BMCR 1999.05.01

Reading Sappho: Contemporary Approaches

, Reading Sappho : contemporary approaches. Classics and contemporary thought ; 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. 1 online resource (xiii, 303 pages).. ISBN 0520918061 $40.00.

Readers of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller will recall the bookshop in the opening scene of that novel, with its stacks of variously categorized works: the Books You’ll Buy When They Come Out In Paperback, the Books You’ve Been Searching For Unsuccessfully For Years, the Books You Want So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case, and the Books Everybody Else Has Read So It’s Almost As If You’ve Read Them Too. Omitted from Calvino’s otherwise extensive survey is the important category of Books Whose Contents Have Already Been Published Somewhere Else. Such books are often exceedingly useful (witness the invaluable German Wege der Forschung series), but they do present reviewers with something of a quandary. In what follows, I shall try to deal with two sets of questions. The first set is pedestrian: what does the volume contain? how far does it meet its editorial goals? should you or your library buy it? The second is more general: how well do these essays work as a collection? what picture of Sappho and of current Sappho scholarship does the book present?

It seems best to begin by summarizing the individual contributions, which for this purpose I shall divide into three main groups according to their general approach. These groupings, I should note, do not correspond exactly to Greene’s own articulation (but more on that later).

The first group of essays consists of those that approach Sappho’s poetry as a literary text, exploring issues of language, genre and literary history; most of the earlier pieces fall into this category. Thus Giuliana Lanata’s “Sul linguaggio amoroso di Saffo” analyzes certain items of Sappho’s vocabulary as aspects of a highly stylized literary language (a kind of trobar clus) shared by Sappho with other archaic lyric poets. This was a groundbreaking article when it appeared in 1966; it still repays reading, even in a rather unsatisfactory English translation.1 As Greene’s introduction points out, Lanata’s austere emphasis on the linguistic texture of the fragments made a decisive break with the tired biographical approach that dominated Sappho studies through the 1960s, and which is elegantly deconstructed by Mary Lefkowitz’s “Critical Stereotypes and the Poetry of Sappho” (1974).

Lanata’s approach finds a later echo in Anne Carson’s “The Justice of Aphrodite in Sappho 1” (1980) which argues that the sixth stanza of fragment 1 LP (“for if she is fleeing, she will soon pursue …”) should be read in the wider context of ancient lyric and epigram. As Carson points out, similar formulations in other poets strongly suggest that the implied object of “pursue” is not “you” (i.e. Sappho), but some unspecified third party. Sappho prays, in other words, not for reconciliation, but for vengeance. There is certainly much to recommend this reading; in addition to the light it sheds on fragment 1, the essay also makes a strong case for the value of reading Sappho as a lyric poet among lyric poets (a point to which I shall be returning).

Two other essays examine Sappho’s poetry against the backdrop of a broader literary tradition. Gregory Nagy’s well-known essay on “Phaethon, Sappho’s Phaon, and the White Rock of Leukas” (1973) attempts to discern traces of Indo-European poetic themes behind the Sappho legend, themes which were presumably embedded in Sappho’s poems but drastically misunderstood by later readers.2 In “Eros and Incantation: Sappho and Oral Poetry” (1974), Charles Segal analyzes the incantatory effect of repetition and alliteration in the fragments — an effect that points both to a ritual background and to the more social ritual of oral performance.

Segal’s essay already anticipates the second major trend featured in the collection: the examination of Sappho’s poetry in its social, and especially its performative context. Claude Calame is here represented by an extract from the recent English translation of his Les Choeurs des Jeunes Filles dans la Grèce archaique (1977), in which he argues that Sappho’s poetry presupposes some sort of semi-organized group in which both pedagogy and pederasty played a role. Judith Hallett’s “Sappho and her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality” (1979) presents a basically similar picture, while privileging pedagogy over pederasty. For Hallett, Sappho’s poems are public acts designed to facilitate girls’ passage from childhood to sexual maturity, and she cautions against the assumption that “Sappho was any more involved with the women whose charms she praises … than was Alcman with Astymeloisa or Hagesichora” (142).

