Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.07.03

Lyn Heatherly Wilson, Sappho's Sweetbitter Songs: Configurations of Female and Male in Ancient Greek Lyric.   London-New York:  Routledge, 1996.  Pp. 232.  ISBN 0-415-12671-1.  $21.00.  

Reviewed by Andre Lardinois, University of Minnesota (
Word count: 2199 words

Feminist scholarship has a lot to offer to our understanding of Sappho's poetry, but only if it is combined with a fair assessment of the male poets to whom she is contrasted, and an acknowledgment of the uniqueness of archaic Greek culture. Unfortunately, this book does neither, although it does contain some interesting and novel readings of Sappho's own fragments. Wilson cites few studies and no articles on the male Greek poets later than Kirkwood (Early Greek Monody, Ithaca NY 1974), and she seems to approach their poetry with a preconceived notion of what male poetry is supposed to be like. Her particular brand of feminism, which is inspired by the writings of the French feminists, is not very well suited to the study of antiquity either. It is now widely recognized among feminist scholars and activists that these writings, like most feminist theories developed in the past, relate primarily to the problems and aspirations of Western, middle class, mostly white women, and are to be applied with great caution to societies other than our own.1 If Wilson had written her book about a modern Iranian poet instead of Sappho, she would probably be accused of cultural imperialism.

Ironically, Wilson in her introduction starts by saying, with a nod to Derrida, that her work focuses on difference, in particular differences between our modern society and the world of Sappho, and between Sappho's songs and the lyric poetry of other, male authors composing songs in the seventh to fifth centuries BCE (p. 1). It soon becomes apparent, however, that these two sets of differences are for Wilson closely intertwined. Wilson aligns Sappho's world with her own dreams and aspirations as a feminist, and accuses the male Greek poets of helping to develop the "logocentric, patriarchal structures which haunt the women of our culture" (p. 4). Wilson sees a close resemblance between the work of Sappho and the writings of modern feminists, in particular the French feminists Irigaray, Kristeva, and Cixious (p. 15-18, and passim), and she speaks in this regard of a (historical) circle, "one that unites Sappho's circle, or at least her songs about her circle, with women now" (p. 2, cf. 16).

At the same time, Wilson argues that the male archaic poets adopted a "singular, logical and restrictive" discourse, which supposedly characterizes male writing and language from antiquity to the present (p. 16, 200) -- a sweeping generalization that hardly needs refutation. As examples of Greek writers who displayed this type of discourse, she cites Plato and Aristotle (p. 9), but neglects to mention that these authors, who admittedly pursued a discourse based on logical reasoning (although plenty of ambiguity can be found in their texts as well), sharply distinguished themselves in this regard from the earlier poets, male and female, whom they accused of engaging in a polysemic discourse not unlike the one Wilson ascribes to Sappho.

The rest of the book is divided into eleven chapters, each dealing with a particular theme in Sappho's poetry: the goddess Aphrodite, love, female desire, virginity, beauty, Sappho's circle, remembrance, epithalamia, immortality, and honor. The last chapter, entitled "Symbolic Realms," functions at the same time as conclusion. Such an approach to Sappho, or any other author, is common, but it is worth pointing out that divisions like these are bound to be subjective and already are part of the interpretive process. By discussing Sappho fr. 31, for example, under "songs of love" (Ch. 2) and not under "epithalamia" (Ch. 9) she implicitly dismisses Wilamowitz's interpretation of this fragment as part of a wedding song. Wilson is more honest than most in admitting that her chapter headings "encompass subjects or themes which I consider are significant to the general context of Sappho's songs and to my interpretation of those songs" (p. 19).

In most chapters she tries to pair a number of Sappho's fragments with those of other, male archaic Greek poets in order to determine the unique, feminine approach of Sappho to the subject at hand. In itself this line of inquiry is commendable and could have yielded significant results, as, for example, Eva Stehle demonstrates in her recent book, Performance and Gender in Ancient Greece (Princeton 1997). Unfortunately, Wilson does not allow the male poets the same subtle reading that she applies to Sappho's fragments. In general she is more interested in showing the allegedly "masculine" character of their poetry, which she defines very much by modern, Western standards, than in a fair examination of these fragments. She also does not reproduce the fragments of the male poets whom she discusses, as she does the fragments of Sappho whose text and translation she generously quotes in the book. This makes it very hard to check her assertions about the male poets without looking up the primary texts.

