“Regardless of if she was commenting on heterosexual or homosexual relationships, she advocates love for and towards women”
Sappho’s poetry, although in fragments, has survived approximately 2599 years of celebration, controversy and interpretation. The countless translations made of her work present a slightly different reading of what she originally meant to convey. As an aristocratic woman living on the island of Lesbos (where the word “lesbian” is derived from), Sappho reportedly taught girls and young women about the art of song. She tells the girls to “chase the violet-bosomed Muses’ bright” and implies a sense of jealousy at the young females “like fawns, pranc[ing] nimbly” around her.
Sappho’s ingenious choice to take Helen – a femme fatale figure – and free her from expected societal views mirrors her own love for Anaktoria, and is quite frankly the epitome of feminist literature. The fact that Sappho “would rather watch her [Anaktoria’s] body/Sway, her glistening face flash” is a clear attempt to break the archetypal view of women as lusting and sexualising men as heroes.
Sappho explains that Helen “surpassed all humankind/ In looks but left the world’s most noble/Husband behind”. The “Husband” Sappho is referring to is Menelaus, the “fair haired” king of Sparta. Whereas other poets such as Homer chose to highlight Menelaus as a hero of the Trojan War, Sappho cleverly removes this cultivated identity in place of the unnamed husband of the goddess who “surpassed all humankind/ In looks”. Sappho’s tone is passionate and argumentative – “I say’ ‘I think’ ‘And I would rather”. She rightfully gives herself a voice – something that many women in literature were (and still are in some cultures today) denied. It’s no wonder why her work has survived the test of time – she not only creates a platform for women, but demands that they are made central and the heroes of the lives of others. I believe that this is why her work is still present in our collective consciousnesses today.
Can Sappho’s work therefore be labelled as one of the first feminist literature pieces in the western world? In our current society, I’d certainly say so. She was writing to project her own personal desires, and modern interpretations have bestowed upon her the title of “feminist” in order to relate her work to the everyday reader.
The problem with interpreting her work in today’s society is that some people can be all too quick to write off her work as an outdated attempt at exploring sexuality. However, new fragments of her work are still being discovered, making her work just as popular and contemporary as social media poets – one example being Rupi Kaur, who’s Instagram page has over 3.4 million followers.
Although unintentional, I feel that the cut-off fragments heighten the female desire for a physical relationship with a woman, so it only makes sense that her work is heavily associated with the LQBTQ+ community today. However, those who are hung up on defining Sappho’s sexuality through a single poem of hers are really missing the true meaning of her work. Regardless of if she was commenting on heterosexual or homosexual relationships, she advocates love for and towards women. This is the work of a headstrong individual, which makes her poetry equal to that of her male contemporaries.
The raw, explicit nature of Sappho’s poems and fragments have distinguished her as the first female western poet. Her honest lines coupled with the intensity of human emotion continue to draw in 21st century readers and critics alike, as she presents a very unapologetic view on the links between femininity and sexuality. If you are looking for sincere, genuine poetry from a candid author, then Sappho’s Stung with Love is definitely for you.