My Summer Plans Go Bust

Dear Common Readers,

My grand Late Summer Reading Plan went bust in August. To be fair, I read The Rover by Aphra Behn and Indiana by George Sand, both of which I enjoyed very much. I even stumbled upon some great Extra Treats and some possible Musical Interludes. It is writing and blogging that fell by the wayside.

First I caught Olympics Fever for a few weeks (Brava, Final Five!). Then this summer’s exceptionally blistering temperatures drained the energy and drive right out of me. So August passed and now September too is nearly at the halfway mark and I haven’t finished a single post. I humbly apologize for my tardiness.

Thankfully, the temperatures finally dropped a few days ago and autumn approaches with a morning chill. It’s a bit strange, but I can’t seem to get away from the rhythm of the academic year. September comes and my energy returns. Forget the renewal of spring. It’s always the brisk breezes and falling leaves of autumn that make me want to bustle around starting new projects.

This week I am participating in Jean Rhys Reading Week (more about this later). I’ve been devouring her short stories and can’t wait to discuss them with you.

Starting next week, I will get back on track with my overdue post on Indiana (it’s nearly finished). Then I will return to my planned unit on Aphra Behn. After writing about The Rover, I will be discussing The Rover Part 2 (a sequel) and some selections of Ms. Behn’s poetry.

That’s all for now. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself again. Thank you for your patience.


Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Women’s Classic Literature Event Check-In #3

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Dear Common Readers,

Better late than never is my motto for the Women’s Classic Literature Event 2016! The rest of Classics Club began the event in October 2015 but I was unable to join them until March of this year. I’m so happy that I did because the event has been terrific fun so far.

I have immensely enjoyed the reading, of course, but the best part of WCLE has been joining a community of readers and bloggers. Learning about even more great women writers was to be expected. Discovering new blogs, becoming acquainted with other bloggers, participating in read-alongs (and even co-hosting one with Juliana of the [blank] garden!) are just a few of the other delightful bonuses of participating in WCLE with Classics Club.

Discussing books with other enthusiastic readers is such a joy. Thank you to everyone who reads or subscribes to my blog. A special thank you to everyone who has commented on my blog or replied to my comments on theirs.


Progress Report

So far I have read seven literary classics by women — four from my WCLE list, two works by Virginia Woolf for the #Woolfalong (hosted by heavenali), and an essay by H.D. These works are:

(links are to my posts about each title)


Late Summer Reading

I won’t attach strict dates to any of this as it becomes embarrassing when I later fall so far behind schedule. Nevertheless this is what I plan to read between now and (tentatively) U.S. Labor Day.

  • The Rover by Aphra Behn
  • The Rover, Part 2 by Aphra Behn
  • selected poetry by Aphra Behn
  • Indiana by George Sand
  • Contending Forces by Pauline Hopkins

My next round of reading begins with a unit on playwright and poet Aphra Behn. Ms. Behn was the first English woman to earn her living as a professional writer. Originally I planned to read only two of her plays. Then I realized that Ms. Behn and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz were contemporaries and were writing during the same decades. Unfortunately I have been unable to turn up English translations of any of Sor Juana’s plays. Fortunately for me, both Ms. Behn and Sor Juana also wrote poetry. I intend to read Ms. Behn’s poetry with the aim of comparing the poetry of these two very different women.

After months of reading the work of women poets in translation, I just learned that there is a Women in Translation Month event in August hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. I’m shuffling my list a little to read Indiana by George Sand, the only remaining foreign language work on my WCLE list, in August.

Then I’ll deviate from my chronological WCLE list once again to read Contending Forces by Pauline Hopkins for reasons that will become clear later.

I will write main book posts on each of the aforementioned titles by Ms. Behn, Ms. Sand, and Ms. Hopkins as well as a few Extra Treats and Musical Interludes.


Let’s Write Like…Just for Fun

Please join me in attempting to write like Aphra Behn, George Sand, and Pauline Hopkins. I will post my own attempts to emulate each of these writers after discussing their respective works. Sure, these exercises are challenging, sometimes frustrating, but also quite illuminating. And it’s fun! It is my hope that this advance notice will embolden some of you to give it a try.


Thank you so much, Classics Club, for giving me an excuse to finally read all these rewarding works by women writers.

What about you, dear Common Readers? Are you enjoying the Women’s Classic Literature Event 2016? What have you been reading? Do tell.


Your grateful sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Sor Juana Remixes: A Musical Interlude

Dear Common Readers,

Madre, la de los primores is the only known remaining musical composition by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. You can listen to parts of it here. Since then a lot of artists have set Sor Juana’s poetry to music.

