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Monday, November 17, 2003

Book Reviews

Sapphic Histories

The Sappho History by Margaret Reynolds. Palgrave Macmillan, New York and London, 2003, 311 pages, $27.95.




This book is a historical review and meditation on the cultural icon, Sappho, specifically as it is used in the late eighteenth century until the present moment. Sappho, a seventh century BCE aristocratic woman born on the island of Lesbos, was famous in the ancient world for the brilliance of her lyric verse. Although very little survives — two more or less complete poems, a few fragments that are sensible parts of larger pieces, innumerable words and phrases from bits of severely damaged papyrus — her poetic reputation has only grown, fed on the speculation of what might have been, not to mention the curious allure that ancient Greek fragments and ruins have always exercised on those who choose to look back in time.

In addition, various traditions — that she fled into exile, that she had a husband (perhaps abusive), that she had a daughter, that she was mistress of a school for song and poesy, that she had love relationships with her young girl students, that, frustrated in a love affair with a handsome youth named Phaon, she jumped to her death — have come down attached to her name. These have allowed the imaginative to flesh out a persona or any number of personae over the course of time. In 2000, Margaret Reynolds, a reader in English at Queen Mary, University of London, brought out The Sappho Companion, to which the present volume is a complement, one might say, or an extension of the material presented there. The Sappho Companion is a collection of texts, first those that survive from Sappho, then translations or adaptations, then material (poetry and prose) “in the spirit of,” to varying degrees successful in evoking the ancient poet. These are contextualized with a brief, intelligent presentation of the relevant historical facts. A reader of the present volume would definitely benefit from looking at the material in The Sappho Companion, although it is not necessary; Reynolds’s ideas and arguments in The Sappho History stand on their own.

Classical antiquity is a state of mind more than anything else, so much of its detail irretrievable, so much that passes for “fact” caught up in the shifting sands of interpretation of evidence that is either fragmentary or subject to abrupt revision based on new discoveries. Indeed, one of the enduring satisfactions of the tradition of classical antiquity is that you can find almost anything you are looking for. Those who imagine that they are dealing with firm reality only fool themselves. As Louis MacNeice wrote in his poem, Autumn Journal:

And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

Some figures from this antique past are unarguably legendary, the gods, for instance, such as Zeus or Aphrodite, or monsters like the Centaurs or Cyclops. Some, such as Odysseus or Medea, seem almost real, so frequently do they appear in the literature. Then there are the “real-life” persons such as Socrates, or, indeed, Sappho. Most of the historically attested figures, however — certainly Sappho falls into this category — have so little solid evidence attached to them that successive ages have imagined them as they chose.

Reynolds has made an impressionistic, personal account of the psychological engagement of certain nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets with the legend of Sappho. There are any number of interesting ideas here, although there is repetition and extravagant, unnecessarily complicated language — one can only imagine the linguistically chaste Sappho blushing in embarrassment — and the occasional error (e.g., prevaricating [p. 19] does not mean trying to make up one’s mind; the Greek lusimeles [p. 162], which means limb-relaxing in the sense of slackening, not dismemberment, will not work as a metaphor for fragmentation; on pp. 209f., for Fragment 16, read 94; there are several typos in the quoted Greek).