Comparison of Sappho to Alcman is taken to a formal level by André Lardinois’ “Who Sang Sappho’s Songs?”, the only contribution not previously published.3 Turning on its head the recent suggestion by Lefkowitz and others that some of Pindar’s ‘choral’ poetry might actually have been monodic, Lardinois proposes that “there are among [Sappho’s] fragments more chorally performed songs than has so far been acknowledged” (150). Lardinois identifies at least three possibilities for any given poem: Sappho sings while chorus dances; chorus sings and dances; Sappho and chorus engage in dialogue.4 His suggestion that even notoriously ‘personal’ fragments like 16 and 31 may fall into the second category is certainly provocative, and should spark discussion. This will surely not be the last word on this topic, but it is an important first word.

The third and largest group of essays is concerned primarily with issues of gender. The earliest, Page duBois’ “Sappho and Helen” (1978) reads fragment 16 as catching “[t]he move from mythical to rational thought, from religion to philosophy, … in a moment of transition” (84) — a reading clearly influenced by Snell, but with a specifically feminist twist, inasmuch as Sappho’s Helen is presented (contra Homer) “as an ‘actant’ in her own life, the subject of a choice, exemplary in her desiring” (86f.). Jack Winkler’s “Gardens of Nymphs: Public and Private in Sappho’s Lyrics” (1981) takes a similar tack to start with, reading fragments 1 and 31 against (respectively) the treatment of Diomedes and Aphrodite in Iliad 5 and Nausicaa’s encounter with Odysseus at Odyssey 6.158ff. The second half of the essay explores labial and clitoral imagery in the fragments, by way of asserting Sappho’s “subjective commitment to the holy, physical contemplation of the body of Woman, as metaphor and reality, in all parts of life” (109).

For duBois and Winkler, Sappho’s poems are to be read as a deliberate reaction against the male-centered vision and values of Homeric epic. The remaining essays take this oppositional reading and apply it to other targets. Eva Stehle’s “Romantic Sensuality, Poetic Sense” (1979) responds critically to Hallett’s essay (summarized above), arguing that Sappho is not just like Alcman, but possesses a “special romantic quality” (149) that is uniquely female. Margaret Williamson, in “Sappho and the Other Woman” (1995) argues similarly that “Sappho successfully evades the gendered polarities found in Anacreon and other love poets” (257). In “Woman and Language in Archaic Greece, or Why is Sappho a Woman?” (1993), Marilyn Skinner argues against a radically Irigarayan reading of Greek culture: Sappho’s songs are not (or not wholly) inscribed within the discourse of patriarchy, but carve out for themselves (and, through their performance, for Greek women) a discursive space that is distinctively female. Eva Stehle’s “Sappho’s Gaze: Fantasies of a Goddess and Young Man” (1990) re-examines the subject matter of Nagy’s essay from a feminist perspective, speculating that Sappho’s interest in figures like Phaon and Adonis represents a deliberate resistance to the erotic values of male-centered Greek society. Finally, Ellen Greene herself contributes an essay on “Apostrophe and Women’s Erotics in the Poetry of Sappho” (1994), in which she attempts through close readings of fragments 94 and 1 “to discover in Sappho’s articulation of female desire an alternative to the competitive and hierarchical models of eroticism that have dominated Western culture” (236).

I turn now from the individual essays to the assessment of the volume as a whole. Here evaluation is complicated by a certain vagueness about the editorial goals. According to the foreword by Thomas Habinek, the essays “do not pretend to represent the totality of modern responses to Sappho,” but “focus on the leading interpretations of Sappho … advanced by scholars in the field of classical studies in recent years.” In addition, the book seeks “to make the poetry of Sappho more readily available to contemporary readers in a variety of disciplines and from a variety of backgrounds” (xi). If these are indeed the book’s goals, then it must be said at once that it does not achieve them. Certainly the “readers … from a variety of backgrounds” are not going to be thrilled with the inclusion of large amounts of untranslated Greek, and those without a Classics background are likely to find some of the essays (in particular Nagy and Lanata) very heavy going. Nor can it really be said that the book offers access to “the leading interpretations … advanced … in recent years.” One reason is obvious. With only two exceptions all the contributors write in English,5 and most are affiliated with North American institutions. Of the two translated pieces, Calame’s is over twenty years old, Lanata’s over thirty. The “interpretations … advanced … in recent years,” in other words, are limited to interpretations in English, and this has a real effect on the coverage of certain areas.

