Sensual Sappho

In about 300 BC, a doctor was summoned to diagnose the illness afflicting Antiochus, crown prince of the Seleucid empire in Syria. The young man’s symptoms included a faltering voice, burning sensations, a racing pulse, fainting, and pallor. In his biography of Antiochus’ father, Seleucus I, Plutarch reports that the symptoms manifested themselves only when Antiochus’ young stepmother Stratonice was in the room. The doctor was therefore able to diagnose the youth’s malady as an infatuation with her. The cause of the illness was clearly erotic, because the symptoms were “as described by Sappho.” The solution was simple: Antiochus’ father divorced Stratonice and let his son marry her instead.

Plutarch’s story invites us to wonder if the relationship between Sappho and erotic symptoms is entirely straightforward. Did Antiochus and his doctor learn to describe the sensations he was experiencing from their knowledge of Sappho’s already “classic” love poetry? Did art shape life? Or are such sensations the universal experience of erotically fixated individuals, which would mean that lived experience had been recorded with uncanny realism in Sappho’s art?

Sappho has probably had more words written about her in proportion to her own surviving output than any other writer. A couple of complete poems and about two hundred fragments are all that remain of the nine substantial books, in diverse genres and meters, that she produced on her home island of Lesbos in the northeastern Aegean around 600 BC. Her poems could be consulted, complete, in the ancient libraries, including the famous one at Egyptian Alexandria. But they did not survive the millennium between the triumph of Christianity and the frantic export to the West of Greek manuscripts from Constantinople before it fell in 1453. Some Renaissance scholars believed that in the eleventh century Pope Gregory VII had all the manuscripts of Sappho burned as dangerously salacious.

Yet Sappho, for all the meagerness of her extant poetry, is a founder in many more respects than in teaching us what love feels like. She is the first female poet and “learned woman” known to antiquity and to the “Western” literary tradition. Said to have been entitled “the tenth Muse” by Plato, she was the only woman whom ancient scholars included in the canon of significant lyric poets. Nor is it only her poems that have mattered: her life and loves have inspired plays, operas, and novels, skillfully documented in Margaret Reynolds’s The Sappho Companion (2001). Until the nineteenth century, these biographical narratives mostly derived from Ovid’s fictional letter in his Heroides, addressed by a suicidal heterosexual Sappho to her male lover Phaon. Although this tradition reached its acme in Charles Gounod’s spectacular 1851 opera Sapho, it is still going strong—as in Erica Jong’s raunchy novel Sappho’s Leap (2003).

The change in attitudes toward Sappho’s work and life came when self-conscious lesbian literary culture emerged in the nineteenth century, thanks to French decadence and Baudelaire’s poem “Lesbos” in Les Fleurs du Mal (1857); Sappho was crowned as the first explicit poet of female homoerotic love. Fin-de-siècle Prussian scholars then tried to resist the growing popularity of erotic Sapphos by insisting that her relationship with the young women, whose leisure hours on soft couches she celebrated, was that of the headmistress of a finishing school to debutantes entering the marriage market. But explicitly sexy verses by Sappho found soon afterward on papyrus made the task of these prudish academics impossible. Although Sappho is unusual as a female poet, her homoerotic stance, in the ancient setting, was unremarkable. It is found in women’s songs related to goddesses’ cults, for example in the songs Alcman composed for Spartan girls to sing to Artemis. Homoeroticism is also a feature of symposium poetry written by men, and the age of tyrants and lyric poetry that produced Sappho was precisely the period when the fashion for symposia—drinking parties with musical and literary entertainment imitating Anatolian palace practice—swept across the Greek world. Women held banquets at festivals from which men were excluded. There is no reason to suppose that Sappho’s songs were not sung at them.

Some more recent scholars have tried to tame Sappho by turning her into a priestess and claiming that the erotic behaviors she describes were part of formal ritual. Yet nothing has stopped Sappho from inspiring not only lesbians but heterosexual poets and poets of male homosexual love, especially C.P. Cavafy: like this gay Alexandrian proto-modernist, she seems to sing to us, as E.M. Forster described Cavafy, from a position “at a slight angle to the universe.” With a single poem, which says that her beloved Anactoria is more valuable than the splendor of any cavalry, infantry, or fleet, she created a tradition of “love-not-war” lyrics whose future stretches from Propertius to Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Bruce Springsteen. As the definitive ur-voice of lyric ecstasy, she is so consequential that poets of every generation, from Catullus to Sylvia Plath and Anne Carson, have used her to define their aesthetic manifestos: among the ancients, only Homer can claim an instrumental role in literary history equivalent to Sappho’s.

The incomplete poem that allowed the diagnosis of the Seleucid Antiochus’ symptoms is the most influential lyric poem of all time. It is usually known as “Sappho fragment 31,” or “phainetai moi” (a transliteration of its first two words, which mean “he seems to me”). It describes a triangular scene. Sappho is transfixed by her physiological responses to watching a woman she loves laughing with a man. The brilliance of the poem—besides the luxuriant specification of the symptoms—lies in the paradox that the speaker, the only silent member of the triangle, in putting her thoughts into words nearly becomes silent in death.

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