Using the fact that Sappho’s texts survived in fragments and the tradition that her body was destroyed in a death leap from a cliff, Reynolds works this metaphor for all its worth throughout the book. Other critical positions derive from Sappho’s female gender, her theme of love, and her lesbian orientation, the first two obvious from the surviving texts, the last perhaps more in the minds of nineteenth- and twentieth-century readers than true to a culture that does not seem to have categorized erotic experience. Reynolds exploits a number of contemporary theoretical positions in developing her material, feminism obviously, since Sappho, the woman, is remarkable for the esteem in which she was held as an artist among the Greeks of antiquity, who valorized males and male achievement almost exclusively. Sappho is also a major figure in the contemporary lesbian pantheon, since surviving texts allow no doubt that she enjoyed sexual relationships with women, specifically girls. Indeed, the world took from her island home, Lesbos, the term lesbian. One may, of course, question whether we are justified in using “lesbian” for a teacher in ancient Greece just because she had affective, physical relations with students. Ancient Greek males — the only source of our information — are notorious for the praise they offer to male homosexuality in pedagogical situations, never suggesting that the partners were anything other than conventionally sexual. It is likely that the ancients were not inhibited in choosing sexual partners wherever their libido led them. Our terms for sexual orientation would be meaningless to them; and, as is so often pointed out, the sexual categories homosexual and heterosexual are nineteenth-century intellectual inventions. On the other hand, there is ample evidence of ancient suspicion, often outright hostility, toward sexual relationships between women, of course from the very same males who did not fault male pederasty. All of which suggests that rather than a condemnation of aberrant behavior, the negative attitude seems more expressive of the relentless ancient Greek masculine need to dominate womenfolk, as well as contempt for what to them must have seemed an excessive and misplaced valorization of the female gender.

Reynolds makes some important observations that play out in the course of the book. One is the idea of woman as a fragmented entity: whereas the male is seen as whole, the woman is defined as a virgin, a bride, a mother, a homemaker, wife, whore, nurse, etc. Another is the theory of the marked and unmarked, in which the male as the norm is the unmarked, the woman the marked; again, in male perception, she is thus the “other.” Reynolds reads Sappho as spurning male identity in Fragment 16 (“Some say an array of cavalry is the most beautiful thing in the world, or a body of infantry, or a fleet of ships, but I say it is what you love…”). Because the experience of love is the subject of Sappho’s poems, Reynolds argues that Sappho defines woman as different but equally valid, equally valid because a woman, too, has a vocation, an identity, a calling, that is, as a feeling, loving person. Thus, we might say that Achilles, with his rage that gives him the motive and energy to kill thousands on the field of battle, is the male persona (of Homeric times) par excellence, but that Sappho presents woman as an alternative persona, that is, a loving figure. Reynolds points out that, in the gallery of women in this ancient Greek male-dominated, male-obsessed world, none of the women is sexed, except for Medea (and she is mad).

In ancient tragic theater, males presented women as the frightening or problematic “other.” The persona that can be reconstructed from Sappho’s poems, then, is an important antidote in humanistic terms as well as fundamental to women’s identity. Reynolds wonders (p. 18) whether this is to reconstruct or to fake Sappho. Well, what’s the difference? Isn’t the second just a negative term for describing the same thing? When Reynolds notes (p. 13) that what is going on in Sappho scholarship rarely affects the Sappho mystique, one could argue that it makes little difference, since both are contemporary intellectual constructs of an essentially unknown entity. As my yoga teacher so often says: “Whatever works for you.”

The fragmented state of Sappho’s surviving texts, Reynolds suggests, has always been attractive to women by mirroring their own sense of fragmentation. Because the fragments do not allow for readily contextualizing Sappho, she becomes an icon of pure feeling — loving — and, as such, extraordinarily important to women in search of something they may appropriate for their gender. Reynolds instances nineteenth-century poets such as Mary Robinson, whose fragmented life experience, she suggests, is recapitulated in a series of sonnets entitled Sappho and Phaon, each revealing a different stage of love and hence fragmented attitudes of feeling in which Sappho, Robinson, and the idea of woman as a creature of feeling merge. Likewise, Reynolds introduces Lady Emma Hamilton who, famous for performing a series of “Attitudes,” was (again) a woman with an exceedingly checkered career, fragmented, one could say, and acting out the fragmentation. Reynolds makes a strong case as to why the idea of Sappho would be so important to these women, as one who spurned household tasks for a life of artistic creation centered on the female capacity for feeling.

