BMCR 2022.09.33

The Cambridge companion to Sappho

, , The Cambridge companion to Sappho. Cambridge companions to literature. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. Pp. xxxii, 260. ISBN 9781107189058. $120.00.

[The Table of contents is listed below.]

Sappho the historical poet and the global history of reception of her poetry are both fascinating but difficult topics, the first because so little is known and the second because of its immensity. Both are addressed in this Companion, along with Sappho’s poetics and the history of her poems’ textual transmission.  Of these four Parts — Contexts, Poetics, Transmission, and Receptions — the last is the longest and ranges far and wide (but Africa is an unhappy omission.) In the Introduction the editors stress the importance of including global reception of Greco-Roman antiquity. They also trace the persistent presence of Phaon in her reception, and gradual acknowledgment of Sappho’s sexuality over time is a major theme of the volume. The overall approach is disjunctive, although cross-references have been added in the notes. Each chapter can thus stand alone, but in Parts I and II the result is potentially confusing; see below. In what follows I group the essays in each Part according to affinity rather than take them in sequence.

Part I opens with Maarit Kivilo’s discussion of the ways in which ancient “lives” of Sappho largely follow patterns typical of fictional poets’ lives. This chapter should be the implicit framework for discussions of the biographical Sappho in subsequent chapters. Notably, Kivilo states (19) that “[t]he strand of tradition of Sappho as a teacher of girls . . . seems to have developed late.”

Rosalind Thomas’ chapter on the geography and social diversity of the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean, including cultural interchanges and influences, the mobility of populations, and the socio-political situation in Mytilene, is excellent. I recommend it as a starting point for discussions of Sappho’s social context. In “Sappho and Alcaeus” Wolfgang Rösler imagines a meeting between the poets in Hera’s sanctuary and suggests that they conducted an exchange of views about Helen through their poems. (Thomas 32-35 presents a rougher Alcaeus.)

Two essays are on specialized poetic styles on which Sappho drew. Adrian Kelly warns that Sappho did not necessarily know the epic poems we have and shows how Sappho adjusted epic scenes and vocabulary to reflect women’s interests. In an impressionistic essay Deborah Steiner analyzes poem 1 as containing iambic (deprecatory) elements and the Tithonus poem as evoking rejuvenation through choral dance. She takes archaic and classical poetry collectively as the repository of cultural networks of image-clusters and treats a specific word or image of Sappho’s as evoking the whole network of meanings associated with it. In the Tithonus poem her reading enriches the text by associating choral poetry with renewal, flight, and immortality. Her reading of poem 1.21-28 as iambic curse language, however, seems reductive. (Cazzatto speaks of magic spells.)

Melissa Mueller discusses Sappho’s sexuality. Initially she discusses the labels that have been applied to Sappho and the difficulty of defining her; then, in a welcome move she opens up the question beyond categories, proposing “queer” as the name for Sappho’s “decentered” sexual comprehension that encompasses longing and memory and song as replacement for fulfilment.

In Part II, three essays address formal features of Sappho’s poetry, Leslie Kurke on genre, Luigi Battezzato on meter and music, and Olga Tribulato on dialect. Battezzato gives a very clear and full discussion of the various meters Sappho uses and points out poetic effects that could interact with the rhythm and add complexity to the listening experience. Tribulato describes East Aeolic dialect in clear but inevitably detail-oriented linguistic terms. She makes the point that literary dialects are never purely local because they participate in a supraregional poetic tradition. Sappho’s is a literary language that exhibits some non-Aeolic forms and takes advantage of alternative possibilities (e.g., in treating a contract verb as athematic or not). Tribulato also discusses the sources of our knowledge of Aeolic grammar and accentuation, with examples of false analogies introduced by later editors.

Kurke’s is a wide-ranging discussion of Sappho’s uniqueness: she does not adhere to any set of genre norms and, significantly, avoids giving any clues as to the context of a song. The “family poems” Kurke describes as including multiple genres, shifting by degrees from a private, “apparently trivial conversation” (103) to a more public and “consequential political commentary.” Since Sappho’s gender excluded her from the public sphere, Kurke suggests, she folded public genres into her monodic song. Kurke concludes that Sappho had no institutionalized audience and must have sung for informal gatherings of aristocratic women.

Two chapters discuss Sappho’s stylistic characteristics. Vanessa Cazzatto on Sappho’s poetic language emphasizes the dense sensuousness of Sappho’s vocabulary and the variety of her voices, ranging from playfulness to invective, epic, or ritual language, with rapid shifts in the course of a song. Discussing poems 16, 22, 96, 2, 31, 1, 57, 110(a), and 44, Cazzatto notes beauty and desire becoming metaphors as Sappho’s mobility of thought and elusive, imagistic language dissolve the concrete scene. Cazzatto concludes (162) that “[t]he paradox of capturing so precisely in language what is so elusive in experience is part of the enduring fascination of Sappho’s poetry.”