In order to illustrate Wilson's approach and my objections to it, I will examine here in some detail her discussion of Sappho fr. 1 in Chapter 1. Wilson opens this chapter by providing a possible historical background for the representation of Aphrodite in Sappho's poetry. She begins by saying that Sappho's Aphrodite shares many characteristics with the goddesses of the Near East, but then goes on to say that these same characteristics fit our own feminine gender scheme as well, thus minimizing again the gulf between past and present, the ancient Mediterranean and the modern Western world. Wilson continues with a lengthy analysis of Sappho fr. 1 (p. 22-34). She first tries to determine the genre to which this poem belongs and quotes Kirkwood (Early Greek Monody, Ithaca NY 1974, 111) as saying that Sappho fr. 1 is "the one 'example we have in monodic lyric of the cletic hymn'" (p. 22). She concludes from this that Sappho, in typically "feminist" fashion, mixes a public type of discourse with a personal experience. What Kirkwood actually says, however, is that Sappho fr. 1 is "the only COMPLETE example we have in monodic lyric of the cletic hymn," but that the form is otherwise well attested among the fragments. Some of the examples of male poetry to which Wilson herself refers later in the chapter (Anacreon fr. 357, Alcaeus fr. 34) are monodic, cletic hymns as well. There is, in other words, nothing subversive about Sappho's adaptation of the cletic hymn in fr. 1. It is a standard type of prayer that was widely used by the archaic Greek poets to voice personal requests, including divine help with love (cf. Anacreon fr. 357).

Perhaps because Wilson regards Sappho fr. 1 as unique in its personal subject matter, she first compares the poem not with other lyric hymns but with private prayers in the Homeric epics. She contrasts the poem in particular with Achilles' prayer to Zeus in Iliad 16.233-48, which she describes as "typically direct" in the way it states Achilles' request. Sappho's prayer is, according to Wilson, a more flexible, personal negotiation, of which the outcome remains uncertain. Uncertainty about success is, however, typical of any (Greek) prayer and it is worth pointing out that Achilles' request for Patroclus' safe return in Iliad 16.233-48 was denied by Zeus. Wilson is correct that Zeus in Achilles' prayer remains more distant than Aphrodite, who is said to have come face to face with Sappho, although she admits that other gods in the epics reveal themselves regularly to mortals as well (p. 26). I will come back to this.

Next she compares Sappho's poem to Anacreon fr. 357 and Ibycus fr. 288. Wilson characterizes Anacreon fr. 357 as more hierarchical, lighter in tone, more detached, more logical, less circular, and less personal than Sappho fr. 1. Some of these features are hard to quantify and Wilson never provides a clear definition of her terms, but one can nevertheless dispute some of these claims based on the evidence she presents. For example, she identifies Sappho fr. 1 as circular in reasoning because of its ring composition (p. 30), but this is of course a common feature in archaic Greek poetry, male and female, and can be found in Anacreon's poem as well: the god who in the first line of Anacreon's poem is addressed as "o anax" ("o lord") is identified in the last line by the address "o Deunuse" ("o Dionysos").

Wilson identifies Anacreon fr. 357 as hierarchical because of the gulf that remains between mortal and immortal in the poem, whereas Sappho's poem narrows the gap between herself and Aphrodite. First of all, I believe that Wilson exaggerates the egalitarian relationship between Sappho and Aphrodite in fr. 1. The only hint that Sappho regards her relationship with Aphrodite as possibly co-equal is her request that Aphrodite will be her "summachos" ("co-fighter"). This request corresponds in Anacreon's text to his wish that Dionysos will appear as "sumboulos" ("counselor") to his beloved, Kleoboulos. This raises another important point. Wilson argues, following Eva Stigers [Stehle], that the male poets objectify their beloved and pursue them like hunted prey, whereas Sappho would propose a more egalitarian, mutual relationship with her beloved, anticipating Simone de Beauvoir's description of the ideal lesbian love.2 This assertion is contradicted by the fact that Sappho in fr. 1 pictures herself and Aphrodite as soldiers, while Anacreon asks Dionysos to reason with Kleoboulos, presumably so that he will come to the poet of his own free will. Mutuality and antagonism between lover and beloved are found both in Sappho and in the male Greek poets.