Ellen Greene’s own formulation of the volume’s goals is slightly different: the book aims “to draw well-deserved attention to Sappho’s importance as a poet and to present the diverse and often contradictory critical approaches toward Sappho that have become the hallmark of Sappho scholarship” (2; italics in original). Here the expressed emphasis is less on “the leading interpretations” than on presenting a balanced picture of different methodologies. This intention might seem to be borne out by the various sections into which the fifteen essays are distributed: “I. Language and Literary Context” (Lanata, Lefkowitz, Nagy, Segal); “II. Homer and the Oral Tradition” (duBois, Winkler); “III. Ritual and Social Context” (Calame, Hallett with Stehle’s response, Lardinois); “IV. Women’s Erotics” (Skinner, Stehle, Carson, Greene, Williamson). On the surface this seems a sensible division, even if one can quibble over the distribution of individual essays. Carson, for example, seems to me clearly to belong in section I, while Lefkowitz’s essay, which deals more with the reception of Sappho than with the poetry itself, might better have been set off in limine as a kind of introduction.6

There is a more significant problem, however, which is that Greene’s organization imposes a spurious balance on a collection that is in reality much more homogenous than this articulation would suggest. Despite its claims to offer a diversity of approaches, this is a collection with a clear ideological bias. One thesis in particular recurs again and again, in the most recent articles especially. It is, in brief, that “the subject position extracted from Sappho’s monodies and choral compositions does not replicate patriarchal modes of awareness but rather affords a substitute basis for organizing female experience.” I take this formulation from Skinner’s essay (188), but it could as well have come from Stehle, Greene, Williamson, duBois, or Winkler. Whether essentialists or constructionists, all these authors believe firmly in the possibility of isolating a uniquely female discourse — a “woman’s way of knowing” — which sets itself in opposition to the dread demon of phallogocentrism. The construction and expression of such discourse is, for these interpreters, Sappho’s central achievement.

In this sense the volume is representative of one major trend in recent scholarship, and provides a good introduction to it.7 The coverage of other approaches is much more uneven. I am dissatisfied, for example, with the treatment of Sappho’s relationship to other Greek poetry. There is, to be sure, a section on “Homer and the Oral Tradition,” but both articles in it (duBois and Winkler) might better have been filed under “Women’s Erotics.” Particularly surprising is the absence of any serious discussion of fr. 44, one Sapphic fragment that clearly does have a significant relationship with the epic tradition. Nor is lyric poetry much better served. Though Lanata’s essay stands at the head of this collection, it is striking how little its skillful exploitation of the larger lyric corpus has influenced the later contributors (Carson being a partial exception). A reader might easily conclude that this approach has produced nothing worthwhile since the mid 1970s. To be sure, newer methodologies have emerged since then, and some recent work in this area may be too technical for inclusion in a volume like this. Yet progress in understanding the generic conventions of Greek lyric can still lead to real gains in our appreciation of Sappho. Witness William Race’s analysis of “that man” in fr. 31, or Sarah Mace’s exploration of the lyric poets’ use of δηὖτε, to name only two examples.8

Greene’s contributors, by contrast, are primarily concerned to stress Sappho’s difference both from Homer and from other lyric poets. When other poets are adduced it is generally to provide a convenient (masculine, aggressive, adversarial) foil for the non-hierarchical vision of female desire claimed for Sappho. A good example is Williamson’s extended comparison of Sappho and Anacreon (251ff.). Even given the fragmentary state of both poets it seems clear that Anacreon’s attitude to love is very different from Sappho’s. But is that because Sappho is not a man, or because she is not Anacreon? I am not sure how to go about answering this question, but I am disturbed by the way the contributors to this volume seem to take the answer for granted. In doing so, ironically, they often recall the bad old days of Sappho criticism. “I think of [Sappho] as being naturally drawn to the character of Nausikaa,” Winkler confides (101; my italics). Perhaps she was, but as Lefkowitz notes, “[a]pplying assumptions our society makes about ‘normal’ female psychology to the work of women poets can do little to advance our understanding of their poems” (34). The comment was originally aimed at treatments like George Devereux’s notorious 1970 article on fragment 31.9 Society (or at least that subsection of it that writes articles on Sappho) has changed considerably in the last quarter-century, but the warning retains its validity.