Alex Purves studies Sappho’s rhetorical style: her shaping of narrative, her evocation of a “lyric present” via mood, tense, and voice, and her use of deixis. She draws on Jonathan Culler’s identification of lyric as a poetic “event” in the present, usually involving poet, addressee, and audience, to analyze poems 16, 94, 22, 31, and the opening of the Tithonus poem. In them narrative tends to dissolve into the here and now. In poem 16 it is caused by the speaker’s turn to self-reflection. In poem 2 “apostrophic temporality” is a call to the non-human world to respond. In poem 31, the to in line 5, a relative pronoun without an antecedent, represents the “limits of description” (188). Like Cazzatto, Purves studies the poems as aesthetic trajectories of self-expression in the face of the external world. The two essays should be read together as an analysis of Sappho’s poetic brilliance.

Myth and the gods pervade Greek poetry. Ruth Scodel discusses Sappho’s interest in Trojan stories and characters, their connection with Lesbos, and Sappho’s apparent tendency to ignore the final outcome in picking out a moment in the “life” of Helen or Andromache. Sappho, Scodel concludes, invites the reader to see unspoken complexities behind the text. Laura Swift identifies the gods most important to Sappho and comments on Aphrodite’s “affectionate” tone in poem 1. (Purves and Steiner make more nuanced remarks about Aphrodite’s tone.)

Two chapters focus on the performance venue and the identity of the speaker in the songs. Franco Ferrari reviews scholars’ various views on Sappho’s performance context. He then cites what he considers evidence (all very debatable) for Sappho’s having a circle of girls around her who would dance in a chorus and reads each poem as reflecting the specific public place in which it was (to be) performed. Thus 94 was choral and sung in a sanctuary. Yet the first-person voice in some poems seems highly “personal” to him. For these, e.g., the Tithonus Poem on the speaker’s old age, he posits that Sappho sang while the chorus danced, thus reconciling the individual voice and his choral hypothesis. The reconciliation can become strained; 98b, for instance, he suggests was a monodic proem to a choral song-dance. His remarks on individual poems are often perceptive.

André Lardinois rejects the view that Sappho’s poems are “personal” autobiography. His chapter is a precis of arguments he has made elsewhere, i.e., that most poems were probably composed for a large mixed-gender audience and therefore had a generic public persona and that, of the individual poems, some were probably choral, some contain obvious fictions, some could be for another woman to sing, and some were meant to be reperformed. Poem 1, for instance, is stylized, a fictional prayer because the beloved is not named, the promised aid is ambiguous, and only mythical characters experience repeated divine epiphanies. I heartily agree that the poems are not autobiography in the sense of diary entries, but the effect of his negative approach is to deflate the poems.

Ferrari’s and Lardinois’ chapters have disparate accounts of the style and venue for performance of Sappho’s songs, although both involve mixed solo and choral song. There are passing references to a chorus of girls in Mueller’s, Rösler’s, and Steiner’s chapters. Kurke argues that Sappho sang to an informal group of friends. The source of this disagreement is nowhere explained, so the uninitiated may be puzzled. It would have been good to say somewhere that lack of internal or reliable external evidence for her performance venue combined with the long-felt need to neutralize or confine her sexuality has generated multiple theories. Kurke’s analysis accords with my own view. (Sappho’s wedding poems are a different issue.)

Part Three has three essays on the transmission of Sappho’s poetry. In a clear, concise way Lucia Prauscello discusses transmission culminating in the Alexandrian edition(s). She stresses Sappho’s almost-immediate fame and thinks it likely that written collections were circulating very early on, plausibly with copies preserved at Mytilene. She then discusses controversies concerning the Alexandrian edition and offers her views: two editions, nine books, one containing the wedding poems, and a largely alphabetic order within a book. P. J. Finglass’s lively chapter on the discovery of papyrus fragments, with a list ordered by date of the writing style, is paired with his chapter listing printed editions since the Renaissance. (Camillo Neri’s edition came out too late to be included.)

