Sappho, Fragments of Poems 5-68

Sappho’s influence on later poets comes in two historical strands. First, excerpts of her poems in classical-era rhetorics constitute the entire "corpus" or body of her work, and they were imitated by later poets seeking to be inspired by her style (see Joyce Carol Oates on stylistic inspiration). Learning poetics was, by definition, "learning to write like Sappho."

The second line of influence was the result of a famously successful example of that literary influence, the Roman poet, Catullus (c. 100 BCE, around the time of Julius Caesar). Catullus primarily followed the Alexandrian poets who emphasized style over content, intricate structure, and learned allusions to previous poets. He chose Sappho as a kind of tutelary diety for his work, writing a close imitation of #8’s evocation of desire, and writing numerous poems in which he called his mistress and source of his poetic creativity "Lesbia," indirectly alluding to Sappho’s island home. Catullus’ work was lost (and perhaps suppressed due to its frank reference to erotic behavior) until a manuscript was discovered near his Italian home in the fourteenth century. Almost immediately, Catullus began to influence early Renaissance poets who were indirectly, thereby, influenced by Sappho.

Some clusters of fragments which address similar issues regarding the function of poetry, the sources of its inspiration, and its function among women:

1)  Poetry enables us to reshape our governing myths, focusing on new issues in old stories and rewriting some parts entirely:

The inspired poet becomes the medium through which the as-yet-untold parts of the ancient stories can be told, and the means by which the remaining parts can be made new, powerful in a new era. Already familiar to us from Stesichorus’ struggle with the "Helen" story, this motive for poetic composition produces #23’s revision of Helen’s origins in a way that makes her divine power independent of Zeus and frees her mother, Leda, from the rape by which the previous poets explained the birth of a woman with such compelling beauty. Similarly, when Sappho looks at Helen’s ravishment before the Trojan War (#4), she emphasizes it as evidence of Aphrodite’s power, not the curse on the House of Atreus or the consequence of Paris’ rash judgment. Seeing the Troy story at the wedding of Hector and Andromache similarly redirects our attention from the battlefield to the Trojans as a kind of ideal city (polis), marked for destruction by fate but living beautifully until the end. This wedding poem draws enormous power from the Iliad’s famous scene (Book VI) in which Hector talks with his wife and holds his son on the walls of Troy during a pause in the battle, as well as the horrific moment when Andromache learns from the women’s wailing that her husband is dead, and sees him being dragged by Achilles’ chariot around the walls of Troy (XXII). Sappho give us what the Homeric poets withheld except in a decoration on the Sheild of Achilles (XVII), the wedding of a man and woman which unites the city in harmonious celebration.

2)  Desire as a stimulus of creativity, as a threat to the voice:

#8 is the most famous evocation of desire in Sappho’s surviving works. She specifically identifies it as arising from the experience of being removed from that which one loves, a frustrated attempt to touch in words or deeds. The outcome is both the poem we see and, nearly, the death of the poetic voice with which the poem is expressed. #16, 18 and 19 similarly record the shock of love’s impact upon the speaker’s mind and express the speaker’s inability to perform ordinary tasks—"poesis" or the making of poetry is the only creative response possible. Compare Archilochus #19.

3)  Poetry as a medium which preserves memory and reunites those parted by fate:

#14 and 15 share the function of recording separation’s pain and redirecting the suffering mind toward the memories of past joys which the poem evokes. The sapphic poem often serves as a vehicle for memory, drawing the reader’s mind from a crisis of loss to the mental recovery, in striking images, of what is missing. The poet’s function merges with the physician’s and the historian’s, curing the pain of living by summoning essential thoughts in our minds. The inability to produce this dual function dooms the subject of #33 to oblivion, and the capacity to make memorable words guarantees the success of the fervent wish expressed in #68. It also serves as an antidote to the effects of exile (46)

4) Poetry as a social function, connecting hearers in ceremonies, scripting processions, etc.:

The wedding songs (#52-62) contain both descriptions of events and instructions for the behavior of participants. When understood as something sung at the occasion described in the poem, the poem changes from a static artifact in a book to the rhythmic "glue" which connects a community during a sacred event. The power of such songs also involves the shift of readers from distant, alien spectators to active participants in the events. Such songs are not mere "entertainment," but necessary elements of the most important stages in people's lives.