Laundry, love and the lyre (Sappho 2)


(Above video an example of the ancient Greek Lyre – in the style that Sappho would most likely have played).

Of all the things I’ve read so far, Sappho was the writer who drove me immediately from reading into writing down my impressions of her poems – so vividly was I moved by her imagery and her emotional eroticism. In class Wednesday, I found myself experiencing a similar immediacy with the work as we entered discussion – and again in awe that although 2600 years stands between us – our emotional resonance travels on similar frequencies. Not that I am living in a world of being denied who I want and pleasurably tormented with it – as is obviously the case in Sappho’s life. But that our jealousies and wants – passions – manifest so viscerally (a thin flame runs under my skin, my eyes go blind, my ears ring). As though our physical life is merely an extension of our feelings rather than the other way around.

Her love-making is idealized in her lyrics – full of flowers, expensive oils and soft skin/linens/pillows – which seem to make up somewhat for the heartwrench she experiences in her continuous cycles of loss (so continuous that Aphrodite asks what is it this time? in the only full poem of Sappho’s that exists). Each transcendent love-making experience apparently cut short by jealousy or loss – it seems that Sappho is seeking the divine in her communion with those in her life (women? men? both?), but can only have an imagined friendship with the gods.

I do not expect my fingers
to graze the sky

she says in recognition of her mortality – her physical body keeping her in both torment and delight. Does she really wish to abandon her human form?  Her delight is clearly there, for Sappho’s life is full of sensual pleasures – elaborately-dyed sandals, textiles, the natural world, incenses and sweet nectars – she is at home in her senses which are rendered beautifully. For all the pathos in some of her self-deprecating comments, the reader gets a sense of the intact sphere in which Sappho lives. A world of laundry, love and the lyre – all sung about with grace and good humour. We do not feel sorry for Sappho in her lost loves so much as we empathize – a forerunner of our best female friend, the woman who bares all.

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