Now you have to hear this amazing version of Sor Juana’s Redondilla 92 (Hombres Necios) set to reggaeton music by Nelly and DJ Andrés Rosado!

If you prefer something more traditional, the early music classical ensemble Favola in Musica set Sor Juana’s poems to music by Spanish American Baroque composers of her own historical era. Escuchad Dos Sacrisantes pairs Sor Juana’s poetry with music by composer Manuel de Mesa y Roque Ceruti.

Mexican classical tenor Arturo Escorza Pedraza performs a traditional version of Ah de las mazmorras which features lyrics by Sor Juana set to music by an anonymous Spanish American Baroque composer.

For something more experimental, try these versions of Sor Juana’s poems Détente, sombra de mi bien esquivo and Afuera, afuera ansias miasby the Canadian ensemble Constantinople. They set Sor Juana’s poetry to music that fuses the bass lines of works by Spanish American Baroque composers with their own original melodies and instrumentation. The results are beautiful.

Happy listening!

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Read-Along

Dear Common Readers,

You are enthusiastically invited to join Juliana of the [blank] garden and me in a read-along of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works. We are reading the 2014 translation by Edith Grossman, but feel free to read another translation if you prefer. Our target date for reading and reviewing Sor Juana’s Selected Works is May 31, 2016.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born in Mexico on November 12, 1651. At sixteen, she entered the convent so that she could continue her studies without interruption. She wrote and published poetry in many forms, dramas, comedies, and scholarly works.

In 1690 “Sor Filotea” published without her permission a letter written by Sor Juana criticizing the well-known sermon of Jesuit priest. Sor Filotea further admonished Sor Juana to concentrate on religious studies rather than on secular subjects. In response, Sor Juana wrote “Respuesta a Sor Filotea” (“Answer to Sister Philotea”), a letter in which she defended the right of women to education.  “Sor Filotea” was actually the Bishop of Puebla and the letter was something of a set-up. Sor Juana’s response — and her growing fame — caused a great deal of controversy and landed her in trouble with the Archbishop of Mexico among others. They demanded that Sor Juana give up her secular studies and writings.

In 1695 she died of the plague at the age of 44. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is believed to be the first published feminist writer in the New World.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works includes many of her poems, the prologue to one of her plays, Sor Filotea’s letter and Sor Juana’s response. I’ve wanted to read more of Sor Juana’s work since I first encountered a few of her poems at university. I’m really looking forward to reading and discussing her Selected Works.

I hope you’ll join us, dear Common Readers!

Your sister reader,
Ms. Arachne

Nine (and More) Earthly Muses: “Classical Women Poets”

Corinna, Telesilla, Praxilla, Erinna, Moero, Anyte, Nossis, Sappho, Hedyle,  Melinno, Sulpicia, Sulpicia the Satirist, Julia Balbilla, Proba, and Eudocia. These are the poets included in the small anthology Classical Women Poets translated and introduced by Josephine Balmer (Bloodaxe Books, 1996).

Why haven’t I heard of any of these poets (except Sappho) before reading this book? This vexes me. None of these poets except Sappho was ever mentioned when I was in school. In fact, none of my teachers or professors even alluded to their existence. Granted it has been decades since I graduated from university so I can only hope this is no longer the case. That won’t prevent me from complaining about what I missed, though.

It is true that there are few surviving poems from any one of these women poets. As with that of Sappho, these poets’ work survives mostly in fragments. This makes it nearly impossible to accurate assess or to teach their work. I understand this. However, failing to mention that scholars have found at least the names of 27 Ancient Greek and Roman women poets, 16 of whom have extant work, creates another problem. It creates the false impression that there were no female writers except Sappho for centuries. It creates false gaps in the Western literary history of women writers.

Several of these women received literary acclaim that lasted at least as long as that of William Shakespeare in more recent history yet they have vanished from mainstream knowledge. Ms. Balmer’s anthology serves as an introduction to these neglected women poets for general readers.

One of the best things about Classical Women Poets — aside from the poems themselves — is the introduction written by Ms. Balmer. She takes great care to explain at length her strategies for translating these poems and fragments both in the introduction and in the footnotes to the poems. As she states in the introduction,

Here, I have also included a commentary on many of the processes of translating, recording the original’s textual strategies alongside those of my translation, wherever possible, on the basis that if different strategies were being employed the reader should be kept as informed as possible. My purpose was to help monolingual as well as bilingual readers, to give them the experience of comparison, of judgement more normally reserved for the scholar.

(Classical Women Poets, p. 22)

As a monolingual reader of these poems, I greatly appreciate this.

