Tag Archives: Sappho

“On the Greek island of Lesbos…”

My Early World Literature students generally love Sappho, at least what of hers we read in the course. And I think some of what they love is her unknowability, if I can call it that, and the fact that much of the work we have by her is fragmentary. Her works were collected into volumes by admiring Greek and then Roman poets and others, but only papyrus scraps have come down to us, through various unusual pathways. She was born around 615 B.C. to an aristocratic family and lived for a time in a community of young women on the island of Lesbos who wrote and sang poetry, danced to their songs…. the word “Lesbian” was attached to the female-to-female sexual attractions described in some of her work. The site The Poetry Foundation sums up what is known or at least seriously believed about her today: “In antiquity Sappho was regularly counted among the greatest of poets and was often referred to as ‘the Poetess,’ just as Homer was called ‘the Poet.’ Plato hailed her as ‘the tenth Muse,’ and she was honored on coins and with civic statuary.” Beyond that, most of what we “know” is custom, legend, speculation…or downright fiction. Readers tend to believe her first-person poems are autobiographical because of that “I” and the frank, intense description of deep emotions and suggestions of intimate experience—but we don’t know.

Anyway, as I said, her poems—what we have of them—are compelling. Poets of many centuries and cultures have translated them into their own languages, often padding them out to fit ideas of structure and poetics quite alien to the originals. (If that intrigues you, you ought to visit the site Bureau of Public Secrets, where “some of the many” translations of her “Poem of Jealousy” are collected.)

In my classes, attraction to a piece of writing pretty much means you’ll have to write about it; hence today’s horror. Through the murky sentences I think you will still feel the affection:

“On the Greek island of Lesbos Sappho’s works were written and compiled, into the classic poems they are today. Despite knowing not much about her, her poems speak volumes.”

Oh, the use of the passive voice, which denies Sappho agency in her own work (the poems were written on an island; who wrote them remains unspoken)! Oh, the strange notion that some “compilers” made them into classic poems—again, she doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with it! Were they immediately classic because they were written in the sixth century B.C.E., or are they classic now because they’re still around or because we call them so, or are they classic because someone compiled them “into…classic poems,” or what? The writer leaves us to ponder those questions. Perhaps the writer himself is unsure what “classic” means. They can certainly be referred to as “classical,” because they are writings from the long period of Greek and Roman civilization we call the “classical age.” Well, be that as it may. They’re classics today.

“Despite knowing not much about her,” besides being a remarkably awkward phrase, is a dangling modifier. Of course I knew what he meant to say: Despite the fact that we don’t know much about her…or despite our not knowing much about her. But the sentence as my student wrote it has no such nouns or pronouns to be described (modified) by the prepositional phrase: the only noun offered is “poems,” but surely he doesn’t mean to say her poems don’t know much about her. He goes on to say that the poems “speak volumes.” This in spite of not knowing much about their author, I guess.

Now, generally when we use the verb phrase “speak volumes” we mean “say a great deal (books’ worth, in fact) even without words.” As in “she said not a word when he said he loved her, but her quiet smile spoke volumes,” perhaps. Is that what my student means to say about the poems of Sappho—that the fragments we have still suggest books’ worth of thoughts? I’m not sure. In view of the introductory phrase about not knowing much about her, I have to consider that he may mean the poems suggest a lot about their author. What’s truly odd here is a coincidence of terminology, the juxtaposition of fragments and “volumes,” and the association of poems with books as well.

Most readers of Sappho feel that the fragments suggest deep and complex emotions, or evoke them in readers, although for many of the poems what we have is so small a piece of the probable original that we can’t be positive where the poem as a whole might have taken us. In fact, what we respond to for so many of what we call her “poems” is a single breathtaking image. And the trouble with that is the nagging fact that almost all of us are reading Sappho in a translation. Only the knowledge that her words have struck readers this way regardless of the passage of time and the vagaries of literary “style” and translation gives us the confidence to attribute our response to her artistry.

This isn’t a very funny post! My intention was to have a good time with my hapless student’s staggering couple of sentences and their inadequacies as praise of The Poetess. But it’s impossible to point out where my student went wrong, or at least limped through, without talking about the power and beauty of the words he was trying to respond to. Perhaps there’s a point at which we all become inarticulate.

Here’s someone else’s tribute to her. It’s described as “red-figure vase (hydria, or kalpis) by the Group of Polygnotos, ca. 440–430 BC. Seated, Sappho is reading one of her poems to a group of three student-friends. National Archaeological Museum in Athens….” This photographic image of the hydria is “by Μαρσύας (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.” She’s writing so intently, and the other women form a group around and above her that seems simultaneously loving and blessing. Beautiful, isn’t it?

You'll notice that, like Sappho's poems, this jar was once broken in pieces. How fortunate we are that unlike so many of her poems, all the pieces were found and carefully reassembled. We respond to its original beauty.

You’ll notice that, like Sappho’s poems, this jar seems to have once been broken. How fortunate we are that all the pieces are here, carefully reassembled, so we can be sure we’re responding to its original beauty.

