Sappho's Poetics of Tenderness
By: Laurel Reynolds // Written for 3001W Textual Analysis
Many young, queer girls struggle with their sexuality. From the fetishization of lesbianism, to the all too common “kill your gays” tropes affecting queer, female characters, to the dangers of public queerness, there is a lot for young, queer girls to have to deal with without even looking at internalized lesbophobia. This makes it vital for these girls to see other queer women be successful. It is also important for them to see queerness in history to know that, in today’s always politicized landscape, that their queerness is real, valid, and not a phase. This leads many queer women to find themselves and find comfort in the poems of Sappho, an ancient Greek poet. With mostly fragments of Sappho’s original poems, there is the question of why she has been canonized as the original lesbian. However, whether she was a lesbian or fell under the queer umbrella, her queerness is apparent throughout all of her works. Sappho’s queerness is obvious through explicit mentions of same-sex relationships, but also through carefully crafted queer perspective that utilizes softness, rebellion, coding, and more.
While many queer women do not identify as a lesbian, many do. The word “lesbian” originates from Sappho’s home Lesbos. And an accepted term for women loving women is “sapphics.” While today Sappho is generally accepted as queer, many straight people have tried to strip her of her queer identity. This is reminiscent of how, even today, straight people attempt to heterosexualize historical figures and people in their lives. However, one reason people can easily heterosexualize Sappho is that many of her poems are just fragments and are translations of her poems. This means that whoever the translator is, he or she gets to control the narrative. One example of this is a translation of “Fragment 102” that reads,
It’s no use
Mother dear, I
can’t finish my
soft as she is
she has almost
killed me with
love for that boy (Barnard)
versus “Sweet mother, I cannot weave –/ slender Aphrodite has overcome me / with longing for a girl” (Rayor 70). In Barnard’s version, you can see the dequeering of Sappho, not just through the use of a male love interest, but through the switch in how Sappho addresses her mother and the way Aphrodite impacts Sappho. In Barnard’s poem, omitting the word “sweet” and placing blame on Aphrodite strips this poem of the softness and tenderness typically associated with sapphics. Along these same lines, the description of love and longing is harsh in Barnard’s translation, while Rayor shows a sweet longing and more liveliness. With Aphrodite, Rayor’s version explicitly calling her “slender” shows Sappho’s focus on the female body better than Barnard’s version. In Sappho's original poem, she actually did not specify the gender of her love interest. Instead, she simply uses a word that better translates to “youth.” But whether or not Sappho was speaking about a female or male, her queerness is shown in this poem.
“Fragment 102” is one of Sappho’s most well-known poems, however, Sappho wrote many poems about and including Aphrodite. The first poem in Anne Carson’s, If Not, Winter translation is “Hymn to Aphrodite.” In this poem, Sappho again paints Aphrodite as full of life, opening with the line “Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind” (3). And the final lines of the poem are “You / be my ally” (4) showing Sappho’s longing for love. Aphrodite was the goddess of beauty and sexual love, so Sappho’s longing and desire for Aphrodite in her life are queer. While straight women would also have a connection to Aphrodite, Sappho puts this yearning in the poem when she writes, “Come to me now; loose me from hard / care and all my hearts longs / to accomplish, accomplish” (4), that would be uncharacteristic of a straight person.
One poem that is undeniably queer is “Sappho 94,” which connects to fragments 129A, 129B, and 147. In “Sappho 94,” a woman is crying and leaving Sappho behind unwillingly. The two share a tender goodbye, but what makes this poem queer is, again, Sappho’s tenderness and also her eroticism. Instead of begging her lover to stay, Sappho tells her, “Rejoice, go and/ remember me. For you know how we cherished you.” And then, Sappho mentions her lover’s “soft throat” (185) This small detail adds layers of intimacy to the poem. Eroticism is introduced in the following lines, with Sappho writing,
And with sweet oil
you anointed yourself
and on a soft bed
you would let loose your longing (186).
Anointing yourself makes the subject become holy, but it also invokes a physical, sensual idea through the act of touching oneself. Then, Sappho invokes an even stronger erotic image of her lover in bed masturbating. During the time period when it was written, poems like this would be seen as crude, so this eroticism is an act of rebellion. Rebellion is common in “othered” groups, so this homoerotic scene is queer in explicit and implicit ways. In “Fragments 129A” and “129B,” it appears likely that Sappho is writing about this lover again. The importance of these fragments is mostly in “129B,” “or you love some man more than me” (Sappho 263), which is explicitly queer. It is unlikely Sappho would write of a man loving another man, so she is writing about her former female lover. And with “Fragment 147,” Sappho reminiscences again on how she and her lover shall be remembered in the future, much like stanzas three and four in “Sappho 94.”