The first five chapters of Part IV are on ancient reception. Lyndsay Coo on the fifth and fourth centuries BCE adduces two references to Sappho’s “speaking,” in Herodotus and Plato, and a fragment from Antiphanes’ comedy Sappho in which “Sappho” proposes and answers a riddle about writing. In each case, she points out, Sappho is presented as an authoritative speaker. Richard Hunter on the Hellenistic Period notes a “biographical slant” and concentrates on Theocritus’ allusions to Sappho, suggesting Sappho’s alleged exile in Sicily as a possible motivation for his special interest. Crucial developments for her later reception appear in the Roman period, covered by Llewelyn Morgan. He speaks of her “prominence in the Roman imaginary” (290). Rome may have inherited a “fictionalized and pruriently embellished figure” from Greek comedy, but it became “simplified and essentialized” to poem 31 and a Sappho overwhelmed by passion. The literary critic Demetrius defined her style as “elegant.” On both counts she offered material for parody.  Against this background Morgan sensitively discusses Catullus’ and Horace’s engagement with her poetry. Ewen Bowie lists writers’ — critics’, other professionals’, novelists’ — use or categorizing of her poetry in the Roman Imperial period. Filippomaria Pontani does not find much written about her in the Byzantine period.

In modern reception poem 31 is paramount. Four chapters (24, 26, 28, 29) address Anglophone reception over time. The first two include France as well, while the Anglophone sphere covered expands over the four chapters. Stuart Gillespie on the early modern period concentrates on engagement with Sappho’s poems, noting how superficial knowledge of it was. Racine in Phédre, he finds, captured poem 31 more fully than any English writing. Marguerite Johnson on the 18th and 19th centuries shifts attention to treatments of Sappho’s sexuality, which were also used to signal political stances. Pornography and medical writings focus on her love of women, while heterosexual pictures of her often entailed promiscuity. Some depicted her as a noble and wronged suicide. However, Wharton’s 1885 translation, which used feminine pronouns for the beloved, was liberating for lesbians. This chapter is much too rich to summarize adequately. Barbara Goff and Katherine Harloe survey the 20th century and on. Greater appreciation for Sappho’s poems, increasing acceptance of lesbianism, poetic modernism, second-wave feminism, and feminist scholarship all contribute to a new view of her as poet and musician, yielding new fictions, and new translations, e.g., by poets Anne Carson and Josephine Balmer. Marguerite Johnson returns to outline reception in Australia and New Zealand, offering a nice sampling of recent poetry.

Two chapters cover other European countries. Cecilia Piantanida’s Chapter 25 on Germany, Italy, and Spain is a tour-de-force. It covers the 18th through 20th centuries, moving around among the three countries. Familiar names (Bergk, Rilke) and unfamiliar ones (Maria Fortuna, Coronado) abound. For each century she discusses important editions/translations and literary engagement with Sappho in relation to politics, sexual attitudes, and/or aesthetics. Sappho was paired with Anacreon in Germany, with Phaon in Italy. In 19th century Spain female writers saw Sappho as a model for emancipation, though still suicidal. Piantanida concludes (359) that now, “[n]ever has the Sapphic tradition been more aware of itself . . . . Sappho today speaks of disembodiment and absence.”

Dimitrios Kargiotis on modern Greece addresses the complexities of Sappho as Greek heritage. Among translations, Panayis Lekatsas’ authoritative 1938 bilingual edition both acknowledges Sappho’s sexual orientation and creates historical continuity: for the near-complete poems he uses stanzas in his translation, visually reproducing the ancient text, and for the less complete ones he uses an iambic fifteen-syllable line that “inscribes Sappho into the Greek vernacular tradition” (377). Odysseus Elytis “recomposes” her poems with visual allusion to Greek Orthodox style.

The last four chapters treat less-Eurocentric cultures. Robert de Brose covers Latin America. Here Sappho’s lesbianism was handled by assigning her voice to Phaon or giving her the role of Muse, priestess, or teacher, allowing Romantic poets to revel in her language. De Brose separates male and female reception, noting that female poets sometimes rejected the prevalent, male-defined “Sappho.” He focuses on the poetry, offering wonderful quotations (with translation) from male and female writers. Adriana X. Jacobs analyzes Hebrew reception as it shifted over time. She uses fragment 168B (“The moon has set . . . .”) as the example. The poet Aharon Kaminka, whose life and work she traces, translated it twice, in 1887 and 1946, and Jacobs gives deep context for both and analyzes the different vocabulary choices Kaminka makes. She then compares four more modern translations in the context of their historical moments. This is a fascinating example of contextual literary analysis. Ruth Vanita treats India, where Sappho was seen as a passionate heterosexual figure into the 20th century. She focuses on allusions to homosexuality in Indian literature in both English and native languages, assuming that Sappho is in the background. In her discussions of 20th-century writers she also notes ways in which writers use multi-lingual vocabulary in imagining Sappho and expanding on her fragments; the Urdu poet Abdul Aziz Khalid is a fascinating example. Jingling Chen covers China and Japan. She begins with Byron, whose lament for Greece under Turkish rule (“The isles of Greece . . . ! / Where burning Sappho loved and sung”) became code for China’s lost grandeur, with Sappho as its symbol. Chen discusses several translations of Sappho’s poetry and the role it played in the literary shift from classical to modern style. To illustrate she quotes from the poetry of the modernist male Chinese poet Shao Xunmei, who took Sappho as his Muse and found in her a figure who could mediate that transition. Japan gets somewhat less attention. Chen discusses the male poet Ueda Bin and the spiritually-lesbian novel Yellow Rose by Yoshiya Nobuko, a female writer who layers in earlier writers’ involvement with Sappho.

