|Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene |
by Simeon Solomon (at the Tate)
Of course, what most of us grew up hearing is that she was a lesbian Lesbian--but on that lower-case adjective, we're a lot less certain. Certainly the way Sappho's sexuality has been portrayed over the centuries gives us a much more complex picture. She has been portrayed as a sex-crazed heterosexual prostitute, a suicide that leaped to her death because her love for a specific man was unrequited, a school marm, a cult leader, and a virgin. Take your pick.
Sappho was probably married, although some scholars suggest that the name for her husband implies her marriage was all a big joke. (Could she really be married to someone named "Dick All-Cock from the Isle of Man," as one scholar questions?) Her poems indicate she had a daughter, although some scholars suggest that her references are in fact to a young lover.
And some of her poems are about heterosexual love, as is this one, translated by Mary Barnard:
12. 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.
--translated by Mary Barnard
I love the sweet freshness of this poem. It conveys the emotions of a first crush so beautifully. But just because Sappho says she is talking about a boy doesn't mean she was in love with a real boy. Just as Hesiod might have been creating a fictitious narrator, Sappho could have been assuming a different persona. Since it is believed that many of her poems might have been performed at weddings, this interpretation seems quite feasible. We just can't know what a love poem means about the feelings of its author.
Many of Sappho's poems are about a particular group of women. And interestingly, many of these poems are much more erotic--about both bodily pleasure and bodily desire. Look at this example, translated in that late 1950s by the incomparable William Carlos Williams:
Peer of the gods is that man, who
face to face, sits listening
to your sweet speech and lovely
It is this that rouses a tumult
in my breast. At mere sight of you
my voice falters, my tongue
Straightway, a delicate fire runs in
my limbs; my eyes
are blinded and my ears
Sweat pours out: a trembling hunts
me down. I grow paler
than dry grass and lack little
Certainly, the intensity of this poem (or any of the others like it in the collection) does not prove that Sappho loved women any more than the first example proves that she engaged in relationships with men. And even if it did prove she had female lovers, that would not make her a lesbian (or bisexual) since those are constructions of sexuality that arose more than two thousand years after her death.
Nevertheless, I think it is hard to deny that Sappho's poems saw that women were sexual beings, full of beauty and passion and longing. She imagined that both emotional and physical desires could be fulfilled in a variety of ways without censure or disapproval. What a modern--and yet eternal--vision!
Perhaps it is exactly that idea that women can have desires that really sets the poems of Sappho apart from those of most of the men writing in the ancient world. The poet-narrative feels great desire--and expresses it in her poems as love for other women. Although this seems to be very clear evidence that Sappho was (at least in a loose ahistorical way) a lesbian Lesbian, I can also imagine that it might have been less threatening to see a woman being an active lover of other women than a woman being an active lover of men. Whatever the choices that Sappho made, and however we interpret the choices her narrator made, the poems that we have of Sappho's give strength and a sense of eternal tradition to women who love women today.
* * *
For more about Sappho's life and her changing reputation over time, see these fascinating books:
The Sappho Companion (a fascinating compendium of writings about Sappho over time)
Sappho Is Burning (a difficult read but a thoughtful and very scholarly book)
Sappho's Immortal Daughters (an erudite and highly readable study)