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”)