Ms. Balmer makes a controversial decision here, though. In her own words,

Even more subjectively, I strung together stray words or quotations into a single piece, as for example Corinna No. 25 or Telesilla No. 35. Here I was often guided by the framing of the texts; by additional information provided by the classical commentators who preserved them, such as poem titles or mythological explanations. Sometimes this frame became part of the poem itself, as in Corinna No. 28, where alternative versions recorded by a grammarian were incorporated within the translation.

(Classical Women Poets, pgs. 20-21)

To her credit, Ms. Balmer indicates in the footnotes when she has done this. Still I really wish she had not done it at all. It seems like overstepping. I’d rather see the unrelated fragments printed as is than read a poem that in fact never existed.

Another perhaps controversial decision is adding the section of women’s work songs, folk songs, and chants from little girls’ games to the anthology. Conscious that, as Virginia Woolf said, Anonymous was often a woman, Ms. Balmer makes the assumption of female authorship for these anonymous traditional songs and chants and so includes them here. I approve of this.

I truly enjoyed this book. My favorite works tend to be those by the poets for whom longer fragments still exist – fragments from poems created by the poets themselves and not by the translator.

The fragment from Corinna’s poem about the singing contest between the mountains Cithaeron and Helicon, both reputedly sacred to the Muses, is one of my favorites from this anthology. Corinna imagines a ring of pines near the crest of Cithaeron as a prize wreath for winning the contest. Meanwhile, Helicon pouts over his loss by creating a rock slide of “a thousand pebbles” to mock the judges’ way of casting their votes with pebbles. Corinna’s gift for bringing myth to life made me wish that more of her work still existed.

Another poet who creates imaginative, humorous portraits of her subjects is Anyte. She wrote poems and epigraphs on many subjects, but her animal poems were among my favorites, especially No. 59, No. 60, No. 61, and No. 63. I love this line from No. 61, an epitaph for a dog named Loci: “… swiftest of pups — especially to bark …” and these lines from No. 59, an epigram for a picture or relief of a goat:

… — how haughtily
he looks down on us, transfixed by his own shaggy locks…

On a more somber note, the elegies of Erinna for her late friend Baucis are heartbreaking and deeply moving. Erinna brings their childhood games so vividly to life and skillfully describes her sense of hurt betrayal when Baucis drops their friendship to focus on her new husband:

…no, never forgot; that thief
Desire stole all memory away…

Meanwhile, Sulpicia’s poems perfectly capture a young woman’s desire for her lover, her disappointment at being taken away on a family vacation to the country for her birthday (No. 86) and her joy when the cancelled trip means she can spend the day with her boyfriend (No. 87). She echoes the influence of Sappho with her humor and her depictions of intense desire.

Another conscious heiress of Sappho is Nossis. She also writes passionate love poetry, celebrates women’s beauty, and praises female deities in her work as does Sappho. In No. 79 she writes of herself, her mother, and her grandmother, much as Sappho writes of her mother, herself, and her daughter in Fragments No. 98a and No. 98b (No. 3 in Classical Women Poets). I really enjoyed the wordplay and alliteration in No. 81 such as

Bruttian shields from brutish shoulders
of soldiers slain by Locri’s heroes…

One striking feature of many of these poems is how often the poets include their names in their poems. It is a way of establishing a poetic persona, of course, but also a way of making escaping anonymity, of making sure that their names stay attached to their work. I especially admire the boldness of Julia Balbilla, perhaps our first female graffiti poet, in writing her poems on public monuments, even though the poems themselves sometimes seem like the equivalent of saying “Hadrian and Sabina (and I) were here.” For ancient women writers even saying “I was here” becomes significant in light of their subsequent neglect.

All in all, this is an enjoyable introduction to these neglected women poets, but for accuracy’s sake it might be best to read another translation of these writers.

In closing, I’ll leave you with my favorite poem fragment by Nossis (No. 83):

Stranger, if you should sail to Mytilene, city of fair song,
enticed by Sappho’s fragrant garland, its heady bloom,
say only this: that the land of Locri gave me life,
long-treasured by the Muses and by Her.
One more thing: My name is Nossis.

Starting with Sappho

What if Western literature began not with Homer but with Sappho?

Sappho is the first known woman writer in Western literature whose work still survives. Thus the Western literary tradition of women writers starts with Sappho and her songs.

What a spectacular start it is!  Even if Fragment #1, the only existing complete song, were all that remained of Sappho’s work, it would be enough to secure Sappho’s literary immortality. This song paints a comic portrait of the long-suffering relationship between a fondly indulgent Aphrodite and her demanding mortal supplicant in just 28 lines. “Sappho” (a poetic persona in this song) is a woman who is constantly falling in and out of love and constantly beseeches Aphrodite to intercede on her behalf to secure her beloved’s affections. “Once again who must I persuade to turn back to your love?” asks Aphrodite (Rayor translation). The woman assumes Aphrodite will drop everything to speed to her side whenever she calls … because Aphrodite always does. Aphrodite is depicted as amused and a bit exasperated but – as always – willing to help. That’s just the beginning.

