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Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho

Book Review by Mark Anthony Masterson
Courtesy of the International Gay & Lesbian Review

Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho, by Jane McIntosh Snyder, Columbia University Press, 1997, 261 pages, illustrations, bibliography, index, $17.50 paperback

Sappho, the Greek poet who probably composed her lyrics in the seventh century BCE, is important both for her poems and for her power as a symbol of womanhood and lesbianism. The poems, the ones the vicissitudes of the ages have allowed to come down to us, have been judged as masterful from the earliest times and have inspired such illustrious successors as the Roman Catullus and the modern American H.D. (Hilda Doolittle).

As a symbol of womanhood and lesbianism, Sappho has had and continues to have great power. The poems, with their depictions of a community of women and the desire that they have for each other, have inspired women (and men) to envision both new ways of relating and an economy of desire that does not include a patriarchal male position within it.

As the title of her book, Lesbian Desire in the Lyrics of Sappho, indicates, Jane McIntosh Snyder takes as her subject this desire and its context within the poems of Sappho. Snyder, a professor emeritus of Classics at the Ohio State University, believes that one should approach the text of Sappho as a woman-centered text. She views the poems as being primarily about women and their desire for each other. The poems, in her estimation, show both the context of desire and the physical sensations and mental feelings that this desire occasions.

Snyder notes that often there is delineated, within the poems, a place of refuge into which the narrative voice would like to welcome Aphrodite. This is a space made for lesbian desire. An excerpt from fragment 2 shows how Sappho creates this space:

Hither to me from Crete to this holy temple, where your lovely grove of apple trees is, and the altars smoke with frankincense. Herein cold water rushes through apple boughs, and the whole place is shaded with roses, and sleep comes down with rustling leaves... [Translation by Snyder (17-18)]

Snyder remarks that "lesbian desire, as Sappho envisions it, blossoms in a nurturing space under the benevolent patronage of the Cyprian goddess [Aphrodite] herself" (19). To those who are not initiated, the sacred space will not have any magnetism.

Snyder further asserts that "Sappho fragment 2 creates a private 'female' space in the description of the sanctuary to which Aphrodite is invited, so this song constructs a private world of intimate physical sensuality that can be recalled-again and again-through song.

The listener who understands the female centered framework of the song is able to enter this private space and to find its encoded manifestations intelligible, whereas to the outsider (like Wilamowitz [a heterosexual German scholar of Classics from the turn of the century]) the space is impenetrable, and, indeed, utterly unintelligible in its own context"(58).

Snyder also looks at what characterizes the desire that women can have for each other. She finds that the lesbian desire depicted in the poems has three qualities: reciprocity ("charis"), lushness ("abrosyne"), and a certain multifarious beauty of aspect and dress ("poikilia"). Often times, these are filtered through a pleasantly melancholy strategy of turning the scene of the satisfaction of desire into a memory. Fragment 94, with its references to reciprocity, the lushness of the scene of lovemaking, the beauty in the garlands and flowers, and the casting of the whole exchange into memory (with a second memory placed within the first), provides a nearly perfect example of the way in which lesbian desire works in Sappho (the ellipses mark what is missing in the Greek text):

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"Honestly, I wish I were dead!" Weeping many tears she left me, saying this as well: "Oh, what dreadful things have happened to us, Sappho, I don't want to leave you!" I answered her: "Go with my blessings, and remember me, for you know how we cherished you. But if you have [forgotten], I want to remind you... of the beautiful things that happened to us: Close by my side you put around yourself [many wreathes] of violets and roses and saffron.... And many woven garlands made from flowers... around your tender neck, And... with costly royal myrrh.... you anointed...., And on a soft bed ...tender... you satisfied your desire... Nor was there any... nor any holy... from which we were away, ...nor grove... [Translation: Snyder (55-56)]

Snyder's exposition of both the tripartite nature of the Sappho's concept of desire and the very nearly sacred place for its enactment is persuasive. Nevertheless, I wonder if she more or less imports a twentieth century lesbian sensibility into these very old poems through her insistence upon a reading that prizes, above all, some manner of a desiring lesbian essence. This is her stated objective, and, as such, should be respected on the basis of its honesty. Still, this focus does obscure the specificity Sappho's social milieu, and perhaps blunts some of the subtler points that can be made. Fragment 49 provides an example:

I loved you Atthis, once long ago... You seemed to me a small and graceless child. [Translation: Snyder (60)]

In this fragment there is an ambiguity that adheres to the word child (pais). "Pais" can mean either child or slave. By focusing on the interior desiring subject and the contexts of sexual fulfillment among a community of desiring subjects, the possible complications that social distances and subjugations introduce can be overlooked.

Besides her explication of lesbian desire and its context in the poems, Snyder also considers the relationship of Sappho to Homer and, in the last chapter of the book, she analyzes the relationship between Sappho and three modern American women poets, Amy Lowell, H.D., and Olga Broumas.

All of Sappho's poems, which Snyder discusses, are not only translated, but also are transliterated so that the reader who cannot read Ancient Greek is able to hear the actual sound of Sappho's language.

There is also included, in an appendix, the Greek text (with translations) of the poems, so the reader who does know Greek can consider what Snyder has to say with the actual text in front of him or her.

All in all, this is model book that has considerable attractions for both the layperson and the academic.
Reviewer: Mark Anthony Masterson Mark Anthony Masterson is a Ph.D. student in Classics at the University of Southern California. He is conducting research on the construction of masculinity and sexuality in the fourth century CE Roman Empire. He also is a member of Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educators' Network.

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