When the science of classical philology developed in the nineteenth century, the scattered fragments and texts of Sappho, like those of every other ancient author, were gathered together into what is known as a corpus, the Latin word for body. Reynolds uses this accident of terminology to draw a portrait of two male poets, Algernon Charles Swinburne and Charles Baudelaire, who “break up Sappho, dissect her, fragment her and insert themselves into her spaces” (p. 148). An odd idea this, the notion of Sappho’s physical presence in the mental image we moderns might carry of her poetry; but, like so much else in this book, what seems upon the first reading extravagant, the second time around is not implausible. Swinburne, whose knowledge of the Greek text of Sappho allowed him to take over the technique of enjambment from her poems, also appropriated bits of the fragments for his poems, or, as Reynolds demonstrates (p. 183), used a passage from Sappho as though the poet were speaking (when, in the original, it is Aphrodite). In a detailed analysis of Lesbos from Les Fleurs du mal, Reynolds shows how Baudelaire used the language of physical contact in describing Lesbos and the women of the island, substituting himself for Sappho (“…Lesbos m’a choisie…/Pour chanter le secret de ses vierges en fleurs…”), entering her body, as it were, akin to his real-life role of playing the dandy, a costume choice signifying, says Reynolds, that the male poet has assumed the feminine activity of poetry.

This Reynolds has attached to the idea of “art for art’s sake” through an interesting discussion of Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin, a torrid bodice-ripper in which those wearing bodice or tights are not necessarily the gender they advertise. The argument is that pure feeling, romantic passion, and sexual attraction ride above the accidents of clothing, a notion compatible with “art for art’s sake.” The nineteenth-century reader of Greek would know the term to kalon, in which the sense of the good is combined with the beautiful, giving the latter a moral absolute equal to the former. Hence, beauty, like feeling, is decontextualized. The sensuality of pederasty — associated as it is with ideals of absolute beauty, social value, moral worth, invested in a physical relation that will have no biological issue — is about as pure as one can get in matters carnal.

On this basis, Sappho, the lover of girls, is pure. Baudelaire, however, uses the lesbian idea to celebrate decadence, the essence of decontextualization. In counterpoint, Reynolds reminds us (pp. 193ff.) of the idea of philology, a nineteenth-century invention, where language is studied objectively, without the imposition of external values. Thus Theodor Bergk, Sappho’s first great editor, left the endings of words describing the poet’s love objects in the feminine form, despite whatever sensibilities might be offended, because that is how the Greek read; words for words’ sake, as it were.

Baudelaire was the first poet to make Sappho lesbian; Swinburne followed, thereby eliminating the role of the beautiful youth, Phaon, for whom Sappho (tradition said) pined. Phaon had been the vehicle that transformed the icon of the feeling woman into the lustful woman; a series of poetic fragments that speak of love can be transformed into a woman who has a series of love affairs. Corollary to this was the Sappho who was punished for her achievement. Madame de Stäel, for instance, created a Sappho-like figure in her novel, Corinne: Or Italy, in which a woman, whose remarkable creative gifts doom her to be thwarted in love, ends in melancholy self-destruction. It is a curious feature of much of the Victorian age, Reynolds notes, that the Sappho in the public consciousness had little or nothing to do with her poetry but, rather, with her sexual appetite. The textual remains of the poetry were so meager they could scarcely compete with the miscellany of scandalous anecdotes about her life. Poets who understood the Greek might make more of the poetry; Reynolds has a very interesting reading of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s series of poems to young girls, finding in them the poet’s unconscious motive of expressing his erotic attraction to his dear friend, Arthur Hallam, with whom he was traveling while the poems were being written. Tennyson, who could read Greek, introduced Sappho frequently into his poetry during the years he knew Hallam, whose untimely death provoked the poet to write one of his most anguished pieces, In Memoriam.