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“The piece started out with the line ‘I hate and love.’ …

My student was writing about a poem by Catullus, and he’s right: that’s how it started out. It’s quite similar to a poignant poem fragment by Sappho. Both poets are writing about being of two minds, being torn by two contrary emotions. No matter how familiar that situation, it never ceases to produce agony, at least in the world I inhabit (the same one Sappho and Catullus used to inhabit, I believe).

My student didn’t quite get that, though. Here’s what he had to say:

“The piece started out with the line ‘I hate and love.’ This can be interpreted as the speaker is indifferent about his feelings.”

Usually I can agree with students when they protest a correction or query with an insistent “But you knew what I meant.” But here, do I? For that matter, does he?

Every once in a while a student offers a flat-out piece of self-contradiction that I know can’t be intentional. But the ensuing paragraph rarely resolves the problem; more often, the writer seems to assume that truth has been uttered, insight offered, and it’s time to move on. The reader has to ask, though, how the writer could simply move on—indeed, whether the writer has actually read the sentence at all.

Is it possible that this student doesn’t actually know the meaning of “indifferent”? Might he think it means “confused” or “puzzled by the difference in” or even “different”?

It’s hard to imagine a college student unfamiliar with “indifferent.” (I never thought anyone would have trouble understanding the word “disinterested,” either—would think it meant the same thing as “uninterested”—but evidently a lot of people are in that particular boat, and if English continues to bend to accommodate usage pretty soon I may be the one who’s confused.) The more I think about a possible confusion between “indifferent” and “different,” the more attractive it becomes as an explanation, because I do have students who seem to disregard prefixes such as “in-,” which are unstressed and sort of sound as if they might just be little gulps preceding the actual word.

Probably I shouldn’t puzzle over this too much. After all, he did say that the line could be interpreted as, not that it actually meant that. He isn’t actually “owning” the idea; he’s just throwing it out there. I wrote “No, it couldn’t” in the margin; he may have read my comment and simply said to himself “Oh, huh. Whatever.”

Still, because I cling to the idea that my students really do try, I would welcome any other explanations for his bizarre assertion. Was he confused about the meaning of “indifferent”? Did he fall asleep at the end of the first sentence or in some other way completely forget it as he plunged into the second? Or is something else entirely going on?

There’s always the possibility, albeit remote, that he’s right. Perhaps those of us who think we are wrestling with fiercely contrary feelings are actually completely indifferent, and just don’t know it. Perhaps we should just get over our silly romantic stance, put our feet up, and change the channel.


“In my own opinion I think that…”

Student writers never get tired of writing these two phrases.

I’ve had the chance to ask what the phrases mean, or why they are needed. Here are some answers:

  1. “I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all.”
  2. “I want the reader to know I really mean it.”
  3. “I want to show that I’m not using any sources, that I myself think this.”
  4. “I know there are other opinions.”
  5. “I think I’m right, but I don’t know.
  6. “This is a thesis, not a fact.”
  7. “The sentence sounded kind of rude without it.”

Here’s what I say: “Every essay begins with two invisible words: ‘I think…’ If you then write those words, you’re saying to the reader ‘I think I think…,’ or ‘I think it’s my opinion that….'” Several times I’ve even asked the students to write those words in capital letters after the heading of their paper so they wouldn’t feel compelled to write them in the essay itself.

Doesn’t help.

The phrase/clause is even more ridiculous when followed by something that is provably or obviously true—as in today’s example:

“In my own opinion I think that once again Sappho is talking about something or someone.”

Most writers write about things or people whenever they write. Sappho clearly falls into this category, even though so much of what we have of hers is fragmentary. No poems celebrating generalized abstractions or undefined emotions. She more or less takes my students’ collective breath away, in fact, particularly because they’re surprised to recognize real emotions of their own in these “old” texts.

So why would my student bother to make this silly statement? To be fair, I know what he probably meant. If he had only added one more word before ending his sentence—the word “specific”—he would have been fine. We do discuss the fact that poets, like writers of fiction, often construct characters, or embody ideas in fictional people, for literary purposes; that “I” in a poem is no more definitely the poet herself than “I” in a short story is the writer rather than a narrator. And here my student is trying to say, I believe, that Sappho seems to we writing of or to actual, specific people, about actual, specific events, rather than creating poetic situations. IF that’s what my student meant, I applaud him for recognizing the immediacy and urgency of the images, the circumstances, the carefully delineated emotions in her work.

But, as is always my lament, he didn’t say what he meant; he said something else, or at least something less. He said something so self-evident as to strike the reader as completely unnecessary, completely obvious—to evoke in the reader either the classic laugh or the PoMo “Well, Duh.”

And the “once again” suggests that this writing-about-something is a habit of hers. There she goes again.

Combine that with the rest of the sentence and this is what you get: “I’m not sure, and I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all about this, but it seems to me that Sappho is falling into that old habit of hers of writing about something. But others may disagree.”

For people who are so VERY certain of most of their judgments and notions, students can turn into shaking aspens and shrinking violets and sensitive plants when asked to commit their thoughts to paper.