Wilson mentions Ibycus fr. 288 only to point out that it is a poetic compliment rather than a genuine outpouring of affection (p. 33-34).3 The fragment is, however, at the same time an interesting illustration of the narrowing of the gap between mortal and immortal that one can find in the love poetry of the male Greek poets. Ibycus' beloved is said to be the offspring of the Graces, darling of the Horai, and raised by Aphrodite and Peitho "among the roses" (a flower associated with Aphrodite in Sappho's poetry as well, e.g. frs. 2.6). In another fragment (fr. 287), Ibycus recognizes Eros in his beloved, who looks meltingly from under his dark eyelids and hurls him into the nets of Aphrodite. It can even be argued that in Anacreon fr. 357 there is a play on the possible identification of the beloved and the god, because the "lord" ("anax") who is addressed in the first line is not identified as Dionysos until the last line of the poem, while the first name we hear after this address is that of Kleoboulos, Anacreon's beloved (line 9).

A certain narrowing of the gap between mortals and immortals therefore seems to have been typical of Greek love poetry, if not of all Greek poetry, and is not distinctive of Sappho, let alone "feminist." Wilson is right, however, in pointing out that Sappho fr. 1 is unique in the way that it allows for a dialogue between the speaker and the goddess of love. This epiphany is indeed reminiscent of the face-to-face encounters between mortals and immortals in the Homeric epics, as Wilson argues, but the inspiration for this scene probably should not be sought so much in these heroic encounters as in the appearances of the Muses to such poets as Hesiod and Archilochus. Aphrodite has often been identified as Sappho's Muse, and there may be a metapoetic element to Sappho fr. 1: Aphrodite is the one who makes her fall in love again and again and again ("deute," lines 15, 16 and 18), thus inspiring her to sing again and again of her beloved. Elsewhere the speaker in one of Sappho's fragments speaks of "the roses of Pieria," a combination of Aphrodite's flowers and the birthplace of the Muses, which another woman does not share with her (fr. 55). The Hellenistic Greek poet Nossis seems to imitate Sappho in identifying Aphrodite as the source of her poetic inspiration,4 and it is not unlikely that the Hellenistic editors of Sappho's poetry placed fragment 1 first in the collection because they read the poem in a similar way.

This book has its good moments, especially where it analyzes Sappho's own poetry, but it is too much wedded to modern Western paradigms. Feminists, as Chandra Mohanty says (note 1), should start from native categories and native concepts when studying other cultures. Greek women did speak up, but not necessarily in the way Kristeva or Irigaray would like them to do. Sappho's poetry was not considered subversive in antiquity, but, for example, women's laments were -- a speech genre that is largely absent from our own modern societies.5 It is no use trying to fit Sappho in the straight-jacket of Western feminist ideals, just as Wilamowitz failed to lock her up in a German boarding school. Sappho's poetry, like most classical literature, is more valuable as a challenge to our way of life than as a dubious ally to our causes. For example, it is more intriguing to ponder how a woman can write both marriage hymns and homoerotic poetry, perhaps even to combine the two as in fragment 31, than to postulate that the one represents the "real" Sappho and the other does not. We should try to understand Sappho but resist her appropriation.


1. See, for example, Chandra Mohanty's contributions in C. Mohanty etc. (eds.), Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (Bloomington 1991), or Aihwa Ong, "Colonialism and Modernity: Feminist Re-presentations of Women in Non-Western Societies," in A.C. Herrmann and A.J. Stewart (eds.), Theorizing Feminism (Boulder 1994) 372-81. For other criticism of the French feminists, see M. Skinner, "Women and Language in Archaic Greece, or, Why is Sappho a Woman?," in N.S. Rabinowitz and A. Richlin (eds.), Feminist Theory and the Classics (New York 1993) 125-44, reprinted in E. Greene (ed.), Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches (Berkely 1996) 175-92.

2. E. Stigers [Stehle], "Sappho's Private World," in H. Foley (ed.), Reflections of Women in Antiquity (New York 1981) 45-61. The citation of de Beauvoir's Second Sex can be found in Stehle's article, p. 54; in Wilson p. 15.

3. Interestingly, the same claim has been made for a number of love poems of Sappho, in particular fragment 31: see, for example, F. Lasserre, "Ornements érotiques dans la poésie lyrique archaïque," in J. Heller and J.K. Newman (eds.), Serta Tyriniana (Urbana 1974) 1-33.

4. M. Skinner, "Aphrodite Garlanded: Eros and Poetic Creativity in Sappho and Nossis," in F. De Martino (ed.), Rose di Pieria (Bari 1991) 77-96.

5. Much has been written of late about women's laments, both in ancient and modern Greece, e.g. G. Holst-Warhaft, Dangerous Voices: Women's Laments and Greek Literature (London 1992).

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