The disproportionate focus on gender as the key to understanding Sappho’s poems has other side-effects. In particular it brings with it a single-minded concentration on certain fragments (notably 1, 31, 94 and 96) at the expense of others. I have already noted the neglect of fr. 44 — an important fragment on any reckoning, even if it offers little help in constructing a women’s erotics. Similarly, the index contains only one citation (by Calame, in a footnote) of fr. 55, Sappho’s contemptuous dismissal of the woman who has “had no share in the roses of Pieria,” and who will lie dead and unremembered in the house of Hades. And, again, I think there is a reason for this neglect. The lines, quite simply, do not gibe with the image of Sappho the contributors to the volume have constructed. Rather, they offer a valorization of the speaker’s role as lyric poet that one might expect from an Archilochus or a Theognis. They hardly suggest a non-hierarchical alternative to “patriarchal modes of awareness.” One problem with the majority of the essays in this book is that they simply do not offer us any way of approaching a fragment like this.

Let me return, finally, to the issue of linguistic insularity. Greene’s initiative in having Lanata’s article put into English is laudable, but it only draws attention to the omission of other foreign work, most noticeably perhaps in section III, “Ritual and Social Context.” An obvious candidate for inclusion here, for example, would be Reinhold Merkelbach’s “Sappho und ihr Kreis,” an article as epoch-making in its own way as Lanata’s (its importance is amply attested by the number of potshots taken at it by the contributors to this volume).10 Again, the same section would have been strengthened considerably by an English version of Wolfgang Rösler’s important article on the performative context of fr. 44.11 The inclusion of such studies would have done English-speaking readers a real service; it would also have helped assure a genuine diversity of viewpoint that the book as constituted offers only sporadically.

Overall, then, the verdict, has to be a mixed one. The volume does collect in convenient form a number of frequently-cited articles, and it offers a good introduction to one current trend in the interpretation of Sappho’s poetry. In making Lanata’s study available in English, Greene performs a real service; serious students of Sappho will also need to take account of Lardinois’ essay. But the book’s picture of Sappho and recent Sappho scholarship remains in every sense a very partial one. The essays in Greene’s companion volume, Re-Reading Sappho, showed illuminatingly how often Sappho’s readers have projected their own ideological concerns onto the fragments. This volume, alas, illustrates the same phenomenon.12 It is easy enough to be scornful of Wilamowitz’s Sappho, that “vornehme Frau, Gattin und Mutter”; one may wonder whether her transformation into a progressive member of the Women’s Classical Caucus really brings us any closer to her.

The book is well bound and has an attractive dust jacket (described in some detail in the BMCR review of the companion volume). Unfortunately, the attention spent on the exterior seems to have come at the expense of any copy-editing or proof-reading. Typos are everywhere; the most amusing occurs at 193n2 where Peter Smith is credited with a book called Nursling of Morality. I see no need to waste space by giving a full list of errors here, but will be happy to provide one to individuals on request. Footnotes are keyed to a cumulated bibliography, but references are sensibly identified by short title (rather than the annoying “Jones 1985” form), thus allowing the photocopying of individual essays with minimal disruption.


