The Sapphic and the Safaux

Sappho has from ancient through to modern times enjoyed (and suffered from) how she has been perceived and portrayed.  She is consequently both more and yet less than what popular culture has at any point perceived her to be.

In general she has variously been thought of as a slut or a virgin queen (see below on Queen Elizabeth).  What the nature of her relationships with women were has attracted and continues to attract speculation.  In ancient times this primarily took the form of ridicule beginning with a short poem by Anacreon (late 6th century BCE) in a short poem complaining about not being able to attract a woman who was interested instead in a woman from Lesbos (Sappho was probably dead when this was composed but it had been for years taken to be addressed to her because of the obvious echoes of her poetry in it).

  Related to that issue is the question of the context of performance for many of her poems.  Some were clearly related to public performance, but others seem to be more in the nature of personal lyric for an intimate circle of friends.

I am going to provide links to what I think is legitimately derived from who Sappho was or what she wrote--what I think of as 'Sapphic.'   I will also discuss (and as I deem appropriate provides links to relevant sources) the way in which Sappho has become a canvas onto which culture projects fantasies and fears that have nothing to do with the historical Sappho--what I think of as Safaux.

The Sapphic includes:

Artistic portrayals of Sappho (all of which are fictional since no image of her survives from her time).  There is, however, some scholarship attempting to derive some interpretive benefit from the ancient portrayals that do exist.

An area that is especially fraught with a mixture of legitimate influence from the historic Sappho and other elements of cultural influence involves the literary influence of Sappho on such figures as H.D.

In this regard Wharton's Sappho is important for those interested in Sappho's influence on late 19th century and early 20th century English language literature even though, because of its date among other things, it has been superseded by many other translations.

There is also the fact that 'Sapphic' is in effect a synonym for lesbianism in its modern sense.  The usage of Sapphic with that meaning is relatively common and there is no reason to expect that to change no matter what is learned of the historic Sappho.  But clearly what is 'Sapphic' from a historical perspective was not merely or only lesbian and consequently confusion between the present, popular view of Sapphic and the historical Sappho should be anticipated.

The Safaux began and includes:

What is probably the pseudo-Ovid poetic 'letter' of Sappho to Phaon and all the permutations from it, including the play based on it performed before the 'second Sappho,' in the late 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I.   An excellent discussion of Swinburne's use of Sappho in his poetry is to be found in Catherine Maxwell's The Female Sublime from Milton to Swinburne: Bearing Blindness.

Also consider the odd way in which perceptions about Sappho played a role in the rise of German nationalism in the 18th century: see DeJean, Sappho and the Rise of German Nationalism.  A brief but I think fair review of DeJean's entire book, the Fictions of Sappho, is available here.





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