There are some plates of ancient and later images, a general index of ancient names, and one for reception, ancient and modern. The bibliography is very extensive.

Table of Contents

Contents, pp xiii-xv
Plates, pp xvi-xvii
Contributors, pp xviii-xxv
Abbreviations, pp xxvi-xxxii
Introduction, pp 1-8. By P. J. Finglass, Adrian Kelly

Part I – Contextspp 9-90
Chapter 1 – Sappho’s Lives, pp 11-21. By Maarit Kivilo
Chapter 2 – Sappho’s Lesbos, pp 22-35. By Rosalind Thomas
Chapter 3 – Sappho and Sexuality, pp 36-52. By Melissa Mueller
Chapter 4 – Sappho and Epic, pp 53-64. By Adrian Kelly
Chapter 5 – Sappho and Alcaeus, pp 65-76. By Wolfgang Rösler
Chapter 6 – Sappho and Archaic Greek Song Culture, pp 77-90. By Deborah Steiner

Part II – Poetics, pp 91-216

Chapter 7 – Sappho and Genre, pp 93-106. By Leslie Kurke
Chapter 8 – Performing Sappho, pp 107-120. By Franco Ferrari
Chapter 9 – Sappho’s Metres and Music, pp 121-134. By Luigi Battezzato
Chapter 10 – Sappho’s Dialect, pp 135-146. By Olga Tribulato
Chapter 11 – Sappho’s Poetic Language, pp 147-162. By Vanessa Cazzato
Chapter 12 – Sappho’s Personal Poetry, pp 163-174. By André Lardinois
Chapter 13 – Sappho’s Lyric Sensibility, pp 175-189. By Alex Purves
Chapter 14 – Myth in Sappho, pp 190-202. By Ruth Scodel
Chapter 15 – The Gods in Sappho, pp 203-216. By Laura Swift

Part III – Transmission, pp 217-260
Chapter 16 – The Alexandrian Edition of Sappho, pp 219-231. By Lucia Prauscello
Chapter 17 – Sappho on the Papyri, pp 232-246. By P. J. Finglass
Chapter 18 – Editions of Sappho since the Renaissance, pp 247-260. By P. J. Finglass

Part IV – Receptionspp 261-486
Chapter 19 – Sappho in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Greek Literature, pp 263-276. By Lyndsay Coo
Chapter 20 – Sappho and Hellenistic Poetry, pp 277-289. By Richard Hunter
Chapter 21 – Sappho at Rome, pp 290-302. By Llewelyn Morgan
Chapter 22 – Sappho in Imperial Greek Literature, pp 303-319. By Ewen Bowie
Chapter 23 – Sappho at Byzantium, pp 320-331. By Filippomaria Pontani
Chapter 24 – Early Modern Sapphos in France and England, pp 332-342. By Stuart Gillespie
Chapter 25 – Early Modern and Modern German, Italian, and Spanish Sapphos, pp 343-360. By Cecilia Piantanida
Chapter 26 – Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Sapphos in France, England, and the United States, pp 361-374. By Marguerite Johnson
Chapter 27 – Sappho and Modern Greece, pp 375-389. By Dimitrios Kargiotis
Chapter 28 – Sappho in the Twentieth Century and Beyond, pp 390-407
Anglophone Receptions. By Barbara Goff, Katherine Harloe
Chapter 29 – Sappho in Australia and New Zealand, pp 408-422. By Marguerite Johnson
Chapter 30 – Sappho in Latin America, pp 423-440. By Robert de Brose
Chapter 31 – Sappho in Hebrew Literature, pp 441-456. By Adriana X. Jacobs
Chapter 32 – Sappho in India, pp 457-472. By Ruth Vanita
Chapter 33 – Sappho in China and Japan, pp 473-486. By Jingling Chen

Bibliography, pp 487-546
General Index, pp 547-550
Index to the Reception of Sappho, pp 551-554