Friday, April 02, 2010

What to Make of Modern/Feminist Interpretations of Sappho?

Recent readings in History have caused me to wonder more about the point of view of the historians, semioticians, linguists, etc than of the times I'd been interested in. The remains of Sappho's body of work and how it had been interpreted by the whole Gertrude Stein crew at the turn of the 20th century kind of brought it into sharp focus, as these translations are viewed somewhat as "bible."

Still, these bits are really tempting, just like the crusts of a sandwich offered to a pigeon or duck in a park:

To Aphrodite (Fr. 1. G) 1

Aphrodite on your intricate throne, immortal, daughter of Zeus, weaver of plots, I beg you, do not tame me with pain or my heart with anguish

but come here, as once before when I asked you, you heard my words from afar and listened, and left your father's golden house and came

you yoked your chariot, and lovely swift sparrows brought you, fast whirling over the dark earth from heaven through the midst of the bright air

and soon they arrived. And you, o blessed goddess, smiled with your immortal face and asked what was wrong with me, and why did I call now,

and what did I most want in my maddened heart to have for myself. "Whom now am I to persuade to your love, who, Sappho, has done you wrong? For if she flees, soon she'll pursue you, and if she won't take gifts, soon she'll give them, and if she won't love, soon she will love you, even if she doesn't want to.

When I Look at You (Fr. 31. G) 2

The man seems to me strong as a god, the man who sits across from you and listens to your sweet talk nearby

and your lovely laughter - which, when I hear it, strikes fear in the heart of my breast. For whenever I glance at you, it seems that I can say nothing at all

but my tongue is broken in silence, and that instant a light fire rushes beneath my skin, I can no longer see anything in my eyes and my ears are thundering,

and cold sweat pours down me, and shuddering grasps me all over, and I am greener than grass, and I seem to myself to be little short of death

But it is endurable, since even a poor man...

Anactoria (Fr. 16. G) 3

Some would say an army of cavalry, others of infantry, others of ships, is the fairest thing on the dark earth, but I say it's whatever you're in love with

It's completely easy to make this clear to everyone, for Helen, who far surpassed other people in beauty, left behind the most aristocratic

of husbands and went to Troy. She sailed away, and did not remember at all her daughter or her beloved parents, but [Aphrodite] took her aside

(...) which makes me remember Anactoria who is no longer near,

her lovely step and the brilliant glancing of her face I would rather see than the Lydians' chariots or their infantry fighting in all their armo(u)r.

Just tesserae, fragments of what we have left of her poetry. Makes me think of a young one feeling love for the first time. Beautiful, Fresh, Spring-like. A Romantic Ideal, but perhaps not so sustainable in Real Life. How much of it is hers, and how much of it is wishful thinking on the part of the interpreters?


1. Sources of The Making of the West, V. 1; Katherine J. Lualdi. Bedford/St. Martins, Boston. Pp. 15-19.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

According to Amy Kelly in her Eleanor and the Four Kings, what remained of the Western Empire at the time wasn't much of a place for a young woman, either:

"If the sojourn among the shrines of Byzantium was a nine days' wonder to the king, it was an awakening experience for the queen, whose education had progressed just far enough to make her travels profitable. It opened her eyes to vast, lofty, undreamed-of possibilities for majesty, and all the accidia 1 from which she had suffered at home was purged from her soul. The magnificent entertainment of the crusaders in Manuel's capital was of a nature to fire the imagination of the young Queen of France. The reality was far above the rumor, and every way extravagant. She learned that Paris was not, as she had been taught by her clerks, the highest of all places in Christendom. Byzantium, set in its pomp of water and of light, was not only incredibly vaster; it was infinitely more refined. The famous city had inherited much of the outward grandeur of ancient Rome, but was as well a treasury of artistic marvels that had drifted down to the Bosporus from Persia and Cathay, from Baghdad and Mosul..." 2

Had a part of her been left behind in this Holy Land after the fateful crusade of her Pious First Husband? Was there a fusion between her inherited ambitious nature and the subtler, more refined manners of the Imperial Court (which moved "with the supernal majesty and order of the heavenly constellations" 3) that would later provide the inspiration for her seditious "Tribunals of Love?"

Am wondering, too, if the country of origin is "no country for old men," perhaps Byzantium with all its beyond the wildest dreams of even a princess glories could be "no place for a young woman" for all the disappointment it would later set up for.

Sailing To Byzantium


That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.


An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.


O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.


Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

-William Butler Yeats

1. Melancholy, sadness, immobility.
2. Kelly, pp.42-43
3. Kelly, pg. 43.
Wow, another year gone by and another Poetry Month to celebrate.

Have been doing this for quite a long time now, so hopefully the drill's apparent: Although I'm just posting what moves me at the time, I do take requests and would love to hear about what moves you. If there is a poem that is particularly near and dear to your heart, why not talk about it? Send me a link to your website if you post your thoughts there, or just email me your submission and I'll post it on my site. (I'll keep things anonymous, too, if that is an incitement to write.)

Happy April Fool's Day, Happy April Fish, Happy (Hopeful) Spring!