Sappho’s eroticism has been criticized. In Volume 34 of Music in Art, Samuel Dorf writes, “While her life (mythologies) and works received praise at home in ancient Greece, they suffered condemnation in other contexts. The Romans in particular vilified and chastised Sappho for the sensuality and the open homoeroticism of her poetry. ‘For the Roman writers then Sappho was, at best, a poet of love; worse, a nymphomaniac; and, worst of all a lover of women” (292). This further shows Sappho’s rebellious writing. While some people enjoyed her works, she still faced much criticism. Even with undeniably queer poems and themes, there have been times that generations read Sappho’s work as that of a heterosexual woman.
There are other examples of eroticism in ancient times; however, they lack the softness of Sappho’s works. One example is Ovid’s poems. Ovid was a Roman who was alive around the birth of Christ while Sappho was Greek and alive around approximately 600 BCE. However, they are both known for their eroticism. In Ovid’s “The Amores: Book 1,” seen in a collection of his poems, The Erotic Poems, he writes, “A soldier lays siege to cities, a lover to girls’ houses, / The one assaults city gates, the other front door” (101), and “Smooth shoulders, delectable arms (I saw, I touched them), / Nipples inviting caresses” (92). To Ovid, eroticism is violent, demanding, and hungry. In comparing love to soldiers, Ovid is showing his male dominance over “girl” lovers. Then, in Ovid’s descriptions of female bodies, he primarily focuses on his relation to the body -- “... I touched them)” (92) -- and explicitly sexual areas. But even when focusing on less sexualized areas, his descriptions are rougher and hungerier than Sappho’s. Looking at how Ovid describes arms as “delectable” (92) versus how Sappho describes necks as “soft” (185), the dominance and primitive desire of a heterosexual man in comparison to the tenderness and yearning of a sapphic is very apparent.
Another important comparison to Sappho is Homer’s “The Iliad.” In the Iliad, although there is no explicit mention of same-sex attraction, by the fifth century BCE many viewed Achilles and Patroclus as an example of pederasty; a same-sex relationship between a young man and an older man. During this time sapphic acts were still seen as taboo because pederasty was centered around the concept of one man being the penetrator and the other being penetrated (Morales and Mariscal 292). The taboos surrounding female same-sex relationships again show Sappho’s poems as an act of rebellion. Judith P. Hallet explains this double standard towards female and male queerness and the historical dequeering of Sappo when she writes, “By comparison, the homosexual liasons attributed to the male poets of Sappho’s time do not meet with similar disbelief or disapproval” (449). With Sappho’s explicit sapphic erotica, she is still often faced with either disgust or denial.
While some of her poems are explicitly queer, Sappho also uses queer coding in her poems. As mentioned earlier, one example is writing “slender Aphrodite” (Rayor 70), highlighting her interest in Aphrodite’s body. Another moment of queer-coding can be found in “Fragment 137,” where Sappho talks about her shame and specifically connects it to her tongue. While to many this may be a passing moment, to queer people, Sappho’s shame being in her tongue signifies her sexuality and that she has placed her tongue on female bodies.
Overall, it is still possible to debate Sappho’s sexuality, but in reading her poems it is impossible to view her as straight. From explicit queer poems to poems that show sapphics tenderness, eroticism, rebellion, and shame, it is undeniable that in some way, Sappho was queer. And since she is canonized as the original lesbian, her poems and actions have even become forms of queer coding. For example, Sappho often writes of the color purple and violets which has led to sapphics adopting purple as a way to signify their queerness. And through this legacy Sappho has achieved, queer women across the world can find comfort that their queerness is okay and will be celebrated and remembered, “even in another time.”
Barnard, Mary, translator. “[It’s no use / Mother dear].” By Sappho, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56218/its-no-use-mother-dear. Accessed 30 November 2021.
Dorf, Samuel N. “Seeing Sappho in Paris: Operatic and Choreographic Adaptations of Sapphic Lives and Myths.” Music in Art, vol. 34, no. 1/2, Research Center for Music Iconography, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, 2009, pp. 291–310, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41818596. Accessed 30 November 2021.
Hallett, Judith P. “Sappho and Her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality.” Signs, vol. 4, no. 3, University of Chicago Press, 1979, pp. 447–64, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173393. Accessed 5 December 2021.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Brain Busby, Arcturus Holdings Limited, 2021.
Morales, Manuel Sanz, and Gabriel Laguna Mariscal. “The Relationship between Achilles and Patroclus According to Chariton of Aphrodisias.” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 292–95, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3556498. Accessed 5 December 2021.
Ovid. The Amores. Translated by Peter Green, Penguin Books, 1982, pp. 92-101.
Rayor, Diane, translator. Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works. By Sappho, Cambridge University Press, 2014, p. 70.
Sappho. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Translated by Anne Carson, First Vintage Books Edition, 2003.