These facts inspire Reynolds to suggest an erotic subtext to their relationship. She uses Sappho’s Fragment 31 to make her interpretation, relying on Eve Kosofky Sedgwick’s celebrated interpretation of the erotics of two males in a triangular relationship with a woman. Fragment 31 seems to present the poet/narrator watching a girl to whom she is attracted in the act of flirting with or receiving the attentions of a male; Tennyson would have known the feminine endings. This is Sedgwick’s triangular relationship conducted through the poetry, Reynolds suggests. Tennyson’s frequent reference to Sappho, his series of minor, unimportant poems to anonymous girls, and his concurrent close friendship with Arthur Hallam allowed him to act out through poetry an emotion of which he perhaps had no conscious understanding. Tennyson the poet assumes the role of Sappho; Arthur Hallam is the second male in a triangle, and the poems to young girls form the third side.

Women historically were denied an education that included the study of Greek. Mastery of it gave them equivalence with males, let them into a world privileged as the domain of men. The poets Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper brought Sappho’s texts into their poems, “making a continuum between the ancient Greek and the nineteenth century English,” mimicking and rephrasing the original texts and making the Sapphic landscape of Fragment 2 more than once, in Reynolds’s words, “a feminized place of springs and woods and hidden places, obscurely libidinous and seductive” (p. 128). They were Sappho’s disciples, a lesbian couple, poets who published their work under the name Michael Field and wrote Sapphic love poetry as lovers who could experience the same thing.

Two twentieth-century poets acted out the legend of Sappho in their own lives, in an age where a woman could more comfortably situate herself in an amatory relationship with another woman. The poet H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) was a woman whose complicated, shifting relationships with men made her into a published poet through the efforts of one — Ezra Pound — and the mother of Perdita, by whom she would never say. Ultimately, the enduring relationship of her life was with another woman, Annie Winifred Ellerman (who styled herself Bryher, the byname by which she is known), a prolific producer of poetry, novels, autobiography, and criticism. Reynolds has interesting things to say about H. D.’s obsessions with the material remains of Sappho — the papyrus finds, for instance — her identification with Sappho, and the search through psychoanalysis for her mother (with Sigmund Freud, no less). This last-mentioned was satisfied, Reynolds claims, in the poetry inspired by and directed to Sappho: “For Sappho was H. D.’s mother” (p. 218), just as Greece was the home to which H. D. saw herself returning. H. D. wrote four specific Sappho poems, using the fragments of the ancient poet, “freely translated.” “So freely that she is hardly recognizable,” continues Reynolds in that flamboyant style that either enchants or repels, “rather she has been raided, mutilated, her box rifled, her jewels treated as common property” (p. 222). Sappho, sweet lass, we would hardly know ye!

Sappho gave Virginia Woolf the courage to be herself. In an age in which women’s literary achievement was belittled, Woolf could claim that at the very beginning of Western letters there was a master poet, rarely rivaled, never surpassed, who was a woman. Virginia Woolf would be a writer; that would be her identity, not as a wife to Leonard Woolf, certainly not as a mother. That this woman, Sappho, loved other women — that the poetic expression of this love was transcendent and absolute as every other masterpiece, literary, artistic, or philosophic, from this special moment in human history — gave Woolf the distance from the society into which she was born when she found her lifelong love in the arms of Vita Sackville-West. Interestingly enough, Sackville-West was, like Sappho, a married woman, the mother of two sons. Having performed her maternal function, she was never again intimate with her husband, although always and intensely his dearest friend. It was as though she lived parts of the Sappho tradition as it came down through time, stories without context, thus again classic, without specificity, as the unseeing eyes on the marble statues that confer dignity without life. Sappho validates creative women’s lives; that is her immense, lasting achievement, one might say after reading Reynolds’s book.

What is more remarkable, of course, is that the ancient historical figure has little or nothing to do with that validation. For details about the “real” Sappho, the reader might turn to pages 138-147 of Albin Lesky’s A History of Greek Literature (English translation of the second edition, London, 1966). Lesky has set out a reasonably nuanced and objective account of what the facts tell us: singer, composer, teacher, wife, mother, friend, and lover.

Charles Rowan Beye is distinguished professor emeritus of classics at the City University of New York, a contributing editor to greekworks.com, and author, most recently, of Odysseus: A Life.
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