Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Everybody's Favorite Lesbian Heartthrob

Hey, everybody:

I've got some crunchy and thought-provoking poetry lined up for future du jours. But right now, Sean is prepping for finals, so I'm giving you something easy. Here it is:

In the spring twilight
by Sappho

In the spring twilight
the full moon is shining:
Girls take their places
as though around an altar

Which leaves you with two questions:

1) Why is this poem brief to the point of being absolutely cryptic?

2) Was Sappho really a Lesbian?

The answer to the first question is: What we have is only a fragment of the original poem. In fact, almost all that remains of Sappho's poetry is fragments. Believe it or not, there is only one complete poem by her extant! I have a volume of her complete works, and it's full of entries that in their entirety read like:

Anaitis... the trees in ...

In fact, most of the comprehensible fragments we have are extracted from Classical Greek books of grammar, which would illustrate a term such as "litotes" (look it up) with examples from the great poets.

And the answer to the second is: Literally, yes. Sexually, who knows? Sappho was from the island of Lesbos and everybody there (including her father) was therefore a Lesbian. The term got applied to tribades (to resurrect a word no longer in common parlance) simply because the island's claim to fame was Sappho herself.

The belief that Sappho was a woman-lover stems from the fact that she wrote first-person love poems expressing yearning for women. Alas, we don't know enough about her personal life to know if this sprang from personal feelings or if love-poems-directed-at-women was simply a hot commercial product for which she filled the need.

Sappho also wrote love poems directed at men. so if we have to take her poems as being autobiographical (an extremely risky proposition in the case of most literary types), then she was actually bisexual. But don't say that to a Sapphist (another synonym for tribade) or she won't be your friend. You can understand why: The Sappho who was painted so often on Grecian urns -- tall, regal, straight-backed, white-throated, with a great profile -- is an elegant and romantic symbol for women who prefer women. Let's not muck things up for them by dragging in sexual acts they'd rather not think of.

And here's a bonus question for you: 3) What the heck are those girls doing in the spring twilight? To which I reply: I have not the foggiest notion. But it's a pretty image, isn't it? Lovely and mysterious. Almost makes up for the terrible loss of the rest of the poem.

All best,



movingfinger said...

What the heck are those girls doing in the spring twilight?

Well, just a couple guesses based on my own readings of social history in the Classical period: they are probably doing portable needlework, spinning (distaff and drop spindle), and talking. Talking, talking, talking. (Note that they gather as though around an altar, not around an altar as such.) They could also be arriving at a well (an altar stand-in) to bring water home. And talking.

They might be gathering for some altarless ritual or observance, but Sappho had an appreciation of beauty in everyday things, so it could be something as ordinary as a group conversation in the evening.

At twilight, they are probably not bathing or washing clothes; it would be too cold to dry off.

Michael Swanwick said...

Very nice analysis. It sounds convincing to me, anyway. Thank you.

It's ironic, though, that they'd be talking because from this distance of time, we cannot hear a word. They are all brides of quietness now.