Their heart grew cold/ they let their wings down

Sappho, who were you? You’re one ticket with too many winning numbers to be plausible. What were the chances? You are the only woman whose writing survived from ancient Greece, and you’re one of the only ones who seems to shun the political world around you. You don’t write about politics, wars, you barely mention your home except in relation to the women you love, and you write nothing about why you were exiled and then inexplicably allowed to return home years later. You might have a daughter. You might have a husband. You might have two, or maybe three brothers. We know practically nothing about you besides what we can glean by the fact that you wrote poems and that you wrote enough that some of them survived: you had enough money that you didn’t labor through the day and could afford writing material, an ancient member of the 1%, you had what Virginia Woolf argued for: a bit of money and a room of your own. You had more than that, of course, as your writing tells us; you had women.

Sappho is indeed a winning ticket. Not only is she one of the only women from the ancient world whose writing survives (proof that she wrote prolifically AND that her contemporaries and the writers who came after her thought her writing was good enough to preserve), but she was also homosexual. By far, not the only evidence of homosexuality in the ancient world we have, but some of the most passionate, and most focused writing on it, and some of the only evidence that came from a woman. We can assume that she was married and had some sort of family, since she had to have come from somewhere, one of her poems mentions Kleis, who we think is her daughter, and a few others mention her two brothers, with suspicions of a third. She lived on Lesbos around 600 BCE. Her poetry comes back to us in fragments, and some has just been discovered. There have been strange, shadowy columns of it found on vertically torn strips on mummies, giving us fragmented poems. It’s a strange thing, that Sappho’s poetry is coexisting in two styles: one the one that she wrote in and was preserved in her poems, and another that has been artificially, accidentally made out of survival.

The story that she ran a sort of ancient-world-finishing-school for girls is a myth made up by academics in the 19th and 20th centuries when passionate love poems about women would have been construed as scandalous. Luckily, Natalie C. Barney and Renee Vivien thought differently. Barney ran her salon in Paris, a matter of miles away from Stein’s salon, based around a cult of friendship inspired by Sappho’s poetry. She and Vivien actually planned on moving to Lesbos and creating a university for women who wanted to learn about art and writing and literature. Their plan never saw fruition. Vivien died within a matter of years after their trip to Lesbos; today she would have been diagnosed with alcoholism, depression, and most likely anorexia. Her and Barney’s relationship was tumultuous, as Barney was an active nonbeliever in monogamy, and Vivien, from the sound of her writing, could never really be okay with it.

So what do these three women, two long dead and one longer dead, have to do with each other? Well, for one, I’m reading copious amounts of them all. Copious amounts as in nearly everything they wrote, because I’m writing about the relationship between all three for the end of the semester. How did Sappho relate to them? How did Barney and Vivien interpret her? That last one’s extremely important, because Sappho was one of the the people that most influenced their lives. Her work was a bit of a bible to them, and this was before all the fragments of her work were discovered. Hell, Barney and Vivien learned Greek just to read Sappho in the original.

So how did their reinterpretation change her work? It came alive under them. How did her work change their lives, their relationship, their writing? Sappho’s saddest poems are the ones she writes to say goodbye to the women who leave her, and Vivien would have been reading those while watching Barney meet other women. When it comes down to it, they all felt so much pain, how did it change the three of them? How did Sappho change these two women, and their relationship, and how did they change her posthumously?

I need to make this into a fifteen page term paper. Time to read.

Title is a line from Sappho, translated by Anne Carson from her book of Sappho translations, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho.

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2 comments

  1. Fabulous topic and one that I’ve been hoping someone would delve into. Will you be taking a look at Vivien’s translations of Sappho into French?

    1. I would, but My French isn’t good enough to look at French translations. I’ll be using the English translations, but I’d like to revisit the topic once my French understanding improves.

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