many classics by women? Why or why not? Yes, I’ve read quite a few classics by women. A few of them were books I read for classes when I was at university. Others were recommended by friends. I also enjoy reading literary criticism and found several titles that way.

Pick a classic female writer you can’t wait to read for the event, & list her date of birth, her place of birth, and the title of one of her most famous works. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is the writer I’m most looking forward to reading for this event. Sor Juana was born in Mexico in 1651. She became a nun when she was 16 so that she could continue her studies without interruption. She wrote many plays and poems, but her most famous work is Repuesta a Sor Filotea (Answer to Sister Filotea), a passionate defense of women’s right to education.

Favorite classic heroine? (Why? Who wrote her?) Jane Eyre is my favorite classic heroine because she refuses to conform. She is the title character of Charlotte Brontë’s most famous novel. Jane is an atypical heroine, being a plain and often angry penniless orphan. Jane is passionate and yearns for a wider life. Despite her social disadvantages, Jane insists that she is worthy of happiness and love on her own terms.

We’d love to help clubbers find great titles by classic female authors. Can you recommend any sources for building a list? (Just skip this question if you don’t have any at this point.) I found anthologies helpful, particularly the following:

  • The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English (3rd ed.) edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar
  • 500 Great Books by Women by Erica Bauermeister, Jesse Larsen, and Holly Smith
  • Beginning Ethnic American Literatures by Helene Grice, Candida Hepworth, Marie Lauret, and Martin Padget.
  • Daughters of Africa: The International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present edited by Margaret Busby
  • The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature (3rd ed.) edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Valerie Smith, William L. Andrews, et al

Recommend three books by classic female writers to get people started in this event. (Again, skip over this if you prefer not to answer.) I highly recommend the following:

  • The Other Woman by Colette (short novel and stories)
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madeleine Stern

Will you be joining us for this event immediately, or will you wait until the new year starts? I meant to start at the beginning of the new year but life events intervened. So I’m starting now!

Do you plan to read as inspiration pulls, or will you make out a preset list? I made out a list, but I’m always open to inspiration, too.

Are you pulling to any particular genres? (Letters, journals, biographies, short stories, novels, poems, essays, etc?) About half of the works on my WCLE list are novels and about a fourth of the works are poetry collections, but I’ll also read essays, short stories, at least one play, and some literary criticism for this event.

Are you pulling to a particular era or location in literature by women?  Most of the writers on my WCLE list are English or American. I’m reading mostly 20th Century literature for this event.

Do you hope to host an event or readalong for the group? No worries if you don’t have details. We’re just curious! I’d like to participate in a read-along before hosting one, but I’m open to the idea.

Is there an author or title you’d love to read with a group or a buddy for this event? Sharing may inspire someone to offer. I hope to join heavenali’s #Woolfalong (see details here) to reread A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas.

Share a quote you love by a classic female author — even if you haven’t read the book yet. In A Room of One’s Own,  Virginia Woolf writes, “Thus when I ask you to write more books I am urging you to do what will be for your good and for the good of the world at large.” I love her faith in the importance of writing and reading.

It’s a Literary Celebration!

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Dear Common Readers,

An invitation to spend a year focusing on classic works by women writers? What bookish feminist could resist?

The Women’s Classic Literature Event of 2016 is a year-long celebration of classic literature by women writers being hosted by The Classics Club. (For more details, see the original post here.) This is not a typical reading challenge with set goals and deadlines. It’s just an opportunity to seek out (or reread) and share classics by women authors at one’s own pace.

I may be a little late to the party, but why let that stop us?

Here’s my list (for now):

  • Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works (ca. 6th century BCE) [edited and translated by Diane J. Rayor with an introduction by André Lardinois, 2014]
  • Sappho: Poems and Fragments (ca. 6th century BCE) [edited and translated by Josephine Balmer, 1988)
  • Classical Women Poets (ca. 620 BCE – ca. 420 AD) [edited and translated by Josephine Balmer, 1996]
  • The Rover by Aphra Behn (1677, 1681)
  • Selected Works of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1680-1700) [translated by Edith Grossman, 2014]
  • Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814)
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot (1872)
  • My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead (2014)
  • Indiana by George Sand (1872)
  • Contending Forces by Pauline Hopkins (1900)
  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (1908)
  • Mrs. Spring Fragrance by Sui Sin Far [Edith Maud Eaton] (1912)
  • Cogowea: The Half-Blood by Mourning Dove [Humishuma, Christine Quintasket] (1927)
  • Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)
  • A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)
  • Not So Quiet … (on the Western Front): Stepdaughters of War by Helen Zenna Smith [Evadne Price] (1930)
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)
  • Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf (1938)
  • Step Down Elder Brother by Josefina Niggli (1947)
  • Helen in Egypt by H.D. [Hilda Doolittle] (1961)

These are some of the books from my Classics Club list that I most wanted read along with a couple of books that I’ve read before. I can’t wait to get started. I should have my first book post up in the next few days.

Will you join the celebration?


Your sister reader,

Ms. Arachne

Joining The Classics Club

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Dear Common Readers,

I finally signed up with The Classics Club. If you aren’t already familiar with it, the Classics Club Challenge is to read and blog about at least 50 literary classics in no more than 5 years. They loosely define “classic” as “written before 1960” for this challenge (see more here).

It was the club’s announcement of the Women’s Classic Literature Event for 2016, a year-long celebration of classic literature by women, which inspired me to join the club. In fact, I got so carried away that I put together a list of 100 literary classics by women writers for The Classics Club challenge just because I could.

I plan to complete this challenge by March 1, 2021. See my list here.

When selecting works by a given writer, I preferred the ones I haven’t read yet and the ones that I felt most drawn to read rather than always choosing the most famous work. (Okay, I did pick a few books that I’ve read before, but only a few.)

Of course the list is tentative and subject to change on a whim. This is an adventure, not an assignment! I’ll skip around or dig in as inspired.

Take fair warning: I won’t write spoiler-free reviews. Instead I will assume you’ve already read the book in question and are dying to discuss it, too.


Your sister reader,

Ms. Arachne


P.S. Edited to add The Classics Club badge with permission of The Classics Club on March 14, 2016

Dear Common Readers

Dear Common Readers,

Welcome to A Canon of One’s Own, a blog inspired in part by Virginia Woolf and her book A Room of One’s Own. In A Room of One’s Own Woolf emphasized the importance of intellectual freedom and of a literary tradition of women writers to produce great women poets. This blog is dedicated to all three.

So, the aims of this blog are:

  • to explore the literary tradition of women writers. I’ll be reading primarily English and U.S. American literature followed by Western literature in general with occasional forays into world literature.
  • to chronicle my adventures with The Classics Club challenge (more about this in my next post).
  • to read out of joy, not out of duty. There will be no “have-to” reading, only “want-to” reading.
  • to discover one’s own personal canon by considering each work and deciding if it belongs there.
  • to evaluate each work to decide if it belongs in one’s own canon or The Canon of Great Literature or both.


I’m neither a scholar nor a literary critic, so I won’t post traditional spoiler-free reviews. Instead, I want to explore the aspects of each work that most interest me using art and music as well as the written word. We may also conduct a few literary experiments of our own as inspired by specific works.

I hope you’ll join me.


Your sister reader,

Ms. Arachne Webster