The rest are fragments of Sappho’s songs — some substantial, others only a few lines or words — yet these fragments are so evocative that they make one long for more. Fragment #47  “Love shook my heart / like the wind on a mountain / rushing over oak trees” (Balmer translation, No.1) and these lines from Fragment #132 “…beloved Kleïs, / whom I would not trade for all of Lydia” (Rayor) are just two examples. The more substantial Fragment #44 seems to cast the wedding of Hector and Andromache as the beginning of a grand epic. Sappho depicts the people of Troy preparing for the couple’s arrival, but the fragment we have ends there, leaving us to wonder how the story evolved in the complete song. Fragment #166 tantalizes the audience with the mysterious line “They say that once Leda / found hidden / a hyacinth-colored egg” (Rayor), but history denies us the rest of the story.

I read Sappho: Poems & Fragments edited and translated by Josephine Balmer (1988) and Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Work by Diane Rayor and Andre Lardinois (2014). I chose Ms. Rayor’s translation because it includes the new fragments recovered in 2004 and in 2014, including the Brothers Song. It is also more comprehensive because it includes even one-word fragments. I chose Ms. Balmer’s translation for the style. When read side by side, Ms. Balmer makes Ms. Rayor’s translations seem stark and minimalist, almost like haiku. Ms. Rayor makes Ms. Balmer’s translations seem wordy and even flowery by contrast. However, Ms. Balmer organizes the fragments by theme and omits many of the one-word fragments which makes for a smoother reading experience. I’ve indicated Ms. Balmer’s numbering system in parentheses when quoting from her translation.

To return to our original question, how would it change our view of Western literature if it began not with the rage of Achilles but with the unrequited love of “Sappho” for another woman?

If Western literature began with Sappho, women’s experiences would be central to our literary heritage right from the start. Sappho’s fragments vividly depict the intimacy of women’s everyday lives. Her women sing and dance and worship together. They weave wreaths and garlands to adorn themselves and each other. A mother styles her daughter’s hair (#98). A sister worries over her wayward brothers (#5 and Brothers Song). Women fall in and out of love with each other. They marry. They grow old (#58). There are rivalries (#131) and squabbling and sarcastic jibes (#55) and sadness at parting (#94) in these fragments.  Women are subjects as well as objects in Sappho’s songs.

More significantly, “Chloe liked Olivia” both romantically and platonically from the beginning of the Western women’s literary tradition. Female desire holds an important place in Sappho’s work. Fragment #1 explicitly refers to the beloved as “she.” In Fragment #16, Sappho sings of Anactoria “… whose long-desired footstep, whose radiant, sparkling face / I would rather see before me than the chariots / of Lydia or the armor of men …” (Balmer, No. 21). Fragment #31 gives perhaps the best depiction of an erotic crush ever written. “…my voice deserts me / and my tongue is struck silent, a delicate fire / suddenly races underneath my skin / my eyes see nothing…” (Balmer, No.20) That’s just a small sample of the full description. Read the fragment for more. It’s worth it. Meanwhile in Fragment #16 we learn that “Leto and Niobe were the very best of friends.” (Balmer, No. 97) Students of Greek mythology know that things end badly for the two women but it is significant that Sappho depicts them first as friends. I wish we had more of this song so we could see how Sappho developed the story.

Many of the major themes in Western literature are already present in Sappho’s fragments: erotic desire, romantic love, familial love, aging, creativity, spirituality, death, and immortality. As my reading project progresses, I will trace how later women writers develop these and other themes.

Ms. Balmer mentions in a footnote that Sappho was the first poet to speak of attaining immortality through poetry (Balmer, No. 106). Given how little of her work still survives, Sappho could easily have been one about whom Virginia Woolf speculated that “Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” (A Room of One’s Own, p. 49) Instead Sappho is all the more extraordinary because she escaped that anonymity and achieved the immortality she desired.

Sappho is an important precursor for the women writers who follow her. She is the once and future Great Woman Poet that Virginia Woolf anticipated in A Room of One’s Own. In parting, I will allow the poet H.D. to have the final word on Sappho:

She is the island of artistic perfection where the lover of ancient beauty (shipwrecked in the modern world) may yet find foothold and take breath and gain courage for new adventures and dream of yet unexplored continents and realms of future artistic achievement.

(“The Wise Sappho”)

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