1. Errors: page 11, line 11 the description of Lesbian society in Page’s Sappho and Alcaeus is not merely “fit for the pen of” J.A. Symonds, but quoted from him ( dovuta alla penna); line 15, for “when” read “where” [this is Lanata’s error, but should have been checked against the original]; page 12, last line for “no, indeed, they had to” read “but certainly did not have to”; page 13, line 7 for “by language parallel to ephebic poetry” read “by the parallel language of ephebic poetry”; line 25 for “rather conveniently” read “aptly”; line 30 for “who” read “that” (most readers will also need to be told that a τμῆμα is a section); page 14, line 15 after “appears” insert “if only to indicate a bond of childhood affection” [in addition, “Corinna” is Lanata’s slip for “Erinna”], line 18 for “o” read “or”; page 15, line 23 for “Cidonian” read “Cydonian”; page 16, line 20 delete “and”; line 21 insert comma after “Aphrodite”; line 30 for “turn” read “you turn”; page 17, line 13 for “prescribe” read “prompt”; line 17 for “line 11” read “lines 11ff.”; page 18, line 4 for “ought to have provided” read “required”; line 25 after “correspondences in” insert “the lyric of Alcman, and echoes in”; page 19, line 16 for “even in Sappho” read “in Sappho too”; line 18 for “used to” read “might”; line 20 for “reinstituted” read “restored to us”; line 37 for “the previous example” read “the first Parthenium”; page 20, line 1 for “is gazed at” read “gazes”; line 8 for “diffuse” read “ubiquitous”; page 21, line 15 for “a love upsets me with trembling” read “an irresistible love upsets me”; line 17 for “disposition” read “opening”; line 24 for “he lay” read “I lie”; page 22, line 9 delete “it seems to me”; line 12 for “arrangement” read “opening”; line 31f. for “where Zeus, facing Hera clothed in all her seductiveness, is said to “hardly see her, love enwraps” read “in which it is said that when Zeus saw Hera clothed in all of her seductiveness, “the instant he saw her, love enwrapped”; page 24, line 22 for “innovators” read “innovations”; n. 62 for “not at all acceptable” read “not entirely acceptable.” Stylistic awkwardness and translationese: page 12, line 25 for “where” read “of which”; line 30 for “‘prude'” read “prudish”; page 13, line 4 delete “through comparisons”; line 19 for “parentheses” read “parenthesis”; page 13, line 29 for “Hesiodic sequence” read “passage of Hesiod”; page 14, n. 14 for “a pair of times” read “once or twice”; page 15, line 1 for “ever since” read “as early as”; page 17, line 29 for “in the fact of the matter” read “perforce”; page 18, line 22 delete “to function”; page 20, line 16 for “testimonies” read “evidence”; page 20, line 18 delete “to”; page 22, line 3 for “expressive modules” read “expressions”; page 23, line 15 for “it is” read “we find”; line 19 for “a collage of the collection of Theognis” read “a collage from the Theognidean collection”; page 24, line 10 for “matching with” read “approach to”; page 20, line 29 for “integration” read “supplement”; page 23, n. 54 for “insisted on” read “stressed”; for “pertinent to” read “especially associated with.”

2. Readers should have been alerted that a significantly expanded version is to be found in Nagy’s Greek Mythology and Poetics (Ithaca and London, 1990), 223-262.

3. Or so it would appear. It would have been helpful if the editor had included in the opening pages a clear statement of when and where all these essays originally appeared.

4. I am not sure why Lardinois concludes that “monodic performance … is not a likely option.” (171). Saying that many of Sappho’s poems may have been choral is not the same as saying that none of them was monodic, and indeed the Suda’s statement that Sappho wrote monody in addition to lyric (implicitly positing a distinction between the two) is an important prop for Lardinois’ thesis (cf. 152f.).

5. It seems somehow emblematic that Tilman Krischer’s 1968 article “Sapphos Ode an Aphrodite” has been silently ‘corrected’ in the bibliography to “Sappho’s Ode on Aphrodite.”

6. Greene herself acknowledges that “[t]hese categories represent a simplified organization of a range of positions that often overlap” (2).

7. Cf. for example Lyn Wilson’s Sappho’s Sweetbitter Songs (London and New York, 1996) (with the review by Lardinois in BMCR 98.7.3), Jane McIntosh Snyder, Lesbian Desire in the Poetry of Sappho (New York, 1997).

8. William H. Race, “‘That Man’ in Sappho fr. 31 L-P” CA 2 (1983), 92-101; Sarah Mace, “Amour, Encore! The Development of δηὖτε in Archaic Lyric,” GRBS 34 (1993), 335-364.

9. “The Nature of Sappho’s Seizure in Fr. 31 LP as Evidence of her Inversion,” CQ n.s. 20 (1970), 17-31.

10. R. Merkelbach, “Sappho und ihr Kreis,” Philologus 101 (1957), 1-29.

11. “Ein Gedicht und sein Publikum: Überlegungen zu Sappho fr. 44, Lobel-Page,” Hermes 103 (1975), 275-285.

12. Ellen Greene, ed. Re-Reading Sappho: Reception and Transmission (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1996), reviewed by Michele Valerie Ronnick, BMCR 98.4.8.