Sappho’s “He Is More Than a Hero” (7th Century BCE)
He is a god in my eyes –
the man who is allowed
to sit beside you – he
who listens intimately
to the sweet murmur of
your voice, the enticing
laughter that makes my own
heart beat fast. If I meet
you suddenly, I can’t
speak – my tongue is broken;
a thin flame runs under
my skin; seeing nothing,
hearing only my own ears
drumming, I drip with sweat;
trembling shakes my body
and I turn paler than
dry grass. At such times
death isn’t far from me.
Considering what I do for a living, and my area of expertise, my very limited knowledge of and engagement with Sappho is fairly inexcusable. I won’t beat myself up over it, but I do at least want to acknowledge this limitation and include an excerpt from Sappho in this project. What we have left of Sappho’s works are just fragments, but Sappho herself is legendary. Most of her work, from what I understand, explores themes of friendship and womanly love.
What’s going on in this particular poem? Similarly to yesterday’s poem, we see heightened emotion linked to a particular subject in a particular situation. MY reading of the introduction to Iliad, poem one of this project, was wrapped-up in my current sentiments regarding the love between Achilles and Patroclus, and the rage of Achilles that led him to annihilating the Trojans, and, eventually, to his own death (of course that was reading beyond the first stanza, but these things happen).
I continue that type of sentiment here, where the speaker (Sappho, or a Sappho-like person? This is strikingly similar to Whitman’s autobiographical poetry) is envious of her friend’s husband or lover because that man benefits from the love interest’s proximity, companionship, etc. I find the first stanza particularly interesting. There’s a delightful turn from the first line, where the attention is first drawn to the exulted man, “a god”; but then we’re immediately corrected in our first impressions; the man won’t be the subject of this poem, he’s simply the secondary object of envy. It’s another woman being pined for, here!
It’s a clever start, followed by an impassioned and truly effective description of the physical responses caused by being near the one you love and long for. The sensory details are extraordinary: “a thin line runs beneath my skin”; “paler than dry grass”; “the sweet murmur of your voice.” The tactile, the visual, the aural — every element of human response is explored briefly but precisely.
All of these reactions lead to a final conceit describing “death” which, in many cases in classical poetry, is a euphemism for orgasm (John Donne, anyone?). Voyeurism, envy, descriptive physical responses to a passionate lust — no wonder Sappho endures.
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