A tall, slender woman with flowing dark hair and warm, peachy skin stands atop a cliff gesturing towards a tumultuous sea below. Her head is tilted down, and her back is angled towards the viewer. She wears a long white chiton, with a peplos over it, embroidered with blue geometric thread at the bottom. Her Himation hangs off of her outstretched arm, blowing in the breeze. Near her feet lays a discarded lyre and a swath of cloth. The cliffside vegetation is murky green and the waves large, angry, and the color of autumnal grass before it begins to yellow. The sky is filled with grey-blue clouds with the barest hint of golden sun on the horizon.
“sweet mother, I cannot waeve–
slender aphrodite has over come me
with love for a girl.”
This scene seems like something you might find on a museum wall, with people milling around you, all too afraid to speak too loudly, else they disturb the peace of the pristine marble floors and golden molded ceilings. The plaque below the painting belies the above quote, as well as the words: “Sappho by Miquel Carbonell I Selva, 1881.”
Yet, that is not where I saw this image nor where I saw this quote. I found this image and quote while scrolling through Tumblr on my phone.
Sappho is not just an ancient poet, she is a figure for people to relate to today. She is a lesbian icon for many, and a model for lovers of literature and poetry. Her lyric poetry, most of which was written in the sixth century B.C., but destroyed in the fires when the Library of Alexandria burned. It is still widely read and loved today, even though we have mostly only broken and fragmented pieces of it.
Sappho’s “94,” a greatly fragmented poem tells the story of her lover that must leave her and Sappho’s efforts to console her and remind her of “all the good times [they] had” (line 11). This poem has several stanzas that stand out to me as something I could see a person writing in 2019. The lines below feel particularly modern to me:
“For many crowns of violets
and roses and . . .
. . . you put by my side,
and many woven garlands
made from flowers
around your soft throat,”
It is often that I see this feeling of passionate romance and longing partnered with flower imagery. What’s more, it is a tale of parting between two female lovers. The woman who is leaving even refers to Sappho by name when she expresses the desire not to leave her, so we know that Sappho is the narrator, and she speaks of the person leaving her as a “she,” so we further know that the other subject is a woman as well. During this time of visibility and activism for acceptance of sexuality and fighting for equal LGBTQ+ rights, Sappho’s lesbian poetry is tremendously relevant.
Poem “94” is definitely a poem about both physical and emotional attraction. The two women share a strong physical attraction in the sense that when Sappho is telling her lover to remember the good experienced they’d chared, she told her to remember the time when “on a soft bed / delicate… / you let loose your desire” (lines 21-32). While not explicitly denoting sexual activity it is heavily implied the Sappho and her lover when somewhere far removed, to a place where they could drown out the rest of the world and simply be lost in passion. Even the missing pieces of this poem add to the effect of being in love, lost, and losing it. In the last two lines, there are a mere six words, yet they say so much about what they felt in the moments they were together and what they were about to lose:
“No grove . . . no dance
. . . no sound”
There could very well be many more words that fit into those two ellipses of forgotten and destroyed text, but the stanza makes sense in the poem even without the rest of the text. We may never find out what Sappho truly intended to say in those last lines, perhaps they weren’t even the last lines of the poem, and more is lost. One could attempt to fill in the blanks with their own words or meaning, or one could simply take the ellipses as what is now part of the text and read it as a new whole instead of a fragmented part. I have been reading Sappho’s poetry as complete, though I know it is not, I see meaning in the blanks. I see meaning in “no grove… no dance / … no sound” (lines 27-28).
That being said, Sappho’s ellipses are by no means just ellipses. Even if a one reads the piece not counting the ellipses as missing parts, they still might change the meaning of the work. The lines “and with much perfume / costly… / fit for a queen, you anointed yourself,” might mean that even though the perfume and flowers she adorned herself with were costly, she still wore them to show Sappho how much she loved her (lines 18-20). If we had the missing words, perhaps it could take on a wholly different meaning, but the ellipsis makes it seem like Sappho is reminiscing on how much that gesture meant to her. Those three little dots slow down the eyes and cause me to think about what feeling the poem is evoking.
If I had come across this poem while scrolling through Tumblr one day, and not known the author, I might think it was just another young hopeful author, struggling with the loss of someone they loved, rather than a three-thousand-year-old poem that withstood the test of time.
Image 1: Carbonell, Miquel. “Sappho.” Tumblr, Itcst.
Image 2: kerdjpg. “My lesbian agenda.” Tumblr, kerdjpg.